Battle of Solferino: Franco-Sardinian Army Defeats Austrians

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Battle of Solferino: Franco-Sardinian Army Defeats Austrians

"Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino;" oil on canvas (1863) by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
(The emperor is at center, on brown horse, facing right)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 24, 1859

Today's history lesson revolves around the last major battle of the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859. This battle could be termed one of the first "modern" battles. A total of 250,000 men or more took part in this fight, as well as three European monarchs.


After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula fragmented into a number of city-states. Some of them were heavily influence by larger European nations – France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire most notably. Most of Italy fell under the domination of Napoleonic France by 1800, which imposed a certain amount of unity. However, after Bonaparte's defeat and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, things returned to the status quo ante bellum. By the mid-1850s, Italy was divided into several components, each controlled by a different political entity. They included:

  • The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – also known as the Kingdom of Naples – which comprised the southern half of the peninsula as well as the island of Sicily. It was ruled by the Spanish-influenced House of Bourbon;
  • The Papal States, consisted of a belt of land with divided the peninsula in half. As the name suggests, this area was the temporal kingdom of the Popes. Most of the Popes opposed Italian reunification, on the grounds that such an act would institute a government persecution of Catholics;
  • The Kingdom of Sardinia encompassed the island of Sardinia and the area in northwest Italy known as the Piedmont. It was this kingdom that was the primary agitator in favor of Italian reunification;

Detailed maps of Italian unification, 1858-1870 (Maps courtesy of
Detailed maps of Italian unification, 1858-1870
(Maps courtesy of

  • The Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was a puppet kingdom of Austria in northern and northeastern Italy. It was the site of a popular revolution in 1848, forming a short-lived republic which was crushed by the Austrians; and
  • The Duchies of Modena, Parma, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, located north and west of the Papal States, were three semi-independent duchies which were also controlled by the Austrians. As the capital of Tuscany, the city of Florence was once the center of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th through the 16th centuries.

The Kingdom of Sardinia knew the various revolutionary movements that erupted throughout Europe in 1848 would also affect the Italian peninsula. Consequently, Sardinian diplomats approached Great Britain, France, and other major European governments, seeking support for the Italian reunification movement. France was sympathetic, but at first only gave moral support for the effort. The participation of Sardinian troops in the Crimean War (1853-1856) proved to the French and British that the Sardinians were serious about their efforts.

On January 14, 1858, Felice Orsini, an Italian revolutionary, led an attempt on Napoleon III's life. This assassination attempt brought widespread sympathy for the Italian unification effort. It also had a profound effect on Napoleon himself, who now was determined to help Sardinia against Austria in order to end the revolutionary activities that the governments inside Italy might allow to happen in the future.

In July of 1858 a secret meeting took place in Plombières-les-Bains between French Emperor Napoleon III – nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, the "little corporal" – and Sardinian Prime Minister Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. The two men hammered out a secret diplomatic agreement, which said France would come to Sardinia's aid in case of a war with Austria. In exchange for France's aid, Sardinia was to relinquish its ownership of the provinces of Nice and Savoy (the latter territory was the homeland of the Sardinian royal family, so that had to hurt).

Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873), reigned 1852-1870; Oil on canvas (1863?) by Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin; Currently in the Museum of the History of France, Versailles Palace, Paris
Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873), reigned 1852-1870
Oil on canvas (1863?) by Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin
Currently in the Museum of the History of France,
Versailles Palace, Paris

Early in 1859, the Sardinian army began to mobilize near the eastern border of Lombardy. Napoleon was getting nervous, after receiving diplomatic pressure from England, Prussia, and Russia to stay out of the conflict. However, on April 23 Austria sent an ultimatum to the Sardinians, demanding the demobilization of their army. With that triggering event, France entered the conflict on the side of Sardinia.

In the beginning of May, French forces mobilized and took trains into the Piedmont to support the Sardinian troops. The allies were greatly aided by the fact that the Austrian commander, Count Ferencz Gyulai, was overly cautious and began moving his army very slowly from its positions in northeastern Italy. He also did not think the French could move their army as quickly as actually occurred, and probably felt he could leisurely move his own army to bag the Sardinian army. Mother Nature also took a hand, sending heavy rains in much of northern Italy, greatly hampering Austrian troop movements.

