Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars

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French troops entering in Rome in 1798 Entree de l'Armee francaise a Rome - Hippolyte Lecomte.png
French troops entering in Rome in 1798

The Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) were a series of conflicts fought principally in Northern Italy between the French Revolutionary Army and a Coalition of Austria, Russia, Piedmont-Sardinia, and a number of other Italian states.

French Revolutionary Wars series of conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European monarchies from 1792 to 1802

The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 and resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted France against Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Italy republic in Southern Europe

Italy, officially the Italian Republic, is a European country consisting of a peninsula delimited by the Italian Alps and surrounded by several islands. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and traversed along its length by the Apennines, Italy has a largely temperate seasonal climate. The country covers an area of 301,340 km2 (116,350 sq mi) and shares open land borders with France, Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland and the enclaved microstates of Vatican City and San Marino. Italy has a territorial exclave in Switzerland (Campione) and a maritime exclave in the Tunisian sea (Lampedusa). With around 60 million inhabitants, Italy is the fourth-most populous member state of the European Union.

French Revolutionary Army

The French Revolutionary Army was the French force that fought the French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 to 1802. These armies were characterised by their revolutionary fervour, their poor equipment and their great numbers. Although they experienced early disastrous defeats, the revolutionary armies successfully expelled foreign forces from French soil and then overran many neighboring countries, establishing client republics. Leading generals included Jourdan, Bonaparte, Masséna and Moreau.

Contents

First Coalition (1792–1797)

The War of the First Coalition broke out in autumn 1792, when several European powers formed an alliance against Republican France. The first major operation was the annexation of Nice (part of the Duchy of Savoy) by 30,000 French troops. This was reversed in mid-1793, when the Republican forces were withdrawn to deal with a revolt in Lyon, triggering a counter-invasion of Savoy by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (a member of the First Coalition). After the revolt in Lyon had been suppressed, the French under General Kellermann managed to push back the Piedmontese with just 12,000 troops, winning engagements at Argentines and St Maurice in September and October 1793.

War of the First Coalition 1790s war to contain Revolutionary France

The War of the First Coalition is the traditional name of the wars that several European powers fought between 1792 and 1797 against the French First Republic. Despite the collective strength of these nations compared with France, they were not really allied and fought without much apparent coordination or agreement. Each power had its eye on a different part of France it wanted to appropriate after a French defeat, which never occurred.

French First Republic republic governing France, 1792-1804

In the history of France, the First Republic, officially the French Republic, was founded on 22 September 1792 during the French Revolution. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First Empire in 1804 under Napoleon, although the form of the government changed several times. This period was characterized by the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the National Convention and the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction and the founding of the Directory, and, finally, the creation of the Consulate and Napoleon's rise to power.

Nice Prefecture and commune in Provence-Alpes-Côte dAzur, France

Nice is the seventh most populous urban area in France and the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes département. The metropolitan area of Nice extends beyond the administrative city limits, with a population of about 1 million on an area of 721 km2 (278 sq mi). Located in the French Riviera, on the south east coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea, at the foot of the Alps, Nice is the second-largest French city on the Mediterranean coast and the second-largest city in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region after Marseille. Nice is approximately 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) from the principality of Monaco and 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the French-Italian border. Nice's airport serves as a gateway to the region.

The conflict soon escalated with Austrian and Neapolitan forces being mobilised for an invasion of southern France to recover Nice and strike into Provence. The Allied forces were bolstered by some 45,000 Austrians, Piedmontese, and Neapolitans, with additional support from the British Royal Navy. Before the Allies could launch this assault the French, under tactical command of André Masséna, launched the Saorgio Offensive (April, 1794), which was planned by the army's artillery commander, General Napoleon Bonaparte. This two-pronged French offensive drove back the Allied force, despite their strong positions, and firmly captured the mountain passes that led into Piedmont. A new offensive, again devised by General Bonaparte, was similarly successful[ specify ] despite its more complicated nature, calling for the co-ordination of the Army of Italy and the Army of the Alps.

