Grenadiers of Consular Guard at Marengo.
Marengo was a village (in today NW Italy) near Alessandria. It was the site of a famous clash (ext.link) between 32.000 Austrians led by Melas and 24.000 Frenchmen under Bonaparte. Melas had almost won when Desaix arrived with fresh troops to bolster the French; Desaix lost his life, but the Austrians were completely defeated and retired to the Mincio River. It brought to a close the last of the French Revolutionary Wars and played a pivotal role in shaping Europe. The narrow French victory enabled Bonaparte to consolidate his power as First Consul of France.
At Marengo have fought Bonaparte's Consular Guard (Gardes des Consuls).
The grenadiers performed prodigies, until it too fell back before superior numbers. Most accounts indicate that the Guard infantry conducted a rearguard action but suffered very heavy losses (a third of its number !)
Approx. 75 % of the foot guardsmen came from veterans of Garde du Corps Legislatif. They were elected representatives of the Garde National Sedentaire.
Approx. 25 % came from three other sources:
- veterans selected from the 120 foot soldiers of Garde a Pied du Directoire
- dashing foot guides who served in Egypt with Bonaparte
- men selected from the army for their actions, wounds, experience and bravery.
The grenadiers of Consular Guard were France's best foot troops. This regiment existed only few months, too short time for developing an exceptional esprit de corps, but the men and officers were outstanding.
The Guard Enters the Fight
The battle was roaring in full fury when the Guard grenadiers led by Soles moved forward to bolster the crumbling line where Gardanne's and Victor's troops were falling back. Napoleon feared that the Austrians from the centre and north will head for the gap. The Guard reached the area of fighting, distributed cartridges to Lannes' infantry and moved to his right. (See map -->)
The Guard grenadiers emerged from the cover of farmers' cornfields (partially flattened by troops moving through this area earlier), and slammed into the Austrian lines. Their skirmishers rushed forward using trees and bushes along the road and the Cavo ditch for protection. The Austrian cavalry scouts could see the red plumes and tall bearskins of the Grenadiers. The Austrian Lobkowitz Light Dragoons (Dragoner-Regiment Nr. 10) have been attacking the 28e and 40e Ligne, but these were small attacks by half squadrons. This is said that there were at least 7 of such attacks. As soon as the Light Dragoons noticed the 500-600 Grenadiers coming they pulled off to form up in one unit.
Lobkowitz Light Dragoons (495 men under Harrach) charged the Consular Guard but fire from 4 guns and skirmishers threw them back. The Austrians were then counter-charged by Murat's dragoons and fled. According to Stutterheim who was a senior staff officer with Ott's formation "... Ott ordered Ob.Ltn. Graf Harrach to lead the charge against the Guard; after time-consuming preparations the dragoons set into step, then into trott, and finally into the gallop. The infantry of Consular Guard seemed to be close to disaster when musket shots by the French skirmishers the whole Dragoner-Regiment Nr. 10. turned about and ran away. Some French cavalry that had been watching these events from a position behind the Guard pursued our dragoons."
Henri Lachouque gave slightly different version: "... here came the grenadiers and chasseurs of the Consular Guard, drums beating, singing ‘On va leur percer le flanc’ to the accompaniment of Guiardel’s bandsmen, as well as the 19e Légère of Monnier with Bonaparte leading the lot. Nine hundred bearskin bonnets formed a square between Lannes and Carra St. Cyr and stopped the charging Lobkowitz Dragoons in their tracks."
Face Off Between French Guard
The Austrians have brought fresh troops to deal with the French. These for
ces consisted of:
Murat's dragoons (1er, 6e and 9e Dragons) chased the Light Dragoons until they were halted by battalion of Splenyi (51st) Line Infantry Regiment. Stutterheim wrote about the French cavalry that it received "...few shots and ran away". Loud battle-cry and a massive volley sent Murat's dragoons packing. Then the Romanians and Hungarians of Splenyi (51st) Regiment resumed their resolute march with their band playing. The colonel-in-chief of this unit was Feldmarschalleutnant Gabriel Splenyi von Mihaldy. Until 1800 their colonel was Jacques Augustinetz, then replaced with Oberst Ignaz von Novak.
Two battalions of Grenadiers deployed into battle-line along a country-road. Four guns were placed between the two battalions. The elite of Bonaparte's infantry waited for the Legion Infernale to get closer.
