Of War and Poulet: Part One
Everyone is very busy at this time of year with shopping and cooking for the holidays. Things get more and more hectic until some of us feel like pulling our hair out. Somehow, therefore, this seemed the perfect time to explain how one of Napoleon’s successful battles led to a now-famous recipe that an equally busy and frantic chef was hard-pressed to produce on the field of battle.
First, the battle. By the spring of 1800, newly-designated First Consul Napoleon (he would not be emperor until 1804) found himself continuing in conflict with the Austrians, who were part of a coalition arrayed against him. He had already spent time campaigning against the Austrians, of course, and had enjoyed remarkable success. But Austrian opposition had not been crushed, and so this time, when the Austrians prepared to launch a new offensive, he decided to strike at their territory in Northern Italy.
The problem with this strategy lay in the fact that the Alps separated him from the Austrian area of Piedmont. This fact might have been sufficient to discourage anyone but Napoleon—or Hannibal. Exuding confidence, Bonaparte urged his army onward and upward, managing, with difficulty, to cross the mountains and march down into Italy in May of 1800.
Success with the difficult crossing only increased his certainty that this time he would easily and definitively defeat the Austrians. But this time, untypically, his confidence was nearly his undoing. Near Marengo, south of the present-day Turin, he spread out his forces in a thin line, stationing some of them near Rivalta under General Louis Desaix to block any retreat of the Austrian commander, General Michael Melas. What the future French Emperor did not count on was that Melas might size up the situation quite so accurately and decide to gamble everything on a major assault.
On June 14, the Austrians launched a devastating attack, which Napoleon initially believed was only a ruse to cover an Austrian retreat. Very soon, he discovered his error, as reports arrived that his front lines had been caught unprepared by the early morning assault and that they were now overwhelmed. Quickly, Napoleon sent in the elite Consular Guard, which, with gallant effort, was able to allow an orderly retreat but finally was forced to fall back itself.
Military historians agree that if something dramatic had not happened at this point, chances are great that Napoleon would have become only a footnote in the story of the period of the French revolution. Had he lost this battle, his opponents would have had a wonderful opportunity to consolidate their opposition to the still-not-secure First Consul, perhaps casting their lot with another successful general such as Jean Victor Moreau, commander of the Army of the Rhine, and then eliminating completely the influence and power of the entire Bonaparte family and supporters. Napoleon was painfully aware that his power was not yet solidified. He simply had to win this battle. But how?
The answer lay in two things, both of which proved lucky for Napoleon: the resourcefulness of Louis Charles Antoine Desaix, and a bad decision by General Melas. As far as the Austrians were concerned, they had won the battle, so there was no reason for Melas himself to remain. Wounded, Melas decided that it was safe for him to leave the field of battle and turn the action over to his less capable second-in-command, General Zach.
Meanwhile, Desaix, who was supposed to remain in place with his two infantry divisions to block the expected Austrian retreat, had begun to hear an awful lot of noise from the general direction of Marengo, including the noise of cannon fire. He chose to march “to the sound of the guns” instead of staying where he was, not knowing that Napoleon had sent him a frantic message some hours before saying, “Come, in the name of God, if you still can.” Desaix started his troops in the direction of the battle and galloped to Napoleon’s side.
Arriving ahead of his troops, a breathless and mud bespattered Desaix was aghast to see retreating French soldiers all along the road from the town. Napoleon asked him, “Well, what do you think of it?” In a reply now famous in French history, Desaix, after looking at his watch, replied, “Well, this battle is lost. But there is still time left to win another.” Napoleon immediately rode out among his retreating troops, sending the word that reinforcements were on the way and encouraging his men to believe that the French would still carry the day.
At that moment, French victory still appeared unlikely, since the drums from the west predicted the appearance of the elite Hapsburg grenadiers, coming, they thought, to mop up what was left of their French opponents. The French forces rallied, however, at the appearance of the newly arrived reserves and the dynamic presence of Napoleon among them. Under Desaix, the French launched a counterattack supported by cannon, and won the day for France—and for Napoleon. Now it was the turn of the Austrians to break and run, leaving behind many of their wounded which ultimately totaled nearly 14,000 to the French loss of about 7000. Unfortunately, Desaix was among those lost.
And what about the poulet? Well, that is a story that will be told in the next article.
Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.
Interested in reading more about NapolÃ©on's victories?
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