Part II: Battle of Solferino

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Part II: Battle of Solferino

"French Foreign Legion with Zouaves at Solferino;" author unknown
From Le Petit Journal, Paris, illustrated supplement, Sunday September 15, 1901
(Image courtesy of

Today in Military History: June 24, 1859

Prelude to the Battle

After the battle of Magenta on June 4, the Austrians began to withdraw towards the Quadrilateral – their old enclave of the mutually supporting fortresses of Mantua, Peschiera, Verona and Legnago. On June 8 Sardinian King Victor Emmanuel and French Emperor Napoleon III entered Milan in triumph. On the same day the French attacked the Austrian rearguard at Melegnano, but due to a total lack of coordination in planning their attack they allowed the Austrians to retire in good order.

The general consensus of opinion for the French and Sardinians was that since the Austrians had fallen back across the Mincio River to the shelter of the Quadrilateral, they would remain there and offer battle on more favorable ground to themselves. However, when the young Emperor Franz Joseph joined his troops he immediately dismissed Gyulai and took overall command himself, and collected together seven army corps and two cavalry divisions in two armies. [Considering that the Austrian emperor was only 29 years old and had no previous military experience, this was a ballsy move.] It would appear that although Franz Joseph himself was content to await the advance of the allied armies behind the Mincio, he was persuaded by his chief of staff Feldzeugmeister Count von Hess to go back on the offensive.

The bridges over the Mincio were still intact and further pontoon bridges were also laid across the river to facilitate the advance of the Austrians. Unfortunately what the Austrian emperor was unaware of was that the French and Sardinians had also decided on offensive operations. On June 22, Napoleon III was at Monte Chiaro with Victor Emmanuel's army to the north, covering his left flank west of San Martino, with the main bodies of both armies already moving to the crossing points of the Chiese River.

Campaign of 2nd Italian War of Independence, 1859 (Map courtesy of
Campaign of 2nd Italian War of Independence, 1859
(Map courtesy of

The Battlefield

The fertile plain of Lombardy over which the campaign was fought was intensely cultivated. The countryside abounded in vineyards, rice and maize fields as well as orchards, many of which were intersected by irrigation channels. To the south flowed the Po River, while to the north the ground climbed steadily towards the majestic Alps. Although the main roads were good, the smaller arterial country roads were no more than rutted tracks, full of potholes that became virtually impassable during heavy rainstorms. Many tributaries of the Po River bisected the countryside from north to south and included the Sesia, Ticino, Adda and the Mincio. These rivers, although not great obstacles in themselves, could be used as fall-back lines and strategic concentration points for armies manoeuvring across the plain.

The northern sector of the battlefield was confined by Lake Garda, and ran from Rivoletta to Peschiera, while to the south it terminated in a rough line running from Castel Goffredo to Volta. To the west, or allied side of the battlefield, the ground rose from Lonato in a series of rounded hills and hummocks towards the town of Castiglione. These heights then curved around towards the east, becoming steeper as they approached the villages of Solferino, Cavriana and Volta, before petering out at the banks of the Mincio River. To the south west of Cavriana the ground fell away to the plain of Medole, which was excellent manoeuvring country, especially for cavalry.

The village of Solferino itself was conspicuous from miles around owing to its medieval tower, the Spia d'Italia (Spy of Italy), perched on the summit of the Bocca di Solferino, from the top of which the whole countryside could be viewed. At the western entrance to the village stood a walled cemetery and the church of San Pietro. A little to the north, separated from the village by a steep sided cutting was a small hill planted with cyprus trees, the Mont des Cyprées, which covered the approaches to the cemetery and village from that direction. These elevations, together with the walled village of Cavriana to the south east, also situated on high ground and covered by the slopes of Mount Fontana, formed natural redoubts. From Solferino, in the direction of Rivoltella, the landscape was mainly flat with the exception of two ridges, one at San Martino, and the other at Pozzolengo. About one mile to the north of the village of San Martino the main railway line from Milan to Verona crossed the plain.

The Austrians knew the ground well – having carried out manoeuvres in this area on numerous occasions – and benefitted from entrenchments already prepared during these previous military exercises. It is a mystery why they apparently had not already placed measured range markers for sighting their artillery fire.

One of the biggest mysteries of the battle was the simple fact that the scouting arms of both sides failed to locate their respective enemies. When French troops collided with the Austrians occupying the villages of Solferino, Cavriana and Volta Montovana, it was a mutual surprise to both armies that enemy troops were so close.

