The Italian Campaigns
In March 1796, two days after getting married to Josephine, Napoleon was named commander in chief of the French Army in Italy. He was just 26. He led a haggard army of 40,000 soldiers; an experienced group, but poorly supplied and badly demoralized. But Napoleon’s trademark leadership turned them into a ruthlessly efficient fighting force. He promised them booty (all the captured gold they could carry), cracked down on deserters and made a point of leading his men in person. He also employed the blitzkrieg tactics for which he would become famous, dividing Austrian and Piedmontese forces. And he didn’t play by the conventions of warfare: one Piedmontese general writing: “They send a young madman, who attacks right, left, and to the rear. It’s an intolerable way of making war.”
Shocked by the suddenness of his arrival and put to flight, the Piedmontese signed the Treaty of Cherasco in April 1796. The Austrians, having been in Italy for less than a year, retreated, conceding Lombardy and then its capital Milan to Napoleon’s forces. In one battle (the Battle of Lodi), Napoleon earned a reputation for audacity by storming a well-defended bridge head on. In a later battle (the Battle of Arcola) Napoleon would lead the charge himself, carrying the revolutionary standard against the Austrians. In February 1797 he captured Mantua. He snowballed across the Alps and, stationed 60 miles away from Vienna, forced the Austrians into signing the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 17 1797. But he wasn’t done yet, and before returning to France also brought Venice and Genoa under French control.
Returning to Paris after the successful conclusion of his Italian campaigns, Napoleon was welcomed as the country’s most famous general. A personally cult sprung up around him; his swelling group of supporters (and sycophants) organizing dinners, balls, processions and other event that only added to the propagandistic potency of his image. But restless as always, Napoleon wouldn’t spend long in the capital. At least not while France was under threat from its neighbors and the future French Republic—so hard fought for with the blood of soldiers and citizens alike—was in jeopardy.
France’s bitterest enemy, Britain, had just joined with other European powers—Russia, Prussia and Austria—to form the Second Coalition. The British represented a real threat; not only did they rule the waves, but the prosperity of their empire meant that, for the foreseeable future, they could continue to fund the allies in the war against France. Napoleon’s plan was to invade Egypt. In doing so he would not only gain territory for France, he could use Egypt as a base from which to attack the jewel in the British Empire’s crown: India. His campaign, however, would not go according to plan.