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The Battle of Montebello

Frederick Engels

The mails of the Africa add little to our previous knowledge with regard to this famous battle, of which such great account has been made by the Bonapartist press on both sides of the Atlantic.[a]

Of Gyulay's report[b] we have as yet only a brief telegraphic extract; and the mass of the French and Sardinian accounts are but the gossip of Turin and Paris, with so small pretensions to accuracy that they do not even give correctly the numbers of the regiments engaged. The deficiency is indeed supplied to some extent by Gen. Forey's report[c] which we received by the City of Washington on Monday night; but Forey does not undertake to state either the strength or the losses of the Austrians. From Baraguay d'Hilliers, unfortunately, we have nothing; for as there were troops of his corps engaged, in addition to Forey's division, his report would certainly clear up some doubtful points. But, while waiting for more ample and authentic intelligence, we proceed to make some observations founded on a careful comparison of all the documents before us, which may not be without their value. The Austrians, having been informed that a movement of the French toward the line of the Po, between Pavia and Piacenza, was in contemplation, had a bridge thrown across that river at Vaccarizza, not far from Pavia. The corps of Gen. Stadion was sent over to reconnoiter the position and the intentions of the enemy. Stadion occupied the position of the Stradella, a defile close to the river, where a spur of the Apennines, over which there are no carriage-roads, approaches the Po, and sent three brigades (15 battalions, with some eighteen guns and perhaps some cavalry) toward Voghera. The Austrians, no doubt leaving strong parties on their line of march to secure their retreat, met the enemy's outposts in front of Casteggio, and drove them through the town and through the village of Montebello. They advanced to the next village, Genestrello; but there they were met by a brigade of Gen. Forey's division (Brigade Beuret, 17th battalion of Chasseurs, 74th and 84th regiments of the line), and the combat became stationary. At this period, the Austrians evidently had but a few troops engaged—perhaps a brigade. The French were speedily reenforced by four battalions of Forey's other brigade (Blanchard, 98th, and one battalion of the 91st of the line). This gave them the superiority in numbers. Beuret's brigade was formed for the attack; took Genestrello, and afterward Montebello, after an obstinate fight; but at Casteggio, behind the small river on which it is situated, the Austrians made a stand. They very likely received fresh supports at this point, for they drove the French back in disorder upon Montebello, and were on the point of entering that village again when they were met by a portion of Gen. Vinoy's division, consisting of the 6th battalion of Chasseurs and the 52d regiment of the line. This again turned the scale in favor of the French, and the Austrians retreated in good order to Casteggio, where they left a rear-guard, until their columns had fairly got in marching order. Having thus accomplished their object, and ascertained where the corps of Baraguay d'Hilliers (forming the extreme right wing of the French) was posted, they retreated unmolested across the Po, certain that, so far, there was no intention on the part of the allies to advance toward Piacenza.

The Austrians cannot have had more than about two brigades on the battle-field, for three battalions at least must have been left on the road, and two more were required to fight two battalions of the French 91st at Oriolo, from which reason only one battalion of this regiment fought at Montebello. Of these two brigades or ten battalions, a portion only can have been engaged; the Austrian General, who should engage his last reserves in a reconnoissance, would certainly be very severely blamed.

On the French side there were three regiments (74th, 84th and 98th), and one battalion of the line (of the 91st), beside one battalion of Chasseurs; in all eleven battalions, supported at the end of the battle by two battalions of the 52d, and one of the 6th Chasseurs. Thus, all in all, we have fourteen[d] battalions of French against some ten Austrian battalions; and although the latter are certainly stronger, still the numerical superiority was on the side of the French when the turn of the fight came. Independent of this, it is to be remembered that the Austrians did not fight for victory so much as to compel their opponents to show what strength they had on a given point; and this object they fully accomplished. It is, therefore, absurd to regard this insignificant engagement as a victory of importance. With the gigantic armies now opposed to each other on the Italian plains, an affair like that of Montebello is of no more account than a mere collision of outposts in wars of smaller magnitude; and if this be a victory where are the fruits of it? The French say they took 140 wounded and 60 unwounded prisoners; no more than they had a right to expect after a couple of hours' struggle for a village. They also took one ammunition wagon and lost one. But pursuit there was none; there was no attempt to reap the fruits of the victory, although the French had plenty of Piedmontese cavalry. The Austrians evidently gave their opponents the last repulse, and then marched away in perfect order and unmolested.

Written about May 24, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5659, June 10, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1465, June 10, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 927, June 18, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


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

[b] "Official Bulletin Published To-day. Vienna, May 26", The Times, No. 23317, May 27, 1859.—Ed.

[c] "Rapport officiel de M. le général Forey, transmis par S. Exc. le maréchal Baragaey d'Hilliers à l'Empereur", Le Moniteur universel, No. 114, May 24, 1859.—Ed.

[d] The New-York Daily Tribune has "fifteen".—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.338-340), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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