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The brief Italian campaign of 1859 was the first of a series of epoch making wars that marked the middle of the 19th century. Politically, the campaign led to the unification of Italy and the foundation of the Red Cross. Militarily it deserves more attention than it has received, as the first war in which both sides used the new industrial technologies of railways, the telegraph and rifled weapons.

Strategically, the French victory owed much to their efficient use of the railway network in the south of France and northern Italy. This allowed them to concentrate their forces rapidly, and then to steal a march on their Austrian opponents with the first operational maneuver to depend for its success not on soldiers’ legs but on machine power. Tactically the French found a distinctive solution to the problem of increasingly lethal ‘arms of precision.’ Exploiting the mobility and aggression of their infantry, the French gave the rifle and spade no chance to establish the tactical stranglehold that would characterize such battles as Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor. Perhaps the French were lucky in their choice of opponent. The hustling French military style contrasted with the heavy complacency of the Austrians, who almost seemed to welcome defeat with honor.

The outbreak of hostilities in April 1859 resulted from a conspiracy between Camillo Benso, conte di i Cavour, the first minister of the northern Italian kingdom of Sardinia, and the parvenu emperor of the French, Napoleon III. Both needed to loosen the Austrian grip on northern Italy, a legacy of the Napoleonic Wars that had been intended to limit renewed French aggression. Secured by its Second Army based in Milan, Austrian hegemony prevented unification of Italy’s patchwork of states, and was a standing target for nationalist subversion.

Cavour soon discerned in Napoleon III’s ambitions to emulate the achievements of his famous uncle, Napoleon I, an opportunity to advance his own vision of a united Italy. First, he secured a secret treaty with Napoleon III, which promised French support in a war with Austria. He then began to mobilize Piedmontese forces. Predictably, the Austrians began mobilizing on April 9, 1859 and on the 23rd they demanded the demobilization of Piedmontese forces. Piedmont rejected the ultimatum and 150,000 troops invaded Piedmontese territory on April 29. By then, however, French troops were already on trains bound for northern Italy.

The theater of war lay between the Alps to the north, and the River Po in the south, its many tributaries flowing across the fronts of the opposing armies. Like all short rivers supplied from mountains, these were low in summer, with wide, gravelly beds, divided into several channels by small islands. The Po itself was much larger, 550 yards across at Valenza, often raised by embankments above its original level. Crossed by relatively few masonry bridges, the Po presented a major obstacle to the movement of armies.

Between the rivers, the countryside was closely cultivated with vines, maize and rice, being much cut up with irrigation channels, lined with belts of trees and bushes. The whole country was a vast orchard densely planted with small fruit trees, interlaced with vines. These dramatically limited the use of artillery and cavalry; even infantry experienced difficulty moving cross-country. Although the strade reale, or post roads, between the larger towns were very good, the country roads were mere tracks which quickly became impassable in bad weather, or when heavily used.

The Austrian commander, Feldzeugmeister Ferenc Graf Gyulai, was from an old Austro-Hungarian military family. Aged 69, he was a good administrator, but he lacked operational experience and, as it turned out, the confidence to resolve the strategic dilemma presented to him in April 1859. Having opened hostilities, he might have been expected to move swiftly to crush the numerically inferior Sardinian army of 74,000 men. Gyulai, however, knew that the French were straining every nerve to reinforce their Allies; their III Corps had crossed into Sardinian territory several days before the termination of the Austrian ultimatum, heading for the Mont St. Cenis pass and the border fortress of Susa. Worse still, thanks to the telegraph, he knew that more French troops were disembarking from their steamships at Genoa. In this threat to Gyulai’s left lay the seeds of a fatal obsession with his southern flank, which allowed the French to pull off one of the most daring strategic maneuvers since the days of Napoleon I.

