May 10, 1796, The Bridge of Lodi, Italy. The enemy, the mighty Austrian army of the Habsburg Monarchy had retreated with their tails between their legs. Her commander, Feldzeugmeister (Lieutenant General) Johann Peter de Beaulieu, who began the campaign with a formidable army of 32,000 infantry, supported by a further 17,000-man army from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, saw a young, unproven, French general take the fight out of his men.
Beaulieu was in full retreat. He had left the rear guard command to Feldmarschall-Leutnant Karl Philipp Sebottendorf, a three-star lieutenant-general to frustrate Napoleon and to buy time for the retreat.
Missing the opportunity to destroy the bridge, the Austrians now fortified themselves and defended the crossing with heavy firepower.
“Fortified across the bridge were a battery of cannon threatening to destroy any force who dares to attempt to cross. Backed by nine battalions of infantry, arrayed in two lines, the French would have first to brave the cannon fire, then the muskets of the Austrian men with no more than 10 yards of breath to maneuver.” (Department of Startup. Why Every Fortune 500 Should Have One.)
Sebottendorf, felt that it was ill advised to retire during day time and chose to defend the bridge until nightfall before beating a retreat.
His only problem was a young dashing general of the French Army of Italy haranguing his men to unleash their “French Fury” and to claim their name for posterity.
They answered with the sound of courage, honour and glory, echoing across the bridge.
The Army of Italy
The young dashing general Bonaparte of the newly birthed Republic of France, was until months earlier an unknown entity. An artillery officer from Corcisa, from a modest nobility with very little to count to his name, was short and scrawny. His physique belied his intelligence and ambition.
At twenty-six, Napoleon Bonaparte was given the command of an army, to which he promptly replied, “ I shall be old when I return.”
The Army of Italy was a rag-tag army of conscripts imbued with dereliction of duties and the constant temptation of desertion. One of the many woes of the army was lack of shoes, many marching in rags. Needless to say, morale was at its lowest.
Deemed callow and a novice in the matter of war, Napoleon was also carelessly dismissed by his adversaries who were veteran of bygone wars; fought in archaic tactics permeated by strong culture of privilege favouring the officers who were mainly arisotracts.
On the contrary, Napoleon chose to be “harsh with the officers but kind with the men”. He knew the heart of men. He led from the front, faced the bullets like any French carabiner (elite light infantry) and gave priority to the fallen and wounded.
Within months, the Army of Italy began to ride the waves of victories.
The leadership that they so desired has revealed itself to them in Napoleon.
Napoleon’s Watershed Moment
Volunteers answered Napoleon. They brought their beloved leader the glory he so deserved at the expense of their lives.
They charged the canons. The first volley cut down the column but more men threw themselves forward facing grape shots from the well fortified Austrians.
When more men fell, and the column of attack began to waver, senior French officers; André Masséna, Louis Berthier, Jean Lannes, Jean-Baptiste Cervoni, and Claude Dallemagne rushed forward and renewed the attack from the front. They would all go on to become Napoleon’s finest commanders.
The bridge was taken in a single attack. French won the Battle of Lodi with 1,000 casualties versus 3,200 enemies killed with a further 2,000 captured.
Napoleon was generous in his report back to the Directory of the Republic of France.
In his letter to the French directory, Napoleon wrote, “If we have lost few men, this fortunate circumstance is due to the prompt execution and the sudden effect produced on the enemy’s forces by the immense masses rushing forward, and likewise of the dreadful fire of our invisible column. Were I called upon the designate the soldiers who have distinguished themselves in this battle, I should be obliged to name every carabineer of the advanced guard and nearly all the staff-officers” (Romantic Circles 2018).
And his men reciprocated with love, they gave him a nickname “le petit corporal” (the little corporal).
It was a soubriquet that Napoloen would wear with pride and he encouraged his men to refer him with that, building camaraderie with a fellow soldier.
How You Can Meet Your Destiny Too
Napoleon found his watershed moment at his most perilous hour.
Not only he had to face death, he had to order men to their death. The payment for defeat was also very dear; it could spell the end of the newly formed republic. France was being beaten at the other theatres of war and the Army of Italy had to bring a spark of hope.
What can we learn from Napoleon?
Was he reckless in committing his troops at the narrow bridge of Lodi? Would we be able to find our destiny by merely committing our all, betting the house in our most trying moment.
You will be deeply mistaken for Napoleon had prepared his entire lifetime, a score and a little more for that moment on that bridge. They were;
1- Napoleon was an avid reader.
Napoleon once claimed to have read La Nouvelle Héloïse, an 800-page novel of love and redemption by Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the age of nine. This habit extended to his adulthood. As a poor army officer, he would often resort to going hungry so that he would have money for books after sending a portion of his paltry to his mother.The books he read was extensive from French philosophers to the Greeks and the Romans. They will form the basis of his intellect and belief.
2-Napoleon was a man of letters.
Napoleon was a writer and had been writing various form of manuscripts from novella, essays to political discourse aim for the masses. In 1791, he wrote a discourse for the Lyon Academy for an essay prize, titled, “ What are the Most Important Trusts and Feelings for Men to Learn to be Happy?” Although he didn’t win, he took six months to write it, giving us a glimpse on his thoughts on how to inspire, emphatize and build trusts with men that he would command later. What is important to note is that Napoleon didn’t start out well as a writer but he kept pushing himself to improve.
3-Napoleon was a gifted mathematician
As the world of warfare modernise, the use of artillery was making a significant impact to the outcome of battle. He was the first Corsican to be admitted to the prestigious “Ecole Royale Militaire”, where of a total of 202 candidates from all of France’s military school in 1784, only 14 of the 136 who eventually passed will be invited to enter artillery. He possessed a natural talent that would be instrumental to the outcome at Lodi and he spent years honing it. In essence, he knows what is he doing.
Therefore, before you begin to attempt a challenge that would very likely to be your watershed moment, do take a deep breath, ponder upon this three points and equip yourselves to the best of your ability.
What are your talents? What are you truly good at? Hone it.
What are the things that you find yourself constantly doing? Repetitively? That is something that you are passionate about.
What are the things that you find yourself keep wanting to improve on?
You may not be good at it but you constantly find yourself looking for ways to be better at it. That is putting your passion into action.
The above must be an ongoing affair, a daily grind to improve yourself.
Take the Risk…
And when the opportune time present itself.
Take it. Don’t hesitate.
The Battle of Lodi Bridge was not a major battle that changed the course of war but to Napoleon it was the moment he knew that he was made for greater things.
“I no longer regarded myself as a simple general,” Napoleon would later said about his victory, “but as a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples.” (Napoleon the Great, 2016).
With that, I bid you success in your quest for your “watershed moment”.