Spin doctoring à la française
The battle of Arcola, 17 November 1796: a case study in propaganda
This is what happened as described in Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power, 1769-1799 (Bloomsbury, 2007), 1-3, 248-58.
Arcola is a village in northern Italy, 32 kilometres east of Verona. French and imperial forces confronted each other there, separated by the river Alpone and a small wooden bridge. The countryside around was marshy and crossed by dykes as a defence against flooding. Napoleon believed he had to cross this bridge in order to take Arcola.
Facing the French were two battalions of Croatians who had positioned their cannon so that they could fire on anyone approaching the bridge. The French troops took cover behind the dykes. When some of Bonaparte’s leading generals – Lannes, Bon, Verdier and Verne tried to advance towards the bridge, they were wounded. But General Augereau rushed through the ranks of frightened soldiers, tore the flag from the standard bearer, and advanced towards the enemy. A few of his men tried to follow him, but when five or six of their number were killed, they retreated. Augereau escaped without injury.
According to one eye-witness account, Bonaparte then attempted to repeat Augereau’s heroic gesture. He dismounted, drew his sword, took the flag and rushed onto the middle of the bridge, while the troops looked on, afraid to follow him. The officers who surrounded him were killed or wounded.
When the Austrians opened fire again, Bonaparte withdrew and his troops followed him in a headlong retreat, only stopping when they were out of range of the cannon. In the confusion that followed Bonaparte was pushed into a ditch full of water and nearly drowned, but he was dragged to safety by his men.
Two more days of fighting followed and the French failed to capture the bridge. On the third day Bonaparte sent the trusted and competent General Masséna to cross the Alpone further north and take Arcola in the rear. He was now very disillusioned with his troops and he complained about their ‘unpredictable’ behaviour in a letter to the French government. His comments were echoed by General Joubert: ‘Never have we fought so badly, never have the Austrians fought so well.’ Others made similar derogatory remarks. The army had performed below par.
This is how it was described
Bonaparte sent a doctored account that was printed in the Moniteur on 2 December in which he noted Augereau’s action in seizing the flag and carrying it onto the bridge, and his own action in imitation. Shortly after this, however, another account reached the Council of Five Hundred. This time Augereau was described as following Bonaparte’s lead and the prudent (or cowardly) refusal of the troops to follow him was not mentioned. Neither was it made at all clear that the crossing had failed.
However, Arcola had fallen and the imperial flag had been captured, and on the basis of these two facts a myth was created. In the first engravings of Arcola to appear, Bonaparte is accompanied by Augereau. Both are portrayed side by side, crossing the bridge that was never crossed, each carrying a flag with the inscription ‘The French People’. But over time the representations give way to those of Bonaparte crossing the bridge alone, and the myth of his heroic capture of the bridge became the accepted story, represented in numerous paintings and engravings, of which Antoine-Jean Gros’ Bonaparte at the Bridge of Acole [above] is the most celebrated. But it is not the only one. Horace Vernet's Bridge of Arcole is another example.
‘It is just possible that Arcola represented a psychological turning point for Bonaparte…It was from this moment on that Bonaparte as an individual breaks away from the Army of Italy, which until then had always been portrayed collectively (p. 249-50).’It is the start of Bonapartist propaganda.