What kings were fired for war, what armies at their orders
thronged the plains? What heroes sprang into bloom,
what weapons blazed, even in those days long ago,
in Italy's life-giving land?
Virgil, The Aeneid
Ever since the insurrection in Italy—a part of the Revolutions of 1848—was crushed by the Austrians, King Vittorio Emmanuele II of Sardinia waited for an opportunity to strike his Habsburg master again, building up his forces anew, bidding his time. Fortune smiled upon him when the Crimean War broke out in 1853, and he allied his little Italian kingdom with the British and French against the Russians. Luckily, his side was victorious, resulting in Sardinia being represented at the peace conference in 1856, where the issue of Italy—then not even a nation but a collection of independent states—was of course brought up. More significantly, he gained alliance with France, the conditions of which were that if the French helped the Sardinians against the Habsburg Empire, then they in return would receive from Sardinia Savoy and Nice, regions where the vast majority of inhabitants spoke French.
In the spring of 1859, Vittorio Emmanuele's opportunity came at last. The conflict that would forever be remembered by History as the Franco-Austrian War began. Everywhere it seemed, the Austrians were defeated, at Montebello on May 20, Varese on the 26th, Magenta on June 4, and Melegnano on the 8th. Beaten again and again, the Austrians retreated to fight another day...
That day was sensed to be near by Kaiser Franz Josef, the narrow-minded monarch of the Habsburg Empire who had taken up the reins of rule eleven years before at the age of 18 and had assumed personal command of Austrian forces on June 18, when the Allies—the French and Sardinians—reached the banks of the Chiese River on June 21. The following day, he ordered the army to go back across the Mincio River, to the East and roughly parallel to the Chiese, to perform a coup de main, to catch the Allies flat-footed crossing the Chiese and give them a good beating before reinforcements tipped the balance against the Austrians. Feld-Marschall-Leutnant (hereafter, FML) Baron Heinrich Hess, Chief of Staff of and probably the best strategic mind in the Austrian army, opposed this move, arguing that it would be time-consuming and that the French would consequently have sufficient time to catch them unprepared. Graf Karl Ludwig Grünne, Franz Josef's adjutant-general who had little knowledge where the military art was concerned, and General-Major Ramming, Hess's deputy chief of staff, overruled him, however. Thus on the 23rd the Austrians crossed the Mincio again, hoping to exact revenge on their foes.
Also on the 23rd, the Allies fulfilled Hess's prophecy. Napoleon III—the French emperor who did anything that would substantiate his legitimacy for the throne of his far more famous uncle and had no formal military education, a deficiency that was compensated by his intense interest in the art of war and his indefatigable energy—ordered his army to march tomorrow morning.
Even before the sun starting showing its bright face over the horizon on June 24, 1859, the French Army awoke from its slumber, lest they be tormented by the oppressive Italian heat. The men donned their uniforms, of which there were a great variety: crimson kepis, blue coats, and red trousers for the Lignards (line infantrymen); dark blue vestes (short jackets) that went down to their waists and pantalons, which had two red strips going down the sides, and white gaiters for the field artillerymen; dark blue uniforms with green epaulettes, yellow piping, and jambières (leggings) immediately above the gaiters for the Chasseurs à pied (light infantrymen); and red chechias (fezes) with a blue tassel, blue woollen vestes piped in red, white linen trousers tinged in yellow, and, like the chasseurs, jambières above the gaiters for the zouaves (also light infantrymen). Between 2:00 to 3:00 A.M., the mist all around them and on the moist grass, the troops rolled up their tents, gathered and packed their equipment, fell into formation, and commenced marching through the green Italian countryside, past stone houses with roofs made of overlapping red ceramic tiles, past gardens, vineyards and farms, headed for their slumbering enemy.
Neither side knew they were on a collision course. Consequently, the Allies and Austrians alike were astonished to find themselves face-to-face with each other. The Austrians dropped the breakfast they were eating and rushed for their weapons—“Augustin” muskets, brand-new Lorenz rifles, Model 1850 smoothbore pistols, smoothbore cannons, and Model 1850 cavalry sabers. Their infantryman tried to form line of battle as fast they could (as were the French as well), a sea of white tunics, blue trousers, and black shakoes or leather Jäger (light infantry) hats; their artillery was positioned, horses and men pushing or pulling their heavy loads; and their cavalrymen quickly mounted their steeds, riding off to the sound of the guns and the rising fog of war as the sun started showing itself...
