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Recollections of Marshall Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum
Chapter IX


I HAD concerted a plan with Moreau whereby our armies should join at Parma or Piacenza; he was to follow in person Victor's division, which would debouch near Fortenuovo.

My entire army advanced towards Modena, each column having orders to be in position by the 22 or 23 Prairial (10 and 11 June, 1799). Montrichard's and Rusca's division., escorting the artillery, were to follow the high road to Bologna. I followed Ollivier's division by Pistoia and Formigine. Orders had been previously given for a simultaneous attack upon the enemy stationed at Modena, with a view to cutting off their retreat. This attack was to take place on the 24th. On the previous evening they attacked our advanced posts at Formigine, and were beaten back.

The troops were full of ardour, and on the morning of the 24th, at a meeting of all the Generals, an action was decided upon. I had no news of Montrichard's and Rusca's divisions, and it was difficult to communicate with them. Their cannon ought to have foretold their approach; I heard it in the direction of Fort Urbino. Then I ordered a charge; a furious combat began; my left wing even gave way a little; I sent reinforcements, and then ordered a simultaneous charge of cavalry and infantry. The enemy were routed and dispersed; several regiments laid down their arms. We entered Moderia pell-mell with them, encumbered with baggage.

The results of this affair nearly cost me my life. My troops, unable to resist the attractions of the baggage, threw themselves upon it, and began to pillage. I knew by experience that if we halted in our pursuit we should restore courage to the terrified enemy, and make them turn again. Some few shots were to be heard at the other side of the town, almost at the gate; by dint of prayers more than by threats I succeeded in getting together a handful of troops to follow me, and drove off the Austrian sharp-shooters. I was on the road to Bologna; no trace of the divisions coming from that direction. What could have become of them? I sent out a reconnaissance of fifty men, followed by another troop of the same number, to support them if necessary. just as the latter were starting off at a trot, I heard a cry:

''The enemy's cavalry'

I looked round, and to the right perceived a thick cloud of dust on a cross-road, with deep ditches on either side, leading into the Bologna road. This body was cut off, and was being pursued by some of our cavalry. I sent the Adjutant-General, Pamphile Lacroix, to summon them to yield, promising them that they should not be harmed. At the same moment a body of my grenadiers issued from Modena; I had only to cry, 'Halt! Front!' in order to bar the road. My 'guides' (guards attached to the Commander-in-chief) deployed at right angles with this battalion, but unfortunately without observing that a broad ditch separated them from the road, along which the enemy's cavalry were advancing; the guides thought they could attack it in flank. When my battalion was drawn up, I ordered them to present arms, but not tire without my orders, and mechanically passed in front of it, studying the map.

I had advanced a few yards, when I suddenly saw Lacroix throw himself backwards, and fall from his horse. The enemy's detachment was advancing at a rapid trot, whether animated by the courage of despair, pursued from behind, barred in front, with large ditches on either flank, or whether they had not noticed this latter obstacle, I know not. They continued to advance, and were only at a short distance from me, when I wished to turn my horse, and get behind my battalion, so as not to be in their line of fire, and to draw my sword; but a double incident occurred. I was accustomed to carry a stick with a spike at the end, a leather thong passed round my wrist, and the spike resting on my foot; but the case for the spike had been lost, so that, not to wound my foot, I had thrust the end of the cane into my stirrup; thus encumbered, the thong entangled round my right arm, and the left occupied in holding my horse, I could neither reach nor draw my sword, and, in spite of my orders, a shot was fired from the left of the battalion; that sufficed to produce a discharge, though the bayonet would have been enough to do the work.

There I was, therefore, midway between my own troop, which was firing, and the advancing hostile cavalry. My horse was struck, and the shock of the charge threw it with me on its back, and at the same moment I received two sabre-cuts—one on the head, and the other across the right thumb. I was thrown senseless to the ground, and there trodden under foot. I heard afterwards that not one of the cavalry had escaped; they had all been either killed or made prisoners; and such must have been the case, for my guides, having advanced and discovered the obstacle presented by the ditch, had immediately turned and drawn up behind the grenadiers, who were then fighting with the bayonet, and, inspired by the sight of my danger, were giving no quarter. The most surprising-nay, almost miraculous—part of the circumstance is that, although I was the fifth or sixth to pass along the line of fire, only one captain of engineers attached to my staff was killed. Not one of the others was touched, not even by the enemy who collected round me, perhaps as a means of safety, perhaps because I was recognised, as I was wearing the full uniform of a Commander-in-chief.

