Home   Genealogy   Forums   Search   Contact
MHO Home
MHO Home
 17th Century
 18th Century
 19th Century
 American Civil War
 World War I
 World War II
 20th - 21st Century

 Write for MHO
 Search MHO
 Civil War Genealogy Database
 Privacy Policy

19th Century Sections
MHO Home
 19th Century Home

19th Century Articles
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Ads by Google

The French Campaign of 1859 
The French Campaign of 1859
by Dr. Patrick Marder

Despite its possibilities and perspectives, the practical heritage of the Crimean War for the French Army was a meager one. The Historique of the artillery service admitted openly in 1858 that "the fusil d'infanterie [the smoothbore musket] has rendered little or no service "; which is quite a strong statement when one remembers that this weapon equipped 83% of French forces in the Crimea.[1] Essentially then, an overwhelming proportion of French infantry—the men of the line regiments—made little direct military contribution to combat, surrendering the decisive battle role to the elite forces of the Zouaves, Turcos, Chasseurs, equipped with rifled arms and fighting in the light infantry order.

And while the usefulness of rifled arms had been recognized, this understanding did not translate into any significant tactical evolution; more perniciously, the idea that success depended on the spirit and élan of offensive charges continued to flourish. Strategically also, there seems to have been no comprehension of what spiraling technological progress in weapons represented. The experience of Africa—much longer and extensive than the war in the Crimea—still upheld audacity, courage, and autonomy, more than weaponry, as the decisive ingredients to victory.

1859: In the footsteps of Bonaparte

If the Crimean War did little to develop French tactics and armament, this conflict was nonetheless rich in consequences in other areas. Perhaps one of the most evident was the final rupture of the system of 1815 and the return of France as the diplomatic hub of Europe. Less obvious but no less important, was the emergence of a new tactical and strategic tendency in military affairs. This tendency was developing, gaining in strength with each passing year, with each new war. While the accidents and incidents of individual wars might veil or syncopate this tendency, this in nowise made it any less real. The preponderance of firepower as the ultimate and decisive factor in combat—unmistakably made clear by the Crimean War—was operating a fundamental shift in the pre-existing tactical and strategic systems; those who persisted in closing their eyes to this truth, continuing to pursue an expansive, adventuristic foreign policy with concepts and means become archaic ran great risks...

The challenge posed by the Italian campaign, at first glance, appeared sizeable. The enemy already occupied the very defensible terrain of Lombardy, a region, the enemy, moreover, in the tradition of Radetsky's 1848 triumphs, must have been perfectly familiar with. Besides this, the French army in 1859 was facing an adversary far better armed than the Russians in 1854: the Austrians were equipped with a rifle more modern and effective than the weapons arming the French infantry.[2]

Nonetheless, France's and Sardinia's victory against Austria in 1859 seemed once again to confirm French military primacy: had not the impetuous men in red pantaloons shown an irresistible offensive force in overthrowing the men of Franz Josef? Behind this brilliant victory, however, were hidden some troubling symptoms.

First, it must be acknowledged that the Austrians were not first-class opponents, either in terms of tactics or armament. Their artillery was outclassed by the French in both type and caliber—Napoleon III's army being equipped with the 12 pounder canon-obusier as well as the new rifled Lahitte 4 pounder just entering service. What is more, the Austrians—apart from the elite Jäger units—suffered from a pronounced penchant for the formalism of drill-ground evolutions and neglected musketry practice as well as real-world tactical movement training.[3] And, just as the British, French, and Russian armies each were oppressed by the sometimes restrictive heritage of a Wellington, Napoleon, or Suvorov, so Franz-Josef's army also appeared burdened by the lingering influence of the Archduke Charles. It was no exaggeration, then, for a German writer to observe in 1856 that

"There is no army in Europe which, in all its physiognomy still displays so many medieval characteristics as the Austrian." [4]

Another weakness was that the Austrian Imperial army naturally reflected the mosaic of nationalities encompassed by the Habsburg dominion; the resulting bouillon of antagonisms—rendered yet more explosive by the bloody incidents of ethnic and class conflict during the revolution and Hungarian revolt of 1848 and 1849—did certainly not accrue moral strength or cohesion to the Empire's regiments.

Strategically, Austria in 1859 lies in an unenviable position: Prussia remains hostile in view of the Olmutz Diktat of 1850 and the underlying rivalry of the two states for German primacy; Russia, too, is not well-disposed towards Vienna: the abandonment and hostile neutrality of Franz-Josef during the Crimean War, all the bitterer after Nicholas I's key aid in 1849 in quelling the Hungarian revolt, still fester as do the conflicting Balkan interests.[5] Finally, there is the Porte, the hereditary enemy of Austria. Austria is literally surrounded by powers who bear her little sympathy, if not outright hostility.

Politically and diplomatically too, Austria entered the campaign with liabilities, self-inflicted in this instance. With England and the other German states already disposed to sympathize with Vienna's cause in view of Napoleon III and Cavour's bellicose maneuvering, it would seemingly have required little skill for Austria to forge a strong political or even military alliance. But this inestimable diplomatic advantage was wasted when, without even consulting his foreign minister, Count Buol, the Emperor Franz-Josef dispatched an ultimatum to the Sardinian capital Turin, demanding immediate demobilization. This intemperate act isolated Austria at the decisive moment: war was now inevitable.

Austria was therefore, for a plethora of reasons, military, political, economic, and geo-strategic, not the most formidable of opponents for French and Piedmontese arms in 1859. Barring an egregious faux pas, the victory of the allies was foreseeable.

As we earlier noted, the French conduct of operations in 1859 betrayed several weaknesses, one of which, the incapacity to draw the tactical consequences of the introduction of rifled arms during the Crimean War, concerns us directly.

Napoleon III's proclamation to his troops upon his arrival in Piedmont on 14 May 1859, evidences the uncertainty in French tactical conceptions, even four years after the great battles of the Crimea:

"I do not need to stimulate your ardor, each stage recalls a victory, in passing through Mondovi, Marengo, Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola, Rivoli, you march in a sacred path, amid these glorious memories...
Retain the strict discipline that is the pride of the Army...In battle, remain closed-up and do not abandon your ranks to run forward. Avoid too great an élan : that is the only thing I fear. The many arms of precision are only dangerous from afar; they will not prevent the bayonet from being, as it was before, the terrible arm of the French infantry..."

This proclamation merits consideration. Three elements are of primary importance: the allusion to the Napoleonic example, the injunction to remain "closed-up", and the minimization of the effectiveness of rifled arms at short and medium range.

Right away, it is quite significant that the allusion to the Italian victories of the French army under the command of his illustrious uncle is more than symbolic: Napoleon III insists that the bayonet will be "as it was before " the terrible arm; clearly then, we are dealing here not with a mere evocation or romantic flourish, but with the recommendation of a real tactical mode.[7]

In enjoining his troops to retain a compact, dense formation, the Emperor is again returning to the past. It is the old fear of having the troops disperse and become unmanageable, uncontrollable if formed in deployed lines or skirmishing formation.

