Battle of Genola, 4 November 1799

The battle of Genola (4 November 1799) was a final major French defeat in Italy in 1799 which forced them to pull back into the Alps and Apennines, and left the Austrians in command of the northern Italian plains. After the disasters earlier in the year General Championnet had been appointed to command the Army of Italy and his own Army of the Alps, taking commanding during September. He then made a series of small-scale attacks that were repulsed by the Austrians, now under Melas, each made either to bring the two parts of his armies closer together or to prevent the Austrians from threatening Cuneo, the last major French stronghold on the northern Italian plains.

After these small scale attacks Championnet decided to concentrate his troops and launch a general offensive, hoping to fight a decisive battle before the winter set in. Melas quickly realised what was going on, and withdrew from some of his most advanced positions, abandoning Mondovi, and by 3 November was concentrated between Fossano and Marene, close to the Stura River.

By the evening of 3 November Melas was ready to launch a counterattack. His divisions were well concentrated, while one of the French divisions (Duhesme's) wouldn't join the main army until late on 4 November at best. The battle was thus a rare example of one in which both sides intended to attack.

Both sides prepared to attack on 4 November. Championnet's plan effectively split his army in three. Grenier was to attack east from Savigliano towards Marene, travelling on two roads. Victor was to attack Fossano, six miles to the south. Duhesme started the day at Saluzzo, eight miles to the west of Savigliano, and was ordered to follow Grenier towards Marenne.

Melas made rather better use of his troops. Ott, on the Austrian right, was ordered to advance west from Marene towards Savigliano. In the centre Mitrowsky was ordered to advance north-west from San Lorenzo, also towards Savigliano. Elnitz, with the Austrian left, was ordered to move north-west towards Genola, four miles to the south of Savigliano. Finally Gottesheim, with one brigade and the garrison of Fossano was to make two false attacks, south-west towards Maddalene and Murazzo.  In a reversal of the normal pattern during Napoleon's early campaigns in Italy the Austrian commander was concentrating his strength one point, while the French were dispersing across a wider area.

The first clash came early in the morning, when Ott and Grenier ran into each other close to Marene. The fighting lasted for two hours, with each side attempting to turn the other, but then Mitrowsky arrived with the Austrian centre, and Grenier was forced to retreat by superior numbers. Some of Grenier's men retreated west towards Savigliano, and others south-west to Genola. Ott pursued Grenier to the south-west, towards villages records in early French sources as Valdignasco and Valdiggio, possibly the modern Vottignasco and Levaldigi, both to the south-west of Genola, while Mitrowsky went to help Elnitz between Fossano and Genola.

On the French right Victor clashed with Elnitz under the guns of Fossano. The Austrians focused their efforts on taking Genola, which they saw as the key to the position, while Gottesheim attempted to outflank Victor. Elnitz was repulsed several times at Genola, while Gottesheim was never really able to get out of Fossano.

The stalemate around Genola was broken when Mitrowsky arrived from the Austrian right. Victor's left was now exposed as Grenier retreated. Realising the danger Championnet ordered Victor to retreat back to Murazzo, while the French centre and left formed at Levaldigi. This new line was turned when Ott approached Vottignasco, on the French left, and the French retreated again, to a new line at Centalio. This too was soon broke, and at the end of the day the French were sheltering under the walls of Cuneo. The new Austrian line had its left at Murazzo facing Victor, its centre at Centallo and its right at Villafalletto.

On 5 November Melas decided to attack again in an attempt to force the French back past Cuneo. Ott attacked the French position at Runchi, and forced the French to retreat past Cuneo to an entrenched camp at Madona-del-Olmo. This left a column isolated at Murazzo, part of which was forced to surrender, while others drowned while attempting to cross the River Stura.

This ended the fighting. When Melas advanced again on 6 November the French retreated to Borgo San Dalmazzo, leaving Cuneo exposed to attack. The Austrians pursued. Latterman was sent up the Maira valley, and Ott along the Granna, while Elnitz and Gottesheim advance up both banks of the Stura and cleared the last French positions around Cuneo.

Championnet lost between 6,500 and 8,000 men in the battle, while Austrian losses were only 2,000. Melas was free to attack Cuneo, which surrendered on 4 December, eliminating the last French presence on the northern Italian plains.

After the battle Championnet split his force in two. Grenier's division remained at Borgo San Dalmazzo, only five miles to the south-west of Cuneo, while Championnet and the main army moved east to Mondovi, and took up a position on the heights above the River Ellero, which flows out of the Apennines towards Mondovi. On 13 November Melas moved to attack this position, but the French retreated without a fight. On the following day Championnet evacuated Mondovi and retreated south to Ormea, half way to the coast. His new headquarters was at Sospel, on the French side of the modern border and guarding the road to Nice. The French were now back where they had been before Napoleon's original conquests in Italy, holding a narrow coastal strip up to Genoa. The Austrians were free to besiege Cuneo, which fell in early December.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 January 2010), Battle of Genola, 4 November 1799 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_genola.html

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