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Chances of the Impending War[169]

Frederick Engels

The most zealous friends of peace in Europe are beginning to abandon the last faint hope that peace will be maintained, and in place of discussing the possibility of a pacific settlement, they now debate the chances of success for the future belligerents. We may, then, be allowed to continue our observations on the military character of the valley of the Po, and on the chances it may offer to the maneuvers of a French and Sardinian and an Austrian army opposed to each other.

We have already described the strong position of the Austrians on the Mincio and Adige[a]. Let us now turn to the other side. The Po, in its general course west to east, makes one considerable bend, flowing for about sixteen miles from north-west to south-east, after which it resumes its eastward direction. This bend is on Sardinian territory, about 25 miles from the Austrian frontier. At its northern angle the Sesia, running southward from the Alps, at its southern angle the Bormida, running northward from the Apennines, join the Po. Numerous smaller streams join either of these rivers near their junction with the main stream, so that the country west of them offers, on the map, the spectacle of a vast system of water courses, all tending from the amphitheater of mountains surrounding Piedmont on three sides, to one common center, similar to the radii drawn from the periphery of a circle to its central point. This is the strong defensive position of Piedmont, and it was well recognized as such by Napoleon; but, neglected by him as well as by the Sardinian Government which succeeded the French dominion, it was never organized for defense until after the disasters of 1849. Even then the defensive works were so slowly and sparingly erected that at the present moment they are incomplete, and works which ought to have a masonry scarp and counterscarp, are at this moment being constructed as simple field works, in order to be ready for defense in the Spring.

On the Po, about four miles above the junction of the Sesia, is situated Casale, which has been and is now being fortified so as to form the support of the northern or left wing of the position. At the junction of the Tanaro and the Bormida, eight miles above the junction of the latter with the Po, is Alessandria, the strongest fortress in Piedmont, and now being made the central point of a large intrenched camp, covering the southern or right wing of the position. The distance between the two towns is sixteen miles, and the Po runs in front of the road joining them, at a distance of about five or six miles. The left wing of an army camping in this position is covered first by the Sesia, and secondly by Casale and the Po; the right wing is covered by Alessandria and by the rivers Orba, Bormida, Belbo, and Tanaro, all of which form a junction close to Alessandria. The front is covered by the bend of the Po.

If Sardinia concentrates her army of 80,000 to 90,000 men in this position, she will have some 50,000 men disposable for active operations, and ready to fall on the flanks of any army attempting to turn the position by Novi and Acqui on the south, or by Vercelli on the north. Turin may, therefore, be considered as well covered by this position, especially as this capital has a citadel requiring regular siege before it can be taken, and no army turning such a position could conduct a siege without having first dislodged the Piedmontese army from its intrenched camp. But the position of Casale and Alessandria has one weak point; it has no depth, and its rear is completely uncovered. The Austrians, between the Mincio and Adige, have a square covered by four fortresses, one at each corner; the Piedmontese, on the Po and Bormida, have a line with two fortresses at each flank, and a well-defended front, but their rear is completely open. Now, to turn Alessandria by the south would be hazardous, and comparatively useless; but Casale can be turned on the north, if not by Vercelli, at least by Sesto Calende, Novara, Biella, Santhia and Crescentino; and, if a superior army pass the Po, above Casale, and attack the rear of the Piedmontese, they are at once compelled to give up the advantages of a strongly intrenched position, and to fight in the open field. It would be the counterpart of Marengo, though on the opposite side of the Bormida.

Having thus described the two bases of operation in the basin of the Po, that of the Austrians in a former article, that of the Franco-Piedmontese in the above remarks, let us next consider to what use they may be turned. A glance at the map shows that the whole north-eastern part of the Alpine chain belonging to Switzerland, from Geneva to within a mile of the Stelvio Pass, is neutral territory to begin with, until one or the other of the belligerents thinks proper to violate it. As the Swiss now-a-days muster a pretty strong force for defensive purposes, it is not likely that such a thing would be done at the very beginning of the war. We shall, therefore, for the present, consider Switzerland as really neutral and inaccessible to either party. In that case, the French have but four ways of getting into Piedmont. The army of Lyons will have to pass by Savoy and the Mont Cenis. A smaller corps may pass by Briancon and the Mont Genèvre; both will emerge from the mountains, and unite at Turin. The army concentrated in Provence may, in part, march from Toulon by Nice and the Col di Tenda; in part it may embark at Toulon and be steamed to Genoa in far shorter time. Both these bodies have their point of concentration at Alessandria. There are a few more roads, but they are either unfit for the passage of large bodies of troops, or subordinate to those named, leading to the same points of concentration.

The disposition of the French army of Italy, for we may now venture to call it by this name, has already been made, in accordance with this state of things. The two main points of concentration are Lyons and Toulon, with a smaller corps in the valley of the Rhône between the two, ready to advance by Briançon. In order rapidly to concentrate a strong French army in the valley of the Po, behind Alessandria and Casale, it is in fact necessary that all the above routes should be used; the strongest corps coming by Lyons and Mont Cenis, the weakest by Briançon and Mont Genèvre, and as large a portion as possible of the army of Provence being forwarded to Genoa by water; for while a corps marching from the Var by the Col di Tenda will require above ten days to march to Alessandria, it may go by water from Toulon to Genoa in twenty-four hours, and thence reach Alessandria in three forced or four easy marches.