Finally, and, from our point of view, the most curious, is this phrase on the ineffectiveness of rifled arms. It is manifestly false, and it is difficult to believe that its falsity was not obvious to the Emperor, who fancied himself something of an expert in these military-technical matters. It is true that unpracticed or raw troops did often fire too high, overestimating the distance on their sights. But to deduce from such special, and easily remedied, cases that rifled arms are "only dangerous from afar " is a gross and fatal error. By hundreds of trials in dozens of countries for twenty years before 1859, it had been clearly and indisputably proven that the precision of rifled arms (and even smoothbore arms for that matter) increases as range decreases. At distances of 200 meters or less, these weapons can achieve hit percentages exceeding 90%. Not only is their precision higher at these short ranges, but also their penetrative power, stopping power, and overall lethality. Common sense, many trials, ballistic theory, and, most of all, the first-hand experience of combat in the Crimea left no doubt: rifled arms, precision arms, are extremely deadly at short or medium range. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon III's remarks provoked some discussion within the ranks at this time.[8]

So, how are we to explain Napoleon III's exhortations? It might be that he had been convinced by the claims of some contemporary conservative military thinkers like Colonel Laure, who believed that rifle fire was no more effective than musket fire under three hundred meters and that the use of movable sights was beyond the skill of the average soldier.[9] We find it more credible, however, that behind this devaluation of rifled arms was the fear that a true appreciation by rank and file of the firepower of the new weapons might put a brake on the French troop's renowned élan, causing them to hesitate charging the enemy and instead engage in desultory, inconclusive long-range firefights. With the unfriendly stance of Prussia and Britain towards his adventurism, Napoleon III had all the more incentive to arrive to a military decision as quickly as possible. And, in order to obtain a quick military resolution of the campaign, resolute offensive action was necessary. In the opinion of Lieutenant Lacapelle—an eminently qualified officer in the gunnery and small arms specialties—the Emperor's proclamation is to be seen in this light:

"Napoleon III knew to whom he spoke; he spoke also to derive the greatest advantage from the quality of his soldiers under the circumstances of our armament; he knew the Austrians to be indifferently solid, ill-armed although far less than we. He was right to speak thus, he could not have spoken any differently in a proclamation at the outset of a campaign...but these words still prove nothing. He would certainly not repeat them today on the eve of a new campaign." [Lacapelle was writing this around 1867-1868] [10]

In our study of the campaign of 1859 we will focus our attention on four battles: Montebello, Magenta, Melegnano (also referred to as "Marignan" in some French texts), and Solférino. All were presented as French victories (the limited Sardinian forces of king Victor-Emmanuel played a marginal role ). And while it is true that in all three instances the French remained in possession of the field of battle, the real issue of these victories was quite equivocal, even pyrrhic. It is important to note that this hallmark of the battles in Lombardy in 1859 was an essential consequence of the use of rifled arms in combat. Contrary to the situation in the Crimea, the French were fighting an adversary who, as Napoleon III stated in his proclamation, was armed with rifles. There was little chance, then, of big victories at a low price as had been the case at the battles of the Alma and Inkerman; for the French in 1859 the tactical reality had shifted: without a significant advantage—indeed, a clear disadvantage—in small arms, the conditions of material superiority had to be sought elsewhere.

One thing remained certain: in 1859 France no longer possesses the material superiority of rifled arms. Would this important difference have an influence on combat and tactical development?

MONTEBELLO—20 May 1859

Having wasted the strategic opportunity of a pre-emptive offensive on a numerically and qualitatively weaker Sardinian army before the arrival of French forces via the Alps pass of Mont Cenis and the port of Genoa, the Austrian army belatedly dispatched a strong reconnaissance force consisting of IX corps and elements of V corps under Stadion from Vaccariza, across the Po, in the direction of Voghera.

Stadion's exploratory corps, forming the left flank of Feldzeugmeister Count Gyulay's army numbered two divisions, totalling some 24,000-28,000 troops (24 infantry batallions, 9 cavalry squadrons, and 8 artillery batteries numbering 60 pieces). It marched in a south-westerly direction in three columns. In the path of the Austrians were the French and Sardinians, the latter represented by a light cavalry brigade, the French comporting the division of Forey ca. 8,000 troops (13 infantry batallions, 1 cavalry squadron, and 2 artillery batteries), disposed with the brigade of Blanchard on the left and the brigade of Beuret on the right.

The battleground around Montebello was a varied one: criss-crossed with many irrigation channels, fertile orchards alternated with forested patches and were interspersed with small villages nestled in the Apennine foothills overlooking the Voghera-Stradella railroad line and highway.

Initially, Count Stadion's incursion went well and fast: his columns encountered undefended villages and swept forward along a seven kilometer front, leaving behind garrisons in the towns it traversed. It was only as the left or southern column under Feldmarschalleutnant Urban arrived at Casteggio that it ‘bumped' the Sardinian calvary outposts. Undeterred, the Austrians moved forward, pushing the Sardinian cavalry, despite repeated charges, a little more than 1 kilometer back through Montebello, to the village of Genestrello.

Here the French appeared, General Forey hastily assembling four batallions and immediately throwing them into a general counter-attack. With insufficient force and lacking significant artillery support Forey's attack predictably made little headway, especially once the Austrian 3rd Jäger counter-attacked.

Nevertheless, Forey's initially dispersed forces were now rapidly converging: the brigade Blanchard deployed along both sides of the Strada Ferrata and with the brigade Beuret (consisting of the 74th and 84th line infantry and the 17th chasseurs à pied ) on its right launched a renewed attack on Genestrello. Maneuvering effectively and concentrically on the Austrian positions, Forey's batallions, after a see-sawing contest successively disloged Urban's troops from Genestrello and Montebello in embittered house-to-house fighting. With either side too exhausted to pursue or counter-attack, the Austrians withdrew. The battle was over, and with only 700 casualties to the Austrians' 1,400, the victory had gone to the Franco-Sardinians.

Despite the equally confident communiqués released by the belligerents in the wake of Montebello, there was little tactical brilliance to be found on either side. Clearly, the Austrians had bungled matters badly, never putting to use their numerical superiority—half their forces never took an active role in combat, and only 16 of their 60 artillery pieces. And, aside from the Jäger, the tactical formation of the Austrian line infantry in their two-company front columns (Divisionsmassen ) failed to make much use of their better rifles.

Forey, on the other hand, had employed the meager resources at his disposal with much greater, indeed perhaps too much, dynamism. Tactically, this offensive effervescence had led to disproportionately heavy losses in cadres. But operationally, the boldness and confidence shown by Forey paid dividends, as the Austrians overestimated the French strength, believing a entire corps to be at Voghera and mistakenly concluding that here lay the enemy's strategic ‘center of gravity.'

But they were disturbing, if latent, symptoms to be seen in the French operational handling of the battle as well. While individual units had shown great initiative—notably the 1st battalion of the 93rd regiment of Autemarre's division, which double-marched 30 kilometers to the sound of the canon before joining the Blanchard brigade's flank attack—other units and commanders, notably Baraguey d'Hilliers 2nd division, remained complacent when their participation could have transformed an Austrian rebuff into an Austrian rout.

MAGENTA—4 June 1859

The first great battle of the campaign of 1859, the battle of Magenta offers nothing of particular brilliance to the eye of the military critic: it is a very disconnected clash, envisaged neither by the French, nor the Austrians. Napoleon III planned to outflank Austrian positions at Magenta by maneuvering the 2nd Corps of General Mac Mahon on the left bank of the Ticino while another grouping, consisting of the Imperial Guard and the 3rd and 4th Corps of Niel and Canrobert, crossed the Ticino further south. Major contact with enemy forces was not anticipated before the morrow of the operation. French staff officers appeared convinced that the Austrians would docilely await the closing of Napoleon III's pincer movement.

But again, destiny winks; the Austrians, independent of Napoleon III movement, have already decided to withdraw towards the north-east. They are, however, even slower in retreating as Mac-Mahon is in advancing: on the morning of June 4, the 2nd Corps begins to encounter stiffening resistance. As a result, the coordinated movement on Magenta by the two French army groups falls apart. Only Mac-Mahon's final breakthrough from the north tant bien que mal , finishes by dislocating the Austrian position. The French army is victorious but mainly through the velour of its soldiery and the lackluster performance of the opposing commander, Graf Giulay. Operationally, the battle is marked by troubling errors in communication, coordination and concentration. Tactically, the familiar method of bayonet shock tactics, essentially similar to those employed a half-century earlier, are continued without any regard for the possibilities offered by the rifled arms now equipping the infantry, nor the hazards posed by the deadly fire of the small-caliber high-velocity Lorenz of the Austrians which struck French officers particularly hard.

