The Alps were a formidable barrier any time of year, but in May the passes were still clogged with ice and snow, rending them well-nigh impassible. Some of these mountain tracks might just be barely passable by infantry or even cavalry, but certainly not artillery. Yet that is exactly what Bonaparte proposed to do—bring his entire army over the jagged snow-capped peaks and on to the fertile plains of Piedmont and Lombardy.
Quite apart from the sheer physical exertion it would take to climb the mountains, there was the ever-present danger of avalanche. General Marescot, the army’s chief engineer, reported, “It is vital to take precautions against avalanches which can bury several battalions in a flash.”
Bonaparte had to choose a pass to cross the Alps, and he had several options: From east to west, the St. Gotthard, the Simplon, the Great St. Bernard, and the Little St. Bernard. The St. Gotthard was the most attractive, at least on paper, being wide enough to accommodate an entire army, but it was the farthest east. In the end Bonaparte chose the Great St. Bernard because it was closest to his forward base at Villeneuve on Lake Geneva.
It was a matter of sheer logistics; supplies would be ferried from Geneva to Villeneuve via the lake. Yet the Great St. Bernard seemed the worst of choices—a narrow, steep, and snow-clogged artery that was impassible for regular artillery or wheeled traffic.
The French army was used to living off the land, but there was little in the Alps but ice and snow. It was, therefore, imperative that the Army of the Reserve cross the mountains as quickly as possible. Bonaparte estimated the Alpine trek could be completed in eight days; the soldiers carried nine days’ rations in their knapsacks.
To avoid excessive crowding, and also to throw a smokescreen into enemy eyes, some French detachments took routes other than the Great St. Bernard. General Chabran’s division, for example, was to use the Little St. Bernard, linking up with the main body at Aosta. But the bulk of the Army of the Reserve would pass through the Great St. Bernard.
Gen. Jean Lannes led the way with an advance guard of 8,500 men. The pass was every bit as formidable as anticipated; sometimes it was only 18 inches wide. And so the Army of the Reserve began its celebrated passage through the Alps. The soldiers marched single file along the rough track, a thin blue ribbon against a looming backdrop of granite peaks. At times the defile was scarcely more than a goat trail—rocky, precipitous, and choked with snow and ice. Yet in spite of the difficulties the sweating, hard-breathing troops made good progress. Higher the soldiers climbed, the massive white-mantled mountains growing ever larger, until their pinnacles seemed to spike the sky. The granite behemoths were awesome to behold, but survival, not contemplation, was paramount in the French soldiers’ minds.
In some places the track grew so steep its sides fell away into deep gorges. The infantry gingerly picked its way over the rocky defile, and the cavalry led its frightened mounts on foot. But the toughest job was reserved for those infantry who were selected to carry the artillery over the mountains. There were two methods of transporting artillery. First, the gun carriages were disassembled, and then the eight-pounder cannons themselves were put in hollowed-out tree trunks in the form of troughs. Mules were scarce, and according to some accounts the local peasantry took to their heels, so there was nothing to do but enlist the soldiers as beasts of burden.
Pvt. Jean-Roche Coignet of the 96th Demi-Brigade was a young soldier just starting out on a distinguished military career. In his memoirs he recalls what it was like to drag cannon through the Alps. There were “forty grenadiers to each gun; twenty to drag the piece, and twenty others who carried the others muskets and the wheels and caissons of the piece.” Each drag-team of soldiers was commanded by a cannoneer. It was a grim and back-breaking journey, and Coignet was on the edge of a deep cliff, “next to the precipice.”
“They Were Discovered, Almost Dead with Cold, by the Dogs”
The army snaked its way up to the Col, some 8,120 feet above sea level, then continued on the downward slopes. Their fatiguing journey was refreshed by a brief stop at the Monastery/Hospice of St. Bernard. The monks set up tables laden with cheese and wine, which were gratefully consumed by the French troops as they trudged past. The good monks were famous for their alpine rescues via their celebrated St. Bernard dogs. According to the memoirs of Constant, Bonaparte’s valet, some young soldiers strayed from the main trail and floundered in the snow, where “they were discovered, almost dead with cold, by the dogs … transported to the Hospice … and speedily returned to life.”
