Battle of Novi, 15 August 1799

The battle of Novi (15 August 1799) was a major French defeat in Italy that saw an Austro-Russian army under Marshal Suvorov defeat the combined French armies in Italy. At the start of the fighting in 1799 the French had dominated Italy, but after a series of defeats at Magnano, Cassano and the Trebbia they had been forced back to Genoa, where the armies of Generals Macdonald and Moreau were combined under the command of Barthélemy Joubert.

After defeating the French on the Trebbia Suvorov had attempted unsuccessfully to prevent their two armies from joining up, before concentrating on capturing the many French held strongholds in northern Italy. This gave the French time to form a new Army of Switzerland, and for the Directory to come up with a new plan. Joubert was to lead his combined army across the Apennines from Genoa, prevent a siege of Coni and lift the siege of Mantua, while the Army of Switzerland created a diversion.

From late June to late July there was very little fighting between the main French and Allied armies. By late July 45,000 men from Suvorov's army was camped on both sides of the Bormida River around Alessandria, while another 55,000 men were scattered around northern Italy.

The French right wing, 15,000 men under Saint-Cyr, were stretched out from Torriglia (ten miles to the north-east of Genoa) to Pontremoli, twenty-five miles to the east, guarding the entrances to Liguria. The French left, 25,000 men under Perignon, was posted in the upper Tanaro valley, guarding the lines of communication with France and the Army of the Alps. The French centre, 10,000 strong, was posted to the north of Genoa.

The French began to advance out of the Apennines on 9 August, and by 14 August were in the presence of the enemy. The French position was centred on Novi, at the edge of the mountains, while the Austro-Russians were concentrated at Pozzolo Formigaro, on the plains just to the north.

Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr
Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr

The Austro-Russian army was much larger than Joubert had expected, and the appearance of Kray's Austrians meant that Mantua had probably fallen (the garrison surrendered on 30 July). That night Joubert held a council of war, at which the French decided not to risk advancing onto the plains to attack the larger Allied army. Joubert even suggested retreating back into the Apennines and combining with the Army of the Alps, but nothing was decided.

That handed the initiative to Suvorov. Although his advisors believed that the French position was too strong to attack, Suvorov was dismissive of the abilities of the new levies he faced, and of Joubert, who he dismissed as a 'young man who comes to school'. Suvorov decided to attack the French early on 15 August.

Positions

The French position ran from the River Lemme on the left to the Scrivia on the right, passing through the town of Novi Ligure. Joubert had around 35,000 men to hold this line.

The French right, commanded by Saint-Cyr, was made up of divisions from General Macdonald's Army of Naples (defeated at the Trebbia). Saint-Cyr's line ran east from Novi along the steep slopes of Monte Rotondo.

The French centre, commanded by General Moreau, consisted of the divisions of Watrin and Laboissière. Moreau's right was in Novi and his left spread out along the heights to the west of the town.

The French left, commanded by General Perignon, consists of the divisions of Grouchy and Lemoine. It ran through Pasturana and on to the River Lemme.

Finally General Dombrowski commanded a force that was blockading the Allied garrison of Serraville, 4-5 miles to the south-east of Novi. Dombrowski also had troops on the right bank of the Scrivia, at Stazzano (east of Serravalle) and further north at Cassano Spinola (level with Novi).

The French position dominated the broad plain between the Scrivia and Orba Rivers, which was filled with the Austro-Russian army.

The Allied right was commanded by General Bellegarde, who had Kray and Ott under his command. It consisted of 16,000 infantry and 1,800 cavalry, and was formed up in two lines across the road that led south from Bosco to Basaluzzo and then on to Novi. 

The Allied centre was commanded by General Derfelden, and contained the Russian divisions of Forster and Schweikowsky (12,000 infantry) and 3,000 Austrian cavalry. It was formed up in two lines, one to the south and one to the north of Pozzolo Formigaro (three miles north of Novi).

The Allied left, under General Melas, consisted of 11,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, and was based at Rivalta, on the west bank of the Scrivia.

A reserve of 6,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry was posted at Spineto, on the right bank of the Scrivia (possibly Spineto Scrivia). A little further to the north was General Rosenberg, with Rehbinder's division of 10,000 infantry, 2,000 Cossacks and 1,000 cavalry from the Württemberg Dragoons. This force was covering the siege of Tortona, but was called to the battlefield during the day.

This gave the Allies a total of 55,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, of which just under 50,000 men started the day on the battlefield.

Suvarov issued remarkably laconic orders for the attack- 'The corps of Generals Kray and Bellegarde will attack, at daybreak, the left wing of the enemy at Pasturana. During that the Russians will attack the centre and Melas the right'

The Battle

The battle began at five in the morning of 15 August, with an attack by Kray's Austrians on the French left. Kray hoped to capture the heights of Pasturana, from where he would have overlooked the French rear. His attack was to be supported by Bagration, who would attack the French right and then swing around Novi to join up with Kray.

