Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung March/April 1849

The Defeat of the Piedmontese

Source: MECW Volume 9, p. 169;
Written: by Engels between March 30 and April 3, 1849;
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 260, No. 261 (second edition), No. 263, March 31, April 1 and 4, 1849.

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 260, March 31, 18491

Cologne, March 30. Ramorino’s treachery has borne fruit. The Piedmontese army has been totally defeated at Novara and driven back to Borgomanero at the foot of the Alps.[159] The Austrians have occupied Novara, Vercelli and Trino, and the road to Turin lies open to them.

So far any more detailed information is lacking. But this much is certain: without Ramorino, who allowed the Austrians to drive a wedge between the different Piedmontese divisions and isolate some of them, the Austrian victory would have been impossible.

Nor can there be any doubt that Charles Albert also was guilty of treachery. But whether he committed it merely through the medium of Ramorino or in some other way as well, we shall only learn later on.

Ramorino is the adventurer who after a more than doubtful career during the Polish war of 1830-31 disappeared during the Savoy campaign of 1834[160] with the entire cash resources for the war on the same day that matters took a serious turn, and who later, in London, for £1,200 drew up for the ex-Duke of Brunswick a plan for the conquest of Germany.

The mere fact that such an adventurer could even be given a post proves that Charles Albert, who is more afraid of the republicans of Genoa and Turin than of the Austrians, was from the outset contemplating treachery.

That, after this defeat, a revolution and proclamation of a republic in Turin is expected arises from the fact that the attempt is being made to prevent it by the abdication of Charles Albert in favour of his eldest son.

The defeat of the Piedmontese is more important than all the German imperial tricks taken together. It is the defeat of the whole Italian revolution. After the defeat of Piedmont comes the turn of Rome and Florence.[161]

But unless all the signs are deceptive, precisely this defeat of the Italian revolution will be the signal for the outbreak of the European revolution. The French people sees that to the same extent that it becomes more and more enslaved by its own counter-revolution inside the country, the armed counter-revolution abroad approaches closer and closer to its frontiers. The counterpart of the June victory and Cavaignac’s dictatorship in Paris was Radetzky’s victorious march to the Mincio, the counterpart to the presidency of Bonaparte, Barrot and the law on association [162] is the victory at Novara and the Austrians’ march to the Alps. Paris is ripe for a new revolution. Savoy, which for a year has been preparing its secession from Piedmont and union with France, and which did not want to participate in the war, Savoy will want to throw itself into the arms of France; Barrot and Bonaparte will have to reject it. Genoa, and perhaps Turin, if there is still time for it, will proclaim a republic and call on France for help; and Odilon Barrot will solemnly reply to them that he will be able to protect the integrity of Sardinia’s territory.

But if the Ministry does not wish to know it, the people of Paris knows very well that France must not tolerate the Austrians in Turin and Genoa. And the people of Paris will not tolerate them there. It will reply to the Italians by a victorious uprising and the French army, the only army in Europe that has not been in the open battlefield since February 24, will join it.

The French army is burning with impatience to cross the Alps and measure its strength against the Austrians. It is not accustomed to opposing a revolution which promises it new renown and new laurels, and which comes forward with the banner of war against coalition. The French army is not “My glorious army”. [163]

The defeat of the Italians is bitter. No people, apart from the Poles, has been so shamefully oppressed by the superior power of its neighbours, no people has so often and so courageously tried to throw off the yoke oppressing it. And each time this unfortunate people has had to submit again to its oppressors; the result of all the efforts, of all the struggle, has been nothing but fresh defeats! But if the present defeat has as its consequence a revolution in Paris and leads to the outbreak of a European war, the foretokens of which are everywhere evident; if this defeat gives the impetus for a new movement throughout the Continent — a movement which this time will have a different character from that of last year — then even the Italians will have cause for congratulating themselves on it.

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 261 (second edition), April 1, 1849

Cologne, April 1. According to the latest reports from Italy, the defeat of the Piedmontese at Novara is by no means so decisive as was reported in the telegraphic dispatch sent to Paris.

