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The War—No Progress

Frederick Engels

Our latest telegrams from the seat of war, received yesterday by the Asia, extend to the 13th inst., precisely three days later than the advices by the Vanderbilt. These telegrams consist of the brief and rather confused bulletins issued by the Sardinian Government, the Austrians publishing no account of their proceedings[a]. Nothing of great importance has occurred in these three days. The campaign continues to maintain its preeminence in the annals of modern warfare for slowness. We almost seem to be trans-planted back to those antediluvian times of pompous and do-nothing warfare, to which Napoleon put such a sudden and decisive end. Here we have two immense armies opposed to each other on a line extending over forty miles, each army capable of acting with from 100,000 to 140,000 men in the field; the one approaches, the other reconnoiters, feels its way now on this, now on that point of the enemy's position, and then draws back, while the other army does not stir from the ground it occupies; so that a distance varying from eight to twenty miles now separates the two.

There are some facts to give a rational explanation to this anomaly; but still anomaly it remains, and this in consequence of the error committed in the beginning of the campaign by the attacking party. As we have already shown[b], the whole end and purpose of the Austrian invasion of Piedmont was foiled by an indolence and indecision in the Austrian movements which could scarcely be ascribed to anything but to the vacillation of Gen. Gyulay. The reports since received tend fully to confirm this view. The Austrians offer no explanations for the strange conduct of their army—a plain proof that they let the responsibility fall undivided on the head of the General-in-Chief. Indeed, it was only after a week's campaigning that the Austrian bulletins began to speak of the bad weather and the inundated state of the country as the reason which compelled their General to withdraw his troops from the fever-stricken rice-swamps of the Po. And now our well-informed London correspondent writes us that the Emperor himself, imitating the example of Louis Napoleon, is going with Gen. Hess to supersede Gyulay and take the command.[c]

As far as we can at present judge, the campaign appears to have proceeded as follows: In the first instance; the Austrian right wing was pushed forward toward Novara and Vercelli, with demonstrations on the Lago Maggiore. The center, and perhaps the left wing, marching by Vigevano and Pavia in parallel lines, were left rather behind. The column from Pavia only reached Lomello on the 2d of May with its main body. The throwing forward of the right wing now appears to have had for its object, first, to direct the attention of the Allies by a threatened attack on the Dora and Turin; and, secondly, to bring into requisition the resources of the Upper Lomellina for the use of the Austrian army. It was on the 3d of May only that the attack of the Austrian main body upon the line of Casale and Valenza developed itself; on the 4th, demonstrations were made against Frassineto (opposite the junction of the Sesia and Po) and Valenza, while the right wing was drawn nearer to the center; at the same time a bridge was thrown across the Po between Cambio and Salé, and a bridge-head constructed on the southern bank of the river. According to some accounts the 8th Austrian army-corps, said to have marched from Piacenza on the southern side of the Po, here effected its junction with the main body, and passed the river after a short excursion to Tortona and Voghera, and after destroying the railway bridge over the Scrivia. According to other accounts, however, and to some of our latest telegrams, there is still an Austrian force on the road between Piacenza and Stradella. Whether the reported excursion to Voghera was intended as a feint against Novi and the communications between Genoa and Alessandria, it is difficult to decide; at all events, it misled most of the able editors of Turin, Paris and London into prophesying a decisive battle on the old battle-ground of Novi, or somewhere about Marengo, which prophecy was at once negatively realized by the Austrians withdrawing to the northern side of the Po and breaking up their bridge. After the first few days of May, indeed, very heavy rains had set in. The Po rose ten to twelve feet near Pavia, and the secondary rivers in proportion. The inundations of the rice-fields in the valley of the Po—no obstacle ordinarily to a marching army, as the roads are formed by dykes above the level of the inundations—now became a serious matter; the whole country and many roads were flooded. Besides, the Austrians did not march; they remained in this swamp, obliged to bivouac either in the roads or in the wet fields. Accordingly, after they had remained a few days in the midst of this flood, it became imperative to them to withdraw to higher and drier ground; as it is, they must have suffered severe loss from sickness, especially from cholera and fever. The consequence was a movement of concentration toward the country about Mortara and Novara, a retreat not from the enemy (for they remained quiet enough in their lines), but from the elements. Since then the Austrians have constructed fortifications on the line of the Sesia, and pushed reconnoitering and foraging parties close up to the line of the Dora, which forms the extreme left of the allied position.

