To the Austrian-born commander of Turin’s defense forces, Weirich Philip Lorenz, Count von Daun, the military situation around the Italian city looked grim. The year was 1706, and French soldiers besieging the city had nearly completed encircling trenchworks and were now battering the walls with heavy siege guns. Nine miles of tunnels and subterranean galleries dug by attackers and defenders alike had become a nightmarish scene of exploding mines and bloody hand-to-hand clashes deep underground.
To make matters worse, the lord of the city, Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, had galloped out of Turin with 6,000 cavalrymen early in the siege and was now being vigorously pursued by the French. Von Daun knew that if Victor Amadeus did not return soon with reinforcements, the city’s vaunted defenses would be pummeled into ruins.
The siege of Turin was an important byproduct of the War of the Spanish Succession. When Carlos II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain, died heirless in 1700, a hotbed of intrigue, jealousy and bloodshed was laid open. Just prior to his death, Carlos had designated Philippe, duc d’Anjou, as his successor. But Philippe was only one of several men with legitimate claims to the Spanish throne. Anjou’s own uncle, King Louis XIV of France, boasted family ties, as did Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy. Leopold was especially incensed that Anjou would be crowned Spain’s king and would, in all likelihood, draw the Iberian kingdom into the French camp. To counter the spread of French hegemony in Europe, the leaders of Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia and Hanover aligned themselves with Leopold. France quickly collected its own supporters in Bavaria, Mantua, Piedmont and Savoy. The succession to the Spanish throne would have to be decided on the battlefield.
Among the French goals was the domination of Italy. If the northern states of the peninsula could be subdued, Louis and his advisers were sure the rest of Italy would fall into place under French influence. But in 1701 and 1702, one of Emperor Leopold’s ablest generals, Prince Eugene of Savoy, had succeeded in defeating French armies at Carpi, Chiari and Cremona. On August 15, 1702, Eugene battled the French in a particularly vicious engagement at Luzarra, south of the Po River. Although both sides claimed victory, Louis’ thrust into Italy had been temporarily stymied. ‘I can say without exaggeration,’ wrote the Austrian minister to London, ‘that in English eyes no Alexander the Great, no Julius Caesar, can compare with Prince Eugene.’
A change of alliances, however, was about to complicate the situation. The Duchy of Savoy, which bordered France, was a nominal ally of King Louis — until Victor Amadeus, second cousin to Eugene, decided the timing was right to abandon France and join Leopold’s allies. Eugene’s victories in northern Italy had convinced Victor Amadeus that French power was on the wane. If he acted quickly and jumped on the winning bandwagon, he hoped to gain Spain’s Milanese territory.
When the French learned of the impending alliance, however, they took steps to counter Savoy’s defection. During a skirmish at San Benedetto Po, they disarmed the Savoyard troops positioned on their flank and arrested several generals. The French also demanded the surrender of a number of key fortresses. On November 8, 1703, an indignant Victor Amadeus formally declared Savoy part of Leopold’s imperial league.
The Duke of Savoy quickly found his change of colors to have been poorly timed. He had undoubtedly reckoned that his cousin would be on hand to prevent any French incursions into Savoyard domains. Louis’ armies, after all, were still reeling from the hammer strokes Eugene had delivered earlier in northern Italy. They would have to think twice before risking battle with the brilliant general. Unfortunately for Victor Amadeus, Eugene was nowhere near the French frontier.
In late autumn 1703, Eugene had left for Vienna to beg for money and equipment to supply his ragtag army. At the imperial court, he encountered some of Leopold’s more incompetent advisers and made little headway in procuring the necessary funds and arms. ‘If the people who run this country are not traitors,’ he fumed in a letter, ‘then assuredly they are the biggest asses I have ever seen in my life. Addressing them is like speaking to a brick wall.’ To make matters worse, the imperial treasury was in a tenuous state.
Rather than rankle one of his best generals, Leopold appointed Eugene to the important post of president of the Imperial War Council. Although the Savoyard was unable to gain much monetary support, his new office allowed him to carry out critical military reforms. Those reforms would pay dividends later, when Eugene’s Austrian troops joined the English forces of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to inflict a painful defeat on a combined French and Bavarian army at Blenheim on August 13, 1704.
