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The Austrian Hold on Italy

Frederick Engels

When General Bonaparte, in 1796, descended from the Maritime Alps, the great week of Dego, Millesimo, Montenotte and Mondovi, sufficed to conquer the whole of Piedmont and Lombardy[161]. His columns advanced without resistance until they reached the Mincio. But there the tables turned. The walls of Mantua arrested them, and it took the greatest general of his age nine months to conquer this obstacle. The whole second part of, the first campaign of Italy turns upon the conquest of Mantua. Rivoli, Castiglione, Arcole, and the march .through the Brenta valley, are all subordinate to that grand object[162]. Twice was Napoleon arrested by a fortress; the first instance was Mantua, Danzig being the second[163]. Napoleon knew very well that Mantua was the key of Italy. After he once got hold of it, he never parted with it until he parted with his crown, and his sway over Italy was never seriously endangered till then.

From the geographical configuration of Italy, it is clear that whichever power can hold the Northern portion, the Gallia Cisalpina of the Romans, that power rules in all Italy. The basin of the Po has ever been the battle-field in which the fates of the peninsula were decided. From Marignano and Pavia, through Turin, Arcole, Rivoli, Novi and Marengo, down to Custozza and Novara, all the decisive struggles for mastery in Italy have been fought there[164]. It is quite natural. French or German, whoever drives his opponent from the valley of the Po, isolates him from the long-stretched peninsula, and isolates that peninsula from its allies. Reduced to its own resources, this peninsula, the least populated and least civilized portion of Italy, is soon subdued. Now, in this basin of the Po, Mantua is the most central position. It is equidistant from both Adriatic and Mediterranean, about 70 miles from either; it thus effectually shuts up, if defended by an army in the field, all access to the peninsula. Add to this the immense tactical advantages of its position, in the middle of a lake, with three bridge-heads to debouch from, surrounded on all sides by ground intersected by rivers, and tending to isolate from each other the various portions of a besieging army—and no wonder that it should be a traditional saying that who holds Mantua is master of Italy.

These few considerations will suffice to show that it would not be so very easy to drive the Austrians out of Italy, even if they held nothing but Mantua. What it took the first captain of the age nine months to do, a late captain of the Swiss artillery[165] will not do under the same time. But the military aspect of Lombardy has changed immensely since 1796, nay, even since 1848. The campaign of 1848 is in a manner the reverse of that of 1796. If 1796 showed what Mantua could do when on the defensive, 1848 showed what Mantua, Peschiera, Legnago and Verona together can do in offensive warfare; and since then, this splendid position, about the finest in Europe, has been worked out and prepared in every possible way, and with a predilection, a study, and an ensemble which do the highest credit to the Austrian staff and engineers.

Look at the map. From the Lago di Garda to the Po runs the Mincio, a not very considerable river, fordable in Summer in many places, but, on the whole, not unfit for a defensive position. The length of the line, which must be measured from Peschiera to Borgoforte, though this is beyond the river, is about thirty miles, so that an army, placed in the middle of it, can reach either extremity in one day's march. Flanked on the right (north) by the lake and the Tyrolese Alps, and on the left by the Po, this short line of thirty miles is the first defensible line which an Austrian army can find against an enemy from the west. But this is not its only merit. Nearly parallel with the lake, the Mincio and the Po, at a distance of from ten to thirty miles to the rear, runs the Adige, forming a second and far stronger line of defense, and offering at all times an obstacle which must be overcome by bridges. This double line, as a glance on the map will show, naturally rounds off the Tyrol and the adjoining Austrian Provinces into a compact whole; it is, militarily speaking, their necessary complement; and upon this is founded the Austrian political maxim that the line of the Mincio is necessary to the defense of Germany, and that the Rhine must be defended on the Po.

This position, naturally strong, has been rendered stronger still by art. The line of the Mincio is cut in two by Mantua. This fortress is so near to the mouth of that river, that the portion below it may be left entirely out of the calculation. Thus the line is shortened by some seven or eight miles more; and its southern extremity strengthened by a fortress of the first rank, forming bridge-heads on either side of the river. The other extremity, where the river leaves the lake, is defended by a small fortress, Peschiera. This place is certainly not very strong, and was taken by the Piedmontese in 1848; but it is sufficient to resist an irregular attack, and can therefore be held while the Austrians hold the field; while it allows them to debouch on the western side of the Mincio.

The line of the Adige, up to 1815, had been neglected. From 1797 to 1809, it formed the boundary of Austria and Italy; but since 1815, Austria became possessed of both banks of the river. Behind Mantua, about 25 miles distant, lay the small fortress of Legnago, on the Adige; but behind Peschiera, the nearest town, Verona, was not fortified. The Austrians, however, were not slow to find out that, to make the position really what it ought to be, Verona must be fortified. And so it was. Only, with the usual sloth of antediluvian Austria, the execution was so neglected that in 1848, when the revolution broke out, the portion on the left or eastern bank of the river, that which might be turned against Austria, was tolerably fortified, while the side toward the enemy was comparatively defenseless.

