In 1796, the War of the First Coalition raged in Italy and pitted the aristocracies of Europe against Revolutionary France. The French had bottled up a large Austrian army in the fortress town of Mantua, but another large Austrian army of 28,000 marched to relieve the siege, and together they would throw the French out of Italy. The French commander, a young up and coming Napoleon Bonaparte, needed to stop the relief force. He left small fixing forces for the garrison and other Austrians in the area, and concentrated on the large relief force. But even his tactical genius couldn’t make up for the numbers and terrain, and he was defeated in three attempts. The Austrians closed in on Mantua.
Napoleon, now badly outnumbered and with no terrain available that could make up for the troops lost in his previous three defeats, decided to attack. He would march around the flank of the Austrians and crush them. But first he needed to cross the Arpon River at the town of Arcola. On 15 November 1796, Napoleon’s small army found it strongly defended by a large Austrian detachment. Nonetheless Napoleon ordered his men to force the crossing over the narrow bridge. There was no other choice, it was his last chance to prevent the siege from being lifted.
The Austrian position was strong and the French took hundreds of casualties in the first failed attempt. When he saw the next faltering, Napoleon himself grabbed the fallen colors and charged across the bridge, with dozens of men dying to his left and right. But by now the bodies were stacking up, and his friend Gen Augereau dragged him back lest Napoleon also get shot. However, as the attacks continued, he stayed with the colors near the bridge for the rest of the day. Napoleon had his horse shot out from under him, and his aide de camp and several of his staff killed and wounded. When dusk fell, the Austrians still held the other end of the bridge.
The next day, boats were found and a marshy ford was discovered, and Napoleon crossed in several places. But the Austrians also had reinforced the town, and attacked the crossings. The battle raged all along the river. At one point as Napoleon was rallying a broken battalion, his horse was shot and he fell into the marsh. Only a gallant rescue by Gen Marmont and his staff prevented Napoleon’s capture. The day ended with the bridge still in Austrian hands.
The battle resumed on 17 November, but by now most of the Austrian relief force had arrived. Napoleon had to reduce the Austrian numbers facing him, so he came up with a bold ruse. He took all of his trumpeters and drummers and sent them around the Austrians where they began to play marching tunes. The Austrians redeployed to face this new “threat” which weakened the force defending the bridge. Napoleon struck with a massive column across the bridge that had orders not to stop. The column literally climbed over dead and dying Frenchmen and trampled the Austrian blocking force. He then struck the Austrians in the town and those facing the ruse in the rear, and routed them completely.
Despite heavy losses, momentum was on his side, and Napoleon continued to attack over the next few days. Within a week, the Austrians themselves were thrown out of Italy. On 23 November 1796, Napoleon occupied Venice, ending its 1000 years of self-rule. In the harbor he captured a 44 gun frigate, which he named the Muiron, in honor of his aide that was killed at his side. Napoleon returned to Paris a legend in his own time and a fearless Hero of the Revolution.