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Bonaparte’s Strategy in the Marengo Campaign 1800

Excerpt from How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, by Bevin Alexander, pages 332-33

Although Bonaparte sent messages into Genoa telling Masséna [the French commander bottled up there by the Austrians in April 1800] to hold out as long as possible, time now was of the essence. To provide assistance quickly, he directed his chief of staff to march the reserve army through the Alpine passes, Little St. Bernard and Great St. Bernard, that were farther west than the Simplon and St. Gotthard passes, and therefore would bring the French army closer to [Austrian commander Michael] Melas’s army, arriving on its northern flank. But this position was less advantageous strategically than the position Bonaparte had planned to take on Melas’s rear.

In order to deceive Melas about where the reserve army was headed, Bonaparte also directed a small French division to demonstrate noisily against the Simplon pass, as if planning to drive through there.

This improvised plan depended upon Melas not responding strongly or fast to the French movement, and was daring because if Melas did react swiftly, he could slow French movement through the passes with relatively few troops. Even if some columns broke through, Melas could maneuver his main force to destroy each column as it debouched from the Alps. Bonaparte had judged Melas correctly, however. The siege of Genoa distracted his attention, and Melas was convinced the primary French aim would be to defend southern France (Provence) against invasion [from an Austrian force now pressing into the Var river valley west of Nice]. All the noise along the Alpine passes appeared to him to be merely a diversion, and he did not turn his army in that direction.

Melas therefore made an utterly typical response to what was in fact an unexpected move. The anticipation of such responses is the key to great generals accomplishing their victories. Extraordinary commanders like Bonaparte look for different, unusual, or unorthodox solutions to military problems, while ordinary commanders look for expected, usual, orthodox solutions. Melas calculated that the enemy would respond as he would have responded in like circumstances. He, like most generals, would have met the direct challenge for France---the obvious danger posed by the invasion of Provence. It did not occur to him that Bonaparte would ignore this danger, and strike instead at the heart of Melas’s strength, his line of supply and communications back to Austria.

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