Battle of Solferino

According to the allied battleplan, the Franco-Sardinian army moved east to deploy along the right (western) banks of the Mincio River. The French were to occupy the villages of Solferino, Cavriana, Guiizzollo, and Medole, each with an Army Corps. The four Sardinian infantry divisions (with a fifth in reserve) and one cavalry division were to take Pozzolengo. After marching a few kilometers, the allies came into contact with the Austrian troops who had entrenched themselves in those villages. In the absence of a fixed battle plan, the battle which took place was uncoordinated. The battle then fell in to three separate engagements at Medole (in the southern sector), Solferino (in the center) and San Martino (in the north).

Overall map of the battle of Solferino (courtesy of
Overall map of the battle of Solferino (courtesy of


The battle started at Medole around 4 am. Marching towards Guidizzolo, the French 4th Corps encountered an Austrian infantry regiment of the Austrian 1st Army. 4th Corps commander General Niel immediately decided to engage the enemy and deployed his forces east of Medole. This move prevented the three corps of the Austrian 1st Army from aiding their comrades of the 2nd Army near Solferino, where the main French attacks took place.

The French forces were numerically inferior to the Austrians. The 4th Corps contained three infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. Niel, holding a thin line of 5 kilometers in length, was able to stop the Austrian assaults on his position by ably warding off attacks and counterattacking at opportune moments. After 15 hours of combat the Austrians retreated.


Around 4:30 am the advance guard of the French 1st Corps (three infantry divisions and a cavalry division) came into contact with the Austrian V Corps near Castiglione delle Stiviere. Around 5:00 am 2nd Corps (two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade) encountered Hungarian units posted near Medole. The Austrian forces were three corps strong (I, V and VII) and positioned on the towns of Solferino, Cavriana and Volta Mantovana. The Austrians had fortified these towns, and converted nearly every house into a stronghold.

At around 7:00 am, the Emperor Napoleon was met by a messenger on a sweating horse who informed him that the Austrians were concentrating on the very ground which the French emperor had ordered occupied by his own troops. Arriving in the town square of Castiglione, Napoleon climbed the church tower and was passed his field glasses. Focusing on the distant hilltops around Solferino and Cavriana, he at once saw that these formidable heights – as well as the ground stretching away to the south – was covered with the white uniforms of Austrian infantry, and that other masses were rapidly approaching. Now fully realizing that his original plans had been relegated to the wastebasket, Napoleon decided that although the cost would prove high, he had no alternative other than to try and storm the high ground now crammed with the enemy about Solferino and attempt to split the Austrian line in two.

"Battle of Solferino" by Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893), date of execution unknown; Napoleon III at center, village of Solferino in the background; Currently on display at the Musée du Second Empire, Château de Compiègne, France
"Battle of Solferino" by Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893), date of execution unknown
Napoleon III at center, village of Solferino in the background
Currently on display at the Musée du Second Empire, Château de Compiègne, France

For the balance of the morning and into the early afternoon, French forces assaulted the town of Solferino bravely but foolishly. The Monte de Cyprées and the adjoining town cemetery had been converted into redoubts which enfiladed every French attempt to storm Solferino. The cemetery was garrisoned with Croatian troops which held on despite artillery barrages and withering small arms fire. In addition, the tree- and bush-lined roads hid battalions of Austrian Jägers (crack-shot riflemen), that mowed down French attackers by the dozens.

In his book Memories of Solferino, Swiss businessman Henri Dunant describes (at second-hand) some of the fighting described to him by survivors of the battle: Austrians and allies "trampled one another under foot, slaughtered each other on a carpet of bloody corpses, smashed each other with rifle butts, crushed each other's skulls, disembowelled each other with sabre and bayonet. It was butchery; a battle between wild beasts maddened and drunk with blood. Even the wounded fought to the last breath."

At 1:00 pm, the French finally occupied Solferino, as well as driving out the last defenders of the nearby cemetery with great ferocity. The fighting here had been severe with houses changing hands several times as attack was followed by bloody counter-attack. Five times the French Foreign Legion regiments of II Corps fought their way into the San Pietro cemetery, only to be evicted by its Croatian defenders; finally the sweat soaked and blood caked Legionnaires captured the place, bayoneting the defenders in a perfect fit of madness and hatred that left more corpses above ground in the cemetery then were buried below.