Radetzky and his chiefs of the staff, Hess and Schönhals, at once set to work, when the revolution had driven them from Milan, to remedy this defect. The hights surrounding Verona to the west were crowned with entrenchments, and by these the ramparts of the town were covered from a commanding fire. And well for Austria they did so. The line of the Mincio had to be abandoned. Peschiera was besieged by the Piedmontese, and they advanced to the very ramparts of these redoubts. But here they were brought to a standstill. The day of Santa Lucia (May 6, 1848) showed them that every further attempt on the defenses of Verona was quite useless.

Still, the whole of Upper Italy was in the hands of the revolutionary army. Radetzky held nothing but his four fortresses, using Verona as an entrenched camp for his army. His front, flanks and almost his rear were in the power of the enemy; for even the communication with the Tyrol was menaced and sometimes interrupted. Still, a division under Gen. Nugent succeeded in making its way through the insurged Venetian country, and joined him toward the end of May. Then it was that Radetzky showed what could be done with- that splendid position .he had just been organizing for himself. Unable to live any longer in the exhausted neighborhood of Verona, too weak to take the field in a decisive battle, he removed his army, by a bold and skillful flank-march, by Legnago to Mantua; and, before the enemy had any certain knowledge of what was going on, Radetzky advanced from Mantua to attack them on the western bank of the Mincio; he drove in their line of blockade, and compelled the main army of the Piedmontese to retreat from before Verona. Still, he could not prevent the fall of Peschiera, and, having attained all the results from' his march to Mantua he could possibly expect, he again collected his troops, marched by Legnago to Vicenza, and took it from the Italians, thereby subduing the whole of the Venetian territory on the continent, recovering his communications, and securing the resources of a large and rich district in his rear, after which he again retired to his stronghold of- Verona, from which the Piedmontese were so much at a loss how to drive him, that they lost a whole month in doing nothing. In the mean time, however, three strong Austrian brigades had arrived, and then the tables were turned. In three days, Radetzky swept the Piedmontese from the hights between the Adige and the Mincio, turning, at the same time, their right flank by Mantua, and gave them such a lesson that they never showed fight again until they were behind the Ticino.

This campaign of Radetzky's shows what a general can do with an inferior army if supported by a well-defended system of river-lines. No matter where the Piedmontese stood, or which way they tried to make front, they could not attack the Austrians; and the groping in the dark to which all their military operations were confined for the last five weeks before their ultimate defeat, shows clearly how helplessly fast they were. Now, in what consisted the strength of Radetzky's position? Merely in this, that the fortresses not only sheltered him from an attack, but that they compelled the enemy to divide his forces, while Radetzky, under their shelter, could operate with the whole of his forces at any given point against that portion of the enemy he might happen to find against him. Peschiera neutralized a good many troops; while Radetzky was in Verona, Mantua neutralized another portion, and no sooner did he go to Mantua, than Verona compelled the Piedmontese to leave a corps of observation there. But more than this: the Italians had to operate with separate corps on either side of the rivers, none of which could rapidly support the other, while Radetzky, by his fortresses and bridge-heads, could at pleasure remove the whole of his forces from one bank to the other. Vicenza and the Venetian Main would never have fallen had it been in the power of the Piedmontese to support them. As it was, Radetzky took both, while the Piedmontese were kept in check by the garrisons of Verona .and Mantua.

When the French, in Algeria, have to march a column through a hostile district[166], they form four squares of infantry and place them on the four corners of a rhomboid; the cavalry and artillery is placed in the center. If the Arabs attack, the steady fire of the infantry repels them, and, so soon as they are broken, the cavalry dash among them, and the artillery unlimber to send them their balls. If repulsed, the cavalry finds safe shelter behind the squares of the infantry. What the solid infantry is against such irregular hordes, such is a system of fortresses for an inferior army in the field; especially if these fortresses are situated on a network of rivers. Verona, Mantua, Peschiera, Legnago, form the four corners of a square, and so long as not three, at least, of them are taken, an inferior army cannot be compelled to leave the position. But how are they to be taken? Peschiera, indeed, will always fall easily, if the Austrians cannot hold the field; but Mantua, in 1848, was not even attempted to be blockaded on all sides, much less to be besieged. To blockade Mantua, three armies are required; one on the western, one on the eastern bank of the Mincio for the siege, and one to cover the siege against the Austrians at Verona. By skillful maneuvering among the rivers and fortresses, each of these three armies can be attacked, ad libitum, by the whole of the Austrian forces. How is a siege to be kept going, under such circumstances? If Mantua, alone, took General Bonaparte nine months to starve out, how strong will it be if supported by an army resting upon Verona, Legnago and Peschiera, capable of maneuvering with united forces, on either bank of the Mincio or Adige, and. to which the retreat can never be cut off, as it has two lines of communication, one through the Tyrol, and the other through the Venetian Main? We have no hesitation in saying that this position is one of the strongest in Europe, and as it is not only fully prepared, but also fully understood by the Austrians, we believe that 150,000 Austrians, in it, need not fear double their number of opponents.

