Battle of Solferino


Emperor Napoleon III of France gives orders to one of his subordinates during the battle of Solferino, 24 June 1859. The Battle of Solferino, 24th June 1859 (oil on canvas), by Adolphe Yvon (1817-93).

ITALY - CIRCA 2002:  Episode in the Battle of Solferino, June 24, 1859. Second War of Independence, Italy, 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


The allied army of Piedmont and France achieved a major victory over their Austrian opponents at the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859. In subsequent treaty negotiations, the Austrian emperor ceded Lombardy to the king of Piedmont. The battle was a bizarre mix of intention and blundering. Franz Josef II, the Austrian emperor, dismissed the defeated commander of the Battle of Magenta on 17 June and took titular command of his army in the field, whilst yielding actual authority to a council of generals. When the generals requested an offensive that the emperor was not happy about he conceded to their expert knowledge. The advancing allies, expecting no opposition, were surprised to find the Austrians crossing the Mincio River on 22 June 1859. The Austrians were able to occupy all the dominating high ground around Solferino before the allies could organize their attacks. The battle was effectively a savage melee across a front of about 5½ miles (9 km). A Swiss observer, Henri Dunant, remembered: “Austrians and allies trampled each other under foot, slaughtered each other on a carpet of bloody corpses, smashed each other with rifle butts, crushed each other’s skulls, disembowelled each other with sabre and bayonet.” By nightfall, the Austrians were in a retreat that was only saved from being a rout by the actions of General Count Von Benedek, whose rearguard action delayed the allied pursuit. Dunant’s published memoir of the battle and its aftermath, including the makeshift hospitals that tried to save as many wounded as they could, led to a Geneva conference and the founding of the International Red Cross in 1863.

One of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, the Battle of Solferino on June 24, 1859, marked an important step forward in the unification of Italy. The Italian War of 1859 pitting the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Sardinia- Piedmont) against the Habsburg Empire resulted from the adroit diplomatic maneuvering of Premier Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, who was intent on unifying Italy under the Sardinian Crown. French emperor Napoleon III accepted the role assigned to him by Cavour because of his own interest in Italian affairs (as a youth he had participated in the Italian revolutions of 1830), his desire to supplant A. Austrian interest in Italy with that of France, and the lure of simple territorial aggrandizement.

In July 1858 Napoleon III and Cavour met at Plombieres in southeastern France and worked out the so-called Pact of Plombieres. Cavour would work to create a war with Austria in which the Habsburg monarchy appeared to be the aggressor. France would then join Sardinia to end Habsburg control over northern Italy. France would supply 200,000 troops, Sardinia would supply 100,000 troops, and the two would fight until Italy was freed “from sea to sea.” Sardinia was to receive Lombardy, Venetia, Parma, Modena, and Romagna, establishing a new Kingdom of Upper Italy. Sardinia would in turn cede Nice and Savoy to France. Napoleon III’s cousin Prince Jerome Bonaparte, who had married the daughter of Sardinian king Victor Emmanuel II, would receive Tuscany, Umbria, and the Marches as king of central Italy. The pope would retain the area around Rome known as the Patrimony. The Kingdom of Naples would be left intact. These four Italian kingdoms would then be formed into a loose confederation under the presidency of the pope.

In March 1859 Cavour mobilized the Sardinian Army, but his efforts to bait the Habsburgs into war appeared not to be working, and on April 19 he ordered the army demobilized. Had there been a telegraph connection between Turin and Vienna, there would have been no war. But unaware of Cavour’s action, on April 23 the Habsburg government dispatched an ultimatum to Turin demanding the demobilization. This made Austria appear to be the aggressor. Sardinia’s rejection of the ultimatum then brought the war, which both sides in fact desired.

Habsburg troops were in position to strike quickly and indeed invaded Piedmont on April 29, but Austrian commander General Franz Gyulai proved incompetent. The advance was slow, allowing French forces time to come to Sardinia’s assistance. On May 30 Sardinia won a victory over Habsburg forces at Palestro. Franco- Sardinian forces led by Napoleon III then invaded Lombardy.