Earlier in 1704, the French took the offensive by attacking the domains of Victor Amadeus. By year’s end, nearly all of Savoy had fallen to the French, except for a scattering of fortresses and the heavily defended capital city of Turin. King Louis was certain that once the Savoyard upstarts were taught a lesson, the rest of the Italian peninsula would be swayed to his standard. He directed one army to keep the passes through the Alps secure so that Eugene could not return to his homeland with reinforcements, while another army laid siege to Turin.
Counseling the French king was no less a siege expert than Sebastien le Prestre, marquis de Vauban. Born in 1633, Vauban had raised siege warfare to a science, participating in more than 140 battles and directing more than 50 sieges. At Maastricht, in 1673, he had introduced the idea of excavating trenches parallel to the city’s walls; Maastricht surrendered after 13 days of siege.
Vauban advocated seizing the Mount of the Capuchins overlooking Turin. Once the high ground had been taken, the French army could then bombard the city while sappers dug the trenchworks and prepared mining operations. ‘The siege of Turin will doubtlessly be the most important undertaking of the Italian campaign,’ he noted. The city ‘is well populated and equipped with a defense system including seventeen or eighteen bastions. The fortifications are exceedingly strong. The citadel is mined within and without and is protected by deep moats and covered trenches in excellent repair.’
Turin was indeed a formidable obstacle. Sixteen bastions named after various saints were well-manned by Savoyard soldiery. The citadel, built in 1564, was pentagonal, with a bastion anchoring each angle and with long rectilinear walls on each side. A pair of massive gates connected the fortress to a crescent-shaped fortification facing the countryside. Nine miles of mine shafts, ending in chambers filled with explosives, snaked underground outside the walls of the city. The explosives could be detonated with disastrous effect on an unwary attacker.
The responsibility for toppling Turin was placed in the hands of 30-year-old General Louis Franois Aubusson, duc de la Feuillade. In August 1705, la Feuillade initiated his attack by trying to destroy the mine complexes encircling the city. With only 21,000 men at their disposal, the French felt the fortifications were too strong to begin formal siege operations. If they waited until spring, weather conditions would be more favorable and Louis XIV would have time to field a larger force.
By May 1706, la Feuillade’s army had swelled to more than 40,000 combined French and Spanish troops. Headstrong and arrogant, the French commander ignored Vauban’s suggestion that the Mount of the Capuchins be captured to dominate Turin from its heights. Rather, he elected to bombard the city and stage a direct attack — a much quicker path to victory than a prolonged siege, provided it worked. On May 14, his batteries began to pound Turin with as many as 8,000 projectiles a day.
At the height of the bombardment, Victor Amadeus rode out of Turin with 6,000 cavalrymen to harass the French rear and, hopefully, link up with Prince Eugene, who was sure to send a relief army through the Alps. Left in command of the city defenses was the Austrian Count von Daun. Approximately 4,000 Austrian and Savoyard troops manned the bastions and walls, although a few Savoyards deserted when the French offered two gold louis to anyone who would leave the city.
Von Daun managed to rally his troops after the departure of Victor Amadeus, and they successfully repelled la Feuillade’s frontal assault. Unfortunately for the defenders of Turin, powder was in short supply. Rather than attempt to duel the French batteries, von Daun elected to use his remaining resources in mining operations. A maze of tunnels and galleries, some as deep as 45 feet, snaked from the walls toward the French lines. Shallower mines, containing powder chambers and listening posts, paralleled the deeper tunnels.
Unable to breech the city walls with artillery fire, the French began to dig trench works and countermine, but La Feuillade, described by some of his critics as having a ‘heart corrupted through and through’ and a’soul of mud,’ was not interested in conducting a prolonged siege. Instead, he turned his attention away from Turin to the pursuit of Victor Amadeus. The Duke of Savoy managed to elude his enemy while springing several bloody ambushes during June and July. Riders bearing dispatches kept le Feuillade informed as to the progress of the siege, while he squandered his pursuit force in vain attempts to bring Victor Amadeus to bay. By the end of July, he had stripped away as many as 13 of the 65 battalions encircling the city.
