Tuesday, 5 May 2015

WAS in Italy (3)

Continuing from where we left off, we now see the tentative but disastrous first attempts to climb into Italy via the Alps and the movements in central-northern Italy that led to the first battle.


On February 1st, 1742, Charles Emmanuel and the Austrian commander in Italy, the 64-year old Marshal von Traun, cut a deal (the Convention of Turin). A portion of the Piedmontese army (15,000 foot and 3,200 horse) would occupy Parma, Piacenza, and Pavia, and place itself under von Traun’s command. Von Traun would use these troops and his own to invade Modena. The King of Sardinia agreed to shut up about Milan until campaigning was over.
He also reserved the right to recall his men with a month’s notice (assuming a better deal could be made with the French). If all went well, Austria would have a decent defensive  position and Piedmont would have control of Modena – not high on Charles Emmanuel’s wish list, but a bargaining chip nonetheless. The only person who was not consulted in the matter was Duce Francesco III d’Este, ruler of Modena.

Aware that his small state was about to become a battleground, d’Este acquiesced in its occupation, but secretly contacted the Bourbons with a view to handing over the fortifications of Modena and Mirandola to them. In late March, von Traun, short of both cash and men, crossed the Po at Revere and entered Modena, while the Piedmontese guarded the flanks in
Parma and the Milanese. Initially welcomed by d’Este, the Allies paused. Charles  Emmanuel, who fancied himself a defender of the Church, would not agree to a crossing of the Panaro into the Bolognese, which was Papal territory. (Or, perhaps it was merely an excuse not to be dragged all the way to Naples).

Meanwhile d’Este signed a secret agreement with Spain (April 30th), denying to all and sundry that he had done anything of the kind. On the 6th of May, d’Ormea, representing Charles Emmanuel, confronted the duke with the text of the treaty. On May 10th, the Piedmontese crossed the Enza River into Modena, and by the 16th they were on the Panaro. D’Este was given until the end of the month to join the Allies or be declared an enemy (married into the Bourbon family, he was suspect in any case). The betrayer betrayed d’Este fled to the Spanish camp. Many of his men would later join him, but for now, they were under siege.

The Spanish were still organising themselves. Their army was not fully assembled and stocked until the end of April. It then advanced up the Via Æmelia to Bologna, but despite repeated urgings from Madrid, did not attack the enemy. De Montemar held a council of war to officially prove that attacking would be a bad idea. Still, the citadel of Modena,  commanded by the Cavalliere de Negro, a Genoese, was holding out. Something ought to be done to help. At this time, the Napolispans had 25,000 foot and 3,200 horse facing 25,000 foot and 5,000 horse on the other side of a formidable river. De Montemar decided to divert the Austro-Sardinians by taking Mirandola, on the lower Panaro. This operation involved shifting his base to Ferrara and marching across the enemy front. Von Traun was unperturbed. He had sufficient forces now (reinforced by 4,800 Croats and Slavonians) to hold the river and prosecute the siege of Modena simultaneously. He rather hoped de Montemar would attack him.

The Spanish established a bridgehead over the river, but declined to do more. Modena’s 3,000 defenders capitulated on June 29th. A short pause ensued. Maria Theresa, having
arranged a truce with Frederick of Prussia (Kleinschnellendorf), felt confident enough to attempt the reconquest of Naples and issued orders accordingly. This Charles Emmanuel would not agree to because Maria Theresa refused to reward him with any Milanese territory (and driving the Bourbons out of Italy entirely would mean decades of Austrian bullying).

Von Traun also had reservations – on operational grounds. But de Montemar’s army was in a bad way. The British had strengthened their Mediterranean forces (now under Admiral Mathews), being more committed to Continental involvement since the recent fall of their pacific chief minister, Robert Walpole. Three ships sent to the Adriatic were sufficient to cut the Spanish supply lines and destroy their siege train while it was still afloat.


