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A Chapter of History[299]

Frederick Engels

We believe we have published every important account of the battle of Magenta which has been given to the world by the Governments involved and by the leading European journals. That battle happened nearly a month ago; and even in the view of our rather rigid friends of The Evening Post, it may now be discussed in a newspaper without doing violence to either propriety, earnestness or honesty; and accordingly we proceed with all deference to set forth the truth in the form of a historical and, if we may be allowed the expression, a strategical study of that battle.[a]

On the morning of June 4, the Austrians had completed their retreat across the Ticino, and were marching up toward Magenta and Abbiategrasso, in order to take in flank the French army advancing toward Milan; while Gen. Clam-Gallas, who had just arrived with a division of the 1st corps from Milan, was to oppose them in front with his division and the 2d corps (Liechtenstein's), which had joined him at Magenta. As a reserve, he had the Reischach division of the 7th corps (Zobel's) at Corbetta, a couple of miles behind Magenta. The line of the Ticino itself having been abandoned as indefensible, these seven or eight Austrian brigades were to hold the line of the Naviglio Grande, a large canal running nearly parallel to the Ticino, and passable by bridges only. The two bridges to be defended were those of Boffalora and Magenta, on two roads leading both from Magenta to the bridge of San Martino over the Ticino. The division of the 1st corps (commanded by Gen. Cordon) advanced on the road to Turbigo; two brigades of the 2d corps were on the bridges; a third at Magenta; and Reischach's division, as we have said, at Corbetta.

The French advanced in two columns. The first, under the nominal command of Louis Napoleon, consisted of the division of grenadiers of the guard, of Canrobert's, Niel's and Baraguay d'Hilliers's corps, in all 9 divisions, or 18 brigades (117 battalions). It advanced on the direct road from Novara to Milan, by the bridge of San Martino, and was to take the bridges of Boffalora and Magenta. The second, under McMahon, consisted of the division of voltigeurs[b] of the guard, of McMahon's corps, and of the whole Piedmontese army—in all 8 divisions, or 16 brigades, and including 109 battalions, as the Piedmontese divisions count one battalion more than the French. The head of this body had passed the Ticino and Naviglio without serious resistance at Turbigo, and was now to support the front attack of the first column by a movement upon the flank of the Austrians, by marching straight upon Magenta from the north. This column was to attack first, and, after it had well engaged the Austrians, the first column was to assault the bridges.

About noon the attack was commenced by McMahon. With superior forces he drove the division of Cordon before him toward Magenta, and about 2 o'clock the grenadiers of the guard, who had driven in the Austrian outposts as far as the canal, attacked the bridges of Boffalora and Magenta. There were at the time 3[c] French brigades on the battle-field, against what Louis Napoleon calls 125,000 Austrians, but what in reality was confined to 5 brigades (2 of the 1st and 3 of the 2d corps), or less than 30,000 men; for even Reischach's 2 brigades stood, as yet, at Corbetta[d]. The French, by a violent effort, carried the bridges over the canal. Gyulay, who was at Magenta, ordered Reischach to advance and retake the bridge of Magenta, which he did; but Boffalora seems to have remained in the hands of the French. The battle came to a stand; McMahon's corps, as well as the grenadiers, had been successfully repulsed; but also, every available man of the Austrians was engaged. Where were the other corps? They were everywhere. except where they were wanted. The 2d division of the 1st corps was still on the road from Germany, and could not reasonably be expected to arrive. The remaining brigade of the 2d corps, for Gyulay distinctly says in his report, there were only 3 brigades of the 2d engaged, is not accounted for. The 2d division of the 7th corps, that of Gen. Lilia, was at Castelletto, 6 or 7 miles from Magenta. The 3d corps was at Abbiategrasso, 5 miles from Magenta. The 5th corps was on the march to Abbiategrasso, having come, probably, from Bereguardo, and when the battle began was at least 9 miles from Magenta. The 8th corps was on the march from Binasco to Bestazzo, 10 or 12 miles distant, and the 9th was actually on the Po[e], below Pavia, 20 or 25 miles from the scene of action. By this precious scattering of his troops, Gyulay brought himself into the awkward predicament that with 7 brigades he had to resist the shock of the two French heads of columns from noon to somewhere about 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and these seven brigades would not have been able to do so if it had not been for the fact that the French marching on two roads only, with enormous masses of troops, could move but slowly.

