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The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood

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SOLFERINO

Where Napoleon III. beat back the Austrians

[206] VICTOR EMMANUEL of Sardinia was fighting for Italian unification, and seeking to wrest Italian territory from Austria. To his help went Napoleon III, who placed himself at the head of the allied armies of France and Piedmont. He landed at Genoa on May 12th, 1859, in a week had beaten the Austrians at Montebello; passed on to Palestro and beat them again, and then on June 4th met them and forced them to retire from Magenta. The Austrians retreated to a strong position to the east of the River Mincio, doubled while the French were pursuing them—in the wrong direction—and on June 24th met the foe where they least expected to see him, for he had crossed the River Chiese, whereas the Austrians had hoped to fall upon him before he could do so.

There was nothing for it but to give battle. The Austrians took up a position running from north to south through the villages of Pozzolengo, Solferino, Carriana, and Guidizzolo, the first three being on the upland to the south of Lake Garda, the last one being on the plain of Medole. The First Army, under Wimpffen, held Guidizzolo, and the Second Army, under Schlick, was spread over the upland position.

The French, unaware that the Austrians were thus encamped, were hurrying as fast as their transports would allow to take up those identical positions. They [207] were coming from various quarters. Baraguay d'Hilliers, with the First Army Corps, was advancing on Solferino; McMahon and the Second Army Corps was making for Carriana, between Solferino and Guidizzolo, on which latter place Niel, with the Fourth Army Corps, was marching, via Medole, where the Third Corps, under Canrobert, was to take up position. The fact that the Austrians had already secured the various places naturally altered things, and the first intimation that Niel received of having been forestalled came to him when his advance guard ran into an outpost of Austrian cavalry near Medole. The French pushed on, however, cleared the cavalry out of the way, attacked Medole and, after a sharp fight, stormed and took it, sending the Austrians off.

News reached Niel that McMahon had found a large force opposed to him near Cassiano, and that all he could do was to launch his batteries at them, and so endeavour to prevent them sending out a large body against the First Corps. Niel was to leave Medole at once, and hasten off to the assistance of d'Hilliers, as McMahon himself did not dare to do so.

Niel agreed to do this after he had captured Medole, and on condition that the Third Corps, which was following him, should take care that his flank was not turned. The Third Corps, however, was busy keeping guard on the French right, which was threatened by a body of twenty-five thousand Austrians, whose possible appearance kept Canrobert at his post, unable to march on Medole, and so enable Niel to go to the help of d'Hilliers.

That general, meanwhile, pushed on his way towards Solferino, making every effort to capture the village. He had to fight for every inch of the ground he covered, and he found that to take Solferino, perched on a hill [208] as it was, was no easy task. By dint of hard fighting and heavy firing of artillery, he managed at last to secure the lower slopes of the hill; but the Austrians, safe on the hilltop, were able to hold out against the many determined attacks made to gain the village. It was a fine position for artillery, which simply mowed down the infantry that assailed the old tower, and sent them back on their line. D'Hilliers next tackled the cemetery and convent, sending his infantry at them. With many brilliant rushes the foot attempted to carry the position, but were each time hurled back by a galling fire. Then d'Hilliers brought his batteries to bear. At three hundred yards the great guns opened fire, poured in a terrific hail of shot and shell which battered in the walls and so made an opening, through which dashed the French infantry, with bayonets fixed, and possessed of grim determination not to be turned back again. In they went, met the foe hand to hand, and after a sharp tussle, during which the Austrians put up a bold stand, turned the defenders out of the stronghold.

Finding that Solferino was not easy to take, the First Corps of the French Imperial Guard, posted at Castiglione, about three miles to the left of the village, was sent to reinforce McMahon. The Chasseurs de la Garde, therefore, moved off towards Solferino, reached McMahon's line, and in dense columns charged at the hill. "Vive l'Empereur!"  burst from every throat, answered by the fierce cheers of the Austrians; and in a perfect transport of military frenzy the whole mass sprang up the hill. On every side the men dropped cruelly fast; the dark forms of the Chasseurs were marked by the glancing of the sunbeams on their sword-bayonets. The supporting columns pressed on. As they neared the village the puffs of Austrian smoke became more [209] frequent. Now the French reached the first houses, and for a moment the column wavered; then with one mad rush the Chasseurs swept the white-coated linesmen and the Tyrolese jagers before them into Solferino; and the edge of the village was won.