The attentions that were lavished upon me restored me to consciousness. On opening my eyes I found myself in a house, surrounded by Generals, among them being Montrichard. I believe this was some three hours after the action. I was suffering horribly, not so much from my wounds, as I had lost a quantity of blood, and was, in fact, covered with it, as from the trampling of the horses, the combat having raged over me.

'This is your doing,' I said to General Montrichard. Had your troops taken part in the action, this mischance would not have befallen me; and not an enemy could have escaped had my combinations been carried out.'

His excuse was that, on reaching Fort Urbino, the regiment at the head of his column had no cartridges; that the train of artillery, at the end of both divisions, was still at Bologna, and that they had waited for it to come up.

'What!' I exclaimed, 'regiments campaigning without cartridges? Why did you not discover it sooner? Were they all without them?'

'No; only the leading company.'

'Why did you not throw it aside and let the others take the lead? A little more, and we should have been driven back,' I added; 'and it would have been your fault entirely, as you could and should have made an important diversion.'

He dropped his eyes and made no reply. I should have done well to withdraw his command from him then and there. We should have been saved many disasters caused by him; but he belonged to the Army of Italy, and was only for the time being under my orders. Moreau was vexed afterwards that I did not take this prudent step.

They informed me that the enemy were being followed, and prisoners brought in every moment. I gave orders regarding our position, and was transported to my headquarters at Modena. I was suffering greatly from the bruises caused by the trampling of the horses. The Generals-of-Division had followed me; I felt that I was not in a condition to continue in command and to lead the army; I offered the succession to the senior among them, who declined, and then to the others in turn. The position beyond doubt was difficult. It was pointed out to me that the main body of the enemy was still distant ; that, according to the plan for the junction of the Armies of Italy and Naples, which ought to take place in a few days, and according to the marches calculated both to Parma and Piacenza, they would naturally have a chief in Moreau that I could be just as easily transported to Genoa by Bobbio as by the route we were now following, and even by the valley of the Po, as our success would be assured after this junction. These arguments decided me, and orders were given to continue the movement. We pushed on, therefore, towards the places of rendezvous, manoeuvring on the right towards the Po, and spreading a rumour that we were going to raise the siege of Mantua, and that we were gathering forces for that purpose; this was done in order to attract the enemy to the left bank.

Embarrassed by the prisoners, among whom were some of superior and many of inferior rank, I caused them to be conducted to our outposts at Ferrara, after exacting from them a promise not to serve until an agreement could be arrived at for an exchange of prisoners; the baggage, in order to relieve us, was sent to Fort Urbino. I even gave the officers some pecuniary assistance, although they were at no great distance from their own troops; but far from observing the engagement promised, the Austrians had the bad faith to keep as prisoners the detachment of cavalry sent to escort their officers to a place of safety.
They followed me, having obtained some reinforcements for their broken ranks, but without causing me much trouble. I felt sure that, sooner or later, they would fall into our hands after our junction was effected, which would certainly give us a decisive victory.

General Victor had debouched near Castelnuovo, making for Parma or Piacenza, and driving before him an Austrian division which had taken up a position on the Tidone. It was between these two towns, if I remember rightly, that this General sent me a letter from Moreau, stating that he was still in doubt as to the direction of the rest of his army —whether it should follow Victor, or whether it should debouch near l3obbio, or near La T3occhetta. The day even of his departure for either place was uncertain; but he said it would probably take place on the 20 or 21 Prairial, and it was now the 26th, so that allowing for twenty four hours' delay, according to our calculations, and for the possible local difficulties of the march—for he had no enemies in either of the former directions—our junction ought to take place at latest on the 27th or 28th either at Parma or Piacenza.

The only obstacles were on my side; but I had declared positively, perhaps somewhat rashly, that I would surmount them, and I had succeeded, inasmuch as I had defeated the hostile body that awaited me at the outlet of the Apennines without the hell) of the two divisions that were coming Lip from Bologna. While waiting for the arrival of the Army of Italy, I rapidly continued my march towards the Trebbia and Tidone, and gave orders that our position should be occupied there without engaging in hostilities, as I had two divisions behind, manoeuvring on the Po, which 1 had called UI) in order to bring them into line.

The enemy had sent a detachment into the citadel of Piacenza. We had to guard the entrance, and leave on our side of the town a rear-guard to stop the remains of the combatants at Modena from following us.

