The sanguinary victory at Magenta had opened the gates of Milan to the French Army, and carried the enthusiasm of the Italians to its highest pitch. Pavia, Lodi and Cremona had seen their liberators approach, and were welcoming them rapturously. The Austrians had withdrawn from their lines on the Adda, the Oglio, and the Chiese, and, determined now to take a glorious revenge for their former defeats, had massed on the banks of the Mincio a considerable force, resolutely led by the brave young Austrian Emperor himself.
On the seventeenth of June, King Victor-Emmanuel arrived at Brescia, where he received the warmest ovations from a people who had been oppressed for ten long years, and who looked to the son of Charles-Albert as their saviour and hero. The next day Napoleon made a triumphal entry into the same city, amid general enthusiasm. One and all rejoiced at the opportunity of showing their gratitude to the ruler who came to help them win back their liberty and their independence.
On June 21, the Emperor of the French and the King of Sardinia left Brescia, a day behind their armies. On the twenty-second Lonato, Castenedolo, and Montechiaro were occupied; and, on the evening of the twenty-third, the Emperor, as Commander-in-Chief, had, given explicit orders for the army of King Victor-Emmanuel, which was camped at Desenzano and formed the left wing of the Allied Army, to attack Pozzolengo on the morning of the twenty-fourth. Marshal Baraguey d'Hilliers was to march on Solferino; Marshal the Duke of Magenta on Cavriana; General Niel was to go to Guidizzolo, and Marshal Canrobert to Medola, while the Imperial Guard was ordered to Castiglione. These united forces constituted a total strength of one hundred and fifty thousand men, and four hundred pieces of artillery.
The Emperor of Austria had at his disposal in Lombardy nine army corps, numbering together some two hundred and fifty thousand men, his invading force having been augmented by the garrisons of Verona and Mantua. Following the advice of Field-Marshal Baron Hess, the Imperial troops, after leaving Milan and Brescia, had consistently retreated, with a view to concentrating between the Adige and the Mincio all the forces that Austria then had in Italy. But the strength of the force that was to be engaged consisted of only seven corps, amounting to one hundred and seventy thousand men, supported by approximately five hundred pieces of artillery.
The Imperial headquarters had been removed from Verona to Villafranca, and then to Valeggio, and orders were given to the troops to re-cross the Mincio at Peschiera, Salionze, Valeggio, Ferri, Goito and Mantua. The bulk of the army took quarters between Pozzolengo and Guidizzolo, so as to attack the Franco-Sardinian Army between the Mincio and the Chiese, following the suggestion of several of the most experienced Field-Marshals.
The Austrian forces under the Emperor formed two armies: The first was led by Field-Marshal Count Wimpffen, whose command included the corps commanded by Prince Edmond of Schwarzenberg, Count Schaffgotsche, and Baron Veigl, as well as Count Zedtwitz' Cavalry Division. This was the left wing of the army, and had taken up a position in the neighborhood of Volta, Guidizzolo, Medola and Castel-Goffredo. The Second Army was commanded by General Count Schlick, who had under his orders Field-Marshals Count Clams-Gallas, Count Stadion, Baron von Zobel, and Ritter von Benedek, besides Count Mendsdorff's Cavalry Division. This was the right wing, holding Cavriana, Solferino, Pozzolengo, and San Martino.
Thus, on the morning of the twenty-fourth, the Austrians occupied every point of vantage between Pozzolengo, Solferino, Cavriana and Guidizzolo. They had placed their formidable array of artillery along a line of low hills to form the center of an immense attacking line, thus making it possible for the right and left wings to withdraw, if necessary, under the cover of these fortified heights, which they considered to be impregnable.
Although they were marching against each other, the two opposing forces did not expect to meet and join battle as soon as they did. The Austrians hoped that only a part of the Allied Army had crossed the Chiese; they could not know the Emperor Napoleon's plan, and their information was not accurate.
Nor did the Allies have any idea of coming face to face so suddenly with the Emperor of Austria's army. Their reconnaissances, their observations, the reports of scouts, and the balloon ascensions made on the twenty-third, had given no indication of a counter-offensive or of an attack.
So, although both sides were fully expecting that a great battle would come shortly, the encounter between the Austrians and the Franco-Sardinians on Friday, June 24, was really unlooked-for, since both adversaries were mistaken as to each other's movements.