But the village itself still remained in the hands of the Austrians, and in order to get near it the French had to fight their way past and through houses, gardens and vineyards, every one of them filled with Austrians who potted at them from the shelter of walls and windows. It was a case for the bayonet again. With ringing cheers the French went at the charge, cleared the houses and gardens at bayonet point, and pressed on and on until at last, after a terrible fight, the village was won.

Meanwhile, Niel was having his hands full. Unable to go to d'Hilliers's aid, and with Canrobert behind him, and with no likelihood of receiving help himself against Wimpffen, who was sending large forces against him from Guidizzolo, Niel had to do the best he could. Wimpffen's advance party was making for Casa Nuova, a farmhouse about two miles from Medole, and for a long time Niel had to content himself with long-range firing against skirmishers. Finally he received reinforcements in the shape of some heavy artillery, and with these he moved on Casa Nuova. He found that the Austrians had turned the place into a very fortress.

Niel set all his artillery shelling the farm, and a terrific fire was poured into the devoted place, which the Austrians bravely defended. At last things reached a critical stage, for with Austrian reinforcements coming out against him, Niel knew that he must press on with the assault of the farm and carry it at the bayonet point.

Sending in a few more rounds as a preliminary clearing, the French infantry moved off towards the farm [210] at the double. In the teeth of a cruel fire which made great gaps in their ranks, they raced at the hedges and ditches, scrambled through them or leaped across them, met the foe hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, forced them back on the house inch by inch, and then went for the house itself.

The Austrians inside kept up a steady, gaffing fire, which worked great havoc, but did not keep the Frenchmen off. Crash! doors were smashed in, strongly barricaded windows were burst open, and then, through doors and windows, the Frenchmen went like so many monkeys. At last they were in, but they found that every room was a fortress, and every Austrian a host in himself, seeing that he was behind doors or furniture. But nothing could withstand the imperious rush of the Frenchmen, and soon the farm was won, was re-barricaded and made fit to withstand attacks by those who had recently been ousted.

Although Niel had successfully attacked Casa Nuova he was by no means in an enviable position. The fight for the farm, and the fights which took place for its recovery, very soon turned the Fourth Corps almost into a rabble, which the Austrians left him no time to remedy. Time after time the latter hurled themselves at the French, threatening to turn them back. Fortunately, reinforcements had come from the Emperor, and then, feeling better able to take the offensive again, Niel sent a couple of regiments of cavalry at the enemy. Down upon the Austrian ranks dashed the Hussars, straight as an arrow to its mark. The ground shook beneath the hoofs of horses; now and again horse and rider went down in a heap, but still on and on, like the wind, the gallant Hussars rode right into the opposing infantry. With a sickening crash they were through, dealing death and [211] destruction around them, and shaking the Austrian line from front to rear. If the charge effected nothing else it enabled Niel to rally his men into something like order. Losing no time, he followed up the advantage he had just gained, and before the Austrians could recover from the shock of the cavalry charge, he sent a large force of infantry against them at Guidizzolo.

Seven thousand Frenchmen, therefore, went out against an overwhelming number of Austrians. Boldly and fearlessly, impetuously and bravely, they hurled themselves at the outskirts of the village. The Austrians were ready for them, met them with a fire that sent their front ranks tumbling to the ground, and then, following up their advantage, rushed upon the Frenchmen, and sent them back whence they had come.

Wimpffen now, by order of the Emperor, moved three of his corps against Niel—reversing the process, as it were. Niel had massed his troops at Casa Nuova, and had received Canrobert's reinforcements. The Austrians literally surrounded the farm, sending their cavalry at the charge in an attempt to turn the French infantry back. Like automatons the French rifles spoke death to the advancing horsemen, then, when the latter arrived, French bayonets did the rest and hurled the cavalry back. So during all that afternoon the fight raged round Casa Nuova, now one side gaining some advantage, now the other, but still the French would not be turned out, and at last Wimpffen had to send to his Emperor, who was at Carriana, the news that he must fall back, having twice failed in the attack, and having used up all his reserves.

