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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE BRIDGE OF LODI

[408] AFTER Napoleon was made a lieutenant in 1785, the years passed without any great event until the siege of Toulon and the Day of the Sections, of which you have already read.

Soon after, being appointed commander of the French army in Italy in 1795, Napoleon left France to begin his new duties.

The army was encamped at Nice, and here the young commander soon joined it. He found the French Soldiers ragged and hungry, cold and hopeless.

It was scarcely strange that the troops should look with surprise, touched with scorn, at the young officer who had been sent to command them. He was so small, so thin, was all they thought as their first glance fell upon Napoleon. But as they looked again and caught the keen and searching glance of their new general, they knew that he was one to lead and to command.

His first words won their hearts. "Soldiers," he cried, looking straight into the starving, hopeless faces of his men, "Soldiers, you are hungry, you are naked. The Government owes you much, but can do nothing for you. I will lead you into the most fruitful plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honour and glory and riches. Soldiers of the army of Italy, will you lack courage?"

As they listened to Napoleon's glowing words the soldiers forgot their cold and hunger. And when they found that on the march Napoleon shared their hardships, that always he [409] was at the point of danger, risking his life as though he were a common soldier, they began to love and worship their young commander. Soon there was nowhere that they would not follow if he led the way.

At Nice, after his arrival, he had almost at once disbanded a regiment for disobeying orders, and stem discipline and just punishments won the respect of the men as well as their devotion.

So that the army might travel quickly and take the enemy unawares. Napoleon trained his soldiers to march without provisions and to leave even their tents behind. Shelter and food they would find in plenty in the cities they conquered.

I cannot tell you of all Napoleon's battles, for before a year had passed he had fought more than twelve times and had beaten several Austrian armies.

But on May 1, 1796, the terrible passage of the Bridge of Lodi took place, and of that I must tell you.

Napoleon, who was marching on Milan, had forced the Austrians to retreat before him to the river Adda.

To cross the river it was necessary to pass over a wooden bridge called the Bridge of Lodi. The rearguard of the Austrian army was ordered to hold the bridge against Napoleon and his men.

So it was that when the French general reached the river, he saw on the opposite side the Austrian guns, which were trained upon the bridge.

It was plain it would be no easy matter to cross the narrow but swift-flowing river.

Yet Napoleon never hesitated. He ordered his cannon to be placed opposite that of the enemy. They, seeing that Napoleon meant to attempt to cross the bridge, tried to destroy it.

But they tried in vain, the French fire being so persistent that the Austrians were forced to retreat.

Napoleon then, choosing a column of his most seasoned troops, ordered them to press forward to take the bridge.

[410] It was "impossible," he was told. But with his superb confidence Napoleon declared that there was no such word as "impossible" in the French language.

Thus encouraged, the chosen troop hurled itself upon the bridge, only to be met by a storm of fire from the Austrian cannon.

The foremost soldiers fell, while those behind pressed forward only to be mown down as grass.

Yet, dauntless as before, others pressing forward took the place of those who fell until the middle of the bridge was reached. Here they too perished before the fierce hail of shot and shell by which they were assailed.

Those who were left hesitated. For one short moment it seemed that the attempt to take the Bridge of Lodi was going to prove a failure.

But Napoleon seized a flag and himself urged his men forward. One of his officers, called Lannes, dashed on, followed closely by his men, and in a few moments more the bridge was in the hands of the French, and the Austrians were fleeing in all directions.

So terrible had been the slaughter that Napoleon in after-days would often speak of the "terrible passage of Lodi."

It was after this great victory that the French soldiers, proud of their brave young general, gave him the title by which he was henceforth often called. The "Little Corporal" indeed became, after the taking of the Bridge of Lodi, more than ever the idol of the army.

Even when it seemed that Napoleon was caught in a trap by his enemies and would have to yield, his amazing confidence and daring found a simple way of escape.

So it happened when the Austrians had been defeated by Napoleon on the battlefield of Lonato. A corps of about four thousand of the enemy managed to escape to the hills, and as they wandered about they met a much smaller force of French soldiers, with the Little Corporal in their midst.

[411] The Austrian officer at once sent an envoy bearing a flag of truce to Napoleon, to bid him and his men surrender.

As was usual, the envoy was led blindfold into the presence of the general. When the bandage was removed he was startled to find himself in the presence of the French commander, who was surrounded by all his officers.

With flashing eyes and haughty voice Napoleon declared that a summons to surrender when he was in the midst of his army was an insult. He then bade the envoy hasten back to the Austrian camp to warn his superior officer, that if he did not at once lay down his arms he and his men would be shot.

So bewildered were the Austrians by this bold demand that they believed Napoleon had his entire force at his back, and they hastily did as they were bid and laid down their arms.

You can picture to yourself the indignation and dismay of the Austrian officer when he found out that he had been tricked, that while he had had four thousand men Napoleon had had only twelve hundred, and might easily have been captured.

As the conqueror made his way through the north of Italy many of the princes paid heavy sums of money to purchase peace.

But Napoleon demanded more than money. To please the Parisians he took from the Italian cities many of their most beautiful pictures and statues, and sent them home to glorify the Louvre.

In November 1796 another great battle was fought at Arcola, a village which was approached on the west by a great stretch of marshland. Here, as at Lodi, it was necessary for the French to take a bridge that crossed the river Adige.

So fierce was the Austrian fire as the French approached the bridge that the bravest of Napoleon's men fell back before it.

[412] Then the Little Corporal did even more than he had done at Lodi. Seizing a flag, he himself led his men across the bridge, and he had reached the middle when an officer fell dead at his side.


[Illustration]

"SEIZING A FLAG, HE HIMSELF LED HIS MEN ACROSS THE BRIDGE."

A small company of French soldiers, seeing the danger in which their beloved leader stood, dragged him backward, hoping to take him to some less perilous spot.

In their effort they were hampered by the enemy, who succeeded in pushing them into the marsh on the west of Arcola.

But at the sight of their general's danger, the French made a desperate stand and repulsed the Austrians, while Louis Bonaparte, one of Napoleon's brothers, rescued the Little Corporal from the swamp.

For two days the battle raged, and then on the third Napoleon once again wrested the victory from his foe.

It is told that after this long battle Napoleon found one of his sentinels asleep at his post.

The Little Corporal lifted the soldier's musket and stood at attention until the weary man awoke and saw to his dismay who was keeping watch in his place.

Nothing could save him from the most severe punishment, thought the soldier. But he was mistaken. Napoleon knowing that he had been worn out, forgave him, and won the unfailing devotion of his sentry.

Many more were the victories won by Napoleon over the Austrians, until at length, in the autumn of 1797, a treaty was made at Campo-Formio. By this treaty France received Belgium and the provinces bordering on the Rhine.


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