Between May 20 and May 30, the Franco-Sardinian alliance fought four battles against the Austrians, with the Austrians coming out second best each time. Then, on June 4, the two armies met near the town of Magenta, west of Milan. It was a hard-fought battle, which left over 2000 dead and 8300 wounded on the field. Despite being outnumbered 2-to-1, the allies defeated the Austrians, forcing them to retreat eastward.

Austrian Army

Allowing for the fact that the Austrians would be fighting the campaign over familiar ground, they nevertheless were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to mobilisation and supply. Like the French, their forces were stretched even during peacetime owing to the commitments of trying to cover their large, diverse central European empire. Divided into four Army Commands, the strongest was the 2nd Army with three under strength corps in northern Italy and along the coastal areas around the Adriatic Sea.

Also like the French, the Austrians had problems with the "real" strength of their available forces, and the numbers conjured up on paper. There were never more than some 220,000 men available in Lombardy, Istria and Dalmatia. [In the upcoming decisive battle of Solferino Emperor Franz Josef could scarcely scrape together 120,000 men.] Clearly Austria's failure to preserve her pre-eminence in Italy and Germany sprang largely from the breakdown of her army organization and her recruiting system.

The Austrian officer class would also show how indolent it had become in understanding any new proposals placed before them. In 1854 the Prussian military attaché in Vienna asked an Austrian officer if his colleagues were interested in Kriegsspiel (a war game used to train Prussian staff officers). Once the Austrians became aware that it was not a game played for money, they lost all interest.

Austrian uniforms, c. 1859, in the Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy (Image courtesy of
Austrian uniforms, c. 1859, in the Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy
(Image courtesy of

In 1859 the Austrian infantry were armed with the Lorenz rifled musket, but their Jäger battalions were the only ones who really became proficient in its use. This was to prove a great handicap as the new rifle could have given them the edge in defensive tactics, and could have been a decisive factor in breaking the French attacks had it been used in more skilled hands. But the Austrians still clung to outdated manoeuvres on the battlefield, preferring compact battalion columns and the bayonet to the detriment of all else

Austrian cavalry was arguably the finest in Europe at this time. Mounted on Hungarian horses, the heavy cuirassier regiments were well trained and led, while the light cavalry divisions consisting of dragoons, hussars and uhlans (lancers) proved themselves far superior to anything the French could bring against them.

All Austrian artillery was smoothbore, consisting of 12- and 6-pound cannon plus howitzers, basically unchanged since the Napoleonic Wars. In addition each field artillery battery had a rocket section attached to it, though exactly what these weapons actually achieved is debatable. Tests were inconclusive, and no military artists who depicted the battle scenes of 1859 ever seem to show them in action.

French Army

One of the main problems with the French army at this time was the scattered nature of its various components, and although seen by most as the finest army in the world – particularly due to its exploits during the Crimean War and in Algiers – it had changed drastically since the heady days of the First Empire. According to William McElwee, in this book "The Art of War," "…the structure, organisation and method of recruitment were based on a conscious denial of all that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies had stood for."

French zouave uniforms – and various headgear – c. 1859; Located in the Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy (Image courtesy of
French zouave uniforms – and various headgear – c. 1859
Located in the Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy
(Image courtesy of

The French Ministry of War proved totally inept when it came to its estimates for the troops available for the Italian campaign. Some 50,000 soldiers were needed to garrison Algeria, and another 6,000 were used to support the Papal government in Rome. This supposedly left 200,000 troops in eleven infantry and two cavalry divisions scattered around France for home defense. But these were not all first-line regiments, and consisted mainly of garrison and fortress troops together with depot maintenance parties. Luckily for Napoleon III, Prussia was not able to move more swiftly to the aid of Austria in 1859; had she done so the French Emperor may have been crushingly defeated on the Rhine frontier.

