Few regions in the world are so filled with memories of French military glory as northern Italy. The great Napoleon Bonaparte became a legend with his unforgettable victories over the Austrians at Lodi, Arcola, Rivoli and Marengo. In 1859, his nephew, the French Emperor Napoleon III, sought to re-create the splendor of these famous battles by leading a French army against the Austrians in the same region.
In 1859, Italy’s numerous small states were not yet united into one nation. The most important of those states was Piedmont, located in the northwestern corner of Italy. Piedmont’s prime minister, Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, wanted to enlarge his state, but the powerful Austrians held the regions of Lombardy and Venetia to the east. Cavour soon found a way to exploit Napoleon III’s ambitions and at the same time further his own.
First, on December 10, 1858, Cavour secured a promise of French military intervention if Piedmont came under attack. He then sought to provoke Austria by mobilizing Piedmontese armed forces on March 9, 1859. Austria began mobilizing on April 9 and issued an ultimatum for Piedmont to demobilize on the 23rd. Cavour rejected the ultimatum, and when Austria invaded Piedmont six days later, rail cars were already rushing French troops to help defend the little kingdom.
The Austrian commander in chief, Field Marshal Graf Ferenc Gyulay, was not a very aggressive leader, and his sluggish and indecisive advance soon petered out. He took up defensive positions along the north bank of the Po River and surrendered the initiative to the Franco-Piedmontese allies. Gyulay did send 20,000 men to probe the allied eastern flank, but they fell back after a defeat at Montebello on May 20. After another defeat by the Piedmontese at Palestro on May 30-31, Gyulay’s exhausted troops began withdrawing back into Lombardy. By June 2, the allied French and Piedmontese army under Napoleon III’s command had swept northward round Gyulay’s western flank to Novara.
Piedmont was safe. Napoleon III now sought to liberate the Austrian-held regions of Lombardy and Venetia to the east. A French brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot, was elated. ‘The Austrians are demoralized, he wrote, our soldiers full of confidence and fervor. Success is not in doubt.
To enter Lombardy, the allies had to cross the unfordable Ticino River, which runs from the mighty Alps in the north to join the Po River in the south. The main road, which ran eastward to Milan, the capital of Lombardy, crossed the Ticino at the village of San Martino. There, the Austrians had built a redoubt on the river’s west bank to protect the bridge.
Seven miles to the north of San Martino, the Austrians had left the Ticino unguarded at Turbigo. On June 2, Napoleon III summoned Maj. Gen. Jacques Camou, the commander of the Voltigeur Division of the Guard, and ordered him to secure a bridgehead there. Major General Joseph-Edouard de La Motte Rouge, a French divisional commander, watched Camou’s guardsmen leave Novara. Nothing was finer, he recalled, than to see these magnificent troops parading in the streets of the town, with drummers beating and a band leading the way, before going to prepare the invasion of the enemy territory.
No bridge spanned the Ticino at Turbigo, but by dawn on June 3 Camou’s men had thrown three pontoon bridges over the river. Later that day, Maj. Gen. Marie Edmé Patrice Maurice de MacMahon’s French II Corps began to reinforce Camou at the bridgehead. The Austrian forces that advanced against Turbigo were routed.
Meanwhile, surprising developments had occurred to the south, at San Martino. On the evening of June 2, the Austrians had abandoned the redoubt, retreated across the Ticino and tried to blow up the bridge behind them. But they had no blasting powder, and the ordinary powder merely damaged two arches. Infantrymen could still cross easily, and the bridge could be patched so that cavalry and even artillery could still pass over the weakened section.
Napoleon III planned a two-pronged advance on June 4 to open the main road that crossed the Ticino and continued on to Milan. One prong, spearheaded by the Grenadier Division of the Guard, was to thrust along the road across the Ticino at San Martino and then eastward toward the village of Magenta. Meanwhile, the second prong–MacMahon’s II Corps, supported by the Voltigeur Division of the Guard and followed by the Piedmontese army–would press southward from the Turbigo bridgehead to Magenta, where the two sections of Napoleon III’s army would unite.
