The First Charge.

The Royal Carabinieri and the Campaign of the Alps. One of the lesser known campaigns of the 1815 war.

In the year 1814, the great powers of Europe gathered in Vienna to do some restoration work on the map of the continent. The ascetics of the old patchwork had just not looked the same since 1792. France had done a fair job of rearranging all the lines that everyone else had been used to for the last century; since Louis XIV last attempted a Gallic reimagining, back when the numeral XVII was the newest thing in Anno Domini. The Rise of Prussia had simplified things still more. The Congress of Vienna’s giant “connect the dots” strove to return the much simplified map of French satellite states, with their Imperialistic names and groupings, to the more complex network of semi independent states, dolled out between the great powers so as to keep a balance of power. That in thirty years the infectious touch of the French Revolution would have germinated in most of Europe was unknown to the nation makers at Vienna. In 1814 all that mattered was that the Revolution was over and Napoleon, who had created a French Empire across the continent was exiled on a Mediterranean island called Elba.
More than anything the Congress represented the great hopes of all the deposed minor King’s and Prince’s that had lost their kingdoms to the French during the last 21 years of war. Amongst them was Vittorio Emanuele I of Sardinia. The Napoleonic Wars were after all mostly about the rights of Kings and now he hoped to get some of his rights returned to him.
Before the Revolution his family, the house of Savoy, had ruled over a prosperous kingdom, rich in agriculture and commerce, with strong links to the French Bourbons and the other Italian states. Amongst its holdings was the fertile powerhouse of Piedmont, were his family had ruled from their palace at Turin. In 1796 Sardinia was knocked out of the war of the First a coalition, the King was forced to abdicate and Piedmont was annexed to France. The exiled Vittorio Emanuele had inherited part of a throne, that of Sardinia, but not his hereditary Duchy of Savoy which controlled Piedmont. When the allies defeated Napoleon in 1814, he had returned in triumph to Turin and appealed to the Congress to recognise his former sovereignty and right to rule over a pre 1792 border structure. The allies did him one better, and threw into the bargain the Duchy of Genoa as a buffer against France and Vittorio Emanuele began to restore his kingdom back to “Factory State”.

Vittorio Emanuelle.
Vittorio Emanuelle.

This of course meant a country governed on autocratic, ancien regime lines that predictably reacted against all the effects of the Revolution. In a classic case of overcompensation, even the more sensible revolutionary laws were abolished and the Kingdom took on its old shape. A big part of the reorganisation was in building the army back up. It proved to be a fairly successful operation, so that when Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815, Vittorio Emanuele was able to promise the great powers, still arguing in Vienna, practical support.
It takes little detective work to see why the King of Sardinia was eager to help. A third of Savoy had been left in French hands, with two thirds returning to the crown. Napoleon’s return had been greeted with great enthusiasm in Chambéry and Annecey, the two principle cities of French Savoy, and as with the Bourbons, Emanuele had not made himself especially popular during his short restoration. All that had been gained could be lost and the quicker Napoleon was disposed of the better for royalist stability. Vittorio Emanuele promised the majority of his new army, over 15,000 men to help put the “Disturber” away again.
A generous gesture, nevertheless the new Royal Sardinian Army, was made up of a mixture of new recruits, former Napoleonic Veterans and officered by exiles, royalist adventurers and Austrian, French and Italian professionals. It was a raw machine, untested in battle with as yet less than 10 month’s training, and many with none at all.

Emanuele’s General’s would have to depend on a corps d’elite. The best troops in the army were the Royal Guards, theoretically comprising the finest and bravest officers as well as the best bred, and as usual in the 19th century the Guards with the most prestige could be found in the cavalry. Because Household troops bore the responsibility of guarding the person of the King, they were officered by dedicated individuals who had either ties to the monarch or stake’s in the country. Vittorio Emanuele had 4 troops of Life Guards in 1815, the 1st from Savoy, the 2nd from Piedmont the 3rd from Sardinia and the 4th from the newly incorporated territory of Genoa, symbolically representing his entire Kingdom and providing a means by which his nobility could support him. But apart from the Life Guards, the most professional troops were from the Royal Carabinieri, the 2nd most senior unit in the army.