The French soon gave Gyulai more reason to fear for his left. Marshal François de Certain-Canrobert, the commander of III Corps, hurried on in advance of his troops, still wearily toiling over the Alpine passes, to review the Piedmontese defensive preparations. Canrobert had fought with the Foreign Legion and Zouaves in Algeria, where he had once cleared the way through an Arab revolt by pointing out that in his ranks marched an enemy more deadly than any human force: cholera. With an intellectual subtlety not immediately suggested by such experience, Canrobert objected to the Piedmontese plans to defend their capital of Turin directly, along the Dora Baltea line. Instead, he proposed an indirect defense, moving four of the five Piedmontese divisions south, by rail, to the fortifications around Alessandria and the Po bridgehead at Casale. There, they threatened Gyulai’s lines of communication if he persisted with his advance on Turin and could expect to hold out until joined by French troops from Genoa. Quite rightly, Canrobert predicted that Gyulai would be paralyzed by the news of the French army’s red-trousered troops massing on the Po. By May 9, the Austrians had fallen back across the River Sesia, abandoning the advanced position around Vercelli that had allowed them to threaten Turin. Hindered by swollen rivers, and deliberate flooding by the Piedmontese army, the Austrians had achieved nothing beyond feeding their troops at the expense of the enemy. They had lost the initiative and now awaited the allies’ next move. Soaked by pouring rain, the discouraged troops joked bitterly about generals who fought wars with shoes instead of cartridges.

Napoleon III remained in Paris, directing operations via the telegraph, until his army was ready to receive him. He left Paris on May 10 by rail for the South of France, arriving in Genoa on the 12th, and Alessandria on the 14th. The Austrians now occupied a triangle formed on the west by the Rivers Sesia and Po, from Vercelli to Valenza, and on the south by the Po from Valenza to Pavia, with their headquarters at Mortara. The allies, on the other hand, were concentrated on an arc from Casale to Valenza and Voghera, 150,000 French troops in five corps having joined the 74,000 Piedmontese around Alessandria. Not only was the allies’ front much shorter, but they had railway communications along its whole extent. Meanwhile, the Piedmontese had repaired the railroad lines damaged by the Austrians north of Vercelli. Napoleon began a series of railway excursions to familiarize himself with the theater of war, and to visit the site of an earlier French victory over the Austrians, at Marengo. So rapid were the emperor’s movements that even his own generals were left in some doubt as to his intentions.

With eyes only for his left flank, Gyulai decided to launch a ‘reconnaissance in force’ along the south bank of the Po towards the allied right flank at Voghera. On May 20, a scratch force of Austrians collided with Piedmontese cavalry, supported by French Maj. Gen. Elie Forey’s division, at the village of Montebello. Not only did the Austrians fail to regain the strategic initiative, the action demonstrated their tactical inferiority to the French. While the Austrians frittered away a numerical advantage of at least two-to-one in unnecessary detachments, Forey threw every battalion he had into the fight. The densely cultivated terrain gave the Austrians no chance to use their excellent Lorenz rifles before being overrun by enthusiastic swarms of skirmishers, led from the front by officers ready to pay the price of their epaulettes.

Although some Austrian soldiers fought well, Montebello showed the crucial differences between the opposing armies. The Austrian army included a grab bag of nationalities, many of them actively disaffected, especially the Hungarian and Italian regiments. The French on the other hand were nationally homogenous, with plenty of combat experience in Algeria and the Crimea (1854-55). There they had learned to fight in thick chains of skirmishers, covering the advance of a second line of battalions in columns of companies. The skirmishers dashed forward firing incessantly, if not very accurately. Many French soldiers used their thumbs instead of their newfangled backsights. When the supporting columns joined the chain, everyone threw themselves upon the enemy with the bayonet, although he hardly ever waited around long enough to exchange bayonet thrusts. The Austrian infantrymen, too busy with their fire, simply collapsed before the rush.

The effect of Montebello was to reinforce Gyulai’s fixation with his southern flank. Napoleon III, however, had no fixed ideas. He was, above all, a shrewd political operator dependent on the support of the army, and with no intention of repeating the carnage of his uncle’s later battles. There was plainly insufficient space to deploy 100,000 men along the single road between the River Po and the Apennine Mountains in hopes of turning the Austrian left, which was further protected by fortresses at Pavia and Piacenza. Piemontese attempts to cross the Po farther north at Casale had petered out in face of Austrian vigilance–and water levels that rose 15 feet overnight, sweeping away their pontoon bridges. Attacks on the Austrian left and center were therefore out of the question. The only rational option was the one that had escaped Gyulai–to turn his weakened right flank.

This bold move, directly across the front of the Austrian army, was less risky than it might have been, since Gyulai’s command was overextended, with no means of lateral communication comparable with the railway that ran north from Alessandria through Vercelli. The allies had plain sailing as far as Novara–then the difficulties began. The allied lines of communications with Genoa would have to be given up, and even those with Turin endangered. Behind the allies would be Switzerland, a neutral country. The indispensable condition for success was that the allies won all their battles, so tactics had to take the place of strategy. Already Montebello had shown who would profit most by such an exchange.