Napoleon III’s plan was fraught with risk and would have proved fatal against a competent foe. If the two allied prongs ran into serious opposition, they would find themselves disunited and unable to lend each other immediate support. No telegraph line linked San Martino and Turbigo, so the French would have to rely on horsemen and cannon-shot signals for communications.
The French emperor did not expect to run into a pitched battle on June 4, for he doubted that the Austrians would have any significant forces in position to block the French advance. He thought that the Austrian army was still to the south and that it might thrust northward. Napoleon therefore aimed to establish his force astride the Ticino by the end of June 4. The French Guard and the II and III corps, supported by the Piedmontese, were to take up positions on the east bank of the Ticino and face south, from which direction the Austrians were expected. The French I and IV corps would stand on the west bank and face south to cover the allied lines of communication to Turin and Genoa.
Magenta would be an encounter battle, unexpected by either general and fought by only a fraction of each army. Ironically, Gyulay had intended to give his troops a day’s rest on June 4 to adjust his dispositions. He had only the II Corps, most of the I Corps, a cavalry division and part of VII Corps immediately available for a battle at Magenta. Other units, including the III Corps, were within reasonable marching distance of the battlefield, but Gyulay’s army was chronically disunited as it straggled back into Lombardy. Thus the French were not going up against a strongly defended or well-prepared position. But if they failed to establish themselves at Magenta by dusk, they would face a nearly impossible task later on.
The Grenadier Division of the Guard began to reach San Martino at 10 a.m. on June 4. Thirty minutes later, Napoleon III also arrived, and soldiers began to repair the damaged bridge and build a pontoon crossing 300 meters to the north. Toward noon, the emperor heard firing from the north and saw clouds of smoke through the trees. MacMahon had begun his advance from the Turbigo bridgehead. It was the signal to unleash the Guard along the main road to seize Magenta.
From the Ticino, the guardsmen first had to advance two miles across a low, flat and exposed plain. This led to a steep bank that rose 50 or 60 feet. East of this bank lay the Naviglio Grande canal, which was 10 meters wide and 2 meters deep with masses of prickly acacia growing on its steep sides. It also had a strong current and could not be crossed except by bridge. But the Austrians had managed to blow up only two, at the villages of Boffalora to the north and Ponte Vecchio to the south. In between lay two intact bridges. One carried the main road over the canal at the hamlet of Ponte Nuovo. Four hundred meters to the south, the other bridge served the railway, which ran parallel to the road all the way to Milan. Without those two vital bridges, the French could not have forced a crossing by direct assault from the west. MacMahon’s command would then have been dangerously isolated as it advanced southward on the east bank.
The Grenadier Division of the Guard was a crack formation of tough troops and renowned commanders. One of the division’s four regiments, the 2nd Grenadiers, thrust northeastward along a minor road to Boffalora. The soldiers attacked the village but found that the bridge had been blown up, so they could only fire across the canal.
Better luck awaited the 3rd Grenadiers 2,000 meters to the south. The regiment advanced along the main road, followed by the Zouaves of the Guard and two guns, while the 1st Grenadiers remained near the Ticino in reserve. The 3rd Grenadiers had covered less than half the distance over the plain when they came under fire from three guns. Two French cannons returned fire and forced the Austrian artillerymen to retire, while the grenadiers quickly descended into the fields south of the main road.
The 3rd Grenadiers waded through the soaked fields, knee-deep in water and ankle-deep in mud. The steep bank now loomed above them and looked like a man-made embankment constructed especially for defense. White-coated Austrian infantrymen had massed at the points where the road and the railway reached the top of the heights, and barricades guarded these two access points. Austrian reserves sheltered under cover. A visitor to the battlefield later commented, The position was so good, that it seemed almost madness to attack it.
The weakest point was the railway line. Immediately next to it, on either side, the ground was bare; no trees or vines would hinder charging troops. Furthermore, the railway ran gently up to the crest of the heights on an embankment, which would cover the attackers on one side from flanking fire. The greatest obstacle was the large, exposed field the grenadiers would have to cross to reach the foot of the bank.