Now, supposing, as we are bound to do, that Austria will declare war as soon as a French battalion passes into Piedmont, what course can her army of Italy pursue? It may remain in Lombardy, await, with arms grounded, the concentration of 200,000 French-men and 50,000 Piedmontese, and then retire before them to its base of operations on the Mincio, abandoning all Lombardy. This course would dishearten the Austrian troops, and flush their opponents with success bought unexpectedly cheap. Or it may await the attack of the French and Piedmontese in the open plains of Lombardy; in that case it would be beaten by superior numbers, having but 120,000 men to oppose to twice that strength, and, besides, be hampered by the Italian insurrection which would break out all over the country. It might, indeed, reach its fortresses, but that splendid base of operations would be reduced to a barren defensive, the offensive strength of the field army being gone. The great purpose for which that system of fortresses was created, to serve as a base to a weaker army for successful and sheltered attack upon a stronger one, would be completely destroyed, until support could arrive from the interior of Austria; and during that time Peschiera might fall, Legnago might fall, and the communications through the Venetian territory would certainly be lost. Either of the courses considered would be disadvantageous, and indeed inadmissible, unless dictated by stern necessity. But there remains another course.

The Austrians can bring into the field at least 120,000 men. If they choose their moment well, they have nothing to oppose them but the 90,000 Piedmontese, 50,000 of whom alone can take the field. The French arrive by four routes, all verging toward Alessandria. The angles comprised between these four routes, between a line drawn from Mont Cenis to Alessandria, and from Genoa to Alessandria, amount together to about 140 degrees; thus a mutual cooperation of the different French corps, while yet unconcentrated, is completely out of the question. Now, if the Austrians choose their time well—and we have seen in 1848 and '49 that they can do so—and march upon the Piedmontese base of operations, attacking it either in front or turning it by the north, we venture to say, with all respect for the bravery of the Piedmontese army, that the Sardinians would stand but a poor chance against superior numbers of Austrians; and, once the Piedmontese were driven from the field and reduced to a passive defense of their fortresses, the Austrians might attack with superior forces every French corps singly as it debouched from the Alps or the Apennines; and even if compelled to retreat, their retreat would be secure, so long as Switzerland's neutrality covered their northern flank, and the army, on arriving at Mantua, would still be fit for an active, offensive defense of its base of operations.

Another chance for the Austrians would be to take position about Tortona and await the arrival of the French column from Genoa on its march to Alessandria, when it must offer its flank to the Austrians. But this would be but a lame kind of offensive, for the French might remain quiet at Genoa till the other columns were concentrated at Alessandria, in which case the Austrians would not only be completely outdone, but even liable to be cut off from the Mincio and Adige.

Supposing the Austrians were beaten, and had to retreat toward their base of operations; the French, as soon as they advance beyond Milan, are liable to be turned. The Stelvio road leads from the Tyrol straight to Milan, by the valley of the Adda; the Tonale road by the valley of the Oglio, and the Giudicaria road by that of the Chiese. Both lead into the heart of Lombardy, and to the rear of any army attacking the Mincio from the west. By the Tyrol, Austria turns all Lombardo-Venetia, and, if the requisite preparations are made, may prepare for her enemies any day a Marengo in the Lombard plains. So long as Switzerland remains neutral, no such stratagem can be played upon her while she attacks Piedmont.

Thus the offensive is what, in the present state of matters in Italy, will suit Austria best. To march right into the midst of an army while in the act of concentration, is one of the most splendid of those grand maneuvers of modern warfare which Napoleon knew so well how to execute. Upon none did he execute it with greater success than upon the Austrians; witness Montenotte, Millesimo, Mondovi and Dego, witness Abensberg and Eckmühl[170]. That they have learned it from him, they have brilliantly proved at Sommacampagna[171], and Custozza, and above all, at Novara. The same maneuver would, therefore, seem to be most congenial to Austrian warfare now; and, although it will require great vigilance and nice timing, yet the Austrians will let immense chances of success escape out of their hands, if they confine themselves to a mere defense of their territories.

Written late in February 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5586, March 17, 1859 as a leading article


[a] See this volume, pp. 183-89.—Ed.

[169] Marx wrote to Engels on April 19, 1859 that the New-York Daily Tribune of April 5 had printed a reader's comments on this article.

The author of the comments in a letter signed "Asbouth" referred to his first letter concerning Engels' article "The Austrian Hold on Italy" (see this volume, pp. 183-89). This first letter was signed "A" and published in the Tribune on March 11, 1859.

The second letter largely repeats the first. The author considers the assessment of Austria's possibilities in the impending war given by Engels in his two articles to be insufficiently thorough and therefore exaggerated.

[170] The battles of Abensberg and Eckmühl were two stages in the five-day fighting in the region of Regensburg (Bavaria) in April 1809 between Napoleon I's army and the Austrian forces during the Austro-French war of 1809.

[171] In the battle at Sommacampagna on July 23, 1848 the Austrian army under Radetzky defeated the Piedmontese; this battle was followed by the rout of the Piedmontese army at Custozza on July 25, 1848.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.197-201), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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