The Piedmontese have suffered defeat; they are cut off from Turin and thrown back to the mountains. That is all.

If Piedmont were a republic, if the Turin Government were revolutionary and if it had the courage to resort to revolutionary measures — nothing would be lost. But Italian independence is being lost not because of the invincibility of Austrian arms, but because of the cowardice of Piedmont royalty.

To what do the Austrians owe their victory? To the fact that owing to Ramorino’s treachery, two divisions of the Piedmontese army were cut off from the remaining three, and these three isolated divisions were beaten owing to the numerical superiority of the Austrians. These three divisions have now been pressed back to the foot of the Pennine Alps.

From the outset it was an enormous mistake of the Piedmontese that they opposed to the Austrians merely a regular army, that they wanted to wage an ordinary, bourgeois, genteel war against them. A nation that wants to conquer its independence cannot restrict itself to the ordinary methods of warfare. Mass uprising, revolutionary war, guerilla detachments everywhere — that is the only means by which a small nation can overcome a large one, by which a less strong army can be put in a position to resist a stronger and better organise one.

The Spaniards proved it in 1807-12,[164] the Hungarians are proving it now as well.

Chrzanowski was defeated at Novara and cut off from Turin; Radetzky stood 9 miles from Turin. In a monarchy such as Piedmont, even in a constitutional one, the outcome of the campaign was thereby decided; Radetzky was petitioned for peace. But in a republic the defeat would have been by no means decisive. If it were not for the inevitable cowardice of the monarchy, which never has the courage to resort to extreme revolutionary means — if this cowardice had not held it back from this course — Chrzanowski’s defeat could have become fortunate for Italy.

Had Piedmont been a republic that did not have to pay any regard to monarchical traditions, there would have been a way open to it to end the campaign quite differently.

Chrzanowski was driven back to Biella and Borgomanero. There, where the Swiss Alps prevent any further retreat, and where the two or three narrow river valleys make any dispersal of the army practically impossible, it was easy to concentrate the army and by a bold advance nullify Radetzky’s victory.

If the leaders of the Piedmontese army had any revolutionary courage, if they knew that in Turin there was a revolutionary government ready to take the most extreme measures, their course of action would have been very simple.

After the battle at Novara there were 30,000-40,000 Piedmontese troops at Lago Maggiore. This corps could be mobilised in two days and could be thrown into Lombardy, where there are less than 12,000 Austrian troops. This corps could occupy Milan, Brescia and Cremona, organise a general uprising, smash one by one the Austrian corps advancing singly from the Venetian region, and so completely destroy Radetzky’s whole basis of operations.

Instead of marching on Turin, Radetzky would have had immediately to turn round and go back to Lombardy, pursued by the levy en masse of the Piedmontese, who of course would have had to support the uprising in Lombardy.

Such a really national war, like that which the Lombards waged in March 1848, and by which they drove Radetzky beyond the Oglio and the Mincio — such a war would have drawn the whole of Italy into the struggle and a quite different spirit would have permeated the Romans and Tuscans.

While Radetzky’ still stood between the Po and the Ticino, pondering whether he should advance or retreat, the Piedmontese and Lombards could have marched right up to Venice, relieve the siege there, draw in La Marmora and the Roman troops, harass and weaken the Austrian Field Marshal by countless guerilla groups, split up his forces and finally defeat him. Lombardy was only waiting for the Piedmontese to arrive; it rose up even before their arrival. Only the Austrian fortresses held the Lombardy towns in check. Ten thousand Piedmontese were already in Lombardy; if another 20,000-30,000 had marched in, Radetzky’s retreat would have been impossible.

But a mass uprising and a general insurrection of the people are means which royalty is terrified of using. These are means to which only a republic resorts — 1793 is proof of that. These are means, the application of which presupposes revolutionary terror, and where has there been a monarch who could resolve to use that?

