The attack of Prince Leopold of Anhalt Dessau.
14 May–7 September 1706.
Savoy, northern Italian peninsula.
Savoyard: 4,000 defenders. Commander: Count von Daun.
Harassing force: 6,000 cavalry. Commander: Victor Amadeus, duke of Savoy.
Relief force: 30,000 men. Commander: Prince Eugene of Savoy.
French: 40,000 troops initially, with another 20,000 by the end of the siege. Commander: General Louis François Aubusson, duke de la Feuillade.
French failure to capture Turin spelled the doom of Louis XIV’s dream of acquiring control over the Italian peninsula.
The world of European politics is rarely so confusing as when a succession struggle arises. In 1700 Charles II of Spain died without issue, and the scramble to succeed him attracted candidates from across western Europe. Charles had named as his successor Phillipe, the duke of Anjou, but nobles with equally valid claims to the throne included Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and Victor Amadeus, duke of Savoy. Leopold and Victor, although with legitimate claims, were mainly afraid that if Phillipe assumed the throne Spain would come directly under the control of France, for France’s King Louis XIV was Phillipe’s uncle. Everyone in Europe had cause to fear any action that increased Louis’ authority, for he was one of the most brilliant and ambitious monarchs in all of European history. Emperor Leopold organized a coalition to combat Phillipe’s claim, joining Great Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, and Hanover to his own Holy Roman Empire. Louis responded by gathering together allies of his own: Bavaria, Mantua, Piedmont, and, initially, Savoy, which had long been aligned with France.
The result of these alliances was the War of the Spanish Succession. Louis hoped not only to place his nephew on the Spanish throne, but also to acquire as much of Italy as he could. Louis sent forces to Italy in 1701, but they were consistently beaten by one of the finest military leaders of the age, Prince Eugene of Savoy, serving in Leopold’s army. During 1701 and 1702, Louis saw his armies defeated and in 1703 he demanded increased aid from Victor Amadeus of Savoy (who was Eugene’s cousin). Victor, however, responded by changing alliances. Victor apparently planned on having Eugene on hand to defend his homeland, but the general went to Vienna to beg for more money and supplies for his army. Thus, he was unavailable when French troops swept through Savoy in 1704 and occupied most of the country, excepting only a few fortresses and the capital city of Turin.
Emperor Leopold soon appointed Eugene his commander-in-chief and sent him off to aid the Englishman Marlborough in the Blenheim campaign, thus leaving Savoy without its savior.
Turin was a formidable target. A pentagonal wall ringed the city and was fronted by a crescent-shaped fortification facing the countryside. Sixteen bastions anchored the defenses. In order to preclude an enemy mining the walls, tunnels had been dug far past the walls to undermine enemy tunnels or destroy trenches and gun emplacements. The French engineering mastermind, Marquis de Vauban, sent directives to French forces detailed to assault the city, but they were ignored.
The man ordered to capture Turin was General Louis François Aubusson, the duke de la Feuillade. He was a mere thirty years old and headstrong, and he first attacked the city in August 1705 by attempting to destroy its system of countermines. He had too few men to succeed before the winter, and so returned with 40,000 men in May 1706. He ignored not only Vauban’s directives but also common sense by failing to capture and fortify the Mount of Capucins overlooking the city. Instead of using that position to bombard the city, he placed his guns on the plains and began a steady bombardment designed to breach the walls. He hoped to avoid a long siege with a quick assault.
While the bombardment proceeded, Victor Amadeus led 6,000 cavalry out of the city in an attempt to link up with Eugene, who he hoped would be coming to his aid. Eugene indeed intended to march on Savoy, but la Feuillade had stationed strong forces blocking the Alpine passes. Thus, Victor began a strategy of harassing the French supply lines while la Feuillade attacked Turin. Victor had left a mere 4,000 soldiers to defend the city, but they were ably led by Count von Daun. The defenders threw back a major French assault, but found themselves short of gunpowder afterwards. Von Daun decided to concentrate his powder in mining operations rather than in an artillery duel.
