Bonaparte spent the night at Torre di Garofoli, a splendid castle crowned by a campanile, or bell tower. For several hours he refused to believe the Austrian attack was anything but a feint, a smokescreen thrown up to cover their withdrawal. It was at about 10 am that Bonaparte realized his error. Couriers were dispatched to call back scattered units, most particularly to General Desaix.
In the meantime the Battle of Marengo was evolving into a series of seesaw attacks and counterattacks. Momentarily the Austrians would gain the upper hand then the French would counter with a reposte. Bonaparte had about 22–23,000 men under his immediate command, Melas about 33,000. Marengo and the Fontanone stream became a firestorm of shot and shell, with Austrian regiments advancing with bands playing and flags flying. French officers barked commands over the din; musket volleys crashed out in sheets of smoke, flame, and lead; and cannonballs plowed bloody lanes into the packed ranks.
Melas had one hundred guns, the French—depending on what authority you consult—had about 23. Austrian artillery created a terrible havoc; cannonballs were bad enough, but shells spun and sputtered within ranks. When a burning fuse reached the charge, the resulting explosion did terrible execution. Private Coignet, whose 96th Demi-Brigade was part of Victor’s corps engaged at Marengo village, says “a shell burst in the first company, and killed seven men.”
The shot and shell grew so heavy it apparently unnerved Gen. Jacques Chambarlhac. When an orderly was killed nearby, Chambarlhac dug in his spurs and galloped off in panic. Coignet records he disappeared for the rest of the day. When Chambarlhac did show his face after the battle, one of his soldiers fired a shot at him. They could forgive almost anything but cowardice.
Lannes and Murat came up in Victor’s support but the French were still very hard pressed. Bonaparte arrived on the battlefield and saw the right was in extreme danger: If Ott took Castel Ceriolo unopposed, the French flank might be turned and disaster would ensue. He called up his remaining reserves, including the Consular Guard and Monnier’s division. In particular Monnier was to deny Castel Ceriolo to the enemy.
In the center Victor’s division was nearing the end of its rope. Bloodied and exhausted, it had held for the better part of five or six hours. They had begun the battle somewhat bedraggled; now they were muddy and sweat-stained, their lower lips and faces powder-blackened from biting cartridges. By around noon ammunition was almost gone—soon there would be nothing left to fight with but bayonets and clubbed muskets. Luckily there was a pause around noon when the Austrians regrouped for the final push.
The Consular Guard came forward, nine hundred grenadiers and chasseurs with bristling mustaches and tall bearskin caps marching in perfect order. They had left Torre di Garofoli at about 11:30 am, covering the approximately three miles to the battlefield in about an hour and a half. Their first task was to act as couriers, bringing up ammunition to Victor’s decimated corps. Coignet was one of the recipients of these cartridges, and he gratefully recalled that this act “saved our lives.”
Victor’s men doggedly blazed away, but the heavy fighting produced another problem. Coignet remembered “those cursed cartridges could no longer go into our fowled and heated musket barrels.” The muskets were hot from frequent use, and black powder residue was clogging the barrels. The soldiers cooled the barrels and washed away the fowling by the only method they had on hand. Coignet unblushingly reports that “we had to piss into them.”
In the meantime the Consular Guard marched to the French right in support of Lannes’s corps. When Austrian cavalry appeared, officers shouted the command “Cavaliers! Formez la carre!” (Horsemen! Form square!) The four-sided formation was usually proof against cavalry, and once in place the guard coolly poured a hail of musket balls into their attackers.
The Austrian Lobkowitz dragoons were shredded by the musket fire and broke off the attack.
“Courage, Soldiers! The Reserves Are Coming!”
But the guard was in a vulnerable position, and General Ott now ordered artillery and infantry fire to be directed at their square. Cannonballs smashed into the guard and Austrian musket fire peppered the ranks. Within a half hour 260 of the nine hundred men were dead or wounded.
Bonaparte himself was in the thick of the fighting, conspicuous in his gold-braided dark- blue uniform, gray greatcoat, and the black cocked hat that was soon to be his distinctive trademark. At one point he stood on the bank of a ditch, his horse’s bridle in one hand, a riding crop in the other. Suddenly mounting, and disregarding the scores of cannonballs that flew all around, Bonaparte galloped over to nearby troops and shouted “Courage, soldats!! [Courage, soldiers!] The reserves are coming! Stand firm!” The bloodied survivors responded with a hearty “Vive Bonaparte!”
