Friday 6 January 2017

1859: The Battle of Solferino and the foundation of the Red Cross

Napoleon III and Eugenie in glory
I was set off on the train of thinking that led to this article when driving past a girl’s school some six-miles from my home. As I did I membered that I was passing the last resting place of the French Emperor Napoleon III, his Spanish-born Empress Eugenie and his son, Napoleon Eugene, the Prince Imperial, who was to die, incongruously, in British uniform during the Zulu War. Exiled after France’s collapse before Prussian professionalism in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Napoleon spent his last days in England. His wife was to retire to the house that is now the Farnborough Hill School and close by she built a mausoleum for herself, her husband and her son, whose body she had travelled to South Africa to recover. She lived on in sad retirement until 1920, the survivor of a bygone age. In an earlier blog of mine (Click here to read it) we met her at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the last moment of her  glory before war, death and exile enveloped her
Napoleon III's dream of military glory. The reality was somewhat different.
Napoloeon III’s “Second French Empire” lasted from 1852 to 1870 and for much of its existence was at war in one past of the world or another, not least because its mountebank emperor saw the pursuit of glory as one way of marginalising internal critics. The most extravagant and unlikely adventure was intervention in Mexico, and the short-lived installation of a puppet “emperor” there, and there were several colonial campaigns but the most bloody of Napoleon’s war were to take place in Europe.  The post-Waterloo nineteenth century in Europe is often seen as peaceful but it was so only in the sense that there was no continent-wide conflicts on the lines of the Napoleonic Wars or World War 1 There were however a number of brutal, if short-duration, struggles and they culminated in the Franco-Prussian War (Click here for an earlier blog about this). Unlike 20th Century conflicts there was no ideological element involved and the objectives were mainly focussed on balance-of-power considerations and on the desire to shift frontiers or control more territory.

French assets en route to the front
One of the bloodiest of these wars was fought in 1859 when Napoleon III decided to commit French power to support the tiny North-Italian kingdom of Piedmont against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Second Italian War of Independence. Italy as known today did still not exist as a single entity and major portions of Northern Italy were under Austro-Hungarian rule. Piedmont aspired – wholly successfully as it later turned out – not only to eject the Austro-Hungarians but to unite all the other Italian States under a single crown, that of Piedmont. Small in population and resources compared with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tiny Piedmont had little hope of success unless she could secure  a powerful ally – which proved to be France. Napoleon III’s price was to be Piedmont’s handing over of its the provinces of Savoy and Nice to France. The bargain was a cynical one and because of it large numbers of innocent men were to die and there would be misery and suffering on a vast scale.

Once assured of French support Piedmont set out to provoke the Austro-Hungarians, less by issuing predicable demands than be mobilising its troops. The Austrians sent an ultimatum demanding immediate demobilisation while the French Ambassador in Vienna told them that any move against Piedmont wold be considered a declaration of war on France. (The similarities with 1914 need no stressing). On 27th April 1859 the Austrians crossed the Piedmontese frontier and were then at war with both France and Piedmont.

Eager to earn military laurels in imitation of his uncle, Napoleon I, the French Emperor took personal command of the his army. It was at this time a respected fighting force – it had performed well in the Crimea five years before and many of its officers and men had also been hardened by fighting in Algeria. The army the French sent into Northern Italy was upwards of 100,000 men and the Piedmontese added another 40,000 to this. Faced by a 130,000 Austrian troops, the stage was set for the largest battle on European soil since the Napoleonic Wars.
Battle of Magenta - French troops pushing back Austrian "White Coats"

Pushing eastwards towards Milan from the Piedmontese capital of Turin, the combined French-Piedmontese force crashed into the Austrians at the village of Magenta on June 4th. The fighting was savage as the area was well suited to defence, a landscape of orchards seamed with streams and canals. The Austrians turned every house into a miniature fortress that must be taken by storm. Dogged though the defence was, the Austrians were forced back with dead, wounded and captured reaching some 10,000.The French victory was to be marked by a newly discovered aniline dye being called after it.

Emperor Franz Josef
Elated by success the French-Piedmontese juggernaut rolled on eastwards.  Three weeks later, on June 24th, it ran into four Austrian Armies, a total of 130,000 men, under the titular command of the 29-year old Emperor Franz-Josef, east of Milan and directly south of Lake Garda.  The Austrians had entrenched themselves, or had occupied strong-points,  on a ten-mile north south front and, once again, much of the fighting was to involve hand-to hand-storming of defended positions. The battle was to be the last at which two reigning monarchs were present. 

