Radetzky in Italy

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Johann Josef Wenzel Graf Radetzky von Radetz

Liberal Hungary’s nemesis was certainly gathering strength. A week after the chain bridge accident, the reaction triumphed again, this time in Italy. In June Field Marshal Radetzky had at last convinced the Austrian government that the war was winnable. The cabinet had been rather stung by the old fox’s recent sharp remarks, such as, in a letter to Latour on 21 June, ‘I only wish . . . that the Minister [Pillersdorf ] could have as much success in battle against the intelligentsia of our time . . . as I am now having, despite being in the minority, in battles and skirmishes with the King of Sardinia.’ Six days later, Latour gave Radetzky the order he sought: to gamble Austrian power in Italy on one decisive battle.The omens were good. Charles Albert had divided his forces, with 28,000 in front of Verona and 42,000 laying siege to Mantua. Radetzky now had 74,000 troops. He planned to ram a wedge between the Piedmontese by driving those in front of Verona back on to Peschiera.

The attack began on 22 July, and on the following day Radetzky smashed his way through the very centre of the Piedmontese line, which defended a series of hill-top villages north of the settlement that gave this epic encounter its name: Custozza. Charles Albert tried to counter-attack in the broiling heat of 24 July – and, at one stage, the King saw Italian tricolours being waved triumphantly on the heights – but in the small hours of the next day, Radetzky brought the full weight of his forces to bear on the parched, exhausted Italian units and swept them back off the slopes.

 Charles Albert’s forces fell back on Milan, which turned out to be a mere staging-post in a general Piedmontese withdrawal from the war. In the Lombard capital power now slipped out of the hands of discredited monarchists and into those of the republicans, who, advised by Mazzini, prepared to resist the Austrians by throwing up earthworks, building barricades and collecting what money, ammunition and provisions could be had at such short notice. Food and ammunition were scarce and most of the available artillery was in Piacenza. While Charles Albert assured the populace on 5 August that he intended to fight, he was already negotiating terms with Radetzky. It was agreed that the Piedmontese would march out of Milan on 6 August and then have a day in which to withdraw altogether from Lombardy, taking with them all those who had ‘compromised’ themselves in the revolution. Radetzky would enter the city the following day. When word of this deal leaked out in the night of 5–6 August, an enraged crowd surged around the Greppi Palace, where Charles Albert was staying. The King had to be extricated by his troops, who were already beginning their evacuation. ‘The city of Milan is ours’, wrote a triumphant Radetzky twenty-four hours later: ‘no enemy remains on Lombard soil’. On 9 August, the Piedmontese General Salasco signed an armistice.

Radetzky’s grit – he had, after all, bullishly refused to follow earlier government orders to negotiate – and his military skills had retrieved Austrian power in Italy. By significantly easing the pressure on the Viennese government, he also contributed immensely to the survival of the Habsburg Empire itself in 1848.


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