Farsi    Arabic    English   

Historical Justice

Frederick Engels

We have now published every official account of the battle of Solferino which has reached us, with many letters from both camps[a], including the excellent special correspondence of the London Times[b]; and having laid these documents before our readers, it is perhaps not too soon to set forth clearly the real causes by which the battle was lost by Francis Joseph and won by Napoleon III.

When the Austrian Emperor recrossed the Mincio for the attack, he had nine army corps at his disposal, which might, after deducting the garrisons of the fortresses, appear on the field in an average strength of four brigades of infantry each, or thirty-six brigades in all—the brigade averaging between 5,000 and 6,000 men. His force for the attack thus amounted to about 200,000 infantry. This strength, though fully large enough to warrant the movement, was still inferior or scarcely equal to that of the enemy, for they, on their side, counted ten Piedmontese and twenty-six French brigades of infantry. Now, the French had, since Magenta, received large reenforcements of men on furlough, and drilled recruits, who had been distributed to their regiments, and their brigades were certainly stronger than those of the Austrians, whose reenforcements had consisted of two fresh army corps (the 10th and 11th), by which the number but not the strength of the brigades had been increased. The allied army may therefore be fairly estimated at its full complement of infantry (170,000 French, 75,000 Sardinians), less the losses since the beginning of the campaign, say 30,000, leaving about 215,000 infantry. The Austrians, relying upon quickness of maneuvering and surprise, upon the ardent desire of their troops to revenge the defeat of Magenta, and to prove that they were not inferior to their opponents, and upon the strength of the positions which a quick advance to the hights behind Castiglione could again secure to them, were certainly justified in attacking, but only on condition that they should keep their troops as closely concentrated as possible, and that they should advance rapidly and energetically. Neither of these conditions was fulfilled.

Instead of advancing with their whole force between Peschiera and Volta, in order to secure the whole range of hights as far as Lonato and Castiglione, and leaving the plain of Guidizzolo to the cavalry and perhaps one corps of infantry, they left one corps, the 2d, in Mantua to guard against a possible surprise by Prince Napoleon's corps, which was believed to be near. Now, if the garrison of Mantua was not sufficient to hold the strongest fortress in Europe against an irregular attack without the assistance of an extra corps, it must have been a very curious sort of a garrison indeed. But this does not appear to have been the. motive which fettered the second corps to Mantua. The fact is that two other corps, the 11th and 10th, had been detached to turn the right flank of the Allies by Asola, a town on the Chiese, some six miles south-west of Castelgoffredo, and so far away from the battle-field that they must have reached it too late under any circumstances. The second corps, it would almost seem, had been destined to cover the flanks and rear of this turning column against the possible arrival of Prince Napoleon, and thus to prevent it from being turned itself. The whole of this design is so thoroughly of the old Austrian school, so complicated, so ridiculous in the contemplation of any man accustomed to study plans of battles, that the Austrian staff must certainly be acquitted of all the responsibility of its invention. Nobody but Francis Joseph and his aide-de-camp, Count Grünne, could have conceived such an anachronism. Thus three corps were successfully put out of harm's way. The remaining seven were disposed of as follows: One, the 8th (Benedek), between Pozzolengo and the Lake of Garda, to hold a position on the hills, the center and key of which was San Martino. The 5th (Stadion) occupied Solferino; the 7th (Zobel) San Cassiano; the 1st (Clam-Gallas) Cavriana. To the south, in the plain, the 3d (Schwarzenberg) advanced on the high road from Goito to Castiglione by Guidizzolo, and the 9th (Schaffgotsch) further south toward Medole. This wing was thrown forward so as to press back the allied right, and to offer a support to the 10th and 11th corps whenever, and if ever, they should happen to arrive.

Thus the six corps actually engaged, and which to all intents and purposes formed the Austrian fighting army, were drawn out on a line twelve miles long, giving on an average two miles, or 3,540 yards frontage to each corps. There could be no depth in such a long line. But this was not the only serious fault. The 3d and 9th corps advanced from Goito, to which place lay also their line of retreat; the 1st and 7th corps, the next adjoining, had their line of retreat to Valeggio. A glance at the map shows that this gives an eccentric retreat, a circumstance to which the slight effect produced by the two corps in the plain is no doubt mainly to be attributed.

