On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 May 1800

6Napoleon and his army are crossing the Alps

As he undertook something that only Charlemgne and Hannibal had attempted in the past, Napoleon was counting on the element of surprise. ‘An army can pass always and at all seasons wherever two men can set their feet,’ Napoleon told sceptical General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Overall, 51,400 men crossed the Alps with 10,000 horses and 750 mules, sometimes walking in a single file and often starting at dawn to avoid the chance of avalanches once the sun had risen. The operation was to become one of the wonders of military history.

Napoleon achieved his main objective – his enemy was taken completely by surprise. A letter from the Austrian commander Michael von Melas to his mistress was intercepted, in which he told her not to worry because the French army could not possibly appear in Lombardy. He was soon to learn how wrong he was.

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