The emperor’s forces won the first of two major French victories during the Second Italian War of Independence
The emperor’s forces won this crucial victory during the Second Italian War of Independence
The road to Italian unification during the 19th century was long, complex and involved several wars. Of those, the Second Italian War of Independence of 1859 was one of the most significant conflicts. It resulted in the establishment of a ‘Kingdom of Italy’ that comprised virtually all the Italian peninsula apart from Venice, San Marino and the area around Rome.
A large factor in the outbreak of war was the attempts of Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Sardinia, to drive the Austrian Habsburg dynasty out of northern Italy. Austria ruled
Venice and large parts of the north while also heavily influencing the duchies of Parma and Tuscany. Sardinia, which included the principality of Piedmont, was independent and found a sympathetic ally in Napoleon III, who had fought with Italian patriots against the Austrians in his youth. Despite domestic opposition within France, Napoleon III actively supported the Sardinians and agreed to join forces with them in exchange for the territories of Nice and Savoy.
France and Sardinia officially formed an alliance, which prompted Emperor Franz Joseph I to declare war. On 26 April 1859, an Austrian army invaded Piedmont with the intention of disbanding the Sardinian army. Napoleon III used this moment to emulate his famous uncle and chose to lead the French army into Italy himself.
The Austrians initially outnumbered the Sardinians, but they moved slowly, which gave Napoleon time to move his large army into Italy. The French invasion was notable because it was the first time that large numbers of troops were transported by rail. The Austrians had moved south, and Napoleon took advantage of this to use Piedmont’s railway network to manoeuvre his army around the Austrians’ right flank. The Franco-sardinian force could then threaten Milan, and the idea was that the Austrians would be forced out of Piedmont without fighting a major battle. The plan worked and Victor Emmanuel won a battle at Palestro on 30 May, where he became the last European monarch to ride into combat, participating with the cavalry during the battle.
The Austrians, who were commanded by Ferenc Gyulay, withdrew to the Ticino River and took up defensive positions. Nevertheless, they could not decide which side of the river to defend, and as the Austrians prevaricated Patrice de Macmahon’s French II Corps secured crossings at the Battle of Turbigo on 3 June. They also crossed the Naviglio Grande (Grand Canal) before encountering Austrian defences near Magenta.
On 4 June 1859, neither the Austrians nor the Franco-sardinians were expecting a major battle. The Austrians were recovering from their retreat while the Franco-sardinians were preparing to cross the Ticino, although they were unaware that Macmahon’s corps had already crossed.
The Piedmontese could only field 1,100 troops, so it would be approximately 50,000 French soldiers who would fight 58,000 Austrians during the battle.
Macmahon largely commanded the French at Magenta on 4 June, and the aim was to establish more bridgeheads across the Ticino. Pontoon bridges were constructed, and the French also crossed a damaged bridge. The fighting around this area was fierce, with the Guard finding themselves repeatedly attacked by the Austrians. The terrain around the Ticino was dominated by various waterways and orchards, which meant that traditional pitched battle tactics counted for little and hand-to-hand combat largely prevailed.
At 4.30pm the Austrians looked as though they might win, but French reinforcements from III Corps arrived in sweltering heat to relieve the Guard. Macmahon also launched a final attack to the north of Magenta. Every building in the town had been fortified and manned by sharpshooters, who had already repulsed one assault by Macmahon’s men. The French now used substantial artillery to support the final attack, although each house had to be cleared in a series of bloody encounters. The Austrians performed an orderly retreat and the French won a closely fought victory. The French suffered 4,585 casualties, of whom 707 were killed, compared with over 10,200 Austrians. 1,368 of these were killed but 4,500 were listed as missing – it is probable that many of these men were deserters.
Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel made a triumphal entry into Milan four days later. Magenta ensured that Bologna and many other cities and districts rose against Austrian rule and joined the cause of Italian unity, which culminated in the far bloodier concluding battle at Solferino on 24 June 1859. Battles like Magenta in Italy contributed to Napoleon III’S most successful campaign and highlighted the potential of France’s renewed military might.
“NAPOLEON III USED THIS MOMENT TO EMULATE HIS FAMOUS UNCLE AND CHOSE TO LEAD THE FRENCH ARMY INTO ITALY HIMSELF”
Zouaves of the French Imperial Guard engage Austrian defenders in the town of Magenta
Patrice de Macmahon was created ‘Duke of Magenta’ for his leadership during the battle and later became the third president of France in 1873