Bonaparte’s close-run thing…

“This battle is lost but there is still time yet to win another.”

Battle of Marengo

Battle of Marengo

It was 5pm on the 14th June 1800 and Napoleon Bonaparte was on the brink of defeat in the vineyards and corn fields of the plain of Scrivia in northern Italy. But his faithful lieutenant, General Louis Desaix, mud splattered and sweating after a frantic ride cross-country, was undaunted, confident that victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat.

louis Desaix

Louis Desaix

The battle of Marengo, the climax of my novel Bitter Glory, had been underway for ten hours already. Lannes’ and Victor’s divisions had held the line unsupported against the bulk of the Austrian army for almost five hours before they were forced into a fighting retreat eastwards. As they withdrew, the Guard Infantry, sent forward to plug the gap between them had become isolated and had been cut to pieces by Austrian cavalry.

For hour after hour the dogged retreat continued. Though the French divisions held their discipline, Bonaparte knew that only the arrival of Desaix’s force could prevent a disaster. What he had expected to be a battle of annihilation, the total destruction of the Austrian army in front of Alessandria, was turning out to be the destruction of his own force.

Thinking to prevent the Austrians slipping away, Bonaparte had sent Desaix south to cut off any escape route there but the great man had been duped, partly due to false reports provided by a double agent in the service of the enemy. Desaix’s mission was a wild goose chase as the Austrians had no intention of trying to get away. Instead they launched their own attack and by 5pm they thought victory was theirs. Their commanding officer, Field Marshal Melas, with an injured hand, had withdrawn from the field, handing over to subordinates for the mopping up exercise.

Meanwhile, to the east, as Desaix’s men gradually arrived on the battlefield, a hastily improvised attack plan was put into action. Desaix attacked at the head of a fresh infantry brigade. Though he was killed by a shot in the chest almost immediately, his men pressed home the attack. The extended columns of the Austrian infantry were taken completely by surprise and then thrown into confusion and flight by a devastating charge by Kellerman, son of the hero of Valmy, at the head of his dragoons. His charge criss-crossed the Austrian columns creating havoc and when an ammunition carriage exploded behind the now panicked Austrians, they broke and fled.

death of desaix

Death of Desaix

This created a chain reaction of panic and rout in the Austrian army. They had been so convinced that victory was theirs that the sudden reverse was utterly devastating for them. Their morale collapsed. By 6.30pm they were in total retreat with thousands falling prisoner to the now rampant French forces.

When the fighting finally ended due to darkness and exhaustion at around 10pm the French forces were back to the positions they started in that morning and the battlefield was littered with thousands of dead and wounded.

Fifteen years later Wellington would famously describe Waterloo as a “damned close-run thing”, but there have been few battles in history that have seen a change of fortune so dramatic and so decisive as Marengo.

Religious, incestuous, vain and insane… welcome to the court of Prince John

It’s not the dastardly Prince John of Robin Hood story infamy I’m referring to; rather the court of John, more properly, Dom João, Prince, Regent and ultimately King of Portugal.

Prince John

Prince John

I am currently working on a follow-up to my novel, Bitter Glory, and it is set in the “phoney war” hiatus between the end of the short-lived Peace of Amiens and the re-commencement of land hostilities, so roughly the autumn of 1803 through to the end of 1804.

During this period, one of the protagonists in the story, and my personal favourite character of the Napoleonic period, Jean Lannes, was assigned to Lisbon as French ambassador. There is no more unlikely figure in history to whom to assign diplomatic duties than the foul-mouthed, blunt-speaking, aggressive former dyer’s apprentice. But Lannes’ experience as ambassador is food for a later blog post. What I want to talk about here is more to do with the environment in which Lannes’ mission was based, the frankly bizarre royal court of Portugal.

For generations the Portuguese royal family, rich beyond belief from the gold fields of Brazil, had been dominated by incest, in-breeding and madness. John’s elder brother was married to his own mother’s sister. Combine this with the religious mania, as exhibited by John’s mother, and unrestrained sexual excess (one of John’s great-grandfathers made a habit, no pun intended, of taking nuns as mistresses) and you will get the idea that the court was a strange environment in which to grow up.