Shortly before 4 pm GM Sticker began deploying artillery and two battalions of 'Legion Infernale'). The two battalions were weak, they had total of only 700-900 men. Once the deployment was finished they advanced forward and fired volley after volley by platoons. Bonaparte's Grenadiers (500-800 men) held their ground and the attackers halted at 50 paces from them. Both sides were separated only by the small Cavo ditch.
At approx. 50 paces away from the 500-800 Grenadiers, the Austrians halted and engaged in a hot exchange of musketry. The cartridges were torn rapidly from the boxes and stuffed in the smoking muzzles, the rammers clashed and clanged, the men's hands grew grim and black with powder.
According to Dave Hollins ("Marengo" p 78) the exchange of fire went on for 15 minutes (!) According to Henri Lachoque it was at 100 paces ("fired on at a hundred paces by Austrian infantry") The musketry continued for some time with the Guard being supported by 4 guns and the Austrians by 6 (or more) guns. The fire from several thousands muskets and dozen cannons created a tremendous noise and smoke. It was a hellish experience for both sides.
French Emigrées Charged Guard's Flank.
Suddenly the Legion Infernale ceased fire as from the flank appeared Austrian cavalry.
Oberst (Colonel) Frimont's cavalry consisted of two units:
Frimont attacked Grenadiers' flank. The Legion Infernale fixed bayonets and joined the fight. Brabant, a grenadier of uncommon strength, took over an abandoned cannon and served it alone for 30 minutes ! "It seemed impossible that so small a body of men, forming but a mere speck on that vast plain, could resist the overwhelming squadrons." (- J. T. Headley)
The French and Austrian views of what happened is somehow different.
Bonaparte sent the cavalry of Consular Guard to stabilize the front line. This force consisted of the following troops:
Comments on Guard at Marengo.
Our visitors sent us additional information on the Consular Guard at Marengo. Below is only one of the articles. (We obtained permission to post it on our website although author of the text wished to remain anonymous.)
The Garde Consulaire was formed by decree of 3 janvier 1800 (13 nivôse an VIII). The Garde a pied was to be composed of some 1300 infantrymen, in 2 batallions of 6 compagnies each of grenadiers (under chefs des bataillons Soules and Tortel, respectively) and a company of chasseurs a pied.
The following were the sources for the gardes:
Together with some 15-20 officers of the batallion, and perhaps some additional officiers "a la suite" from among the the rather large general staff of the garde, it is easy to see how Soules' command might be reported a totalling some 600, as is seen in some accounts of the action on the French extreme right.
A recent chronology of the battle of Marengo (D. Hollins, "The Battle of Marengo" , Osprey, p. 72) have Bonaparte and the Garde Consulaire arrving on the battle field at about 3pm. This "late arrival" scenario, based on the availbale time, tends to to limit the role of Garde a pied (and Bonaparte) to something less (and less "heroic") then many previous accounts of the battle.
However, an earlier chronology has strong primary source support. Among others, Coignet, Soult, Marmont, Berthier and Eugene all clearly indicate an arrival time at or before mid-day.
Now, in the nature of source criticism, these accounts can be dismissed as mistaken, or written later using published chronologies for guidance. On the other hand, there is no – repeat no – primary source support for the later time of arrival of which I am aware. In fact, since according to Marmont for example, the sound of fighting was audible at the headquarters bivouac and at least two officers had reported the fighting from early in morning, it requires an assumption that Bonaparte sat unpresponsively through the morning to support the later chronology. This seems to me a counter-intuitive assumption, or one crafted to minimize the role of the First Consul. The simpler assumtpion, that Bonaparte and/or the Garde moved to the battlefield by about mid-day, seems the simpler assumption and does not require that the several reports of his arrival at that time be dismissed.
If one allows the Garde a pied to have taken the field from mid-day, there then remains some 2-3 hours for them to act. Here is it easy to adduce numerous eye-witness acounts of their resisting Austrian cavalry – the number of charges variously given a 3 to 5. This "standard version" of Garde a pied at Marengo : the "block of granite". It appears in Victor, Berthier, Coignet, the contempory (and anti-Bonapartist) italian historian Botta, Soules service record, Soult, Eugene, Marmont, Petit and so on, ad infinitum.
In addition to the criticism that the were not yet on the battlefield, which was discussed above, there is a sceond critical point made : that there were no such Austrian cavalry available to (repeatedly) charge the Garde a pied. I have never seen exactly how this assertion is supported, if at all.
