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Military Events

Frederick Engels

The fragmentary and contradictory nature of the telegrams received from the theatre of war permits only a few comments on the withdrawal of the Austrians over the Ticino and their defeat at Magenta. Intimidated, it would appear, by General Niel's occupation of Novara, the Austrians withdrew over the Ticino on June 3 and 4. On June 4, at four in the morning, the French and Piedmontese, who had crossed the Ticino at Turbigo and Boffalora on the right wing of the Austrians, fell with superior forces on the enemy directly opposite them and drove him from his position after exceptionally bloody and obstinate resistance. The details of the action released by the telegram-writer of the allied army, Louis Bonaparte[a], testify to the power of imagination of this "secret general", who can still not overcome his aversion to armes de précision[b] and so travels with the train and baggage at a timid distance from the battlefield and behind the army, but still in "complete bodily health".[c]

There are good reasons for the importunity with which this health bulletin is thrown in the face of the world. At the time of the deliberations of the French Chamber of Peers on Louis Bonaparte's Boulogne expedition[297] it was confirmed on the sworn testimony of witnesses that at the moment of danger the hero opened his burdened heart in a way that was anything but a symptom of "complete bodily health".

The Austrians had concentrated on the Agogna in the position of a tiger poised to spring. Gyulay was responsible for their defeat because he gave up this position. After they had occupied the Lomellina and taken up a position about thirty miles before Milan, it was obvious that it was impossible to cover all the possible approaches to that capital. Three routes were open to the Allies: one through the Austrian centre by way of Valenza, Garlasco and Bereguardo; one on the Austrian left by way of Voghera, Stradella and the Po between Pavia and Piacenza; and finally the road on the Austrian right via Vercelli, Novara and Boffalora. If the Austrians wanted to defend Milan directly, they could block only one of these routes with their army. Stationing a corps on each of them would have split their forces and made their defeat certain. But it is a rule of modern warfare that a route can be defended just as well, if not better, by a flanking position than by a position in the front. An army of 150,000 to 200,000 men concentrated in a small area and ready to act in any direction can be ignored by the enemy with impunity only if his forces are enormously superior in number. When Napoleon marched towards the Elbe in 1813, the Allies, although much weaker in number, had reasons for provoking him to battle. They therefore took up a position near Lützen, a few miles south of the road leading from Erfurt to Leipzig. Part of Napoleon's army had already marched past when the Allies revealed their proximity to the French. As a result, the entire French army was brought to a halt, its advanced columns were called back, and a battle took place which hardly left the French in possession of the field, although their superiority in numbers was about 60,000[298]. On the next day both armies marched towards the Elbe in parallel columns, without the Allies having been hindered in their retreat. If the forces had been less out of proportion, the position of the Allies on the flank of Napoleon's march would have halted it at least as successfully as a frontal position straddling the road to Leipzig.

Gyulay's position was similar. He stood between Mortara and Pavia with a force of about 150,000 men, blocking the direct road from Valenza to Milan. He could have been outflanked on either wing, but his position gave him means of counteracting any such turning of his flank. The bulk of the allied army was concentrated near Vercelli on May 30, May 31 and June 1. It consisted of 4 Piedmontese divisions (56 battalions), Niel's corps (26 battalions), Canrobert's corps (39 battalions), the Guard (26 battalions) and MacMahon's corps (26 battalions), in all 173 battalions of infantry, besides the cavalry and artillery. Gyulay, for his part, had 6 army corps, weakened by detachments against Garibaldi, towards Voghera, for occupying various strongholds, etc., but still mustering 150 battalions. His army was so placed that its right flank could only be turned by a flanking march within its operational range. Now, it is known that an army always needs time to go from marching order to battle order, even in a frontal attack, although in this case the marching order is organised for battle as far as possible. The derangement is much more dangerous when columns in marching order are attacked on the flanks. It is therefore a standing rule to avoid a flanking march within the enemy's range of action. The allied army violated the rule. It marched on Novara and the Ticino, apparently without consideration of the Austrians on its flank. This was the moment of action for Gyulay. He was to have concentrated his troops on Vigevano and Mortara during the night of June 3, after leaving a corps on the Lower Agogna to keep Valenza in check, and fallen on the flank of the advancing Allies on June 4 with every available man. There could have been little doubt as to the result of such an attack by about 120 battalions on the Allies' extended and in many places broken marching column. If part of the allied forces had already crossed the Ticino, so much the better for Gyulay; his attack would have brought them back but would hardly have allowed them time to play a decisive part. Even in the worst case, that of an unsuccessful attack, the withdrawal of the Austrians to Pavia and Piacenza would have been as safe as, e.g., after the battle of Magenta. Gyulay's whole troop disposition shows that this was, in fact, the Austrians' original plan. His council of war had decided after mature deliberation that the direct road to Milan should be left open to the French and Milan covered only by a march against the enemy's flank. When the decisive moment came, however, and Gyulay saw the French masses on his right rolling on towards Milan, the thoroughbred Magyar lost his head, wavered and finally retired behind the Ticino. By so doing he prepared his own defeat. While the French marched in a straight line on Magenta (between Novara and Milan) he made a wide detour, first marching down along the Ticino and crossing it at Bereguardo and Pavia and then marching up along the river again towards Boffalora and Magenta, in order to block the direct road to Milan. The result was that his troops arrived in weak detachments and could not be massed into bodies that could break the core of the allied army.

On the assumption that the allied army holds the battlefield, and hence the direct road to Milan, the Austrians will have to withdraw behind the Po, behind the Adda or within their big fortresses to reform. Although the battle of Magenta would then decide the fate of Milan, it would by no means decide the campaign. The Austrians have three whole army corps which they are concentrating on the Adige at this moment, and which are bound to ensure them the balance of forces unless the gross errors of the "secret general" are compensated, as they have been again in this case, by Gyulay's indecision.

Written about June 9, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. 6. June 11, 1859
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


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

[b] Precision weapons (rifled guns).—Ed.

[c] The report from Alessandria, May 29, 1859, Le Moniteur universel, No. 150, May 30, 1859.—Ed.

[297] As a result of his abortive attempt to land with a handful of conspirators at Boulogne in August 1840 and effect a coup d'état, Louis Bonaparte was tried by the French Chamber of Peers and in October of the same year was sentenced to life imprisonment; he escaped to England in 1846.

[298] The battle of Lützen (Saxony) between Napoleon I's army and the Russian and Prussian forces took place on May 2, 1813.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.364-367), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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