Battle of Arcole

Battle of Arcole
Part of the War of the First Coalition
La Bataille du Pont d'Arcole.jpg
Napoleon Bonaparte leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole, by Horace Vernet.
Date15 November 1796 (1796-11-15)
17 November 1796 (1796-11-17)
Location
Arcole, present-day Italy

ResultFrench victory[1]
Belligerents
France FranceHabsburg Monarchy Habsburg Monarchy
Commanders and leaders
Napoleon BonaparteJózsef Alvinczi
Strength
20,000[2]24,000
Casualties and losses
3,500 killed or wounded
1,300 captured or missing
2,200 killed or wounded
4,000 captured
11 guns captured
Battle of Arcole is located in Italy
Battle of Arcole
Location within Italy

The Battle of Arcole or Battle of Arcola (15–17 November 1796) was a battle fought between French and Austrian forces 25 kilometres (16 mi) southeast of Verona during the War of the First Coalition, a part of the French Revolutionary Wars.

The battle saw a bold maneuver by Napoleon Bonaparte's French Army of Italy to outflank the Austrian army led by József Alvinczi and cut off its line of retreat. The French victory proved to be a highly significant event during the third Austrian attempt to lift the Siege of Mantua.

Alvinczi planned to execute a two-pronged offensive against Bonaparte's army. The Austrian commander ordered Paul Davidovich to advance south along the Adige River valley with one corps while Alvinczi led the main army in an advance from the east. The Austrians hoped to raise the siege of Mantua where Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser was trapped with a large garrison. If the two Austrian columns linked up and if Wurmser's troops were released, French prospects were grim.

Davidovich scored a victory against Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois at Calliano and threatened Verona from the north. Meanwhile, Alvinczi repulsed one attack by Bonaparte at Bassano and advanced almost to the gates of Verona where he defeated a second French attack at Caldiero. Leaving Vaubois' battered division to contain Davidovich, Bonaparte massed every available man and tried to turn Alvinczi's left flank by crossing the Adige. For two days the French assaulted the stoutly defended Austrian position at Arcole without success. Their persistent attacks finally forced Alvinczi to withdraw on the third day.

That day Davidovich routed Vaubois, but it was too late. Bonaparte's victory at Arcole permitted him to concentrate against Davidovich and chase him up the Adige valley. Left alone, Alvinczi threatened Verona again. But without his colleague's support, the Austrian commander was too weak to continue the campaign and he withdrew again. Wurmser attempted a breakout, but his effort came too late in the campaign and had no effect on the result. The third relief attempt failed by the narrowest of margins.

Background

See Arcola 1796 Campaign Order of Battle for a detailed list of French and Austrian units.

Operations

The second relief attempt of the Siege of Mantua ended badly for Austria when General Napoleon Bonaparte routed Feldmarschall Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser's army at the Battle of Bassano. In the sequel, Wurmser marched for Mantua, evading French attempts to cut him off. He reached there with 16,000 soldiers on 12 September 1796, but was defeated and driven into the fortress by the French on the 15th. With Wurmser's Austrians and the original garrison crowded into the encircled city, disease and hunger began exacting a serious toll on the garrison.[3]

Emperor Francis II of Austria appointed Feldzeugmeister József Alvinczi to lead a reconstituted field army in the third attempt to relieve Mantua. Alvinczi, Feldmarschall-Leutnant Paul Davidovich, General-major Johann Rudolf Sporck, and Major Franz von Weyrother drew up plans for a two-pronged offensive. The Friaul Corps was assigned to Feldmarschall-Leutnant Peter Vitus von Quosdanovich and directed to move west toward Verona. The Tyrol Corps was entrusted to Davidovich and ordered to advance south from the Alps to join Quosdanovich. Wurmser would break out from Mantua and attack the French field armies in the rear.[4]

Map showing the locations of towns in the area of Mantua
Siege of Mantua Campaign Map shows towns, major rivers, and mountainous terrain

