Franco-Austrian War

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The Franco-Austrian War of 1859, which pitted France and the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont against Austria, was not exactly a surprise. After the revolutions of 1848 the Austrian Empire had based its foreign policy on seeking a central position as Europe's mediator. First applied during the Crimean War (1853–1856), the new course left Russia nursing a sense of betrayal without securing Austria either gratitude or respect from England and France.


Austria's Italian position had been ostensibly restored by the suppression of the revolutionary/nationalist movement in 1849 and 1850. Lombardy and Venetia had benefited since the 1840s from a state-driven industrial revolution designed to integrate their peoples into the empire. By 1855 Italy was providing a full quarter of Austria's tax revenues. Geographically and diplomatically, however, the provinces remained vulnerable.

An assertive Piedmont under Camillo Benso, Count Cavour, had been increasingly overt both in fostering anti-Habsburg sentiments throughout Italy and in soliciting French support for its position. Every artifice, from sending Piedmontese troops to fight alongside France in the Crimean War to procuring the Piedmontese king's fifteen-year-old daughter as a bride for the cousin of Napoleon III, the French emperor, foundered on Napoleon's unwillingness to be the first to break the Continent's peace. The Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph I (r. 1848–1916), was no less cautious. Not until Piedmont opened its borders to Lombardians allegedly fleeing the rigors of Habsburg conscription, and then replied to Vienna's protests by summoning its own reserves, did Francis Joseph order mobilization.

The Austrian army in the 1850s did not suffer from financial stringencies. A government that had no doubt of just how much its support rested on bayonets was by Metternichian standards unprecedentedly generous. Over two billion florins were devoted to military spending in the first decade of Francis Joseph's reign. How that money was spent was another story. Apart from the pensions, the sinecures, and the parallel appointments, procurement and administration remained swamps of embezzlement, bribery, and outright theft. Not until the eve of war did the army decide to replace its smoothbore muskets with up-to-date rifles.

The movement of reservists and reinforcements into Lombardy in the spring of 1859 highlighted everything wrong with Habsburg military administration. The single-track line connecting Vienna with Milan was incomplete when war broke out. No institutions existed to integrate the rest of the empire's still-developing rail network into mobilization plans that were themselves largely the product of improvisation. Nevertheless a hundred thousand men were on the Piedmontese frontier by early April, ready to implement Francis Joseph's initial strategy of a first-strike punitive expedition designed to crush Piedmont's pretensions by forcing demobilization before France could intervene effectively. Against Piedmont's unmotivated conscript army, badly trained and worse officered, the plan had promise. Instead the Austrian commanders hesitated for three weeks as French reinforcements poured into northern Italy by land and sea.

France, like Austria, aspired to a role as the fulcrum of Europe—a position that required an army able to break from a standing start and win. The French soldier, whether volunteer, long-term conscript, or hired substitute, was expected to be a go-anywhere, do-anything fighting man, a work tool in the hands of his officers, at the government's disposal for "policy wars" anywhere in Europe or the world. He benefited as well from what a later generation would call "combat multipliers." The French army was quick to introduce rifled small arms. The artillery adopted rifled cannon in the early 1850s. The infantry supplemented what was believed to be the French soldier's natural courage and daring with extensive training in skirmishing and marksmanship.


The Austrians, by contrast, were preoccupied with finding shoes that fit, securing their next meal, and learning how to load their rifles. Once operations began they were chivied across eastern Piedmont in a fashion, with often contradictory and poorly executed orders rendered nearly aimless. Straggling and desertion in the ranks and confrontational arguments at command levels were the first consequences. In limited encounters at Montebello and Palestro, the Austrians suffered defeat at the hands not only of the French but of the long-despised Piedmontese as well. At Magenta on 4 June, they stood on the defensive, to be outmaneuvered and outfought by a French army that itself reached the field a corps at a time, then attacked in a disorganized, piecemeal fashion.

In the aftermath of defeat Francis Joseph assumed command in an effort to impose control on his squabbling generals. When he sought to resume the offensive, orders and counterorders generated disorder exacerbated by administrative collapse. When on 24 June the Austrians again stood to arms near the village of Solferino, there had been no systematic distribution of bread for three days. Some regiments had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. Francis Joseph ordered a double ration of "brandy"—raw distillate whose effects were compounded by empty stomachs and taut nerves. By the time the French and Piedmontese finally attacked around noon, a significant number of Austrian infantrymen were sufficiently impaired that their best chance of hitting anything with their new rifles involved guessing which of the blurred multiple images they saw was the real target.

Faced with a static enemy, French infantry, well supported by artillery boldly handled in battery strength, thrust forward into the gaps in the Austrian line—in what, to a degree, was a form of "forward flight." For all their defective training, Austrian riflemen initially inflicted significant damage on French formations. Once the French were on the move, too many Austrians forgot to reset their sights. Instead of suffering their heaviest casualties as they approached their objective, French losses dropped as the range closed. Austrian battalions were overrun or—far more frequently—broke and ran as much from their sense of isolation as from the actual effect of cold French steel.

At the end of the day over twenty thousand Austrians were dead, wounded, or missing. Another ten thousand had been knocked loose from their units to spread panic in already disorganized rear areas. The Austrian emperor, shocked by the carnage, decided to seek peace with Napoleon, equally disconcerted by the war's economic and human costs. Austria surrendered Lombardy to Piedmont but retained Venetia, to the indignation of nationalists throughout Italy. An arguably greater consequence was the postwar founding of the Red Cross by another shocked eyewitness, the Swiss humanitarian Jean-Henri Dunant.

See alsoCavour, Count (Camillo Benso); Francis Joseph; Military Tactics; Red Cross.


Showalter, Dennis. The Wars of German Unification. London, 2004.

Turnbull, Patrick. Solferino: The Birth of a Nation. New York, 1985. Good history of the war for general readers.

Wylly, H. C. The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino, 1859. London, 1907. Conceptually outdated and operationally focused, but useful for the military aspects.

Dennis Showalter

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Franco-Austrian War

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