In all these series of operations, we cannot see a single stroke of good generalship. In fact, the first favorable moment for an attack upon the allied position once having been missed, the whole advance into the Lomellina became destitute of any definite and important purpose. The pushing forward of the Austrian right wing was a decided mistake. There was no time to be lost in artificial maneuvering; to march straight upon the enemy, to attack and beat him before he could fully concentrate his forces, was the only correct plan of operations. If it is true that Benedek's 8th corps marched by the southern bank of the Po, this was another error; it was separated from the main body by a large river, and if the rain had set in a day or two sooner, the throwing across of the bridge at Cambio would have been impossible, and the Austrians themselves would have been in that disconnected position in which they expected to find the enemy. The whole passage of the Po appears to have been forced upon them by the necessity of bringing Benedek over; why was he not from the beginning on the northern bank? By thus bridging the Po and the operations connected with it, they were compelled to stay a few days longer in the pestilential swamps than they otherwise need have done. Finally the whole campaign appears to have been mismanaged. There is no decision in all these Austrian movements; demonstrations are made in all directions, but we nowhere see a move for a real attack; and thus they grope their way all along the enemy's line until at last the inundations place an impassable barrier of some miles in width between the contending hosts. Then, for want of something better to do, and in order to appear at least to be doing, they reconnoiter toward the Dora; but all these reconnoissances are made by small flying columns which cannot act with any vigor and have to fall back almost as soon as they reach any advanced point.

While thus the Austrians are in reality doing nothing, their opponents seem to be busy at the same game. They are now as much concentrated as they can be on the long line they occupy. Their positions are as follows: The extreme left line of the Dora and Po, as far as Casale, is occupied by the French corps of Gen. Niel, which includes two divisions; with the left at Casale, consisting of two Piedmontese divisions and 3,000 volunteers under Garibaldi. The center, at Valenza, is formed by the French corps of Gen. McMahon, and a Piedmontese division—in all, three divisions. The right, at Alessandria, consists of Canrobert's French corps and one Piedmontese division—in all, three divisions. The extreme right, at Novi and Arquata, is Baraguay d'Hilliers' French corps and one Piedmontese division—in all, three divisions. The reserve is formed by two divisions of the French guard in Genoa. Estimating the division at 10,000 men—which will be high enough, as the French have not had time to recall their men from furlough, and will count less, although the Sardinian divisions are stronger—this would give a grand total of 150,000 men, which is about the strength of the troops now in line on the side of the Allies. Of these, 110,000 to 120,000 men might act in the field. That they have been so extremely passive may be caused partly by the want of preparation on the part of the French, who have very little artillery and ammunition with them, and partly by orders from Louis Napoleon, who undoubtedly means to reap the first laurels of the campaign. This new General arrived at Genoa on the 12th, where he was received with popular acclamations. On the 13th he saw the King[d], who came from the camp for the interview; on the same day he issued a Napoleonic proclamation[e], which we copy on another page[f]; and on the 14th, he was to leave for the army.

The rains now appear to have also subsided, and another mail or two may bring us news of a more decisive character. This state of suspense and inactivity cannot last much longer. Either the Austrians must re-cross the Po, or a battle must be fought in the Lomellina. It may be that the Austrians have been looking out for and preparing a strong defensive position, in which to receive the onset of the allied troops. If they have found one, this would be their best policy; they cannot well retrograde without showing fight, and at the same time they would be able, in such a position, to bring to bear all the strength they now have in the field, while the Allies would be weakened by the garrisons left in Casale, Alessandria and Valenza.

In the mean time, both parties are looking for reenforcements. Austria has sent a corps of 50,000 men under Gen. Wimpffen to Trieste and its neighborhood, to form a reserve for the army of Italy; while Louis Napoleon has organized two more army corps for Italy; and there are rumors that Prince Napoleon will take charge of a motley expedition, to land somewhere in the Peninsula to conquer a kingdom for himself.

Written on May 16, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5647, May 27, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1461, May 27, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] The beginning of the article shows signs of interference by the New-York Daily Tribune editors.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 316-19.—Ed.

[c] The report from London of May 14, 1859, New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5647, May 27, 1859. It may have been written by Ferenc Pulszky.—Ed.

[d] Victor Emmanuel II.—Ed.

[e] Napoleon III, "Armée d'Italie. Ordre du jour, Genes, le 12 mai 1859", Le Moniteur universel, No. 134, May 14, 1859.—Ed.

[f] This clause is inserted by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.327-331), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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