The battles of Magenta and Solferino, 1859

Period : 2nd Republic / 2nd Empire
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This timeline forms part of our close-up on: the Battles of Magenta and Solferino, 1859.

The beginning

On 21 July, 1858, the secret meeting between Napoleon III and Piedmontese minister, Camillo Benso Cavour took place in the Vosges spa town of Plombières. As a result, the French emperor resolved to ‘liberate’ the Italian states from Austrian influence as part of his project to reunite France with Nice and Savoy. However, French intervention in Italy required the support, or at least the benediction, of Russia. The Prince Napoleon was sent to Warsaw to conduct secret preliminary meetings with Alexander II. The question remained however of how to follow up these meetings and get a man capable of conducting the discussions to St. Petersburg without arousing suspicion. The Prince Napoleon came up with the idea of Captain La Roncière Le Noury, who had commanded the warship Reine Hortense during the Prince’s scientific expedition in the North Sea in 1856. Napoleon III was very satisfied with the suggestion and indicated so in his letter: “My dear Napoleon, – I am delighted with your discovery. Arrange matters so that he leaves shortly.” (Letter from Napoleon III to the Prince Napoleon dated 31 October, 1858)

A document was drawn up detailing the financial and military arrangements between France and Piedmont in the event of ‘complications’ arising in the Italian states. The secret convention confirmed that a defensive and offensive alliance between Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II, king of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia, would come into being in the case of Austria declaring war on the Piedmontese king. The convention, which also stated that Savoy and Nice would be reunited with France, was dated 16 December, 1858, although the possibility exists that it was actually signed later on, in January, but ante-dated, as argued by Ernest d’Hauterive. French intervention was dependent on Austrian aggression, however, and so Napoleon III was careful to remain discrete in his preparations and in his interaction with Austria. Le comte de Viel Castel’s entry for 3 January, 1859 nevertheless indicates that Paris sensed that war was on the cards: ‘At the diplomatic reception an incident occurred which has kept the whole of Paris preoccupied. The Emperor said to the Austrian ambassador: “I am delighted to see you, Monsieur l’ambassadeur. Please convey my wishes for the new year to your sovereign, and assure him of my special regards, even though relations between our cabinets are not as they should be.”‘ The comte continued: ‘Italy is troubled, Piedmont is overwhelmed by revolutionary elements and has run out of options; if a war were to break out between France and Austria, it would become widespread quickly, and political parties would take advantage of this war to instigate upheaval. Despite his fine words “l’Empire c’est la paix”, the Emperor desires a war […]’ (Mémoires du comte Horace de Viel Castel, 3 January, 1859)

Victor Emmanuel gets involved

With the possibility of conflict between France and Austria becoming more and more likely, the Piedmontese king Victor Emmanuel gave a speech before his parliament on 10 January, 1859 which did little to ease the tensions. ‘Our country, small in territory, has grown in stature amongst the councils of Europe thanks to the greatness of ideas that it represents and the friendship it inspires…If we respect the treaties, we are nevertheless not insensitive to the cries of distress which we hear emanating from so many parts of Italy…’.

A few days later, on 13 January, the Prince Napoleon and General Niel arrived in Piedmont, where they visited arsenals, ports and fortifications in the company of Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora, the Sardinian Minister for War. 