At Turin, meanwhile, French sappers worked to complete lines of circumvallation to surround the city and lines of contravallation to protect their rear from relief forces. French countermining threatened to break into the tunnels and galleries the Savoyards had been extending. Von Daun ordered several of the mines to be blown up to stymie enemy progress. On July 8, massive explosions ripped the landscape in front of the city, swallowing several French batteries and three companies of grenadiers.
While the garrison of Turin struggled to hold the city — and survive — Prince Eugene managed to raise an army to come to the aid of his beleaguered cousin. Partly funded by the English Duke of Marlborough, Eugene’s forces included 9,000 Prussian cavalrymen led by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau. The problem was finding a soft spot in the French defenses guarding the Alpine passes leading to Italy.
Facing Eugene’s relief force along an 80-mile front on the Adige River was the crafty and experienced French Marshal Louis Joseph, duc de Vend™me. ‘We should rather sacrifice the army than give up this river…,’ wrote Vend™me on June 16. ‘We are…in strong positions everywhere here, and well entrenched, so that it will be easy for us to hold, and if…the enemy intends to make an attempt, he will suffer for it.’
Vend™me’s ambitious decision to defend the length of the Adige was fraught with peril. He was unaware that Eugene was being reinforced, and by establishing such lengthy defenses, he would be unable to concentrate his forces quickly enough to counter any concerted attacks made by the Savoyard. Vend™me’s subordinate, General Saint-FrŽmont, suggested that the defensive lines should be drawn along the shorter and more tenable Mincio River 20 miles to the west, but his superior refused. To make matters worse, the depredations of the French troops along the river began to alienate the people of the Venetian Republic through whose lands the Adige flowed. Since Marlborough had defeated the French at Ramillies in Flanders on May 23, Venice had become even more well-disposed toward the allied cause.
Eugene, however, was not about to attempt a river crossing in the teeth of French defenses. Taking advantage of Venetian neutrality, he marched southward, leaving garrisons at key points along the Adige to confuse the French. ‘I have brought boats to a number of places to alarm the enemy everywhere,’ Eugene wrote to Victor Amadeus on June 27, ‘but I think of attempting the real passage below Badia [in Venetian territory].’
In early July, Eugene’s army, numbering some 30,000 troops, crossed the Adige near Rovigo and sent the sparse French defenders careening in retreat. Vend™me, however, was calm. ‘You can be sure,’ he reported to Louis XIV, ‘that Prince Eugene will not be able to disturb the siege of Turin. We have too many positions in which to stop him, for his dreaming of bringing relief.’ But despite his smug reassurances, Vend™me was unable to carry out his boast. In the wake of the French defeat at Ramillies, he was recalled to France to protect the king’s interests in Belgium.
Replacing Vend™me was the king’s nephew, Philippe, duc d’OrlŽans. Arriving in mid-July with 14,000 reinforcements, Philippe immediately set off for Turin, leaving Marshal Ferdinand de Marsin to deal with the troublesome Eugene. According to Vend™me, Marsin was ‘a brave man, just and honorable, but he always adopts the opinion of whoever speaks to him last, which is a great defect in a commander-in-chief.’
Prince Eugene, meanwhile, had successfully turned the French flank and crossed the Po River south of Rovigo on July 17. The French defenses melted at his approach. Surprised at the ease of his advance, he remarked in a letter to the Hapsburg emperor, ‘I cannot imagine at all why the army has abandoned all its works at such speed.’ Marching by night to escape the broiling heat of day, Eugene’s army swung south past the village of Ferrara, then west to parallel the Po. Fording the Panaro and Sechhia rivers, the soldiers sped on past Carpi and Parma. Finding the mountain pass at Stradella undefended, they bypassed the French-garrisoned town of Alessandria. Thwarting Marsin’s attempt to locate his rapidly moving column, Eugene crossed the Tanaro River on August 29, linking up with Victor Amadeus at Villa Stelloni two days later. The combined armies of the Savoyard cousins were only 20 miles south of Turin.