Admittedly, the type of terrain encountered at Magenta was not without influence on the battle and on the character of the combat. The fertile land bore a certain resemblance to the densely cultivated bocage country encountered in Normandy. As the official Prussian history of the war, published under the supervision of von Moltke, states: "The region is particularly covered; the view only rarely goes further than one field or prairie of four hundred or six hundred square feet. Outside of the paths, troop movements are extremely difficult, even impossible." [11]

But French tactics did little to exploit either the possibilities of the terrain or of its new weaponry. The tactical formations of infantry reflect the disregard of firepower as the decisive combat factor. A sub-lieutenant of the 45th line infantry regiment, part of the first division of Mac-Mahon's 2nd Corps sets the scene: an advance of a line of battalions in column each preceded by a company of skirmishers some 100 meters in advance.[12] In the second division of the same Corps, the dispositions are the same and combat is engaged at the shortest range:

"We were in column by platoons at section distance; we advanced in echelons, with the second battalion a little bit back, a company of skirmishers in front...Reaching within 150 meters of the Austrians, one could distinctly see wavering in their lines; the first ranks were throwing themselves back on the rear ranks." [13]

The Austrians, it is true, do not themselves present a more adapted tactical conception or practice:

"...the regiment was disposed in column by battalions closed up; it had not thought to cover itself with skirmishers and could at that moment only furnish a rather limited volume of fire, its first ranks fired by platoons, followed immediately by fire at will." [14]

Perhaps this was only an incidental, unrepresentative instance—though not to cover the infantry battalions with a chain of skirmishers, not to reconnoiter the terrain in so lushly planted a section as this corner of Lombardy seems an unpardonable error—but one thing is certain: this type of tactical ineptitude contributed notably to French successes and in this case, as in others, the Austrian regiment was forced to withdraw pell-mell. French élan was apparently irresistible, the Emperor's grandiloquence vindicated. But not all were duped by appearances:

"My opinion is, that at Magenta, we were very lucky; the overgrown terrain in which we fought favored us...I do not believe we would have succeeded as well in open country. In the taking of the cannon, the Austrians were taken by surprise; they seemed stunned; those we took prisoner still held their weapons and did not surrender them or make use of them. It was an attack "à la Zouave" which, when it succeeds, produces astonishing results, but if one is unlucky it sometimes costs dear..." [15]

Ardant du Picq correctly points out the key weakness in the tactical "method" of the rushing bayonet attack exemplified by the Zouave: "when it succeeds" ; the country consisted of densely planted orchards and groves, the enemy did not dispose of deep or wide fields of fire, he may not in many cases have had much familiarity with his weapons; thus, a well-timed impetuous assault could succeed—especially against Austrian units of indifferent quality.

But in other sectors of the Magenta battle less favorable to the employment of the bayonet rush, the tactical methods of the French nevertheless remained the same. General Lebrun describes the formation of the 15th line infantry regiment and the Tirailleurs Algériens during the assault of Robechetto: " close column 300 meters from the village. The Tirailleurs Algeriens moves its battalions in double columns at section intervals." [16]

There is no deployment, simply a mad rush forwards to engage hand-to-hand combat:
"The Austrians, hidden in great numbers behind the hedges and strongly entrenched at the entry of the village greeted with a lively fire the heads of the French battalion columns; but these hardly responded to the fire; they rushed towards the hedges with the bayonet only." [17]

Until this stage the troops of Mac-Mahon's 2nd Corps had benefited from surprise and from the application of superior numbers on isolated local knots of resistance, but with the attack now driving directly south against Magenta, the Austrian positions are increasingly difficult to overrun or outflank, even with all the audacity and courage these veterans mustered. Finally, along the railroad line running north of the Magenta outskirts, the 2nd Corps is confronted with a solid line of resistance:

"The line of skirmishers which was opposed to it was very dense...formed with men standing elbow to elbow and sheltered by the ditch. Two paces behind it, a line of soldiers just as numerous was exclusively employed in loading and passing weapons to those of the skirmishers who had just fired, so that the gunfire did not stop." [18]

On the right wing of the French army the first division of the Imperial Guard of general Mellinet forces the crossing of the Ticino at Ponte Nuovo in a movement that theoretically should have been coordinated with Mac-Mahon's advance. But the 2nd Corps is still distant, and the Austrians can at their leisure concentrate their forces and reinforcements on Mellinet. Bitter attacks and counter-attacks swirl around the bridges and banks of the Ticino and the canal, the Naviglio Grande, that runs parallel to it. Mellinet only just avoids a glorious end with two horses killed under him, Brigadier Cler—a veteran officer of the Crimea—is mortally wounded; commanders of the Guard Desmé and Maudhuy are killed, General Wimpffen is wounded, and more than two hundred of the Zouaves are hors de combat as well.

Breaching the perimeter defences north of Magenta along the railroad, the railroad station and a line of fortified houses is equally costly to the 2nd Corps. Divisional General Espinasse, another decorated veteran of the Crimea, is killed by the Tyrolean Jägers, charging at the head of his troops. His aide-de-camp suffers the same fate; Colonels Drouhot of the 65th line regiment and de Chabrière of the 2nd Légion Étrangère are also killed...

Another troubling phenomenon at Magenta: the imperfect use of artillery by the French. Indeed, the new rifled cannon were very promising. The Lahitte four pounder enjoys a marked superiority over the cannon equipping the Austrians; an advantage quite as definite as that of rifled small arms compared to smoothbore muskets. At 1500 meters, the Lahitte four pounder achieves average horizontal deviations of 1.9 meters while the smoothbores typically have horizontal deviations exceeding 5 meters at a range of only 1200 meters. The practical implications of the superior range and accuracy of the rifled artillery are telling: if a smoothbore twelve pounder was able to hit a company front-sized target one in four times at 1200 meters, a Lahitte rifled four pounder could hit it four out of four times. Even at 3000 meters—a range that smoothbore artillery cannot reach—the Lahitte four pounder maintains a mean horizontal deviation of less than 5 meters. Beyond this, the little Lahitte four pounder, thanks to the use of elongated projectiles rather than conventional cannonballs, has a throw-weight nearly equal (4 kg as opposed to 4.13 kg) to that of the smoothbore twelve pounder whose overall weight is more than twice that of the rifled piece (700 kg as opposed to 1550 kg).

But the formidable potential of the Lahitte rifled four pounder was oddly put to use at Magenta. At the engagements near Ponte Nuovo and the Naviglio several of the precious guns are overrun by the Austrians, one of them even captured by the Tyrolean sharpshooter regiment, the Kaiserjäger. Given that the bridgehead established here by the 1st Corps was quite shallow, the placing of artillery pieces ranging up two three kilometers in such an exposed position is difficult to understand. Moreover, the use of rifled artillery in a close support role is doubly faulty: firstly by the limited dispersion of case shot such pieces naturally offer due to the very fact of their straight shooting and, secondly, by the vulnerability of crew and draught horses before an enemy disposing of quite effective rifled small arms (a lesson already demonstrated at the battles of the Alma and Inkerman).

The final costs of the battle of Magenta were of 657 killed and 3,858 wounded and missing for the French, and 1,368 killed, 4,538 wounded, and 4500 prisoners for the Austrians. Compared to the battle of the Alma, total French losses are proportionately twice as heavy; in killed they are three times as heavy—against an enemy morally less solid than the Russians. The difference between the losses is attributable to the effect of the deadly fire of the Austrian rifles : no modification in French tactics has taken place, and the potential advantage offered by the Lahitte rifled artillery has been largely thrown away—the gun crews are unfamiliar with their new field-pieces. Mostly one sees the repeated us of swarming rushes with the bayonet. But to employ this method in all situations, especially in confined areas like the attack of bridgeheads, entrenchments, or fortified houses is an invitation to cruel losses, especially as regards leaders. Ultimately, in the culminating phase of the assault on Magenta proper, it is rather the contribution of General Auger's concentrated artillery fire in conjunction with a turning movement led by Vinoy's division against the western side of the city, held only by three Austrian regiments (compared to nine aligned against Espinasse on the north) that is decisive. Unfortunately, it is neither the turning movement nor the concentrated artillery support that fixate contemporary attention:

"[the troops] have shown an astonishing superiority, it is the excess of courage and of valour, which does not know any obstacle. Vigor and audacity in the attack have sufficed to surmount difficulties and ensure victory."

Extracting such conclusions from the battle of Magenta was exceedingly dangerous. As we have seen, it was a turning movement, concentrated artillery support, in addition to numerical superiority on the key axes, capitalizing on the passivity of Austrian generalship that decided the affair. But, in future, could one continue to rely on such a convenient incompetence from the enemy's commanders? Such a prodigality with the lives of decorated, irreplaceable veteran troops and leaders was it prudent?