International community faced with the impending war in Italy

The secret treaty of military and familial alliance signed by Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II on 16 December and the familial alliance of the marriage of the Prince Napoleon with Victor Emmanuel’s daughter, Clothilde, had cemented Franco-Piedmontese relations. But war in Northern Italy would not involve only Austria. Napoleon III therefore also had to try to control how the other European powers would act – he could not fight in Italy with the threat of military taken to his rear. His policy was thus to attempt to ensure the neutrality of the most important players in the international community for the coming conflict. In a letter to the Prince Napoleon, dated 19 January, Napoleon III noted the success of negotiations with the Tsar, led by the naval Captain La Roncière le Noury. “La Roncière has accomplished his mission very well. We have gained all we could hope for. The Emperor on parting said to him that he gave me his word of honour to do all in his power in my favour, but that he must be left the judge as to ways and suitable time.” Russian neutrality (and control of Prussia) was thus assured (at the price of a ‘benevolent attitude’ towards Russian ‘aspirations in Poland and the Black Sea’). British reaction was however mixed. The reaction of Queen Victoria (pushed by her ‘Prussian’ consort, Albert) was one of indignation at Napoleon’s challenge to the world order as established after the Vienna Congress of 1815. British public opinion however was against Austrian ‘tyranny’. The influential British politician, Palmerston, was later to epitomise a certain British position declaring (30 January, 1859) that “I am very Austrian north of the Alps, but very anti-Austrian south of the Alps”. The stage was set for the show down.

The importance of public opinion in international conflict

On 26 January, 1859, Napoleon III wrote to his cousin, Prince Napoléon, congratulating him on the way he had handled the negotiations for his marriage. He however included in a letter important instructions on how he wanted the coming war with Austria to be viewed by public opinion in France in particular and in Europe in general: “As to the question itself I shall always repeat the same thing. We must redouble our carefulness to ensure that Europe shall think we are in the right. The indiscretions being committed are so great that I am receiving news from Rome and Austria reporting that the Duc de Modène, aware that Piedmont wishes to stir up an insurrection within his states, has come to an understanding with Austria and Tuscany to take refuge in Tuscany with his troops when the occasion arises, and to appeal to the Great Powers. The chief difficulty, therefore, is always the same, and I can define it in a few words: if Piedmont has the appearance of seeking an artificial quarrel with Austria, and if I, on m side, have the appearance of approving her conduct in my desire for war, public opinion in France and in Europe would abandon me, and I should run the risk of having the whole of Europe on my hands. If on the other hand Piedmont should seem to be a victim while she is justifying her rights, everyone, with my support, would remain neutral. What is to be done then? This: to base the question on some incontestable fact of lawful right, no matter how insignificant it be. For example, if Piedmont (after having made her preparations) has a lawful right to protest against the occupation and fortifying of Placentia [NDLR: i.e., Piacenza] and presses this point to the utmost, I think, perhaps, she would be placing herself on the surest ground that is possible. In a word, it is in this sense that we must work. I fear that other methods would be found out, and that the moment people see an insurrection breaking out at Massa Carrara they will say, “Voici le complot qui se déroule” (“Here you can see the plot unfolding”).

L’année diplomatique

On 7 February, 1859, A special edition of the Moniteur appeared consisting of a single page bearing the Emperor’s speech to the Legislative Session of 1859 detailing his international relations.

In his snapshot of French diplomacy, Napoleon III spoke of the excellent state of affairs with respect to Britain: “Regarding the alliance between France and England, I have put all my energy into consolidating it, and I have found, on the other side of the straits, a welcome reciprocity on the part of the Queen of Great Britain and her ministers.”

Similarly, relations with Russia were on the up, he noted: “Since concluding peace [NDLR: after the Crimean War], my dealings with the Russian emperor have taken on a more honest cordiality, because we have been in agreement on all the previous points of contention.” The Captain La Roncière le Noury’s diplomatic mission to assure Russian non-intervention in the event of war between France and Austria was of particular importance. Napoleon III also talked of the difficult relations with Austria: “On the other hand, the cabinet in Vienna and my own have often found themselves in conflict regarding the important issues […]. Thus, for example, the reconstruction of the Danubian principalities was only completed after numerous difficulties which seriously impeded the fulfilment of their most legitimate wishes. […] In such a situation, it is not at all extraordinary that France has moved so close to Piedmont. […] For a while now, the state of affairs in Italy and its abnormal situation, in which order can only be maintained through the presence of foreign troops, have quite rightly been cause for diplomatic concern.

