Monday, September 18, 2017

Clash of Monarchies: The Second War of Italian Independence

The Italian peninsula, after so many centuries of division and foreign rule since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, would ultimately fight three wars for independence but of these three, none would be so consequential as the second. The first had seen the hope of the existing Italian princely states, Papal, Bourbon and even Habsburg, come together under the leadership of the House of Savoy against the Austrians with the possibility of confederation or federal unity for Italy only to be defeated by the Austrian army of the unflappable Graf von Radestky. King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia, after his defeat, abdicated in favor of his son King Vittorio Emanuele II a monarch who was originally interested only in the unification of northern Italy and that mostly so as to prevent it from occurring under the leadership of the radical republicans. However, with cooperation from the other Italian states now out of the question, he knew he would have to look for an ally against the Austrian Empire. Such an ally was to be found in the person of Emperor Napoleon III of the French.

Vittorio Emanuele II, Napoleon III & Franz Joseph
One benefit the Savoy monarchy had was that the radical republicans had been, in 1848 and after, thoroughly discredited among Italian nationalists. They had failed and in Austria, the Papal States and Naples, reactionary forces had revived in a harsh way. This meant that the Savoy, careful to keep on the side of the nationalist spirit, was looked to for leadership while the republican crowd of Mazzini was discredited. Aside from the King, the most important player on the Savoyard side was his prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour. For Cavour, nationalism was a means to an end rather than an end in itself. His goals were for the financial independence of Turin from British banks, the furthering of industrialization and economic expansion. Ties with British banks were cut, new ties with French banks were established, railroad construction exploded and trade increased. The army was improved as well and in 1855 the Piedmontese participated in the Crimean War as a way of gaining British and French support against Austria. The result was a Savoyard army that was better organized, more easily mobilized, with a better staff system and with greater combat experience.

Obtaining an alliance with France, however, proved rather difficult. The French were willing but Napoleon III extracted a heavy price for his support which included the Savoy ceding their own heartland, the Duchy of Savoy as well as the County of Nice to France. The King also had to give his daughter, the petite Princess Clothilde, to the hulking Prince Jerome Bonaparte, the French Emperor’s cousin. In exchange, France would support the end of Austrian rule over Lombardy and Venice and the creation of an independent Kingdom of Italy on the northern half of the peninsula. This was, however, a defensive alliance and would only take effect if Austria attacked Piedmont. In Naples, the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies did not figure into the issue. While still possessing a powerful army, it was geared entirely toward suppressing the local population, which had proven very prone to rebellion, and not to defending against foreign invasion. An alliance was proposed between Turin and Naples but King Francesco II of the Two-Sicilies had rejected it out of hand. They would play no part in the ensuing conflict.

Austrian Imperial Army, 1859
The French, more so than the Piedmontese, also took care to ensure that there would be no unwelcome intervention on the part of the Russians. This was not a problem as the Russians were feeling in no way sympathetic to the Austrians. Perhaps even more than the powers that fought against them, the Russians blamed Austria for their defeat in the Crimean War and were particularly bitter given that they had aided the Habsburgs during their time of greatest peril in the Revolutions of 1848. They also did not tend to view Austrian rule over northern Italy as legitimate anyway, going all the way back to the French Revolutionary Wars, Russia’s Czar Paul had been very disappointed by the British and Austrians keeping territory they took from the French rather than restoring it to its previous rulers, be it Malta or Venice. The British could also be counted on to remain on the sidelines given that they had good relations with France (for a change) and had been quite offended by the harshness of Austrian rule in Lombardy-Venetia. Paris and Turin were convinced that they could handle Austria between them and all that was necessary was for Austria to fire the first shot.

