Friday, May 4, 2012

Book review - Marengo & Hohenlinden

Marengo & Hohenlinden by James Arnold is the latest book to get the Rosbif Review treatment.

I've read Arnold's book on the 1809 campaign and found it a good, readable account that doesn't get bogged down in the minutiae of people and units (as I found the Gill magnnum opus 'Thunder on the Danube' trilogy). I suppose it depends on what you want, though, as I know Gill's work was indispensable for working out the OBs for our huge Aspern-Essling and Wagram games.

In this case I was interested in Napoleon's first battle as leader of the nation on which his reputation depended. And as such it was heavily embellished in the retelling by the Napoleonic regime. I knew from my previous readings that he stole a march on the Austrians by crossing the Alps behind the Austrians while their attention was taken in besieging Massena in Genoa taken; was lucky in winning the battle and that he owed a great deal to the unfortunate Dessaix, who died at the critical moment, after marching to the sound of the guns, as well as to Kellerman, who's decisive cavalry charge wrecked the seemingly inexorable advance of the Austrian infantry. I didn't know anything about the details of the campaign and absolutely nothing about Moreau's coup de grace at Hohenlinden.

Arnold sets out the context for the batlles from Bonaparte's Brumaire coup and his need to cement his authority over a fractious nation with many ambitious would-be coup leaders through to the millitary situation he inherited after his return from Egypt. He also takes the Austrian point of view and details their plans for invading France via Northern Italy after mopping up French strongpoints like Genoa. Despite the French salient in Switzerland, the Austrians were confident of a victorious simultaneous march on Paris from Germany and Italy, sweeping aside the French armies that had proved unable to hold Bonaparte's gains in Italy and do more than hold to the left bank of the Rhine. Like a lot of Austrian plans to this point, their optimism far outweighed their ability to carry them out.

Of course we know that Bonaparte showed them again how flawed their plans were, and although the Austrians almost handed Boney's arse to him in a sling, it was the quality of the French soldiers and their commanders that saved him. He had assumed the Austrians were retreating, never thinking that they were going to turn at bay and attack. Napoleon never underestimated the Austrians again.

The rest of the battle was described pretty much as I knew it from other reading, but what was new for me was the description of the aftermath of Kellermnan's charge. Arnold asserts that only the first few units of Austrian grenadiers were affected by the charge and the subsequent infantry exploitation of the resulting confusion. It was the fact that panicking Austrian cavalry fled the oncoming French tide that spelled the doom for the Austrian advance; the routing cavalry barged through the oncoming Austrian infantry formations, totally disordering them and infecting them with their terror, causing a mass rout. The division to the north had to hurriedly conform to the retreat lest they be trapped outside the walls of Allesandria.

Hoehenlinden is an equally, if not more, important battle than Marengo, but as it was fought by Moreau and not Napoleon, it doesn't seem to have gathered the same aura around it. Moreau was airbrushed out of the Napoleonic story and a lot of his best generals met a sticky end at the hands of yellow fever in Santo Domingo, like Richepanse, whose flanking attack put paid to the Austrian plans at Hohenlinden. Despite Napoleon's avowed meritocratic regime, he didn't trust officers from the Army of the Rhine; Ney being the exception.

In the aftermath of this battle, the way to Vienna lay open and no substantial Austrian army stood in Moreau's way. This battle was the coup-de-grace for the War of the Second Coalition, from which stemmed the Peace of Luneville and Amiens. While Marengo settled Napoleon's grip on power, Hohenlinden crushed the Austrians' will to carry on the war and gave Napoleon the image of peacemaker.

One of our group, Darren, planned a game based on Marengo which was fought last weekend (which unfortunately I couldn't attend). By all accounts it was a hard fought battle which the Austrians didn't lose (mainly because time didn't allow a conclusion!). As this was a taster for a more detailed game in the offing, I  plan to be involved in the next one. I suppose reading this book gives me an advantage for playing either side, but I'll probably have forgotten it all by then!

I enjoyed this read. It was the perfect balance between enough information to set the scene and tell the story but without bogging the narrative down with excessive unit details and a cast of thousands.


  1. I enjoyed this book very much. I am intending to use it to develop scenarios to replay the battle in stages. The ones from the GdB book seems to be evened out a bit.

  2. An excellent review. I have to admit that I have gaping holes in knowledge of this particular period in history. I am also interested to read that you felt it was a good balance and not over done with detail; probably more suited to my meandering concentration.

  3. A great review and I have a real feel for the book.

  4. An enlightening review Ben, thanks. I have copies of both of Arnold's books about 1809 and enjoyed them greatly. I have a copy of vol. 1 of Gill's account on the way. Now this one is on my reading list too; so many books. so little time; but oh, what a lovely problem to have!
    I have always found the suggestion that Bonaparte was 'lucky' and 'saved' at Marengo a little hard to take. Yes, it was a battle that he handled poorly, especially in the early stages, but then he took great advantage of the opportunities that were presented in the latter phase. Isn't that what distinguishes the great commanders from the rest of the pack?
    Marengo is a great scenario and will be a battle that we'll do at the ANF after 2015; once this series of bicentennial games is completed. I'll be keen to read your report of the second version at the NWA.

    1. You're right in a way, James. Arnold points out, though, if it wasn't for the quality of the French troops and their commanders, Napoleon wouldn't have had anything left to save the day with! The fact that he managed to save the situation is, as you say, a mark of his genius.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

My Shelfari Bookshelf