On June 4 the French and Sardinians met the Habsburg forces at Magenta. Due to confusion in orders, Sardinian forces remained quiescent, and the French fought the Austrians alone. The elan of 54,000 French soldiers led them to prevail against 58,000 Austrians. French losses amounted to 5,000 killed or wounded and 600 missing; Austrian casualties came to 5,700 killed or wounded and 4,500 missing.

Following Magenta, Gyulai withdrew his forces into the so-called Quadrilateral, the fortified cities of Magenta, Pershiera, Verona, and Legnago. On June 8 Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II entered Milan in triumph. Emperor of Austria Franz Joseph dismissed Gyulai and advanced with forces under General Ludwig von Benedek in an effort to reconquer Lombardy. The sides were of approximately equal strength: about 160,000 men each, the largest number of combatants in any European battle since Leipzig in 1813. As at Magenta, the two armies blundered into a fight without much central direction from their commanders.

On June 24 the advance guards stumbled on each other in the village of Solferino, south of Lake Garda in Lombardy. General Marie E. P. M. de MacMahon commanded the French forces. Napoleon III, Victor Emmanuel II, and Franz Joseph were all present. Fighting began at 4:00 a. m., and much of it was hand to hand. As at Magenta, the battle was decided not by generalship but by the fighting spirit of the French soldiers. Fighting ended at about 8:00 p. m. with the collapse of the Habsburg center. Their forces were able to withdraw, however, thanks to a hard-fought rear-guard effort led by Benedek. Casualties were heavy, with the French suffering nearly 12,000, the Sardinians 5,500, and the Austrians 22,000.

The Habsburg forces again withdrew in good order into the Quadrilateral. Dislodging them would have entailed many more French casualties. Napoleon III was deeply affected by the carnage of the battle and by his role in bringing it about. French military leaders were also unhappy with the level of Sardinian assistance in the Battle of Magenta, and French public opinion had turned against the war. The Prussians were mobilizing forces in northern Germany and appeared to be threatening France along the Rhine. Italian nationalists had seized control of Tuscany and demanded union with Sardinia. All of these factors now led the emperor to renege on his agreement with Cavour.

Napoleon III met with Franz Josef near Villafranca on July 11 and there concluded an armistice. Austria agreed to evacuate all Lombardy except the fortified towns of Peschiera and Mantua in the Quadrilateral. To save face, Austria turned over Lombardy to France, which then gave it to Sardinia. Austria retained Venetia.

The Battle of Solferino had another major effect. The suffering of the wounded there was all the more horrible because of totally inadequate ambulance services. Many of the wounded lay under a hot sun for three days until they were attended to, and a number were robbed of their possessions by local peasants. Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, who had traveled to Solferino to talk with Napoleon III, witnessed the battle and its aftermath. In 1862 he published a small book about his experiences. Titled Un Souvenir de Solférino (1862), it dealt principally with the efforts to tend to the wounded in the small town of Castilogne. Dunant suggested that each country form societies to care for those wounded in battle. This led to the formation, in Geneva, of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In August 1864, 12 nations signed an internationally treaty commonly known as the Geneva Convention. The powers agreed to guarantee neutrality to medical personnel, to expedite medical supplies for their use, and to adopt an identifying emblem of a red cross on a white field.

The armistice of Villafranca, which was confirmed in the subsequent Treaty of Zurich of November 10, 1859, did not end the movement for Italian unification. Most Italians were outraged by it. Cavour sought to continue the war, but the king wisely rejected this. Believing that he had been betrayed, Cavour berated Victor Emmanuel II and then resigned. Cavour soon returned to office to oversee the remaining territorial acquisitions that rounded out the unification of Italy. Parma, Modena, and Tuscany as well as the Romagna voted to join Sardinia. This violated the terms of the Treaty of Villafranca, but Napoleon III agreed to these acquisitions on the condition that France receive Nice and Savoy. These terms were confirmed in the Treaty of Turin of March 1860. Sicily, Naples, the Marches, and Umbria were acquired in 1860 through the efforts of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, and on March 17, 1861, the Kingdom of Italy came into being. Cavour died just at his moment of triumph, but Italy added to its territory Venice in 1866 and Rome in 1870.

References Beales, Derek. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. Blumberg, Arnold. A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1990. Harder, Harry. Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790-1870. New York: Longman, 1983.

1 thought on “Battle of Solferino

  1. Pingback: How the First Geneva Convention Gave Rise to the Red Cross

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