During July, de Montemar, unable to help the Duchy of Modena, retreated, first to Ferrara, and then to Rimini (August 3rd) via Ravenna, using the Po to move his heavy equipment
and supplies. The Allies followed, but were hampered by difficulties with their transport. It was not until the 7th of August that they encamped at Cesena, on the bank of the Rubicon.

De Montemar was now in a near panic. Rumours that Austrian troops from Trieste were to be landed behind him by the Royal Navy led him to retreat to Fano, and then over the Apennines. But by the 22nd of August he felt safe again. The Neapolitans were at Spoleto and his own men at Foligno, ready to cover the approaches to the Kingdom of Naples.

At this point both sides’ plans unravelled. Charles Emmanuel, with his HQ at Reggio, learned that Spanish troops based in France had invaded the Duchy of Savoy. By the 19th of August, he and his army were gone; the King of Sardinia urging the Austrians to respect the wishes of the Pope and leave the latter’s territory. Some Piedmontese units were dropped off at Bologna and Parma but most marched back to Turin.

Coincidentally, on August 19th Commodore Martin of the Royal Navy arrived off the port of Naples with 5 ships of the line, 4 smaller vessels, and 4 bomb ketches (carrying large
mortars). His instructions were to insist on Don Carlos withdrawing from the war. Non-compliance would mean the destruction of the town of Naples. This was very bad timing for
Don Carlos. Naples was already partially destroyed – by a major earthquake the day before. With 300,000 defenceless citizens under the gun, the King of Naples had little choice.
And anyway, he was only in the war because his mamma made him. This left the Spanish with only 13,000 men (1,300 horse) – too few to take advantage of the disappearance of the

[Less well known is a second bit of gunboat diplomacy off Genoa. Executed soon after the Naples affair, it brought a republic that had been leaning toward the Bourbons back to strict neutrality, and allowed Britain to unload her yearly Austrian subsidy at that port, rather than having to go all the way round to Trieste.]

Respecting the Pope’s wishes, and too weak to advance in any case, von Traun and his remaining 10,000 men retired behind the Panaro for the winter. De Montemar and de Castelar, after receiving peremptory orders to attack in early September and failing to do so, were relieved of command and replaced by the Conde de Gages. For the next four years, this would be his war. A Walloon who had risen from the ranks to become a field marshal, de Gages soon restored the army’s morale. He was an excellent soldier and commander; unfortunately, he was resented as a foreigner – the usual story. Charged with attacking, de Gages advanced to Bologna, arriving there on October 5th, but with the season so advanced, chose to go into winter quarters himself.


“[Savoy is] a barrier between us and France…it keeps her at a distance, so that she cannot suddenly fall on Piedmont.”
Charles Emmanuel

While von Traun and de Montemar’s armies danced the saraband, things had been heating up in the West. Don Felipe, the Queen of Spain’s second son, asked to go with de Montemar to Spain, but his mother demurred, suggesting he instead attend to his new wife, who was with child. Then, of course, the naval situation became unfavourable. It will be remembered that a third portion of the expeditionary army (13,700 foot and 3,800 horse) had still to sail.
This force, gathered at Barcelona, was placed under the command of the Conde de Glimes and ordered to march overland (withFrench permission) to Antibes.

[Antibes was the normal staging post when taking ship to Genoa or the Tuscan coast, since the road along the Riviera itself was virtually nonexistent.]

De Glimes marched out with the army, and the Infante followed in state, with 24 coaches, 59 barouches, 27 wagons, and 462 mules. Languedoc and Provence were impoverished by his passing, and the peasantry outraged by the indiscipline of the Spanish soldiers. Leaving Madrid in February 1742, and Barcelona in March, the Infante arrived at Antibes in April. The army caught up with him in May.

Some months of waiting now ensued. Sea transport to Tuscany or Genoa was out of the question. The King of Sardinia had garrisoned his borders in strength, particularly the line of the Var River in the County of Nice, and in any case, the French were still deep in hopeful negotiations with him. Now came one of those wonderful little moments that make 18th Century politics so much more interesting than those of the present day.