The Austrian Empire had come very near to total collapse in the Revolutions of 1848 but, thanks to the leadership of their new, young Emperor Franz Joseph and the victories of Graf Radetzky, they had weathered the storm and the Austrian Imperial Army seemed all the more robust and formidable. Austria did become a constitutional monarchy but it was a constitution that the Emperor accepted on his own terms and he pursued a policy since labeled “neo-absolutism”. There were problems though due to rivalries in the military leadership and a financial crisis which greatly effected military readiness. The politicians in Vienna always seemed prepared to sacrifice spending on the army before anything else and this meant that Austria could not maintain so large an army, or armies, on the Italian peninsula and, in the event of major trouble there, would have to divert forces from elsewhere in the empire if they were to maintain an overwhelming superiority. The Austrian Empire had also simply become overstretched. Aside from their own frontiers to the south and east, garrisons to keep troublesome populations in line within the empire, the Austrians had also been called upon to safeguard the Papal States and the Spanish Bourbons in Naples as well as their own Italian possessions. It was simply too much, particularly with a less than robust economy. The desire of Emperor Franz Joseph to reassert Austrian leadership in Germany also meant that neither Berlin or Moscow were, at the time, looking too favorable toward Vienna.

Officers of the Savoyard army
The French and Piedmontese, on the other hand, were well prepared with a joint-plan for military cooperation in the event of war and the Piedmontese economy was booming. It was the perfect time for a war but it could only happen if Austria made the first aggressive move. Count Cavour, therefore, entered into a number of schemes to encourage trouble in the central duchies such as Tuscany and Modena, nominally independent but ruled by junior members of the House of Habsburg. The famous nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi was also recruited to lead volunteers in the cause of Italian independence under the Savoy banner. This caused nearly 20,000 Italians to rush to Turin to volunteer, fired by nationalist zeal, so many that Cavour had to suspend his plan before things went off prematurely. The point was for the trouble in the duchies to draw Austrian strength away from Lombardy-Venetia and the government in Turin knew perfectly well that the government in Vienna would blame them for any Italian nationalist unrest and thus the Austrians would be encouraged to attack Piedmont-Sardinia.

King Vittorio Emanuele II also ordered the mobilization of his army, at least gradually, which was sure to attract Austrian attention. The Austrians were certainly alarmed but also unsure how to respond. The Piedmontese had not actually made any aggressive move and a full mobilization of the Austrian Imperial Army was a costly exercise Vienna would wish to avoid if not strictly necessary. The Italians also had to be fully prepared before the war started given that, as per the agreement, they would be responsible for both paying for the French intervention on their behalf and keeping both armies supplied during the war, which would be no small task. The French also began moving their forces into position which alarmed the Austrians all the more. In April, 1859, however, everything almost came to ruin when the British government proposed an international congress to deal with the Italian situation. Thankfully, France and Italy were rescued by their Austrian adversary. Emperor Franz Joseph had sought out the retired elder statesman, Prince Klemens von Metternich, who immediately understood that the French and Italians were trying to provoke Austria into a war and he advised the Emperor that, whatever he did, do NOT send an ultimatum to Turin. The young Kaiser sheepishly had to admit that he had already sent one out.

Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria
The ultimatum ordered the King to demobilize his forces or face war and this message was immediately forwarded to Paris. The French and Italians had their threat and could take action in a war of self-defense against Austrian aggression. Lest anyone think that Emperor Francis Joseph was being purely hot-headed in this blunder, he had expected such a conflict to rally the German states in support of Austria. Unfortunately for him, they did not. The Prussians were not sympathetic, seeing the Austrians as rivals with a bizarre obsession with non-Germans and the other states often did not see Austria as a “team player”, partly also because they were necessarily focused on their rebellious non-German territories. They also saw no reason for Austria not to accept the proposal for a congress rather than giving the Italians exactly what they wanted, which was a war. Emperor Francis Joseph, however, feared that any such congress just might say what many Italian nationalists had been saying for ages; leave Italy to the Italians and everyone mind their own business. Austria simply had no real friends at this point and so would have to stand alone. Emperor Francis Joseph, for good or ill, was prepared to and after the Italians did not respond to his ultimatum, issued the declaration of war on April 29, 1859.

