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Battle of Solferino
The Battle of Solferino (referred to in Italy as the Battle of Solferino and San Martino) on 24 June 1859 resulted in the victory of the allied French Army under Napoleon III and Sardinian Army under Victor Emmanuel II (together known as the Franco-Sardinian Alliance) against the Austrian Army under Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was the last major battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs. Perhaps 300,000 soldiers fought in the important battle, the largest since the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. There were about 130,000 Austrian troops and a combined total of 140,000 French and allied Piedmontese troops. After the battle, the Austrian Emperor refrained from further direct command of the army.
The Battle of Solferino was a decisive engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence, a crucial step in the Italian Risorgimento. The war's geopolitical context was the nationalist struggle to unify Italy, which had long been divided among France, Austria, Spain and numerous independent Italian states. The battle took place near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, Italy, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.
The Austrian forces were personally led by their militarily inexperienced 29-year-old emperor, Franz Joseph, and were divided into two field armies: 1st Army, containing three corps (III, IX and XI), under Franz von Wimpffen and 2nd Army, containing four corps (I, V, VII and VIII) under Franz von Schlick.
According to the allied battle plan formulated on 24 June, the Franco-Sardinian army moved east to deploy along the right river banks of the Mincio. The French were to occupy the villages of Solferino, Cavriana, Guidizzolo and Medole with, respectively, the 1st Corps (Baraguey d'Hilliers), 2nd Corps (Mac-Mahon), 3rd Corps (Canrobert), and 4th Corps (Niel). The four Sardinian divisions were to take Pozzolengo. After marching a few kilometers, the allies came into contact with the Austrian troops, who had entrenched themselves in those villages. In the absence of a fixed battle plan, the fighting which took place was uncoordinated, which is why so many casualties occurred, and it fell into three separate engagements, at Medole (south), Solferino (centre) and San Martino (north).
The battle started at Medole around 4 am. Marching towards Guidizzolo, the 4th Corps encountered an Austrian infantry regiment of the Austrian 1st Army. General Niel immediately decided to engage the enemy and deployed his forces east of Medole. This move prevented the three corps (III, IX and XI) of the Austrian 1st Army from aiding their comrades of the 2nd Army near Solferino, where the main French attacks took place.
Around 4:30 am the advance guard of the 1st Corps (three infantry divisions under Forey, de Ladmirault, and Bazaine, and a cavalry division under Desvaux) came into contact with the Austrian V Corps under Stadion near Castiglione delle Stiviere.
Near 3 pm the French reserves, formed by Canrobert's 3rd Corps and the Imperial Guard under Regnaud, attacked Cavriana, which was defended by the Austrian I Corps under Clam-Gallas, finally occupying it at 6 pm and thereby breaking through the Austrian center. This breakthrough forced a general retreat of both Austrian armies.
On the northern side of the battlefield the Sardinians, 4 divisions strong, encountered the Austrians around 7 am. A long battle erupted over control of Pozzolengo, San Martino and Madonna della Scoperta. The Austrian VIII Corps under Benedek had 39,000 men and 80 guns and was repeatedly attacked by a Sardinian force of 22,000 men with 48 guns. The Austrians were able to ward off three Sardinian attacks, inflicting heavy losses upon the attackers; at the end of day Benedek was ordered to retreat with the rest of the Austrian army, but ignored the order and kept resisting. At 20:00 a fourth Sardinian assault finally captured the contested hills, and Benedek withdrew. The main Sardinian contribution in the overall battle consisted in keeping Benedek's corps deeply engaged throughout the day and preventing the sending of two brigades as reinforcement to the force attacked by the French in Solferino.
The battle was a particularly gruelling one, lasting over nine hours and resulting in over 2,386 Austrian troops killed with 10,807 wounded and 8,638 missing or captured. The Allied armies also suffered a total of 2,492 killed, 12,512 wounded and 2,922 captured or missing. Reports of wounded and dying soldiers being shot or bayonetted on both sides added to the horror. In the end, the Austrian forces were forced to yield their positions, and the Allied French-Piedmontese armies won a tactical, but costly, victory. The Austrians retreated to the four fortresses of the Quadrilateral, and the campaign essentially ended.
This battle would have a long-term effect on the future conduct of military actions. Jean-Henri Dunant, who witnessed the aftermath of the battle in person, was motivated by the horrific suffering of wounded soldiers left on the battlefield to begin a campaign that would eventually result in the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the International Red Cross. The Movement organized the 150th anniversary commemoration of the battle between the 23 and 27 June 2009. The Presidency of the European Union adopted a declaration on the occasion stating that "This battle was also the grounds on which the international community of States has developed and adopted instruments of International Humanitarian Law, the international law rules relevant in times of armed conflict, in particular the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the 60th anniversary of which will be celebrated this year.
There is a circular tower, Tower of San Martino della Battaglia, dominating the area, a memorial to Victor Emmanuel II. It is 70 m high and was built in 1893. In the town there is a museum, with uniforms and weapons of the time, and an ossuary chapel.
At Solferino there is also a museum, displaying arms and mementos of the time, and an ossuary, containing the bones of thousands of victims.