In May the King had reestablished the old absolutist regime, restoring the prerogatives of the church and nobility and removing equality before the law. The stigma that Emanuele had attached to all traces of the previous occupation meant that even French names, especially those of official departments were all renamed and wiped away. On 13 July 1814 a Royal ordinance officially formed a special corps that held the unusual duty of defending the state and policing the people. A Royale Decree set it out succinctly:

“the Royal Carabinieri Corps (…) [is incepted] for the purpose of contributing to the overall prosperity of the State, that can’t be separated from the protection and defence of our good and loyal Subjects, and from the punishment of the guilty”

Essentially they operated along the lines of the French National & Imperial Gendarmerie, except that at first they only patrolled Piedmont. The name Gendarmes itself had been unacceptable to the King’s anti French government. In 1791 there had been a corps of Carbini, formed to combat brigands, and so to distance them still further from the Gendarmerie, the new force was named, Carabinieri to connect them to this old Royalist unit.

Their first commander was General Giuseppe Thaon di Revel di Sant’Andrea and numbered something under 800 men, drawn from the ranks of the Piedmontese Line Regiments who showed:

“distinguished good conduct and judiciousness”

Each man was required to be literate enough to take a written statement, be a serving soldier, (though men that had served Napoleon were not preferred) between the ages of 25 and 40 years, backed up with a written recommendation of the aforementioned good conduct. In December the Minister of War ordered that they also be unmarried. However their singular status amongst the people meant that they were often very closely intertwined with local communities, as many as a quarter would be serving in the place of their birth. Nevertheless if they didn’t shape up to the high standards the corps set, they would be returned to their regiments. Despite the preference for non Napoleonic officers, some nevertheless did join, such as sub lieutenant Giacinto Cottalorda who had fought at Austerlitz or sub lieutenant Count Fabrizio Lazari who had volunteered for the Army of the Kingdom of Italy in 1812 when he had been 15. Indeed including veterans of the Grande Armée was unavoidable even amongst senior officers. Others were drawn from the members of the nobility that had retired from public life during the French occupation.

The officers and men of the new corps were organised into provincial Companies, called brigades, that were split into lieutenancies across the region. Organised into horse and foot regiments which, from a military point of view, designated them as a legion of light infantry and cavalry. Their primary role was to act as a police and kept the peace, enforce the law and protect the people from bandits and brigands while also intercepting smugglers on the Swiss frontier. The harvest of 1814 had been poor and that often meant trouble in poorer areas. As winter came to Piedmont and froze the Alpine passes it looked as if General Revel’s Carabinieri were going to have a tough year ahead to prove themselves.

A "Lucerna" bicorn hat.
A “Lucerna” bicorn hat.

The sight of the Royal Carabinieri patrolling the busy streets of Turin or the winding lanes of provincial towns was becoming common by the spring of 1815. Their distinctive dark blue uniform, cornflower facing’s, red piping, black boots and unmistakable high ridged bicorn “Lucerna” made them stand out at a distance. Officers added a touch of flare with their silver lace as opposed to the men’s white, but all wore the blue cockade of Savoy in their dashing hats. Already they were integrating into their communities as a part of daily life, but in March, news came to Turin that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and retaken the throne of France. At a stroke all that had been achieved in restoring the old order seemed to have become dangerously fragile. So the allied powers in Vienna declared Napoleon an international criminal and unanimously declared war.

Throughout the spring troops began to march from depots and fortresses to muster at Turin and in camps on the western frontier. Meanwhile elsewhere in Italy the ball had already opened. Napoleon’s brother in law, the famous and flamboyant Murat, King of Naples was going to throw his lot in with the returned Emperor. But the Austrians were having none of it and in a brief but vital campaign General Bianchi scattered the Neapolitan army and snuffed out the flame of Napoleonic support in Itay. As the victorious Austrians began marching North, Emanuele had already gathered 9,000 troops at Turin, with the rest of his army covering the French border and General d’Osaco garrisoning Nice.
General d’Latour was to command the main bulk of Emannuele’s troops that would join the Austrian “Army of the Alps”, commanded by General Phillip Von Frimont, massing across Piedmont to invade southern France. Frimont was an experienced soldier who had seen extensive action from 1796 to 1813, and was noted for his bravery and gallantry, he was now the 2nd most senior Austrian General in the field next to Schwartzenberg. He garrisoned Lombardy with 10,000 men, & prepared to invade with 38,000 men to cut Napoleon’s legs out from under him.


Marshal Suchet.
Marshal Suchet.

