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The News from The War[307]

Frederick Engels

The arrival of the Asia adds nothing to the brief telegraphic report of the great victory on the Mincio, which was reported in our columns yesterday morning[a], by way of Newfoundland. The battle took place on Friday, June 24, lasting from 4 o'clock in the morning till 8 in the evening, and the steamers sailed the next day before any details could have been received. We must, therefore, wait for the arrival of the Arago here, or the Hungarian at Quebec, for the particulars, so anxiously expected by the public curiosity. Meanwhile, as the numbers of the combatants were about equal on both sides, the result seems to settle one point, at least, namely, that the Austrian soldier is not a match for the French.

The general impression of military men in England, as well as here, seems to have been that the Allies would not fight a great battle until the corps of Prince Napoleon, marching from Tuscany, had arrived to attack the Austrians in the rear, while it was supposed a flotilla would be launched on the Lake of Garda to enable the Allies also to make a flank attack in that quarter. Napoleon III has, however, waited for none of these things, but has fought and won the fight. It is also evident from the correspondence from the allied camp, of which we elsewhere give all that is important, that to fight was the only practicable course. Delay would have checked the victorious impulse of the allied troops, and would have given the Austrians opportunities to beat them by superiority of numbers in smaller encounters.

In the movements of the Austrian army, the same vacillating indecision is apparent under Schlick which had before resulted in the defeat and disgrace of Gyulay. They at first prepared for battle on the line from Lonato to Castiglione, San Cassiano, Cavriana, and Volta. Here a plateau gradually rises toward the lake and the Mincio, offering a succession of excellent positions, each stronger and more concentrated than the preceding one, so that the conquest of the edge of the plateau would not constitute a victory, but only the first act of a battle. Their right wing was covered by the lake; their left was drawn back considerably, leaving unguarded nearly ten miles of the line of the Mincio. But this, instead of being a disadvantage, was in fact the finest feature of the position, from the circumstance that beyond the Mincio lay the dangerous ground inclosed between the four fortresses, into which an enemy could not venture unless he possessed a great numerical superiority. The line of the Mincio being commanded at its southern extremity by Mantua, and the ground beyond the Mincio belonging to the spheres of action of both Mantua and Verona, every attempt to treat the Austrians in the position on the plateau with contempt by marching past them toward the Mincio, would soon have been brought to a standstill; the advancing army would have seen its communications annihilated without being able to endanger those of the Austrians. But the most dangerous part of such a move would have been that it must have been done under the eyes of the Austrians on the plateau, who would have had nothing to do but to set their whole line in motion and fall upon the straggling columns of the enemy, from Volta upon Goito, from Cavriana upon Guidizzolo and Ceresara, from Castiglione upon Castelgoffredo and Montechiaro. Such a battle would have been fought by the Allies under a tremendous disadvantage, and might have ended in a second Austerlitz with the parts reversed.

Such was the position which the Austrians had assumed; and they had in it the further advantage of perfectly knowing the whole ground, from the fact that for years it has been the scene of their annual army exercises, carried out upon the largest scale. As we have said, it was carefully prepared for the expected conflict; the towns and villages were fortified; and then, at the last moment, for some reason that, in a military point of view, is utterly inexplicable, they abandon the ground, retreat bag and baggage across the Mincio, where, on the 24th, they are attacked and finally beaten. Whether this sudden and important change in the plan of the campaign had anything to do with the action of Prussia, which Power is said to consider the quadrangle of the Mincio and Adige as in some sort a part of the defenses of Germany, is a question on which we may hope for more light hereafter. One thing, however, is pretty certain with regard to Prussia, and that is, that her attitude must prevent Louis Napoleon from drawing many more troops from France to Italy. As our readers are already aware, that Power has mobilized six out of her nine army corps; that is, she has called into service the Landwehr, consisting of soldiers belonging to those corps which, having completed three years of regular service, are discharged on indefinite furlough. Of these six army corps, five are to take a position on the lower and middle Rhine. Thus some 170,000 Prussians must at about the present date be in line between Coblenz and Metz; and no doubt two other federal corps, that of Bavaria and that of Baden, Württemberg and Hesse-Darmstadt, will also take their position in Baden and the Palatinate, making from 100,000 to 120,000 men in addition. Against such forces Napoleon III will require almost every man now at his disposal in France. In this case he may find it advisable to have recourse to a Hungarian insurrection, and to the services of Kossuth; though we may be pretty sure that he will not call such agencies into requisition until he is compelled.

