The death of the Chevalier de Belle-Isle, Battle of Assietta.
In October 1740, Emperor Charles VI died. In his youth he had held title as the Archduke Charles, claimant to the Spanish crown and for whom the Habsburgs waged the War for the Spanish Succession. He left a single heir, his daughter the Archduchess Maria Theresa.
The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy. Charles VI, however, negotiated with the ruling houses of Europe and the magnates of his monarchy to accept Maria Theresa as his legitimate and rightful heir and the next empress. Having secured domestic recognition of his daughter’s right to succeed him, he also acquired international recognition embodied in the document, the Pragmatic Sanction. It did not work. As soon as he died, the Bavarian and Saxon electors competed for the crown; and King Frederick II of Prussia, newly ascended to the throne, rejected Maria Theresa’s legitimacy and invaded Silesia, wealthiest of the Habsburg territories. France did not enter the war, but a French auxiliary corps was dispatched to central Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Westphalia, “to defend German liberties.”
The Spanish royal family decided the war offered an opportunity to reclaim Milan. Prince Philip of Bourbon, the youngest son of Philip V and Elizabeth Farnese, needed a crown; and Milan, along with Parma, suited him. A Spanish army landed in Tuscany-a neutral-and marched north to the Padana Plain. Then, Philip V asked his son Charles VII of Naples to return the army he lent him in 1733 to the Neapolitan and Sicilian thrones. Neapolitan troops marched north to join the Spanish army.
France too required allies. They requested Piedmontese permission to cross the Alps and march on Milan, but Charles Emmanuel III did not want to involve his state in this conflict. He realized that, in case of a French and Spanish victory, Piedmont would be caught between the Bourbons. It meant the end of any autonomous policy and of any possible dream of expanding his power in Italy. Moreover, he threatened the approaching Spanish army that if it entered the Padana Plain, his army would its his route to Milan.
At the same time, Britain perceived the precarious situation as a threat to the Balance of Power. Piedmont and Austria were alone against much of Europe, save Russia. London therefore committed its resources to the Habsburg cause. Charles Emmanuel received a £250,000 annual subsidy to keep his army on a war footing. Then, a British squadron entered the Mediterranean under Admiral Matthews, ordered to act in support of Charles Emmanuel. The British ships entered Naples harbor with some five thousand marines. Charles VII knew it. He had no fleet and very few men to defend the city because his army had marched north. So, when Matthews presented an ultimatum: recall all his regiments with the Spanish army, or the city would be shelled and the marines landed, Charles VII had little recourse but to accept the terms.
The defection of Naples eased Charles Emmanuel’s army action against the Spanish in the Padana Plain. Not wanting to face isolation, the Spanish withdrew through the Papal States along the Adriatic coast. Soon after, Charles Emmanuel countermarched rapidly to meet a second Spanish army entering Savoy via France. He won the campaign, but it was clear that the war was becoming harder to manage.
In 1743 the Spanish threatened Piedmont with two armies. Charles Emmanuel possessed no more than 42,000 men and could use only half against each Spanish army. Nonetheless, he crushed Prince Philip’s army, marching from France, at Casteldelfino. Simultaneously, the Piedmontese with their Habsburg allies fought and defeated the second army under de Gages at Camposanto, on the other side of Italy and pressed it to the Neapolitan-Papal States border on the Adriatic coast, where it sought refuge from the Neapolitan king.
In the autumn of 1743, Britain joined Piedmont and Austria in a formal league. The treaty signed in Wörms widened the scope of the conflict from Europe to Asia, Africa, and America, where it was known as King George’s War.
The 1744 campaign was hard fought. Unfortunately, Maria Theresa wanted Naples because, according to the Peace of Utrecht, it should have remained in Habsburg hands, yet the War of Polish Succession had reversed that agreement.
Charles Emmanuel warned the Austrian ruler that this would only increase the strategic dilemma. Why expand the conflict when victory was not in sight? Regardless of the free advice, she ordered her army to destroy de Gages’s Spanish army still waiting on the Neapolitan frontier. Charles VII of Naples, aware of the Austrian menace, declared war and once again united his troops with his father’s army.