While Reischach held the bridge of Magenta and took one of the new French rifled guns, Gyulay hurried to Robecco, a village on the canal about three miles below Boffalora, to hurry on the march of the 3d and 5th corps and to point out to them their directions of attack. Four brigades of the 3d corps were now thrown forward, the front line under Hartung and Ramming, and with Dürfeld in reserve, all three along the canal, and Wetzlar along the Ticino. They were to attack the right flank of the French. But in the mean time the latter had also obtained reenforcements. Picard's brigade (of Renault's division, and Canrobert's corps) arrived to support the grenadiers, and drove Reischach back over the bridge. They were followed by Vinoy's division (Niel's corps), Jannin's brigade (Renault's division) and Trochu's division (Canrobert's corps). Thus the French concentrated on this point six brigades in addition to the two brigades of grenadiers, while of the four Austrian brigades of the 3d corps, only two or three were actually engaged. In spite of these odds, the Austrians again took and retook the bridge of Magenta over and over again; but at last it remained in the hands of the French.[f]

While this was going on at the bridges, McMahon had prepared a second attack upon the troops opposed to him, consisting of four or five brigades of the 1st and 2d corps. His two divisions again advanced in two columns upon Magenta, followed, in second line, by Camou's division of voltigeurs of the guard. The divisions of Espinasse and La Motterouge (McMahon's corps) having been effectually stopped by the Austrians, the voltigeurs advanced to support them. The struggle now reached its crisis. The first of the French columns had passed the bridge of Magenta, and also advanced against the village, which was already hard pressed by McMahon's column. The 5th Austrian corps having at last made its appearance on the battle-field, the Prince of Hesse's brigade[g], almost at nightfall, made a fresh attempt to drive the French back over the bridge, but in vain. It was, indeed, too much to expect that a weak brigade (it had already fought at Montebello[h]) should have arrested and hurled back that torrent of troops which came pouring over the bridge of Magenta. The Austrians in Magenta, assailed in front, flank, and rear, and having been under fire, without rest, since the beginning of the action, at last gave way, and after a violent struggle, Magenta was occupied by the French about nightfall.

Gyulay withdrew his troops through Corbetta, which had been occupied in the meantime by Lilia's division from Carbelletto, and through Robecco, which was also strongly held by the 3d corps, the 5th corps bivouacking between the two places. He intended to continue the struggle on the 5th of June, but there appears to have been some blundering with regard to orders given, for in the middle of the night he learned that the 1st and 2d corps had, according to orders, as they understood it, retired several miles from the field of battle, and were to continue their retreat at 3 o'clock in the morning. This intelligence decided Gyulay to desist from another battle. A brigade of the 3rd corps again assaulted Magenta to cover the retreat of the Austrian army, which took place in the most perfect order.

According to the Austrian report[i], there were engaged on their side:

Of the 1st Corps, Cordon's Division2 Brigades.
Of the 2d Corps3 Brigades.
Of the 7th Corps, Reischach's Division2 Brigades.
Of the 3d Corps3 Brigades.
Of the 5th Corps, late at nightfall1 Brigade.

In all, 11 brigades, equal to 55 battalions, with auxiliary arms, about 65,000 men.

According to the French account[j], the Allies had engaged:

The Corps of Guards, 2 divisions4 Brigades.
McMahon's Corps (2 divisions)4 Brigades.
Of Canrobert's Corps, 2 divisions (Renault's & Trochu's)4 Brigades.
Of Niel's Corps, 1 division (Vinoy's)2 Brigades.

In all 14 brigades, or 91 battalions, equal to at least 80,000 men. But the French report, when speaking of the advance of Vinoy's division, says,

"the 85th of the line suffered most ... Gen. Martimprey received a wound while leading on his brigade."

Now, neither the 85th nor Gen. Martimprey's brigade belong to "Vinoy's division of Gen. Niel's corps." The 85th belongs to the 2d brigade, commanded by Gen. Ladreitt de la Charrière of Ladmirault's division, and Gen. Martimprey commands the 1st brigade of that same division, which does not belong to Niel's corps, but to that of Marshal Baraguay d'Hilliers. We thus find a decisive proof that more French troops were engaged than are enumerated in the report; and if Ladmirault's division, which swells the number of brigades to 16, and that of battalions to 104, and that of combatants to 90,000, is thus glibly passed over, we cannot but expect that still other troops contributed to the result of the day. The Austrians, too, say that they made prisoners belonging to almost every regiment forming part of the army of Italy, and it is, therefore, probable that at least 16 brigades were engaged. This gives the French a numerical superiority, which reflects the highest honor upon the bravery of the Austrian troops. They were beaten by just the width of the battle-field; they took one gun and lost four, and they must have left the battle-field with the certainty that if numbers had been even, victory would have been theirs.

But what shall we say of their General? He expects the attack on the 4th; within 8 miles of the battle-field he has 13 brigades (the 7 first engaged, 2 of Lilia's, 4 of the 3d corps); at 9 miles 4 more of the 5th; at 10 or 12 miles 4 more of the 8th corps. This was at 8:30 in the morning. Now, is it expecting too much, on a day of battle, that all these corps should have been united by 4, or at latest 5, in the afternoon close enough to Magenta to take part in the conflict? Is it expecting too much, that at 2 o'clock, when the battle became serious, 13 instead of 7 brigades should have been engaged? In that case, the position—held, as it was, till nightfall by 4—might have been easily maintained with 12 brigades, and the great losses which Cordon's division and the 2d corps must undoubtedly have suffered would have been avoided. On the arrival of the 5th corps, the offensive might have been taken, and the French driven back across the Ticino. But the old slowness of movement appears again to have got hold of the Austrians. As the greater Napoleon said of them, they lose the most precious moments in useless pomposity and idle formalities. Gyulay has done the same, and given Louis Napoleon a victory which would have been an easy and a decisive one but for the bravery of the Austrian troops, and which Gyulay might himself have had.[k]

On the morning of the 5th, Gyulay had under his orders, of intact troops, that had not been engaged at Magenta:

One Division of the 3d Corps2 Brigades.
Three Brigades of the 5th Corps3 Brigades.
One Division (Lilia's) of the 7th Corps2 Brigades.
The 8th Corps4 Brigades.

Eleven brigades, or a force equal to that with which he had fought the day before. Of the troops engaged the day before, only 3 divisions (1st and 2d corps) were so disorganized as to be unable to fight—this appears to be the real meaning of the mysterious retreat of these troops. There remained 8 brigades, in all 19 brigades, or above 100,000 men. There were opposed to him the 16 brigades of French engaged on the 4th; 4 more divisions of the French army, which must have been ready to fight on the 5th, and 1 or 2 divisions of Piedmontese, as most of the latter were still very far to the rear. Thus, on the 5th, Gyulay would have had 19 brigades, and perhaps later in the day, 25 (counting the 1st and 2d corps, if brought up again), against about 28 Franco-Piedmontese brigades, which, perhaps, toward evening, might have been reenforced by 2 or 3 more Piedmontese brigades. Now we see what an egregious blunder Gyulay committed in sending the 9th corps so far away. With the 9th corps present, his 29 brigades would have been a match for the whole allied army, and it is not at all impossible that the battle of the 5th might have had a different result to that of the day before.

Gyulay's mistakes may be summed up as follows:

1. When Louis Napoleon made a flank march within reach of the Austrians, from Vercelli to Turbigo, Gyulay did not profit by the unfavorable position of his enemy, by pouncing at once, with all his forces, on their exposed line of march, by which he might have cut them in two and driven part of them toward the Alps—repeating Radetzky's maneuver of 1849.

2. Instead of this, he retired behind the Ticino, and thus marched round-about to cover Milan, to which the straight road was abandoned to the enemy.

3. He scattered his troops during this retreat, which he conducted with an ease and laziness scarcely pardonable in peace maneuvers.

