The Austrian Plan
The French Position
The battle of Rivoli (14 January 1797) was the most comprehensive of Napoleon's victories in Italy during his campaign of 1796-97. At the end of the pursuit that followed the victory the French had captured more than half of an Austrian army of 28,000, despite being significantly outnumbered at the start of the campaign.
The Austrian Plan
In his first attempt to raise the siege of Mantua General Alvinczy had advanced from Friuli, at the north-eastern corner of Italy, while a second army advanced down the Adige. The two Austrian armies were meant to join up at Verona and operate together after that. This plan had come close to success, but the two armies had been prevented from joining up.
This time Alvinczy decided to take command of the main army, 28,000 strong, advancing down the Adige. Once again a second army was to advance from Friuli, but this time the two armies were not meant to operate together. While Alvinczy advanced down the Adige, the second army under General Provera was to advance towards Verona and Legnago with 18,000 men. Each Austrian army was to defeat the French troops on their front and advance on Mantua.
The Austrian advance began on 10 January. By 12 January Alvinczy was in touch with Joubert, who had 10,000 men posted at La Corona, to the north of Rivoli. On the following day Joubert was forced to pull back to Rivoli, taking up a strong position on the plateau. The Austrians followed, and on the night of 13-14 January three of their columns camped on the southern slopes of Monte Baldo.
By 13 January it was clear that this was the main Austrian attack. Napoleon ordered Masséna and Rey to make forced marches to bring them to Rivoli, and then rode on ahead, arriving on the battlefield just after midnight on 14 January.
Napoleon was familiar with the Rivoli plateau, having passed through the area earlier in the campaign in Italy. The plateau was made up of two concentric semi-circles centred on the village of Rivoli. The outer rim of the plateau was made up of the Monte Baldo to the north and Monte Moscat to the south west. The inner plateau was ringed by the semi-circular Trombalore Heights. The entire plateau was raised up above the level of the Adige River, which runs through a steep sided trench to the east. A second river, the Tasso, ran in a semi-circle around the outer plateau, effectively surrounding the French position.
The Austrian plan of attack on 14 January was typically elaborate. Rather than simply overwhelm Joubert's 10,000 men Alvinczy decided to attack in six columns, hoping to envelop the smaller French force. On the Austrian left Vukassovich was sent down the east bank of the Adige River with 5,000 men. Quosdanovich advanced along the road that ran along the west bank of the river with 9,000 men, and most of the artillery and cavalry.
In the centre three columns (Liptay to the west, Koblos in the centre and Ocksay in the east) were sent across the Monte Baldo. The poor state of the mountain roads meant that these central columns were very weak in artillery. On the Austrian right General Lusignan was sent on a wide outflanking movement that was designed to bring him to Affi, in the French rear.
This plan effectively reduced the Austrian advantage in numbers. Vukassovich was completely cut off from the main battle, and only contributed some artillery fire. Lusignan didn't arrive until the battle was effectively lost. Even in the centre Quosdanovich was cut off from the main attack by the Monte Magnone, a long steep sided ridge that runs next to the river, and when he did finally attack had to advance up a steep hill that climbed onto the plateau.
The French Position
At the start of 14 January the only French forces at Rivoli were the 10,000 men under General Joubert. They were camped on the inner plateau, around the village. Masséna and Rey were both on their way towards Rivoli. Masséna, who was coming from Verona, would arrive at around dawn, while Rey appeared towards noon. At the start of the battle the French were badly outnumbered, but the Austrian plan meant that only the 12,000 men in the central columns would be involved in the first stage of the fighting.
The battle began at around 7.00am when Joubert advanced against the three central Austrian columns (from west to east Liptay at Caprino, Koblos and Ocksay at San Marco). Although Joubert was outnumbered (9,000 to 12,000) the Austrians lacked artillery. The French held their own for a couple of hours, but at around 9.00am Liptay on the Austrian right broke the French 29th and 85th demi-brigades, and threatened to turn Napoleon's left flank.
Fortunately for the French Masséna's division had already reached Rivoli, and Napoleon was able to feed him into the line, restoring the position on the French left. The next threat came on the opposite flank, where Quosdanovich's column, supported by Vukassovich's guns on the far side of the river, began to climb up the road from the valley bottom to the Rivoli plateau. This move threatened the French right and centre, but Joubert and Berthier were able to restore the situation. While Berthier directed a cavalry counterattack Joubert led his infantry against Quosdanovich's right flank, forcing him to retreat back up the Adige.
The final Austrian threat came from the south, where at around 11.00am (noon in some sources) Lusignan's column finally reached the battlefield after its long flank march to the west. Technically Napoleon was now surrounded, but the defeat of Quosdanovich's column meant that he was able to direct part of Masséna's division south to deal with the new threat. At about the same time more French reinforcements, under General Rey, arrived from the south. Most of Lusignan's division was forced to surrender, although the general hid in some caves and made his escape.
All of his attacks having failed, Alvinczy ordered his remaining divisions in the centre to retreat back north towards La Corona. The main battle was over, but Alvinczy's troubles were not. On the day after the battle Napoleon sent Joubert to follow him, and by 16 January around 15,000 Austrians had been taken prisoners. Only around 13,000 Austrians escaped north with Alvinczy.
The remains of Alvinczy's army was only able to escape because Napoleon was forced to rush south to prevent Provera's corps from reaching Mantua. On the evening of 14 November Napoleon left Rivola heading for Mantua, with Masséna's division following close behind, and on 16 November Provera was surrounded and forced to surrender at La Favorita. This second defeat sealed the fate of Mantua, which surrendered on 2 February.
The battle of Rivola demonstrated many of the traits that would make Napoleon a great general. He was able to bring widely separate divisions together at the decisive point, taking advantage of the French army's ability to move at unusually high speed for the period. On the battlefield he took advantage of having interior lines to make sure that he always had enough troops at the decisive points – first when Joubert's left crumbled, then Quosdanovich's attack on the right and finally when Lusignan appeared in the French rear. Napoleon was also famously energetic, and made his presence felt all across the battlefield.
Napoleon was also lucky at Rivola. If Provera had moved faster, then Napoleon would have had to choose between saving Joubert or maintaining the siege of Mantua. The Austrian plan at Rivoli meant that Vukassovich's 5,000 men were barely involved in the fight at all, only contributing some long range artillery fire, while Lusignan didn't appear until the first Austrian attacks had already failed, substantially reducing the Austrian advantage in numbers. The three numerically strong columns in the Austrian centre were weakened by their lack of artillery.