One of John’s great-grandfathers was Philip V of Spain, who was afflicted by what we would now refer to as manic depression. Another, João V of Portugal, the one with a preference for nuns as mistresses, from 1742 onwards suffered several strokes, paralysing the left side of his body and gradually, he, too, sank into a deep melancholia.

When João V died in 1750, he was succeeded by his son Joseph I who was utterly passive and ineffective,  busying himself with hunting and playing cards, while Portugal was governed by the ruthless Marquis of Pombal.

When Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1755 Joseph became so paranoid that he refused to live in any of the royal palaces, instead having a tented, and later wooden, residence constructed in the hills outside the capital.

Maria I

Maria I

In 1777, John’s mother, Maria, became queen when her father, Joseph, died. Maria’s husband, who was also her uncle Pedro, was given the title “King” but in reality he was her consort. They had seven children together but four died within eighteen months of being born. Pedro died in 1786, then, in 1788, tragedy was heaped upon tragedy for the Queen. In September her eldest son, José, (the one married to his aunt Benedita) died of smallpox, in November her only surviving daughter Mariana died of the same disease, as did Mariana’s husband and newborn baby two weeks later. Finally, at the end of that same month Inácio de São Caetano, Maria’s confessor for more than thirty years, the man on whom she placed her entire trust and confidence, died of a massive stroke. From this point, with her loved ones dying one after another, the Queen retreated into uncontrollable grief and melancholia. Her condition quickly deteriorated.

In 1792, ministers concluded that their Queen was mad and turned to her only surviving son, John, to assume the direction of public affairs. In the meantime, they called in Dr. Francis Willis, who had treated George III of Great Britain, to treat the Queen but he left in 1793 having failed to realise any improvement in her condition.

When fire destroyed the wooden and tented Ajuda Palace in 1795 the whole court moved to Queluz. There, Maria was closed up in her quarters and the palace was filled with her demented cries as reported by the English author William Beckford who visited the palace: “The most agonising shrieks – shrieks such as I hardly conceived possible – inflicted on me a sensation of horror such as I had never felt before.”


Prince John and his wife

­­Finally, in 1799, John was officially named Prince Regent. He was fat, lethargic and looked older than his years. He always carried in his pockets two small boxes, one containing snuff and the other grilled chicken legs to gnaw at idle moments. Since 1785 he had been married to the tiny Spanish princess Carlota Joaquina who stood hardly more than 4 feet, 6 inches in height. How tall she could have been when they married I wonder as she was only ten years old at the time. And, remarkably, she grew to be even uglier than her husband with bloodshot eyes, a hooked noose, bluish lips, uneven teeth and “unruly and dirty hair”. They had nine children although the last five were suspected of being fathered by one or more of her many lovers as she had become estranged from her husband and their good looks were taken as an indication that John couldn’t possibly have been the father!

As you can see, there is fertile ground in which to set something of a story.

Everyone’s favourite villain, Joseph Fouché


Church educated and brutal dechristianiser… Radical Jacobin and betrayer of Robespierre… Directory minister and betrayer of Barras… Architect of the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and betrayer of Napoleon…

Joseph Fouché was the ultimate survivor (rivalled only by Talleyrand), emerging unscathed when each regime he allied himself to was destroyed. Remaining in positions of influence when his loyalties were constantly doubted. As the ever insightful Madame de Rémusat observed, he was an adept at making himself a necessity.

Contradiction, duplicity, deceit, brutality, ruthlessness, self-serving aggrandisement; these were his watchwords. If he had a moral compass the needle would have spun like a bicycle wheel.

A ready-made villain for any story set in the turbulent times of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. I was keen to use him as such in my own novel, Bitter Glory. But how well do the facts stack up against the appalling reputation he acquired through his career.

Fouché was born in Nantes in 1759, given a good education by the Oratorians who had taken over religious education in France since the ousting of the Jesuits, and destined for a career as a teacher within that order.

All that changed with powder keg of revolution exploding across France.