Habsburg Monarchy former Central European empire (1526–1804)

The Habsburg Monarchy – also Habsburg Empire, Austrian Monarchy or Danube Monarchy – is an unofficial umbrella term among historians for the countries and provinces that were ruled by the junior Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg between 1526 and 1780 and then by the successor branch of Habsburg-Lorraine until 1918. The Monarchy was a typical composite state composed of territories within and outside the Holy Roman Empire, united only in the person of the monarch. The dynastic capital was Vienna, except from 1583 to 1611, when it was moved to Prague. From 1804 to 1867 the Habsburg Monarchy was formally unified as the Austrian Empire, and from 1867 to 1918 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Kingdom of Naples former state in Italy

The Kingdom of Naples comprised that part of the Italian Peninsula south of the Papal States between 1282 and 1816. It was created as a result of the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282–1302), when the island of Sicily revolted and was conquered by the Crown of Aragon, becoming a separate Kingdom of Sicily. Naples continued to be officially known as the Kingdom of Sicily, the name of the formerly unified kingdom. For much of its existence, the realm was contested between French and Spanish dynasties. In 1816, it was reunified with the island kingdom of Sicily once again to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Provence Historical province in Provence-Alpes-Côte dAzur, France

Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River to the west to the Italian border to the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It largely corresponds with the modern administrative région of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and includes the départements of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and parts of Alpes-Maritimes and Vaucluse. The largest city of the region is Marseille.

Further French assaults on the Allied positions were called off under orders from war minister Carnot, who was concerned about supply lines being cut by rebels behind the front. The commanders in the field were unhappy about this decision, but appeals were interrupted by the overthrow of the Committee of Public Safety and its leader, Maximilien de Robespierre (28 July 1794). During the political chaos that ensued in the French army, the Allies launched an assault on Savona. Ignoring Carnot's orders, the commander[ who? ] of the Army of Italy launched a counter-offensive and secured supply routes to Genoa following victory at the First Battle of Dego. Following this the French consolidated the front and awaited further opportunities.

Committee of Public Safety De facto executive government in France (1793–1794)

The Committee of Public Safety, created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793, formed the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), a stage of the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety succeeded the previous Committee of General Defence and assumed its role of protecting the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. As a wartime measure, the Committee—composed at first of nine and later of twelve members—was given broad supervisory powers over military, judicial and legislative efforts. It was formed as an administrative body to supervise and expedite the work of the executive bodies of the Convention and of the government ministers appointed by the Convention. As the Committee tried to meet the dangers of a coalition of European nations and counter-revolutionary forces within the country, it became more and more powerful.

The Battle of Dego took place in present-day Italy during the War of the First Coalition between French and Austrian armies on 21 September 1794. It resulted in a French victory. The battle was described in Napoleon's correspondence, having been present.

The main focus of the war then shifted north to the Rhine, until 29 June 1795, when the Austrians launched an attack against the depleted and poorly supplied French Army of Italy. Nominally 107,000-strong, the Army of Italy could only manage to field an effective force of about 30,000. Kellermann, who had resumed command, appealed to Carnot for reinforcements. Instead, General Bonaparte was appointed to the general staff where he devised a third plan for an attack towards Vado and Ceva. Kellermann was replaced by General Schérer soon after and he carried out the attacks, gaining victory at Loano.

Battle of Loano occurred on 23-24 November 1795 during the War of the First Coalition

The Battle of Loano occurred on 23–24 November 1795 during the War of the First Coalition. The French Army of Italy led by Barthélemy Schérer defeated the combined Austrian and Sardinian forces under Olivier, Count of Wallis.

Bonaparte's war

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. Jacques-Louis David 007.jpg
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.

Following a short respite in hostilities Schérer resigned[ why? ] and Bonaparte was appointed commander-in-chief on 2 March 1796. The motives for Bonaparte's appointment were most likely political. On 9 March, Bonaparte had married Joséphine de Beauharnais, who had shared her imprisonment (under Robespierre) with the woman who had become wife to Tallien, one of the then Directors of the French Republic. It was "universally believed" that Josephine had been introduced by her friend to the First Director, Barras, and had become his lover. [note 1] Josephine's letters claim Barras had promised the command to Bonaparte, before she'd consented to marry him. [1] Barras is cited by his colleagues as saying of Bonaparte, "Advance this man or he will advance himself without you." [1] Bonaparte had shown himself to be highly ambitious and had made a name for himself following 13 Vendémiaire in 1795. [2] By placing him in command of the Army of Italy, Bonaparte was being assigned to an obscure front: of the Republic's thirteen principal field armies, the Italian force was the most neglected and was in terrible condition when Bonaparte arrived.

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to petition. He campaigned for universal manhood suffrage, abolition of celibacy and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Robespierre played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French Legislative Assembly in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.

Jean-Lambert Tallien French political figure of the revolutionary period

Jean-Lambert Tallien was a French political figure of the revolutionary period.