Feldzeugmeister Franz Graf Gyulai, commander of the Austrian Second Army in Lombardy, believed that his forces would have at least two weeks to crush the Italians before the French could intervene. He had on hand some 110,235 soldiers as well as another 59,000 deployed throughout Lombardy-Venetia to suppress any popular uprisings. The Italians could field only 77,348 men to meet them, however, they were very efficient and led by men who had learned from the mistakes of 1848. The Franco-Italian leadership had also carefully worked out the train schedules and necessary stockpiles of supplies to move the French into northern Italy as quickly as possible. The Austrians had previously assumed the French were not prepared to move because they had not been stockpiling supplies. However, this was because it had been left to the Italians to handle the logistics and, in the end, the French army was transported quickly with ample stores by the very efficient Piedmontese rail network.

General Alfonso La Marmora
Unfortunately for the Austrians, Gyulai was no Graf Radetzky and no one knew this better than Gyulai himself who was more of a desk general. He had asked to be reassigned but this was refused. With the outbreak of war, his plan was to crush the Italians with his superior numbers and by then be able to take up a good position from which to deal with the French. He would march directly on the Piedmontese capital at Turin. Of course, this is exactly what the Italians expected him to do and the Piedmontese army was deployed to block any such advance and hold up the Austrians until the French arrived at which point they would work together to drive the enemy from Italian soil. The Italian commander, General Alfonso La Marmora was under no apprehension that this would be easy but he was aided by the extensive spy network set up by Lt. Colonel Giuseppe Govone, his chief of military intelligence, who had a constant flow of information on the movements of the Austrian army. La Marmora deployed his five infantry and one cavalry divisions to be in a position to block the advance on Turin and to be able to link up with the five French Corps at their places of deployment which, when they arrived, would be set up to pin down the Austrians at the Dora Baltea line and then, with three of the French Corps coming from Genoa to Alessandria, to threaten the Austrian flank.

Austrian naval strength was negligible, being about as large as the Piedmontese navy, far outmatched by the French fleet which was the second-largest in the world. In any event, the commander of the Austrian navy, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, had prepared only for the defense of the Adriatic and had no plans for offensive operations (and keeping in mind most of the sailors in the Austrian navy were Italians). As such, by rail and by sea the French were able to move their forces into Italy rapidly and freely. The Austrian army, likewise, inexplicably remained in place for days while their enemies massed against them. Gyulai claimed that Vienna had ordered him to wait while in Vienna they blamed Gyulai for not seizing the initiative. It is difficult to know who was in the right but it does seem that, having blundered into giving the Italians the war they wanted, Emperor Franz Joseph hoped, at the last minute, to be able to negotiate a solution or for the German states to rally in support of Austria. Of course, neither would be the case nor were such hopes frankly realistic. By May 1, with French deployments proceeding as scheduled, General La Marmora remarked to the commander of the Third Division at Novi, General Giovanni Durando (commander of the Papal Army in the First War) that the Austrian advance was “molto lentamente” (very slow).

Feldzeugmeister Gyulai
The Austrians had their spies too and they reported to Gyulai on the movements of the French army which seems to have intimidated him as they tended to exaggerate French strength. He was unsure of how to deploy his own forces for fear of where they would be when the French reached their own destinations. As it turned out, it was ten days from the time of the ultimatum until Gyulai moved, very slowly, toward Vercelli. King Vittorio Emanuele II, who was in his element on such occasions, wanted to stick to the original plan but the French convinced him to redeploy Franco-Italian forces away from Turin. He did so and, as it happened, a determined Austrian advance would have found little more than one Piedmontese cavalry division blocking their way if they had driven on for the capital but the Austrians were convinced that the French were planning to flank them from the south and so began to pull back. The danger to Turin dissolved faster than it had appeared.

