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The Austrian Defeat

Frederick Engels

The arrival of the Persia last night puts us in possession of a variety of highly interesting documents concerning the battle of Magenta, for which we refer our readers to the proper place. Their substance may be summed up very briefly[a]: The battle of Magenta was a decisive defeat of the Austrians and a pregnant victory for the French; the Allies have entered Milan amid popular rejoicings; the Austrians are in full retreat, and the corps of Benedek has been signally defeated by Baraguay d'Hilliers (of whose disgrace no more is heard) at Marignano and 1,200 prisoners taken; and the Allies are flushed with confidence and the Austrians are dispirited and desponding.

Our London cotemporaries generally treat the battle as a surprise on the part of the Austrians; and such was our own judgment until the present testimony came into our hands. It now appears to us that Gyulay was not so much surprised, as caught in a fatal blunder; and our reasons for this opinion we proceed to set forth. When the Austrians took their position some thirty miles in advance of Milan, it was not to be expected that they could cover every possible avenue to that capital. There were three roads open to the Allies: they could march right through the Austrian center by Valenza, Garlasco, and Bereguardo; on the Austrian left by Voghera, Stradella, and across the Po between Pavia and Piacenza; and finally on the Austrian right by Vercelli, Novara, and Boffalora. Now, if the Austrians wanted to defend Milan, they could defend only one of these three routes by placing their army across it; to defend every one of them by placing a corps on each, would have been to scatter their strength and incur certain defeat. But it is recognized as a rule in modern warfare, that a road is quite as well, if not better, defended by a lateral position than by a mere front defense. An army of 150,000 to 200,000 men, concentrated on a small space of ground, ready to act in every direction, cannot be passed by with impunity by a hostile army, unless immensely superior in force. When, for instance, Napoleon, in 1813, marched toward the Elbe, and the Allies, though vastly inferior[b] in numbers, had reasons of their own to seek a battle, they took position at Lützen, a few miles south of the road leading from Erfurt to Leipsic. Napoleon's army had in part passed by already, when the Allies gave notice to the French of their proximity. The consequence was that the march of the whole French army was stopped, the advanced column recalled, and a battle fought, which left the French, although superior by 60,000 men, barely in possession of the battle-field. The next day both the hostile armies marched on parallel lines toward the Elbe, and the retreat of the Allies was not even molested. Had the forces been more equally balanced, the lateral position of the Allies would have stopped Napoleon's march as effectively, at least, as an occupation in front of the direct road to Leipsic. General Gyulay was in exactly such a position. With a force which it certainly depended upon him alone to increase to more than 150,000 men, he stood between Mortara and Pavia, stopping the direct road from Valenza to Milan. He might be turned by either wing, but that was the very nature of his position, and if that position was worth anything, he ought to have been able to find an effective remedy for that contingency in the very facilities the position gave him for counteracting such movements. But leaving the Austrian left entirely out of consideration, we will confine ourselves to the wing that has actually been turned. On the 30th and 31st of May, and 1st of June, Louis Napoleon concentrated the mass of his troops at Vercelli. He had there, on the 31st, 4 Piedmontese divisions (56 battalions), Niel's corps (26 battalions), Canrobert's corps (39 battalions), and the Guards (26 battalions). In addition he also drew there McMahon's corps (26 battalions), in all the enormous force of 173 battalions of infantry, beside cavalry and artillery. Gyulay had six Austrian army corps; they were weakened by detachments left as garrisons, sent against Garibaldi, to Voghera, &c., but would still average 5 brigades each, giving 30 brigades or 150 battalions.

Now, such an army, if it has confidence in itself, no general dare leave on his flanks or rear. This army, besides, was so placed that it could not be turned on its right except by a flank march within reach of it, and such a flank march is a very dangerous maneuver. An army in marching order always requires a great deal of time to come into proper fighting order. It is never fully prepared for a battle. But if this be even the case when it is attacked in front, where the marching order is made as much as possible subordinate to the chances of resistance, it is far more the case when the marching columns are attacked in flank.

It is, therefore, a standing rule of strategy to avoid a flank march within reach of the enemy. Louis Napoleon, relying upon his masses, deliberately violated that rule. He marched toward Novara and the Ticino without heeding, apparently, the Austrians on his, flank. Here was the moment for Gyulay to act. His business was to concentrate his troops, by the night of the 3d June, about Vigevano and Mortara, leaving a corps on the Lower Agogna to observe Valenza, and on the 4th fall with every available man on the flank of the advanced Allies. The result of such an attack, made with some 120 battalions, on the long, disconnected columns of the Allies, could scarcely have been doubtful. If part of the Allies had crossed the Ticino, so much the better. This attack would have recalled them, but they would have scarcely been in time to restore the fight. And supposing even the attack to have been unsuccessful, the retreat of the Austrians to Pavia and Piacenza would have been quite as safe afterward, as it has now proved since the affair of Magenta. There is reason to suppose that this was Gyulay's original plan. But when he found, on the 2d June, that the French were accumulating their masses on the direct road to Milan, on his right, his resolution seems to have forsaken him. The French could be at Milan quite as soon as himself, if he chose to let them—there was scarcely a man there to block the direct road; the entry of even a small body of French into Milan might set all Lombardy in a blaze, and although most probably all these considerations had been weighed over and over again in his councils of war, and a march upon the flank of the French insisted upon as quite sufficient to cover Milan; yet when the case came actually to pass, and the French were as near Milan as the Austrians, Gyulay faltered, and at last retreated behind the Ticino. That sealed his doom. While the French marched on a straight line toward Magenta, he made a large circuit, descending along the Ticino and passing it at Bereguardo and Pavia, and then reascending along the river to Boffalora and Magenta—and thus attempting, too late, to block up the direct road to Milan. The consequence was that his troops arrived in small detachments, and could not be brought up in such masses as was required to oppose successfully the bulk of the allied forces. That they fought well there is no doubt; and as to the question of tactics and strategy in the fight, we propose to recur to that on another occasion. But it is useless for their bulletins[c] to attempt to palliate the fact that they were beaten, and that the battle has decided the fate of Milan, and must have its influence in deciding the fate of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Austrians have three more army-corps concentrating on the Adige, which will give them a considerable superiority in numbers. The command has also been taken from Gyulay, and given to Gen. Hess who has the reputation of the first strategist in Europe; but he is said to be such an invalid as to be incapacitated from protracted attention to business.

Our readers will notice that the reports of Austrian outrages in the Lomellina are contradicted on French as well as English authority[d]. We call attention to this fact also, not only to do justice to all parties, but because our own disbelief in the reports has been construed into an expression of sympathy with the cause of Francis Joseph—a potentate whose overthrow we have no desire to see postponed for a day. If he and Napoleon could but go down together, and by each- other's hands, the perfection of historical justice would be attained.

Written about June 9, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5669, June 22, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1469, June 24, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 928, June 25, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


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

[b] The newspaper has a mistake here: "superior".—Ed.

[c] "The Austrian Account", The Times, No. 23325, June 6, and No. 23326, June 7, 1859.—Ed.

[d] "Bulletin officiel de la guerre: N° 18, Turin, 8 mai au matin", Le Moniteur universel, No. 131, May 11, 1859.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.368-371), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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