As Eugene and Victor Amadeus maneuvered toward the city, OrlŽans ordered la Feuillade to press the siege of Turin with greater vigor. French sappers broke into the Savoyard underground galleries and mine shafts surrounding the city. Groping in the near darkness, illuminated only by flickering fuses tracing their way toward caches of explosives, French and Savoyard sappers grappled and fought with pickaxes, shovels and knives. Explosions ripped through the catacombs, releasing lingering clouds of carbon monoxide. Convicts, who had been promised liberty for their cooperation, were ordered to crawl into the deadly chambers to retrieve the bodies.
Count von Daun’s sappers drove a new shaft toward the French perimeter, where a battery of 14 field guns had recently been emplaced. Located at the edge of the citadel’s moat, the artillery threatened to breach the walls. On August 24, the Savoyard sappers exploded a huge mine under the enemy position. Twelve of the guns were swallowed by the earth.
Le Feuillade was not to be outdone. Three days later, an enormous French mine was detonated close to the citadel’s walls. The stone barrier sagged, then collapsed. At midnight, Prince Philippe ordered his infantry to storm the breach. The desperate defenders fought back with terrible ferocity. After several hours of hand-to-hand fighting, the attackers were driven back through the breach and into the moat. Enfilading fire from General Giuseppe Maria Solara della Margherita’s artillery hammered the milling French infantry mercilessly. By late afternoon, after hours of carnage, the French asked for a truce to retrieve their wounded, who were crying pitifully from the tangle in the moat. Von Daun refused. With his walls breached and his citadel very nearly fallen, he feared a surprise attack. The Austrian commander ordered hundreds of carts of brush and other incendiaries to be thrown into the moat over the dead and wounded alike. Von Daun then ordered torches set to the debris.
The French remained determined to enter the beleaguered city. On the night of August 29, a squad of French soldiers discovered an opening leading to an underground Savoyard gallery running back to the citadel. Overpowering a detachment of grenadiers guarding the tunnel, the French only had to deal with a pair of sappers laying explosives. As the infiltrators approached, the sappers managed to slam a barricading door shut. One of the sappers, Pietro Micca, shortened the cloth fuse leading to the explosives and ordered his companion to follow the fleeing grenadiers. When his comrade hesitated, Micca cried out, ‘You are longer than a day without bread!’ Moments later, with French axes smashing at the door, the sputtering fabric ignited the fuse. Micca was running to the ladder when the mine went off, burying the invaders and hurling him 40 paces up the passage, where he died of his internal injuries or from the gases produced by the explosion. The sapper’s sacrifice, however, effectively sealed the tunnel.
Outside the walls, the French commanders faced a dilemma. Eugene’s army, combined with Victor Amadeus’ cavalry, was rapidly approaching the city. To make matters worse, 4,000 additional Hessians had joined the troops Eugene had stationed at the Adige River. Within days, they would also be ready to relieve the siege.
To combat Eugene’s thrust, OrlŽans advocated abandoning the siege and preparing to meet the enemy on open ground, where the strength of 60,000 French troops could be brought to bear. The Count of Merode-Westerloo recommended that the French should sally forth and ‘crush the bold Eugene, for he had exposed his whole army without reserve.’ La Feuillade and Marsin, on the other hand, disagreed with that strategy, both preferring to complete the siege. With dissension rife in the French camp, Marsin became despondent. ‘Death,’ he confided in a letter, ‘…thrusts itself upon me at every moment and possesses me night and day.’ Unable to agree, the French commanders meekly awaited Eugene’s attack.
