On September 24, 1799, Russian units under the command of Russia’s military genius, Aleksandr Suvorov, broke through the Saint Gotthard pass following three days of bloody battles, part of their legendary 190-mile march over the Swiss Alps. This operation was undertaken as part of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, becoming one of the most heroic, and tragic pages, in Russian military history.
As Napoleon was advancing deeper into European territory in 1799, Austria, a coalition partner, requested Aleksandr Suvorov be named Supreme Commander for a united military operation in Northern Italy, which Suvorov accepted with enthusiasm as he took command in February. However, Suvorov's success aroused Austrian fears for their position in Italy. As early as July, Austria and Great Britain pressed Pavel I, the Russian Emperor, to send Suvorov and his army into Switzerland to back up depleted Austrian regiments.
To effectively undertake the Swiss offensive, Suvorov had to reunite with troops commanded by General Rimsky-Korsakov. Suvorov, worried about Rimsky-Korsakov’s units, abandoned by retreating Austrians and left to fight one-on-one against a stronger and well-armed French army, he chose the fastest, yet most difficult route to Switzerland, that is, a march through a series of ridges in the Swiss Alps.
At the town of Taverna, Suvorov learned that ammunition and supplies promised by his Austrian allies had not been delivered. Such mishaps cost Suvorov’s army five days of advancing, which was fatal for the ultimate outcome of the campaign, robbing the army of the advantage of spontaneity. On 21 September, Suvorov's troops reached the Saint Gotthard Pass, the fastest means through the most difficult route through the Alps. Suvorov sent General Rosenberg to outflank the French position as he attacked it directly and, on 24 September after three attacks, the Russians broke, though 2000 soldiers lost their lives in the battle.
This is how Suvorov described the battle in his report to Emperor Pavel. “Every step in this realm of horror resembled open graves, ready to swallow… It was there that Mount Saint Gotthard appeared before our eyes – this mighty colossus, higher than the drifting thunder clouds, and the other one, aspiring to it, Vogelsberg. All dangers and hardships were overcome and, even confronted by the forces of nature, the bravery of the warriors who appeared suddenly on this site defeated the foe, nestling in the holes and inaccessible and advantageous locations… The troops of Your Imperial Majesty passed through the mountain cave, Lucerne-Lach, and occupied the Devil’s Bridge – a creation of mischievous nature and two mountains. It was destroyed by the enemy. But it didn’t stop the victors. The logs were tied together with the officers’ scarves, and they ran down these logs, descending from the tops and, reaching the enemy, defeated him everywhere.”
After a series of bloody battles, with almost no food supplies left and amidst heavy snow storms, what was left of Suvorov’s army finally reached safety. Shortly before, Suvorov learned that the Russian regiments of Rimsky-Korsakov, abandoned by the Austrian allies, were defeated in Zurich on September 26.
As soon as Russian Emperor Pavel saw the united actions with such allies as Austrians had proved tragically ineffective, he called Suvorov and what was left of his army back to Russia. For this operation, Suvorov was promoted to Generalissimo. At the Saint Gotthard Pass a monument has been erected to honor the bravery of the Russian Army, and annual celebrations take place to commemorate the great event.