The Great St. Bernard Pass
On his return to Paris, Napoleon was received with even more delight than when he came back from Italy, although the directors did not join very heartily in his welcome.
They were quarrelling with each other, while a council made up of five hundred members, and therefore called the Council of the Five Hundred, was in confusion. France was in dire need of a ruler, and a strong one. Napoleon saw that here was the opportunity which his ambition had long desired.
So one day, in November 1799, the great general went to St. Cloud, for it was there that the Council of the Five Hundred was sitting.
Napoleon had enemies as well as friends among the members. No sooner did his enemies see him enter the hall than they shouted, "Death to the tyrant! Down with the dictator!"
For a moment Napoleon seemed disturbed by these cries, but he quickly made up his mind to act.
The council evidently meant to dispute his claim to rule France. Then it must be turned out!
So without more ado Napoleon called his soldiers, who had been posted outside, to come and empty the hall.
As they advanced with fixed bayonets, the Five Hundred forgot their dignity and fled from the room. Through the doors, out of the windows, any way by which they could, the quaking members sought to escape from the stem soldiers of the general.
That same evening Napoleon was chosen First Consul by a few of the scattered Five Hundred. Henceforth "the Corsican" was the ruler of France.
Being First Consul, Napoleon went to live at the palace of the Tuileries, and delighted every one by his splendid entertainments. These were made the more perfect by the presence of his wife, the charming and beautiful Josephine.
It was not long before the First Consul grew weary of the gaiety of the palace. He wished to be again on the battlefield at the head of his great army.
So in 1800 he once more left France to set out for Italy, where he hoped to reconquer the cities which the French had lost while their Little Corporal was in Egypt.
To reach Italy Napoleon determined to take his army over the Alps by the Great St. Bernard pass.
It was a perilous undertaking, for at places there was not a path but only a mere ledge, so narrow that should a soldier take one false step he would fall into the abyss beneath. At any moment, too, an avalanche might descend and destroy the whole army. Yet along these narrow ledges and up the steepest precipices the soldiers toiled, oppressed by the weight of their armour, sometimes forced to take the cannon from their carriages and drag them over the worst part of the ascent.
But when most discouraged the soldiers had only to look at Napoleon, seated on a mule, clad in the grey overcoat which to the army already seemed part of himself, to feel that with such a leader no obstacle could be too great for them.
At the summit of the pass the army was welcomed by the monks who lived in the famous hospice of St. Bernard.
Tables were spread out of doors for the soldiers, with bread and cheese as well as wine. These refreshments had been sent on by Napoleon that his troops might be revived after their terrible climb. But the monks of St. Bernard in their charity added to the plentiful supply provided by the general.
The descent was as difficult and perilous as the ascent had been, but at length it too was over, and seven days after the soldiers had begun their toilsome march they poured down into the plain of Italy and Napoleon marched toward Milan.
Here, where he was hailed as a deliverer by those who had suffered from the Austrians, the First Consul spent a few days rearranging his army. He then marched toward the village of Marengo, from which a small body of French soldiers had already driven the enemy.
As Napoleon approached, he found the Austrians already prepared to meet him on the plain of Marengo. Here, on June 14, 1800, a great battle took place, the Austrian army being nearly twice as large as the French.
Early on the morning of the 14th the Austrians succeeded in retaking the village of Marengo. Lannes, one of Napoleon's bravest officers, although fighting desperately, was forced gradually to retire.
At that moment Napoleon rode hastily from the rear and threw a company of his own guards upon the enemy. While the enemy was thus checked, Lannes was able to rally his men.
By two in the afternoon it seemed as though the French would be defeated. In spite of all they could do, in spite of the encouragement of the First Consul, the day was almost lost, when, by rare good fortune, a young French general named Desaix arrived on the field with fresh troops. "The battle is lost," he is reported to have said to Napoleon, "but there is time to gain another."
Encouraged by the appearance of reinforcements, the French attacked the enemy with new courage, while the Austrians, having thought that the day was already theirs, were taken by surprise.
Volley after volley of musketry was sent in among the startled Austrians by the Ninth Light Infantry, which was the name of Desaix' regiment.
Suddenly the men saw their general fall to the ground. Then with a terrible cry they rushed forward to avenge their leader's death. From that day, so great were the deeds they did, the regiment of the Ninth Light Infantry was called "The Incomparable."
One more unexpected charge of cavalry, then the Austrians gave way and fled. The French had won the hardly fought battle of Marengo.
Napoleon was grieved when he heard that Desaix had perished.
"If only I could have embraced Desaix upon the battlefield," he said regretfully, "I should have made him Minister of War and a prince too, had it been in my power."
The blow given to the Austrians at Marengo was so great that they begged for peace, to which Napoleon agreed. But war soon broke out again, and the terrible battle of Hohenlinden was fought in December 1800. Then once again the Austrians sued for peace, which Napoleon granted to them on condition that all northern Italy should again be given back to France.