On the other side of the Alps, opposing Frimont, was an overextended series of French army corps, theoretically under Marshal Suchet. The French commander had the singular distinction of being the only man to be promoted to the Marshalate because of service in Spain. That he and Davout were left out of the Armée du Nord can be seen as great mistakes on the part of Napoleon, but Suchet had a record of being at home with independant command. On the 14th of June Suchet received orders from Napoleon to begin operations that would close the mountain passes in the Valaise and Savoy to the Austrians and defend the passes of the Jura. The next day his main force of between 13 and 20,000 troops advanced rapidly to the frontier, and invested Geneva. His next objective was to gain possession of the passes of Meillerie and St Maurice. Although he had far too few troops, if he could secure the passes he could easily hold superior numbers of Austrians at bay if need be, also in an emergency he could call upon Marshal Brune’s 10,000 men at Toulon.
His assault upon the frontier of Savoy forced many small outposts to either surrender or retreat. The Carabinieri frontier stations were signalled out for praise and commendations, for their “zeal, courage and intelligence” during the invasion. Cut off by superior enemy forces and carrying the wounded, Brigadier Tavioli managed to escape capture with the Montmèlian and Maltaverne brigades and link up with the main force.
Frimont used their information to plan his strategy, but awaited mid June to advance, he had split his force in two. I Corps in the north under Field Marshal Radivojevich was to advance by Valaise and take Lyons, while II Corps under Field Marshal Bubna, which included the Sardinian Division, was to move from Piedmont and secure Savoy. Radivojevich’s advance guard clashed with the French at Meillerie on the 21st of June, and drove them back. Frimont, who accompanied this column, was eager to gain as much ground as possible. They force marched to the Arve River, and arrived on the 27th. In the meantime Bubna had crossed Mount Cenis on the 24th/25th, and clashed with the French at Conflans on the 28th, which after a sharp fight he took.
Upon arriving in the valley of the Avre, Frimont detached his advance guard to Bonneville, which was occupied. However it’s defenders were forced to evacuate it when the Austrians seized control of the pass of Carrouge, and threatened their communications. I Corps now pushed on and relieved Geneva, driving the French from the heights of Grand Saconex and St Genix.
With the enemy pressing relentlessly forwards on all fronts, it was clear that the French had waited too long to secure the frontier. All now depended on the redoubts guarding the passes of the Jura valley. On the 29th Frimont with the I Corps marched on them and on the 1st of July made preparations to drive the French out. The battle at Les Rousses was hotly contested, the initial Austrian attack was repulsed however when the French left their positions to engage the enemy reserve, it allowed the Austrians to riposte with cavalry on their open flank, and the pass was seized. The loss of Les Rousses prompted the evacuation of the other redoubts and allowed the van of the Austrian I Corps to pursue them as far as St Claude by nightfall.
While Frimont, Radivojevich and the Reserve Corps drove all before them through the mountains, in the south Count Bubna was also making inroads. While he lead the main body from Echelles to link up with the reserve and invest Lyons, he Detached Latour’s Piedmontese Sardinian Division to take Grenoble. Amongst them was the a troop of the Royal Carabinieri.

Charge of the Carabinieri at Grenoble.
Charge of the Carabinieri at Grenoble.