By about 2:30 it was clear the French had lost the Battle of Marengo. The Army of the Reserve was giving way, falling back before superior enemy numbers and a grueling artillery barrage. Flesh and blood could stand no more; in Coignet’s unit, only 14 grenadiers of the original 170 were still standing, the rest being dead or wounded. Coignet himself was badly shaken up when he received a heavy Austrian saber slash that cut off his queue and an epaulet. Stunned by the blow, he fell headlong into a ditch, only to be ridden over by cavalry. When he came to his senses he saved himself by grabbing the tail of a dragoon’s horse as the trooper retreated. Even Coignet freely admitted that the French were “quite ready to give up, but for the encouragement of the officers.”
General Melas was so certain he had achieved a major victory over Bonaparte he assigned the pursuit and “mop-up” duties to a column under his chief of staff General Zack. Melas had had a long, exhausting day, and had been slightly wounded. The Austrian commander in chief felt justified in leaving the field; the French were plainly crushed.
But had he achieved a victory? An exultant shout arose from the battered French ranks, “Here they are! Here they are!” Desaix had arrived in the proverbial nick of time with some five thousand troops. There are several versions of how he managed to come to the rescue. Some hours earlier Bonaparte had sent him an urgent message of recall, the text of which supposedly ran, “I had thought to attack Melas. He attacked me first. For God’s sake come up if you can.” Some say Desaix was within reach because he had been held up by flood waters, others that he was already marching “to the sound of the guns” when Bonaparte’s frantic missive reached him.
Whatever the case, Desaix was there—but was he in time? He galloped up to Bonaparte, his uniform muddy and his horse lathered in sweat, for a quick consultation. Cool as ever, Bonaparte asked, “Well, what do you think of it?” According to most sources Desaix replied, “This battle is completely lost, but it is only two o’clock [some sources say three]; there is time to win another.”
Desaix was as good as his word, leading his men and the shattered remnants of Victor’s corps over to the attack. Victory or defeat hung in the balance as the French smashed into General Zack’s column. Many of these Austrians were grenadiers, men picked for their toughness and resolve, and conquering them would be no small matter. As the French went forward, General Marmont brought up four guns that poured salvo after salvo of case shot into the Austrians, tearing bloody lanes into their ranks with every discharge.
An ammunition wagon exploded, momentarily stunning the Austrians. It was at this precise moment that Gen. François Kellermann led a charge against the Austrian flank. He had only four hundred troopers, but had no hesitation in ordering “Au galop! Chargez!” (At the gallop! Charge!) The French cavalry plunged into the Austrian grenadiers like furies, sabering left and right. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Bessieres, seeing Kellermann’s charge, moved the horse grenadiers and chausseurs of the Consular Guard forward with the command,“Escadrons … en avant … marche!” (Squadrons—forward—march!)
Kellermann’s cavalry charge, coupled with Desaix’s bold advance, proved too much for the Austrians. Defeat was turned into victory as the Austrian right wing collapsed in headlong flight back to Alessandria. General Zack and several thousand troops were taken prisoner, stunned that their apparent triumph had turned to ashes. The Austrians left under General Ott retreated in good order, but no one could deny the French had won an incredible 11th-hour victory over heavy odds. Bonaparte had lost the first Battle of Marengo, only to win a second Battle of Marengo a few hours later.
The fighting died out about 9 pm, allowing the victors to take stock of the situation. The Austrians lost 15 colors, 40 guns, and eight thousand prisoners; a further six thousand were casualties on the field. French casualties were put at some seven thousand. General Desaix was dead, shot and killed almost instantly at the head of his men near Vigna Sancta. Bonaparte was genuinely grief-stricken when he heard the news; he knew how much the fallen general had contributed to the final victory. Indeed, Bonaparte might have toppled from power had he been defeated at Marengo. The whole course of French, and even European, history was effected by Desaix’s timely return. A shocked Melas asked for an armistice, which was granted. Eventually the Second Coalition fell apart, and there was a general—if temporary—peace in Europe by 1802.