Here we see that Napoleon III is defending his close relations with Piedmont in view of the coming conflict in Italy – Napoleon III’s denial (towards the end of the speech) that there would be a war seems to imply the opposite! But there is also support for the Danubian Principalities. This is mentioned for two reasons: firstly to show off French ‘libertarian’ support for fledgling nations seeking self-determination (here again we are to superimpose Piedmont) but also secondly to hammer another nail in the coffin of Franco-Austrian relations. This linking of the “Romanian” question with Franco-Austrian relations was also viewed elsewhere in Europe as significant.

A further twist

The Moniteur universel of 22 March, 1859 announced Russia’s proposal for a congress regarding the escalating situation in Italy.

“Russia has proposed that a congress be held with the view to anticipating the complications that may arise concerning the state of Italy and which would likely disturb the peace in Europe.

This congress, comprising the plenipotentiaries of France, Austria, England, Prussia and Russia, would take place in a neutral venue.

The government of the Emperor has supported this proposal by the St. Petersburg cabinet. The cabinets in London, Vienna and in Berlin have not yet issued an official response.”

No Italian state would be present at the congress, except in a consultatory role. The Prince Napoléon, in a letter to Napoleon III dated the same day as the Moniteur article, expressed his dismay, which was no doubt shared by Piedmont:

“You have been willing to act before hearing the reasons advanced by unhappy Italy to be admitted to a conference in which her fate is to be decided without her participation, and against her! […] Sire, have you calculated the effect of [a conference without Italian participation] in all its bearings ? It means the reconstituting of the Holy Alliance against the different nations ;
It means the punishment of the Italian race ;
It means the despotism of the strong over the weak ;
it means the determination to decide for, that is to condemn to death, Italy without even hearing her representatives ;
It means the tearing up of the Treaty with Piedmont, the promises made and the hopes given to her, and the abandonment of the plans drawn up together and concerted with her.”

Napoleon III, in his reply, articulated the necessity for him to be seen as conciliatory in his conduct with Austria:

“I am under no illusions as to the difficulties arising from all sides. Although Piedmont and myself wish for the same thing our conduct is diametrically opposed. In order to divide my enemies and secure the neutrality of a portion of Europe, I must give clear testimony of my moderation and my desire for conciliation.” [Letter from Napoleon III to the Prince Napoleon dated 22 March, 1859]

The Austrians, for their part, were unwilling to attend the congress unless Piedmont agreed to disarmament, a demand with which Cavour and the Piedmontese were understandably reluctant to comply. Although Piedmont eventually agreed to do so, the congress would never take place. Mounting tensions between Piedmont and Austria would finally lead to the outbreak of war, on 29 April, 1859.


Despite the announcement of the proposed conference regarding the escalating situation in Italy on 22 March, 1859, nothing was forthcoming. Discussions continued behind the scenes, mainly regarding the disarmament of Piedmont. On 2 April, 1859, Napoleon wrote to the Prince Napoleon, perfectly encapsulating the state of attentisme that Europe found itself in:

“We are expecting every day the reply from St. Petersburg in order to convene the Conference.” [Letter from Napoleon III to the Prince Napoleon dated 2 April, 1859]

Two weeks later, in his entry for 16 April, the Comte Horace de Viel Castel was none the wiser, noting simply:

“Still the same uncertainty; will there or will there not be a congress regarding Italy? Austria is being difficult, the question is being drawn out, and Piedmont continues to do everything it can to confuse matters.” [Memoires du Comte Horace de Viel Castel, 16 April, 1859]

War was just around the corner.

