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The War

Frederick Engels

Napoleon III sailed from Marseilles on the 11th inst. for Genoa, where he was to take command of the French forces, and where preparations had been made to receive him with extraordinary display. Whether his military exploits will equal the indisputable triumphs of his diplomacy is a problem with regard to which we are likely soon to have positive demonstration; hitherto the only evidence of strategic capacity, which he has furnished, is to be found in his plan for operations in the Crimea, whose main features were of an antiquated description, and belonged to the military school of Bülow, of whom the great Napoleon said that his science was the science of defeat and not of victory.[a]

That the French Emperor enters Italy with the prestige of an immense moral success is not to be questioned. Having, by superior shrewdness and cunning, driven the Austrians to assume the heavy responsibility of declaring war, he has had the good fortune of seeing them throw away, in a fortnight of virtual inaction, the only advantage which they could hope to gain by that momentous step. Instead of crushing the Piedmontese army, by superiority of numbers and celerity of movement, before the French reenforcements could arrive, the Austrian has wasted his opportunity and now has before him an allied army fully equal to his own, which is every day becoming superior; and instead of offensive operations and the advance of a conqueror, he may very probably soon be compelled to abandon even Milan and fall back to the line of the Mincio, where he will assume a purely defensive attitude in the shelter of his great fortresses. Thus, Louis Napoleon begins his career as a commander with the benefit of vast and almost inexplicable faults committed by his antagonist. His lucky star is still in the ascendant.

The first fortnight of the war offers us, on the Austrian side, a curious though monotonous story, very much like that narrated in the famous couplet respecting the King of France[b]. On the 29th of April, the Austrian advanced guard crossed the Ticino, without finding any great resistance, and on the following day the main body followed. From the first movements, which were made on Arona (on the Lago Maggiore), Novara and Vigevano, the direction of the attack appeared to be toward Vercelli and the Turin road. The occupation of Vercelli, which took place on the 1st, or the morning of May 2, and telegrams. from Switzerland stating that the forces of the invading army were concentrated on the Sesia, tended to confirm this view. But this demonstration seems to have been merely a feint, destined to place the whole of the country between the Ticino and Sesia under contribution, and to destroy the telegraphic communication between Piedmont and Switzerland. The real point of attack was pointed out by a bulletin of General Gyulay[c], from which it appears that Cozzo and Cambio formed the chief points of concentration, and that on the evening of May 2 his headquarters were at Lomello. Now, the first-named point being near the junction of the Sesia and Po (a little to the eastward of it), the second on the Po, a little eastward of the junction of the Bormida with that river, and the third a little more to the rear, but equidistant from both, a glance at the map will show that the Austrians are advancing against the front of the Piedmontese position behind the Po, extending from Casale to Alessandria, with its center toward Valenza. Further news, received by way of Turin, report that on the 3d they threw bridges across the Po near Cambio, and sent reconnoissances toward Tortona, on the southern bank of that river; and that they also reconnoitered nearly the whole front of the Piedmontese position, but especially near Valenza, engaging the enemy on several points, in order to induce him to show his forces. There were still rumors of an Austrian corps having debouched from Piacenza, and marched along the southern bank of the Po toward Alessandria, but this report has not been confirmed; still, taken in connection with the construction of bridges across the Po at Cambio, it was not an improbable movement.

This was the aspect of the campaign' up to the 5th of May; and so far, and indeed through the whole time since, the Austrian maneuvers have been marked by an extraordinary degree of slowness and caution, to say the least. From the Ticino to the Po, at Valenza, is certainly not more than 25 miles, or two easy marches, and hostilities commencing on April 29, the whole of the invading force might have been concentrated opposite Valenza by the 1st of May at noon; the advanced guard could have completed their reconnoissances on the same day, and during the night the resolution as to decisive operations for the following day might have been adopted. We are still, with the mails of the Vanderbilt in our possession, as much as ever unable to explain the delay which has occurred. But as rapidity of action was the course imperatively enjoined on the Austrians by the circumstances of the case, and as Gen. Gyulay has the reputation of a determined and daring officer, it is natural to suppose that unforeseen circumstances must have compelled them to this cautious mode of proceeding. Whether the idea of a march on Turin by Vercelli was at first actually entertained, and only abandoned on the receipt of news that the French had arrived in Genoa in such numbers as to render a turning movement dangerous; whether the state of the roads, cut up and barricaded everywhere by the Piedmontese, had something to do with it, or whether Gen. Gyulay, of whose qualities as a commander-in-chief the world is completely ignorant, found himself embarrassed by the unwieldiness of the masses he had to handle—all this is difficult to settle. A glance at the position of the other party may, however, throw some light on the state of the case.