For example, there is … Brigade Johann Graf Nobili. 12 escadrons : 1873 hommes …Dragoner-Regiment 3. Erzherzog Johann – 6 escadrons – Oberst Joseph Graf (de) Gavre (emigré, de Flandres) – rekrutierte aus Innerosterreich (Steiermark und Keurnten)
…Dragoner-Regiment 9. Fuerst Lichtenstein – 6 escadrons – Oberst Carl-Michael Marchese Belcredi (de Pavie) – ex-Stabs-Dragoner Regiment in Italien
These are said to have had trouble crossing the bridge to enter the battlefield proper …. which seems odd given that tehy had about 4-6 hours to make the crossing !
The following have been variously claimed as "primary" or "based on primary" sources for the alleged destruction of the Garde a pied.
ITEM No. 1
ITEM No. 2
ITEM No. 3
For the French:
> Murat's report a few days later : 121 wounded & killed — one would think perhaps this is meant as "severely wounded and not re-joined the ranks"
Here is speculation, analysis, summary — call it what you will. The garde a pied arrived on the field about mid-day. 500-600 men under Soules took position on the extreme French right. Here they successfully resisted repeated cavalry charges, over some hours, likely adopting square from time to time. To deny this flies in the face of some dozen-odd primary accounts. All of these cannot be lying, mistaken, copying, propoganda, etc.
Despite the well-deserved praise for this defense, it was no miracle – the ability of steady infantry to resisit unsupported and ill-co-ordinated cavalry assaults is well documented in the period (as are the deficiencies of Austrian cavalry doctrine). In the later afternoon, they saw off a charge by Dr 10 in open column and then were finally caught, while in line in a firefight with 4 fresh enemy batallions supported by guns, and charged in the flanks and rear by 4 or more squadrons of light horse (DR 1 and Bussey Jagers) under Frimont.
Their defense, likely now very exposed as the remainder of the French had retreated, crumbled immediately or very quickly. Likely orders were sent about this time for them to retreat, but these were un-necessary / overtaken by events. Similarly, their likely quite depleted ammunition condition was neither a surpirse nor decisive. The key elements to the evetual success of the Austrians against the Garde was:
Of the 500-600 under Soules, some 200 retreated in something like good order, in something like hollow square around the colors, under Soules' direction. Another 100-odd likely just ran like stink !
There was no mass surrender, and few unwounded prisoners were taken.
Stutterheim A is too "excited" on this topic – the tone of which is much reduced in Stutterheim B. Stutterheim A is the only source produced which could possibly be read as to imply a substantial surrender, and such is not explicitly stated even there. Some 250-odd gardes were killed or wounded up to and including this "destruction" (a few additional casualties would have to be added for the evening counter-attack). Of these, about half were seriously wounded or killed.
The rallied members of Soules' command and the command of Tortel (total perhaps 500 men) were united for the evening counter-attack, under Stabenrath. The "heroic" reputation for the Garde a pied was completely earned and merited for their performance at Marengo, especially so considering the actual composition of their ranks at the time (largely elected representatives from home defense national guard units). The lavish level of awards of armes de honneur to them was in to no way other than fully appropriate.
The inaction of the grenadiers a cheval is noteworthy.
The use of the word "destroyed" is at least problematic in this context. Clearly large losses were incurred by Soules' command while on the extreme right of the French disposition (upwards of 50%). But equally, they stayed in the battle to participate in the evening counterattack. Perhaps the motto of the Lauzun hussards applies : "Perit sed in armis".
The recent work of Mr. Hollins, while valuable in bringing the topic to discussion and in adducing the various "Austrian" sources for use by modern readers, to too livid and sensationalized, and in places over-values the quality of some sources while dismissing out-of-hand many contrary ones of equal or better value. One would look forward to a larger work by Mr. Hollins, as some of the weaknesses of his published work to date may have been forced upon him by the requirements of selling "booklets" to a wide audience. "
Sources and Links.
Hollins - "Marengo 1800"
Chandler - "On the Napoleonic Wars"
Coignet - "The Note-Books of Captain Coignet"
Lachouque and Brown - "The Anatomy of Glory"
Simmons Games has begun posting Napoleonic source material on-line, which might be of interest to our readers. Current offerings are related to the battle of Marengo:
Additional material is still being added.
Napoleon, His Army and Enemies