Preparations for war

Russia’s proposed congress on the state of affairs in Italy was not to take place. Not only did Austria refuse the proposition of a general disarmament, but the emperor, Franz Joseph I Karl, also issued an ultimatum to Piedmont to disarm within three days, which was reported by the Moniteur on 23 April, 1859:

“The Austrian government addressed a direct communication to the Sardinian government, inviting it to disarm its army and stand down its volunteers. […] [The officer delivering the communication] was instructed to inform the [Sardinian] government that it had three days to issue a response, and that any attempt to delay matters would be considered a refusal.” [Le Moniteur universel, 23 April, 1859]

In his entry for 22 April, 1859, the Comte Horace de Viel Castel also commented on the French war preparations.

“Canrobert will take command of the first corps of the army, Maréchal Malakof is returning from London where he will be replaced by Persigny, and Maréchal Magnan will leave with the Emperor, who will be the commander in chief.

Yesterday, Princess Clothilde remarked to Prince Jerome [the Prince Napoleon, cousin of Napoleon III]:

« We shall all lament the Emperor’s departure from Paris, leaving behind such a young Prince Imperial in such a critical situation. The Emperor’s physical distance [from Paris] is a terrible thing, but your duty, she said, addressing her husband, lies with the army. Your place is there, and you should leave promptly. »”

The count finished his entry praying for victory:

“Last night a large number of troops left for Lyon by rail. Yet more are still to leave. In a few days, the first strike will be felt. We have but one prayer left to say: may God protect France and the Emperor!” [Mémoires sur le règne de Napoléon III 1851-1864, 22 April, 1859, pp.744-745]

The outbreak of war

On 4 May, 1859, after months of correspondence, meetings (secret or otherwise) and rhetoric from all sides, the Moniteur universel published a declaration of war:


In moving its army into territory belonging to our ally, the King of Sardinia, Austria has declared war on us. She has violated treaties and international justice and threatens our borders. […] With Piedmont having accepted the conditions which should have ensured peace, one wonders what could possibly be the cause of this sudden invasion? […]

Up until now, moderation has been my watchword: from this point on, energy becomes my first responsibility.

France must arm itself and say to Europe: I seek not to conquer, but to conserve without weakness my national and traditional policy; I observe treaties only on the condition that they are not violated against me, I respect the territory and rights of neutral powers but I also feel a deep sympathy for a people whose history is entwined with ours and who, under foreign oppression, cries out.

The aim of this war is thus to return Italy to itself and not replace one master with another; we shall thus have at our borders a united people who owe us its independence. […]

Palais des Tuileries, 3 May 1859
Napoleon” [Moniteur universel, 4 May, 1859]

Austria had invaded Piedmont on 29 April, hoping to quickly defeat the smaller Piedmontese army before France could move to support its ally. However, the Austrian troops, under the command of Count Gyulai, hesitated. Having occupied Vercelli, Casale Monferrato, Valenza, Pavia and Magenta between 4 and 5 May, the Austrians remained in the Mortara region but did not cross the Pô river and march on Voghera until 5 May, a week after invading. It was not until 7 May that they began advancing on Turin, the Piedmontese capital. By then it was already too late: Gyulai’s hesitation had cost Austria the initiative, and French troops, under Maréchal Canrobert, were already arriving in Alessandria.

Napoleon III leaves for the front

The Comte Horace de Viel Castel recorded in his memoirs that on Tuesday 10 May, 1859, Napoleon III and the Prince Napoleon left Paris for the Italian front. He noted that “never has the Emperor received such a magnificent ovation as that which he received today… it was [a] poignant [moment]… a furia that will never be understood by those who were not there to witness it”. [Mémoires du Comte Horace de Viel Castel, 10 May, 1859, p. 751]

Austrian troops had been slow to advance on Turin, and, despite sending scouts along the Dora Riparia river towards the Piedmontese capital on 9 May, they were pushed back due to Franco-Sardinian military presence between Casale Monferrato and Valenza. The Austrian forces retreated over the River Sesia on 10 and 11 May to take up a defensive position between Pavia and Vercelli, behind both the Sesia and the Po, in preparation for the French advance, a position which they would maintain until the first battle of the war, at Montebello, on 20 May. Meanwhile, on 14 May, four days after leaving Paris, Napoleon arrived in Alessandria to take command of operations.