Battle of Solferino, colored lithograph print, artist unknown; Currently at the Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, Paris (Image courtesy of
"Battle of Solferino," colored lithograph print, artist unknown
Currently at the Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, Paris
(Image courtesy of

Near 3:00 pm the French reserves, formed by the 3rd Corps and the Imperial Guard, attacked Cavriana, which was defended by the Austrian I Corps. The Cavriana Ridge would also prove a tough nut to crack. Here once again the Austrians had fortified every house and barn, cramming troops into and around the village in slit trenches and behind hastily constructed stone and timber breastworks. Noting the situation, Napoleon decided that before any assault by the infantry he would soften up the defenders with artillery fire, and to this end he ordered the Guard artillery to carpet the place with cannon fire.

The effect on the defenders proved devastating. In the crowded conditions that prevailed in and around the village every shot and shell from the French guns, even if they did not strike the enemy directly, caused casualties from showers of stones and jagged splinters of wood that flew through the air in all directions. Walls collapsed and the roofs of buildings caved in reducing the whole village to rubble with clouds of thick dust and smoke blotting out the sun. Small wonder then that when the French infantry advanced they were met by little resistance, while the Austrians fell back in great disorder, some units even bolting back as far as the Mincio bridges. The French finally occupied the town at 6:00 pm, and thereby broke through the Austrian center. This breakthrough forced a general retreat of both Austrian armies.

San Martino

On the northern side of the battlefield the Sardinians, 4 divisions encountered the Austrians around 7:00 am. A long battle erupted over control of Pozzolengo, San Martino and Madonna della Scoperta. Sardinian attacks were met with Austrian counter-attacks, and in the intervals were constant artillery duels. In addition, two Sardinian generals arguing about who was in overall command on the field. This confusion – which was never cleared up by Italian headquarters – kept their attacks uncoordinated. However, the fierce fighting, the hot sun, and general exhaustion of the Austrians kept the Sardinians from being defeated. Although the Austrian VIII Corps was numerically inferior, they were able to ward of all Sardinian attacks.

"Battle of Solferino and San Martino" by Felice Cerruti-Bauduc (1817-1896); Oil on canvas, on display at the Musée national du Risorgimento, Turin, Italy (Image courtesy of
"Battle of Solferino and San Martino" by Felice Cerruti-Bauduc (1817-1896)
Oil on canvas, on display at the Musée national du Risorgimento, Turin, Italy
(Image courtesy of

At about 5:00 pm, a tremendous thunderstorm burst over the battlefield. Massive dark clouds had been gathering for some time, and now the heavens opened with such a downpour that all operations came to a standstill for almost an hour. By this point, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph received reports that his army was in danger of being destroyed. Therefore, he ordered a withdrawal back across the Ticino River. The last fighting of the day took place around San Martino, with Austrian attacks pushing back the disordered Italians. It was not until after midnight that the last Austrian forces crossed the Ticino. The battle of Solferino was over...


This fight was one of the largest on European soil since the 1813 battle of Leipzig, and would not be surpassed until the "Great War." Out of 130,000 French and Sardinian soldiers, approximately 17,000 men were killed, wounded, and missing. The Austrians with 120,000 men had suffered 20,000 killed, wounded, and missing. The whole countryside for miles around the battlefield was littered with the dead and wounded, of which many of the latter soon succumbed to their wounds owing to the appalling lack of care

Jean-Henri Dunant (1828-1910) (Image courtesy of
Jean-Henri Dunant (1828-1910)
(Image courtesy of

Footnote #1: As a result of the appalling battlefield conditions he witnessed in the battle's aftermath, Henri Dunant organized local citizens to care for the wounded and suffering of both sides. He even prevailed upon French commanders to release any Austrian doctors who had been captured. As a result in February of 1863, Dunant was one of the prime movers in the founding of the International Red Cross. A year and a half later, the 1st Geneva Convention was announced, which set forth rules of conduct for the treatment of wounded and prisoners. In 1901, Dunant was the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize.

Footnote #2: Not having achieved the crushing victory he had hoped for – and threatened by Prussian mobilization – Napoleon III decided to put an end to hostilities as quickly as possible. Without consulting Victor Emmanuel, on July 11, 1859 the French and Austrian emperors concluded the Treaty of Villafranca in which Austria ceded Lombardy over to the French, who then turned it over to Victor Emmanuel. The duchies of Tuscany and Modena were restored to their former dukes. None of this went down well with the Italians, who considered themselves betrayed.

Footnote #3: Within 12 years afterwards, the nation of Italy had acquired 95 percent of its modern boundaries, with Victor Emmanuel becoming the first king of Italy. The final portion was added in 1919, when Austria ceded South Tyrol to Italy.

Footnote #4: The battle of Solferino was the last time in modern European history where three nations' monarchs were the commanders of their respective armies on the battlefield.

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Thank you for the credits.

Graham J.Morris (

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