The Allies's right flank, the southern end of the French Army, was composed of III and IV Corps, and the French in those formations first encountered Austrian hussars (light cavalrymen) at Castel Goffredo at seven that morning, driving them off. Two hours and 15 minutes later, III Corps arrived at Medole. There, Maréchal François Canrobert, the brave corps commander who had distinguished himself fighting Arabs in Algeria but was not up to the rigors of such a charge ("Robert Can't" was what his British allies had called him in the Crimean War), was asked by the head of IV Corps, Général Niel, for reinforcements; so in addition to the cavalry division he had already dispatched to Niel, he sent half of one of his infantry divisions to the area of Guidizzolo, where IV Corps was opposing vastly superior numbers of Austrians.
At first, the battle had been easy for Niel. French Model 1858 rifled cannons bombarded the village of Medole; one of the shells fired caused the church bell to fall on some unfortunate Austrians. Unable to withstand the bombardment any longer, the Austrians evacuated Medole at 7:00 A.M. Then the trouble started. Pressing on, the French encountered two Austrian Corps: IX and III Korps, which together had 12 brigades to Neil's six. Yet the French managed to push them back, too, all the way to the Campo di Medole.
The Campo di Medole is one vast plain with a low water table and hardly any trees to speak of, a geographic oddity in northern Italy. In the summer of 1859, the villages there were surrounded by dense green foliage, and the flat terrain was teeming with crops of wheat, barley, maize, and rye. More importantly from a military perspective, it afforded the French rifled artillery a splendid field of fire and allowed the Austrians to move their formations en masse. Also, it allowed Niel, looking to the North, to see the neighboring II Corps struggling at Casa Morino, gun smoke rising up towards the heavens. Thus, he loaned the left flank of the 2e Division to link up with the unit. Its infantry took the farmhouse at Quagliara while its artillery was augmented by IV Corp's artillery reserve, which was supported by two cavalry divisions to its left, thereby closing the 2,800-meter gap that stretched between IV and II Corps.
Still, the Austrians tried to punch through. Forward they marched, muskets and rifles with gleaming bayonets pointing towards the blue sky on their shoulders, holding aloft their regimental standards—a black double-headed eagle with Franz Josef's coat of arms on its torso in front of a yellow background—only to be cut to shreds by the French rifled guns. Enemy four kilogram segmentation shells exploded all around them, causing whole sections of their lines to fall down—some of the men in them dead, others wounded. The Austrians could only take so much of this butchery, and they fell back.
Meanwhile, their comrades in IX Korps, strengthened by two brigades from XI Korps, were also attacking, facing only one French division. Fortunately for the French, their attackers failed to concentrate their forces, resulting in them advancing piecemeal Not surprisingly, the Austrians were repelled every time.
That, essentially, was how the fight fared in Niel's section of the battlefield for the following six hours: where there once was a hole in their line on the left, artillery attained for the French "an incontestable superiority," according to the IV Corps commander, while along the rest of his line it was more challenging: "When the combat was carried on by the fire of the infantry," Niel attested, "I lost ground, the enemy having the advantage in numbers. Then I formed a column of attack with one of my reserve battalions, and gained more by the bayonet than I had lost by the musketry."
At 3:00 in the afternoon, the rest of the division Canrobert had sent to help Niel arrived near the settlement of Rebecco, relieving some pressure off the defending French forces in that part of the Campo di Medole. The units relieved were immediately ordered to take Guidizzolo. Upon reaching the village's outer structures, the French saw fresh Austrian troops and were repulsed, running past and over for a second time the dead and wounded of both sides. Nonetheless, they had just disrupted an enemy attempt to push the Allies into Lake Grada.
Having confirmed that his right flank was secure, Canrobert once again imparted to Niel another brigade from one of his divisions, which arrived at the field of battle at four. Advancing, it took two Austrian cannons and droves of Austrian... but Mother Nature prevented them from making it to Guidizzolo.
The Battle of Solferino was not merely between the French and the Austrians; after all, they were both fighting in somebody else's territory. The Sardinian Army was also there, advancing alongside the French, the Allies's left flank. Two of its divisions, the main body, were to march on Pozzolengo and San Martino; the other would head for Madonna della Scoperta. All of them would be moving in hilly, unforgiving terrain under no unified command, Vittorio Emmanuele, the army's commander-in-chief, preferring instead to observe the fight in the Allied center. Those factors were hardly ingredients for the recipe of success.
The ingredients showed their unsuitability when, at Madonna della Scoperta at 5:30 in the morning, advanced elements of the division tasked with going there met the enemy, who pushed them back. Although the main body left Lonato an hour and a half later, the ten-kilometer journey was very time-consuming, lasting five hours. So the Italians at Madonna della Scoperta would fight their battle alone, reinforcements reaching them only after the Austrians had left.
Also, the main body had its own problems, too. Thirty minutes into its march, it stumbled upon the Austrians of VIII Korps, commanded by FML Ludwig von Benedek, who, unlike most of his fellow officers, sympathized with the men under him, and if Hess was the best strategist in the Austrian army, Benedek was its best tactician. VIII Korps then attacked, compelling the Sardinians to retreat four kilometers and taking a promontory called San Martino.