The Battle of Montebello*

By 15 May, the entire French army, with Napoleon III at its head, was in Italy. Conditions were very wet and the roads in the area, as well as the plain near the Sesia and Dora Baltea rivers, were flooded. This, as well as the French Emperor’s command of all allied forces, was cause for much concern for the Sardinian king, Victor-Emmanuel, who wrote to the Count Cavour:

“New difficulties have arisen […] it is [now] the very worthy Emperor who is conducting matters. He changes his projects, and then changes them again, and he wants things that are impossible. […] The military preparations are strange, and if we continue in this manner, we will soon be without an army. Today I wrote a little energetically to the Emperor; I hope that he will not be displeased. […] For the moment, we are up to our necks in mud and it seems unlikely that we shall make any attack for eight or ten days.” [Letter from King Victor-Emmanuel to Count Cavour, 16 May, 1859, quoted in Raymond Bourgerie, Magenta et Solferino (1859) : Napoleon III et le rêve italien]

Despite the king’s pessimistic outlook, the French won their first battle of the campaign, at Montebello della Battaglia, on 20 May. Count Gyulai, commanding the Austrian troops, was unsure of Napoleon III’s plans and reluctant to make any decisive move. However, needing to ascertain the location of the French troops between Voghera and Piacenza (the route of an important line of rail track), he sent a reconnaissance force under General Stadion south towards the Montebello plain. With one brigade making for Oriolo (a village to the north of Voghera), another two at Casatisma (a village north of Casteggio) and a final one marching along the railway line from the town of Casteggio, the Austrians advanced on large town of Voghera. The French troops under General Forey which were stationed at Voghera were caught slightly unawares and fighting broke out along the road (today’s Via Piacenza) running east from Voghera to the village of Genestrello. Despite being at a numerical disadvantage, the French forces succeeded in transforming a defensive action into an offensive counter-attack. Driving the Austrians back along the road and recapturing Genestrello, the French troops pushed the Stadion and his troops back to Montebello della Battaglia, which eventually fell at 6.30pm. Stadion retreated back through Casteggio. For a relatively minor battle in the campaign, losses on both sides were high: between 700 and 800 dead, injured or missing on the Franco- Piedmontese side, and around 1300 for the Austrians.

* Today called Montebello della Battaglia

Parisian “patriotism”: the other side of the coin

Despite the swell of patriotism in favour of French intervention in Italy, Paris was not entirely unanimous in its support of the war and Napoleon III’s role in events. The always-reliable Comte Horace de Viel Castel, once again commenting on Parisian society, noted on 22 May, 1859, that “Monsieur d’Arenberg has enrolled his son in the service of Austria: his entire family has disowned him [Monsieur d’Arenberg] and people throw stones at him [in the street].”

Elsewhere, he also remarked on a certain level of dissent amongst the select social clubs of Paris: “Amongst the clubs in Paris, the Jockey [club] is hardly a beacon of patriotism; a notable section of this circle is proclaiming its support for Austria; and as far as the Union club is concerned, it is almost entirely Austrian.” [Entries for 22 May and 24 May, 1859, Mémoires du Comte Horace de Viel Castel]