Krey ran into unexpectedly fierce French resistance. He was forced to alter his line of advance, swinging to the left. The full weight of his attack fell on the isolated 20th Légère, which was forced back. The Austrians began to climb unto the hills east of Pasturana. At this moment Joubert arrived at the head of a column of grenadiers, and was hit by a musket ball. The wound was fatal - his last words were 'Marchez toujours' (always march), said pointing towards the enemy.

The death of Joubert caused some confusion, but luckily for the French most of the Allied line had not yet begun its attack. Moreau was able to take command of the army (Joubert's death was kept secret) and restore order. Lemoine's division managed to restore the French line, and the grenadiers of the 34th Line forced the Austrian second line back down the hill with a bayonet charge.

Kray made a second attack on the same position, this time supported by artillery. He was supported by Bellegarde, who had made an unsuccessful attack on Grouchy, and now attempted to attack Pasturana from the rear. Lemoine was attacked by Ott's division, which should have been supported by Seckendorf, but he was distracted by a French detachment that was attempting to rejoin the main army. This forced Bellegard to slow his attack, and gave General Perignon time to organise a counter-attack. Clausel attacked the Austrian right flank, supported by Richepanse's cavalry and Partouneaux with the reserve infantry. The Austrians were forced back, and after three hours the pressure on the French left lifted.

In the centre General Bagration saw the failure of the Austrian attack, and decided to launch the first of a series of costly attacks on the strong French position at Novi. This attack was fought off by General Leboissière, and Bagration then moved four battalions to his left to attack towards Monte Rotondo, but this attack was beaten off by Watrin. The French then attacked Bagration's exposed flank, and his men retreated in disorder to Pozzolo Formigaro. 

Suvorov responded to this failure by ordering a general assault, but this too ended in failure, and by early in the afternoon it looked as if the French would hold their ground. The situation was changed by the arrival of the Allied reserves under Melas. Suvorov ordered him to join the attack on Novi, but Melas adopted a different plan. His split his force into three columns. One attacked along the Scrivia towards Serravalle, with its besieged Allied garrison. The second attacked Monte Rotondo, to the east of Novi. The third was split it two. Half went to support the forces attempting to turn Saint-Cyr, while the other half, with Melas, supported the attack on Novi.

This attack broke the French line. Moreau ordered Watrin to hold a position at the foot of the plateau threatened by Melas, but Watrin saw that his line of retreat was threatened, and wavered, allowing the Allies to get past him. Watrin fell back onto a small hill held by the 106th Line, but he was soon faced by superior forced, and had to retreat to a position across the road back to Gavi.

The French position was now beginning to fall apart. Melas's first column reached Serravalle, forcing Dombrowski to retreat. The French right was cut off from the centre and left, and Moreau was forced to order a general retreat. The French still held the heights between Pasturana and Novi, which protected their only line of retreat, through Pasturana, but at about six Suvorov, Kray and Melas made a final attack on the village. Kray was able to post some battalions on the hills around the village, and Lemoine and Grouchy were forced to retreat. The 68th demi-brigade was forced to abandon Novi before they were surrounded by Bagration and Melas.

The retreat turned into a rout when the sunken road being used by the French was cut by an Allied force. The Russians then attacked from Pasturana, and the French were forced to retreat along a nearby ravine, under heavy artillery and musket fire. Once they crossed the Riasco (a small stream south of Pasturana) the French troops scattered, and only rallied at around 11pm around Gavi. They were saved from a heavier defeat by the long day of fighting, which had exhausted the Austro-Russians.

Aftermath

Although the battle was a serious French defeat, that isn't reflected in the balance of casualties. French losses are generally states as 1,500 dead, 5,000 wounded and 3,000-4,600 prisoners, a total of at least 9,500. Three generals, four flags, 37 guns and 28 caissons were lost.

The Austro-Russians lost 1,800 dead and 5,200 wounded, reflecting the long hours of fierce fighting in front of the French positions, but only 1,200 prisoners, for a total of 8,200 losses. 

The French were less able to afford their losses. Moreau, who resumed command of the army, originally intended to retreat back across the Alps into France, but eventually decided to hold on at Genoa until orders arrived from the Directory. He was then appointed to command the Army of the Rhine, and replaced by General Championnet, while Suvarov was called away to deal with the crisis in Switzerland, and was replaced by Mélas. The new commanders would fight a series of skirmishes, and one battle, at Genoa, before the French were forced back across the Alps.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 January 2010), Battle of Novi, 15 August 1799 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_novi.html

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