D'Hilliers had taken Solferino, Niel Casa Nuova, but meanwhile what of McMahon? That general had been compelled to take the defensive, since Niel had not [212] been able to come to his assistance, and for several hours an artillery duel raged between him and the Austrians round Cassiano. McMahon had the best of it, because he saw to it that his batteries were massed in large numbers, whereas the Austrians worked theirs singly. It was weight that told, and gradually the French were able to march on Carriana. The march resolved itself into a series of hand-to-hand fights, the Algerian troops, or Turcos, finding themselves very much at home on top of the hills. At Monte Fontana they met the Austrian infantry—came upon them before the latter realised it. Lithe and supple, they leaped from rock to rock, sprang hither and thither to secure cover, and burst in upon the Austrians with bayonets fixed, hurling the defenders down the slopes. The hill was won. But it was quickly lost again, for the Austrians immediately returned to the attack, met bayonet with bayonet, fought their way up to the top, and turned the victors out. The hill was won again. Yet once more was it lost, for the Turcos, furious at being robbed of the position they had fought so hard to win, once more sprang up the slopes, fell on the defenders, and with a terrible rush, scattered them. The hill was won at last, and won for good.

The French immediately hurried their batteries up to the crest, but it was hard work. Horses were practically useless, and men took their place, and tugging and pulling, cheering and cursing, they heaved and heaved until the guns were in position and shelling Carriana.

But not only were the artillery attacking the village: the infantry were also bent on securing it. Onward they pressed, fighting, firing volley after volley at the enemy in front of them, and then charging at the double with [213] bayonets fixed. It was hard work, but it told, for in about half an hour Carriana was taken.

To all intents and purposes the battle was now won, for while the French had been so successful at Solferino, Carriana, and Casa Nuova, the Piedmontese, under Victor Emmanuel, had pressed on towards Pozzolengo, where Benedek was encamped. Advance parties were sent out, reached San Martino, where Benedek had posted a goodly force, and attacked the Austrians. Bravely and boldly though they fell on, the lack of organisation rendered it impossible for them to achieve anything of value. Up the hill at San Martino, however, they scrambled, only to be driven down after a fierce fight. Later in the day the advance parties received reinforcements which enabled them to attack the village. Pressing forward with great vigour, they hurled themselves at the defenders, forced them from the outskirts, won farmhouses, vineyards, and the church. Then rallying themselves they dashed down upon the solid main line, which was supported by a battery of heavy guns. It was a gallant attempt, but a particularly hopeless one, for the Austrians reserved their artillery fire until the Piedmontese were within about two hundred yards, and then sent in a shattering musketry fire. Immediately afterwards the big guns opened up. Loaded with grapeshot as they were, they wrought havoc in the advancing ranks, mowing down men by the dozen, making great gaps in the columns, and sending the foe back in confusion. Who could stand against such a galling fire?

Finally they rallied, and, nothing daunted by their recent terrible experience, prepared to advance once more on the Austrians. The King sent off all the remainder of his force, instead of moving them on to Solferino as arranged before the battle, and thus [214] reinforced, the Piedmontese marched off on San Martino. The heights they had been compelled to surrender after desperate fighting they once more captured, though not before they had been hurled back again and yet again. Then at the village they dashed, this time with better success, for in the face of a raking fire they reached the Austrians, fought them at close quarters, forced them back, and the village of San Martino was won. Benedek's cavalry, meanwhile, had come at the charge; steady, solid and determined, the Piedmontese waited for them. They came—they staggered—swerved— turned round and went off after their retreating infantry.

The Piedmontese had done their share of the fighting, had paid their part of the price, for of twenty-five thousand who had attacked San Martino over four thousand five hundred were killed and wounded. But they had fought for country and for king, and they had won!

Solferino, Casa Nuova, Carriana, San Martino had been captured, the Austrians were forced back at every point, and when Wimpffen sent his message to the Emperor Francis that he would have to fall back, the latter reluctantly issued a general order for retreat. Gradually, therefore, the Austrians drew off, making for the Mincio, about three miles from Pozzolengo.

At last, however, a battle of the elements began, and put an end to the battle of men's passions, for the storm made it impossible for the French to follow up their advantage as they would have wished, and the Austrians were able to cross the Mincio.

On July 11th, after some shilly-shallying, a treaty was signed, by which it was agreed to create an Italian Confederation, Austria ceding Lombardy to France (to be transferred to Sardinia), and various other arrangements made.


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