Sunday, 19 June 2016

"While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it..." Suvorov, the three military arts and another Battle at the Trebbia



19 June 1799, the three days of battle at the Trebbia in Northern Italy ended with Russian Field Marshal Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov’s combined Russian and Austrian forces completely defeating the French under Jacques MacDonald.

“The three military arts. First - Apprehension, how to arrange things in camp, how to march, how to attack, pursue, and strike; for taking up position, final judgement of the enemy's strength, for estimating his intentions. Second - Quickness... This quickness doesn't weary the men. The enemy doesn't expect us, reckons us 100 versts away, and if a long way off to begin with - 200, 300 or more - suddenly we're on him, like snow on the head; his head spins. Attack with what comes up, with what God sends; the cavalry to begin, smash, strike, cut off, don't let slip, hurra! Brothers do miracles! Third - Attack. Leg supports leg. Arm strengthens arm; many men will die in the volley; the enemy has the same weapons, but he doesn't know the Russian bayonet. Extend the line - attack at once with cold steel; extend the line without stopping... the Cossacks to get through everywhere... In two lines is strength; in three, half as much again; the first breaks, the second drives into heaps, the third overthrows.” (Alexander Suvorov)


A contemporary sketch of Cossack lancers charging at the Trebbia


It 
was a dark and stormy night, and bitter cold one on top of it, when one of the greatest commanders of all time prepared his debut on Lo Stivale, the Italian peninsula, back then in December 218 BCE. The icy waters of the river Trebia played a major role in his tactical setup to beat Tiberius Sempronius Longus’ advancing 42,000 legionaries and Italian allies with his ragtag army of 30,000 that he had just led across the Alps and Hannibal famously did. The Battle of the Trebia became the first of the three major military disasters Hannibal inflicted on the Romans in the Second Punic War. 2,000 years later, another military genius conquered the Po valley in a lightning campaign. When the other reactionary European powers joined the Habsburgs and declared war on revolutionary France in 1792, Northern Italy had soon become the ugly backend of the otherwise quite successful French operations across the continent. Until Napoleon, after Toulon and the 13 Vendémiaire’s “whiff of grapeshot” took over in 1796, licked the desolate Army of Italy into shape, took the Kingdom of Sardinia’s continental Piedmont part in a fortnight and continued to beat the Austrians as the major opponent on the Italian theatre across the peninsula and back towards Vienna until Habsburg, exhausted, asked for a cessation of hostilities with the Treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797, ending the War of the First Coalition on the continent. With Venice, Austria still had a foothold in Italy, most of the rest of the peninsula was reorganised into French satellite states and Napoleon had his hands free to play at becoming a second Alexander the Great in the East. Or so he thought. Predictably, war broke out again a year later and this time, the Tsar joined the Second Coalition against France, chiefly because he was angered about Napoleon occupying Malta en route to Egypt. Just a few years before, Paul was named protector of the Knights of St John who had held the Mediterranean island for centuries and Napoleon’s highhandedness was enough for the eccentric Tsar to give up his armed neutrality. The allies presented him with what he felt was quite an imposition right from the start. They demanded disgraced General Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov recalled from exile to command not only the Russian troops to be deployed in the European southwest but to take over the High Command on the Italian theatre. Paul grudgingly agreed and the old warhorse Suvorov was to become the next military genius to fight on the banks of the River Trebia. 



N.A. Shabunin's imagination of Suvorov leaving his exile in the village of Kochanskoye to set forth for his last campaign (1903)



Some of the Austrian generals fought alongside with Suvorov during the Russo-Austro-Turkish War a decade earlier where he usually won against impossible odds, took impregnable fortresses and what not. He was one of Catherine the Great’s favourites and the tsarina showered him with honours. Deservedly. During the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794 she wrote: “I am sending a double power to Poland: the army and Suvorov” and he won. He always won. Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov was one of the very few generals in history who had never lost a battle. He wouldn’t make it a habit in his old age in Italy either, even though he had to demand a free hand from Tsar Paul, Katherine’s son and successor, and the Tsar, again, agreed grudgingly. He and Suvorov hated each other with a vengeance. Paul was an admirer of Prussian military discipline, brutal corporeal punishment and the drill instructions of the “soldier king” Frederick William I while Suvorov insisted on treating his men decently. He addressed common soldiers as “brother”, shared their lot and rations on the march, was usually found in the thick of battle, earning him several serious injuries and his men would march to hell and back for him and with him. Or to Italy. Suvorov arrived in Milan in April, talking the overall command from the Austrian Feldzeugmeister Kray, beating the French under Schérer at Magnano, Moreau at Cassano and pushed south to the Trebbia early in June. Force-marching his men for 36 hours over 50 miles literally without a rest and the Austrians dragging behind, Suvorov’s avant-garde attacked the French under the absolutely capable General Jacques MacDonald in the night of 17 June along the small river Tidone, a thorough success – the French left more than 2.000 dead in the field and were driven back to the old battlefield on the banks of the Trebbia, or Trebia in Latin, where Hannibal crushed the Romans two millennia before. 18 June ended with another French defeat and high casualties due to Suvorov’s masterly manoeuvring his outnumbered troops in oblique order over the French left wing. During the night, the French received reinforcements and most commanders would have quit the field by then, but the Russian military genius didn’t content himself with anything but a complete victory. In the morning, Jacques MacDonald’s men stood their ground and even managed to push back the Russians. "The bullet is a mad thing”; as Suvorov was fond to say, “only the bayonet knows what it is about”. When he personally joined the front-line on the left wing, the motivation of his men surged to an all time high. A fierce bayonet charge broke the French line, the pincer movement in the back of the French army finally succeeded and the Battle of the Trebbia went down into history as one of the most decisive engagements that ever were fought. Macdonald fled to Genoa and mentioned that the defeat at the Trebbia and his loss of the Army of Naples should have been the end of his career if it wouldn’t have been Suvorov who had beaten him. 



Adolf Charlemagne (1826 - 1901): "Ceremonial reception of Alexander Suvorov in Milan, April 1799" (1855)


Over the next two months, Suvorov forced the French out of Italy by picking up their strongholds from the Po Valley south to Naples, Capua and Ancona and fought one last battle, against Joubert, at Novi in the Piedmont, in August 1799 and then the Russian genius was called up north to Switzerland to relief his colleague Rimsky-Korsakov, who was about to get soundly beaten by Masséna near Zürich. Suvorov came to late and with about 20,000 exhausted men left against Masséna’s 80,000, he opted for a strategic withdrawal towards Austria when winter was about to set in. And he imitated Hannibal again, fighting his way through the mountain passes of the snow-capped Alps, lost about 2,000 men but finally made it. “The Russian eagles outflew the Roman eagles”, he said and to this day a monument near the dramatic landscape of the Schöllenen Gorge and the aptly named Devil’s Bridge, where the Russians battled the French for the access towards St Gotthard Pass, remembers the epic feat. Naturally, jealous Tsar Paul ignored the carte blanche he had given to the conquering hero who returned home to Mother Russia and was about to exile him again over minor breaches of standing orders his imperial highness had issued meanwhile when the old soldier, tired to death, drew his last breath and died on 18 Mai 1800 in St Petersburg at the age of 69. It was just four weeks before Napoleon, who had, after conveniently forgotten his army in Egypt, returned to the Italian theatre and soundly defeated the Austrians at Marengo, undoing all of Suvorov’s successes achieved the year before. The French would occupy Italy until 1814 and Napoleon’s first abdication.



Vasily Surikov (1848 - 1916): "March of Suvorov through the Alps" (1899)




And more about the Battle of Trebbia on:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle of Trebbia