Date and place
- November 15th to 17th, 1796 at the Arcole bridge upon Alpone river, near its confluence with the Adige river, twenty-eight kilometers southwest of Verona, Italy (now in the province of Verona, Italy).
- French army (19,000 to 22,000 men, depending on the source) under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte.
- Austrian army (21,000 to 24,000 men, depending on the source) under the command of Baron Josef Alvinczy von Borberek.
Casualties and losses
- French army: 4,000 to 6,000 men killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
- Austrian army: 5,000 to 8,000 men killed, wounded, missing or captured, 11 cannons
Aerial panoramic view of the battlefield and the Arcole bridge
The Battle of Arcole took place towards the end of the third Austrian offensive − this time led by General Josef Alvinczy von Borberek
As the battle was about to begin, Bonaparte had, contrary to his custom, suffered two setbacks. On the Brenta river
Bonaparte devised a new plan. This involved crossing the Adige back to Ronco to attack the Austrians where they least expected it, i.e. on their left flank. At this stage of his campaign, Alvinczy could decide either to hold his ground at Caldiero, march on Verona
Beyond Ronco and as far as the Alpone
On November 14th, Bonaparte and his army set off on the march. By nightfall, they found the boat bridge established at Ronco. The Austrians, as hoped, seemed totally absent from this part of the Adige, and the bridge was built without a hitch. The French planned to cross the river at dawn the following day. Meanwhile, Alvinczy advanced from Caldiero
November 15, 1796
At first light, as planned, the French crossed the Adige, then split into two columns, which moved in opposite directions along the dike on the left bank. One headed for Porcil, following the course of the river upstream, the other for Arcole and the bridge [45.35731, 11.27769]
Bonaparte did not expect to encounter much opposition at the latter point, since the Austrians seemed content to keep an eye on the area. In any case, he could not commit all his forces to Porcil, even though this direction would bring him closer to his goal more quickly, potentially leaving his line of retreat in enemy hands. He therefore sent Charles Augereau's division towards Arcole and André Masséna's division towards Porcil. Near the hamlet of Bionde, the latter came up against the regiment of Gabriel Anton Splény de Miháldy
Augereau, for his part, faced far greater difficulties. The dike used by his battalions, which ran for some two kilometers along the right bank, had its counterpart on the left bank. When the enemy arrived, the Austrians of Colonel Wenzel Karl Brigido's brigade, which held Arcole, set up their infantry there and greeted the French with musketry fire from almost point-blank range. Augereau's vanguard turned around before reaching the bridge. He himself managed to plant a French flag on the structure, but his example was not enough to inspire his men. His generals, in turn, competed with each other to turn the tide of battle by daring and heroism. Jean Lannes, Jean Antoine Verdier
Seeing the situation slipping from his grasp, Bonaparte harangued his troops, reminding them of Lodi, and then, imitating Augereau, rushed to the bridge
The French gave up trying to force their way through. They finally took the village at nightfall, through the brigade of General Jean Joseph Guieu. The latter, sent during the day to cross the Adige by ferry at Albaredo
Warned at around 10 a.m. of the passage of French soldiers on the left bank of the Adige, at Ronco, Alvinczy initially saw it only as a demonstration to scatter his units. But he gradually changed his mind and ended up redistributing his troops. He left Prince Friedrich Franz Xavier von Hohenzollern-Hechingen
Anton Ferdinand Mittrowsky, with a further fourteen battalions, occupied the space between San Bonifacio
At the end of the fighting, Bonaparte judged his position to be mediocre. The two divisions, Augereau and Masséna, were five kilometers apart, with a marsh[now dried up]
November 16th, 1796
On the morning of the 16th, Bonaparte launched his army in the same vein as the day before. But this time, Alvinczy had also decided to take the offensive. He crossed the Arcole bridge and advanced at the head of a first Austrian column, while a second, led by Provera, advanced from Porcil. As on the previous day, Masséna drove the latter back to the hamlet, inflicting heavy losses. Augereau, for his part, pushed his opponents back beyond the Pont d'Arcole, but despite the best efforts of his troops and bravest generals, he was still unable to cross it.
Bonaparte, for his part, attempted to cross the Alpone near its confluence with the Adige, without the aid of a bridge but by means of fascines thrown into the torrent.
The attempt failed, as the current washed the bundles away. Adjutant-general Honoré Vial and his half-brigade then tried to cross on foot, even though the water was up to their shoulders, but the Austrian fire forced them to give up.
Nor was Alvinczy able to change the course of the battle. His attempt to advance his infantry from San Bonifacio to Arcole via the dykes along the Alpone failed in the face of a French company equipped with two cannons.
By evening, the situation had not changed significantly, except that Arcole was once again in Austrian hands. The French withdrew further south of the Adige, leaving a half-brigade of the Augereau division to guard the Ronco bridge.
