La Battaglia di Magenta

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The Battle of Magenta

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On July 1858 Cavour secretly meet Napoleon III at Plombièrs. According to the stipulated agreement France will support Piedmont in case of an Austrian attack, and as soon as the war has been won, Italy shall have to be divided into three Reigns, organized in a confederation under the honorary Presidency of the Pope. The cession of Nice and Savoy is going to be the territory price for the French support. On 10th December France and Piedmont secure a formal alliance treaty. On 10th January 1859 Vittorio Emanuele II in his opening speech at the Parliament, which text is agreed between Prime Minister Cavour and Napoleon III, declares: “…we are not insensitive to the outcry of pain that arises from many parts of Italy…” Echoes reverberated all over Italy: Lombard people express their enthusiasm, while volunteers cross the Ticino River to join the Piedmontese army. On 23rd April Austria issued an ultimatum for Piedmont to demobilize within three days. This is the occasion that Cavour has patiently expected to start the war. Austrian army invades Piedmont willing to defeat the Sardinian army before the arrival of the allied army. The Piedmontese army blocks the advance of Marshall Ferencz Gyulaj flooding the rice fields in Lomellina and Vercellese areas; French troops cross the Moncenisio and from Genoa they quickly reach the battlefield. On 20th May the Austrian army is defeated at Montebello. While Gyulaj is waiting for the passage of the enemy nearby Piacenza with the largest part of the troops, Napoleon III deceits him crossing the Po River at Casale and using the railway to quickly move the French army from the area around Alessandria to Novara, heading to Milan. The plan of the French-Piedmontese army was to converge onto Magenta along two main roads: from Turbigo, and from the bridge over the Ticino River along the road going from Milan to Novara. The major effort is born by French army while the Piedmontese army has to follow the troops moving from Turbigo and intervene in case of need. Just after being defeated on 30th and 31st May at Vinzaglio and Palestro, the Austro-Hungarian army realizes the trap and orders to move the main body of the army from Lomellina to Magenta, passing through Vigevano and Abbiategrasso; the defence is arranged along the Naviglio, planning to blow up the bridges of Robecco, Pontevecchio, Pontenuovo and Boffalora. The Imperial army retreats, establishing a defence line between the Naviglio Grande and the Ticino River, blowing up the large Napoleonic bridge, between Magenta and Trecate. But the bridge over the Ticino, San Martino’s or Boffalora’s bridge, as the French used to call it, is just partly damaged. Maybe the failure is due to faulty loads, but it is indeed a real sabotage. Badoni Company, in Lecco, has received the order from the Austrian commando to mine the bridge under the direction of the Milanese engineer Marcello Rougier. He, with real patriotic spirit, slows down the drilling operations necessary to introduce the explosive into the arches, and sets the loads in non strategic points. Austrians threaded by the battle are obliged helter-skelter to ignite the fuses. They are puzzled when, from the lines at Pontenuovo, after the explosion, they see that the first two arcades on the Lombard shore have collapsed on themselves, thus allowing the passage of French troops. In the night between 2nd and 3rd June, the French engineers, protected by the Artillery, lays a bridge of boats, 180 meters long in front of Turbigo. The passage of the 2nd Army corps commanded by General Patrice Edme de Mac Mahon starts, and bears the first fights at Turbigo and Robecchetto. On the 4th in the morning, Mac Mahon divides his troops into two columns leading the 2nd division of Gen. Espinasse to Marcallo and the 1st Division of Major General De La Motte Rouge to Boffalora. In the meanwhile the Austrian troops coming from Lomellina are late and only 20-25.000 soldiers commanded by General Clam-Gallas are defending the line of naviglio; the General disposes his troops as a triangle, which vertexes are heading to Magenta, Boffalora and Marcallo. As soon as the cannon thunders Napoleon III from his observatory on the Tower of S. Martino al Basto, on the Piedmontese shore of the Ticino river, thinking that Mac Mahon attack is on the run, orders the waiting troops to move to the bridges on the Naviglio Grande at Boffalora, Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Nuovo. Austrians blow up the first two. The trigger that would have blown up the loads to destroy the Dogana’s bridge does not work. This and the railway bridge, few hundreds meters downstream, are the only passages available to reach the left bank of the channel. But Mac Mahon does not move, he is waiting to co-ordinate the movement of his columns and the 3rd French Corps, coming from Novara to the battle field, is late. With his military staff he rides on the left where Camou and Espinasse should be. He goes through the fields directed to Mesero, and without noticing it, he also crosses several imperial outposts puzzled by surprise, reiterated when the group, after agreeing the advance to Marcallo and Magenta, returns to restore the attack in Boffalora. In the meanwhile the large part of the Austrian troops is arriving from Abbiategrasso, and its entrance in the line creates a severe situation for the French army, at a point that a telegram is sent to Wien, announcing a crushing victory.

The battle becomes impassioned around Pontenuovo; several French attacks and drawbacks leave many fallen on the battle field. Seven times they conquer the bridge and loose it. They ask the Emperor for reinforcement, but the answer is negative. Last hope is the Guard. During the fights General Clèr falls, and in the bustle his body remains in the hands of the enemy; he will be found many hours later, deprived from his weapons and ranks. After heated fights with uncertain result, the French succeed in passing on the Ponte Nuovo, just when the Austrians, threaded on the right flank by Mac Mahon that restored his attack to Boffalora, withdraw, drawing up positions in Magenta. The defence points are: the cemetery on the road to Ponte Vecchio, the old San Martino’s parish, the railroad and Casa Giacobbe, first building in the northern part of the town. The battle blazes up around Magenta’s railway station. The Austro-Hungarian army has placed cannons along the railway. Soon they abandon the positions and retreat into the houses to defend the ground, inch by inch. General Espinasse is struck near Casa Giacobbe, but his column and Mac Mahon’s, thanks to a manoeuvre “à tenaille”, go beyond the railway’s ballast and attack the enemy trenched in the village. Casa Giacobbe is conquered by Espinasse’s Zouaves that, to vindicate their commander, do not take prisoners, and instead kill the hundred Kaiserjäger that were garrisoning it. By dusk the Bersaglieri of General Manfredo Fanti’s division and the battery of Piedmontese’s artillery of General Durando join the troops to cover the left ally’s flank and participate to rounding-up operations in the built-up area. Gyulaj understands he has lost the match and draws back planning a counter-attack that will not occur. On 4th July, in the evening, after the successful battle, Emperor Napoleon III appoints Mac Mahon Marshall of France and Duke of Magenta. At night Hapsburg army quickly abandons Milan with wagons and trains. From the various town barracks up to Castello Sforzesco fortress orders go to and fro to destroy material and weapons, to avoid letting them in the hands of the French-Sardinian army. On 8th June 1859 while in Melegnano the Allies defeat the Imperial Army again, Napoleon III, Emperor of France, and Vittorio Emanuele II, King of Sardinia, enter in Milan, parading under the Arc of Peace, at Corso Sempione, preceded by Marshall Mac Mahon, who lead Magenta’s winners. At the beginning, in Magenta, the French-Sardinian Army set on the battlefield 58.000 soldiers against the 62.000 of the Royal Imperial Austrian Army. The French losses that day amounted to 4.500 units, while 10.000 Austrian soldiers were out of action. The battle of Magenta that allowed to free Milan and Lombardy marked the beginning of the process toward the final unification of Italy. On 24th June history moved to the hills of Solferino and on 11th July to Villafranca, nearby Verona, where Napoleon III and Franz Joseph met to sign the armistice that marked the end of the Second Independence War of Italy.

 

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