The move began on May 28. The emperor’s general aide-de-camp, Colonel Émile Félix Fleury, oversaw the overnight move of Canrobert’s III Corps by rail to Casale; the use of the emperor’s personal military household showed the crucial importance attached to the maneuver. Behind a screen formed by Canrobert and the Piedmontese divisions–the latter of which pushed across the Sesia to defeat the Austrians at Palestro on May 30–the other French corps continued the movement, first on Novara, and then the Ticino river on the road to Milan. The allied army moved like a huge snake, pulling up its tail before pushing its head forward again, to be ready for any Austrian counteroffensive. The Austrians failed to see the purpose of their opponents’ rapid countermarches, however, and failed to react. Gyulai’s chief of staff wrote orders for an offensive toward Novara, but Gyulai put the papers under his pillow, smoked a pipe, and fell asleep without signing them.

Only at 8 p.m. on June 2, when the French were already crossing the last obstacle between themselves and Milan, did Gyulai realize the gravity of the situation. Remarkably, after so much hesitation, he did the right thing, issuing orders for his army to concentrate on its right. Three corps were to recross the Ticino, to support General Eduard Graf von Clam-Gallas’ I Corps recently brought up to Magenta, to cover Milan. Gyulai’s aim was to threaten the flank of any allied advance on the capital of Lombardy, without running the risk of having to retreat through its hostile streets in the event of a reverse. Unluckily for him, however, the arrival of the Austrian emperor’s personal chief of staff delayed execution of those orders for six hours, during which time the Austrian troops were not allowed to cook their one hot meal of the day. Bad staff work caused further congestion and delay around the single bridge available for three corps. Many of Gyulai’s exhausted troops only reached their bivouacs after midnight on June 4. They would have to fight on empty stomachs, after 20 hours on the road.

Against all expectations, Gyulai had concentrated 60,000 men around Magenta, not least to the surprise of the French. However, Gyulai’s engineers had failed to blow up the key bridges, allowing the French II Corps of Maj. Gen. Marie Emde-Patrice-Maurice de MacMahon to cross on June 3. At about 1 p.m. the next day, the sound of MacMahon’s guns north of Magenta precipitated a frontal attack by the French Grenadiers of the Guard on the main Austrian position. This lay on the Grand Canal that ran parallel to the Ticino, and should have been impregnable. Such was the élan of the Grenadiers and Zouaves, however, that they gained a foothold on the eastern bank. The Grenadiers waved their bearskin caps on the end of their rifles, while the Zouaves bayonetted an Austrian engineer making a last attempt to blow the bridge. Six barrels of gunpowder standing ready for use were rolled into the canal.

Despite repeated Austrian counterattacks along both banks of the canal, the Guard held out in the stone buildings of the Austrian customs post on both sides of the bridge. Whenever the French were driven back, reinforcements arrived to save the day. The village of Ponte Vecchio changed hands no less than six times during the afternoon. At one point, Napoleon’s only reserve was four companies of the 1st Grenadiers, while the Guard artillery was deployed ready to cover a retreat. As at Montebello, however, the Austrians failed to make the most of their numerical advantage–hindered partly by the densely cultivated terrain, and partly by the confusing orders issued by their staff. Some units were less than enthusiastic, the Italian soldiers of the Archduke Sigismund’s Infantry Regiment deserting in droves.

Meanwhile MacMahon’s guns had fallen silent. Realizing the strength of the Austrians around Magenta, he halted to reorganize his own corps, and bring up supports. When he resumed the attack at about 5 p.m., his Algerian troops, including the Foreign Legion, pushed forward rapidly, driving the Austrians into a pocket between Magenta and the Naviglio Grande. There, the Austrians were shelled by 40 guns deployed on the railway embankment north of Magenta. Previously the effect of the French artillery had been limited by the orchards and vineyards, but now it inflicted heavy losses. About 7 p.m. the Austrians retreated, although bitter street fighting continued in Magenta for some hours. One of MacMahon’s divisional commanders was shot down sword in hand, breaking into a house occupied by Austrian riflemen. The body of his aide-de-camp was found nearby riddled with bullets. Exhausted by their hard-fought victory, the French were incapable of pursuit. Casualties were similar–4,400 French, 5,700 Austrians–but an additional 4,000 Austrians became prisoners.