The Battle of Magenta, 4 June, 1859

After Montebello on 25 May, Napoleon III finally enacted his initial plan, namely that of enveloping the Austrian troops ranged in the plain before Milan by coming at them from the north and so attacking their flank. The Austrians were slow to react, still believing that the French would come at them via Piacenza, from the south. The French emperor however moved his troops quickly north by train through Vercelli (the French victory nearby at Palestro [30-31 May] finally revealed to the Austrians what was happening), gathering the French army around Novara on 1 June. After a brief (and accidental) combat at Turbigo on 3 June, the French emperor envisaged that the following day would be one of manoeuvring in view of a decisive encounter the day after (having heard that the Austrians were retreating). He was however mistaken since the Austrians had not moved. On the battle day itself (4 June), MacMahon advanced south carefully down the left bank of the Ticino river towards Magenta meeting fierce resistance. Subsequently the Guard advanced from the West down the Milan road towards Magenta and down the railways line and was involved in an heroic defence of the canal before Magenta. The Austrians attacked the right flank of the French army, causing both armies to engage their reserves. Later on in the day MacMahon returned to the fight, taking Magenta and driving the Austrians into retreat. The road to Milan was opened up. On 7 June, a delegation from Milan presented the keys to the city to the victorious Emperor and the French army made a triumphal entry into the Lombard capital.

Magenta: the morning after

In the post-Magenta delirium, the social commentator, Horace de Viel Castel, still found time to note down Paris’ reaction to news of the French victory. Initially, as is to be expected, the event was cause for much celebration:

“All of St. Germain is lit up; firecrackers continue to echo all-over, like little burning fires of joy; rockets soar through the sky, illuminating the darkness. The Mairie has had announced in every street the following dispatch, sent by the Emperor to the Empress:

Novara, 4 June 1859
A great victory: 5,000 prisoners; 15,000 enemies killed or wounded; details to follow later.” [Mémoires du Comte Horace de Viel Castel, Sunday 5 June, 1859]

The figures were, in actual fact, closer to 6,000 dead or wounded on the Austrian side, while the French lost roughly 700, with about 3,200 wounded. A few days later, however, and dissent and worry, brought about by news and rumour of the French losses, began to replace the fading elation of victory:

“I heard yesterday the shopkeepers of Paris, and the most respectable ones at that, talking, saying that ‘this war is abominable; it is time for the Emperor to put an end to it, we do not need a second campaign or a second war bond.’ It is always the same stupid bourgeois, the very same ones who criticised Louis-Philippe for his cowardice. Messrs. Thiers and Guizot are astounded that the Emperor dared to make war and that he conducts it so happily.”

Moreover, the immediate aftermath in Italy appeared chaotic:

“Milan has revolted: the Austrians left hastily, abandoning the army’s treasury. […] In the last battle, we lost Generals Espinasse and Clerc: the official announcement is in the Moniteur. They were saying at the Bourse [Paris stock exchange] that Maréchal Canrobert and General Niel were very seriously injured, but Mac-Mahon less so; [the latter] was named maréchal on the battlefield. Camon’s division [also] suffered greatly. […]” [Tuesday 7 June, 1859]

However, as more reliable information filtered through, the details of the battle and the events afterwards became clearer:

“Neither Canrobert nor Niel were wounded, nor even General Mellinet, whom the men at the Bourse, in their fervent patriotism, sought to include amongst the dead. General Mac-Mahon, recently named maréchal, has been made Duc de Magenta. General Regnault de St-Jean d’Angely was named maréchal. The Emperor and the King of Piedmont have arrived in Milan. The Austrians have evacuated Pavia, after having disabled their cannons and flooded their magazine. Bendeck‘s Austrian corps took up position at Marignano [today Melegnano, twenty kilometres south of Milan]; the Emperor dispatched Maréchal Baraguay-d’Hilliers to dislodge them, which he did, taking 1,200 prisoners. [Friday 10 June, 1859]

This final point regarding the battle at Melegnano (8 June, 1859) masks what was in effect a French failure: Baraguay d’Hilliers, in his haste to attack the Austrians and distinguish himself, advanced his troops on the Austrian position without waiting for protective support on his wings. Facing heavy resistance, the French soldiers were pushed back and forced to retreat, aided by a torrential but fortuitous downpour (for the Austrians, at least) and the arrival of Austrian reinforcements under General Boër, who was killed mounting a counter-attack against the French just prior to the retreat. The Austrian troops escaped, and although the French seized the village, they paid dearly for it. They had lost 900 men and 71 officers in the operation, losses that were to persuade Napoleon to keep his entire army grouped together, under his command. This was to have a knock-on effect for the rest of the campaign, as the French advance became more careful and battles became larger and bloodier.