Having dropped down from the green, snow capped mountain passes and emerged onto the red earth of the plain. The Piedmontese and Sardinians marched amongst the pastures and fields around the towns and villages huddled against he banks of the Drac. The Advance Guard arrived on the 4th of July and occupied a small village called Gières. They looked out on Vauban’s Grenoble, a gallery of pointed bastions and towers, the old and the new together. Below them were the suburbs, a the sea of roof tiles growing out in patchwork blocks from the fringe of the walls. The garrison consisted of 9 strong battalions of the National Guard and over 70 guns on the walls, the van therefore awaited the arrival of the main force which came up the next day and prepared to attack.
On the 6th of July Latour ordered General Gifflenga to take the suburbs.
Alessandro Gifflenga had spent most of his career fighting for Napoleon. He had been part of the old Sardinian army and had been captured in 1799. Like many after the fall of the House of Savoy, he accepted the offer to join the victors and volunteered for the French service, becoming an aide to Eugene Beauharnais, then viceroy of Italy. His active service had lead him to Spain where he won the Legion d’Honneur commanding the 31e Léger. After being created General de Brigade in 1812 he joined the disastrous Russian Campaign with Beauharnais and was wounded at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets. Returning to ostensibly friendly soil with Eugene, who took command of the Grande Armée when Murat left, he was given a division and defended Brescia. He resigned from the French army in May 1814 and was given a place in Emmanuelle’s new Sardinian army, and he stayed loyal when Napoleon escaped.
The French met his advance outside the walls, and gave ground slowly, intending to draw him into a rash move, as he slowly drove the enemy back towards to fortress, he sent for his cavalry.
Waiting in reserve in the cover of a small undulation, was the troop of mounted Royal Carabinieri commanded by Lieutenant Juan Bautista Cavassola. He had 5 NCO’s and 27 men. With them were a squadron drawn from the vedettes of the cavalry, formed up some distance to their rear. They were a small but disciplined force, hidden by the ground probably on the left flank near the bank of the Drac River, armed with new 1814 pattern carbines, sabres and two snub nosed pistols each, they were eager to get at the enemy.
The roar of artillery had already alerted them to the beginning of the engagement, and by late morning the day was growing hot. The Carabinieri stood, sweating in their tight blue uniforms, waiting for instructions. The Lieutenant was young and impatient, desperate for a charge, and unable to sit still. Every now and then he rode to the top of the depression for a look over the rows of crops, trying to read the clouds of musket smoke, then wheeled around and rode back to his men. Presently there was an intensification of musketry from out of sight, and a galloper suddenly appeared. After a brief conversation the rider galloped away. Cavassola shouted exultantly to his men and drew his sabre. Immediately the Carabinieri formed in line and rode out of cover, then halted on the rise. Swords flashed in the sunlight and the lieutenant ordered walk march. The line moved towards the enemy. The vedette’s followed them. They appeared as the French infantry were retiring, staving off the efforts of the infantry to pursue them. “Trot!” Cried the lieutenant, the bumping and jogging began, dust swirling around them. As they closed distance the order “Gallop!” was heard. The thin line of jogging horseman rose to an uneven, rolling canter and held their straining mounts to a hand gallop. The rumble of hooves was loud even over the gunfire, NCO’s were bawling to keep the line straight. The distance closed, sporadic shots spluttered from the French line, then after what seemed an eternity the Lieutenant raised his sabre from the carry and gave point, he put his horse into a flat gallop and yelled “Charge!”.

Lt. Cavassola leads the charge of the Royal Carabinieri at Grenoble. By Rava.
Lt. Cavassola leads the charge of the Royal Carabinieri at Grenoble. By Rava.

A cheer rose from the thin blue line of racing riders, and the French saw the Italian cavalry ride out of the dust cloud bent like jockeys over their horses heads, Sabres extended and flashing. The fury of their attack panicked the French and sent them into a confused retreat, stragglers fell beneath the Sabres and hooves of the Carabinieri as they rode past. But showing supreme control Cavassola rallied and reformed his men, allowing the vedettes to come up and continue the charge. The gallant little line reformed and charged again. As soon as the cavalry got amongst them the National Guardsmen began throwing down their weapons en masse. In his report General Gifflenga wrote:

“the police have provided a service that has yielded many prisoners. The Caribinere, Alexei is wounded and for his conduct deserves the respect of the Colonel of his Corps”

This Alexi, called Alessio by Latour had already distinguished himself during the initial French invasion of Savoy and was duly recommended for a decoration. General Latour echoed Gifflenga’s praise more fully:

“Greater than all praise is the value, boldness and the skill with which they distinguished themselves in the attack on Grenoble”.

The fortress surrendered the next, day, in no small part due to their resounding defeat in the suburbs the day before. Losses were light. On the 11th of July Lyons capitulated as well, and an armistice was signed. Suchet withdrew behind the line of the Loire and the Austro Sardinians halted and awaited developments. Meanwhile in the north Schwartzenberg had driven Rapp back and blockaded him inside Strausbourg, and most importantly, Napoleon had already abdicated after his defeat in Belgium. The new Piedmontese Sardinian army returned home victorious in October, carrying with it a number of reclaimed art treasures, and the pride of having performed creditably.
The Carabinieri celebrated their 200th anniversary in 2014, after two centuries of dedicated service in civic and military duties. This year they also have good cause to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their first taste of action, which began a long tradition of service in most of Italy’s campaigns, and contributed in its small way to the defeat on Napoleon.

With thanks to Paolo Nurra & former Carabinere Giuliano from twitter.

The Waterloo Campaign, 1815: William Siborne
Napoleonic Wars Sourcebook: Digby Smith.
Dodsley’s Annual Register Volume 57 By Edmund Burke.
An historical sketch of the campaign of 1815, By Robert Batty

0 Replies to “The First Charge.”

  1. the more i read Adventures In Historyland military events surrounding napoleonic wars – the more i realise, the less i know…. as always well researched and inspired blogging

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