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Prospects of the War[258]

Frederick Engels

We have not thought it necessary to reply to various easy criticisms made during the last two months[259], whenever we have undertaken to discuss the resources and the strategic conditions for the opening of the great and bloody war in which Europe is now involved. We have now, however, in the ample details which to-day crowd our pages—presenting an impressive picture of the first scenes in this awful and imposing drama—a justification of our views so complete and so minute even, and at the same time so certain to interest the public, that we may properly call attention to the subject.

Fully two months ago, we indicated the offensive as the true method for Austria to defend herself[a]. We stated that the Austrians, having their Italian army well concentrated near to the Piedmontese position of defense, and perfectly ready and equipped for action, would commit a great mistake if they did not take advantage of this momentary superiority over their still scattered enemies by at once entering the Sardinian territory, beating the Sardinian army first, and then marching against the French, who must pass the Alps in several columns, and thus run the risk of being beaten in detail. This conclusion of ours excited a liberal share of dissenting comment on the part of various more or less eminent and more or less strategical critics; but we have found our judgment confirmed by that of every military man who has written on the subject; and finally it proves to be that of the Austrian generals. So much for that point.

The war having thus been begun, what are the relative forces of the parties, and their chances of success?

The Austrians have in Italy five army corps—the 2d, 3d, 5th, 7th and 8th—consisting of at least 26 regiments of infantry, of five battalions each (of which one is a grenadier battalion), and 26 light battalions—in all 156 battalions, or 192,000 men. With cavalry, artillery, engineers and garrison troops, their force amounts, at the very lowest computation, to 216,000 men. We do not know how far this number has been exceeded by drawing into Italy fresh frontier regiments and men of the reserve. That it has been exceeded, there can scarcely be a doubt—but let us take the lowest estimate of 216,000 men. Of these, 56,000 men will be perfectly sufficient to hold all the fortresses, forts and entrenched camps the Austrians care for holding in Lombardy; but let us take the largest possible figure, and say 66,000 men. This will leave 150,000 men for the invasion of Piedmont. The telegrams give the strength of the Austrian army of invasion at 120,000; and these statements are, of course, not to be strictly depended upon. But, to be on the safe side, we will assume that the Austrians have no more than 120,000 men disposable for the field. How will the French and Piedmontese forces be placed to encounter this compact army?

Between Alessandria and Casale, in a position which we described some weeks since[b], the Piedmontese army is concentrated. It numbers five divisions of infantry and one of cavalry—or 45,000 men of infantry of the line, including reserves; 6,000 riflemen, and about 9,000 cavalry and artillery—total 60,000 men, the utmost which Piedmont has been able to muster in the field. The remaining 15,000 men are required for garrisons. The Italian volunteers are not yet fit to encounter an enemy in the open field. As we have stated, the Piedmontese position cannot well be strategically turned to the south—it may be turned, however, to the north; and here it is supported by the line of the Sesia, which joins the Po about four miles east of Casale, and which the Sardinians, if we are to trust to the telegraphic dispatches, intend to hold.

It would be perfectly ridiculous for 60,000 men to accept a decisive battle in this position, if attacked by twice that force. In all probability, some show of resistance will be made on that river—enough to compel the Austrians to show their full strength—and then the Sardinians will fall back behind Casale and the Po, leaving the direct road to Turin open. This may have happened on the 29th or 30th of April, supposing that English diplomacy has not caused a new delay in the military operations. The day following, the Austrians would attempt the passage of the Po, and, if successful, would drive the Sardinians across the plain to Alessandria. There they might leave them for a while; if necessary the Austrian column, debouching south of the Po from Piacenza, could destroy the railroad between Genoa and Alessandria, and attack any French corps marching from the former to the latter place.

But what do we suppose the French to be doing all this while? Why, they are coming down, with all haste, toward the future seat of war, the valley of the upper Po. When the news of the Austrian ultimatum reached Paris, the forces destined for the army of the Alps scarcely exceeded four divisions of infantry about Lyons, and three more either in the south of France and Corsica, or in the act of concentration. One more division was on the road from Africa. These eight divisions were to form four corps; as a first reserve, the divisions of the troops of the line at Paris were disposable, and, as a second reserve, the Guards. This would give, in all, twelve divisions of the line and two of Guards, making seven corps d'armée. The twelve divisions of the line, before the arrival of their men on furlough, would count about 10,000 men each, 120,000 in all, or with cavalry and artillery 135,000, and the Guards 30,000, making a grand total of 165,000 men. With the men on furlough called in, the whole of this army would reach 200,000 men. So far, so good; it is a fine army, large enough to conquer a country twice as big as Italy. But where could they be on or about the first of May, the time they are wanted in the plains of Piedmont? Why, McMahon's corps was sent, about the 23d or 24th, to Genoa; not having been concentrated previously, it will not be able to leave Genoa before the. 30th; Baraguay d'Hilliers's corps is in Provence, and was to advance, according to some, by Nice and the Col di Tenda; according to others, it was to go on board ship, and effect a landing in the Mediterranean. Canrobert's corps was to pass into Piedmont by Mont Cenis and Mont Genèvre, and all the other troops were to follow as they arrived by the same roads. Now it is certain that no French troops set foot on Sardinian territory before the 26th; it is certain that of the army of Paris three divisions were still at Paris on the 24th, one of which left only that day by railway for Lyons; and that the Guard was not expected to begin its march before the 27th. Thus, supposing that all the other troops enumerated above had been concentrated on the frontier and ready for the march, we have eight divisions of infantry, or 80,000 men. Of these, 20,000 go to Genoa; 20,000 under Baraguay, if they go into Piedmont at all, go by the Col di Tenda. There remain 40,000 under Canrobert and Niel to go by Mont Cenis and Mont Genèvre. This will be the whole which Louis Napoleon can make available by the time his assistance will be most wanted—the time when the Austrians may be at Turin. And all this, let us observe in passing, is perfectly in agreement with the indications we gave on this subject weeks ago. But with all the railways in the world, Louis Napoleon cannot bring down his remaining four divisions from the army of Paris in time to take part in the first engagements, unless he allows the Austrians to do as they like with the Piedmontese for a full fortnight; and even then, having eight divisions on two mountain passes, and the enemy on their point of junction in at least equal numbers, he stands but a poor chance. But a man in his position cannot, from political reasons, allow Piedmont to be overridden by the enemy for a full fortnight, and therefore he will have to accept a battle as soon as the Austrians offer it; and that battle he must fight under disadvantageous circumstances. The quicker the French get across the Alps, the better for the Austrians.

Written on April 28, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5634, May 12, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1457, May 13, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, pp. 197-201.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 197-98.—Ed.

[258] In his letter to Engels of May 6, 1859 Marx wrote about this article: "I deleted the whole of the preamble to your last Friday's article, firstly because I had my misgivings about Austria; secondly because it is absolutely essential that we do not identify our cause with that of the present German governments."

[259] 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.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.299-302), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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