Thirty-two meters tall at its highest point, San Martino made an ideal defensive position. The vastness of the hill allowed a multitude of Austrians to occupy it, and on its north face, Mother Earth had created a breastwork in the form of steep slopes, which were made all the more protective for the defenders by pine trees and the houses of the local populace. While the Sardinians outnumbered the Austrians 25,000 to 20,000, they attacked this position one brigade at a time. It was exactly like what happened at the Camp di Medole only that it was the Austrians who played the part of the defender, and- again, like the Austrian assaults at the Campo di Medole- the results were invariably the same for the attackers: failure.
That is, until events elsewhere made Benedek's position untenable. The defeat of the Austrians around Solferino caused them to withdraw, including V Korps, which was fighting the Sardinians at Madonna della Scoperta. This occurrence resulted in Benedek facing his enemy from three sides, making his grip on San Martino precarious. Unlike the other parts of the battlefield, the arrival at 5:00 P.M. of the storm which had been within sight for a long time didn't end the match; the rain merely allowed both sides to pause for a while and get a breather.
When the downpour ceased, it became time to resume fighting. As the sun started to set in the west, Benedek's hold on San Martino was unhinged by five Sardinian brigades coming from every direction except upwards from the sky or downwards from the earth, the kind of concentrated thrust the Sardinians should have done in the first place. With orders to withdraw, Benedek conceded the hill to the assailants, albeit in a rather obdurate manner, and about 9:00 P.M. all the cacophony of war there—men screaming, guns firing, shells bursting, the guttural noises once makes when a bullet or shell fragment makes its way into the body—stopped. It was silent once more, save for the sounds of nature in the nighttime, the music of the insects and the birds...
To the south of the Sardinians, Maréchal Baraguey d'Hilliers—an old soldier who had lost one of his hands in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and now commanded I Corps of the French Army—and Maréchal Patrice MacMahon, the commander of II Corps, were responsible for the Allied center. Two hours into their march, at five in the morning, both corps made contact with the enemy, and they pushed the Austrians all the way back to outskirts of Solferino, the smoke of battle enclosing them as they ran forward with their rifles lowered, the sharp bayonets at their ends an intimidating sight for the retreating Austrians.
As this was the French center, Solferino was, of course, the center of the battlefield. Overseen by a gigantic tower (Indeed, it overlooked the entire contested field!) named Spia d'Italia (Spy of Italy) to its west, the village is inapproachable from that direction. To reach its main street one must walk along a road nestled against a steep ridge next to a cemetery with high walls. Between an orchard behind the cemetery and San Nicola convent church, a person had to sharply turn left, then right. Then, an individual encounters the Piazza Castello (Castle Square), which is surrounded by walls six to nine meters high and adjacent to the church of San Pietro and the promontory the Monte de Cipressi. Needless to say, Solferino would seem to be an insurmountable bastion to any attacker.
The French learned that fact the hard way. Just when the village was in their sites, when they reached its outskirts and could see its red-tiled roofs, the enemy put up a tenacious defense until 10:00 A.M., subsequently falling back to the cemetery and Monte di Cipressi. Fortunately for the Austrians, Solferino had been prepared to be defended by V Korps commander, FML Stadion, and the French advance was stopped by the enemy's cross-fire from the two positions he now occupied. The commander of one of the French divisions attacking was hit by a bullet, breaking his shoulder, from which blood poured down profusely; yet he pressed on, doing his best to ignore his pain, only turning over his command after he was struck a second time.
As mentioned above, there was a gaping hole between II and IV Corps, the commanders of which both agreed to close it. Before that could happen, though, MacMahon saw through the fog of war the Austrians of IX and III Korps, who did not know what numbers the enemy had facing them, moving in his direction. Looking to the south, Niel's forces were nowhere to be found. To MacMahon's front, to the east, the Austrians seemed to be forming a line of battle, a sign that they might attack. Therefore MacMahon made ready to defend. Once again just like the Campo di Medole, the French rifled artillery massacred the Austrians in their advance while two French cavalry division closed up the worrisome opening, where they disrupted all of the enemy's attempts at exploitation.
Further securing the gap, albeit indirectly, were reinforcements from III and IV Corps at 10:30. They allowed MacMahon to free forces elsewhere to augment the forces already there.
While all of this was going on, Solferino was unsurprisingly proving to be a formidable obstacle. For more than an hour I Corps had been assailing the village from three sides, and so far all its assaults had been repelled. D'Hilliers unwisely did not order his artillerymen to do a preparatory bombardment, which might have succeeded in softening up the Austrian defenses; but it was not so. French corpses lied all over the landscape where they had charged across and fallen with absolutely nothing gained.