Napoleon III enters Milan

The battle at Magenta over, Napoleon III and the King of Sardinia made their triumphal entrance into Milan on 8 June, 1859. With hordes of people waving flags and cries of joy ringing out, the French Emperor took his quarters at the Villa Bonaparte. On 9 June, a Te Deum was sung in the cathedral and on Sunday 12 June, 1859, the Moniteur reported on the speech delivered by Napoleon III to the inhabitants of Milan:


The fortune of war has today led us into Lombardy’s capital, and I have come to tell you why I am here. When Austria unjustly attacked Piedmont, I resolved to support my ally, the King of Sardinia; the honour and interests of France demanded it of me. Your enemies, who are also mine, have attempted to diminish the universal sympathy that Europe had for your cause, in suggesting that I was simply making war for my own personal ambition or to enlarge France’s territory. There are some men in this world who do not understand the time in which they are living, but I am not amongst them. In the enlightened views of today’s public, greater are those who exert a moral influence than [those who] pursue sterile conquest. It is this moral influence that I proudly seek in contributing to free one of the greatest parts of Europe. Your welcome has already proven your understanding of this. I do not come here today with a preconceived system that will dispossess kings or to impose upon you my will. My army is concerned with only two things: battle your enemies and maintain the internal order. It will not stand in the way of any free demonstration of your legitimate wishes.

Providence sometimes favours a people as it does an individual, in giving them the opportunity, all of a sudden, to become great. But this is on condition that they know how to use it.

Thus I say, make the most of what fortune is offering to you. Your desire for independence, for so long expressed, for so long disappointed, will be realised if you demonstrate yourselves worthy of it.

Unite together in one single goal: the liberation of your country.

Organise your military.

Rise up under the flags of the King Victor-Emmanuel, who has already so nobly shown you the way to honour.

Remember that without discipline, the army is nothing, and, fired by the sacred love for your homeland, be nothing but soldiers today, for tomorrow you shall be free citizens of a great country.”

Imperial residence, Milan, 8 June, 1859, Napoleon

The Battle of Solferino, 24 June, 1859

After a bloody encounter on 8 June, 1859, between the advancing First Corps under Marshal Baraguey-d’Hilliers’s and the Austrian 8th corps defending the pullback at Melegnano (Marignan), 15 km south of Milan, Marshal Hess (advised by Gyulai) stationed his troops along the line of the Mincio river (due south of Lake Garda), ready to counter-attack the French troops advancing east across northern Italy. By 23 June, Austrian forces numbered 160,000 (divided into 7 army corps, 1 division of cavalry and 600 cannon). Facing them stood 150,000 Franco-Piedmontese troops (divided into 6 army corps, 1 division of cavalry and 300 cannon). As a result of poor reconnaissance, both sides were to engage in the battle by accident, the French blundering into the Austrian forces who themselves had not yet left their bivouacs. However, the crucial fact that the French were moving forwards gave them the upper hand. On the other hand, the Austrians had the advantage of fighting on terrain which they knew exceedingly well – the land around Solferino was the Austrian army’s camp de Chalons. The battle was to last 15 hours and, unlike Magenta, was without respite. Both sides lost huge numbers of men, and fresh troops were regularly sent to fill in the holes in shattered battalions. After 20,000 casualties on the Austrian side and 18,000 on the French side a French victory was proclaimed. Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, famously compared the battle in its losses to the First-Empire bloodletting at Leipzig and Waterloo, calling it a “disaster on a European scale”. However the net result was that the Austrian Emperor would be driven to the negotiating table, with an armistice on 8 July and an imperial summit meeting in Villanova on 11 July, 1859.

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