That Prussia now actually intends to take part in the war is very doubtful; but it will not be so easy for her to avoid it. Her military system, by making soldiers of the majority of the whole adult able-bodied population, puts such a strain upon the nation, from the moment the Landwehr—even of the first levy only—is called out, that the country cannot afford to stand by with arms grounded for any length of time. At the present moment, all able-bodied males, from 20 to 32 years of age, are under arms in six provinces out of eight. The derangement caused by this in the whole commercial and industrial organization of Prussia is enormous; and the country can only stand it on condition that the men are led before the enemy without delay; the men themselves could not stand it—in a couple of months the whole army would be in a state of mutiny. Beside this, national feeling is running so high in Germany, that Prussia, now that she has gone so far, cannot retreat. The recollections of the peace of Basel, and of the irresolutions of 1805 and 1806, and of the Confederation of the Rhine[308], are still so vivid that the Germans are determined not to allow themselves now to be beaten singly by their wary opponent. The Prussian Government cannot master this feeling; it may attempt to direct it, but if it does so, it is bound hand and foot to the movement, and every trace of wavering will be considered as treason, and will recoil upon the waverer. There will, no doubt, be attempts at negotiation; but all parties are now so engaged that no road out of the labyrinth appears open in any direction.

If Germany, however, takes part in this war, there is no doubt that another actor will soon appear upon the scene. Russia has informed the lesser German States that she will interfere if the Germans do not sit quietly by while Austria is being dismembered. Russia is concentrating two army corps on the Prussian, two on the Austrian, one on the Turkish frontier. She may enter upon a campaign some time this year, but it will certainly be late. No recruits have been enlisted in Russia since the peace of Paris; the men on furlough, owing to the great losses during the war, cannot be numerous; and if the army corps, even after the recall of the men on furlough, reach 40,000 each, it will be much. Russia cannot undertake an offensive campaign before 1860, and then with not more than 200,000 or 250,000 men. Now, there are at present available in Germany, for use in the North, four Prussian corps, 136,000 men; the 9th and 10th Federal corps, with the reserve division, say 80,000 men; and at least three Austrian corps, or 140,000 men; so that, for a defensive war, or even an attack on Russian Poland, Germany has nothing to fear from Russia even now. But whenever Russia engages in this war, there will be appeals to national passions and to the opposed interests of classes, and the contest will take dimensions which will be likely to put the war of the first French Revolution into the shade.

Written about June 24, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5682, July 8, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1473, July 8, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 931, July 16, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] "The Great Battle (By Telegraph to Galway). Paris, Saturday, June 25", New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5681, July 7, 1859.—Ed.

[307] This article, especially the beginning, shows signs of interference by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune.

[308] By "irresolutions of 1805 and 1806" Engels means the policy of the Prussian King Frederick William III who manoeuvred between the third anti-French - European coalition and Napoleon I. These tactics helped the latter to defeat first Austria in 1805 and then Prussia itself in 1806.

The peace of Basle was concluded on April 5, 1795 separately between France and Prussia, the latter being a member of the first anti-French coalition. The treaty was the consequence of the French victories as well as of the differences between the members of the coalition, in particular between Prussia and Austria.

The Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund)—an association of sixteen states in Southern and Western Germany established in July 1806 under the protecto¬rate of Napoleon I, after the latter had defeated Austria in 1805. Later twenty other states in Western, Central and Northern Germany joined the Confederation. It fell apart in 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon's army in Germany.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.388-391), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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