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The Battle of Solferino

Frederick Engels

The connection between the bloody defeat of Solferino and the obtrusive stupidity of Francis Joseph was already explained in the preceding number of Das Volk[a]. Later dispatches giving the details of the battle show that we had still overestimated the "young hero's" perspicacity. The year 1859 puts the victors of 1849 through a state examination which they fail, one after the other.

On June 23 the Austrian army had no less than 9 army corps available; of them, the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth had already seen action, as a whole or partially, but the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh were still intact, had not yet faced the foe. The first six might have had a total of 130,000 men, the last three, 75,000. Hence the enemy could have been attacked with a force of at least 200,000. What did Francis Joseph do? He sent the Tenth and Eleventh Corps from Mantua to Asola on the Chiese, to fall on the French from the rear, and to protect this manoeuvre from a possible attack by the French Fifth Corps (Prince Napoleon), which was believed to be nearby, he held the Second Corps at Mantua. This left him only 6 corps, that is, 24 brigades, with which he planned to attack the front of the Franco-Piedmontese. But the manoeuvre was carried out so slowly that the army bivouacked only some six English miles from the Mincio on the evening of June 23 and the march forward was to be made only at 9 a. m. on the 24th. The forward troops of the Allies, which had been driven back all along the line on the 23rd, and also their reconnaissance naturally alerted the French camp, with the result that the Austrians, instead of attacking at 9 o'clock, were themselves attacked at 5 o'clock. Against the 24 Austrian brigades, which must have totalled about 136,000 men, the Allies deployed successively not less than 33 brigades (9 Piedmontese, with 45,000 men, and 24 French{*}, with 150,000), or at least 195,000 men; in addition, they held one Piedmontese brigade (Guard) and two French brigades (Bourbaki division) in reserve. Accordingly, they had at least 210,000 men on the field of battle. With such a superiority in numbers, the victory of the Allies was certain. Nonetheless, General Benedek, with the Austrian Eighth Corps, successfully beat back the attacks of the entire Piedmontese army and won a complete victory on the right wing, even though his own corps was only four brigades strong and he may at most have received a fifth brigade as reinforcements from the Peschiera garrison. The centre, held by 12 weak Austrian brigades, was attacked and driven back by 14 strong French brigades, and the left wing, 8 brigades, was also pushed back, after a long fight, by 10 stronger French brigades, to which the numerous French cavalry and artillery were added. On this wing, as well as in the centre, a massive concentration of Austrian artillery would have been in order, but Francis Joseph preferred to let the 13 batteries of reserve artillery (104 guns) rest quietly in Valeggio, without firing a shot! This gives a simple explanation of the superiority of the French artillery fire; it was not due to the excellence of the rifled guns but to the feeble and helpless confusion in the head of the Austrian emperor, who did not bring his reserve guns into action at all.

But where were the Tenth and Eleventh Corps? While fighting was going on from Lake Garda to Guidizzolo, they were wandering around in the flat country far to the south; the Eleventh Corps is said to have seen some enemy troops in the distance, the Tenth did not even get that far; and when the battle had been decided, neither of them had had a chance of firing a shot, in fact they were still so far off that Canrobert, who was to have faced this flanking movement, of which the French were aware, was able to use all his troops but one division against the main Austrian army and decide the battle on the Austrian left wing.

In the meantime, the Second Corps was holding a front at Mantua against an imaginary attack by Prince Plon-Plon, who on that day had himself and his army fêted in Parma eight days' march from the field of battle!

This gives us a brilliant demonstration of what it means to have a German hereditary "war-lord" in command. Two corps (50,000 men) sent strolling about far from the battlefield, a third corps (20,000 men) facing up to empty space at Mantua, and 104 guns parked uselessly at Valeggio, that is, a good third part of all the fighting forces and the entire reserve and artillery purposely removed from the battlefield so that the remaining two-thirds may be crushed to no purpose by much superior forces—only a German sovereign can commit such brilliant lunacy!

The Austrian troops fought with such remarkable bravery that the Allies, who were half as strong again, could drive them back at two out of three points only with the utmost exertion, and that even this superiority in strength was not able to bring them into disarray or make any attempt at pursuit possible. How would the battle have turned out if the 70,000 men and 104 guns that Francis Joseph had frittered away had been in position as a reserve between Volta and Pozzolengo? Without a doubt, the French would have been beaten, and the campaign would have shifted back again from the Mincio and the Chiese to the Ticino. The Austrian troops were not defeated by the Allies but by the stupidity and pretentiousness of their own emperor. If an Austrian soldier on outpost duty is guilty of the slightest fault, he gets a cudgelling of 50 blows: The least thing that Francis Joseph can do to atone in some measure for his gross blunders and idiocies is to report to General Hess and get his well-earned 50 blows.

The war is now being waged in the quadrilateral of fortresses, and we begin to see the first effects of the fortresses on the manoeuvres on the Allies: They must divide. One detachment has stayed behind at Brescia to observe the Tyrolean passes. The French Fifth Corps (Plon-Plon) has taken up a position against Mantua at Goito and has been reinforced by one division. A large part of the Piedmontese army has been assigned to besiege Peschiera. Peschiera, which was formerly a small fortress, is said (see Revue des deux Mondes, April 1, 1859[b]) to have been converted since 1849 into an entrenched camp by a semicircle of detached forts; if this is true, the Piedmontese will have their work cut out for them, and all that is left for the "operations" against Verona, pompously announced by Louis Bonaparte, is the French army, weakened by a division and the losses at Solferino (25 brigades, hardly much more than 130,000 men). If Hess has really taken over the command by now, and, indeed, with unlimited powers, he will soon find opportunities to win isolated engagements and thereby prepare a greater victory. The three divisions of the Lyons army are coming to reinforce the French, together with a division of the Paris army, it is said, in all 50,000 to 60,000 men. The Austrians are getting the Sixth Corps from the South Tyrol and the Fourth from Trieste and in addition to that the fourth field battalions of the regiments stationed in Italy, that is, at least 54 battalions of seasoned soldiers, which would bring the total Austrian reinforcements to almost 100,000. In the last analysis, however, the main thing for the Austrians is to restore the balance on the field of battle not so much by adding fresh troops as by forming a unified and rational command, and the only way in which that can be brought about is by removing the incompetent Francis Joseph and giving full command to Hess.

Written on July 7, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. 10, July 9, 1859
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


{*} Piedmontese: Mollard division, Fanti division, Durando division, each with 2 brigades, and the Savoy brigades, all engaged. French: Guard: 4 brigades; First Corps, Baraguay: 6 brigades; Second Corps, MacMahon: 4 brigades; Third Corps, Canrobert: 4 brigades engaged, 2 in reserve; Fourth Corps, Niel: 6 brigades engaged. In all, 33 brigades engaged, 3 in reserve. All these figures are taken from the official communiqué of Napoleon the Little. Incidentally, our figures enumerate only the infantry.

[a] See this volume, pp. 392-95.—Ed.

[b] J. J. Baude, "L'Autriche et sa puissance militaire en Italie".—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.400-403), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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