By May 12 the Emperor Napoleon III had arrived in Genoa. Armed with some thoughtful advice from retired General Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini (a veteran of his famous uncle’s army), Napoleon met with King Vittorio Emanuele II at Alessandria to work out their offensive against the Austrians. It would be too much to say the Franco-Italian forces took the initiative from the Austrians as the Austrians never seemed to have held it in the first place but Napoleon III and Vittorio Emanuele II were certainly willing to seize it where it lay. They did, however, pass up an opportunity to strike the Austrians while Gyulai was redeploying his forces but an overall strategy was still being well executed. The famous Giuseppe Garibaldi, given rank as a Lt. General in the Piedmontese army after pledging allegiance to “Vittorio Emanuele and Italy”, was to harass the Austrian right, brushing the Alps. He had originally intended to lead the effort to foment unrest in the central duchies but this job was instead given to Prince Jerome Bonaparte and his French troops, which was deemed preferable to the authorities in Turin as Garibaldi, a lifelong republican and former Mazzinian, was still not regarded as being sufficiently loyal to the Savoy monarchy to be absolutely trusted. Garibaldi in the north and Prince Jerome in the south would threaten the Austrian position from the left and right, they would be intimidating but not part of the major action.

French line infantry
As the French First Corps moved on Voghera, the Austrians thought this the first move in an effort to get around behind them and the Austrian IX Corps under Field Marshal Lieutenant Karl Urban was deployed to stop them. The result was the first engagement of the war that was more than a skirmish, the Battle of Montebello on May 20 between the lead French division of General Elie Frédéric Forey and elements of the Austrian V Corps under General Philipp Graf von Stadion which had been sent in to support Urban. Three Italian cavalry regiments, the Aosta, Novara and Montferrato, also participated. Despite being considerably outnumbered (3 to 1), Forey fought an aggressive action that made Graf Stadion believe that the French had more support behind them, prompting him to retreat and give the victory to the Franco-Italian forces under Forey. This sharp rebuke made Gyulai all the more reluctant to take risks but as he had initiated the action, it also made Napoleon III nervous that the Austrians might be trying to take back the initiative. As it was, Gyulai had been concerned about a move south and his forces had met the enemy so he continued to believe he was on the right track and all forces were shifted toward the south.

When an armed reconnaissance by General Enrico Cialdini, commander of the Piedmontese fourth division, found minimal Austrian resistance at Vercelli the following day, the French Emperor and Italian King could see that Gyulai was shifting away from the north, giving them an opportunity to come at the Austrians from that direction. Garibaldi was also proving effective at keeping the Austrians off-balance. On May 26 at the Battle of Varese, his Cacciatori delle Alpi routed the Austrians, forcing them to keep more troops deployed in the north as the aggression of the Italians again caused the Austrians to overestimate their strength. The next day Garibaldi and his men defeated another Austrian contingent at the Battle of San Fermo, forcing the Austrians to withdraw from Como.

King Vittorio Emanuele rallies the Zouaves at Palestro
At the same time, while the largely French force was engaged at Montebello, King Vittorio Emanuele II led Cialdini’s division with the addition of some French Zouaves against a smaller contingent of Austrians under General Friedrich Zobel at the Battle of Palestro. The Austrians rushed in reinforcements so that, in the aftermath, they held the numerical advantage yet the threat of French troops on the Sesia caused him to retreat for fear of being cut off. By May 30 the Franco-Italian forces had secured a bridgehead across the Sesia. With efforts to retake Palestro having failed and with Garibaldi keeping control of the northern front in spite of being outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, Gyulai decided that the threat to Milan was too great and he ordered a retreat across the Ticino to concentrate his forces at Mortara. However, the rapid movements of the Franco-Italian armies forced him to abandon that plan. He was correct that they were moving against Milan, the capital of Lombardy, but he did not know what approach they would take. He was coming under intense pressure and no small amount of criticism, particularly after the arrival of Field Marshal Heinrich von Hess with stern orders from the Emperor (who had reached Verona) to defend the frontier and not retreat to the Quadrilateral fortress complex.

