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Works of Frederick Engels 1866

Notes on the War in Germany

Written: between June 19 and July 5, 1866;
First published: in The Manchester Guardian, No. 6197, June 28, 1866

The first great battle has been fought, not in Bohemia, but in Italy, and the Quadrilateral has again given the Italians a lesson in strategy. The strength of this famous position, as indeed of all fortified positions of any value, consists, not so much in the high defensive capabilities of its four fortresses, but in their being so grouped in a country with strongly-marked military features that the attacking force is almost always induced, and often compelled, to divide itself and attack on two different points, while the defending force can send its whole combined strength against one of these attacks, crush it by superior numbers, and then turn against the other. The Italian army has been induced to commit this fault. The King stood with eleven divisions on the Mincio, while Cialdini with five divisions faced the Lower Po, near Ponte Lagoscuro and Polesella. An Italian division counts 17 battalions of 700 men each; consequently, Victor Emmanuel would have, with cavalry and artillery, at least 120,000 or 125,000 men, and Cialdini about half that number. While the King crossed the Mincio on the 23d, Cialdini was to cross the Lower Po and act upon the rear of the Austrians; but up to the moment we write, no certain news has arrived of this latter movement having been effected. At all events, the 60,000 men whose presence might, and probably would, have turned the scale on Sunday last at Custozza, cannot, so far, have obtained any advantage at all commensurate to the loss of a great battle.

The Lake of Garda lies encased between two spurs of the Alps, forming, to the south of it, two clusters of hills, between which the Mincio forces its way towards the lagoons of Mantua. Both of these groups form strong military positions; their slopes towards the south overlook the Lombard plain, and command it within gun-range. They are well known in military history. The western group, between Peschiera and Lonato, was the scene of the battles of Castiglione and Lonato in 1796, and of Solferino in 1859; the eastern group, between Peschiera and Verona, was contested during three days in 1848, and again in the battle of last Sunday.

This eastern group of hills slopes down on one side towards the Mincio, where it ends in the plain at Valeggio; on the other side, in a long are, facing south-east, towards the Adige, which it reaches at Bussolengo. It is divided, from north to south, in two about equal portions by a deep ravine, through which flows the rivulet Tione; so that a force advancing from the Mincio will have first to force the passage of the river, and immediately afterwards find itself again arrested by this ravine. On the edge of the slope, facing the plain, and east of the ravine, are the following villages: Custonza, on the southern extremity; further north, in succession, Somma Campagna, Sona, and Santa Giustina. The railway from Peschiera to Verona crosses the hills at Somma Campagna, the high road at Sona.

In 1848, after the Piedmontese had taken Peschiera, they blockaded Mantua and extended their army from beyond that place to Rivoli, on the Lake of Garda, their centre occupying the hills in question. On the 23d July Radetzky advanced with seven brigades from Verona, broke through the centre of this overextended line, and occupied the hills himself. On the 24th and 25th the Piedmontese tried to re-take the position, but were decisively beaten on the 25th, and retreated at once through Milan beyond the Ticino. This first battle of Custozza decided the campaign of 1848.

The telegrams from the Italian headquarters about last Sunday's battle are rather contradictory; but, with the assistance of those from the other side, we get a pretty clear insight into the circumstances under which it was fought. Victor Emmanuel intended his 1st corps (General Durando, four divisions or 68 battalions), to take up a position between Peschiera and Verona, so as to be able to cover a siege of the former place. This position must, of course, be Sona and Somma Campagna. The 2d corps (General Cucchiari, three divisions or 51 battalions) and 3d corps (General Della Rocca, of the same strength as the second) were to cross the Mincio at the same time, to cover the operations of the 1st. The 1st corps must have crossed near or south of Saliongo, and taken the road of the hills at once; the 2d seems to have crossed at Valeggio, and the 3d at Goito, and advanced in the plain. This took place on Saturday the 23d. The Austrian brigade Pulz, which held the outposts on the Mincio, fell slowly back on Verona; and on Sunday, the anniversary of Solferino, the whole of the Austrian army debouched from Verona to meet the enemy. They appear to have arrived in time to occupy the heights of Sona and Somma Campagna, and the eastern edge of the ravine of the Tione before the Italians. The struggle then would principally be fought for the passage of the ravine. At the southern extremity the two corps in the plain could co-operate with the 1st Italian corps in the hills, and thus Custozza fell into their hands. Gradually the Italians in the plain would advance more and more in the direction of Verona, in order to act upon the Austrian flank and rear, and the Austrians would send troops to meet them. Thus the front lines of the two armies, which were originally facing east and west respectively, would wheel round a quarter circle, the Austrians facing south and the Italians north. But, as the hills retreat from Custozza to the north-east, this flank movement of the Italian 2d and 3d corps could not immediately affect the position of their 1st corps in the hills, because it could not be extended far enough without danger to the flanking troops themselves. Thus the Austrians appear merely to have occupied the 2d and 3d corps by troops sufficient to break their first impetus, while they launched every available man upon the 1st corps, and crushed it by superior numbers. They were perfectly successful; the first corps was repulsed, after a gallant struggle, and at last Custozza was stormed by the Austrians. By this, the Italian right wing advanced east and north-east beyond Custozza, appears to have been seriously endangered; consequently a new struggle for the village took place, during which the lost connection must have been restored, and the Austrian advance from Custozza checked, but the place remained in their hands, and the Italians had to re-cross the Mincio the same night.

We give this sketch of the battle, not as a historical account--for which every detail is as yet wanting--but merely as an attempt, map in hand, to reconcile the various telegrams relating to it amongst each other, and with military common sense; and if the telegrams were anything like correct and complete, we feel confident that the general outline of the battle would appear to be not very different from what we have stated.

The Austrians lost about 600 prisoners, the Italians 2,000, and a few guns. This shows the battle to have been a defeat, but no disaster. The forces must have been pretty equally matched, although it is very probable that the Austrians had less troops under fire than their opponents. The Italians have every reason to congratulate themselves that they were not driven back into the Mincio; the position of the 1st corps between that river and the ravine, on a strip of land between two and four miles wide, and a superior enemy in front, must have been one of considerable danger. It was undoubtedly a mistake to send the main body of the troops into the plain; while the commanding heights, the decisive points, were neglected; but the greatest mistake was, as we pointed out before, to divide the army, to leave Cialdini with 60,000 men on the Lower Po, and to attack with the remainder alone. Cialdini could have contributed to a victory before Verona, and then, marching back to the Lower Po, have effected his passage much more easily, if this combined manoeuvre was to be insisted upon at all hazards. As it is, he seems no further advanced than on the first day, and may now have to meet stronger forces than hitherto. The Italians ought, by this time, to know that they have a very tough opponent to deal with. At Solferino, Benedek, with 26,000 Austrians, held the whole Piedmontese army of fully double that number at bay for the whole day, until he was ordered to retreat in consequence of the defeat of the other corps by the French. That Piedmontese army was much superior to the present Italian army; it was better schooled, more homogeneous, and better officered. The present army is but of very recent formation and must suffer from all the disadvantages inherent to such; while the Gustrian army of to-day is much superior to that of 1859. National enthusiasm is a capital thing to work upon, but until disciplined and organised, nobody can win battles with it. Even Garibaldi's "thousand" were not a crowd of mere enthusiasts, they were drilled men who had learnt to obey orders and to face powder and shot in 1859. It is to be hoped that the staff of the Italian army, for their own good, will refrain from taking liberties with an army which, if numerically inferior, is intrinsically superior to theirs, and, moreover, holds one of the strongest positions in Europe.