Napoleon’s Crossing over the Great St. Bernard Pass

Gran San Bernardo Pass - Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley
Gran San Bernardo Pass – Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley

Napoleon’s crossing over the Great St. Bernard Pass with his army of 60.000 men, in prohibitive climatic conditions, must have given rise to great amazement and admiration among the inhabitants of the villages in the valley and certainly left its mark on local tradition.
In fact, the typical carnival costumes of the Great St. Bernard recall the uniforms of the Napoleonic soldiers. To re-evoke Napoleon’s crossing of the Pass and consider the event from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Great St. Bernard valley, we propose a selection of texts written by regional authors which will enable you to understand the importance of this historical event and its impact on the lives and culture of the local population.

Napoleon Aosta Valley

“…On the 19th of May, 1800, at midnight, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of the French Republic, left the town of Martigny to ascend the valley of Entremont, in the direction of the Great St. Bernard Pass. He was accompanied by his guards, his secretary, and two canons of the Mont Jovis Hospice (who were also responsible for the hospice in Martigny): the prior, Abbot Murrit, and the Priory procurator, Abbot Terrettaz. Along the way, he stopped for a few minutes to see the parish priest in Liddes, Abbot Rausis.

15th to the 20th of May , infantry, cavalry, kits and cannons crossed the Great St. Bernard Pass.

"Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by Jacques-Louis David.
“Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David.

In the village of Bourg-Saint-Pierre, he contacted the mountain guide, Pierre Nicolas Dorsaz, to engage him for the journey up to the Pass.

The sources of relative historical information are mainly three: direct contemporary evidence, including: Napoleon’s letters and the letters of his generals; military reports; the diaries of Pantaleone Bich and of the archpriest of Saint-Vincent, Abbot Jean- Baptiste Freppaz; the chronicles written by the characters involved, after the event had taken place, for instance: the report written by the archpriest of Gignod, Francois-Joseph Frutaz; Napoleon’s own Memoirs and those of his generals,

The Life of Henry Brulard, written by Stendhal, etc., – and, lastly, the anecdotes related by the witnesses of this event, selected, some decades later, by famous historians such as Jean-Baptiste Gal and the canons, Louis Vescoz and Francois-Gabriel Frutaz.

Napoleon Aosta Valley

Some passages seem to be drawn from hagiography (it is often so when famous personages are involved): mentioned are the places Napoleon passed through, the houses he stayed in, the rocks he leaned on, the fountains he stopped to drink at…

Glasses that he drank from were kept as relics, and even the name Bonaparte was added to first names, as if it were one of a patron Saint.

It is significant to note that the name Napoleon is a common name in the Valle d’Aosta, above all in the Great St. Bernard and Valpelline valleys.”

Napoleon Aosta Valley

“Napoleon Bonaparte conceived the daring plan to enter Italian territory rapidly by crossing over the Great St. Bernard Pass, despite the innumerable difficulties that made such a heroic exploit seem nigh on impossible. Preceded by skilful engineers, accompanied by his entire General Staff and his personal Guard, and followed by the best army that France had ever had, Napoleon reached Lausanne on the 12th August, 1800. When – during his stay in Lausanne – his generals pointed out the impossibility of crossing the Pass with the artillery, the ambitious general, Hannibal and Caesar’s rival, replied: “What is possible is within everyone’s range, I want to attempt the impossible”. The crossing of the Pass was undertaken and the difficulties overcome: from the 15th to the 20th of May , infantry, cavalry, kits and cannons crossed the Great St. Bernard Pass.

Napoleon Aosta Valley

In Bourg Saint Pierre, a group of workmen dismantled the war chariots and the gun carriages, numbering each piece. Another group, stationed in Saint-Rhemy, after the passage of the first division, reassembled the chariots and gun carriages in order to put them on the road again.

Napoleon, who had left from Paris on the 6th of May, and then moved from Lausanne to Martigny, staying at the Hospice of the Canons of the Great St. Bernard, had supervised the operations for the transport of the equipment across the Pass. On the 20th of May, Bonaparte, having spent the night in Bourg St. Pierre, left before dawn to make his way up to the Pass; when he reached the Hospice, he slept for three hours, had supper and then left to continue his journey towards Etroubles, where he spent the following night.

The abbot, Veysendaz, related “In 15 days, about 3.000 men passed through the village of Etroubles.” and again “after eight days, during which there was a constant passage of troops, Napoleon descended from the Great St. Bernard Pass”. Over a period of about three weeks, a constant flux of French troops crossed the mountain.”
Courtesy of the AIAT Gran San Bernardo