Everyone has heard, or may have read, some account of the battle of Solferino. The memory of it is so vivid that no one has forgotten it, especially as the consequences of that day are still being felt in many European countries.
I was a mere tourist with no part whatever in this great conflict; but it was my rare privilege, through an unusual train of circumstances, to witness the moving scenes that I have resolved to describe. In these pages I give only my personal impressions; so my readers should not look here for specific details, nor for information on strategic matters; these things have their place in other writings.
On that memorable twenty-fourth of June, more than 300,000 men stood facing each other; the battle line was five leagues long, and the fighting continued for more than fifteen hours.
The Austrian Army, after enduring the fatigues of a difficult all-night march on the twenty-third, had to withstand the fierce onslaught of the Allied Army at daybreak on the twenty-fourth. Later they had to bear the intense heat of a stifling atmosphere, and hunger and thirst as well, since, with the exception of a double ration of brandy, they got practically no rations issued to them during the whole of that Friday. As for the French Army, it was on the march before daybreak and had nothing but morning coffee. The fighting troops, therefore, and especially those who were unfortunate enough to be wounded, were in a state of extreme exhaustion at the close of that terrible battle!
About three o'clock in the morning, the First and Second Corps, commanded by Marshals Baraguey d'Hilliers and de Mac-Mahon, moved forward to attack Solferino and Cavriana, but the heads of their columns had scarcely gone beyond Castiglione when they found the Austrian outposts before them, ready to stem their advance.
The alarm is given in both armies; on all sides are heard bugles sounding the charge, and the roll of drums. The Emperor Napoleon, who has passed the night at Montechiaro, sets forth hastily for Castiglione.
By six o'clock firing has begun in earnest. The Austrians advance, in perfect formation, along the beaten paths, with their yellow and black battle flags, blazoned with the German Imperial Eagle, floating above the compact masses of white-coats.
Among all the troops which are to take part in the battle, the French Guard affords a truly imposing sight. The day is dazzlingly clear, and the brilliant Italian sunlight glistens on the shining armour of Dragoons and Guides, Lancers and Cuirassiers.
At the very beginning of the action, the Emperor Francis Joseph had left his headquarters and removed to Volta with his staff. He was accompanied by the Archdukes of the House of Lorraine, among whom were to be observed the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and the Duke of Modena.
The first encounter took place amid the difficulties of ground which was entirely strange to the Allies. The French Army was forced to beat a way through row upon row of mulberry trees with grapevines strung between them, amounting to a real obstacle. The ground was broken up in many places by great dried-up ditches, and by long walls some three or five feet high, wide at the base and tapering to the top. The horses had to clear these walls, and cross the ditches.
The Austrians, from their vantage points on the hills, swept the French with artillery fire and rained on them a steady hail of shells, case- and grape-shot. Soil and dust, raised by this immense cloud of projectiles as they thundered into the ground, mingled with the thick fumes of smoking guns and shells. Facing the thunder of these batteries, roaring and spitting forth death upon them, the French rushed forward like an opposing storm sweeping from the plain, to attack the positions they were determined to secure.
During the torrid midday heat, the fighting that rages on all sides grows more and more furious. Compact columns of men throw themselves upon each other with the impetuosity of a destructive torrent that carries everything before it; French regiments, in skirmishing order, fling themselves upon the Austrian masses, which are constantly reinforced, and become more and more solid and menacing, resisting attack with the strength of steel walls. Whole divisions threw off their knapsacks in order to be able to charge the enemy more freely with fixed bayonets. As one battalion is repulsed, another immediately replaces it. Every mound, every height, every rocky crag, is the scene of a fight to the death; bodies lie in heaps on the hills and in the valleys.
Here is a hand-to-hand struggle in all its horror and frightfulness; Austrians and Allies trampling each other under foot, killing one another on piles of bleeding corpses, felling their enemies with their rifle butts, crushing skulls, ripping bellies open with sabre and bayonet. No quarter is given; it is a sheer butchery; a struggle between savage beasts, maddened with blood and fury. Even the wounded fight to the last gasp. When they have no weapon left, they seize their enemies by the throat and tear them with their teeth.
A little further on, it is the same picture, only made the more ghastly by the approach of a squadron of cavalry, which gallops by, crushing dead and dying beneath its horses' hoofs. One poor wounded man has his jaw carried away; another his head shattered; a third, who could have been saved, has his chest beaten in. Oaths and shrieks of rage, groans of anguish and despair, mingle with the whinnying of horses.
