Napoleon & the French Army of Italy 1796

The French Army in Italy was a failing army but was revitalized in 1796 by the arrival of Napoleon and his dynamic leadership style that allowed his soldiers to realize their potential.   The soldiers were unpaid and underfed; they were clothed in rags and often had no shoes.   The artillery park was not maintained properly and the cavalry had unsuitable mounts, if any.   The soldiers in the army were suffering from malnutrition and illness to such a degree that out of a paper strength of 42,000 only 30,000 soldiers were considered battle ready.[1] The hospitals were overflowing and non-battle deaths numbered in the hundreds per month.   Napoleon’s arrival in March of 1796 was to initiate a turnaround in this army that would see it become the elite fighting force of the French army.In 1795 Napoleon had drawn up plans for the invasion of Italy which he had forwarded to the Directory that approved and forwarded them to General Laono Scherer the commander of the army in Italy.[2] Scherer replied to the Directory “that the man who had drawn up the plans should carry them out.”[3] Shortly thereafter, infuriated by the Directory’s pressure, he resigned and Napoleon was appointed to replace him.[4]

Napoleon arrived in Italy and took command on March 27th, 1796.   The conditions he found upon arrival were atrocious; the army was unpaid, underfed, and falling apart.   In fact, on the day of his arrival he had to deal with a battalion that had mutinied.   He reacted forcefully, court-martialing the commander and disbanding the unit.[5] Napoleon showed his skills by turning the mob that was the French army in Italy into an effective force in less than six weeks.

Napoleon did much to reform the army; he demanded that the Directory send him money to pay the soldiers and when they failed to do so he used his own methods to get money to pay them.   He had his generals scour the countryside for funds and secured loans to pay his troops.   It was also at this time that he showed the strength of his oratory and presaged his future policy of living off the land in conquered territory.  Â  His pronouncements to the troops on March 27,th 1796, read, “Soldiers, you are naked, ill fed! The Government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you display in the midst of these rocks, are admirable; but they procure you no glory, no fame is reflected upon you. I seek to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy, would you be lacking in courage or constancy?”[6]

When Napoleon arrived in Italy he did not get to pick the divisional commanders or army staff; he had to use the men already in those positions.   It is a testament to the overall quality of the Republican armies that most of the officers would prove to be excellent soldiers when given proper leadership.   The outstanding officers, who would truly come into their own under Napoleon, & present in Italy included five future Marshals of the Empire Massena, Augerau, Serurier, Marmont, and Berthier, possibly the most able Chief-of-staff in history.   All of these officers had done well under the Republic but they were to show their true abilities under Napoleon.

The French forces in Italy were in a bad position when Napoleon took command they had invaded Italy in 1795 and moved up the coastal plain from Nice (see map 1).   They were positioned in coastal enclaves but the French with 33,000 were outnumbered by the combined Sardinian and Austrian armies of 56,000.   Napoleon’s plan for continuing the invasion would rely on the judgment and execution of his soldiers and subordinates for success.   He would attempt to use the Army of Italy to split the forces opposing him and use the resulting opportunity to defeat them in detail or force their retreat.

A little over a month after taking command Napoleon had done what he could to remedy the army’s situation and planned an offensive to begin on April 15th , 1796.   The Austrians got the jump on him, however, and attacked him on the 12th near the villages of Bric Castlas and Montenott on the road to Dego from Savona.   Napoleon reacted by ordering Laharpe to conduct a frontal assault on Montenott while Massena would maneuver to take the Austrians under Argentau in the Flank near Bric Castlas.   This maneuver worked flawlessly and the Austrians were routed with Argentau withdrawing to the north.   Out of some 4,000 Austrians engaged, Argentau could only muster some 700 the following day they were so thoroughly routed.[7]

Principalities of Northern Italy in 1796-University of Texas at Austin Library, Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, Historical Maps of Europe, Northern Italy, 1796 (for the campaigns of 1796-1805), @

On the 13th, the French continued their advance to Dego but were stopped short of the town when Massena found it occupied by the Austrians with about 4,000 troops.   On April 14th , 1796, the French began their assault on Dego using what would become a signature tactical strategy for Napoleon.  He ordered the division of Augerau to hold the enemy with frontal attacks while Massena would maneuver to take the Austrians in the flank.   After a hard fought battle, a brigade from Massena’s division took Dego at the end of the driving the Austrians out. During the night, the French soldiers gave themselves over to plunder and looting so that when the Austrians under Vukassovich counter-attacked with five battalions on the 15th they were driven from the town, forcing Napoleon to redeploy Augerau’s division to retake the town in essentially the same manner as the previous day.[8]


This was Napoleon’s first campaign in independent command and it showed several things that would prove true during the next twenty years.   Napoleon had shown what French soldiers could do when adequately led, motivated and supplied.   Although there was one breakdown in discipline that could have been disastrous, Napoleon dealt with it without the episode affecting his entire army.

The French army of Italy was homogenous in quality with other French armies before Napoleon took command; it had enjoyed limited success but with uninspiring leadership and little attention paid to taking care of the troops was beginning to fade away into uselessness.   Napoleon arrived and immediately took the situation in hand, working to improve the soldiers’ situation through better supply and giving them more motivation.   One of the hallmarks of Napoleon and his successful subordinate’s command style is that they led from the front accepting the same dangers as their men.

Napoleon also had his army live off the land as they conquered new territory which was his only reasonable recourse given his lack of support in this area from the Directory.   While Napoleon was undoubtedly one of the greatest military commanders of all time leadership ability alone is not enough.   Much as you don’t pound a nail with a hot dog, good soldiers are necessary for success in wartime and that is what Napoleon had.   It is the combination of competent and motivated soldiers with exceptional leadership that let the French achieve what they did.

Napoleon did what no other French commander could have done in 1796.   He took a failing army and, by providing leadership and care for soldiers’ needs, combined with solid tactical and strategic thought, turned it into an excellent offensive machine.   By the spring of 1797 he would have conquered all of northern Italy, invaded Austria and forced the Austrians to sign an armistice the Treaty of Campo Formio the ending the wars of the First Coalition.


[1] Asprey, Robert, The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, (New York, Basic Books, 2000), p. 125

[2] Chandler, David G. ed., Napoleon’s Marshals, (New York, Macmillan, 1987), p.272

[3]Asprey, p.126

[4] Napoleon, His Army and Enemies.
Armies, Campaigns, Battles, Tactics, Commanders, Napoleon’s Lightning Italian Campaign.
1796 – 1797

[5] Asprey, p. 125

[6] Kreis, Richard, The History Guide, Napoleon’s Proclamation to His Troops in Italy (March-April 1796),

[7] Bubelis, Raimund, Pearce, Glenn, eds., Napoleonic Miniatures Wargame Society of Toronto, Italian Campaign : 1796-1797 : Defeat of Piedmont,

[8] Burnham, Robert ed., The Napoleon Series,