The leading battalion assembled at the edge of the field behind a row of trees and then dashed forward under a hail of fire. Before the Austrians could reload, the survivors had reached the far side. Quickly depositing their heavy knapsacks, they charged up the slope. The grenadiers wasted no time firing upward but counted on the sheer élan of their assault to guarantee their success. Indeed, before the first man reached the summit, the Austrians had abandoned both their positions and a gun.
The guardsmen pressed on and chased the fleeing Austrians over the railway bridge. But on either side, other troops held on at Ponte Nuovo and Ponte Vecchio. From Ponte Nuovo in particular, the Austrians poured heavy fire into the grenadiers from only 400 meters away. The French fired back, but they had to either take Ponte Nuovo or abandon their positions. A battalion advanced northward along the canal to seize the two houses of Ponte Nuovo that stood on the west bank, then tried unsuccessfully to storm the stone bridge under fire from the Austrian 60th Infantry.
It was a temporary setback. Brigadier General Jean Joseph Gustave Cler brought up the ferocious Zouaves of the Guard, who burst over the bridge and cleared the customs houses on the far bank with cold steel. How fine it was, recalled a Zouave captain, to see our old sweats cheerfully prepare to attack and hurl themselves on the canal bridge shouting ‘Long live the Emperor!’ We were sniped at from all the windows of the customs houses situated on the other side of the bridge. We lost some men but rapidly took the crossing and saw the Austrians fleeing on every side.
So far everything had gone pretty well according to plan for the French. But, suddenly, an entire division of the Austrian VII Corps launched a powerful and wholly unexpected counterattack. Cler’s riderless horse appeared out of the smoke; the intrepid general had fallen dead in the midst of his soldiers. The Austrians seized a French gun and retook the houses of Ponte Nuovo on the east bank.
Outnumbered and weary, the Grenadier Division was isolated on the edge of the plateau above the plain as fresh Austrian units advanced against it. If the guardsmen gave way, they would be unlikely to regain their foothold, and MacMahon, whose guns had fallen strangely silent to the north, would be alone, in a perilous position.
Messengers seeking reinforcements galloped to Napoleon III at San Martino only to be told bluntly: I have nothing to send. Hold on. Block the passage. Other messengers rode off one after another to hurry the march of the French III and VII corps, which had been delayed by the congestion on the main road from Novara.
For an hour, the heroic guardsmen fought against the odds and repulsed repeated frontal assaults by Austrian columns. At last, toward 3:30 p.m., when the agony was at its height, fresh troops in blue coats and red trousers appeared along the railway embankment. A brigade of Marshal François de Certain-Canrobert’s III Corps had arrived in the nick of time to save the Guard’s tenuous hold on the canal line.
These fresh troops, the 8th Battalion of Chasseurs and the 23rd and 90th Line infantry regiments, had run the last two miles and arrived in disorder. The guardsmen shouted in joy and relief. Immediately, some of the newly arrived infantrymen repelled the Austrians assaulting Ponte Nuovo while the rest rushed to Ponte Vecchio, where the Austrian III Corps was now attacking northwestward along both banks of the canal to try and roll up the French line from the south. The French took heavy losses in this unequal fight, but they had won time for the leading division of the IV Corps to arrive.
That division, accompanied by the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Adolphe comte Niel, reached the canal at the run and went straight into action. Colonel Barthélemy Véron-Bellecourt led his 85th Line Infantry scrambling up the railway embankment. At the top, he found the Austrians just 20 paces from the railway bridge. He drew his sword, yelled To me, 85th! and led a ferocious bayonet charge that hurled back the foe. Savage fighting ensued, but at 6 p.m. another brigade of the III Corps arrived and further secured the French position.
The butchery was worst at Ponte Vecchio, where the destruction of the bridge made it difficult for both the French and the Austrians to support their comrades on the other bank. At one point, four French generals found themselves together in the village on one side of the canal, while Marshal Canrobert stood opposite. Bullets whistled through the air, breaking tiles or gouging plaster from walls of houses. Thick smoke drifted over the carnage.
