Crossing the Alps by Donald J. Macdonald.

Everyone has heard of the crossing of the Alps by Hannibal in 218 BC: and this was indeed a notable achievement by an army composed of North Africans more accustomed to dry heat than the chill blasts and snow of the Alps. In addition Hannibal managed to take elephants with him and get them alive through the high passes.

Another crossing almost as celebrated was that of Napoleon himself in May of the same year as the one we are considering now. He crossed the Great St. Bernard Pass. Few seem to have heard, or at least to have given due credit, to the crossing made by Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum, in November of 1800.

We are indebted to a member of our Society, a lady descended from the famous Marshal, for a copy of the Royal Artillery Journal of April 1909, in which an excellent article on the life of the Marshal appears from the pen of Captain H. M. Davson RHA, to whom we give grateful acknowledgment. The part of this piece devoted to this incident under review cannot be improved upon, so we quote it verbatim:

“In Italy Brune was operating against the Austrians on the Mincio, and in November Macdonald was ordered to cross the Splugen and fall upon their rear. The general was so appalled at the magnitude of the task that he sent Mathieu Dumas to Paris to confer with Napoleon upon it. The First Consul’s dictum was that an army can go where a man can go, and a man can go where he could plant his two feet. Moreover, he said, the passage was necessary.

“Therefore, on the 27th November Macdonald set out from Thusis. Each man carried five days’ rations and the guns were conveyed on sleighs. Half way up the mountain an avalanche slipped down on to the column, carried off thirty men and cut off the vanguard, which with difficulty succeeded in reaching the summit and taking refuge in the hospice. The remainder were driven back by a violent storm to the village. After three days the weather cleared and Macdonald, disregarding all remonstrances of the guides, insisted on starting again. They reached the summit, but farther the guides refused to venture until Macdonald, going in front, struggled on at the head of the column. sounding the ice for himself, and giving directions for the clearing of the snow and the rescue work for those who were carried away.

“The day after leaving the village of Splugen the weather became worse and during the passage of the Cardinel, avalanches were of frequent occurrence, one whole regiment was practically swept away, and Vandamme with the rearguard was entirely cut off from the main body, which for a time lost all trace of them, Men, horses, mules and equipment were lost in the crevasses and slopes of ice, but the French army struggled on amidst driving snowstorms and falling avalanches until they finally reached Chiavenna on December the 6th. having lost 100 men in the last day’s march alone.

“From here the main part of the force passed by the Valtelline over the Aprica Pass to the valley of the Oglio, and advancing thence in single file over the Tonale, wedged between impassible glaciers, found itself suddenly confronted by three lines of Austrian entrenchments. Desperate assaults against these failed but they were turned by another portion of the force which had advanced up the Engadine into the valley of the Inn. Macdonald finally reached Trent on the Adige and reorganised his army.

“So ended the adventurous passage of the Splugen, a feat which surpassed Napoleon’s passage of the Great St. Bernard in May of the same year, and almost equals the march of one of Tamerlane’s armies from Samarkand to Gashgar 400 years before. As a result it forced the Austrians to evacuate the Alps hastily from the Vorarlberg to the Tyrol and led directly to the Peace of Luneville in February 1801. It must be noted that the Via Mala over the pass was commenced by the Austrians in 1819. Macdonald had only mountain tracks by which to lead his army over.”

At the time of this incident, Macdonald was a general; but received his Marshal’s baton on the field of Wagram nine years later, the only soldier to be so honoured by the Emperor on the field of battle.

It is amusing to recall that, when Macdonald was appointed C-in-C of the Army of Catalonia, he might have been called upon to confront the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular campaign; but, as the other marshals jocularly said, Napoleon could never trust Macdonald within earshot of a bagpipe!

Editorial Note: We understand that Miss Mairi Macdonald of Inverness is now working on a detailed biography of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum.