The Battle of Solferino

Pictured - Arley Hall Gardens


The Battle of Solferino - A short history in the context of Italian unification 1815 - 1870

picHaving some knowledge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the influence of the Habsburgs on European history, I was interested to hear Joseph Roth’s novel “The Radetzky March” being reviewed recently on radio four, and when I later heard it referred to as Jeremy Paxman’s favourite book, I decided I had to read it. The book follows the fortunes of three generations of a Slovenian family, the Trottas as they mirror those of the Empire from the glory days through to its gradual decline and final demise in 1918. After the grandfather’s heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 saving the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph I, he is elevated to high office within the state and continues loyally to serve and enjoy the Emperor’s favour, the ultimate mark of gratitude and a position subsequently passing to his son and grandson. As sometimes happens when following other people’s recommendations, I was a little disappointed with the novel wondering how some of the programme’s contributors could justify their outpourings of praise for such a mediocre read. Needless to say the book was soon gracing the shelves of my local charity shop and I was moving on to Rob Roy, having become keen to try the works of Sir Walter Scott after a visit to the Scottish borders and his former home Abbotsford.

picImagine my surprise however when studying the map of northern Italy in connection with a forthcoming visit to Mantova when I noticed the nearby town of Solferino, could this be true? Having previously thought Solferino to be a fictitious location dreamt up by Joseph Roth I became curious to know more about the place and if a famous battle involving the Habsburgs did take place there. I later discovered that this part of the novel was based on fact and the battle, part of the second Italian war of independence between the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and those of Piedmont Sardinia and their French allies, was the last battle in which the opposing forces were each led by their respective heads of state, Emperor Franz Joseph I, King Victor Emmanuel II and Napoleon III. Featuring almost 300,000 troops the battle resulted in both sides suffering tremendous losses with 40,000 killed or wounded, the Austrian army retreating in defeat and King Victor Emmanuel taking control of Lombardy. Just another step towards the final unification of Italy and anecdotally a key factor in bringing about the inauguration of the Geneva Convention and the founding of the International Red Cross by Henry Dunant. Becoming involved in the aftermath of the battle and being shocked as the surrounding villages were overwhelmed trying to cope with the dead and give aid to the wounded, he published a book in 1861 entitled “Memories of Solferino”. The following timeline gives a little context to the battle of Solferino and the events leading up to it and the subsequent unification of Italy.

1796Napoleon Bonapart invades Italy creating a period of unrest and uncertainty.
1815Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo leads to the Congress of Vienna to arrange a peace settlement and confirm new power bases and borders of the various states.

The important powers taking part were:
Austria with Prince Metternich representing Emperor Francis I;
Prussia, King Frederick William III represented by Prince Hardenbert;
Russia represented by Tsar Alexander I;
Great Britain represented by Viscount Castlereagh and later the duke of Wellington;
Bourbon France took part later with Tallyrand representing Louis XVIII.

Under the settlement Austria is still dominant in Italy but former ruling families are restored to the various states:- Lombardy-Venetia, Modena, Naples-Sicily, Parma, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, and the Papal States. Piedmont-Sardinia absorbs Genoa, Tuscany and Modena are ceded to Austria, Parma is ceded to Marie Louise of France, Naples is restored to the Sicilian Bourbons and the Papal States restored to the Pope.
1820(& 1821 &1830) Nationalist revolutions in some states against a background of general unrest. Key figures in nationalist politics are emerging and include:
Guiseppe Garibaldi 1807 -1882, born in Nice then part of Italy.
Camille Cavour 1810 -1861, born in Turin.
Guiseppe Mazzini 1805 -1872, Born in Genoa.
King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont-Sardinia 1820 -1878, born Turin.
1831Mazzini forms “Young Italy” and inspires Garibaldi to join the cause.
1833Garibaldi sentenced to death for involvement in revolt in Piedmont, flees into exile.
1846Pious IX becomes Pope.
1848Unrest in Sicily, breaks away from Naples. There is revolution in Milan and Venetia declares its independence from Austria. Piedmont declares war on Austria and defeats its army, a temporary victory reversed when Austrian reinforcements arrive. Pope flees to Naples
1849Roman republic founded then falls to French forces in same year.
1850Pope returns to Rome under the protection of French army.
1854Crimean War starts, ends 1856.
1859Orsini plots to assassinate Napoleon III and Austria declares war on Piedmont - Sardinia. NapoleonIII comes to Piedmont’s aid. Austrian army defeated at Magenta and Solferino (24th June) after which Napoleon makes peace and Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont who already rules Piedmont-Sardinia, Savoy and Nice takes control of Lombardy.
1860With the outbreak of revolution in Sicily, Garibaldi takes control after defeating the forces of Naples, later taking control of Naples itself in another victory. King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont invades Papal States, meets Garibaldi at Treano who hands over the south. King Victor Emmanuel also takes over Parma, Modena, Tuscany, Romagna and Naples-Sicily whilst Savoy and Nice are ceded to France.
1861Victor Emmanuel declared King of Italy.
1862Garibaldi leads expedition to Rome is wounded and captured.
1864Italy promises to protect Rome and moves its capital from Turin to Florence.
1866French garrison leaves Rome and war starts between Austria and Prussia, the subsequent “Peace of Prague” sees Venetia ceded to Italy.
1867Garibaldi fails to capture Rome as French forces return.
1870When French forces are defeated in the Franco Prussian war the French garrison leaves Rome to defend France. Napoleon III captured at Sedan and Garibaldi’s forces join France against Prussia. The Italian government captures Rome which then becomes its capital and takes over the Papal States.
1918Italian unification completed when the Austro-Hungarian Empire falls and although a large percentage of the population are German speakers the region of South Tyrol finally becomes part of Italy.

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