The Campaign in Italy (May 1859)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 27 May 1859


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Written about May 27, 1859
First published in Das Volk, No. May 28, 1859
Published in English for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.346-348), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Das Volk
Keywords : Italy, Austria, France, War

This article, written at Marx's request, was Engels' first contribution to Das Volk.

Das Volk—a German-language weekly published in London from May 7 to August 20, 1859—was founded as the official organ of the German Workers' Educational Society in London (see Note 455). Its first issue appeared under the editorship of the German journalist and petty-bourgeois democrat Elard Biscamp. Beginning with issue No. 2 Marx took an active part in its publication: he gave it advice, edited articles, organised material support, and so on. In issue No. 6 of June 11, the Editorial Board officially named Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Ferdinand Freiligrath, Wilhelm Wolff and Heinrich Heise as its contributors (see Statement by the Editorial Board of the Newspaper Das Volk).

Marx's first article in the paper—"Spree and Mincio"—was printed on June 25. Under Marx's influence Das Volk began to turn into a militant revolutionary working-class newspaper. In the beginning of July Marx became its virtual editor and manager.

Das Volk reflected the elaboration by Marx and Engels of questions concerning the revolutionary theory and tactics of the working-class struggle, described the class struggles of the proletariat, and relentlessly fought the exponents of petty-bourgeois ideology. It analysed from the standpoint of proletarian internationalism the events of the Austro-Italian-French war of 1859 and the questions of German and Italian unification, exposed the foreign policy of Britain, Prussia, France, Russia and other reactionary states, and consistently opposed Bonapartism and its overt and covert supporters.

Das Volk carried Marx's preface to his work A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, six of his articles, including the unfinished series Quid pro Quo, seven articles by Engels and his review of Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and reviews of the newspaper of the German petty-bourgeois democrats, the Hermann, by Marx and Biscamp (they appeared in the section "Gatherings from the Press"). Besides, many articles and political reviews written by different authors were edited personally by Marx. In all, sixteen issues appeared. The newspaper ceased publication for lack of money.

The campaign in Italy, which by now has lasted almost a month, has taken a peculiar and unexpected course. Two large armies, each of not much less than 200,000 men, concentrated opposite each other in the first days of May. While the outposts are within cannon range . of one another, the two main bodies watch each other, put out feelers now here, now there, engage in light fighting at isolated points, make changes in their fronts, extend one wing or the other; but there are no large-scale encounters. This way of waging war seems out of keeping with the modern system of rapid decisive blows; it seems to be a step backwards from the lightning-quick moves and short campaigns of Napoleon.

Since Napoleon two new elements have changed warfare significantly. The first is the improved defence of states by entrenched camps and groups of fortresses at suitable points of the terrain. The fortresses of Napoleon's times were either too insignificant, too isolated from one another, or in terrain that was too indifferent strategically to raise serious obstacles to his operations. A victory in the open field or an outflanking march forced the enemy army away from its fortresses.

What fortifications can do was proved by Danzig in 1813, the. quadrilateral of fortresses in Lombardy in 1848, Komorn in 1849, Sevastopol in 1855[1]. At the present time the position of the Franco-Piedmontese behind the Po and the Tanaro, between Casale, Alessandria and Valenza, forms such a system of grouped fortresses which shields an army even against considerably larger forces. The French succeeded in throwing so many troops behind this position before the Austrians arrived that an attack lost all prospects of decisive success, so that time was gained to bring up the rest of the French troops and assemble all their supplies and equipment. This brought the Austrian offensive to a halt at Casale and Valenza, and since neither a frontal attack nor a serious outflanking of the position was possible, there was nothing else the Austrians could do but make demonstrations on the flanks, west of the Sesia and south of the Po, combined with the requisition of the useful resources for the army available in those districts.

The second factor that has changed warfare significantly since the time of Napoleon is steam. It was only by means of railways and steamships that the French were able to throw such masses of troops into Piedmont in the five days between the delivery of the Austrians' ultimatum and their actual invasion that any Austrian attack on the Piedmontese position was doomed to failure, and so to reinforce these masses during the following week that by May 20 at least 130,000 French were in the line between Asti and Novi.

The inevitable corruption and administrative disorder under the rule of an adventurer like Louis Bonaparte, however, result in the material required for the French campaign arriving only slowly and inadequately. In favourable contrast to this are the order and rapidity with which the Austrian army corps were transferred to Italy in full combat readiness. This cannot but affect the future course of the war.

The Austrians cannot advance because they have come up against the position between the Piedmontese fortresses; the French cannot because their armament is not yet complete. This is the reason for the operations coming to a standstill, and for the unmerited interest in the small action of Montebello. The whole affair comes down to the following: The Austrians received word that the French were shifting their right wing towards Piacenza; this movement aroused the suspicion that the intention was to cross the Po between Pavia and Piacenza and thus outflank the Austrian position in the Lomellina in the direction of Milan. The Austrian Fifth Army Corps (Stadion) therefore sent three brigades over a bridge thrown across the Po at Vaccarizza (below Pavia), in order to occupy the position before the Stradella and carry out a reconnaissance in the direction of Voghera. Near Casteggio these three brigades came up against the allied outposts and near Montebello against the first brigade of the French division of Forey, which they drove back out of Montebello. Soon after this, the second French brigade arrived, and now the Austrians were driven from the village after a stubborn fight; they beat off an attack on Casteggio and drove the French back on Montebello in disorder and would undoubtedly have taken it (the majority of their troops had not yet entered battle) if a brigade of the French division of Vinoy had not arrived in the meantime. Seeing these reinforcements, the Austrians halted their advance. They had achieved their purpose; they knew now where the nearest bodies of troops of the French right wing stood, and they withdrew unhindered from Casteggio towards the Po and then over it to the main army, certain now that the French had not yet undertaken any serious movement against Piacenza. The Austrians are quite right to stay concentrated on the left bank of the Po as long as they have no imperative reason to throw their entire army over to the right bank; it would be a mistake to split the army à cheval[2] the river, and the Vaccarizza bridge, with its bridgehead, enables them to make the crossing at any time and to attack any French advance on the Stradella by the flank.

Garibaldi, at the head of 5,000 volunteers, has turned the Austrian right flank and is now on Lombard soil. According to the latest reports, the Austrians are already on his heels, and he is in great danger of being cut off, something that certainly would please Bonaparte the liberator greatly.

Prince Napoleon Plon-Plon has been ordered to organise an army corps in Leghorn (Tuscany), which is to fall on the flank of the Austrians. The French soldiers are furious and the Austrians laugh.

On Saturday and Sunday the Sardinians tried to establish themselves on the left bank of the Sesia but were prevented from doing so by the Austrians.

  1. Danzig (Gdańsk), held by a French garrison after the defeat of Napoleon's army in Russia in 1812, was besieged by sea and land by the Russians and Prussians in early 1813. It withstood three sieges but finally had to capitulate. On January 2, 1814 the Allies entered the city.

    On the quadrilateral of fortresses in Lombardy (Peschiera, Mantua, Verona and Legnago) see Po and Rhine.

    In 1849, during the national liberation war in Hungary, the fortress of Komárno was a strong point of the Hungarian revolutionary army: twice (in January-April and July-September) it withstood a siege by the Austrians.

    On the defence of Sevastopol during the Crimean war see the series of Engels' articles in Vol. 14 of the present edition.
  2. Astraddle.—Ed.