The Queen of Spain had a suggestion for Charles Emmanuel. Why not take advantage of his “month’s notice” clause to withdraw his services from Austria, and at the same time strip the fortress of Mantua of its defences. He rebuked the Queen for such a dishonourable suggestion. Infuriated, she ordered an immediate attack on Charles Emmanuel’s possessions.

For the French, the best route of attack into Italy was a central one, staged from their bases in the Dauphiné, but the Spanish just wanted to cause damage. Deeming the Var too formidable, de Glimes (much to the relief of the inhabitants of Antibes) marched north to attack the Duchy of Savoy – in April, Louis XV had given permission for the Spanish to stage attacks from French territory. Arriving at Barcelonnette on August 13th, de Glimes there contemplated a French suggestion of moving into Piedmont but thought better (or worse) of it. Instead he marched to Briançon and over the Col de Galiber to St Michel de Mauriennne.

Savoy was more or less empty of defenders. It could not be adequately defended, lying on the wrong side of the Alps, with all lines of communication snowbound in winter. The Spanish contented themselves with occupying the southern reaches of the duchy, around Montemélian, and with nothing further to do beyond alienating the local population, went into billets.

A Bad Mistake

The news reached Charles Emmanuel at Reggio. Reaching Turin by September 10th, the King held a council of war. He was advised by d’Ormea not to attempt a relief operation,
especially so late in the season, but some of his generals were eager for action. 14-15,000 men were assembled, most at Aosta, but some at Novalesa (by Mont Cenis).

De Glimes had detachments at Moutiers and St. Jean, and posts at St. Michel, St. André, and Modane. The main Piedmontese column from Aosta was ordered to cross the Little St. Bernard Pass and clear the valley of the Isère River. This column would also send detachments via the side valleys to cut off the Spaniards’ retreat. The column at Mont Cenis was to do likewise with the valley of the Arc, isolating the defenders with flanking detachments that would converge on Moutiers.

De Glimes did not wait to discover whether this was a good plan or not, simply retreating everyone over the French border at Fort Barraux. (In mitigation, he had fears for the Infante’s safety after a local Abbé maliciously suggested nothing would be easier than a Sabaudian kidnapping). The French kindly sent word to Charles Emmanuel that an attack against the Spanish on their soil would be considered an act of war.

For Charles Emmanuel, the question remained whether to stay in Savoy over the winter, or leave. He chose to stay, and secured the border, while sending a letter of protest to the
French and other interested powers. De Glimes received the usual order to attack from Madrid, plus some reinforcements, but declined and sent a request for even more reinforcements. De Glimes was then sacked. The Queen of Spain also said she wished she could sack Don Felipe, calling him “the second edition of Montemar” and ferociously declaring it would better for him to be dead than dishonoured.

De Glimes’ replacement was the cordially detested Marqués dela Miña (he had been Ambassador to France at one time). De la Miña was not skilful, but he was reliable. He once stated he would march his army into the sea if ordered to do so.

Arriving at Fort Barraux on December 5th, de la Miña first told de Glimes he was fired, and then contemplated the latter’s army. The Spanish now had 20,000 well-rested men against
10,000 rather worn Sabaudians. Charles Emmanuel had positioned his men well, in an arc from the Château d’Apremont to Montmélian, to the Isère, to La Rochette,barring all routes into Savoy from Fort Barraux. His main body lay at Montmélian. De Glimes had been counselled to flank this position by bridging the Isère, feinting against d’Apremont on his
right, and doubling back to cross the river and occupy Fréterive, cutting the Piedmontese retreat. This plan was too complicated for de Glimes, who chose to do nothing instead. And, when he left the army, he neglected to inform de la Miña about the plan.

The latter’s own plan was superficially similar, but much less ambitious. The attack would be made at d’Apremont (on the Spanish right), with a demonstration on the Isère. The advance was begun on December 18th. Charles Emmanuel drew his army up at Francin to cover all eventualities. When he was satisfied that the action on the Isère was a feint, he closed up to d’Apremont, and also placed a watch on Chambéry (the old capital of Savoy).