The French-Piedmontese attacks were launched at dawn and fighting was to continue for some fifteen hours. The sheer size of the battlefield, and the number of men involved, made coordination very difficult, especially on the French-Piedmontese side. The conflict therefore descended into three all-but-separate battles in flat farmland. In the north the Austrians, with the lake on their right flank, though outnumbered, resisted Piedmontese attacks successfully and retired in good order. The village of Solferino, in the centre, held out for most of the day but the French finally punched through in early evening. At the southern extremity, where the French were outnumbered, the Austrians held out successfully, counterattacking when appropriate, but, as at the northern end, it was necessary to fall back once the centre had been breached. They withdrew to the fortified area known as “The Quadrilateral” and were not followed – the war was essentially at an end.
French attack at Solferino village - the decisive point
The losses were horrendous –  over 2300 French and Piedmontese killed, over 12000 wounded and a further 2700 missing. – a 12% casualty rate. The corresponding figures for the Austrians were over 2300 killed, over 10,000 wounded and over 9000 missing – 17% of the men involved. The fighting was a merciless as is usually the case in close action and many wounded men on both sides were shot or bayoneted.
Solferino - the bloody aftermath
The suffering of the dead was over, but that of those surviving was immeasurable given the inadequate ambulance and medical services and the fact that battlefield surgery was performed without anaesthetics. Napoleon III was himself horrified and kept repeating “The poor fellows. The poor fellows. What a terrible thing was is!” Though this realisation that did not deter him from launching further wars in the future, he was sufficiently moved on this occasion to meet Emperor Franz Josef some days later and to make a separate peace with him.
Napoleon III walking, shocked, among the wounded
Henri Dunant
Though Nice and Savoy – Napoleon III’s price – remain French today (Mussolini got them back briefly for Italy  in WW2), the most significant long term consequence of the battle was the most unexpected. A Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant (1828-1910), who had encountered problems with the French authorities in Algeria about interests he had there, had sought out Napoleon in Northern Italy to seek his assistance. The result was that Dunant saw the appalling aftermath of Solferino, although he did not witness the battle himself. Shocked to the core by the carnage, but determined to do something to help, Dunant enlisted the local civilians, including women, to assist the wounded. Short as they were of the necessary resources, Dunant organised purchase of supplies and set up makeshift hospitals. He negotiated with the French to get captured Austrian doctors released and, without reference to difference in nationality, managed the initiative under the slogan "Tutti fratelli" (“All men are brothers”).

Dunant subsequently described his experiences in a book entitled  Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino), published in 1862. It not only described the battle and its aftermath but also the idea of a neutral organisation dedicated  to caring for wounded, regardless of nationality. He sent the book to many leading political and military figures in Europe. Support for such his ideas came first in Switzerland and the Geneva Society for Public Welfare took practical steps to establish what was to be the International Committee of the Red Cross. The symbol chosen was the reverse of the Swiss flag – a white cross on a red ground – and its simplicity, like its future Red Crescent counterpart in Muslim countries, made it an easy one to recognise even under battle conditions. The rest is history and Dunant’s legacy – and reputation – has outlasted that of the emperors whose ambitions prompted his actions.

Dunant in old age
Much of Dunant’s later life was unhappy. His business efforts did not prosper and he drifted away from the organisation  he had inspired. He descended into poverty and was dependent on friends in later years. It was only towards the end of his life that his personal achievement was fully recognised and in 1901 he was the joint recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. Dying nine years later, after suffering years of depression, his last words were "Where has humanity gone?"

Napoleon III lies forgotten in a mausoleum in Hampshire and Franz Josef was to remain on the Austro-Hungarian throne until 1916, leaving his empire plunged in a war that would destroy it two years after his death.  But Henri Dunant’s legacy lives on. His was a life to be more proud of than of either.

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  1. I must have driven close to that mausoleum many times, and until today had no idea that it contained Napoleon III and family !

  2. It's teh last thing you'd expect! But as Farnborough was the centre of British aviation development during the last years of Eugenie's life she would frequently have seen aircraft overhead. What a difference to the world she had known during the Second Empire!

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.