In the annals of the French army, the battle of Melegnano is often remembered for a signal example of operational uncoordination between the 1st Corps of Marshal Baraguay d'Hilliers and the 2nd Corps of Mac-Mahon. The bungled attempt to trap an isolated Austrian rearguard cost the French army an altogether disproportionate number of soldiers. This last fact is all the more significant from our perspective for, as we will see, these heavy losses are once again the direct consequence of poor tactics, tactics fundamentally unadapted to the improvements in small arms during and since the Crimean War.

Perhaps stung by his limited contribution to the battle of Magenta, Baraguay d'Hilliers did not wait for Mac-Mahon's 2nd Corps to close up on Melegnano; he launches the Zouave and the 33rd line infantry regiment directly into the assault with minimal artillery support. The Austrians, however, with the brigades Roden and Boer of the 8th Corps of General Benedek, are heavily entrenched and barricaded in the houses, walls, and cellars of the little medieval town. Here again, the French "discover" that rifled arms, are redoubtable from near or from afar:

"...death hidden inside houses, waiting in ambush behind windows or crenellated walls, hitting our soldiers with a sure and invisible hand...a lush vegetation covers marvelously the soldiers in ambush; vines are enlaced about trees which stretch forth their heavily leaved branches. These places hide numerous defenders." [19]

The small caliber high velocity Lorenz rifles of the Austrians shoot very well; now it is the turn of the French officers to discover as their Russian colleagues had in the Crimea the deadliness of aimed fire. A Colonel Ivoy, impressed by the intensity of the Austrian fire and suggesting that the 2nd Corps be awaited for a coordinated assault, received from d'Hilliers the lapidary retort: "Would you be afraid?" [20]

Ivoy is shortly thereafter shot dead with a bullet through the head—another bullet killing his horse at the same instant; thirty more officers from his regiment, the 1st Zouaves also becoming casualties. Captain Beaufort of the 10th Chasseurs, hit twice, is also killed. The intensity and accuracy of the small-arms fire is deadlier than that encountered in the Crimea, where the Russians did not dispose of many, nor of the best rifles (mainly clumsy, slow-shooting used-up two-groove rifles of the Brunswick type in vogue in the 1840s). Charles Duban, veteran of the trenches of Sevastopol whom the bullets of the Russian Plastoun had more than once buzzed, was awed by the redoubling of firepower he witnessed at Melegnano, which already became quite dangerous at 700 and 800 meters. A bullet from a Lorenz rifle went right through both his legs.[21]

Vicious house-to-house fighting would continue in Melegnano and the Castel di Melegnano until nightfall. The 2nd Corps was not to arrive in time, and the remaining Austrian forces were able to withdraw in good order. French losses are not commensurate with the gain of a city already conceded by the enemy: a total of 948 hors de combat, of whom 71 officers.


The battle of Solferino, culminating engagement of the Italian Campaign of 1859 would recapitulate on a grand scale the tactical and operational inconsistencies already observed during the struggles at Magenta and Melegnano—blind offensive rushes with the bayonet in vulnerable masses, insufficient concentration and maneuver of artillery fire, lethal visibility of officers. The attacks are too often uncoordinated, escaping the control of the officers; everything is staked on the offensive, on the sheer bravery of the elite battalions. Reserves are rushed into attack piecemeal and almost immediately: this was a soldier's battle—like Alma and Inkerman—won by the rankers, not the generals. The massive frontal attacks in line of column seen on the left wing and center of the Allies took no account of the massive progress that had been made in small arms since the end of the Napoleonic wars, nearly fifty years earlier. The new capacities offered by the Lahitte rifled cannon are once again, unexploited.

In fact, we see at Solferino the same tactical forms and methods of an era that ended at Waterloo, in 1815, perpetuated, in spite of the fact that weapons had undergone a quantum leap in performance. And even if this were not enough, we see the tactical forms and methods of the Napoleonic era applied without a shadow of the dexterity and understanding that animated their employment by the better generals of the old school.

This massive clash, just as the battle of the Alma, demonstrates a fundamental lack of reconnaissance and organization. To begin with, the French Emperor and the coterie of officers that passed for his staff, did not in the least expect a clash at this place and time. They believed that Franz-Josef had already retreated farther to the north-east, beyond the Mincio to prepare a defense of Venetia. In fact, Franz-Josef had begun such a withdrawal, only to reverse it suddenly, and re-occupy the heights of Solferino—a familiar location to the Austrians who often went on maneuvers in the area.

The forces on either side are quite large: six army corps totaling some 150,000 men and 300 cannon for the Franco-Sardinians, and seven army corps with 160,000 men and 800 cannon for the Austrians. The battle front, running in an arc from the Lago de Garda to Mantua, is saturated. In the early hours of the 24th of June 1859, the armies of Franz-Josef, Napoleon III, and Victor-Emmanuel collide head-on. The offensive fixation, accompanied with operational impatience was to produce a blind shock of the bloodiest kind; while their superior officers were to rivalize in inertia and lack of imagination, the soldiers of all sides were to rivalize in bravery. The old, antiquated tactical habits of mass and shock, of exposure in the teeth of the powerful new rifle-entrenchment duality, are once again the order of the day:

"The column, moving straight ahead towards its objective, was greeted by gunfire and case shot so deadly coming from the cemetery, the castle, the walls of exterior gardens and houses, that it was soon forced to withdraw with heavy losses, without having been able to seriously approach La Rocca." [22]

Confronted with the pitiless precision of Austrian shooters sheltered in echeloned entrenchments, the French skirmishers and elite troops do their best to minimize their vulnerability:

"The skirmishers advanced methodically; they tried, each time they could, to shelter behind a tree in order to aim with care and fire their shots; then they continued forwards quickly before starting over again farther away." [23]

But the central sector around the height of Solferino offers little shelter to the men of the 45th line infantry regiment and their advance resembles more and more a frantic rush:

"...stopping one instant was impossible without being killed to the last man. We ran on with bayonet fixed..." [24]

The 45th's rush quickly becomes entangled in the Austrian defenses, thankfully, the Tirailleurs Algeriens come up in support. A sub-lieutenant of the 45th recognizes an old comrade from the Crimea:

"But you, get down from your horse, you're there like a target and you can see people are firing at each other at twenty paces.
---Oh! Me, he said smilingly, I haven't a care; I'm used to bullets."

The officer of the Tirailleurs Algeriens falls almost immediately after these words, shot down by an Austrian bullet. Many such brave men made the fatal discovery of the Austrian fire that day; one, a Colonel in the 8th regiment of line infantry of Niel's 4th Corps, one of the most heavily engaged at Solferino:

"He was one of those audacious types, their morale immersed in the waters of the Styx, and who are precious for war, as long as they are not given duty which require a cool head and thoughtfulness." [26]

As at Montebello, Magenta, and Melegnano, few French officers who have the opportunity of seeing the Austrian Jägers at work escape unhurt from the experience:

"I had hardly had time to cover some one hundred and fifty to two hundred meters across the brambleberries, the corn fields with deep furrows, that I caught sight of some men lying on their stomachs on the roof of some kind of porch...instantly bullets are whizzing thickly past my ears." [27]

Staff officer Bourelly is shot in the leg, his horse killed; even wounded, the shots of the Austrian Scharfschütze pursue him for another five minutes. The next morning, his commander, Marshal Canrobert greets him with facetiousness: "Well, Bourelly, it was stinging mighty hard Tuesday eh?"

Materially subjected to the superiority of the Austrian armament, it is through courage and sacrifice of the masses sent to assault the entrenchments of the enemy that one hopes to effect the decisive breakthrough. But the dense and vulnerable columns of the French totter and stagger under the defender's crossfire. Indeed, even the Prussian general staff history of the campaign concedes that the Austrian defensive complex around Solferino was "almost impregnable", noting the "extraordinary strength of the position." [28] It is only after reinforcements arrive and drive against the flanks the Solferino heights, that the 45th line regiment and the Tirailleurs Algériens, attacking the weakening enemy position from three sides and supported by artillery can in turn reap the benefits of the firepower/shelter duality, ravaging the Austrians, submerged, running short of ammunition, and abandoning their trenches:

"They were brave men in whose ranks we rained death in shooting from shelter as much as was possible...they did not flinch."