What ruined the Italians, therefore, was not the defeat at Novara and Vigevano; it was the cowardice and moderation that monarchy forces on them. The lost battle at Novara resulted merely in a strategic disadvantage; the Italians were cut off from Turin, whereas the way to it lay open to the Austrians. This disadvantage would have been entirely without significance if the lost battle had been followed by a real revolutionary war, if the remainder of the Italian army had forthwith proclaimed itself the nucleus of a national mass uprising, if the conventional strategic war of armies had been turned into a people’s war, like that waged by the French in 1793.

But, of course, a monarchy will never consent to a revolutionary war, a mass uprising and terror. It would make peace with its bitterest enemy of equal rank rather than ally itself with the people.

Whether or not Charles Albert is a traitor — Charles Albert’s crown, the monarchy alone, would have sufficed to ruin Italy.

But Charles Albert is a traitor. All the French newspapers carry news about the great European counter-revolutionary plot of all the great powers, about the plan of campaign of the counter-revolution for the final suppression of all the European peoples. Russia and England, Prussia and Austria, France and Sardinia, have signed this new Holy Alliance.[165]

Charles Albert received orders to start a war against Austria, to let himself be defeated, thereby giving the Austrians an opportunity to restore “peace” in Piedmont, Florence and Rome, and to arrange for martial-law constitutions to be imposed everywhere. In return for this, Charles Albert was to receive Parma and Piacenza and the Russians were to pacify Hungary; France was to become an empire, and thus peace was established in Europe. That, according to the French newspapers, is the great plan of the counter-revolution, and this plan explains Ramorino’s treachery and the defeat of the Italians.

But the monarchy, as a result of Radetzky’s victory, has suffered a fresh blow. The battle at Novara and the paralysis of the Piedmontese which followed it prove that in extreme cases, when a people needs to exert all its strength in order to save itself, nothing hinders it so much as the monarchy. If Italy is not to perish because of the monarchy, then above all the monarchy in Italy must perish.

Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 263, April 4, 1849

Now at last the events of the Piedmontese campaign right up to the victory of the Austrians at Novara lie before us frankly and clearly revealed.

While Radetzky deliberately caused the false rumour to be spread that he would keep on the defensive and retreat towards the Adda, he secretly concentrated all his troops around Sant Angelo and Pavia. Owing to the treachery of the pro-Austrian reactionary party in Turin, Radetzky was fully informed of all Chrzanowski’s plans and arrangements and of the entire position of his army. On the other hand, he succeeded in completely deceiving the Piedmontese as to his own plans. This was why the Piedmontese army was drawn up on both sides of the Po, the sole calculation being to advance simultaneously from all sides in a concentric movement against Milan and Lodi.

Nevertheless, if strong resistance had been offered by the Piedmontese army in the centre, it would have been impossible to envisage the swift success that Radetzky has now achieved. If Ramorino’s corps at Pavia had barred his way, there would still have been time enough to contest Radetzky’s passage across the Ticino until reinforcements had been brought up. In the meanwhile the divisions on the right bank of the Po and at Arona could also have arrived; the Piedmontese army drawn up parallel to the Ticino would have covered Turin and been more than sufficient to put Radetzky’s army to flight. One had, of course, to rely on Ramorino doing his duty.

But he did not do it. He allowed Radetzky to cross the Ticino, and this meant that there was a break-through in the centre of the Piedmontese army and the divisions on the other side of the Po were isolated. Thereby, in fact, the outcome of the campaign was already decided.

Radetzky then put his entire force of 60,000-70,000 men with 120 guns between the Ticino and the Agogna and took the five Piedmontese divisions along the Ticino in the flank. Thanks to his enormously superior force, he repelled the four nearest divisions at Mortara, Garlasco and Vigevano on the 21st, captured Mortara thereby compelling the Piedmontese to withdraw to Novara, and threatened the only road to Turin still open to them — that from Novara via Vercelli and Chivasso.