Here come the artillery, following the cavalry, and going at full gallop. The guns crash over the dead and wounded, strewn pell-mell on the ground. Brains spurt under the wheels, limbs are broken and torn, bodies mutilated past recognition---the soil is literally puddled with blood, and the plain littered with human remains.
The French troops climbed the mounds, and clambered up the steep hills and rocky slopes with the most fiery ardour, under the Austrian fire, with shells and grape-shot bursting over them. A few detachments of picked men, worn out with their efforts and bathed in sweat, would just manage to gain the top of a hill---then at once they would fall again like an avalanche on the Austrians, smashing into them, driving them from another position, scattering them and pursuing them to the very bottoms of ravines and ditches.
The positions of the Austrians were excellent ones, entrenched as they were in the houses and churches of Medola, Solferino and Cavriana. But nothing stopped the carnage, arrested or lessened it. There was slaughter in the mass, and slaughter man by man; every fold of ground was carried at the point of the bayonet, every position was defended foot by foot. Villages were won, house after house and farm after farm; each in turn became the stage of a siege. Every door, window, and courtyard was a ghastly scene of butchery.
Frightful disorder was caused in the Austrian lines by the French grape-shot, which was effective at prodigious ranges. It covered the hills with dead, and inflicted casualties even among the distant reserves of the German Army. But if the Austrians gave ground, it was only step by step, and they soon resumed the offensive; they rallied again and again, only to be scattered once more.
On the plain, clouds of dust from the roads were thrown skyward by the wind, making dense clouds that darkened the air and blinded the fighting troops.
Now and again the fighting somewhere would seem to stop for a time, only to be renewed with greater force. The gaps made in the Austrian lines by the determined, murderous French attack, were immediately filled by fresh reserves. First from one side, then from another, drums would beat and bugles sound for the charge.
The guard behaved with really noble courage, only rivalled by the bravery and daring of the light infantry and troops of the line. The Zouaves sprang forward with fixed bayonets, charging like wild beasts, with furious shouts. French cavalry charged Austrian cavalry; Uhlans and Hussars stabbed and tore at each other; even the horses, excited by the heat of battle, played their part in the fray, attacking the horses of the enemy and biting them furiously, while their riders slashed and cut at one another.
The fury of the battle was such that in some places, when ammunition was exhausted and muskets broken, the men went on fighting with stones and fists. The Croats finished off every man they encountered; they killed the Allied wounded with the butts of their muskets; the Algerian sharpshooters too, despite all their leaders could do to keep their savagery within bounds, gave no quarter to wounded Austrian officers and men, and charged the enemy ranks with beastlike roars and hideous cries.
The most powerful positions were taken, lost and retaken, only to be lost again and again recaptured. Everywhere men fell by thousands, with gaping wounds in limbs or bellies, riddled with bullets, mortally wounded by shot and shell of every kind.
The onlooker, standing on the hills around Castiglione, though he might not be able to see accurately what was the plan of the battle, could at least understand that the Austrians were trying to break through the centre of the Allied troops, so as to delay and hold up the attack on Solferino. This town's admirable situation inevitably made it the pivot-point of the battle. The onlooker could guess the efforts made by the Emperor of the French to establish contact between the different corps of his Army, so that they should be able to give each other help and support.
The Emperor Napoleon, sizing up the situation quickly and accurately, realized that the Austrian troops lacked strong and unified leadership. He ordered the Army Corps of Baraguey d'Hilliers and Mac-Mahon, and then his own guard, under the brave Marshal Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angely, to attack simultaneously the entrenchments at Solferino and at San Cassiano. His object was to break the centre of the enemy line, made up of the Army Corps of Stadion, Clam-Gallas and Zobel, which came singly one after the other, to defend these important positions.
At San Martino, the brave and dauntless Field-Marshal Benedek, with only a part of the second Austrian Army, stood out all day long against the Sardinian troops. He seemed electrified by the presence of his King, and fought heroically under his orders.
The right wing of the Allied Army, made up of the Corps commanded by General Niel and Marshal Canrobert, resisted with indomitable energy the first German Army, under Count Wimpffen. Schwarzenberg's, Schaffgotsche's, and de Veigl's Corps could not succeed in acting together.