Before an Austrian crossed the frontier, the French began to pour into Piedmont. On April 26 the first troops arrived in Genoa; on the same day the division of Gen. Bouat passed into Savoy, crossed Mont Cenis, and arrived on the 30th in Turin. On that day, 24,000 French were in Alessandria, and about 16,000 in Turin and Susa. Since then the influx has been uninterrupted, but with far greater rapidity into Genoa than into Turin, and from both points troops have been sent forward to Alessandria. The number of French thus sent to the front, cannot, of course, be determined, but from circumstances to which we shall allude directly, there can be no doubt that by May 5 it must have been considered sufficient to enable the allied armies to hold their own, and to prevent any turning movement of the Austrians by Vercelli. The original plan was, to hold the line of the Po from Alessandria to Casale with the main body of the Piedmontese and whatever French troops could be brought up from Genoa, while the remainder of the Piedmontese (the brigades of guards of Savoy), along with the French arriving by the Alps, were to hold the line of the Dora Baltea from Ivrea to Chivasso, thus covering Turin. Any Austrian attack upon the line of the Dora might thus be taken in flank by the Piedmontese debouching from Casale, and compelling the invaders to divide their forces. But, for all that, the allied position was a mere make-shift, and intrinsically bad. From Alessandria to Ivrea it occupied a length of nearly fifty miles, with one salient and one reentering angle; and, though the opportunity for a flank attack strengthened it considerably, still the occupation of such a long line gave great facilities for false attacks, and could not offer serious resistance to a determined offensive. The line of the Dora once conquered, while a flank attack would have been momentarily paralyzed by a smaller Austrian corps, the victorious Austrians would have been at liberty to return on either bank of the Po, and to drive the army of Alessandria back under the guns of its fortress by superior numbers. Had the Austrians acted with energy during the first two or three days of the war, this might have been easily accomplished. There were not then forces concentrated between Alessandria and Casale to endanger their proceedings; but, on the 3d, 4th and 5th of May the case had changed, and the number of French who had arrived in the position and were still arriving from Genoa, must have been large enough to swell the force defending it to about 100,000 men in all, of whom 60,000 might have been used for an attack by way of Casale. That this strength was thought sufficient to cover Turin indirectly is proved by the fact that even as early as the 3d both French and Sardinian troops were being moved from the line of the Dora to Alessandria; and thus the tardiness of the Austrians permitted the allies to conclude in safety that dangerous maneuver, the concentration of their forces in the position of Alessandria. With this the whole end and purpose of the Austrian offensive was lost; and what we have called the moral victory of the allies was consummated.

So far the Austrian General appears to have acted successively upon at least three different plans of campaign. First, it would seem that in passing the Ticino, he designed to march straight on Vercelli and the Dora; then, on hearing of the large French arrivals at Genoa, and considering the flank march past Casale too dangerous, he altered his attack, and turned toward Lomello and the Po; and, finally, he alters his mind again, abandons the offensive altogether, and fortifying himself on the Sesia, waits for the advance of the allies in order to give them battle. It is true, our reports of his movements are very imperfect, being derived almost exclusively from French and Sardinian telegrams; but such would seem to be the only inference to be drawn from the prolonged inactivity of the main body of the Austrians, and the various unimportant and seemingly irresolute movements of their outlying detachments between May 5 and 11.

Should the allied advance be delayed by any accident a few days longer, it is not impossible that we may see still another change in the Austrian strategy, in the form of a retreat to the Ticino, even without a battle—for Gyulay's army cannot remain for any length of time inactive in the pestilential rice swamps where it was at our latest advices; and it must either risk an attack against very doubtful odds or take up a new position in a less unhealthy district. The immediate advance of the allies, and a battle, are, however, what is to be expected; and it is likely that we shall have news of it by the next mail. But under these circumstances it is not surprising to hear from Vienna that Hess, the natural successor of Gyulay in the command, does not approve of his operations; and it is pretty certain that unless the Austrians win the approaching battle, they will have a new General-in-Chief before the first month of the war is over. This, however, is no unusual event in the history of their wars.

Written on May 12, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5643, May 23, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1460, May 24, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 924, May 28, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, pp. 232-33.—Ed.

[b] P. J. de Béranger, Le Roi d'Ivetot.—Ed.

[c] Ferenc Gyulay's war bulletin of May 3, 1859, The Times, No. 23298, May 5, 1859.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.315-319), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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