Quosdanovich's 26,432-strong Friaul Corps was accompanied by Alvinczi as it moved west on Mantua from the Piave River. This force was formed into a 4,397-man Advance Guard under General-major Friedrich Franz Xaver Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a 4,376-strong Reserve led by General-major Philipp Pittoni von Dannenfeld, and a Main corps supervised by Feldmarschall-Leutnant Giovanni Marchese di Provera. This last unit was subdivided into a 9,380-man First line consisting of the brigades of Generals-major Gerhard Rosselmini and Anton Lipthay de Kisfalud and an 8,279-strong Second line composed of brigades led by Generals-major Anton Schübirz von Chobinin and Adolf Brabeck. There were 54 line and 20 reserve artillery pieces with the Friaul Corps.[5]

On 1 November 1796, Davidovich's Tyrol Corps numbered 18,427 infantry and 1,049 cavalry. The corps was split into six brigade-size columns under Generals-major Johann Loudon, Joseph Ocskay von Ocsko, Sporck, and Josef Philipp Vukassovich and Colonel Seulen. Loudon commanded 3,915 infantry and 362 cavalry in Column 1, Ocskay led 4,200-foot soldiers and 463 horsemen in Column 2, Spork directed 2,560 infantry in Column 3, Vukassovich supervised both Column 4 with 3,772-foot and 30 horse and Column 5 with 2,958-foot and 120 horse, and Seulen led 1,022 infantry and 74 cavalry in Column 6.[6] The Tyrol Corps counted 40 line and 20 reserve guns.[7]

Wurmser commanded 23,708 soldiers within Mantua. However, only 12,420 were reported as capable of taking the field.[8] In addition, General-major Anton Ferdinand Mittrowsky's brigade occupied the upper Brenta River, connecting the wings under Davidovich and Quosdanovich.[6] Mittrowsky commanded about 3,000 men.[9]

Bonaparte deployed a 10,500-man division under General of Division Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois at Lavis to watch Davidovich. At Bassano, General of Division André Masséna's 9,540 soldiers defended the line of the Brenta River. The 8,340 troops of General of Division Pierre Augereau covered the Adige River. General of Division Charles Edward Jennings de Kilmaine with 8,830 soldiers blockaded Wurmser's large garrison in Mantua. General of Division François Macquard's 2,750-man infantry reserve was posted at Villafranca di Verona while General of Division Thomas-Alexandre Dumas with 1,600 troopers of the cavalry reserve was stationed at Verona.[8]

Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcole, by Antoine-Jean Gros, (1797), Château de Versailles.

The Austrians went to a lot of trouble to conceal the strength of Davidovich's corps from their enemies. The ruse was so successful that Bonaparte ordered Vaubois to advance and defeat his opponent so that he could shift 3,000 troops to help fight Alvinczi.[10] On 2 November, Vaubois attacked Davidovich near Cembra, inflicting 1,116 casualties before retiring. Though the French suffered only 650 killed and wounded, this included 280 soldiers of the 85th Line Infantry Demi Brigade. This loss seems to have seriously damaged the unit's morale. The next day, Vaubois pulled back to Calliano.[11]

On 1 November, the Friaul Corps began crossing the Piave.[8] Bonaparte elected to attack the Austrians on the Brenta and called Augereau and Macquard east to join Masséna. In the Second Battle of Bassano on 6 November, the Austrians held off Bonaparte's attacks. French losses numbered 3,000 killed, wounded, and missing, plus an additional 508 men and one howitzer captured. In this hard-fought engagement, the Austrians lost 534 killed, 1,731 wounded, and 558 captured for a total of 2,823 casualties. Bonaparte quickly pulled back to Verona.[12]

Davidovich attacked Vaubois at the Battle of Calliano on 6 November but was repulsed after hard fighting. He renewed his assault at daybreak on the 7th. After holding out all day, French morale collapsed in the late afternoon and Vaubois' men fled the battlefield in a panic.[13] Between 2 and 7 November, Vaubois' division suffered 4,400 killed, wounded, and missing and lost six artillery pieces. The Austrians also lost heavily, with 2,000 killed and wounded plus a further 1,500 taken prisoner.[14] In a public announcement, Bonaparte vented his fury at the poor performance of the 39th and 85th Line Infantry Demi Brigades.[15]