Marshal Canrobert did not put his available troops into action in the morning, but kept on the alert. This was an entirely reasonable course, and in exact conformity with Napoleon's orders. Nevertheless, in the end, the greater part of his Army, notably Renault's and Trochu's Divisions, and General Partouneaux' Cavalry, played an active part in the battle. While Marshal Canrobert at first held back because he expected to see Prince Edward of Liechtenstein's Army descending on him (a force belonging to neither of the two Austrian Armies, which had left Mantua that very morning and was a great source of anxiety to Napoleon), Liechtenstein's Corps, for its part, was absolutely paralyzed with fear of the approach of the Army of Prince Napoleon, one of whose divisions (Autemarre's Division) was on the way from Piacenza.
General Forey and General de Ladmirault, with their brave troops, bore the first brunt of the battle on that famous day. After indescribable fighting they managed to take the heights and hills leading to the lovely Mount of Cypresses, immortalized, like the Tower and Cemetery of Solferino, by the dreadful slaughter committed there. The Mount of Cypresses was at last taken by assault, and on its summit Colonel d'Auvergne hoisted a handkerchief on the point of his sword in sign of victory.
But such success was dearly bought by the heavy casualties suffered by the Allies. General Ladmirault had his shoulder broken by a bullet, and would scarcely take time to be bandaged at a field hospital set up in the chapel of a small village. In spite of his severe wound the brave man returned on foot into the fight and was cheering on his battalions when the second bullet struck his left leg.
General Forey, always calm and impassive in the midst of difficulties, was wounded in the hip, the white hood of his military cloak was shot through, and his aides were hit at his side. One of them, Captain Kervenoël, who was only twenty-five years old, had his head carried away by a bursting shell.
At the foot of the Mount of Cypresses, General Dieu fell from his horse with a mortal wound as he waved his skirmishers forward. General Douay was wounded, and not far from him his brother, Colonel Douay, fell dead. Brigadier-General Auger had his left arm splintered by a ball, and won the rank of General of Division on the battlefield that was to cost him his life.
The French officers, marching in the lead, waving their swords and encouraging the soldiers behind them by their example, were hit again and again at the head of their battalions, for their decorations and epaulettes made them targets for the Tyrolean Light Infantry.
What tragic, dramatic scenes of every kind, what moving catastrophes were enacted! In the First African Light Infantry Regiment, beside Lieutenant- Colonel Laurans des Ondes who fell suddenly, mortally wounded, Second Lieutenant de Salignac Fenelon, only twenty-two years old, broke an Austrian square, and paid with his life for his brilliant exploit. Colonel de Maleville, at the farm of Casa Nova, found himself outnumbered and his battalion's ammunition gone. Seizing the regiment's flag, he rushed forward in the face of terrific fire from the enemy, shouting: " Every man who loves his flag, follow me!" His soldiers, weak with hunger and exhaustion, charged behind him with lowered bayonets. A bullet broke de Maleville's leg, but in spite of cruel suffering he got a man to hold him on his horse and remained in command. Nearby, Hebert was killed commanding his battalion, giving his life to save an Eagle; and as the battle surged over his prostrate form, he found strength to cry to his men before he died: " Courage, boys!"
On the Tower Hill at Solferino, Lieutenant Moneglia, of the Light Infantry of the Guards, captured single-handed six pieces of artillery, four of them with their teams. The Austrian Colonel who commanded them surrendered his sword. Lieutenant de Guiseul, carrying his regimental flag, was surrounded with his battalion by a force ten times the size of his own. He was shot down, and as he rolled on the ground he clutched his precious charge to his heart. A sergeant who seized the flag to save it from the enemy had his head blown off by a cannon-ball; a captain who next grasped the flag-staff was wounded too, and his blood stained the torn and broken banner. Each man who held it was wounded, one after another, officers and soldiers alike, but it was guarded to the last with a wall of dead and living bodies. In the end the glorious, tattered flag remained in the hands of a Sergeant-Major of Colonel Abattucci's regiment.
Major de la Rochefoucault Liancourt, a dauntless African cavalry man, charged the Hungarian squares, but his horse was riddled with bullets under him, and he fell, with two gunshot wounds, and was captured by the Hungarians, who reformed square.