For several days the two armies faced each other across an impracticable marsh. The Sabaudian garrison of d’Apremont capitulated. Unable to challenge an army twice his own in size, the King of Sardinia issued orders for a general retreat (December 28th) over the passes to Piedmont. The Spanish followed in a leisurely manner, letting the weather do most of the work for them. A rearguard action was magnified by de la Miña into a glorious
victory (and he received a promotion to Captain-General in consequence). However, even the Spanish found it impossible to pass the mountains. They went into winter quarters.

Charles Emmanuel later declared that this campaign was the worst mistake he ever made, and absolutely refused to try it again. Thousands of Piedmontese soldiers died of exposure and exhaustion, or were crippled for life. The failure also damaged his credibility as an ally – the Austrians suspected him of reaching an accommodation with the Spanish. The latter retained Savoy for the duration of the war.


“I hope that your Majesty will also be good enough to obtain the establishment of the Infant Don Philip, my son, the Infanta, your daughter. Your Majesty certainly could not give me a
greater pleasure than that.”
Philip V to Louis XV; from a letter of condolence on the death of
Cardinal Fleury.

The Battle of Campo Santo was an affair of honour rather than a serious attempt to invade Lombardy. Since October of 1742, the armies facing each other over the Panaro had been in winter quarters. The Spanish, under de Gages, had lost the Neapolitans, but received enough reinforcements  (mainly amnestied deserters, but also new troops brought in by
blockade runners) to bring their strength up to 15,000 men. The Austrians were much weaker, although by the time the campaign opened they would have 11,800, including some
Piedmontese. But the Panaro was a formidable obstacle.

The fly in the ointment was the Queen of Spain, who, after the “great victory” in Savoy, believed Charles Emmanuel was done for. Now de Gages should finish off the Austrians and complete the conquest of Italy. De Gages ignored her letters for a while, but eventually he received one (January 31st 1743) that told him either to attack or resign. He had three days to decide. Ejaculating the Spanish equivalent of “Jawohl, mein Führer!” the marshal concentrated his men at Bologna and plotted the best way to get at the enemy.

[Since it took a minimum of three weeks for a letter from Madrid to reach Bologna, one suspects The Farnese of gauging how many letters it would require to get a particular commander moving and just sending them all off one after another without waiting for a reply. “Let’s see, 8 for Gages, 10 for la Miña, 12 for Glimes, 1 for Montemar– oh, we only need a letter of recall for him…”]

Ideally, the Spanish ought to chase off the Austrians and lay siege to Mirandola or Modena. However, de Gages’ siege train lay at Orbitello (north of Rome; sent there by de Montemar
months before, with a view of loaning them to the Infante… or something… who knew for sure with Montemar). So it would be a straight fight for the sake of Spanish honour and de Gages’ job.

Using the ruse of a grand ball held the same day, the Spanish left Bologna on the 1st of February, bridging the Panaro at Campo Santo (“Holy Ground”) on the 3rd. The enemy was still commanded by von Traun, not the easiest man to deceive. Von Traun knew of the Spanish move from spies in Bologna. Although weaker, he had the advantage of position, and, he felt, in quality of troops. The Sabaudian garrisons of Parma and Piacenza, and Austrian forces north of the Po, would not be required. By the 5th, his army was  concentrated at Bomporto.

The day before, de Gages had marched up the Austrian side of the river, got halfway to Bomporto, and learned that the Austrians were ready for him. He retired toward Campo Santo, hoping to cross the river before he was caught. Encamped at the bridgehead, the Spanish were funnelling their baggage across the river, but progress was slow. Eventually things became so snarled that a whole day had to be set aside to sort out the tangle. By now the Austrians were camped only three miles away, and obviously intended to attack. Unable to retreat without heavy losses, de Gages formed up for battle.

                                                            To be continued…….

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