Bonaparte launched attacks almost immediately after he arrived on the front on 27 March. His 37,000 men and 60 guns were facing more than 50,000 Allied troops in the theatre. His only chance of support came from Kellermann's Army of the Alps, which was faced by a further 20,000 Allied troops. Bonaparte had no chance of gaining reinforcements as the Republican war effort was being concentrated on the massive offensives planned on the Rhine.

At the Battle of Montenotte Bonaparte defeated the Austrians and fought a second engagement around Dego soon after. Following these battles he launched an all-out invasion of Piedmont and won a further victory at Mondovì. Piedmont was forced to accept the Armistice of Cherasco on 28 April, knocking it out of the war and the First Coalition. It had taken Bonaparte just a month to defeat Piedmont (between his arrival and the armistice), a country which had resisted the French armies for over three years. Total losses during the lightning campaign were 6,000 French troops and over 25,000 Allied.

Bonaparte reorganised his newly enthused army following the short let-up in operations that followed Piedmont's defeat. Following this he manoeuvred his army into more opportune positions along the Po River. A small French victory at Codogno led to a retreat by Coalition forces across the Adda River. At the river, the Austrian army of General Beaulieu was defeated in the Battle of Lodi on 10 May.

The Army of Italy was now reinforced to almost 50,000 men and Bonaparte continued on the offensive, striking at Austrian forces mobilising in the vicinity of the fortress of Mantua. A series of minor Coalition defeats resulted in the garrison at Mantua being reinforced to 12,000. Placing Mantua under siege, Bonaparte then led a French division south to invade and occupy Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States, defeating Papal forces at Fort Urban. Next he turned north and with 20,000 men defeated some 50,000 Austrians under Field Marshal Wurmser at the battles of Lonato and Castiglione. The Austrian commander was forced back into the Alps.

Wurmser was reinforced once again to compensate for some 20,000 losses sustained in the past two months and made an attempt to relieve the siege of Mantua. Some 45,000 Austrian troops were left behind to guard against any new French offensive whilst the main body of the Austrian army moved on Mantua. At Rovereto on 4 September, Bonaparte inflicted a heavy defeat on the Austrians and was then well-placed to strike at the rear of Wurmser's army. Reacting slowly to this new threat, the Austrians were again defeated at the Battle of Bassano, where their army was reduced to just 12,000. The remaining troops marched rapidly towards Mantua, but became trapped there by General Masséna's advance party.

General Bonaparte and his troops crossing the bridge of Arcole La Bataille du Pont d'Arcole.jpg
General Bonaparte and his troops crossing the bridge of Arcole

Additional Austrian forces arrived whilst Bonaparte's army was weakened by disease and his supply lines threatened by rebellion. Government political commissars, especially Cristoforo Saliceti, brutally put down the uprisings, but the French position was weakened. To stabilise the situation Bonaparte created the client states of Transpadane Republic and the Cispadane Republic.

Following this a new Austrian commander, Joseph Alvinczy, arrived and made another attempt to relieve Mantua. Bonaparte drove back Alvinczy[ where? ], but his counter-offensive was seriously hampered by Vaubois’ defeat over five days in the villages of Cembra and Calliano. Alvinczy held off a French attack at Caldiero on 12 November and Bonaparte was forced to withdraw. In the following three-day Battle of Arcole, Bonaparte won an important and surprising[ to whom? ] victory against Alvinczy.

Both sides were reinforced before Alvinczy launched another attack in January. Bonaparte defeated this renewed assault at the Battle of Rivoli, inflicting some 14,000 casualties. Then he surrounded and captured a second Austrian relief column near Mantua. Soon after, Mantua finally surrendered to the French, making it possible for the French to continue their advance eastwards towards Austria. After a brief campaign during which the Austrian army was commanded by the Emperor's brother, the Archduke Charles, the French advanced to within 100 miles of Vienna, and the Austrians sued for peace. Bonaparte's campaign was important in bringing an end to the War of the First Coalition.[ citation needed ]

Second Coalition (1799–1800)

The second phase of the war in Italy began in 1799 as part of the War of the Second Coalition and was different from the first in that Russian forces participated in the campaign. However, at the beginning of the conflict the Russians were yet to arrive. Bonaparte, meanwhile, was away from the continent, as from May, 1798 to September, 1799 he was leading the Egyptian Campaign.