At Guidizzolo, Prince Charles de Windisch-Graetz, a brave Austrian Colonel, tried vainly at the head of his regiment to recapture the Casa Nova position. The unfortunate Prince, like the generous noble hero that he was, braved certain death, and even when mortally wounded he continued to give orders. His soldiers held him in their arms, standing motionless under a hail of bullets, supporting him to the last. They knew they must die, but they would not leave their colonel whom they loved and respected. He soon breathed his last.
Field-Marshals Count Crenneville and Count Palffy were also severely wounded while fighting very bravely, and so were Field-Marshal Blomberg and Major-General Baltin, in Baron von Veigl's Corps. Baron Sturmfeder, Baron Pidoll, and Colonel von Mumb were killed. Lieutenants von Steiger and von Fischer fell bravely, not far from the spot where the young Prince of Isenburg, more fortunate, was picked up from the field with a spark of life still in him.
Marshal Baraguey d'Hilliers, followed by Generals Leboeuf, Bazaine, de Negrier, Douay, d'Altou and Forgeot, and Colonels Cambriels and Micheler, pushed into the village of Solferino. The village was defended by Count Stadion, and Field-Marshals Palffy and Sternberg, under whose command the Bils, Puchner, Gaal, Koller and Festetics Brigades succeeded for a long time in repulsing the most violent attacks. General Camou, with his light infantry and riflemen, won distinction in these assaults, as did Colonels Brincourt and de Taxis, who were wounded, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hemard, who was twice shot through the breast.
General Desvaux, brave and imperturbable as ever, met the fierce onslaught of the Hungarian Infantry at the head of his cavalry in a fearful encounter. He was always at the head of his Division, throwing the steely strength of his squadrons against the Army Corps of de Veigl, Schwarzenberg, and Schaffgotsche, in support of General Trochu's vigorous offensive at Guidizzolo and at Rebecco. In the same sector, General Morris and General Partouneaux distinguished themselves, fighting against Mensdorff's cavalry.
Marshal de Mac-Mahon, with General de la Motterouge, General Decaen and the Cavalry of the Guard, succeeded in reaching the San Cassiano and Cavriana hills, thanks to the strong defense put up by General Niel, who stood firm on the plain of Medola, with Generals de Failly, Vinoy, and de Luzy, against the three strong divisions of Count Wimpffen's Army. De Mac-Mahon worked his way round the high ground that formed the key to these positions, and afforded an approach to the parallel lines of hills, and finally established himself opposite the place where Field-Marshals Clam-Gallas and Zobel's troops were concentrated. But the noble Prince of Hesse, one of the heroes of Austria's Army, a worthy foe for the illustrious conqueror of Magenta, after having fought valiantly at San Cassiano, held the three slopes of Mount Fontana against continuous attacks. General Sevelinges had his field guns dragged up under the Austrian fire, with Grenadiers of the Guard to pull them, since the horses could not manage the sharp slope. A chain of Grenadiers calmly passed up ammunition to the artillerymen from their caissons, which had been left behind on the plain, so that the guns that had been moved forward to their unusual position on the heights might continue to pour their thunderbolts on the enemy. General de la Motterouge finally mastered Cavriana, in spite of fierce resistance and constantly renewed assaults by the young German officers, who led their detachments back into the fight again and again. General Maneque's Light Infantry refilled their empty cartridge-boxes from those of the grenadiers, but their ammunition was soon once more exhausted, and they then charged up the hills between Solferino and Cavriana with fixed bayonets. With General Mellinet's help, they succeeded in taking these positions in the face of considerable opposition. Rebecco, after changing hands repeatedly, was finally recaptured and held by General Renault.
In an assault on Mount Fontana, the Algerian sharpshooters had heavy casualties. Their Colonels, Laure and Herment, were killed, and their officers fell in great numbers, but this only served to redouble their fury. Vowing to avenge their dead, they rushed at their enemies with African rage and Mussulman fanaticism, killing frantically and without quarter or mercy, like tigers that have tasted blood. The Croats would throw row themselves to the ground, or hide in ditches, until their adversaries drew close---then rise suddenly and shoot them down at point-blank range.
At San Martino, Captain Pallavicini, an officer of Bersaglieri, was wounded; his soldiers lifted him in their arms and carried him to a chapel where he was given first aid. But the Austrians, who had been momentarily repulsed, returned to the charge and forced their way into the chapel. The Bersaglieri were not strong enough to resist them, and had to desert their commander; whereupon the Croats picked up heavy stones from the doorway and crushed the skull of the poor Captain, whose brains spattered their tunics.