The Battle of Magenta
More Austrian reinforcements arrived and Gyulai was finally convinced that the enemy was not trying to maneuver around behind him after all. There was also confusion as Hess outranked Gyulai, yet seemed to be leaving things to him. All of this caused a degree of stagnation on the Austrian side as one commander would fail to do something because he assumed the other commander would do it. Nonetheless, the Austrians did hold a strong defensive position around Magenta after destroying the bridges over the Ticino. Gyulai had about 68,000 men in the area when the Battle of Magenta commenced on June 4. With a little over 50,000 French troops plus 12,000 Italians under General Manfredo Fanti, Napoleon III planned an assault on the front and flank of the Austrian army. The two sides were thus evenly matched as long as the Austrians concentrated on the points of attack and did not remain spread out. Both sides made mistakes and many units blundered into each other, nonetheless, the Austrians took far heavier losses and finally retreated, giving the victory to the French. Napoleon III congratulated Marshal MacMahon with a peerage as Duke of Magenta for this success.

This latest defeat was the last straw for Emperor Franz Joseph who had seen his forces do nothing but retreat, be outmaneuvered and defeated often by forces inferior to their own. He dismissed Gyulai and took command of the Austrian Imperial Army himself. With the Quadrilateral fortress cities secure but the enemy in command of the surrounding countryside, his position was similar to that of Graf Radetzky in 1848. However, “Papa Radetzky” was a veteran, unflappable commander and Emperor Franz Joseph was not. Determined to take the offensive and crush the enemy, he abandoned his strong position and moved out on June 23 to take on the Franco-Italian armies. The result was the bloody Battle of Solferino the following day. Once again both sides were about evenly matched with roughly 130,000 soldiers each.

Emperor Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino
Each army was basically trying to attack the other and so units ran headlong into combat, often not as they intended. It was a huge brawl that involved a number of separate actions and coordination was difficult. The Austrian position was also undermined on distant fronts by uprisings breaking out in conjunction with Prince Jerome’s arrival in central Italy. Earlier, toward the end of May, his forces entered Florence and soon dispatched units to Parma and Modena. At Solferino, most of the fighting centered around two engagements, one around Solferino itself where the French under Forey pushed the Austrians back into the town itself at which point house-to-house fighting ensued. Despite Austrian reinforcements arriving, French attacks soon succeeded in nearly surrounding the town. Fighting south of town was disconnected from the main engagement and involved a number of cavalry units. There, the French attacks were repulsed by the Austrians but this had no effect on the imperiled Austrian position in town. The fighting was fierce and casualties were heavy, particularly for the Austrians.

Battle of San Martino
The other major action was the battles at San Martino and Madonna della Scoperta which largely involved the Italian forces. The Austrians had a fairly good defensive position and the Italians attacked immediately, hoping to dislodge them before they could strengthen their lines. However, this meant that the Italians attacked piecemeal as they came up rather than being able to throw their entire force at the Austrian position. Field Marshal Lieutenant Ludwig Benedek, considered the best Austrian corps commander by many, had been ordered to attack the French flank and had not been expecting to run into the Italians. However, he was a veteran of this region and kept his cool, responding rapidly to the changing situation. Repeatedly, Italian discipline and determination carried them forward to the cusp of success only to have Benedek adeptly move his men and guns to the imperiled area and throw the Italians back with devastating barrages. However, when word came that the main Austrian army had been beaten at Solferino, he had no choice but to conduct a fighting withdrawal as the Italian attacks continued. With the French having taken Solferino, the Italian seizure of San Martino marked the end of the massive and bloody battle.