So triumphed the soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Corps, and the Corps of the Garde Impériale, whose voltigeurs executed the decisive movement. On the right, Niel's 4th Corps, supported by forty artillery pieces of generals Auger and Soleil, with great difficulty withstood the repeated attacks with which the Austrians hoped to gain the day. Finally, the Austrians, with their center broken at Solferino and their left unable to overcome Niel, are compelled to order a general withdrawal. The Allies have won the battle of Solferino.

But it is a pyrrhic victory. The allied armies are exhausted: over eighteen-thousand hors de combat , of whom 720 officers and 12,018 soldiers from the French army. As at Magenta, the potential of the new rifled artillery is imperfectly utilized: General of artillery Auger would pay for this error with his life, mortally wounded by a six-pounder ball lodged in his shoulder.[29] The consequences of this poor utilization of the artillery, however, did not restrict himself to the unhappy general as the dispatch of the Morning Post's correspondent, dated 24 June 1859 makes clear:

"The artillery of the Guard has lost a very great part of its officers, as they were engaged at half a musket shot, and the Tyrolean sharpshooters who are exceedingly able, shot down the officers at their guns. For this reason the losses have been very severe."

Aside from the effects of the artillery, it is the rifled small arms that have caused the most casualties; even when their bullets do not kill instantly, the wounds inflicted are so serious that they most often turn out to be fatal: "The impact of the cylindrical bullets makes the bones shatter in all directions, so that the resulting wounds are always very grave; shell fragments and conical bullets also produce extremely painful fractures and internal ravages that are often terrible." [30] Austrian losses are also quite heavy; more than nineteen thousand. When one considers that Canrobert's 3rd Corps only took a quite limited part in the engagement, it becomes clear that total French situate themselves above 16%, much higher again than the level seen at the battles of the Alma, Inkerman, or Tchernaïa.

Another troubling aspect of the battle—similar to, but on a larger scale, the lack of coordination previously seen between french units at Melegnano—is the poor teamwork of the Canrobert's 3rd Corps with Niel's. In Niel's view, Canrobert, absorbed by a non-existent threat to his flank, was remiss in lending assistance to his neighbor's hard-pressed troops. The bitterness that developed from this episode grew to such proportions that it was only the Emperor's direct intervention that prevented a duel between his two overwrought marshalls. Whatever the merit of the conflicting claims of Niel and Canrobert, the incident did not bode well for operational harmony in the french army—a presage that was to be fully borne out in 1870…

While the bulletins of the Franco-Sardinian allies are quick to trumpet the glorious victory, not all in the army are blinded by this "brilliant" victory or the miraculous tactic of the furia francese . Such defects in execution and elementary military duties like reconnaissance finally make themselves obvious to the French high command, as evidenced by the general order issued on 6 July 1859 which attempts to articulate the basic tactical method:

"As soon as the enemy appears, artillery fire will be commenced. The lines of infantry will be deployed when terrain permits, alternately in deployed battalions and in battalions formed in double columns. Useless musketry will be avoided, and while battalions make a fire of files, the other will beat the charge and engage the enemy with the bayonet."

The dispositions taken by the Division Renault on the morrow of the general order, during the final hours of the war preceding the armistice of July 8, reflect the high command's desire to systematize tactics.[31] The infantry is deployed in two principal lines, the first of deployed battalions, the second line standing 200 to 300 meters behind the first in battalion double columns. An avant-garde made up of two battalions occupies farms located some 500 meters in front of the first line, and the reserves are placed 300 to 400 meters behind the second line. The artillery is situated in the battalion intervals.

These dispositions offer nothing revolutionary, which makes it all the more surprising and revealing that it was still judged important enough to make their specification a general order; manifestly the debilitating cumulative effect of the bloody victories achieved via the attacks à la Zouave required an urgent revision, especially after Solferino, where the elite light infantry units—the real spearhead of the French army—had been seriously weakened. It is curious, though, that the high command chose the end of a campaign to cross the Ts, as a contemporary staff officer notes dryly on the general order of July 7th: "This is the only time, we believe, that one has specified, during this whole campaign, precise tactical rules for combat." [32]

The Emperor while reviewing his troops appears worried and preoccupied. This concern is unsurprising: with many of his best leaders killed or wounded and the looming menace of a German intervention on the Rhine, Napoleon III has reason to be worried. Without the elite battalions, the Guard, the veterans of Sevastopol with their rifled carabines and muskets firing effective munitions, the rump of the army, poorly armed with the "bayonet handle" converted muskets and firing the unstable M1857 bullet, is in many ways the concretization of what Ardant du Picq contemptuously referred to a "flock of sheep":

"The old soldiers and non-commissioned officers of the Imperial Guard, those of the Algerian regiments and of the Lyons garrison trained at the Marshal de Castellane's school gave the army a certain solidity; it presented nevertheless different types of weakness and laxity stemming from diverse causes. Unfortunately for the Army and for France, military science was less and less cultivated. Not only were Napoleonic tactics no longer current, but no tactical doctrine held practical day-to-day doctrine of this type existed." [33]

This hidden perspective provides another level of understanding to the suddenness of the peace of Villafranca putting an end to the hostilities of 1859. Under the pressure of combat the fissures and fractures that underlie the gold-leaf grandeur of the Second Empire's military basis are opening up: a weakness all at once material, operational, conceptual, political, and moral.

THE LESSONS OF 1859: An Avalanche of Bayonets?

What lessons would French commanders retain from the Italian Campaign of 1859? For too many, it was merely only a ringing confirmation of the mythic furia francese, the all-out tactical offensive as the ultimate military panacea:

"As for the French tactic, it is characterized with all its brilliant attributes of élan, aggression, rapidity, concentration, etc., from the beginning of the engagement of Montebello, and conserves its maximal initial intensity up until the end of the campaign." [34]

The author pursues his reflections:

"Let us note only the immense superiority of the offensive on the defensive. At Montebello, 16.000 Austrians attack 4.000 French. General Forey goes on the offensive, and the Austrian general beats a retreat, convinced he is dealing with 40,000. On the Naviglio, the 1st division of the Guard, defeated six times, holds out against forces four times as strong. At Solferino, the first Austrian advance (Wimpffen), of six divisions, retreats faced by a French Corps of only three divisions, and thinks its confronted by superior forces.
The offensive always, the offensive anyway! The offensive must all the more be identified with us, as our future adversaries will not confine themselves to a simple defense, as in the Campaign of Italy."

Baron Bazancourt, official chronicler of the war in the Crimea, sees similarly in the Italian battles the brilliant reaffirmation of French military superiority, a superiority more moral and mystical rather than physical and material:

"You ask why the French army has this indomitable élan, this energy that nothing can stop; you ask why our battalions throw themselves under fire, cross all obstacles, and go find, unto the very muzzles of the cannons, death or victory; you ask why nothing resists them, not walls of stone, nor walls of iron.—The secret, here you are; it is that from the sub-lieutenant to the Marshal, all audaciously bet their lives without looking on the terrible green felt of the field of battle.
Thoughtless courage often, foolish sometimes, heroic always, which makes the indomitable force of the masses."

Doubtless, there were some brilliant actions where the French bayonet struck some hard blows. At Montebello, a sergeant from the 98th regiment and a voltigeur from the 74th had bayonetted and killed Austrian officers—one of them on horseback. But for some to extrapolate from such heroic—and singular---actions a new tactic was rash in the extreme.

