soundly beaten in the first war of Italian Unification, the Sardinians under
their new king Vittorio Emanuele and chief minister Camillo Cavour were
still eager to evict the Austrians from their Italian provinces. They
realised, however, that they could not defeat the mighty Austrian Empire on
their own and therefore, in 1856, sent troops to fight in the Crimea allied
to Britain and France. As a result, and also because of Napoleon III’s
ambition, Cavour managed to persuade the French Emperor to agree to a Treaty
of Defensive Alliance against the Austrians and, with this safely signed,
set about provoking the Austrians to war.
This proved easy. Cavour put Piedmont on a war footing and called for
volunteers to enlist in a new war of Italian liberation. The Austrians
demanded that the Sardinians stand down and, when they refused, declared war
on April 26th.
The Austrian plan was to use their superior forces (the Austrian 2nd Army
was approximately 140,000 strong facing the 70,000 men of the entire
Piedmontese army) to crush the Sardinians before the French could intervene.
Unfortunately, the Austrian army had become a parade-ground army: led by men
chosen by the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef for their social standing rather
than their ability to fight. Under its commander Field Marshall Count von
Ferenc Gyulai, and to the surprise of everyone, the 2nd Army advanced into
Piedmont at a crawl and, rather than striking swiftly at Turin, took almost
ten days to travel the fifty or so miles to be within reach of the Sardinian
capital. There, now faced with reports of a combined Sardinian/French army
massing to his southern flank, he lost his nerve, and retreated.
A skirmish at Montebello (May 20th) convinced Gyulai that the Allies would
try to circle around him to the south and cut his lines of communication. He
had, however, completely misread the situation. Napoleon III had joined the
Allied army in early May, assumed personal command, and decided to circle
north, rather than south, of the Austrians: using the railways to accomplish
the rather tricky maneuver of shifting his entire army across the front of
the enemy and cross the River Ticino near Novarro.
To cover this maneuver, he ordered the Sardinians to feint towards Palestro
and there, at the end of May, when the Austrians responded with a
reconnaissance in force, the first serious battle of the war was fought.
Some 14,000 Austrians supported by 40 guns attacked a combined
French/Sardinian force of 10,700 men and 18 guns: but were thrown back with
heavy casualties. As a point of interest, Vittorio Emanuele, who had been
watching the battle, was unable to restrain himself: and, as probably the
last European monarch to do so, charged into battle at the head of his
Gyulai, totally confused, retreated back across the river Ticino and dug in.
Napoleon, now ready to complete his northern thrust, left most of his men on
the Sardinian side of the river, and took 30,000 troops across the Ticino
heading for the village of Magenta where he intended to establish a
bridgehead. There, however, he ran into significant numbers of Austrians
and, as both sides realised what was happening, a battle developed between
Napoleon’s vanguard (desperate not to be cut off on the wrong side of the
river) and the Austrians: with both sides calling up reinforcements as fast
Magenta was another victory for the Allies and, on June 6th, the Austrians
abandoned Milan and retreated east. Another Allied victory at Melegnano kept
them on the run until they arrived back in the Quadrilaterals.
From there, and reinforced from Vienna, the Austrians sortied out from
Solferino to attack the Allied Army: assuming that it would be strung out in
pursuit. Unfortunately, the Allies had moved quickly, and their whole army
was closer than the Austrians thought. The Allies, however, thought that
they were fighting only another Austrian rearguard.
The battle rapidly developed into a series of attacks and counter-attacks as
the Austrians tried to crush the French right wing and ‘roll up’ the
rest of their army, and the Allies tried to capture Solferino and pierce the
Austrian centre. It ranged over an enormous area, some sixty square miles,
with the Allies committing their forces to action as soon as they arrived on
the field. Eventually, however, Napoleon committed the Imperial Guard, and
the Austrians were driven back into the Quadrilaterals.
It had been, however, a bloody day: with the Allies taking 17,000 casualties
out of 137,000; and the Austrians taking 21,000 casualties out of 128,000. A
young Swiss tourist, Henri Dunant wrote an account of his experiences of
Solferino that directly led to the founding of the Red Cross.
Napoleon, too, had been badly affected by Solferino’s butcher’s bill. He
signed an armistice with the Austrians without consulting his Sardinian
allies: knowing that they could not continue the war on their own. Although
furious with the French, Cavour had to agree but, by clever political
maneuvering, managed to ensure that Sardinia absorbed Lombardy and the
Duchies of Parma and Magenta (as the war continued, both had declared that
they wished to join with Sardinia: with their Austrian-backed rulers fleeing
in the face of bloodless, popular uprisings). The Unification of Italy had
PS Garibaldi led a force of 3-4000 volunteers (the Cacciatori delle
Alpi) against the Austrians throughout the war: leading the Sardinians into
Lombardy and then, when the French arrived, regularly defeating Austrian
forces on the far north of the main Allied army, so tying up large numbers
of Austrian troops and protecting the Allied flank.