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The Battle at Solferino

Frederick Engels

The chivalrous Francis Joseph, who cannot sleep for thinking of the laurels of the pseudo-Napoleon, has shown us what it means when "a hereditary war-lord" takes the reins in his hands. We saw last week how the army first had to occupy the position on the heights of Castiglione and then, at the moment when everyone should have expected a battle, abandoned the position without fighting and without a reason, to retire behind the Mincio[a]. But Francis Joseph did not feel that this was sufficient to prove his pitiful weakness and inconsistency. No sooner was the army behind the Mincio than the "young hero" thought up something better: it was unworthy of a Habsburg to quit the field in this way without resistance; the army had to make an about-face, cross the Mincio again and attack the enemy.

After Francis Joseph had adequately reinforced his troops' confidence in their Most Serene War-Lord by this puerile marching to and fro, he led them against the enemy. They were at most 150,000 in number; even Bonaparte, that lover of truth, does not set the figure higher. The Austrians attacked along a line at least 12 English miles long. Thus, there were at most 12,500 men for each mile (2,100 paces) of front, a concentration, to be sure, that is adequate for a shorter line under certain conditions but definitely too weak on so long a front, and completely unsuitable for an offensive, since the several main blows could not be delivered with sufficient power. In addition to that, the enemy was certainly superior in strength, so that the Austrian offensive was an error from the outset; an enemy with superior forces was fairly sure to break through such a thin line at some point. The general advance of the Austrians began on Thursday, June 23; they easily drove back the enemy outposts at all points, occupied Pozzolengo, Volta, Guidizzolo, and pressed on to Solferino and Castelgoffredo by nightfall. On the next morning they drove the enemy vanguard still further back, their left wing almost reaching the Chiese; now however they came up against the main forces of the enemy and the battle became general. Both wings of the Austrians had the upper hand, especially the right wing, which faced the Piedmontese and gave them rough treatment, so that the Austrians were clearly victorious here. But in the centre the defects of the plan came to light. Solferino, the key to the centre, finally remained in the hands of the French after stubborn fighting; at the same time they developed overwhelming pressure on the Austrian left wing. These two circumstances persuaded Francis Joseph, who had apparently thrown every last man into the fight, to give the order to retreat. The Austrians withdrew—obviously in perfect order and without being pursued—and crossed the Mincio unmolested.

The details of the battle did not reach us in time to be discussed in this issue. This much is certain, however, that once again the Austrian troops fought with outstanding valour. This is proved by their steadfast resistance for 16 hours to a stronger enemy, and in particular by their orderly and undisturbed withdrawal. They do not seem to have any particular respect at all for messieurs the French; Montebello, Magenta and Solferino do not seem to have left any other impression on them than the conviction that, given equality in numbers, they can cope not only with the French but also with the stupidity of their own generals. The fact that they lost 30 guns and, allegedly, 6,000 prisoners is a pitiful result for the victor in such a major battle; the numerous engagements in villages could not yield him fewer spoils. But brilliantly as the troops conducted themselves in the face of superior strength, equally wretched was their leadership. Indecision, wavering, contradictory orders, as if the troops were to be quite intentionally demoralised—this is how Francis Joseph compromised himself irrevocably in the eyes of his army in three days. Nothing more woeful can be conceived than this arrogant youth presuming to command an army and yielding like a reed in the wind to the most contradictory influences, following old Hess today and taking Herr Grünne's contrary advice tomorrow, drawing back today and attacking suddenly on the morrow, and in general never knowing himself what he wishes. By now he has had enough of it, and is going back, shamed and crestfallen, to Vienna, where he will get a beautiful reception.

But the war is only now beginning. The Austrian fortresses are only now coming into action.; the French will now have to split up as soon as they cross the Mincio, and that will initiate a series of battles for single posts and positions, of minor secondary engagements in which the Austrians, who now at last have old Hess at their head, have better chances of victory despite their generally smaller forces. Once this, coupled with reinforcements, has reestablished the balance between the belligerents, the Austrians will be able to fall on the divided enemy with superior concentrations of forces and repeat the battles of Sommacampagna and Custozza[309] on a ten times larger scale. This is the task of the next six weeks. By the way, they are only now beginning to bring up their reserves, which will provide the army in Italy with at least 120,000 men in reinforcements, whilst Louis Napoleon is at a loss as to where to get reinforcements from, now that Prussia has mobilised.

Accordingly, the Solferino affair has only slightly altered the chances of the war. But one great result has been achieved: One of our principal sovereigns has made an utter laughing-stock of himself, and his entire old-Austrian system is tottering. Discontent with the concordat business[310], with the centralisation, with rule by the bureaucracy, is breaking out all over Austria, and the people are demanding the overthrow of a system distinguished by oppression at home and defeats abroad. The mood in Vienna is such that Francis Joseph is hurrying there as fast as he can, to make concessions. At the same time our other sovereigns are making fools of themselves in the jolliest way; after the chivalrous Prince Regent[b] has exhibited the same irresolution and lack of character as a politician that Francis Joseph has shown as a general, the small states have started to squabble with Prussia again over the passage of troops, and the military commission of the Confederation has declared that it can make a decision on Prussia's proposal of free federal corps on the Upper Rhine only after a good fortnight of reflection. Things are becoming splendidly complicated. This time the gracious princes can make fools of themselves without the menace of danger to our nationality; on the contrary, the German people, an entirely different people since the revolution of 1848, has become strong enough to cope not only with the French and Russians but also with its own 33 sovereigns at the same time.

Written on June 30, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. 9, July 2, 1859
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] See this volume, pp. 384-87.—Ed.

[b] William, Prince of Prussia.—Ed.

[309] At the battle of Custozza on July 25, 1848 the Austrian army under Radetzky inflicted a heavy defeat on the Piedmontese.

In the battle at Sommacampagna on July 23, 1848 the Austrian army under Radetzky defeated the Piedmontese; this battle was followed by the rout of the Piedmontese army at Custozza on July 25, 1848.

[310] The concordat of 1855 between Austria and Pius IX restored to the Catholic Church a number of privileges abolished during the 1848-49 revolution.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.392-395), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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