November 17th 1796
The following day, November 17, the French resumed the offensive with somewhat modified dispositions. The results of the previous two days were generally favorable. The Austrians had lost considerably more men and material than the French, and their successes at Porcil were more than compensated for their failures at Arcole. In these conditions, Napoleon, having now taken the measure of his adversary, was entitled to consider that an additional attack could convince Alvinczy to withdraw.
The new plan called for an assault on Arcole by the bulk of the Masséna division, of which only half a brigade would be detached and deployed in front of Porcil to lock the dike. The Augereau division was to cross the Alpone on a trestle bridge built during the night below Arcole. Finally, the Legnago garrison
At daybreak, when the French had not yet begun to cross to the left bank of the Adige, Alvinczy advanced his vanguards on the Porcil and Arcole dikes.
Perhaps the Austrian general had been misinformed by one of his spies, who told him of Bonaparte's retreat to Mantua. This was the moment that the Ronco bridge chose to break. Augereau's two half-brigades, left on guard on the left bank, were thus in great danger. Fortunately, the Austrians appeared on the two causeways along the Adige, both upstream and downstream of the bridge, so that French artillery from the other bank was enough to stop them long enough to repair the bridge. Two half-brigades of the Masséna division immediately crossed the bridge, one heading for Porcil, led by Masséna himself, the other taking the road to Arcole, guided by General Jean Gilles André Robert
While two battalions of the Augereau division secured the bridge, the other fourteen crossed the Alpone as planned. The twelve-battalion Masséna division remained behind.
The two French demi-brigades that had pushed back the enemy vanguards now found themselves up against the bulk of the Austrian contingent. They in turn retreat, overwhelmed by their numbers. Masséna moved one of his remaining brigades forward to the Porcil dike, re-establishing the situation and pushing the opposing fighters back far enough so that the Ronco bridge was now safe on that side. On the other side, General Robert also withdrew to Ronco in the face of the Austrian thrust. But the Austrians then fell into an ambush that Bonaparte had improvised during the engagement. He had hidden three of his available battalions, those of the 32nd demi-brigade, in the meadows
Meanwhile, Augereau engaged Alvinczy's left wing. The very strong position it occupied, and the nature of the terrain, also marshy and offering only passages too dangerous to risk a column, prevented him from attempting anything decisive for a long time. Then, perhaps, a ruse turned the tide. Bonaparte sent an officer and twenty-five guides on horseback along a path running between the marshland covering the Austrians' eastern flank and the Adige. Once on the Austrians' left, the small group's mission was to persuade them of the presence of a large cavalry contingent, using trumpet calls to good effect.
Whether he was disturbed by this stratagem, or whether the situation was enough for him, Alvinczy decided to withdraw at around two o'clock in the afternoon. Augereau had crossed the Alpone; the Austrian troops were beaten on both dykes; and they were threatened − as he had just learned − by the arrival of French reinforcements from Legnago
The battle seems to have cost the Austrians between 5,000 and 8,000 men. French losses were probably only slightly lower, despite official assessments.
Aftermath of the battle
On November 18, Bonaparte used only his reserve cavalry to pursue Alvinczy, who continued his retreat. The bulk of the French troops came to the rescue of Vaubois, still beaten by Davidovitch on the 16th and 17th around Rivoli Veronese
Map of the battle of Arcole
Picture - "Battle of Arcole bridge". Painted 1803 by Louis-Albert-Ghislain Bacler d'Albe.
According to the great Prussian military theorist Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, neither Napoleon Bonaparte nor Alvinczy showed much foresight in directing operations, with many of their decisions appearing contradictory, ill-founded and difficult to justify. In the end, in his opinion, victory went to the man who showed the most audacity and doggedness, who best led the partial engagements and who had the best troops at his disposal.
During the Arcole military operations, Napoleon Bonaparte's headquarters were :
- Villafranca di Verona
Napoleon Bonaparte's headquarters at Villafranca di Veronaon the evening of November 14;
- Ronco all'Adige [now the town hall]
Napoleon Bonaparte's headquarters at Roncothereafter.
André Estienne (1777-1837), a drummer in the 51st demi-brigade de ligne, became a Napoleonic legend on November 16, 1796. On that day, when Bonaparte and his men were having the most difficult of times trying to take control of the Pont d'Arcole, he threw himself into the Alpone, crossed the river holding his drum out of the water and, when he reached the opposite bank, beat the charge. This dazzling feat earned him numerous awards. In 1802, the First Consul awarded him a pair of "baguettes d'honneur", accompanied by a patent saluting his bravery. On July 15, 1804, Napoleon himself pinned the Cross of the Legion of Honor to his chest. On December 2 of the same year, the Emperor chose him to be the lone drummer at the coronation ceremonies. Later, his effigy was depicted on the pediment of the Pantheon and on the Etoile triumphal arch, as a symbol of courage and loyalty. Finally, in 1894, his native village of Cadenet, a small Provencal town he had left in 1792 as a volunteer to join the nation's armies, erected a statue to the "little drummer of Arcole".