The French encountered such strong resistance at Ponte Vecchio because Austrian reinforcements were advancing northwestward from the village of Abbiate Grasso to the battlefield. These troops came up along the canal against Ponte Vecchio and attacked the village several times, giving up only at dusk.
Meanwhile, what had befallen MacMahon’s detachment as it descended from the Turbigo bridgehead? The march had begun at 10 a.m. but became a nightmare when it ran into Austrian resistance about noon. Rows of trees, countless irrigation channels and densely planted mulberry bushes limited visibility to 100 meters. The countryside was as difficult to traverse as the infamous bocage of Normandy that would prove so troublesome to the Allies in June 1944. The French units often halted to re-form before pushing on southeastward in the stifling heat. The ground sloped gently but continuously, like the glacis of a fortress, up to Magenta.
A potentially dangerous gap separated the two infantry divisions of the II Corps, and the Austrian I Corps commander, Lt. Field Marshal Eduard Graf von Clam-Gallas, launched a vigorous counterattack. MacMahon was so rattled that he pulled back and suspended the fighting until about 4:30 p.m., at which time the Austrians were fiercely assailing the grenadiers along the canal. Gyulay sensed victory. He thought that he had beaten MacMahon and would soon crush the Guard. He therefore dispatched a telegram to Vienna, stating that he had successfully repulsed the French attack.
Gyulay’s announcement was a bit premature. By 5 p.m. the Austrians were heavily engaged along the canal. MacMahon had rallied his command and at last renewed his advance, driving southward on Magenta as buglers and drummers sounded the charge. After a ferocious fight, the Austrians gave way and hastened to the village.
Fighting soon raged in Magenta’s narrow streets. MacMahon’s infantrymen penetrated into the village from the north and fired from whatever cover they could find at the Austrians just 100 meters away. The Austrian fire was so fierce that nobody could advance up the main road from the railway station. The French brought up two cannons and somehow established them in the ground floor of the station, using the windows as embrasures. Their rapid fire breached the nearby houses, softened up the defense and allowed the French infantrymen to continue their advance.
One of MacMahon’s divisional commanders, the intrepid Maj. Gen. Charles Marie Esprit Espinasse, led his 2nd Zouaves into Magenta but found corpses and wounded men covering the streets. When his horse stumbled, Epinasse said: We can’t stay on this moving ground. Let us dismount. Suddenly, his 27-year-old orderly, 2nd Lt. André de Froidfond, took a bullet in the stomach and collapsed against a wall.
The firing came from a large house several stories high at a street corner. Scores of bodies lay slumped before it, and Espinasse knew what he had to do. We must take it at all costs, he exclaimed. Come on, my Zouaves, break down this door! He banged the pommel of his sword against the metal shutter of a ground floor window and shouted, Enter, enter through there! Before anyone could do so, a shot came from the same window and struck Espinasse, breaking his arm and penetrating his kidneys. He dropped his sword and fell, mortally wounded. Espinasse’s men avenged him by storming the house and killing or capturing its defenders.
Espinasse had a white dog, and few pets have been so faithful. The animal refused to leave the spot where the general fell, except when it heard the beating of a drum. Then the dog would dash away in the hope of finding its master. The local people adopted the dog, which died a couple of years later.
Espinasse’s death did not end the struggle in Magenta. Nothing could give an idea of this dreadful fight, wrote one senior French officer, of this bloody turmoil, of these screams, this gunfire mingled with the rifle-fire, this furious and implacable melee. Squeezed in the narrow streets, our men seemed in their heroic, desperate attacks to take the houses corpse by corpse. Magenta was home to 4,000 people, and the Austrians had turned each house into a strongpoint, which the French had to seize in brutal close-quarters fighting. Many of the Austrian defenders were marksmen of the Tyrolean Jägers or hardened Croats who rarely granted quarter.
