|Battle of the Bridge of Arcole|
|Part of the French Revolutionary Wars|
Napoleon Bonaparte leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole, by Horace Vernet.
|Napoleon Bonaparte||József Alvinczi|
|Casualties and losses|
|3,500 dead or wounded
1,300 captured or missing
|2,200 dead or wounded
4,000 men & 11 guns captured
The Battle of Arcole, or Battle of Arcola (15-17 November 1796), saw a bold manoeuvre by Napoleon Bonaparte to outflank the Austrian army under József Alvinczi and cut its line of retreat. This French victory occurred during the third Austrian attempt to lift the Siege of Mantua during the French Revolutionary Wars.
The second relief of the Siege of Mantua ended badly for Austria when General Bonaparte routed Feldmarschall Dagobert von Wurmser's army at the Battle of Bassano. In the sequel, Wurmser marched for Mantua, evading French attempts to cut him off. However, he reached there only to have his 12,000 soldiers defeated and driven into the fortress by the French on 15 September. With nearly 30,000 Austrians crowded into the encircled city, disease and hunger began exacting a terrible toll on the garrison.
Emperor Francis II appointed Feldzeugmeister Alvinczi to lead a reconstituted field army in the third relief of Mantua. Alvinczi, Feldmarschal-Leutnant (FML) Paul Davidovich, General-Major (GM) Johann Sporck, and Major Franz von Weyrother drew up plans for a two-pronged offensive. FML Peter Quasdanovich led the 28,000-strong Friaul Corps, accompanied by Alvinczi, as it moved west on Mantua from the Piave River. Davidovich led the 19,000-man Tirol Corps south, starting in the upper Adige River valley.
Bonaparte deployed a 10,500-man division under General of Division (MG) Claude Belgrand de Vaubois to face Davidovich. At Bassano, MG André Masséna's 9,500 soldiers defended the line of the Brenta River. The 8,300 troops of MG Pierre Augereau lay at Verona. MG Charles Kilmaine with 8,800 soldiers blockaded Wurmser's large garrison in Mantua, with 1,600 troopers of the cavalry reserve and MG Francois Macquard's 2,800 foot soldiers nearby.
See Arcola 1796 Campaign Order of Battle for a detailed list of French and Austrian units.
On 1 November, the Friaul Corps began crossing the Piave. 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 repulsed the French attacks with heavy losses on both sides. Bonaparte quickly pulled back to Verona.
Bonaparte miscalculated the size of Davidovich's corps, leaving Vaubois badly outnumbered. On 2 November, the two sides clashed at Cembra after which Vaubois abandoned Trento to the Austrians. Davidovich routed Vaubois at the Battle of Calliano on 6 and 7 November. Despite Alvinczi urging him to attack, Davidovich became extremely cautious, taking ten days before challenging the French again. Messages took up to two days to pass between Alvinczi and Davidovich, while Wurmser remained completely out of touch in Mantua. Poor communications plagued the Austrian commanders throughout the campaign.
Alvinczi's advance guard under GM Friedrich of Hohenzollern-Hechingen pressed toward Verona. Near that city, he bumped into Masséna on 11 November and was forced to pull back. In a sleet storm the next day, Hohenzollern fought off the attacks of Masséna and Augereau in the Battle of Caldiero. When Austrian reinforcements arrived later in the day, Bonaparte called off the futile attacks and drew his troops back within the walls of Verona.
After three sharp defeats, even Bonaparte "became very despondent about his chances of survival." He deployed Macquard and 3,000 men to hold Verona. A slightly reinforced Vaubois clung to a strong position at Rivoli Veronese with about 8,000 troops, keeping Davidovich's 14,000 soldiers bottled up in the Adige valley. Kilmaine's slender force of 6,600 men blockaded Wurmser's 23,000-man garrison (of whom only 12,000 were fit for duty) within Mantua. This left Bonaparte a field force consisting of Masséna's 8,000, Augereau's 6,000, a reserve of 2,600, and 1,600 cavalry, for a total of a little over 18,000 soldiers. By this time, Alvinczi's main force numbered about 23,000 men.
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.
A breakout by Davidovich or Wurmser, or the loss of Verona to Alvinczi would force Bonaparte to raise the siege of Mantua. If this happened, the able-bodied Austrians in the fortress would be released for field operations, a forbidding prospect. Unknown to the French, Alvinczi planned to throw a pontoon bridge across the Adige below Verona at nightfall on 15 November.
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, behind Alvinczi's left flank. Once he moved his army across the river, he planned to move north and seize the Austrian trains and artillery park.