This road, however, was already lost for the Piedmontese. In order to concentrate their troops and, in particular, to be able to bring up Solaroli’s division stationed on the extreme left flank round Arona, they had to make Novara the nodal point of their operations, whereas otherwise they could have taken up a new position behind the Sesia.

Being therefore already as good as cut off from Turin, nothing was left to the Piedmontese but either to accept battle at Novara or to go into Lombardy, organise a people’s war and to leave Turin to its fate, the reserves and the national guard. In that case, Radetzky would have taken good care not to advance farther.

But this presupposes that in Piedmont itself preparations were made for a mass uprising and precisely this was not the case. The bourgeois national guard was armed; but the mass of the people were unarmed, however loudly they demanded the arms stocked in the arsenals.

The monarchy did not dare to appeal to this irresistible force that had saved France in 1793.

The Piedmontese had, therefore, to accept battle at Novara, however unfavourable their position and however great the enemy’s superiority of force.

40,000 Piedmontese (ten brigades) with relatively weak artillery confronted the entire Austrian army numbering at least 60,000 men with 120 guns.

The Piedmontese army was drawn up under the walls of Novara on both sides of the Mortara road.

The left flank, two brigades commanded by Durando, had the support of a fairly strong position, La Bicocca.

The centre, three brigades commanded by Bès, backed on a farmstead, La Cittadella.

The right flank, two brigades commanded by Perrone, backed on the Cortenuova plateau (the Vercelli road).

There were two reserve corps, one consisting of two brigades under the Duke of Genoa stationed on the left flank, the second consisting of a brigade and the guards under the Duke of Savoy, the present King, stationed on the right flank.

The disposition of the Austrians, judging from their communique, is less clear.

The second Austrian corps under d'Aspre was the first to attack the left flank of the Piedmontese, while behind it the third corps under Appel, as well as the reserves and the fourth corps, were deployed. The Austrians were completely successful in establishing their line of battle and simultaneously delivering a concentric attack on all points of the Piedmontese battle formation with such a superiority of force that the Piedmontese were crushed by it.

The key to the Piedmontese position was the Bicocca. If the Austrians had captured it, the Piedmontese centre and left flank would have been trapped between the (unfortified) town and the canal, and they could have been either scattered or forced to lay down their arms.

Hence the main attack was directed against the Piedmontese left flank, the chief support of which was the Bicocca. Here the battle raged with great violence, but for a long time without result.

A very lively attack was launched also against the centre. La Cittadella was lost several times but several times it was retaken by Bès.

When the Austrians saw that they were encountering too strong a resistance here, they again turned their main strength against the Piedmontese left flank. The two Piedmontese divisions were thrown back to the Bicocca and finally the Bicocca itself was captured by storm. The Duke of Savoy with his reserves hurled himself on the Austrians, but it was of no avail. The superiority of the imperial forces was too great; the position was lost, and that decided the battle. The only retreat left to the Piedmontese was towards the Alps, to Biella and Borgomanero.

And this battle, prepared for by treachery and won by superior force, the Kölnische Zeitung, which has so long been hankering for an Austrian victory, calls:

“a battle which in the history of war will shine for all time (!), since the victory won in it by old Radetzky is the result of such skilful combined movements and such truly magnificent bravery that nothing like it has occurred since the days of Napoleon, the great demon of battles (!!!).

Radetzky or, rather, Hess, his chief of the general staff, carried out his plot with Ramorino quite well, we admit. It is also true that since Grouchy’s treachery at Waterloo,[166] certainly no such magnificent villainy has occurred as that of Ramorino’s. Radetzky, however, is not in the same class as Napoleon, the “demon of battles” (!), but in that of Wellington; the victories of both of them always cost more ready money than bravery and skill.

We shall not discuss at all the rest of the lies which the Kölnische Zeitung spread yesterday evening, i.e. that the democratic deputies have fled from Turin, and that the Lombards “behaved like a cowardly rabble” etc. They have already been refuted by the latest events. These lies prove nothing but the joy of the Kölnische Zeitung that great Austria has crushed — and that by means of treachery — little Piedmont.