Apparently disheartened by his failure to carry Turin by storm, la Feuillade began a proper siege with trench works and mining, but von Dan’s strategy succeeded in defeating these attempts. Growing tired of the boring siege, la Feuillade led a large number of cavalry away from the city to chase Victor, ultimately employing about 2,050 of his force in this foray. Meanwhile, Eugene was marching far south through neutral Venice to outflank the French lines positioned to keep him away from Turin. In early July his 30,000 men crossed the Adige River and drove off the defending French holding the southern end of their line. The French commander detailed to hold the passes and keep Eugene at bay was the very able Louis Joseph, the duke de Vendôme. Unfortunately for the French ambitions in Italy, he was recalled to France in the wake of another of Marlborough’s victories, along the Franco-Dutch frontier at Ramillies. King Louis’s nephew Phillipe, the duke of Orléans, was an inferior replacement who could not defeat the far more talented Eugene. Eugene linked up with Victor’s cavalry on 26 August 1706, just 20 miles from Turin.
The siege was pressed in greater earnest. The French finally succeeded in locating and attacking a Savoyard mineshaft and the two rival forces of engineers engaged in a bitter struggle in the smoke-filled underground passages before the French were forced to withdraw. Von Daun countered with a new mineshaft that he exploded under a newly emplaced artillery battery, destroying twelve of its fourteen guns. On 27 August, however, the French finally undermined a section of city wall and la Feuillade threw his infantry into the breach. Savoyard enfilading fire was quite effective, but still the fighting was hand-to-hand for hours before the French finally retreated.
Failure to break into the city combined with Eugene’s proximity convinced some of la Feuillade’s subordinates to advise abandoning the siege and turning their 60,000 men against the relief force. The French commander refused and continued his artillery bombardment. As he did so, Eugene’s forces arrived and occupied the Mount of Capuchins. From there, he looked down on the flank of the French entrenchments, with their guns pointing at the city. On the morning of 7 September, Eugene ordered his Prussian infantry to strike the weakest point of the French lines, their right flank northwest of the city. The Prussian infantry led by prince Leopold von Anhalt Dessau, after three failed attacks, was able to break the French right. The regiment La Marine went out of ammunition and it was no more able to stop the Prussian infantry. Both Eugene and Victor Amadeus fought with their troops and were instrumental in rallying them against French counterattacks. Once inside the trench lines, the Savoyards turned French artillery on their former owners, forcing them to break. On the far left flank, la Feuillade was able to withdraw his men in a more orderly fashion, until von Daun led a sally out of Turin that broke the French spirit and turned their retreat into a rout.
The combined forces of la Feuillade and the duke of Orléans returned to France, leaving behind nearly 3,000 men killed and wounded and twice that many as prisoners. The bulk of the French artillery was also abandoned to Savoy. The withdrawal out of Savoy meant that Louis XIV would not achieve his ambition of controlling the rest of the Italian peninsula. Savoy continued to block his access and Louis was forced to turn his attention away from Italy and look northward, to his ongoing struggle to extend French control into the Netherlands. The War of the Spanish Succession dragged on until 1713, when it was concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht. In that treaty, Louis succeeded in placing Phillipe of Anjou on the Spanish throne as he had hoped, but was forced to swear that France and Spain would not unite. The lands he had hoped to acquire in Italy went instead to Austria, which exercised the major influence there until Italian unification in the late nineteenth century.
Olivier Bernier, Louis XIV: A Royal Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987); Kenneth Czech, “Breaking the Siege of Turin,” Military History 14, no. 6, February 1998; Gregory Hanlon, The Twilight of a Military Tradition: Italian Aristocrats and European Conflicts, 1560–1800 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1998); Nicholas Henderson, Prince Eugene of Savoy (New York: Praeger, 1965).