Poor communications plagued the Austrian commanders throughout the campaign. This was a consequence of the wide separation between the two wings. Furthermore, many of Alvinczi's men were indifferently equipped raw recruits who straggled badly. The Austrians also suffered from a serious shortage of officers.[16] After Alvinczi sent him a mistaken report that Masséna was reinforcing Vaubois, Davidovich became very cautious. The report was sent on 9 November but only reached its recipient on the 11th, which was typical of the Austrian communications problems. Alvinczi also repeatedly urged Davidovich to speed up his march toward Verona.[17]

Alvinczi's advance guard under GM Friedrich of Hohenzollern-Hechingen pressed toward Verona. Near that city, he encountered Masséna on 11 November and was forced to pull back after losing 400 men in a sharp combat. In a sleet storm on the 12th, Hohenzollern fought off the attacks of Masséna and Augereau in the Battle of Caldiero. When reinforcements under Brabeck, Schübirz, and Provera arrived later in the day, Bonaparte called off the futile attacks and drew his troops back within the walls of Verona. The Austrians reported losses of 1,244 officers and men.[18] French losses were estimated at 1,000 killed and wounded, plus an additional 800 men and two guns captured.[19]

Maneuver

Map showing Bonaparte's maneuver from Verona to Ronco
Bonaparte's maneuver from Verona to Ronco, 14–15 November 1796

After three sharp defeats, even Bonaparte "became very despondent about his chances of survival."[20] He deployed Macquard and 3,000 men to hold Verona.[21] A slightly reinforced Vaubois clung to a strong position with about 8,000 troops, keeping Davidovich's 14,000 soldiers bottled up in the Adige valley. To blockade Wurmser's garrison within Mantua, Kilmaine could count only 6,626 men after providing reinforcements to other commands. This left Bonaparte a field force consisting of Masséna's 7,937, Augereau's 6,000, a reserve of 2,600 infantry plus cavalry, for a total of 18,000 soldiers. By this time, Alvinczi's main force numbered about 23,000 men.[9] Historian David G. Chandler wrote,

Like a juggler keeping three balls in the air at once, Bonaparte had to balance the dangers of the three sectors against each other, keeping them in clear relative perspective. Although he had singled out Alvinczi as his main target, it was only too clear that an aggressive move on the part of Davidovich or even by Wurmser might compel the French to abandon their operations against the main Austrian army and move every available man to reinforce the threatened area. Defeat on any sector could well spell catastrophe and the destruction of the Army of Italy.[22]

Unknown to the French, Alvinczi planned to throw a pontoon bridge across the Adige below Verona at Zevio on 15 November at nightfall.[9] Meanwhile, Bonaparte determined on an audacious strategy. He force-marched Masséna and Augereau along the west bank of the Adige to a bridging site at Ronco all'Adige, behind Alvinczi's left flank. Once he moved his army across the river, he planned to move north to cut the Austrian line of retreat and seize the enemy's trains and artillery park.[23]

On the far bank was an area of marshy land that troops could not penetrate, which meant that all movement was limited to the causeways or dikes on the banks of the river Adige, and the causeways on the banks of a small tributary called the Alpone River that flowed into it from the north. The Alpone was only 20 yards (18 m) wide and 5 feet (1.5 m) deep.[24] In the difficult terrain, the French soldiers might have an advantage. Further, the Austrians would not be able to use their superior numbers in the restricted battlefield.[22]

From Ronco, the north-bound road followed a dike for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to a bridge, on the east side of which was the village of Arcole. From there, the road continued going north on the east bank of the stream to San Bonifacio near the main highway. The dikes along the Alpone near Arcole were "26 feet high, and had very steep faces." Another road followed a dike from Ronco northwest to Belfiore and on to Caldiero.[24]