Politicized, Fouché joined the Jacobins and became a friend of Maximilien Robespierre. When royalist supporters rose in La Vendée he was sent there with almost dictatorial powers to crush the revolt which he did with such brutal efficiency that he was immediately promoted to the post of Commissioner of the Republic in the département of the Nièvre. There the former Oratorian launched the policy of dechristianisation, ransacking churches and sending their valuables to the Treasury.

When revolt broke out in Lyon Fouché was sent there with almost two thousand of the Parisian Revolutionary Army to restore order.  In reality he initiated a massacre – various sources describe scenes of groups of men blasted with grapeshot, firing squads and an overworked guillotine.  Estimates put the number of citizens executed at over 1800 from late 1793 to April 1794 when he returned to Paris.

As he put it: The blood of criminals fertilises the soil of liberty and establishes power on sure foundations.

Back in Paris, conflict with his former friend Robespierre led to the Jacobin leader trying to oust Fouché from the Jacobin Club, at the time tantamount to a death sentence, but with the support of Barras, Fouché turned the tables. It was Robespierre’s head that fell to Madame Guillotine.

With his fall, moderates came to dominate the ensuing regime, the Directory, and Fouché was cast out of favour but three years later he was back, working for his benefactor Barras as ambassador in Milan and then as minister of police.

But already Fouché could detect the wind of change and the new rising star; a young general from Corsica. With barely the skip of a heartbeat he transferred his allegiance from Barras to Bonaparte and was instrumental in facilitating the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire.

Thereafter, through the course of the Consulate and the subsequent Empire, Fouche was in and out of favour with Bonaparte who recognised he needed the resources of his sinister minister of police but was ever wary that he had garnered too much power than was healthy for a subordinate.  Every few years he would be bounced out of office for overstepping the mark but would never be entirely disgraced by Bonaparte who still maintained an eye for the future and Fouché’s potential usefulness.

In 1802 he was removed from office when Bonaparte suspected he was unduly protecting his former Jacobin friends but he was brought back in 1804 after his spy network had been rather more useful than his successor’s in thwarting the Cadoudal plot.  After making independent overtures to the British for peace he was sacked by a furious Napoleon in 1810 but gradually worked his way back into favour, if not trust, over the next three years.

But in 1814, when he saw the writing on the wall for the Empire, and the Allies closing in on all fronts, he opened negotiations with the royalists. However, not getting any satisfaction from them in the short term he sided once again with Napoleon when he broke out of Elba for the Hundred Days. Even then, he made contact with the Austrian Metternich, evidently ensuring he could play either side depending on the outcome.

This strategy worked because, following Waterloo, he found his services in demand still. Talleyrand, that other notorious survivor, became the prime minister of the newly restored Kingdom of France, and he named Fouché as his minister of police. So the regicide, the man who had urged the execution of Louis XVI so vigorously, became a minister for his brother, Louis XVIII.

He now initiated a campaign of terror against real and imagined enemies of the crown but by 1816 his royalist masters tired of him and dismissed him for the last time. He was proscribed and exiled.

Fouché, the father and mother of secret police forces the world over, died in Trieste four years later.

“We can just eat up our boots!”

1800_siege of genoa

“Said the soldiers of Masséna, rationed to excess during the siege of Genoa.”

Well, using the near starvation of the garrison and population of a besieged city as an advertisement to sell biscuits may not seem very tasteful to our modern sensibilities; it would be rather like Nestlé using African famine photographs to sell chocolate, but it goes to show how famous the siege of Genoa became. The biscuit advert dates from almost a hundred years after the siege but it was still evidently redolent in the popular consciousness.

The reality of the episode though was grim almost beyond description.

When Austrian forces attacked the French on the Piedmont front in the spring of 1800 pretty much everything went wrong for the French army And by late April they were divided and at bay. General Suchet was desperately defending the line of the River Var and General Masséna was bottled up in the coastal city of Genoa, beset by Peter Karl Ott commanding 40000 Austrian troops to landward and the Mediterranean Squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by the dour Scotsman Admiral Lord Keith, blockading from the sea.