After repeated attacks, the French Algerian Tirailleurs and 70th Line infantry reached the church and the houses around it. The church was defended extremely bitterly, recalled La Motte Rouge. Numerous skirmishers established in the church tower kept up a murderous fire on our soldiers who left many of their number on the ground, which was swept by this downward fire. Only after repeated attempts did they finally manage to surround and seize it, bayoneting all who did not surrender. However, the toughest strongpoint proved to be the cemetery southwest of Magenta, which finally fell. Toward 8:30 p.m., MacMahon’s men finally occupied the entire village. Shocked French survivors stumbled into cellars and were soon blissfully drunk.
The news reached Paris by telegraph on Sunday, June 5. At 7 p.m., the cannons at the Invalides thundered to announce the victory, just as they had fired to celebrate the glorious triumphs of the First Empire. The entire city was illuminated all night, and to commemorate the victory, a new color of dye created shortly after the battle was called magenta.
At Magenta itself, the surviving troops were coping with the aftermath of the battle. I fought in Africa and the Crimea, declared a bugler of the 85th Line Infantry, but nowhere was it hotter than yesterday. Dead bodies strewed the ghastly field on the morning after the fighting ended. A French newspaper correspondent confessed that after ten minutes, I felt a keen wish to leave and I shut my eyes so as not to see all these pale faces contracted by the final pain. Stretcher-bearers moved somberly through the carnage, each team carrying some bloodstained wretch, and looters prowled the field.
A mournful silence covered the desolate scene, broken only by the murmured words of the priests or the sobs and sighs of the injured soldiers. The fallen troops were buried in mass graves at Magenta with little reverence, while trains collected the seriously wounded men from the local railroad station.
The Austrians believed that the French killed prisoners, and thus many wounded men hid in cellars and bled to death. In fact, the French conduct at Magenta was exemplary, and the troops won high praise from a correspondent of the London Times: Not even towards their own soldiers are the French more humane than towards those who fell into their hands by the chances of war. They nurse them like children, handle them gently, like mothers, and do everything in their power to relieve their sufferings.
The French suffered more than 4,500 casualties at Magenta. The Austrians lost 5,700 troops killed or wounded, in addition to which lines of dejected Austrian prisoners, 4,500 men in all, snaked westward. Edmund Texier wrote to the French newspaper Siècle, This day will have a great place in our military annals. Indeed, Napoleon III promoted both MacMahon and the commander of the Imperial Guard, Maj. Gen. Auguste Michel Marie Étienne Regnault comte de Saint-Jean-d’Angély, to the rank of marshal. He also made MacMahon the Duke of Magenta.
The victory opened the road to Milan for the allies, who entered the city on June 7 and 8, amid scenes of unparalleled rejoicing. Magenta was indeed an epic victory, but not a decisive one. A lack of supplies ruled out an immediate allied pursuit, and the beaten Austrians were able to break contact, retreat 100 miles eastward and regroup to fight again. The war itself would end indecisively after another Austrian defeat at Solferino on June 24. Piedmont would gain Lombardy but not Venetia.
The French defeated the Austrians at Magenta despite the numerical odds and the difficulties of the terrain. The Austrian troops put up a tough defense of the village of Magenta itself, but elsewhere their resistance was unimpressive. The blame lay partly with the appalling Austrian supply system, for the troops had received no rations for 48 hours. The soldiers came from a wide variety of regions and peoples, and many did not want to fight for the Austrian empire. The Austrian high command, like the French, had failed to bring all their troops into battle; only about 54,000 Frenchmen and 58,000 Austrians actually saw action.
The French had better training, better troops and better tactics, but these would not have prevailed against a competent Austrian high command. In 1859, as in the Crimean War of 1854-56, the victors won primarily because they were marginally less incompetent than the vanquished. The glory had been won by second-rate generals against a third-rate enemy.
The real heroes were the French rank and file, for Magenta was a soldiers’ battle. As the commander of the Grenadier Division of the Guard, Maj. Gen. Émile Mellinet, proudly wrote, I hope that the Emperor will be pleased with his grenadiers and zouaves, for I defy anyone to find braver troops. *
This article was written by Andrew Uffindell and originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!