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 that flowed into it from the north. Bonaparte’s plan was to establish a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Adige, and to protect this from the main Austrian army by sending some troops along the causeway to the west. The narrowness of the dikes meant that the Austrians could not use their superior numbers to advantage against this holding force. Another part of his army would move along the causeway to the east, then turn due north as it bent to follow the course of the Alpone.
About a mile along the north-going dike lay a bridge over the Alpone, on the east side of which was the village of Arcole. From there, the road went north again and intersected the Austrian lines of communication, which Napoleon hoped to cut. However, the causeway was completely exposed to fire from Arcole and from a parallel causeway on the east bank. Austrians in the village or on the east bank of the Alpone could enfilade the French troops as they marched along the west bank causeway towards the bridge. The dikes along the Alpone near Arcole were "26 feet high, and had very steep faces."
By dawn on 15 November, Bonaparte's troops reached the intended crossing, and soon afterward Antoine-François Andréossy's engineers had a pontoon bridge in operation. Augereau's division crossed first and headed east and north toward Arcola. Masséna's soldiers followed and, to cover the left flank, took a causeway leading north and west toward Belfiore di Porcile.
Alvinczi posted Oberst (Col.) Wenzel Brigido's four battalions in the area; of these, two battalions and two cannons defended Arcole. These troops repulsed Augereau's leading demi-brigade under General of Brigade (BG) Louis Bon. Before long, most of the French soldiers were lying in the lee of the causeway to shelter from the fire. Brigido pulled every available man into the combat. Augereau threw in demi-brigades led by BG Jean Verdier and BG Pierre Verne. At mid-day, Austrian reinforcements led by GM Anton Mittrowsky began arriving to help the defenders. Soon, Bon, Verdier, Verne and BG Jean Lannes were all wounded and the attack completely stalled.
On the western flank, Alvinczi sent the brigades of Oberst-Leutnant Alois Gavasini and GM Adolf Brabeck to seize the French pontoon bridge. They collided with Masséna near Bionde, midway between Belfiore and Ronco. Initially successful, the Austrians were soon driven back beyond Belfiore. From the latter place, the French watched as the Austrian trains rolled east on the main highway, out of their reach.
Attempting to break the stalemate near Arcole, Bonaparte ordered BG Jean Guieu with two demi-brigades to boat across the Adige below its confluence with the Alpone at Albaredo d'Adige. He also sent a French battalion across the Alpone by boat near its mouth. The latter unit fought its way north along the east bank dike.
Trying to inspire his men to attack, Bonaparte grabbed a flag and stood in the open on the dike. He remained miraculously untouched, but several members of his staff were hit by the intense fire and his aide-de-camp, Jean-Baptiste Muiron, was killed. An unknown officer dragged Bonaparte out of the line of fire and the commanding general ended up in the muddy ditch.
Adding to the confusion, the Austrians launched a sortie from Arcole and defeated the French battalion on the east bank. In the evening, Guieu crossed at Albaredo and eventually managed to flush the Austrian defenders out of Arcole. At midnight, worried that Davidovich was about to fall upon his rear, Bonaparte withdrew Guieu from Arcole and pulled most of his troops back across the Adige. He left a garrison on the Austrian side of the river to hold his bridgehead.
Alvinczi left Hohenzollern's troops near Verona to guard against an attack from that city. The Austrian leader ordered FML Giovanni di Provera with six battalions to attack from Belfiore. Alvinczi reinforced Mittrowsky to a total of 14 battalions, including the brigades of GM Anton Schübirz and Col. Franz Sticker, and instructed him to advance south from Arcole. The two forces would march at dawn on 16 November and converge on the French bridgehead. Alvinczi sent two battalions to guard Albaredo against a repetition of Guieu's attack.
Provera's effort came to grief when he ran into Masséna. Brabeck was killed during the encounter and the Austrians were chased back to Belfiore with the loss of five cannons. During the morning, Mittrowsky and Augereau engaged in a see-saw battle that ended when the Austrians fell back to Arcole.
Mittrowsky positioned Sticker's four battalions on the western dike, lined the eastern dike with four battalions under Brigido, and packed the rest of his troops into Arcole. These intelligent dispositions blocked Bonaparte's attempts to seize the village during the day. French attempts to cross the Adige at Albaredo and the Alpone near its mouth both failed. At nightfall, Bonaparte withdrew Masséna and Augereau toward the bridgehead, but sizable forces stayed on the Austrian side of the Adige.