French & Austrian Emperors meet at Villafranca
Stunned by the ferocity and chaos of the engagement, Emperor Franz Joseph ordered his forces to fall back to the security of the Quadrilateral fortresses. Losses had been heavy for both sides. The Italians had lost about 5,000 men, the French more than 10,000 and the Austrians about 22,000 in the vicious struggle. Both the French and Austrian emperors were shaken by the extreme loss of life. The carnage would later lead one Swiss observer of the engagement to found the International Red Cross in 1863. Operations continued for a time but Napoleon III and Franz Joseph both agreed that the war should come to an end. Franz Joseph feared that a continuation of the so far disastrous conflict could pose an existential threat to the Austrian Empire itself if other areas rose in rebellion. Napoleon also feared that if Austria seemed near to collapse the other German states might get involved and threaten France itself. Disregarding his earlier promises to the Italians, Napoleon III agreed to make peace with Emperor Franz Joseph at Villafranca on July 8.

The result of this was that Austria gave up Lombardy to the House of Savoy but retained control of Venetia. It was not the total victory that Italian nationalists had wanted and many were bitter about the result. The French had gained Savoy and Nice but had backed out before the total liberation of northern Italy had been achieved. Many, given how close Austria had come to collapse in 1848, thought they would not put up so strong a fight. However, despite being weakened by budget cuts, the Austrian military was much more effective than Austrian diplomacy had been. Things would have gone very differently if the Austrians had not managed to offend the Russians, Prussians, the minor German states and the French all at the same time. Not only did this isolate Austria but it also gave the Prussians room to further gain prestige among the German states, standing as the defenders of German rights while Austria was focused on keeping control of Italians, Slavs and Magyars.

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia
A particular example of this was in 1857 when royalists in the Principality of Neuchâtel had risen in revolt. They favored the King of Prussia for their prince rather than being a part of Switzerland and the German states saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the German Confederation. Emperor Franz Joseph, president of the Confederation as the Head of the House of Habsburg, had, however, refused to give their cause imperial support. Prussia was ultimately forced to back down and many in the German Confederation wondered why they should take any risk to support the Austrian rule over unwilling Italians two years later when the Austrians had been unwilling to support pro-German royalists who wanted to be ruled by a German monarch. It was illustrative of how Austrian interests diverged from those of the rest of the German-speaking people. There were also those in Berlin who realized the implications that Italian independence would have better than the French did. Napoleon expected to gain a subservient northern Italian buffer state but, as Modena, Tuscany, Parma and after Garibaldi’s shockingly successful invasion of the south, all came to be part of the Kingdom of Italy, France instead helped create a rival in the Mediterranean.

The result of all of this was that Austria lost Lombardy, which joined with Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, Parma and Modena to form the Kingdom of Italy, soon joined by the south and the Papal States outside of Rome. Austria remained friendless and increasingly overshadowed by Prussia and the French were not seen by the Italians as stalwart allies but as rather fair-weather friends who likewise kept troops in Rome. The French had gained battlefield laurels but would also find themselves without friends going forward just as the Austrians had because of their determination to maintain some level of control over Italy, continuing a cycle which had been going on for many, many centuries and which would continue until the fall of Napoleon himself in 1870. Italy had gained much from the Second War for Independence but not so much as to not require a third war. The Austrian loss did not seem too significant but it actually was. In trying to maintain control of Italy, Austria would ultimately lose their place in Italy and their place at the had of Germany to the Kingdom of Prussia. It would be no coincidence then that the Third War of Italian Independence would see Italy and Prussia on the same side.


  1. "In trying to maintain control of Italy, Austria would ultimately lose their place in Italy"

    In trying to maintain control of Italy, Austria would ultimately lose their place in Europe and lose their entire Empire (see: Battle of Vittorio Veneto, 1918). The Austrians never learned.

    1. I think that's a bit unfair as there was more too it than that. However, it is true that if, as agreed upon, Austria had given up the remaining Italian territories after annexing Bosnia, Italy would likely have remained in the Triple Alliance and fought the French instead.


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