A widely circulated account of the campaign published serially in France under the auspices of the leading establishment journal Le Siècle, translates the same complacent sentiment of french military self-satisfaction, a sentiment which light-heartedly elevated the débrouillardise of its troopers to the status of a science:

"The conditions of war have changed. Previously leaders prepared their battle-plans, they sought and evaded one another and then, after protracted groping, they ended up encountering one another at a well-chosen location…Now…there no longer are any strategic schemes which can hold up against the unknown. Precision arms prevent combat according to set formulas. One charges with the bayonet after an initial fire, and the cannon are taken before they can reload…One need only be impetuous: it is a question of temperament and individual bravery." [37]

For many both in France and abroad, the Italian Campaign of 1859 seemed to even more gild the laurels of French arms. Indeed, the echoes of France's lightning victories often resounded even more outside of the Second Empire—conveniently far from the more sobering reality of the events. Even among the Prussians, the deeds of the French in Lombardy captured the attention and, among a few, caused, or rather, reanimated—for the Dreyse needle-gun and its associated fire tactics had never received unanimous support—doubts on the validity of Prussian tactical concepts which in 1859, before the wars against Denmark and Austria remained firmly in the domain of untested theory.

In the aftermath of the war, a Major Otto publishes a book on the Campaign of 1859, making use of the opportunity to engage a polemical discussion of the Dreyse needle-gun, as well as the on the "weakness" of the Prussian infantry company. The Prussian general staff even goes so far as to dispatch a certain Oberleutnant Ollech to study more closely the French tactics. The Oberleutnant is evidently rapidly converted to the new creed of all-out bayonet shock tactics by his gallic hosts and wastes little time in evangelizing the French ideas upon his return to Prussia. According to Ollech, Prussia absolutely needs to abandon its Frederician model of fire-based tactics if it wishes to avoid defeat in case of war.

But wiser, and much grayer, heads than Ollech's are not so easily seduced by the chimerical French successes in Lombardy. In a letter dated January 5, 1860, addressed to King Wilhelm I, Moltke reiterates his full and unchanged confidence in Prussian fire tactics:

"It is unwise to combat the French on the field of their virtuosity. Because they always attack on the field of battle, we do not need to do so. We can oppose to them a contrary method. We have better small arms and shoot better." [38]

The Prussian therefore, would not hurriedly imitate, as the Austrians, the French tactical "system", much less appropriate the entire French military panoply, as the North and the South were to do during the American Civil War.

Moltke is correct: behind the brilliant appearance of the French successes of 1859 lurks an altogether different truth. We have already alluded to the fundamental weakness of Austria's strategic posture, as well as the traditional ethnic tensions her army suffered from, but the Italian Campaign of 1859 revealed other vulnerabilities and specific conditions which rendered the victory of Napoleon III more than suspect and, with it, any conclusion of French military competence, let alone superiority, very dangerous.

Still, the clairvoyance of the old Prussian general was atypical. The high spirits of all-out bayonet shock tactics seemed to have captivated the zeitgeist; its apostles and glorifiers were no longer limited to salon strategists or tactical pundits, even some participants of the campaign seemed swept up by this patriotic offensive fever:

"But we remembered the terrible weapon of the French infantry, we lunged forward heads bent in the streets of the village, in the middle of the gardens, the orchards; we took the houses by assault, and the bayonet did its destructive handiwork. As at Constantine, as at the Mamelon Vert, as at Malakoff, the officers marched foremost, sword on high, shouting the French word, the word of battles: Forwards! and all resistance was broken." [39]

Despite all this, the success of French tactics—quite nuanced as we have seen—were tributary to very specific conditions and circumstances. To distill from this specificity summary and general conclusions, or comfort oneself in a superb complacence, was as easy as it was dangerous. Even so normally insightful and skeptical an observer as Engels fell victim to this offensive effervescence:

"Luckily the Italian War has shown all who could see, that the fire of modern weapons are, for a battalion that attacks with combative spirit, not so dangerous, and Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia has taken the opportunity to remind his colleagues that a passive defense, even if one is well armed, always leads with certainty to defeat. The direction of military opinion has shifted. One begins again to recognize that people, not small arms must win the battles, and if these new weapons will really bring about a change in tactics, so it will (where terrain permits) bring back a reinforced use of deployed lines, even to an attack in Line which, although Frederick the Great won most of his battles with it, has mostly been forgotten by the Prussian infantry." [40]

We see here again that Engels, as he had in his analysis of the battle of the Alma, situates the tendency of tactical change in the disposition of infantry—the deployed line in this case, as well as its rapid tempo of action, à la Zouave . This amounts to an inversion of cause and effect, for in fact, it is only the use of rifled arms which simultaneously gives deployed troops a new level of offensive power, and renders, by the same token, deployment, dispersal, the rushing tempo, desirable, even obligatory, in view of the enemy's possession of the same deadly type of weapon: the rifle.

Nevertheless, some observers—albeit in the retrospective light of the Seven Week's War-- recognized the dangerous illusion of an all-powerful offensive and the effects it had had during the Campaign of 1859:

"No, it is uncontestable that bayonet charges, which even in olden days did not always succeed, will hardly ever succeed again, even if directed against troops of very common solidity. Thus, even with a less-than perfect armament the Austrians hurt us badly. Their skirmishers killed and wounded our officers and, with the war continuing, the diminution in the numbers of officers left in the line of battle could have had a serious effect on our successes. The 85th, for example, which had had many officers out of action at Magenta fought poorly at Solferino...we have seen the damage that good shots can inflict today on the enemy in firing exclusively on officers." [41]

A remarkable anonymous monograph published in 1868 as the french army painfully and belatedly groped towards a new tactic, sheds interesting light on the supposedly miraculous use of the bayonet in 1859 in Italy and the Crimea. The author's professional credentials are notable: he saw action at the Alma, Inkerman, the Tchernaïa, and all the assault on Sevastopol, and served with the 3rd regiment of zouaves at Palestro, the 3rd regiment of grenadiers at Magenta, and with Trochu's division at Solferino. The distillation made of these experiences with respect to the arme blanche is an unequivocal one: "Well! I don't believe in bayonet combat, in the mass use of edged weapons ." [42] 

As we have seen, for many the victories of 1859 are taken as proof that élan, the offensive incarnated by the shock power of the bayonet still retained its validity on the battlefield, and that the new firepower brought by rifled small arms was overstated, if not even entirely exaggerated. But such conclusions were at least partially erroneous even for Italy in 1859 and, even more important, completely unrepresentative of the general tendency of future tactical development.

To begin with, we can point out that the Austrian small arms, while certainly superior in most respects to those of the French, left much to be desired. In 1859 the Austrian Lorenz rifle, when compared to the rifles equipping the British, Swiss, and even the Russians, is not among the best performing. This mediocre performance on the part of the Austrian weapon was due to a number of factors: design, construction, and employment. Perhaps the single greatest problem that beset the Lorenz rifle was its ammunition: based on the compression principle, its bullets were not able to consistently provide optimum sealing between the interior of the barrel and the projectile. Compared to the hollow "Minié" bullets used by almost all other major military forces of this era which operated by the principle of dilation, the Lorenz projectiles could not deliver a wide enough margin of expansion, so that while in tests the rigorously built and controlled prototype and pattern arms of the Lorenz model initially performed extremely well hitting a head-sized target 100% of the time at 225 meters, the more carelessly made mass-produced Lorenz rifle made only 7-8% on the same target at 187 meters.

The Lorenz rifle model, approved in 1854 was Austria's first all-new infantry firearm in decades. Quite advanced in conception for its time, Austria's relatively undeveloped industry was evidently unable to meet the standard of precision the new small arms required. The quantities and urgency of production exceeding the capacity of the Austrian government's facilities, a great proportion of the contract was entrusted to a variety of private manufacturers. Officially sanctioned caliber variations went upward of the nominal caliber of 13.9 millimeters to 14.25 millimeters (which, taking account of the depth of the grooves brought maximal caliber to 14.55 millimeters). The compression bullet was unable to bridge an interior gap that potentially reached .65 millimeters—quite a tiny space to the eye, but in terms of interior ballistics, a chasm. Early in 1863, the Austrian army introduced a new, more orthodox bullet working on the same "Minié" principle as the ammunition utilized by the other great powers.