Rising 2,000 feet above Turin, the nearby Mount of the Capuchins provided an excellent view of the city and the French trenches. Unopposed, Eugene and Victor Amadeus spurred their mounts to the top of the hill. From their perch, it appeared as if the enemy were in a state of confusion. Thousands of French soldiers still manned the trenches, with most of their siege guns still pointing at Turin. North of the city, the trench works had not even been completed, leaving a soft spot in the French defenses. Should the relief army choose the proper moment to attack, the French would be unable to muster their superior numbers to counter it. Eugene turned to his cousin and remarked, ‘It seems to me that these people are half beaten.’ They dispatched a messenger to Turin with new orders for Count von Daun.
At dawn on September 7, Eugene’s allied army, spearheaded by Leopold von Anhalt-Dessau’s tough Prussians, surged toward the weakest section of the French lines between the Stura and Dora Riparia rivers northwest of Turin. Supported by German cavalry units under Baron Chriechbaum and Austrian infantry commanded by a renegade French nobleman, the marquis de Langallerie, the Savoyard general and his allies successfully cracked the French right. Brutal counterattacks ensued, and for a time the French managed to regain and hold their trenches.
Eugene and Victor Amadeus were in the thick of the fighting. Eugene’s page and a servant were killed at his side, and a horse was shot from under him. At critical moments in the battle he displayed an icy calm that inspired his troops, yet when needed, he would rage at his men and at the enemy. Eugene was ‘possessed with a sort of warlike fury,’ observed one of his officers, ‘his eyes lighted up; he rushed hither and thither, raging; he shrieked curses and encouragement, yelling and harking his bloody war-dogs on.’
On their left, which was anchored at the captured castle of Lorento, the French managed to turn several siege guns on their attackers and preserve their lines. But on the right, the allies had seized a French battery and lashed the trenches with the guns. Austrian and Savoyard hussars crashed into the French right wing, commanded by OrlŽans, and crumpled it. With such long lines to defend, la Feuillade was unable to concentrate his forces to repair the rupture. His troops on the right fled, while the soldiers on the more solid left and center managed to withdraw in better order, carrying their siege guns with them.
As the French abandoned their trench works, the gates to Turin’s citadel suddenly opened, and 12 battalions of defenders led by Count von Daun attacked the French flank. Victor Amadeus, personally leading his Savoyard cavalry, slammed into their rear. The French retreat became a rout.
By late afternoon, the fighting around Turin had finally broken off. Twice wounded, OrlŽans led his battered army eastward toward the garrisoned city of Alessandria, where he hoped for reinforcements and a chance to regroup. His columns had barely begun their withdrawal when news reached him that allied soldiers were holding the hills through which he would have to pass. Little did OrlŽans know that the soldiers in the heights were actually a mixed rabble of armed peasants and local militia. Had his scouts’ intelligence been more accurate, he could have fought his way through with little trouble to reach Alessandria, thereby maintaining a still-powerful French army in Lombardy. Instead, his army did an about-face and fled back toward France.
Eugene, though he had several scrapes with death during the battle, was ebullient. ‘Italy is ours and its conquest will not be costly,’ he exclaimed. Even before he regrouped his scattered battalions, he wrote to the Duke of Marlborough, thanking him for his monetary aid and for the German fighting men he had sent: ‘You have had so great a share in [this victory] by the succors you have procured, that you must permit me to thank you again.’ A delighted Marlborough replied, ‘I am assured that the French take more to heart their misfortune in Italy than they did that of Ramillies.’
French fortunes had indeed suffered badly. Although they had enjoyed overwhelming superiority in numbers, lackluster leadership had brought on a significant defeat. Nearly 3,000 Frenchmen had been killed and wounded — about the same number of casualties as the Savoyards suffered — but 6,000 more had been captured. In addition, 3,000 French horses had been captured, along with huge stores of munitions, siege guns and other supplies. Marshal Marsin — he of the gloomy mindset who had foreseen his own demise — was slain on the battlefield.
More important than the loss of men and materiel, however, was the collapse of Louis XIV’s plans for Italy. Allied pressure continued to mount, forcing the French king to turn his attention to Flanders, where future bloody battles would develop. Although the War of the Spanish Succession would continue until 1714, Italy was no longer the object of grand French schemes — until Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion almost a century later.
This article was written by Kenneth P. Czech and originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!