But suppose they get beaten out of it. Suppose they lose Mantua and Peschiera and Legnago. So long as they hold Verona, and are not totally driven from the field, they can render very risky the march of any French army toward Trieste and Vienna. Keeping Verona as an outpost, they can retire into the Tyrol, recruit their strength, and again compel the enemy to divide his forces. One portion must besiege Verona, another defend the valley of the Adige; will there remain enough to march toward Vienna? If so, the Tyrolese army can fall upon them by that valley of the Brenta, the strategetic importance of which Gen. Bonaparte taught the Austrians in 1796 by such a severe lesson. Such an experiment, however, would be a decided fault, unless there was another army for the defense of the direct road to Germany; for if the main body of the Austrians was to be thrown into the Tyrolese Alps, the enemy might still march past, and arrive in Vienna before the Austrians could extricate themselves from the hills. But suppose Vienna fortified (which, we believe, is now being done), this consideration ceases. The army would still arrive in time to relieve it, and might confine the defense of the Carinthian frontier to a constant hovering in the Alps, on the left flank of the invader, threatening to fall upon him either by Bassano or Cornegliano, and seizing his communications so soon as he marched past.

This indirect defense of the South-German frontier is, by the bye, the best answer to the Austrian defense of their occupation of Italy—that the line of the Mincio is the natural frontier of Germany in the south. Were it so, the Rhine would be the natural frontier of France. Every argument that holds good in one case, is fully applicable to the other. But, fortunately, France does neither require the Rhine, nor Germany the Po and Mincio. Who turns, is turned. If the Venetian Main turns the Tyrol, the Tyrol turns all Italy. The Pass of Bormio leads straight to Milan, and may be made the means of preparing a Marengo to an enemy attacking Trieste and Gradisca, as much as the Great Saint Bernard was to Melas attacking the line of the Var[167]. In war, after all, he who holds the field longest and best is sure to win. Let Germany hold the Tyrol with a strong hand, and she can very well afford to let the Italians of the plain have it all their own way. So long as her armies can hold the field, it matters little to her whether the Venetian Main belongs politically to her. Militarily speaking, it is commanded by her Alpine frontier, and that should be enough.

This, of course, is a question between Italy and Germany alone. So soon as France steps in, things are different; and if France throws all her weight into the scale, it is but natural that each of the two combatants should secure its position as much as possible. Germany can afford to part with the line of the Mincio, and of the Adige, too; but part with them to Italy only, and not to any other nation.

So far, we have considered the chances of a defensive war only on the part of the Austrians. But if it should come to war, their position is such that an offensive plan of campaign is imperatively imposed upon them and of this, more hereafter.

Written in mid-February 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5575, March 4, 1859


[161] These are battles in the initial stage of Bonaparte's Italian campaign of 1796-97 against the first anti-French coalition. The Austrians lost the battles of Montenotta (April 12, 1796), Millesimo (April 13-14), Dego (April 14-15) and Mondovi (April 22).

[162] The siege of Mantua was laid by Bonaparte in June 1796. The main body of the French forces fought against the Austrian troops trying to relieve the fortress. On August 5, 1796 the Austrians were defeated at Castiglione; in the first half of September 1796, in the Brenta valley; on November 15-17, at Arcole; on January 14-15, 1797, at Rivoli. On February 2, 1797, after a nine-month siege, Mantua capitulated.

[163] The siege of Danzig (Gdańsk) by Napoleon's army lasted from March 1807 to the end of May 1807.

[164] The battle of Marignano (September 13-14, 1515)—one of the major battles in the wars waged by France, Spain and the German Empire in Italy in 1494-1559; in this battle the army of the French King Francis I defeated the Duke of Milan's Swiss mercenaries. On February 24, 1525 the army of Francis I was defeated at Pavia by the forces of the German Emperor Charles V.

On September 7, 1706 at the battle of Turin the Italians routed the French army which had besieged the city for 117 days.

At the battle of Novi (August 15, 1799) the Russo-Austrian forces under A. V. Suvorov routed the French army under General Joubert and finally drove the French out of Northern Italy.

At the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800 Bonaparte's army defeated the Austrians.

At the battle of Custozza on July 25, 1848 the Austrian army under Radetzky inflicted a heavy defeat on the Piedmontese.

At Novara the Piedmontese were defeated by the Austrians on March 23, 1849.

[165] The reference is to Louis Bonaparte who lived in Switzerland for a long time, became a Swiss citizen and in 1834 enlisted as a captain in the artillery regiment of the Berne Canton.

[166] In 1830 the French began a war of conquest in Algeria which lasted, with intervals, forty years.

[167] This refers to the 1800 campaign in Italy. The commander-in-chief of the Austrian forces, Melas, at first successfully attacked the French right flank at the Var River, but in the latter part of May 1800 Bonaparte crossed the Alps and appeared in the rear of the Austrians. After the capture of Milan on June 2 and the French crossing of the Po, the Austrian army was routed at Marengo on June 14, 1800.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.183-189), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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