From a defensive standpoint there were few places better set up for defence than Genoa. The old city walls provided a last line of defence from the landward side but the main advantage for the defenders was the natural topography. Genoa was surrounded by hills which had been turned into an unbreachable barrier, the key summits crowned by forts linked by walls and bastions, all able to provide supporting fire to their neighbours in the event of attack. The Austrians attempted local attacks on various points around the perimeter but all were bloodily repulsed. The French too were not idle. Masséna kept up an active defence with regular sallies out of their defensive lines to counter attack their besiegers. But this was an expensive tactic. Casualties were high and in one Attack, Soult, Masséna’s second in command was captured.

From the sea, the British bombarded the city using bomb ships commandeered from the Kingdom of Naples but otherwise simply stood offshore preventing any kind of relief. The waterside defences were too strong for them to risk trying to force the harbour and when the allies heard of the parlous state of the food supplies in the city they opted for sitting back and letting General Hunger fight for them.

For generations the rulers of Genoa has managed the distribution of food in the city. For example, all bread was baked in central bakeries rather than by small private bakers. Historically, this had enabled the rulers to control the population, but mismanagement and corruption had led to the main food depots in the city being run down and poorly stocked even at the start of the siege. Within days food was in short supply. Strict rationing was enforced on the garrison and the civilian population were provided with little more than starvation rations immediately.

With the infirmaries rapidly overflowing and the mass grave pits behind the church of Carignan filling as quickly as they could be dug, Masséna realised all too well that he was sitting on a powder keg ready to explode. When plague broke out in the city it was the last straw for the population and open revolt broke out. Masséna had to withdraw troops and guns from the defences to suppress the civilian rioters which they did with brutal efficiency.

Though tainted with a reputation for venality and corruption, Masséna was a rock throughout the siege, though the strain in him personally was immense. He insisted he and his staff had the same rations as his soldiers; bread that was half saw dust and meat that came from God knows where. Horses, dogs, cats and rats all went in the pot. Various sources have claimed that during the siege he aged visibly and his hair went completely white.

But he knew that the longer he held on in Genoa, the more time he would be tying down half the Austrian field army in northern Italy and the more time Bonaparte would have to spring his trap on them, descending behind them from the Alpine passes.

But by the beginning of June, even Masséna knew the end was near. He opened negotiations with the Allied command for evacuating the city; he steadfastly refused to contemplate the use of the word surrender and threatened to fight to the bitter end if the Allies insisted on formal surrender. By this time too the Allies were under pressure to end the siege. News of Bonaparte’s offensive across the Alps had reached them and they readily conceded to Masséna’s demands to be allowed to march out of the city and rejoin the rest of their army at the Var.

Even now the wily French commander strung out the negotiations for a couple of days but finally, on June 6th, with standards flying the bedraggled remnant of his scarecrow-thin army marched out of the pestilential city.

Eight days later Bonaparte won his famous victory at Marengo that decided the campaign. Ott’s men were too late to rejoin the rest of the Austrian field army and they crashed to a devastating defeat. No one could have foreseen the long term consequence but the subsequent Treaty of Lunéville sealed the fate of the Holy Roman Empire itself.

Not long after the victory Bonaparte wrote to Masséna, “I am not able to give you a greater mark of the confidence I have in you than by giving you command of the first army of the Republic [the Army of Italy].”

The Austrians too recognised the importance of Masséna’s tenacity during the siege, after Marengo their chief-of-staff  declared firmly, “You won the battle not in front of Alessandria but in front of Genoa.”

Bitter Glory…. now available

In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte’s grip on the reins of power in Revolutionary France is far from secure and the French Army stands on the brink of another defeat with thousands of men besieged in the city of Genoa. He needs a great victory to secure his position and he is looking to northern Italy for it.

Bitter Glory Book Cover 4Like Hannibal two thousand years earlier he will cross the Alps with an army to fall upon his enemy.

Caught up in this plan is a young cavalry officer, Antoine Chauvelle. Returning to his regiment as they march to war, he is thrown into the path of a notorious duellist who has murdered his friend and from whom honour dictates he must seek revenge. From the struggle across the mountains to the desperate fight for survival in a besieged and pestilential city, events sweep Chauvelle into a plot that could undermine all Bonaparte’s grand strategy and will culminate on the bloody battlefield of Marengo.

My first novel, the historical adventure Bitter Glory is now available as an e-book from Amazon.