An Austrian army marched south, passing through the Papal States from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian coast. Charles VII gathered the Spanish and Neapolitan army and encamped near Velletri, south of Rome. The Austrians attacked in August and were repulsed with great loss.
The defeat forced the Habsburgs to abandon central Italy in November. The Neapolitan-Spanish army followed on their heels, arriving in northern Italy. What a present for Charles Emmanuel, who had his own troubles.
In fact, France officially entered the war in that same year. A French army united with Prince Philip’s army passed the Alps, defeated the local Piedmontese resistance, and besieged Cuneo. Charles Emmanuel tried to relieve the city, but failed. He then directed the militia against the enemy’s ordnance and supply lines and, thanks to these guerrilla tactics and to Cuneo’s resistance, the Bourbon armies raised the siege and withdrew to France to take winter quarters.
In the early days of 1745, Genoa entered the conflict. The Most Serene Republic sought neutrality, just as Venice had done for the third time in forty-five years. Unfortunately, while Venice could defend its neutrality with 40,000 men, Genoa could not; and, moreover, Britain and Austria promised to give Charles Emmanuel the Marquisate of Finale, a little imperial fief in Liguria owned by the republic as a feudatory of the empire. Charles Emmanuel desired it as a port, an additional window to the Mediterranean.
In order to protect its territory, Genoa signed a treaty in Aranjuez and joined the Bourbon alliance. It was a disaster for Charles Emmanuel. The Genoese accession to the League provided the Spanish-French army with an opened route from France through Genoese territory, and now they could mass the army from France with the army from Naples via Velletri, adding to it 10,000 Genoese troops. This was the real disaster as it increased the powerful Bourbon army to 90,000 men.
As the war in Flanders continued, Charles Emmanuel received no support from Austria.
He had a mere 43,000 men. Maneuvering them well to avoid battle, he lost many fortresses but preserved his army. Despite this, he was compelled to accept an armistice in December 1745. Fortunately, Prussia accepted peace terms offered by Austria, allowing Vienna to send 12,000 men to Italy. It was not an impressive army, but enough to permit Charles Emmanuel to take the field upon the expiration of the armistice. In the spring 1746 he attacked and the Bourbons were defeated. Milan was reconquered, Piedmont liberated, and Genoa overrun by the Austrians. The Piedmontese army occupied western Liguria and the French and Spanish fled, abandoning the republic.
While Charles Emmanuel prepared an invasion of southern France, he sent a regiment to support the Corsican revolution against Genoese rule.
Genoa found itself under occupation and threatened with destruction if it did not pay 3 million scudi to Austria. Subsequently the city revolted, and the Austrian garrison was ejected. Charles Emmanuel halted his operations against France and marched to support Austrian operations against the city. The Genoese fleet, supported by coastal defenses, prevented the British fleet from shelling Genoa, but the Austrian and Piedmontese armies cut the city off from the outside world by land, while the French supplied its ally with men and material by sea.
In the spring of 1747, a new French army marched along the Mediterranean coast. Charles Emmanuel ordered his troops to hold Nice, but soon he knew that another French expeditionary force was approaching the Alps from the west. If they crossed the Alps, they could effectively threaten Turin.
Charles Emmanuel had no troops to stem the invasion. He scraped together what troops he could find. On July 19, 1747, at Assietta Hill, 30,000 French with artillery attacked 5,400 Piedmontese and 2,000 Austrians. At sunset, the French had lost 5,800 men and left more than 600 wounded to the victorious defenders. General Count Bricherasio lost only 192 Piedmontese and 27 Austrians; it was clearly a triumph.
Assietta Hill was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. A peace was signed on October 30, 1748, at Aix-la-Chapelle. Everything remained as it was before the war, except that Prince Philip of Spain obtained the duchy of Parma and Charles Emmanuel received from Maria Theresa two West Lombardy provinces, Vigevano, and Anghiera County, and a part of the territory of Pavia, setting the Milanese-Piedmontese border along the Ticino River.