In the 1830s, during his tenure as French Minister of War, Marshal Soult had considered the formation of elite chasseur companies armed with rifled carbines that would be able to use their athletic-style training to move faster on the battlefield. Soon after, the Duc d'Orléans raised a company of chasseurs (the French term for light infantry), which in 1838 was increased to full battalion strength and became known at the Tirailleurs de Vincennes. The manoeuvring of these troops was totally different from that of the line regiments in that they were trained to perform all manoeuvres at the double quick, or at what became known as the gymnastic pace, which was very fast, and ranged from 165 paces per minute up to a positively breathtaking 180.

The French line infantry themselves still used a basic mixture of column and line. However, the massive columns of attack that had been employed at such battles as Wagram and Waterloo during the Napoleonic Wars were abolished and, thanks to the writings of the Swiss born military theorist, Baron Antoine Jomini (1779-1869) in his work, Precis de l'art de la guerre, published in 1838, the offensive was now carried out in deployed line, reinforced either at the centre or on either flank by battalions in company column. Jomini also considered that any attack should be made en echelon using a V or "inverted V" formation. Light troops advanced in front of the attacking formation in skirmishing order.

French muskets, which fired Minié ammunition; on display at Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy (Image courtesy of
French muskets, which fired Minié ammunition; on display at Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy
(Image courtesy of

The introduction of the rifled musket caused Napoleon III and his generals to consider the practicability of long-range rifle fire on the battlefield. Since the French now had most of their light battalions armed with the Minié rifle, it became apparent that unless kept under strict control, these troops could start firing at long range thus using up a great deal of ammunition. [This was apparently a near-universal mindset in most military organizations worldwide, as a similar debate held back U.S. cavalry units during the post-Civil War Plains Indian wars.] Consequently, the French still considered élan on the battlefield to be more important than rifle training, and that the bayonet was still the weapon to be relied upon in deciding the issue.

The French cavalry, like most of their European counterparts, were still used for shock action and information gathering, although the latter was, to say the least, abysmally carried out by all three armies during the Italian campaign. All regiments were armed with the Delvigne or other equivalent rifled carbines, which were supposed to allow the light cavalry in particular to act as skirmishers, but the main role of mounted troops was in the attack, carried out by massed squadrons employing a "raking charge" when attacking enemy infantry in line; this called for them to approach the enemy from the right, that is on the sword or lance arm, so that they could avoid the destructive fire of the new rifled musket, and once closed on their opponents they were to ride along the front slashing and spearing, causing as much confusion as possible.

Like his famous uncle, Napoleon III was a keen advocate of artillery, with a sharp eye for new developments in the field of ordnance. The French therefore were able to take the field armed with 12-pound cannon, and the new 4-pound Beaulieu rifled guns, which far outclassed the Austrian smoothbores.

Sardinian Army

The Sardinians had proved their worth during the Crimean War, where her small but well-disciplined army gained much respect from both the British and French, especially after its performance at the battle of Chernaya River in 1854. At the beginning of 1859 the Sardinian army numbered some 30,000 men, which was raised to 70,000 when all reserves were called to the colors.

The force available for immediate action consisted of five infantry divisions and one cavalry division, supported by 90 guns. Tactics for the infantry were along Austrian lines, although some changes were taking place in the use of company columns and more linear formations.

Sardinian uniforms, on display at Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy (Image courtesy of
Sardinian uniforms, on display at Museo Risorgimentale in Solferino, Italy
(Image courtesy of

The cavalry consisted of dragoons, lancers, hussars and carabineers, and the lance itself may have been carried by the first rank of each squadron in all regiments. Battlefield tactics were the same as the French and Austrian, together with the failure in reconnaissance that plagued both those armies.

The artillery remained smoothbore, having 16- and 8-pound cannon and 15 cm howitzers mounted on the "Cavalli" gun carriage. The "voloira" or flying artillery consisted of light 6- or 8-pound cannon and was much the same as the French horse artillery.

Tomorrow: Part II, Battle of Solferino

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