Although Gyulai could have renewed the action next day with an additional two corps brought up from their futile watch on the southern flank, his own surviving troops had been too roughly handled to fight again. The Austrians abandoned Lombardy, falling back upon the fortresses at Verona and Mantua, part of the famous Quadrilateral barring the way to Venice.

By the time the retiring Austrian army halted at Solferino, five miles in front of the Mincio River, Gylai had been relieved of command and replaced by Clam-Gallas, whose I Corps had acquitted itself well against MacMahon’s II Corps at Magenta. While the Austrians entrenched in a series of hills around Solferino, Emperor Franz Josef I arrived to personally take charge of the 100,000-man army.

The pursuing French and Piedmontese armies caught up with the Austrians and deployed to attack on June 24. At that point they, too, were being personally led by their respective monarchs, Napoleon III and Victor Emanuel II, resulting in Solferino also being referred to as the Battle of the Three Sovereigns. In actual practice, however, French generals–MacMahon, Emmanuel de Wimpffen, Adolphe Niel and Achille Baraquay d’Hilliers–who directed the allied assault which, after bloody fighting, managed to break through the Austrian center. Finally conceding defeat, Franz Josef ordered a withdrawal across the Mincio. A dogged rearguard action, commanded by General Lajos A. Benedek, prevented the French from turning the retreat into a rout, but the Austrians left behind some 3,000 troops killed, 10,897 wounded and 8,638 missing or taken prisoner. Allied losses had been equally severe, however–2,491 killed, 12,512 wounded and 2,292 missing or taken prisoner, for a total of 17,295 casualties, of which 5,521 were Piedmontese. Although he telegraphed his empress, Eugénie, that he had won ‘A great battle, a great victory,’ even the glory-seeking Napoleon III was sickened when he reviewed the carnage, which induced him to seek a separate peace with Austria in hopes of bringing the conflict, which had already been decided at Magenta, to a satisfactory conclusion before more blood was shed.

Another man who was sickened by the results of the 15-hour Battle of Solferino was Henri Dunant, a visiting Swiss businessman and active member in the World Evangelical Alliance, who persuaded local peasants and vacationing aristocrats to join him in aiding the wounded. After Dunant returned home to Geneva, he wrote a brief but shockingly frank volume on what he had seen, A Memory of Solferino, and subsequently proposed that a society of trained volunteers be formed to care for the wounded after future battles. In October 1863, Dunant met with four other prominent Swiss citizens in Geneva to form the International Committee of the Red Cross. A few months later, delegates from all over Europe attended the first Geneva Convention to codify Dunant’s humanitarian concepts. During the American Civil War, Clara Barton proposed the formation of an American Association of the Red Cross, which became a reality in 1881, and President Chester A. Arthur made the United States a formal signatory of the Geneva Convention in the following year.

After Solferino, Napoleon III took advantage of an exchange of wounded prisoners to conclude a truce at Villafranca on July 8. Austria ceded Lombardy to France, which then turned around and allowed Piedmont to annex the territory. France received–and kept–Nice and Savoy. Cavour and other Italian patriots were infuritated, however, to see Venetia left in Austrian hands. In spite of the war’s unsatisfactory outcome for the Piedmontese, who felt betrayed by Napoleon’s actions, the Austrians were unable to prevent unification of the rest of the peninsula over the next two years.

The war caused a shakeup among the senior officers in the Austrian army, but little was done to make the more fundamental changes necessary to improve its poor command structure. In spite of their relative competence at divisional or corps level, neither Clam-Gallas nor Benedek would prove capable of handling independent commands when they faced the modern, efficient Prussian army in 1966.

Napoleon III emerged from the conflict with the glory he had sought. The French had once more confirmed their military reputation, showing that modern weapons did not necessarily rule out offensive tactics. In ironic parallel to the Austrians, however, their success bred a complacency that blocked reform of less satisfactory aspects of their performance. Eleven years later, in the Franco-Prussian war, that complacency proved disastrous when the French, too, learned that the Prussians were a more dangerous opponent than the ramshackle Austrian army.


This article was written by Richard Brooks and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Military History magazine.

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