My sufferings were severely increased by the movement of the carriage in which I was laid. I anxiously expected Moreau, and could get no news of him. I hastened the advance of the two detached divisions, ordering them to come into line with all speed on the Tidone. It was on the 29th that the others took up their position. Victor's regiment, already in position, had exchanged a few volleys; unfortunately, he had remained in person at Piacenza, where I was myself, but without informing me of the circumstance. He had charged his Brigadier-General, Charpentier, with the care of settling his position. Dombrowski's and Rusca's regiments arrived soon afterwards. All had orders not to light; Rusca, notwithstanding the remonstrances of General Charpentier, insisted upon trying to force the passage of the Tidone; he partly succeeded, but was soon repulsed, in spite of the support of the two other divisions, who were compelled to take part in this unfortunate skirmish. All three were thrown into disorder.

As I was unable to mount a horse, I had given the command of the four divisions drawn up in line to General Victor, with orders to take up his position on the Tidone and drive the enemy to the other side; but this General had remained at Piacenza, unknown to me. Thence forward all was confusion, and the disorder that followed the engagement may in great part be attributed to this cause. I could hear the firing at Piacenza, but without being able to foresee or to fear the consequence, as the great allied army could not yet be entirely united, and ought to be harassed on its right flank and rear if Moreau had attacked those points. This was what he most likely had done, as lie did not appear on our left, and I had no news either of his march or his direction; the junction was always intended to be the chief object of our movements, especially of mine, with a view to attracting the enemy to me, and distracting their attention when in Piedmont. This junction was made—at least, virtually—when I arrived in Tuscany; and had it not been for the difficulty attending the transport of baggage by sea, the troops might have marched together along the Cornice road to Genoa, as has since been done. But the operations in the valley of the Po would have been far more important if the movements of the two armies had been simultaneous, according to the original agreement; and I am still convinced, although it is twenty-five years since the events, that our success must have been infallible had it not been for Morean's hesitation.

By an inversion of the marching order, the reason for which I have now forgotten, General SaIm, who commanded the advance-guard, found himself behind the other divisions that were occupying positions on the Tidone, and which, when routed, fell back upon him and disordered his lines. He had the presence of mind to throw his men to the right of the road, and drew up there in order of battle; the enemy, pursuing eagerly, thus found themselves exposed to a flank fire, which compelled them to retreat. On receiving a report of these events, I ordered them to take UI) a position between the 'I'idone and the Trebbia; but it was urged against that proposal that there was no place suitable, and that it would be better to recross the Trebbia, as a large number of fugitives had already done. I consented, although this could only be a rallying position ; the torrent was wide and fordable everywhere. SaIm, however, received orders to remain where he was, to cover the army, form his advance guard, and send out scouts. Montrichard and Ollivier, still behind, were desired to hasten their advance, and to come and put themselves into line and Support us. It was clear that the enemy, too, had made forced marches, and mustered on the l'idone. But where was the Army of Italy? In what direction? I could not tell.

Until the junction was effected, prudence commanded me not to risk a battle with such unequal forces. I had no choice but to retire ; but if I went away, and the Army of Italy debouched from the mountains in the expectation of finding that of Naples, it would in its turn be isolated and exposed to certain loss. What excuse could I give if I did not venture it? Of course, the cry of 'treason' would have been raised. But that would not have been all. It was, indeed, stated in the Army of Italy that I had given battle before the junction from motives of personal ambition. It will be seen from these writings how devoid of foundation was this idea, and, besides, my own condition would have sufficed to prevent that. I passed a wretched night, tormented by the fear of being attacked next morning before all our forces had come up, and also lest we should not he able to repair the disorder that had been caused that evening.

Day broke at last. Acting upon the reports received from the reconnoitring parties, I had myself carried to Borgo Sant'-Antonio, near the Trebbia, and thence along my line, which I found drawn up in good order. General SaIm and the other Generals came to make their reports and observations. I made a few alterations, such, for instance, as changing the position to he occupied by the advance-guard if it were compelled to retreat; the two divisions behind, which I summoned back by means of a forced march, were to remain in reserve.

All appeared tranquil, and our troops seemed prepared to give the enemy a good reception. I intended to be beforehand with the enemy as soon as my two other divisions arrived, and unless they previously made an attack. General Salm, trusting in his troops and his position, which I wished to preserve as far as possible, had strict injunctions not to engage alone; immediately the first serious demonstrations were made, he was to fall back and take his place in the line. So much did he trust in the apparent tranquillity of the enemy, that he asked my leave to go and spend a few hours in Piacenza; I was less confident, refused permission, and did rightly, for shortly afterwards, through my telescope, I perceived at some distance a mounted troop on the look-out. SaIm declared that it was a mounted reconnaissance that he had sent out; I answered that it was facing us, and that if the detachment belonged to us it would naturally turn its back to us; but he would not be convinced. I even sent out to reconnoitre, although I was almost certain of what 1 had seen.