From the midst of all this fighting, which went on and on all over the battlefield, arose the oaths and curses of men of all the different nations engaged---men, of whom many had been made into murderers at the age of twenty!
In the thickest of the fight, Napoleon's chaplain, the Abbé Laine, went from one field hospital to the next bringing consolation and sympathy to the dying. The death-dealing storm of steel and sulphur and lead which swept the ground shook the earth beneath his feet, and more and more martyrs were added to the human hecatomb as the firing lines ploughed the air with their deadly lightning. A Second Lieutenant of the line had his left arm broken by a chain shot, and blood poured from the wound. A Hungarian officer saw one of his men aiming at the boy; the officer stopped him, and then, going up to the wounded man, wrung his hand compassionately and gave orders for him to be carried to a safer place.
The canteen women moved about the field under enemy fire like the soldiers. They were often wounded themselves as they went among the wounded men, lifting their heads and giving them drink as they cried piteously for water.(1) An officer of Hussars, weakened by loss of blood, was struggling to get clear of the body of his horse, which had fallen heavily on him when hit by a shell splinter. A run-away horse galloped by, dragging the bleeding body of his rider. The horses, more merciful than the men on their backs, kept trying to pick their way so as to avoid stepping on the victims of this furious, passionate battle.
An officer of the Foreign Legion was struck dead by a bullet, while his dog, which was deeply attached to him, was running at his side. This dog had come with him from Algeria, and was the pet of the entire regiment. The dog too was wounded a few steps further on, but found strength to drag itself back to die beside its master. In another regiment a goat, which had been adopted by a sharpshooter and was a favourite with all the soldiers, pushed fearlessly forward in the attack on Solferino, braving shot and shell with the troops.
How many brave soldiers, undeterred by their first wounds, kept pressing on until a fresh shot brought them to earth, and they could fight no longer! In other sectors, whole battalions were forced to stand steady, awaiting the order to advance, under a murderous fire. They had to stand motionless, boiling with impatience, looking on while they were shot down one after another.
The Sardinians defended, and then attacked, the hills of San Martino, Roccolo, and Madonna della Scoperta, time after time, throughout the day. These positions were taken and retaken five or six times, and the Sardinians finally became masters of Pozzolengo, although they showed little coordination and worked largely as independent divisions. Their generals, Mollard, de la Marmora, Della Rocca, Durando, Fanti, Cialdini, Cucchiari, de Sonnaz, with their officers of all arms and of all ranks, were there with their King, under whose very eyes three generals, Perrier, Cerale, and Arnoldi, were wounded.
In the French Army, after the Marshals and Generals, mention cannot be omitted of the glorious deeds of the brave Brigadiers, the brilliant Colonels, the fearless Majors and valiant Captains, who did so much to bring about the victory of that famous day. It was, indeed, no small honour to have fought and defeated such warriors as Prince Alexander of Hesse, Stadion, Benedek, or Karl von Windisch-Graetz!(2)
"It seemed as if the wind was carrying us forward," a simple soldier picturesquely expressed it, trying to give an idea of the spirit and enthusiasm of the comrades who went with him into battle. "The smell of powder, the noise of the guns, drums beating and bugles sounding, it all puts life into you and stirs you up! " Truly it did seem in that battle that each man was fighting as if his own personal reputation were at stake, as though it had been a matter of his own credit that the victory should be won.
There was certainly in the non-commissioned ranks of the French Army, an unusual eagerness and bravery. Nothing could stop these men. They led their soldiers into the most dangerous, the most exposed parts of the fight, like men going to a feast. This quality of theirs is, no doubt, one factor in the superiority of the French Army to the armies of the other great nations of the world.
The Emperor Francis Joseph's troops had fallen back; Count Wimpffen's Army was the first to receive from its commander the order to retreat, even before Marshal Canrobert had brought all his men into action. Count Schlick's army, in spite of Count Stadion's firm stand, was weakened by irresolute support from Field-Marshals Clam-Gallas and Zobel (except for the Prince of Hesse's Division) ; it was forced to abandon all the positions which the Austrians had turned into a regular chain of fortresses.
