The odd couple…

One of the things that interests me for my own historical fiction is incorporating the more unusual snippets of facts that are known of real figures from the history of the period.

For example, Jean Bernadotte who rose from fire-breathing revolutionary, joining the army as a private, to become Marshal of the Empire and then King of Sweden had a tattoo on his arm that read “Death to kings”…. It would prove embarrassing later in life!

Or André Masséna who took campaigning with him in Spain his latest mistress, an eighteen year old ballet dancer from the Paris Opera, for whom he had especially fetching hussar uniforms made.

lannes goethe

Or this one which I will definitely be using, relating to my favourite of Napoleon’s Marshals, Jean Lannes (above left). He was a no nonsense fighting general, always leading from the front, brave to the point of recklessness and with a temper that could raise blisters on granite. From poor working class stock in Gascony his education was rough and ready and his language choice at best; the language of the barrack room rather than the ballroom, and certainly not of the intellectual salons of Paris.

Yet, after the French victory at Jena in 1806, when French troops poured into the city of Weimar, chasing the retreating Prussian army it was none other than our Lannes who came to the aide of the poet Goethe (above right) who lived in the city. Fearful that the rampaging troops would destroy his library he sought protection from the French commanders in the city. None of them paid him any attention until Lannes heard of it whereupon he stationed guards around Goethe’s house to prevent it being pillaged. The writer invited Lannes to dine with him as a token of thanks and perhaps the attraction of opposites somehow came into play because the two thereafter became friends. I can only imagine that their conversation must have been really quite strange.

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“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.”