Without going back to the fundamental ideals behind European history and politics of that time, we can attest to the fact that the Crimean War, the Treaty of Paris, the politics of Earl Camillo of Cavour, as well as the series of mistakes committed by the Government of Vienna, led Napoleon III and his Italian army, in the spring of 1859, to fight the Second War of Independence in Piedmont and in Lombardy along with the army of Victor Emmanuel II , king of Sardinia, against the 1st and 2nd Austrian Army corps captained by Emperor Franz Joseph.
After the battles in eastern Piedmont, one in Magenta and one in Melegnano, as well as the break taken to welcome his triumphal entrance in Milan, Napoleon III, who had already passed the River Chiese, decided on the evening of June 23rd, to proceed with his advance; he moved together with his corps from the Lonato-Castiglione delle Stiviere line towards Solferino and Guidizzolo, while the Sardinian army proceeded towards Pozzolengo. Frank Joseph was already deployed at the above places, returning with his army on the right side of River Mincio, with the aim of dividing the opposing army with his 2nd Corps in order to force the Sardinians to retreat leaving Lake Garda behind them and the French to retire towards the Pre-Alps. He hoped that his 1st Corps, thanks to a large mighty cavalry, could surround the enemy line-up in the plains from the right. Neither of the two emperors truly thought that on that very day the two armies would fight and so the battle of Solferino and San Martino can be defined as an unpredicted battle.
The ally movement was organized in 5 directions, that is, from north to south:
- The Sardinian army in 4 divisions: 1st (Durando), 2nd (Fanti), 3rd (Mollard), 5th (Cucchiari) – led by Victor Emmanuel II, from Desenzano and Lonato towards Peschiera and Pozzolengo;
- The first French Army Corps – Baraguey d’Hilliers – from Esenta towards Solferino;
- The second Army Corps – Mac Mahon – from Castiglione delle Stiviere towards San Cassiano and Cavriana;
- The fourth Army Corps- Niel – strengthened by 3 Brigades of the third Army Corps and by two Cavalry divisions, from Carpenedolo towards Medole and Guidizzolo;
- The third Army Corps – Canrobert – from Mezzane through Medole and Acquafredda, towards Castel Goffredo;
- The Imperial Guard, that acted as a reserve.
Franz Joseph ordered his 2nd Army Corps – Schlick – to attack the enemy from the front on the hills between Lonato and Castiglione, while the 1st Army Corps – Wimpffen – was ordered to encircle the adversaries from the south, with the help of a Division coming from Mantua, commanded by General Jellacic.
While the allies started to advance just after 3 am, the Imperials (the name given to the Austrians) did not move until 8:30 am: this time lag resulted in the first ones marching within the proximity of the prefixed targets, while the second ones were taken by surprise even before starting the advance.
The Austrian side was as follows:
• 1st Army Corps: the III Army Corps Schwzenberg – in Giudizzolo; the IX Army Corps Scaffgotsche – further south and more precisely in Rebecco; the XI Corpo Wiegel – in Cerlongo in second line-up and the II Army Corps Liechtenstein – in Volta Mantovana;
• 2nd Army Corps: the VIII Army Corps – Benedek – in Pozzolengo and on the hills of San Martino, the V Army Corps – Stadion – in Solferino; the I Army Corps – Clam-Gallas – in Cavriana and the VII Army Corps – Zobel – in Volta Mantovana.
The battle can be divided into two different phases: ante and post-meridian; in the morning, solely independent fights took place as there were many columns of soldiers marching; and only around midday did the opposing supreme Command intervene to coordinate their troops in preparation for a decisive action.
During the first phase:
The VIII Army Corps Benedek fought against the Sardinian Army; the V Army Stadion and the I Army Clam-Gallas were in front of the 1st Army Corps Baraguey d’Hilliers and they had to divert considerable force to oppose, in Madonna della Scoperta, an intimidating Sardinian column led by the Major Head of State of the Durando Division, the Lieutenant Colonel Avogadro di Casanova.
Further south, the Wimpffen corps that should have intervened in the plains of Medole and in the nearby areas intersected by trenches, canals and fences that were very difficult areas to fight in, were stopped by the 4th Army Corps Niel. Meanwhile the 3rd Corps Canrobert was maneuvering at a large radius towards Medole; the fights that arose were harsh and bloody, both between the Infantry Units and Cavalry Squads, also due to the large artillery. In particular on the hills of San Martino and further to the south east, the Sardinian army fought with alternating fortune, and different locations were taken, lost and then re-taken through furious assaults and charges, led by the Durando, Fanti, Mollard and Cucchiari divisions. On the other hand, the inactive Sardinian Cavalry of Sambuy was left behind Lonato.