Aside from the great problem of the loosely-fitting compression bullet was another: insufficient twist. As a matter of fact, there were three types of Lorenz rifle: the first and most common with a twist of rifling of less than 1 in two meters and lacking long-range sights destined to the infantrymen in the first two ranks, the second with a tighter twist to its rifling as well as movable long-range sights for the men in the third rank detailed for skirmishing duties, and, finally, the third model equipped with a special Thouvenin pattern tige or "pillar-breech" as well as a finer movable sight intended for Austria's elite Jäger units. Thus, about two-thirds of Austrian infantry were equipped with Lorenz rifles of insufficient twist and rudimentary sights that made fire beyond point-blank range a matter of guesswork.

Beyond and, ultimately more important than these intricate technical questions relating to the Lorenz rifle, there was that of its use. To begin with, the introduction of rifles as the weapon for all Austrian infantry is extremely recent, even ongoing, when erupts the Italian Campaign of 1859. Prior to the Lorenz only the Jäger and, during the mid-1840s, a certain proportion of third-rank men were equipped with rifles, albeit of a much different, inferior type.

Thus, in 1859 rifled arms are new to the average Austrian recruit—an unfamiliarity which is hardly conducive to competent use. Yet even more important than the basic unfamiliarity of the weapon for a great part of the KuK infantry, is the problem of the attitudes, the stance of Austrian cadres to this arm so different to the musket which had for so long armed the Habsburg soldiers.

Anton von Mollinary, already a general in the Austrian army in this period (and a bridging engineer, hence a member of a "scientific" arm) gives us some interesting perspectives on the status of precision fire and firing practice in general in the KuK army:

"Even the increasing importance of small arms was only starting to be recognized by a few, the majority still valued the bayonet over the bullet; nobody thought about a rational utilization of both. Target shooting was considered—apart from the Jäger troops—as a burdensome required side-chore, which one strove to rid oneself of as quickly as possible. Attempts to increase confidence in the only recently introduced rifles as in general an interest in shooting, through joint officer shoots, had only meager success. The gentlemen regarded their time at the firing-range mainly as an opportunity for socializing." [43]

Aside from the neglect in practice of fire practice for Austrian line infantry in the years leading to 1859, we can note that the regulations themselves did little to favorise the effective use of the tactical firepower potential of new rifled arms. Both the Exerzierreglement für die Linien und Grenzinfanterie 1851 nor the Manövrir Reglement 1853—the last official guidelines brought out prior to the Italian Campaign of 1859—antedated the distribution of the Lorenz as base armament for the infantry as a whole; clearly the dispositions of these regulations, dating from a period when only sixteen men per company were armed with rifles (the Delvigne-pattern Kammerbüchsen M1842 and M1848). Unsurprising then, to discover that three-quarters of the Reglements are taken up with the modalities of the close-order columnar formation drill, rather the than fire-oriented line and skirmish tactics so much more appropriate to combat with a precision long-range weapon like the Lorenz rifle.[44] For all these reasons, it is a fair assessment to conclude that the Austrian army in 1859, while possessing the material basis necessary, was still, in practical and conceptual terms, quite far removed from achieving a real modernization of its line infantry fire potential.[45]

Just how superior was the Lorenz rifle to French small arms in 1859? Potentially, very superior. France's small arms in 1859 mainly consisted of a hodge-podge of older weapons converted to rifling: the "transformed" fusils of 1822 and 1842, and later variants such as the models of 1853 and 1857, which differed only in non-essential details. These French shoulder arms had a large nominal caliber of 17.78 and 18.03 millimeters and, at this stage in service, were firing the M1857 triangular hollow based bullet. This projectile had been introduced in order to bring back the individual soldier's ammunition supply to sixty rounds—the heavy cylindro-conical rounds used by France's first effective rifled arms weighed so much that the ammunition allowance had normally been reduced to 48 rounds. The M1857 bullet, a third lighter with 32 grammes in comparison to the earlier Tamisier and Minié bullets redressed this balance, but was unfortunately less ballistically sound than its predecessors: it was simply too light in proportion to its caliber. Ultimately, the M1857 bullet, was only a stop-gap; slightly more effective than either the round ball or the Nessler bullet fired by smoothbore arms, it was nevertheless far inferior not only to the projectiles fired by contemporary small caliber military shoulder arms like the Prussian Dreyse, the British Enfield, the Austrian Lorenz, but even to the much older bullets of the Thouvenin system dating to 1844 which equipped the Chasseurs and Zouaves...

The performance of the M1857 bullet is disappointing. At one hundred meters' range, only 44% of more than fourteen thousand bullets fired during major trials hit a target 50 centimeters wide. Against larger targets this score could reach 70% at the same range. Nevertheless, because of the poor ballistic qualities the projectile presented, in addition to the absence of any real aiming device equipping the mass of French rifle-muskets, these already mediocre percentages rapidly deteriorate as distance increases: at 200 meters only 30% of fired rounds hit a target of one meter's breadth and, beyond point-blank, it only gets worse; at 400 meters only 7.6% hit a target two meters wide and, finally, at 600 meters, only 9.5% hit a target four meters wide.

Unquestionably therefore, the Lorenz rifle would have been markedly superior to the various converted rifle-muskets firing the unstable M1857 triangular-hollow bullet equipping the bulk of Napoleon III's infantry. However, the same cannot be said of the weapons equipping France's elite troops, the Guards, Chasseurs and Zouave battalions. The M1846 and M1853 carbines equipping the Chasseurs and Zouaves, and firing the much heavier (48 as opposed to 31 grammes) Minié bullet of these weapons, are significantly better weapons than the converted rifle-muskets hurriedly cobbled together on Napoleon III's order in 1857.[46] The same is also true of the "Fusil de la Garde" equipping the Imperial Guard and firing a lighter version of the Minié bullet. Equipped with adjustable sights, these hard-kicking weapons possess great stopping power and are capable of inflicting death at ranges beyond 800 meters with their heavy projectiles. Due to higher velocity, the Lorenz would still have been superior to the large-bore rifles of the French elite troops, but its margin of superiority over them would not have been as significant as its advantage over the converted muskets.[47]

While the very severe losses—especially in officers—that the Austrian rifles, even with the manifold limitations that plagued their use, inflicted are undeniable, the bumbling and irresolution that characterized Austrian operational and strategic conduct as well as the inflexibility of Austrian tactics were the truly decisive factors in deciding the war's issue. Such poor management largely annulled Austria's considerable advantage in the small arms area: the KuK soldiers had the right tools but were unable to use them.

Paradoxically, the French tactical "system" of the all-out bayonet rush succeeded. Remaining static and maneuvering at the normal tempo in face of the precision, range, and power of the Austrian Lorenz rifle without being able to reply effectively given the pitiable state of French infantry armament would have occasioned considerable losses.

By literally overrunning Austrian positions one hoped to cross the dangerous zone more rapidly and subsequently engage hand-to-hand combat where the precision and range of the Lorenz would no longer apply, and where French élan and experience would carry the day. While the Austrians habitually maneuvered at the Ordinairschritt of 95 paces a minute or the Doublirrschritt of 120 paces a minute, the French Chasseurs and Zouaves utilized the pas de course and the pas gymnastique (a more cadenced and regular version of the former) which reached from 180 up to 250 paces a minute. This meant that a battalion of Zouaves could in theory cover 500 meters—a reasonable battle range for the Lorenz rifle as well as the average clear line of sight the Lombard countryside afforded—in three to four minutes, rather than the eight minutes at the pas ordinaire. Halving the time under fire by doubling the speed of maneuver was a potentially attractive tactical device; against a favored Austrian infantry formation like the Divisionsmasse , a close-order two company front battalion formation, a pas de course approach enabled an approaching French unit to forego some 2000 additional bullets, of which a good number would certainly have done damage. Of course, under the circumstances of such a charge, there could be no question of preserving any real order; as first-hand accounts and iconographic evidence show, these "Zouave" attacks are formless mobs bearing little resemblance to the traditional column and line formations:

"These first regiments like the 23rd, the 45th, the 90th, etc., which arrived at a run to reinforce the grenadiers {of the Imperial Guard] had no artillery and could not rivalize against the Austrians by they charged them at a run with the bayonet. Hardly one-hundred to two-hundred meters distant from the enemy our soldiers heard the commands of the Austrian officers quite well; seeing themselves targeted, they threw themselves flat on their stomachs : two seconds later, brrr, a hail of grape and bullets cut down the laggards! The gale passing, the French rose and ran another thirty to forty meters and then lay down again. In this way, they were able to come to grips with the enemy..." [48]

Everything was staked on the moral ascendancy and the sheer guts of the soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers, veterans of the hard schools of Algeria and the Crimea. And, in many cases, the bet was won: Austrian troops, inexperienced, tired, hungry, ill-led, or disaffected, broke under the savage assault of the French. But, just as often, the same Austrians, sheltered in houses or trenches and firing at rest, made Napoleon III's troops pay a high, too high a cost, for the furia francese .