This faulty disposition being laid out for the twenty-four, or if we suppose that Benedek was reenforced by some troops from the garrison of Peschiera, twenty-five or twenty-six Austrian brigades, was rendered still more faulty by the languor of the advance. A rapid march on the 23d, when the Mincio was recrossed, would have brought the concentrated Austrian army, by noon, upon the advanced positions of the Allies, about Desenzano, Lonato and Castiglione, and enabled it to drive them back by nightfall on the Chiese, so that the battle would have commenced with a preliminary success for the Austrians. But the furthest point reached on the hills was Solferino, only six miles from the Mincio. In the plain, the advanced troops got as far as Castelgoffredo, ten miles from the Mincio, and if so ordered, might have got to the Chiese. Then, on the 24th, instead of starting at daybreak, the advance was to begin by 9 o'clock! Thus it happened that the Allies, who started at 2 o'clock in the morning, fell upon the Austrians at between 5 and 6 o'clock. The consequences were inevitable. Thirty-three strong brigades against twenty-five or twenty-six weak ones (they had all. been engaged before, and suffered heavy losses), could only result in the defeat of the Austrians. Benedek alone, with his five or six brigades, held out all day long against the Piedmontese army, of whose ten brigades every one, with the exception of the guard, was engaged; and he would have maintained his position, had not the general retreat of the center and left wing compelled him to fall back also. In the center, the 5th and 1st corps (8 brigades) held Solferino against Baraguay d'Hilliers's corps (6 brigades) and the guard (4 brigades) till after 2 o'clock, while the 7th (4 brigades) was held in check by the four brigades of McMahon. Solferino being at last taken, the guard advanced against San Cassiano, and thus compelled the Austrian 7th corps to give up the position. Finally, the fall of Cavriana, at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, decided the fate of the battle in the center, and compelled the Austrians to retreat, On the Austrian left, the 3d and 9th corps were carrying on a desultory fight against Niel's corps, and one division (Renault) of Canrobert's; until, later in the afternoon, another division of this latter corps (Trochu's) entered into line and drove the Austrians back toward Goito. Although opposed from the beginning to a nearly equal force, these eight Austrian brigades might have done much more than they did. By a resolute advance from Guidizzolo toward Castiglione they might have disengaged the 7th corps at San Cassiano and thus indirectly supported the defenders of Solferino; but their line of retreat being to Goito, every step in advance compromised it, and thus they acted with a caution which was entirely misplaced in such a battle; but the blame rests with those who ordered them to retreat to Goito.

The Allies had every man engaged with the exception of three brigades, two of Canrobert's corps and one of Piedmontese Guards. Now, if the employment of all their reserves except these three brigades was necessary to win a hard-fought victory, after which there was no pursuit, how would the battle have stood if Francis Joseph had been able to avail himself of his three army corps, then wandering about far away to the south? Suppose he had given one to Benedek, placed another behind Solferino and San Cassiano as a reserve, and kept one behind Cavriana as a general reserve, what would the result of the battle have been? It cannot for a moment be doubtful. After repeated and vain efforts to take San Martino and Solferino, the Piedmontese and the French center would have been broken by a final and vigorous advance of the whole Austrian line, and instead of retiring toward the Mincio, the Austrians would have ended the day on the banks of the Chiese. They were beaten, not, by the French, but by the arrogant imbecility of their own Emperor. Overwhelmed by both superior numbers from without, and contemptible management within, they still retired unbroken, giving up nothing but the battle-field, and as incapable of panic as any troops the world has ever seen.

Written about July 6, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5692, July 21, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1477, July 22, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 932, July 23, 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; "The Battle of Solferino", New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5683, July 9, 1859.—Ed.

[b] "The Battle of Solferino", The Times, No. 23348, July 2, 1859.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.396-399), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME1151en.html