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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Davidovich hastily retreated to Roveredo


[Illustration:

PLAN TO ILLUSTRATE THE VICTORY OF ARCOLA.]

This memorable first day of fighting at Arcola (November 15th) closed on the strange scene of two armies encamped on dykes, exhausted by an almost amphibious conflict, like that waged by the Dutch "Beggars" in their war of liberation against Spain. Though at Arcola the republicans had been severely checked, yet further west Massena had held his own; and the French movement as a whole had compelled Alvintzy to suspend any advance on Verona or on Mantua, to come down from the heights of Caldiero, and to fight on ground where his superior numbers were of little avail. This was seen on the second day of fighting on the dykes opposite Arcola, which was, on the whole, favourable to the smaller veteran force. On the third day Bonaparte employed a skilful ruse to add to the discouragement of his foes. He posted a small body of horsemen behind a spinney near the Austrian flank, with orders to sound their trumpets as if for a great cavalry charge. Alarmed by the noise and by the appearance of French troops from the side of Legnago and behind Arcola, the demoralized white-coats suddenly gave way and retreated for Vicenza.

Victory again declared for the troops who could dare the longest, and whose general was never at a loss in face of any definite danger. Both armies suffered severely in these desperate conflicts;[68] but, while the Austrians felt that the cup of victory had been

snatched from their very lips, the French soldiery were dazzled by this transcendent exploit of their chief. They extolled his bravery, which almost vied with the fabulous achievement of Horatius Cocles, and adored the genius which saw safety and victory for his discouraged army amidst swamps and dykes. Bonaparte himself, with that strange mingling of the practical and the superstitious which forms the charm of his character, ever afterwards dated the dawn of his fortune in its full splendour from those hours of supreme crisis among the morasses of Arcola. But we may doubt whether this posing as the favourite of fortune was not the result of his profound knowledge of the credulity of the vulgar herd, which admires genius and worships bravery, but grovels before persistent good luck.

Though it is difficult to exaggerate the skill and bravery of the French leader and his troops, the failure of his opponents is inexplicable but for the fact that most of their troops were unable to manoeuvre steadily in the open, that Alvintzy was inexperienced as a commander-in-chief, and was hampered throughout by a bad plan of campaign. Meanwhile the other Austrian army, led by Davidovich, had driven Vaubois from his position at Rivoli; and had the Imperialist generals kept one another informed of their moves, or had Alvintzy, disregarding a blare of trumpets and a demonstration on his flank and rear, clung to Arcola for two days longer--the French would have been nipped between superior forces. But, as it was, the lack of accord in the Austrian movements nearly ruined the Tyrolese wing, which pushed on triumphantly towards Verona, while Alvintzy was retreating eastwards. Warned just in time, Davidovich hastily retreated to Roveredo, leaving a whole battalion in the hands of the French. To crown this chapter of blunders, Wuermser, whose sortie after Caldiero might have been most effective, tardily essayed to break through the blockaders, when both his colleagues were in retreat. How different were these ill-assorted moves from those of Bonaparte. His maxims throughout this campaign, and his whole military career, were: (1) divide for foraging, concentrate for fighting; (2) unity of command is essential for success; (3) time is everything. This firm grasp of the essentials of modern warfare insured his triumph over enemies who trusted to obsolete methods for the defence of antiquated polities.[69]


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