More important for Napoleon III's strategic goals—aware of British, and German hostility to the Italian adventure—was to arrive at a quick decision so as to minimize diplomatic as well as economic costs. That limited objective was achieved: in 1859, in a campaign lasting only six weeks, the French army is victorious.

Yet that same victory—as nuanced as it was—would inhibit a true critical post-mortem of French weaknesses both in armament and tactics. With a confrontation against a new adversary of an altogether different quality becoming more and more likely, a fatal complacence holds sway in the French army: experiment, development, and renewal of armament as well as tactics enter a phase of virtual hibernation.

It would await—too long—a startling jolt from across the Rhine that a new impulse towards a renewal of French armament and tactics begins...


[1]. Historique du Service de l'Artillerie, Paris, 1858, p. 535.

[2]. Apart from a certain proportion of Grenzer and other second-line troops armed either with the «Konsol» smoothbore percussion musket, or the Delvigne-type «Kammerbüchse » M1842 et M1848, the bulk of the Austrian infantry were armed with the model 1854 Lorenz rifle.

[3]. Mollinary, A. Von, Quarante-Six Ans dans l'Armée Austro-Hongroise , Paris, 1913, p. 111.

[4]. Julius von Wickede, Vergleichende Charakteristik der k.k. österreichischen, preussischen, englischen und französischen Landarmee . Stuttgart, 1856, p.23.

[5]. To ensure Russia's neutrality, if not her cooperation, Napoleon III had sent his cousin, the Prince Napoleon, to confer with the Czar, Alexander II

[6]. Bazancourt, Baron de, La Campagne d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1859, t. I, p, 75

[7]. Even strategically, French doctrine (if such a term may even be applied) was impregnated with a Napoleonic model, and it is no coincidence that Napoleon III, as he prepared for hostilities, turned to Thiers and Jomini, two of his uncle's most prominent exegetes, for inspiration.

[8]. Bourelly, général, Souvenirs de la Campagne de 1859 en Italie , Paris, 1885, p. 43

[9]. Laure, Colonel A., La Guerre , Paris, 1858, p. 40, and p. 295—significantly dedicated to the Emperor)

[10]. Lacapelle, captain A., Cours de Tir à l'Usage des Officiers de l'Infanterie , manuscript, 1863-1867, p. 188.

[11]. Historical Section of the Prussian General Staff, La Campagne d'Italie en 1859 , Berlin, 1862, p.79.

[12]. Anonymous, Vieux Souvenirs: la Campagne d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1863, p. 107-108.

[13]. Ardant Du Picq, p. 372-373.

[14]. Anonymous, Vieux Souvenirs: la Campagne d'Italie de 1859 , op. cit., p. 110.

[15]. Ardant Du Picq, p. 372-373.

[16]. Lebrun, general, Souvenirs des Guerres de Crimée et d'Italie , Paris, 1889, p. 247.

[17]. Lebrun, op. cit., p. 248.

[18]. Anonymous, Vieux Souvenirs: la Campagne d'Italie de 1859 , op. cit., p. 119.

[19]. S.H.A.T., carton 1M 844-847, Chatelain, commandant, "Études Historiques et Militaires sur la Guerre d'Italie en 1859", février 1862, p.182-183.

[20]. Bourgerie, Raymond, Magenta et Solférino , Paris, 1993. p.92.

[21]. Duban, colonel Charles, Souvenirs Militaires 1848-1887 , Paris, 1896, p.166-167

[22]. Anonymous, La Guerre d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1861, p. 267-268.

[23]. Anonymous, Vieux Souvenirs la Campagne d ‘Italie de 1859 Racontée par un Sous Lieutenant de l'Époque , Paris, 1873, p. 219.

[24]. Ibid p. 235.

[25]. Ibid p. 241.

[26]. Ibid p. 215.

[27]. Bourelly, général, Souvenirs de la Campagne de 1859 en Italie , Paris, 1885, p.137.

[28]. Division Historique de l'État-Major de la Prusse, La Campagne d'Italie en 1859 , Berlin, 1862, p.172.

[29]. Dunant, Henri, La Bataille de Solferino ; Auger was mortally wounded by a six-pounder canonball, fired by an artillery piece with not even a third the range of a Lahitte rifled four-pounder

[30]. Dunant, Henri, La Bataille de Solferino.

[31]. Bourelly, general, Souvenirs de la Campagne de 1859 en Italie , Paris, 1885, p. 172-173.

[32]. Bourelly, op. cit., p. 173.

[33]. Ibid, pp. 177-178.

[34]. Anonymous, La Guerre d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1861, p. 337.

[35]. Anonymous, La Guerre d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1861, p. 337-338.

[36]. Bazancourt, Baron de, Campagne d'Italie de 1859 , Paris, 1859, V.I, p. 340.

[37]. « L'Echo de la Guerre », quoted by Arnaud, René, La Deuxième République et le Second Empire , Paris, 1929, p. 155.

[38]. Moltke, H. von, Moltkes Militärische Korrespondenz , Berlin, 1903, t. IV, p. 456-457, "Bemerkungen vom 5 Januar zu eimem Bericht des Oberstleutnant Ollech über die Französische Armee."

[39]. Blanchard, Amédée, Montebello, Magenta, Marignan , Paris, 1859, p. 109.

[40]. Engels, Friedrich, "The History of the Rifle", dans The Volunteer Journal, for Lancashire and Cheshire , paru octobre-janvier 1860-1861.

[41]. Lacapelle, captain A., manuscript, Travaux sur le Tir et les Armes à Feu Portatives , 1868, p. 168.

[42]. Anonymous, La Tactique de l'Avenir , Paris, 1868, p. 41.

[43]. von Mollinary, Antonn Freiherr, Sechsundvierzig Jahre im österreich-ungarisches Heere , Zurich, 1905, t. 2, p. 7.

[44]. Wagner, Walter, Von Austerlitz bis Könniggrätz: Österreichische Kampftaktik im Spiegel der Reglements 1805-1864 , Osnabrück , 1978, p. 111.

[45]. Indeed, it is one of the many ironies of history that the Austrians, chastised by the French in 1859, drew the wrong conclusions from their defeat, embraced the French shock tactics, and so sowed the seeds of the catastrophic reverses in 1866, at the hands of the Prussians.

[46]. See the author's Les Guerres Franco-Prussiennes de 1859 et 1866 for more discussion of these weapons and their relative capacities.

[47]. In the aftermath of the Campaign of 1859, there was some debate over the relative merits of the large versus the small bore rifles in the French army; some maintained that the large caliber bullets of the older French guns were far more damaging than those of the Lorenz, citing the example of French officers wounded at Montebello at the campaign's outset and healing quickly from their small-caliber wounds, returning to fight again at Solferino.

[48]. Bonnefoy, Marc, Souvenirs d'un Simple Soldat en Campagne 1859 , Paris, no date, p. 124.

- - -

Copyright © 2005 Dr. Patrick Marder

Written by Dr. Patrick Marder. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Dr. Patrick Marder at:

About the Author:

Patrick Marder was born in London. After undergraduate study at the University of California at Berkeley and at Cambridge, he received degrees from the Sorbonne in Paris, and from the University of Poitiers prior to receiving his doctorate from the University of Strasburg. Marder's field of work is 19th and 20th century history and his research interests include the interaction of "intersecting forces and spheres'': how the interaction of economic forces, social groups, government, technology, and mentalities affects policy and shapes events.

Published online: 12/10/2005.
© 2014, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: