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The Austrian Withdrawal to the Mincio

Frederick Engels

The fruits of a victory are gathered in pursuing the enemy. The more active the pursuit, the more decisive the victory. Prisoners, artillery, baggage, flags are not taken so much in the battle itself as in the pursuit afterwards. Further, the intensity of a victory is measured by the vigour of the pursuit. From this point of view, what are we to say of the "grande victoire" at Magenta? On the following day we find the French liberators "resting and reorganising"[a]. Not the slightest attempt at pursuit. Through the march to Magenta the allied army had in fact concentrated all its forces. The Austrians, on the other hand, had some of their troops at Abbiategrasso, some on the road to Milan, others again at Binasco, and finally others at Belgiojoso—a heap of columns, so scattered, slogging along so disconnectedly as to extend a virtual invitation to the enemy to fall on them, to make a single effort and disperse them in all directions and then capture, with no great exertion, entire brigades and regiments that had been cut off from their line of retreat. Napoleon, the genuine Napoleon, would have known in such a case how to employ the 15 or 16 brigades that, according to the official French communiqué, had not taken part in the battle on the preceding day. What did the Brummagem[b] Napoleon do, the Napoleon of Herr Vogt, of the Cirque Olympique, of St. James's Street and the Astley Amphitheatre[304]? He had dinner on the battlefield.

The direct road to Milan was open to him. The stage effect was assured. That of course sufficed for him. June 5, 6 and 7, three whole days, were presented to the Austrians so that they could extricate themselves from their dangerous positions. They marched down towards the Po and moved along the north bank of the river towards Cremona, advancing on three parallel roads. At the northernmost point of these roads General Benedek covered the retreat with three divisions as he moved next to the line of march of the enemy. From Abbiategrasso, where he was on the 6th, he marched via Binasco to Melegnano. There he left two brigades to hold the position until the baggage and supply train of the central column had moved far enough ahead. On June 8 Marshal Baraguay d'Hilliers was ordered to drive these two brigades out, and to make things quite safe, MacMahon's corps was also placed under his command. Ten brigades against two! Close by the Lambro MacMahon's corps was detached to cut, off the Austrians' retreat, while Baraguay's 3 divisions attacked Melegnano; two brigades attacked the city frontally, two turned it on the right flank and two on the left. Only one Austrian brigade, Roden's, stood in Melegnano, and General Boér's brigade stood on the opposite, east side of the Lambro River. The French attacked very vigorously, and their sixfold superiority in numbers forced General Roden, after stubborn resistance, to evacuate the city and pull back under the protection of Boér's brigade. It was just for that purpose that the latter had taken up a position in the rear. After achieving its purpose, it likewise fell back in perfect order. Boer was killed on this occasion. The loss of the one Austrian brigade mainly engaged was undoubtedly considerable, but the figures (about 2,400) given by the Decembrising crapauds[c] are pure fantasy since the total strength of the brigade before the action was not over 5,000. Once more, the French victory bore no fruits. No trophies, not a single cannon!

In the meantime, Pavia was evacuated by the Austrians on the 6th, then for reasons unknown reoccupied on the 8th and evacuated again on the 9th, while Piacenza was abandoned on the 10th, only six days after the battle at Magenta. The Austrians retired in easy marches, following the Po until they reached the Chiese. Here they turned north and marched to Lonato, Castiglione and Castelgoffredo, where they took up a defensive position, in which they appear to await a new attack by the "liberators".

During this march by the Austrians, first southwards from Magenta to Belgiojoso, then east to Piadena and then north again to Castiglione—describing a complete semicircle—the liberators marched in a straight line along the diameter of this semicircle and thus had only about two-thirds of the distance to cover. Nevertheless, they never caught up with the Austrians, except at Melegnano and once near Castenedolo, where Garibaldi carried out an insignificant skirmish. Such indolence in pursuit is unheard of in military history. It is typical of the Quasimodo, who travesties his uncle (his uncle according to the principle of the Code Napoléon: "La recherche de la paternité est interdite"[d]), even in his successes.

At the same time as the main body of the Austrians took up their positions behind the Chiese, between June 18 and 20, the Allies' advance guard reached the Chiese front. They will need one or more days to bring up their main forces. If the Austrians actually accept battle, a second general engagement may be expected about June 24 or 26. The liberators cannot hesitate for long in the face of the Austrians if they want to keep the impetus of the victory alive in their troops and not give the enemy an opportunity of beating them in smaller encounters. The position of the Austrians is very favourable. A plateau runs to the Mincio from the southern end of Lake Garda at Lonato; its edge towards the plain of Lombardy is formed by the line Lonato-Castiglione-San Cassiano-Cavriana-Volta, a splendid position in which to lie in wait for an enemy. The plateau rises gradually towards the lake and provides a series of various good positions, each superior to its predecessor in strength and concentration, so that winning the height of the plateau does not yield a victory but only marks the end of the first act of a battle. The right wing is covered by the lake, and the left is bent back considerably, so that it leaves almost ten miles of the Mincio line unprotected. Instead of being a drawback, this is the most favourable aspect of the position, because at the Mincio the marshlands begin that lie enclosed between the four fortresses of Verona, Peschiera, Mantua and Legnago and in which no enemy can venture without overwhelming superiority in numbers. Since the line of the Mincio is controlled by Mantua at its southern end and the terrain beyond the Mincio is within the range of action of Mantua and Verona, any attempt to leave out of account the Austrians on the plateau and advance past them to the Mincio would soon be forced to a halt. The advancing army would see its lines of communication destroyed, without being able to endanger those of the Austrians. In addition, they would find nothing to attack on the other side of the Mincio (since there could be no question of siege operations under these circumstances) and would have to turn back again for lack of an objective. But the real danger of such a movement would be that it would have to be carried out in full view of the Austrians on the plateau, who would merely have to set their whole line in motion and fall on the enemy column, from Volta against Goito, from Cavriana against Guidizzolo and Ceresara, from Castiglione against Castelgoffredo and Montechiaro. The liberators would be fighting any such battle under frightfully unfavourable conditions, and it could end in a second Austerlitz[305], but with the roles reversed.

Magenta-Gyulay has been relieved of his command. Schlick has taken his place as commander of the Second Army, while Wimpffen remains at the head of the First Army. The two armies, massed at Lonato and Castiglione, make up the Austro-Italian army under the nominal command of Francis Joseph and with Hess as chief of the General Staff. Schlick seems, from his past in the war in Hungary, to be an able run-of-the-mill general. Hess is undoubtedly the greatest living strategist. The danger is the personal interference of the notorious Francis Joseph. He, like Alexander I at the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, has surrounded himself with an assortment of old, philistine, hidebound know-alls, some of whom may be directly in the pay of Russia. If the French army left the Austrians undisturbed in their positions and marched past them directly to the Mincio, they could be seen most clearly indeed, regiment by regiment, from the plateau. The sense impression that the enemy was on the shorter road to the line of retreat might easily bewilder such a brain as Francis Joseph's. The fretful comments of his know-alls in epaulettes might soothe his weak nerves and lead him to give up the well-chosen position ,and withdraw to between the fortresses[306]. When silly youths are at the head of an Empire, everything depends on their nerve-thermometer. The best-laid plans are at the mercy of subjective impressions, accidents, whims. With a Francis Joseph in the Austrian headquarters, there is hardly any other guarantee of victory than the Quasimodo in the enemy camp. But he at least has steeled his nerves among the professional gamblers in St. James's Street and, although he is- not a man of iron, as his admirers would have it, he is one of gutta-percha.

Written on June 23, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. June 25, 1859
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] From Napoleon III's telegram to the Empress Eugénie, June 5, 1859, Le Moniteur universel, No. 157, June 6, 1859.—Ed.

[b] Engels uses the English word.—Ed.

[c] Literally, toads; here wretches, meaning the Bonapartist General Staff.—Ed.

[d] "Inquiry into paternity is forbidden."—Ed.

[304] Cirque olympique—a theatre in Paris. St. James's Street—a street in London containing clubs and gambling-houses. Astley Amphitheatre—a London circus.

[305] The battle of Austerlitz on December 2 (November 20), 1805 between the Russian and Austrian forces (the third coalition) and the French ended in a victory for Napoleon I.

[306] In Das Volk this passage is provided with the following editorial note: "According to the latest reports the Austrians did retreat behind the Mincio, in the region of their fortresses. Even if nothing is lost strategically through this withdrawal, it is bound to exert a harmful influence on the morale of the army."

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.384-387), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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