'Make haste!' I said shortly afterwards to him. 'Gallop to your position; that reconnaissance is advancing, and another troop is coming up behind it. You are going to be attacked; be ready to fall back.'

He went.

Firing soon began, and as from the wooded nature of the ground it appeared that the whole force opposed to us had not appeared, Saim sent to ask me for a company of grenadiers, declaring that with their help he could maintain his position. I took a different view of the matter, and in sending him the battalion askcd for, which was to draw up in echelon and support him, I also sent him repeated orders to retire. This, unfortunately, he only did at the last extremity, which very nearly caused us serious loss. At the first gunshot my men were under arms. Our vanguard at length retired ; the firing increased. I saw five large columns and a large body of cavalry approaching hehini our troops Wounded and fugitives came in in crowds. Salm, hard pressed, continued to retire, fighting as he came; being wounded, he made over the command to General Sari'asin, who, wounded in his turn, gave it to the brave Colonel Lahure, who soon shared the same fate, The men, finding themselves without a leader, and not knowing what position in the line they were to take up, recrossed the Trebbia in disorder at another point, and covered the artillery and musketry that should have Protected them. If the enemy, whose advance was continuing, had made an effort at this moment, I know not what would have become of us.

At length my lines got clear, and my batteries opened fire. The Austro-Russians made a vigorous onslaught on my line, and renewed it several times without causing us to move; their strength was great, and their cries and howls would have sufficed to terrify any troops except French ones. At length they drew off; the artillery fire gradually slackened on either side, and ceased entirely about ten or eleven at night.

We had already a large number of wounded. The close proximity of the armies required the utmost watchfulness; we passed the night under arms. The two rear divisions arrived; they required rest. They stopped for the time in the second line, while the first reformed and prepared to take the offensive, if opportunity offered, instead of continuing on the defensive.

Daybreak found the two armies facing each other on either bank of the Trebbia. A cannonade began, but without much effect ; it sensibly diminished after a few hours, and finally ceased altogether on both sides. We piled arms, as though a truce had been agreed upon. During the night I had decided upon taking the offensive, regardless of the superior strength of the enemy. My troops were excellent, and the French character lends itself better to attack than to defence. My plans were laid and orders given for nine o'clock in the morning, so that only one signal would have been necessary; but it did not take place until noon, for, notwithstanding repeated orders, it was impossible to get the Montrichard division out of its bivouacs. It did come up at last, but without its General, who remained behind.

At the first movement to arms, the enemy formed a line of battle, and the firing began. My columns boldly crossed the Trebbia and scattered the first line. Unluckily, the Montrichard division, having no leader, sent out a party of sharpshooters, flanked by some cavalry. The enemy's horse, weak at that particular point, made a sally to drive back this body, which was causing it inconvenience; the latter, terror- stricken, fell back upon the division and paralyzed its fire. Montrichard's cavalry, although superior, fell back, and returned in disorder, followed by the enemy, and the whole division was thrown into confusion. I deployed my reserve of infantry to protect them, but the cavalry reserve, having failed to take up the positions indicated for them, so that they might support our weak points, lost time in coming up; the enemy took advantage of this to rally and make a charge. The gap made by the retreat of Montrichard's division, which I stopped and formed up at the edge of the river, left Ollivier's division exposed to a flank attack. It was compelled in its turn to retreat, as was also General Vatrin on the extreme right, but the movement was effected in good order, and it recovered its position. The same movement was executed upon the left, commanded by General Victor, who had surprised the Russians and thrown them into great disorder.

Meanwhile our cavalry reserves had come up and joined the fray. The confusion into which the enemy had been thrown gave us time to rally and to form up again into a line of defence. The enemy soon renewed the attacks of the previous evening, but found only an immovable wall of steel. Their loss of men was enormous, but unavailing; and at length, wearied and worn out, they ceased their attack and retired to their positions. Night fell, but the cannonade continued on both sides, lest either should forget the presence of the other; but at length it ceased. I received disastrous accounts of our losses. Nearly all our Generals and superior officers were more or less seriously wounded; our loss of men, in killed and wounded, was enormous for so weak an army. Not the least serious part of it was that nearly all our ammunition was exhausted. These events occurred on the 29 and 30 Prairial, and 1 Messidor (June 17, 18, 19, 1799).


 


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