During the second phase:
Franz Joseph, while maintaining the initial plan of operation, had the I Army Corps Clam-Gallas accelerate the march on Solferino, in order to substitute the exhausted V Army Corps Stadion and had the VII Army Corps Zobel advance on San Cassiano to bridge the gap created between the V and 2nd Army Corps. Napoleon III successfully foresaw that the battle would be resolved in the centre and he pushed his Guard there, commanded by Field Marshal Regnaud De Saint-Jean d’Augély, where they mass with the 1st Army Corps of Field Marshal Baraguey d’Hilliers. The fights were harsh, very bloody and ended at 1:30 pm with the conquest of Solferino thanks to the Sardinian intervention at Madonna della Scoperta.
In turn, the 2nd Corps Mac Mahon, having moved left on San Cassiano, repulsed the VII Army Zobel at Cavriana. The impassable deployment of the 4th Army Corps Niel, strengthened by units of the 3rd Army Canrobert, broke the attacks of the V Imperial Army Wimpfeen and forced it to retreat over the River Mincio, at Goito. After a violent afternoon storm, Victor Emmanuel II continued the advance, with the VII Army Corps Benedek being menaced from the south by the Durando Division and the “Aosta” Brigade of the Infantry Division. On the hills of San Martino the Mollard Division –”Cuneo” and “Pinerolo” Brigades – renewed the frontal attack, supported by the Cucchiari Division – “Casale” and “Acqui” Brigades – that had been brought back on the express order of the Sovereign. At 8:00 pm, the VIII Army Corps Benedek was forced to retreat to Pozzolengo and its rearguard was devastated by the fire of the Sardinian artillery and by a charge of the “Cavalleggeri of Monferrato” (Monferrato cavalrymen). In this way the contribution to the victory by the Sardinian Army was notable, for two main reasons: its action over Madonna della Scoperta greatly helped the French Army at Solferino and also it had initially halted and then defeated the VIII Imperial Corps conducted by General Benedek, the best Franz Joseph had at his disposal.
However, we should not forget that the events that took place on the hills of Solferino and San Martino on June 24th 1859 were influenced from a military point of view by the following:
• The Hunters of the Alps, commanded by Garibaldi, that from the Pre-Alps in Lombardy menaced – aiming at Adige Valley – the rearguard of the Austrian Army Corps positioned in the Quadrangle;
• the 4th Division (Cialdini), strengthened by the “Regina” and “Savoia” Brigades , the VI and VII Battalions and by the Novara Cavalry Regiment operating from the western shore of Lake Garda towards the foothills of the Alps.
• The 5th French Army Corps, under the command of Prince Gerolamo Bonaparte, that – going ashore at Livorno and going north to Garfagnana and Lunigiana – generated a menace in the mid-valley of the River Po to the left flank of the Austrian Army;
• the French fleet, which some ships of the Sardinian Navy had joined, docked in Lussino, ready to besiege Venice.
The name of Solferino and San Martino goes down in history not only for the battle described above, but also for the following five reasons:
1. Here was the last battle, where in the middle of the fights there were three Head of States on horseback within a few kilometres radius: Franz Joseph, Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II;
2. During this battle the Sardinian Army Corps – that could be already considered Italian due to the remarkable number of volunteers from all over the peninsula – fought for the Independence of Italy;
3. For the first time in Modern Europe, there were many black fighters in the French Army who symbolized colonial Imperialism that was reigning at that time.
4. Maybe, for the last time, an Army, the one led by Franz Joseph, fought moved by dynastic loyalty and in defence of the principle of Legitimacy: one of its major creators, Prince Klemens Von Metternich – died precisely at that time in Vienna;
5. Finally, and it’s the most relevant fact in the history of humanity, that event marked the birth of the Red Cross.
It was, in truth, seeing the trampled-on corpses, the badly buried bodies and the wounded left to the pity of the people rather than in the hands of the health services that inspired Henry Dunant to create the Red Cross which earned him, as its founder, the first Nobel Peace Prize.
1. here was the last battle, where in the middle of the fights there were three Head of States on horseback within a few kilometres radius: Franz Joseph, Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II; 2. during this battle the Sardinian Army Corps – that could be already considered Italian due to the remarkable number of volunteers from all over the peninsula – fought for the Independence of Italy;3. for the first time in Modern Europe, there were many black fighters in the French Army who symbolized colonial Imperialism that was reigning at that time.4. maybe, for the last time, an Army, the one led by Franz Joseph, fought moved by dynastic loyalty and in defence of the principle of Legitimacy: one of its major creators, Prince Klemens Von Metternich – died precisely at that time in Vienna;