Some 60,000 French troops under Schérer faced off against an equal number of Austrians. An additional 50,000 Russians were expected to arrive shortly. The French were occupied with the pacification of Naples and this halved their effective strength to face the Austrians. In order to avoid a completely untenable situation arising, Schérer attacked as soon as possible in an attempt to preempt Austrian attacks.

Russian troops under Generalissimo Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799. Suvorov crossing the alps.jpg
Russian troops under Generalissimo Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799.

Austrian commander Pál Kray defeated the French at Verona and Magnano in late March and early April. Schérer retreated back and left a small detachment of 8,000 in several forts. The Austrian commander, Michael von Melas, was slow to pursue the retreating French and was soon replaced as overall Coalition commander in the theatre by the brilliant Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov.

Schérer too was soon replaced by General Moreau, a man of greater fame and prestige. The French defeat at the Battle of Cassano on 26 April was followed by withdrawal from Lombardy and an overall unfavourable situation for the French. General Macdonald's army returned from Naples to support Moreau.

An initial Allied attack across the Po failed on 11 May. Moreau's army was in tatters with just 9,000 men remaining. An attempted counter-attack was beaten back by Russian General Petr Bagration. Suvorov soon occupied Turin and proclaimed the restoration of Piedmont to its king.

The Army of the Alps engaged the Austro-Russian forces in a series of minor skirmishes, but did not come to the rescue of the Army of Italy. Suvorov overran a number of French garrisons and continued his relentless advance. Macdonald engaged Suvorov in the Battle of the Trebbia and was crushed. Macdonald retreated with the remnant of his army to Genoa whilst Suvorov reached Novi. The Austrian high command ordered a halt to Allied offensives whilst the French garrisons of Mantua and Alessandria were overrun (see siege of Mantua and siege of Alessandria). Soon after this Moreau was dispatched to the Rhine and Joubert was sent to command the Army of Italy.

Suvorov, acting under orders from the Coalition high command, paused to gather his strength for an offensive in Autumn. On 9 August, the French launched offensive of 38,000 men called the Battle of Novi. The offensive was thoroughly defeated by Suvorov, and resulted in the death of Joubert. Moreau, who had yet to depart for the Rhine, seized the initiative and led the survivors back to Genoa and began preparing a defence of the city.

Suvorov monument in the Swiss Alps Suworow-denkmal.jpg
Suvorov monument in the Swiss Alps

However at that time the Allied high command in Vienna ordered Suvorov to move out of Italy and concentrate on breaking through the Swiss front. The respite this gave the reeling Army of Italy led to a turning point in the war. Melas, who resumed command of Coalition forces in Italy, now almost exclusively Austrian, paused the offensive and consolidated his forces, now that the Russians had been removed from Italy.

By the spring of 1800 Russia had withdrawn entirely from the Coalition. The situation in Italy, however, was still very much on the side of the Coalition. Melas had some 100,000 men under his command, opposed by just 50,000 French troops who were thoroughly dispersed. The Allies prepared for a thrust into southern France and across the Rhine, much further north. Melas moved forward slowly, laying siege to Genoa and halting his advance elsewhere.

It was at this time that the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte (who had seized French power in the Brumaire Coup of 9 November 1799) led his Reserve Army through the Great St Bernard pass with the aim of relieving Masséna in the Siege of Genoa, who was threatened by severe food shortages resulting from the combination of encirclement on land and naval blockade by the British.

Genoa fell before the First Consul could reach it. He concentrated his army and struck at the Austrians in an attempt to beat them before they too concentrated their forces again. The Reserve Army fought a battle at Montebello on 9 June before the main confrontation at Marengo. The consul was almost defeated here until General Desaix made a timely arrival with reinforcements and drove back Melas, thus turning a French rout into a French victory. In this counter-attack Desaix was killed, but Bonaparte later honoured him with monuments commemorating his bravery and his name has the place of honour on the face of the Arc de Triomphe, which was erected to celebrate Napoleon's victories.

Marengo was the last major engagement on the Italian front during the Revolutionary Wars. Following it the massive Battle of Hohenlinden brought the Austrians to the negotiating table and the war ended shortly after.

Notes and references

Notes

  1. Lockhart[ citation needed ] phrases this elliptically, "It was commonly said—indeed it was universally believed—that Josephine, whose character was in some respects indifferent, possessed more than legitimate influence over the First Director."

Citations

  1. 1 2 John Gibson Lockhart, Napoleon Buonaparte, new edition, (London: Bickers & Son, 1927).
  2. McLynn 1998, p.94

Bibliography

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