On 17 November, Alvinczi withdrew Hohenzollern to Caldiero, closer to his main body. Again, Provera held Belfiore while Mittrowsky defended Arcole. During the night, Bonaparte's engineers floated some pontoons into the Alpone where they built a bridge near its mouth. Augereau's division crossed the bridge and began fighting its way along the eastern dike. A French battalion and some cavalry also set out from Legnago and joined Augereau later in the day. Meanwhile, two of Masséna's demi-brigades led by BG Jean Robert attacked along the western dike.
By early afternoon, Masséna drubbed Provera near Belfiore again. Alvinczi recalled both Provera and Hohenzollern toward the east and began feeding some of the latter's troops into the combat at Arcole. There, the battle went back and forth all day. At 3 pm, a large column of Austrian reinforcements surged out of Arcole and drove back the troops under Robert. Augereau's men on the east bank saw this development and also fell back. By 4 pm, Augereau's rattled division pulled back across the pontoon bridge to the west bank.
Just when the day seemed lost, Masséna appeared with reinforcements from the western flank. With these, he ambushed the Austrians on the western dike and sent them reeling back toward Arcole. Heartened, Augereau's men recrossed to the east bank of the Alpone and renewed the fight. Masséna and Augereau finally battled their way into Arcole around 5 pm. A lieutenant and 25 Guides aided the final attack by riding into the Austrian rear area and blowing several bugles to create the impression of a large force. The French followed up their success by advancing north and threatening to block the main east-west highway. Alvinczi threw in Schübirz's brigade to hold off the French, and this allowed Provera's division to escape.
French losses at Arcole numbered 3,500 dead and wounded, plus 1,300 captured or missing. The Austrians suffered only 2,200 dead and wounded, but lost 4,000 men and 11 guns captured. On the French side, Robert was killed, while Austrian GM Gerhard Rosselmini died in Vicenza on 19 November. The Austrians managed to move the bulk of their army to safety, but Bonaparte could still count himself successful in that he had forced the Austrians to temporarily abandon their plan of advancing to Mantua.
On 17 November, Davidovich finally attacked Vaubois at Rivoli, driving him steadily back. After resisting all morning the French troops stampeded in the afternoon. The French lost 800 killed and wounded, plus 1,000 captured including BG Pascal Fiorella and BG Antoine Valette. Austrian casualties were 600. Vaubois pulled back toward Peschiera while Davidovich pursued as far as Castelnuovo del Garda. Bonaparte sent his cavalry to watch Alvinczi's retreat, while turning the bulk of his forces toward Davidovich.
On 19 November, Davidovich heard of the Austrian defeat at Arcole and detected signs that Bonaparte was about to fall upon him in full force. The Austrian pulled back to Rivoli on the 20th and began to fall back farther the next morning. At this moment, he received an encouraging note from Alvinczi and halted his retreat. But the French caught up with him at Rivoli. In the ensuing clash, the French suffered 200 casualties while inflicting losses of 250 killed and wounded. An additional 600 Austrians, three guns and a bridging train fell into French hands. Davidovich hastily fell back north. Altogether, Davidovich's retreat from Rivoli cost him as many as 1,500 men and 9 guns.
After Arcole, Alvinczi pulled back to Olmo where he held a council of war on the morning of 18 November. At this meeting, the Austrian generals gamely decided to return to the field with their 16,000 remaining troops. By 21 November, Alvinczi occupied Caldiero again but could go no farther. While there, he heard of Davidovich's defeat on 23 November. That evening the Austrian field army began its retreat to the Brenta.
During the three days that the battle of Arcole raged, cannon fire could be heard in Mantua. Observers in the fortress even noticed that some of the French camps seemed to be empty, yet Wurmser unaccountably failed to act. On 23 November, Wurmser assaulted the siege lines, capturing 200 Frenchmen and demolishing some earthworks. The Austrians suffered almost 800 casualties. When he learned that Davidovich was in full retreat, Wurmser withdrew into the city.
This action of the 1796 Italian campaign concerned much more than the crossing of a bridge, though the bridge tends to figure largely in paintings of the battle, usually for dramatic reasons. It seems likely that the paintings that show Bonaparte actually crossing the bridge owe more to artistic interpretation than fact. Not that being on the bridge itself would have been any more heroic: several of the men standing around Napoleon at the time were killed and wounded, and he was extremely lucky to escape unharmed, though according to one source he was toppled from his horse and ended in the mud at the edge of the marsh. Bonaparte's aide-de-camp, who was killed on the first day of the battle, later had the French frigate Muiron named after him.