The battle of Arcole
November 15-17, 1796
The Battle of Arcole (November 15-17, 1796) (spelled Arcola in some English language texts) was the result of a bold attempt by Napoleon to outflank the Austrian army under General Alvinczy and cut its line of retreat before it could lift the siege of Mantua. It was a complex engagement that concerned much more than the crossing of a bridge, though the bridge tends to figure largely in paintings of the battle, probably for dramatic reasons.
After having the worst of some damaging engagements in the country east of Verona, and retreating through that city and across the river Adige, Napoleon doubled back and force-marched along its south bank to a place where he knew he could throw a pontoon bridge across the river. On the far bank was an area of marshy land that troops could not penetrate, which meant that all movement was limited to the causeways on the banks of the river Adige, and the banks of a small tributary, called the Alpone, that flowed into it from the north. Bonaparte’s plan was to establish a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Adige, and to protect this from the main Austrian army by sending some troops along the causeway to the west. The narrowness of the causeway would mean that the Austrians could not use their superior numbers to advantage against this holding force. Another part of his army would move along the causeway to the east, then turn due north as it bent to follow the course of the Alpone.
About a mile along this lay a bridge over the Alpone, on the other side of which was the village of Arcole, and the road that went north and intersected the Austrian lines of communication, which Napoleon hoped to be able to cut. However, it proved to be difficult even to reach the bridge at Arcole, never mind capture it, as the Austrians were able to line the east bank of the Alpone and enfilade the French troops as they marched along the causeway towards the bridge. Before long, most of the French soldiers were lying in the lee of the causeway to shelter from the fire. One eye-witness claimed that he saw Napoleon holding a colour and leading his grenadiers in an assault. It was an important moment in Napoleonic legend. It seems likely, therefore, that the paintings that show Bonaparte actually crossing the bridge owe more to artistic interpretation than fact. Not that being on the bridge itself would have been any more heroic: several of the men standing around Napoleon at the time were killed and wounded, and he was extremely lucky to escape unharmed, though according to one source he was toppled from his horse and ended in the mud at the edge of the marsh. Although the French did manage to cross the bridge on the first day of the battle, they had to retire again. Another two days of heavy fighting ensued before Napoleon and his commanders managed to solve the conundrum of how to dislodge the Austrian defenders and cross the Alpone to Arcole, which they finally achieved in gathering darkness on 17 November.
By the time the French managed finally to cross the bridge over the Alpone, the Austrians had managed to move the bulk of their army to safety, but Napoleon could still count himself successful in that he had forced the Austrians to abandon their plan of advancing to Mantua and relieving the garrison that the French were besieging there. Alvinczy withdrew to the east again, while Napoleon switched his attention to his northern flank and defeated a second Austrian corps that had advanced from the Tyrol.