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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 17 a
Arrival of Melas at Alexandria—The First Consul is fearful of his escaping him by the road of Novi—Battle of Marengo—It is lost until four o'clock—Manoeuvres by means of which we recover from our first defeat—Death of Desaix —The Austrian army retreats towards the Adige.

M. DE MELAS had at last gone through all the formalities incidental to the occupation of Genoa, and brought his army back under the citadel of Alexandria: he had descended the country by the Boquetta, and was informed, on his arrival, of the defeat of the corps which he had ordered to oppose our crossing the Po.

His position was rendered complicated from another circumstance. The army that surrounded Genoa was on the eve of returning into line, the period fixed by the capitulation for the resumption of hostilities having now arrived. He was incurring the danger of a double attack in his front and rear at the same time.

He might have moved by way of Turin. The First Consul was even apprehensive, for a moment, that he would march upon that capital, and hastened to advance towards Alexandria, in order to draw nearer to the theatre of war. We met at Voghera some Austrian flags of truce, whose particular mission appeared to be that of ascertaining if our army was really marching upon them. The First Consul had them detained whilst the army was filing before them. He appeared desirous of their seeing General Desaix, who was personally known to one of the party, and he afterwards dismissed them.

We continued our march. Tortona was still occupied by the Austrians. We left this town on our left, and proceeded to cross the Scrivia, at Castel-Seriolo. Boudet's division, followed by General Desaix, was the only one which, bearing to the right, filed along the hill, and crossed the river above Tortona, in order to take up a position at Rivalta. The First Consul so little expected that M. de Melas would march boldly to meet him, that he was apprehensive lest that general should manoeuvre to avoid an action which could only turn to his disadvantage. This idea was so strongly impressed upon his mind, that he ordered General Desaix, during the night, to send a detachment towards Novi, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the enemy was not filing along that road to reach the banks of the Po..

This reconnoitring movement was committed to my charge. I pushed on as far as Novi: no detachment had made its appearance ; and I returned to Rivalta in the night preceding the 15th June. The First Consul had employed the 14th in reconnoitring the banks of the Bormida. He had satisfied himself that, independently of the bridge which the enemy possessed upon that river, and in advance of Alexandria, they had another much lower down, upon our right flank.

He had given orders that all the enemy's troops which had crossed the river should be driven back to the other side, and that a bridge so likely to be fatal to us should be destroyed at whatever cost, expressing at the same time his intention of repairing in person to the spot, if circumstances required his presence. Colonel Lauriston, one of his aides-de-camp, was directed to watch the operation, and not to return until it had been accomplished.

The action began; a cannonading was kept up the whole day; but the enemy stood his ground ; it was found impossible to make him break up the bridge. The First Consul, who was exhausted with fatigue, either did not hear or misunderstood the intelligence brought back by his aide-de-camp ; for Lauriston, whom he often reproached afterwards with giving him a false ground of security, as often replied, that so far from having to charge himself with so serious a fault, he had, on the contrary, hastened to inform him that it was found impossible to execute his orders. Lauriston was too well aware of the importance of that bridge to inform him of its having been destroyed without having personally ascertained the fact.

The First Consul had remained until a late hour visiting his lines. He was just returning when the report was brought to him of the reconnoitring I had effected as far as Novi. He did me the honour to tell me, at a later period, that he had found it difficult to persuade himself that the Austrians had not attempted to escape him by a road which was not watched, and which offered them a more secure retreat, since it removed them to a greater distance from Massena, who had resumed hostilities. This omission appeared the more improbable to him from the circumstance that, having remained on horseback, with his vedettes, a great part of the night, he had seen but very few fires in the enemy's lines. He had no longer doubted that the Austrians had made a movement; and he had ordered General Desaix to advance to Novi with Boudet's division before daylight.

We immediately got under arms, quitted the position of Rivalta, and marched upon Novi; but the day had scarcely begun to dawn when we heard a repeated firing of cannon at a distance in the rear of our right. We were in a that country, and could only perceive a little smoke. General Desaix was astonished at these reports, stopped the march of his division, and ordered me to proceed in all haste and reconnoitre Novi. I took with me fifty horsemen, put them at full speed upon the road, and soon reached the spot to which I was sent. Every thing was quiet and just as I had left it on the preceding day; no troops had yet made their appearance. I galloped back with my detachment, and rejoined General Desaix.

I had been only two hours absent on the commission entrusted to me. It might have an influence over the combinations of the day. I hastened to announce to the First Consul that all was quiet at Novi, that General Desaix had suspended his movement, and was waiting for fresh orders. The firing of cannon increased every movement. I felt anxious to reach the First Consul, and rode across the fields in the direction of the fire and smoke. I was spurring my horse on at full speed, when I fortunately met an aide-decamp of the commander-in-chief, named Bruyere, who became afterwards one of our most gallant generals of cavalry, and was killed in the Saxon campaign of 1813. He was the bearer of an order to General Desaix to hasten to the

* The second division of General Desaix, commanded by General Monnier, had been directed on the preceding day towards Castel-Seriolo, on the right of the army. field of battle, where the necessity for his return was so urgent, that the aide-de-camp had, like myself, quitted the road and cut across the country in order to come up the sooner with us. I pointed out where he would find General Desaix, and ascertained from him where I could meet the First Consul. The following is a statement of what had taken place.