D'Hilliers did not give up, however. He ordered a fresh division to make an attack at 11:00; no success. The results were the same for the attack on Monte di Cipressi made by Brigade d'Alton, although it was not without those horrid but notable moments of military history: the staff of the 91e Ligne's eagle was broken by an Austrian cannonball, and the sous-lieutenant who tried to raise it again lost his head from another one, blood flowing down from his trunk as his body fell down and his skull rolled down the grassy slope, leaving behind a trail of red; a French division commander, whose cloak already sported several bullet holes, received his second wound of the war; and Napoleon III himself, watching the fight from Monte Fenile, lost an epaulet when a bullet tore it off.
|Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli, 1859.|
The Lignards were once again approaching. But what was this? It was the feared Voltigeurs (Guard infantrymen)! They were the same men who had made that last desperate charge at Waterloo but now devoid of fur caps, wearing instead shakoes. The Frenchmen went for the southern flank of the Austrian's position—composed of the cemetery, Monte di Cipressi, and the high ground encircling Spia d'Italia—shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" As his men were taking over Monte di Cipressi, the officer leading the skirmish line took out his handkerchief, put it on the tip of the blade of his sword, and waved the weapon, the early afternoon sunlight causing it to shine as it went back and forth. By 2:00 P.M., all of the position was in French hands.
Then they stormed into Solferino itself, fighting the Austrians from house to house. The ceramic roofs and the stone walls of the houses were now being peppered with bullets. By 2:30 the Austrians were routed.
MacMahon enjoyed similar successes against the same kind of obstinate Austrian resistance. After taking San Cassiano "in a moment," the French—Tirailleurs (Algerians serving as French light infantry) and the 45e Ligne to be exact—reached the crest of Monte Fontana, southeast of Solferino, but were soon driven back by the Austrian's infantry regiments Nr.1 and Nr. 54 led by the recently promoted Prinz von Hesse. The Arabs lost their leader and, furious, dipped their hands in the blood of his corpse, swearing revenge.
So MacMahon had to wait for the Voltigeurs to come up. In their pas de charge, the hill was taken and held. As bullets, fired from Austrians in trenches left over from the previous year's maneuvers bounced off the bronze barrels and struck the wooden olive drab wheels of their pieces as smoke from the rounds fired filled the air around them, the sweating French artillerymen, out of the range of the enemy's artillery, mauled the Austrian reserves from Monte Fontana.
Now that the Voltigeurs had linked up with II Corps, the French proceeded to Cavriana, the command post of Franz Josef himself, pushing the Austrians back. An hour before they arrived, von Hesse managed to evacuate the village.
As Franz Josef, so angry at his troops' supposed timidity that he was crying, rode along with his defeated army and the Duca di Modena, the kaiser's cousin, foamed at the mouth close to him, Napoleon III, in the Villa Mirra-Siliprandi at Cavriana, slept in the bed made ready for the Austrian monarch. All the while the rain outside the villa stagnated the pursuing French, save for some batteries that lobbed shells at the pursued...
The Battle of Solferino was a preview of things to come, of how the battles would be fought in the American Civil War. The losses, for one, were just as horrendous as those of Shiloh, Antietam, and Chancellorsville: 17,000 for the Allies, 22,000 for the Austrians. Broken down for the Sardinians and French they were 691 killed, 3,572 wounded, and 1,258 missing in the northern sector; 1,025 killed, 4,852 wounded, and 997 missing in the center; and 660 killed, 4,012 wounded, and 566 missing in the southern. Austrian casualties were calculated more broadly: 2,615 on their right flank; 9,326 in the middle; and 9,796 on their left. The soldiers—Austrian, French, and Sardinian alike—used whatever they were trained to do and fought gallantly. Incompetent officers (especially Austrian ones); piecemeal attacks; and antique Napoleonic tactics plagued the armies of both sides. The field of battle chosen was disadvantageous for the defender: the unforgiving ridges prevented the Austrian artillery from close up; it was difficult for the Austrian reserves to get from the village to the cemetery; and the crops inhibited the riflemen’s field of fire. Then there is the weaponry. The French rifled guns, used for the first time on the battlefield at Solferino, proved superior to the smoothbore artillery the Austrians had. Indeed, the French army shined. Unlike the Austrians, it managed to concentrate its forces. In contrast, the Austrians had outdated weapons, poorly trained troops, and poor marksmanship—courtesy of the neglect given to their armed forces.
Yet for all this military conduct, the most important legacy the battle left still exists today. Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, a bystander to the battle, saw how poor the medical facilities were for the many wounded. Inspired by this sight, he would establish in 1864 the International Red Cross.
Brooks, Richard. Solferino, 1859: The Battle That Won Italy Its Independence. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.