The French were making excellent progress, but then their descent into the valley of Aosta was blocked by Austrians at Fort Bard. Bard was virtually impregnable to direct assault. Commanded by an officer named Bernkoff and manned by four hundred grenadiers of the Kinsky Regiment, this tiny garrison held up ten times its number of Frenchmen and effectively corked the narrow “bottleneck” of the valley.
Lannes bypassed Fort Bard by blazing a trail that climbed around the brooding bulk of Mount Albaredo. It was a tough trek, but the advance guard infantry and cavalry managed to clamber up and around the slopes and skirt the fort. Once past Bard, Lannes pushed on, but some forces remained to besiege the stubborn Austrian garrison. The fort had to be reduced, the “cork” removed from the “bottle,” or Bonaparte’s timetable was in serious trouble. The bulk of the Army of the Reserve was held up, stalled in the mountains and forced to consume its precious rations. There was a real danger that the army, as Bonaparte put it, would be “exposed to dying of starvation in the valley of Aosta.”
Meanwhile Bonaparte and his entourage had started up the Great St. Bernard pass on May 20, a few days behind the advance guard. The First Consul crossed the Alps on a sure-footed mule, not the painter David’s romantically rearing charger. At times he went on foot, gray greatcoat buttoned against the cold. Once or twice the French soldiers had to slide down snowy slopes like children, and Bonaparte was no exception. Rolling, tumbling, sliding from side to side, the First Consul of the French Republic careened down the icy slopes like a human toboggan, his suite following suit. Far from being embarrassed by the episode, Bonaparte wrote an account of it in his official dispatches.
Lannes reached Ivrea by May 22, so the advance elements of the Army of the Reserve were through the Alps and spreading through the plains of Piedmont. Although French infantry and cavalry were just managing to squeeze past Fort Bard, the artillery and ammunition wagons were effectively blocked. During the night of May 26-27 six cannon sneaked past Bard, the hoofs of the gun team horses wrapped in straw to muffle sound. But the bulk of the artillery was still held up.
Bonaparte pushed on, and he proudly wrote his brother Joseph, “We have fallen like a thunderbolt.” The First Consul had every right to be pleased: The 40,000-man Army of the Reserve, though very weak in artillery, was safely in Italy. But there was not a second to lose, because Massena’s heroic defense of Genoa could not last much longer. Rations were so scanty they barely sustained human life. The garrison and townspeople ate horseflesh and a nauseating “bread made from sawdust, bran, straw, and a tiny trace of flour.”
Eating Horses, Dogs, Rats, and Grass
When there were no more rations, horses, pigeons, cats, and dogs were consumed—anything to assuage the terrible hunger pangs. Rats became a staple, and even grass. Only Massena’s iron will kept the French going, yet it is said that the strain of those terrible weeks of famine left its mark on the general, and his hair turned gray. Starving citizens threatened to revolt; only harsh martial law kept them in check.
Massena was doing his job. He was distracting the Austrians from the approaching Army of the Reserve, and in the process also tying up a good portion of Melas’s troops. Melas began to sense that something was afoot, and by May 19 realized the Army of the Reserve really did exist. But where was it? There seemed to be French activity along a broad front, from the Var River to the St. Gotthard Pass. On May 24 Melas received a dispatch from Fort Bard that thousands of French troops were on the march through the Great St. Bernard. But the intelligence was too late, because the Army of the Reserve was already well ensconced in Italy.
Melas had lost a great opportunity. If he had not been so preoccupied with the Genoa siege and his own projected invasion of southern France, he could have easily blocked all the Alpine passes with heavy concentrations of troops. Bonaparte’s great plans would have been neutralized, his army stuck in the mountainous valleys of the Alps. Once Massena was forced to capitulate, the Austrian invasion of France might continue with little opposition. It was a frightening scenario for the French, but luckily it did not come to pass.