General Bonaparte, fancying that the lower bridge on the Bormida had been destroyed, had not altered the position of his army, which passed the night from the 13th to the 14th on the causeway leading from Tortona to Alexandria, the right in advance of Castel-Seriolo, and the left in the plain of Marengo. General Desaix was in reserve at Rivalta, and the head-quarters were at Gorrofolo.

We had left in our rear the town of Tortona, which was occupied by an Austrian garrison, and we had therefore been compelled to make our line of operations pass through Castel-Seriolo.

The First Consul was waiting for the corps he had recalled from Parma and Placentia, as well as the one lately engaged in the siege of the Fort de Bard, of which we had just obtained possession. The latter corps was advancing by Pavia, the others by Stradella and Montebello; but neither of those corps had yet joined us.

The position of the army was far from encouraging : it had an enemy in front, who had been reduced to the necessity of making every sacrifice to force his way; it was, moreover, weak, and spread over a large surface of ground : it required all the genius of the First Consul to turn such untoward circumstances to good account. Any other general, even one of no ordinary talents, would undoubtedly have lost the battle we were compelled to accept the next morning.

Our right had been assailed, at daybreak of the l4th of June, by a numerous cavalry, which had debouched across the bridge we ought to have destroyed on the preceding day: the charge was made with so much fury and rapidity, that in a few moments we suffered an enormous loss in men, horses, and materiel. This part of the army was in complete disorder, though the battle could hardly he said to have commenced. The corps rallied again, but felt during the whole day the effect of that untoward onset. The disorder was not confined to the defeated troops; those which supported them had caught the alarm at seeing the charge of this numerous body of cavalry, and communicated the panic in all directions. The First Consul was soon apprised of the check : it was the first report he had received that day. He concealed the mortification he felt at a misfortune which was owing to the lower bridge on the Bormida not having been destroyed, according to the repeated orders he had given on the preceding day. He had mounted his horse to see what was going forward, when the whole line was attacked on the road of Alexandria. M. de Melas, resolved to force his way through our battalions, had led his army during the night into a position beyond the Bormida: it had formed in front of us, but had not lighted any fires: we did not perceive that those lines had greatly increased.

Their opening attack was a most brilliant one: the Austrians had made it on all points at the same time, and were every where successful: our centre was penetrated, and put to the rout: the left was still more roughly handled.

The shock was most destructive. The wounded formed, in their retreat, a thick, lengthened column, whose retrograde movement favoured the flight of some pusillanimous soldiers, frightened at an attack as desperate as it was unexpected. The rout had begun; a desperate charge of cavalry would have completed it. Had this charge been made, the battle would have been infallibly lost.

The danger grew more pressing at every moment. The First Consul ordered the troops to give way; and, on rallying, to draw nearer to the reserves he bad been collecting between Gorrofolo and Marengo. He stationed his guard behind this small village , dismounted, and placed himself at its head, on the right of the high road. His maps were spread open: be was studying them when I came up with him: he had just ordered the general who commanded his left to send him the few troops that remained uninjured. He was already planning the movement that was to decide the action which he had not foreseen, and which was terminating in so unsuccessful a manner. His left had suffered too much to be of any use to him, since he could not reinforce it. He drew off the few sound troops that still remained of it, and moved them to the centre..

In this state of things, no intelligence could be more acceptable than that of which I was the bearer. He no longer attached any importance to Novi; for it was clear the Austrians had not marched in that direction. Instead of wasting time in a useless march. General Desaix had made a halt: he might reasonably consider that his troops were amongst those that would have to decide the fate of the battle.

" At what hour did you leave him ?" said the First Consul, pulling out his watch; at such an hour, I replied. " Well, he cannot be far off; go and tell him to form in that direction (pointing with his hand to a particular spot) : let him quit the main road, and make way for all those wounded men who would only embarrass him, and perhaps draw his own soldiers after them."

I hastened to overtake General Desaix, who, informed by Bruyere of the danger in which the army was placed, had cut across the country, and was at the distance of only some hundred paces from the field of battle. I communicated to him my orders, which he carried into effect, and rode up to the First Consul, who explained to him how matters had come to their present pass, and what he contemplated to do as soon as his division should have formed into line. Our right had been quickly rallied ; the centre, reinforced by the troops withdrawn from the left, had recovered its strength; General Desaix's division formed the extreme left of that centre, and marched in advance of the troops that were about to enter into action. As to our left, it no longer existed.  Return to Top

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