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

Joubert on the ground above the Adige


the assailants most needed horses

and guns they could not be used; while on the eastern edge of their broken front their cannon and horse, crowded together in the valley of the Adige, had to climb the winding road under the plunging fire of the French infantry and artillery. Nevertheless, such was the ardour of the Austrian attack, that the tide of battle at first set strongly in their favour. Driving the French from the San Marco ridge and pressing their centre hard between Monte Baldo and Rivoli, they made it possible for their troops in the valley to struggle on towards the foot of the zigzag; and on the west their distant right wing was already beginning to threaten the French rear. Despite the arrival of Massena's troops from Verona about 9 a.m., the republicans showed signs of unsteadiness. Joubert on the ground above the Adige, Berthier in the centre, and Massena on the left, were gradually forced back. An Austrian column, advancing from the side of Monte Baldo by the narrow ravine, stole round the flank of a French regiment in front of Massena's division, and by a vigorous charge sent it flying in a panic which promised to spread to another regiment thus uncovered. This was too much for the veteran, already dubbed "the spoilt child of victory "; he rushed to its captain, bitterly upbraided him and the other officers, and finally showered blows on them with the flat of his sword. Then, riding at full speed to two tried regiments of his own division, he ordered them to check the foe; and these invincible
heroes promptly drove back the assailants. Even so, however, the valour of the best French regiments and the skill of Massena, Berthier, and Joubert barely sufficed to hold back the onstreaming tide of white-coats opposite Rivoli.

Yet even at this crisis the commander, confident in his central position, and knowing his ability to ward off the encircling swoops of the Austrian eagle, maintained that calm demeanour which moved the wonder of smaller minds. His confidence in his seasoned troops was not misplaced. The Imperialists, overburdened by long marches and faint now for lack of food, could not maintain their first advantage. Some of their foremost troops, that had won the broken ground in front of St. Mark's Chapel, were suddenly charged by French horse; they fled in panic, crying out, "French cavalry!" and the space won was speedily abandoned to the tricolour. This sudden rebuff was to dash all their hopes of victory; for at that crisis of the day the chief Austrian column of nearly 8,000 men was struggling up the zigzag ascent leading from the valley of the Adige to the plateau, in the fond hope that their foes were by this time driven from the summit. Despite the terrible fire that tore their flanks, the Imperialists were clutching desperately at the plateau, when Bonaparte put forth his full striking power. He could now assail the crowded ranks of the doomed column in front and on both flanks. A charge of Leclerc's horse and of Joubert's infantry crushed its head; volleys of cannon and musketry from the plateau tore its sides; an ammunition wagon exploded in its midst; and the great constrictor forthwith writhed its bleeding coils back into the valley, where it lay crushed and helpless for the rest of the fight.

Animated by this lightning stroke of their commander, the French turned fiercely towards Monte Baldo and drove back their opponents into the depression at its foot. But already at their rear loud shouts warned them of a new danger. The western detachment of the Imperialists had meanwhile worked round their rear, and, ignorant of the fate of their comrades, believed that Bonaparte's army was caught in a trap. The eyes of all the French staff officers were now turned anxiously on their commander, who quietly remarked, "We have them now." He knew, in fact, that other French troops marching up from Verona would take these new foes in the rear; and though Junot and his horsemen failed to cut their way through so as to expedite their approach, yet speedily a French regiment burst through the encircling line and joined in the final attack which drove these last assailants from the heights south of Rivoli, and later on compelled them to surrender.


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