4. His 9th corps was so far away that it was out of reach of concentration.

5. The concentration even during the battle was carried on with unpardonable slowness, in consequence of which the troops first engaged had to suffer unnecessarily, and moreover the battle was lost instead of won.

If, with such blunders, he did not suffer a total defeat, having the élite of the French army to fight, it is merely to be attributed to the conspicuous bravery of his troops, and not at all to any qualities in their commander.

It will also appear from this review of the battle that the desertions of Italian and Hungarian troops, on which some of our friends have laid so much stress, were really very small, and had no calculable influence on the result of the day.[l]

Written about June 16, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. 7, June 18, 1859;
reprinted in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5678, July 2, 1859,
the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1472, July 5, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 930, July 9, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] In Das Volk the beginning of the article reads as follows: "The official reports, French and Austrian, on the battle of Magenta bear out the suppositions we ventured to make on the basis of the telegraphic dispatches." (The dispatches in question are: "Passage du Tessin et Bataille de Magenta. Quartier général de San Martino, le 5 juin 1859", Le Moniteur universel, No. 161, June 10, 1859, and "Report of Count Gyulay, Commander of the Second Army, to His Majesty the Emperor, June 7, 1859", The Times, No. 23331, June 13, 1859).—Ed.

[b] Soldiers of light infantry.—Ed.

[c] Das Volk has "8" here.—Ed.

[d] There is one more sentence here. in the text published in Das Volk: "The French 'secret general', following the example of Falstaff, turned less than 30,000 Austrians into more than 125,000" (see Shakespeare, King Henry IV, The First Part, Act II, Scene 4).—Ed.

[e] Das Volk has here: "and the ninth corps, incredibile dictu! loafed its time away on the Po".—Ed.

[f] In Das Volk the end of this sentence reads as follows: "... the bridge of Magenta, which the enemy's superior forces retained only by dint of the most desperate efforts".—Ed.

[g] General Dormus was in command of the brigade at the time.—Ed.

[h] The Volk version reads: "decimated in the battle of Montebello".—Ed.

[i] "Report of Count Gyulay, Commander of the Second Army, to His Majesty the Emperor, June 7, 1859", The Times, No. 23331, June 13, 1859.—Ed.

[j] "Passage du Tessin et Bataille de Magenta. Quartier général de San Martino, le 5 juin 1859", Le Moniteur universel, No. 161, June 10, 1859.—Ed.

[k] In Das Volk this sentence reads as follows: "Gyulay revived this tradition, and so letting his own victory slip from him he allowed the 'secret general to score a victory which would have been easy and decisive but for the bravery of the Austrian soldiers and the utter incapacity of the chief of the Society of December 10."—Ed.

[l] The end of the article as given in Das Volk reads thus: "5. In the course of the battle itself the concentration was carried out so carelessly that the troops had to suffer unnecessarily and the victory was given to the enemy for nothing.

"If despite the many gross blunders Gyulay did not suffer a total defeat, though he was confronted by the élite of the French army, this was due entirely to the bravery of his troops and the shrewdness of his enemy, the 'secret general'. Gyulay's troops displayed the invincible vitality of the people, and he himself the senile idiocy of the monarchy. On the other hand, the 'secret general' realises that with the Austrians' retreat to the Mincio the melodramatic part of the struggle ends and the real war begins. The correctness of the maxim that in war no hide-and-seek can save one from personal danger, which the real Napoleon impressed on his brother Joseph, was driven home to him. Finally, Canrobert, disgruntled by the preference given to MacMahon, has threatened to provide certain revelations concerning the exploits of the hero of Satory in this campaign. The hero therefore longs to be back with his beloved wife in Faubourg Poissonnière and yearns for peace at any price. If this is unattainable then he wants at least peace talks to justify 'his own retreat to Paris'."—Ed.

[299] This article ("A Chapter of History") was first published in the newspaper Das Volk under the title "Die Schlacht von Magenta" ("The Battle of Magenta"). In this volume it is reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune. The most important different readings are given in footnotes. It is possible that the Tribune editors made changes in the article.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.372-379), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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