Meanwhile the sky had darkened and heavy clouds covered the horizon. The wind broke furiously, twisting off the branches of the trees and bearing them away into space. A cold rain driven by the tempest, a regular cloud-burst, drenched the soldiers who were already weakened by hunger and exhaustion, and at the same time squalls arose bringing whirlwinds of blinding dust. So there were now the elements to fight as well as the enemy. Bowing under the storm, the Austrians nevertheless rallied to their officers' call; but about five o'clock the massacre was arrested, first in one place and then in another, by torrents of rain and hail, by thunder and lightning, and by darkness covering the field.
All through the fighting the Chief of the House of Hapsburg showed admirable calm and self-possession. When Cavriana was taken he was standing with Count Schlick and his aide, the Prince of Nassau, on a height called the "Madonna della Pieve," near a church surrounded with cypress trees. After the Austrian main body had given ground, and their left wing had no more hope of forcing the Allies' position, a general retreat was decided upon. The Emperor, at that solemn moment, resigned himself to going with part of his staff toward Volta, while the Archdukes and the Grand-Duke of Tuscany withdrew to Valeggio. At some points the German troops were seized with panic, and for certain regiments, retreat lapsed into disorderly rout. Their officers, who had fought like lions, could not hold them back. Encouragement, abuse, sword-blows, nothing could stop the rout. Terrified, these soldiers, who had fought so bravely, now accepted blows and insults rather than abandon their flight.
The Austrian Emperor's despair was terrible. He had borne himself like a hero; he had seen shot and shell raining around him all day long; and now he could not help weeping in the face of this disaster. In his distress, he threw himself into the path of the fleeing men, calling them cowards. When calm succeeded these outbursts of vehemence, he gazed in silence at the scene of desolation, with great tears streaming down his cheeks, and he at last consented to leave Volta for Valeggio only after much urging by his aides.
In their consternation, Austrian officers threw themselves into the teeth of death, such was their anger and despair. But they sold their lives dearly. Some of them killed themselves in their grief and fury, unable to bear to survive this fatal defeat. Most of them rejoined their regiments covered with their own blood or with that of their enemies. Let us give to their valiance the praise it deserves.
All day long the Emperor Napoleon was to be seen wherever his presence seemed to be needed. He had with him Marshal Vaillant, Major-General of the Army, General Martimprey, Assistant-Major-General, Count Roguet, Count de Montebello, General Fleury, the Prince de la Moskowa, Colonels Reille and Robert, the Imperial Escort, and the Squadron of the One Hundred Guards. Wherever there were the most difficult obstacles to be overcome, the Emperor would himself direct the battle, with no thought for the dangers that threatened him ceaselessly. On Mount Fenile, his surgeon, Baron Larrey, had his horse shot from under him, and several of the Hundred Guards were hit. He lodged at Cavriana in the house where the Austrian Emperor had been on the very same day, and from there he sent a dispatch to the Empress to tell her of his victory.
The French Army encamped on the heights it had taken during the battle; the Guard bivouacked between Solferino and Cavriana; the first two Corps remained on the hills around Solferino; the Third was at Rebecco, the Fourth at Volta.
Guidizzolo was held by the Austrians until ten o'clock at night. Their retreat was covered on the left wing by Field-Marshal von Veigl, and on the right by Field-Marshal Benedek, who held Pozzolengo until late into the night. He thus protected the retreat of Counts Stadion and Clam-Gallas, in which the Koller and Gaal Brigades and the Reischach Regiment did particularly well. The Brandenstein and Wussin Brigades, under the Prince of Hesse, had made for Volta, where they helped the artillery to cross the Mincio at Borghetto and Valeggio.
The Austrian stragglers were collected and taken to Valeggio; the roads were littered with baggage belonging to the different corps, or with pontoon trains and artillery reserves, all pushing and crowding to get to the pass at Valeggio as fast as they could. Pontoon bridges, quickly placed in position, enabled the Army Train to be saved. The first detachments of slightly wounded men were by this time beginning to reach Villafranca. After them came the more seriously injured, and all that sad night they kept coming in droves. The doctors dressed their wounds, gave them a little nourishment, and sent them in railway carriages to Verona, where the congestion became horrible. But though the Army, in its retreat, picked up all the wounded men it could carry in military wagons and requisitioned carts, how many unfortunate men were left behind, lying helpless on the naked ground in their own blood!
Toward the end of the day, when the shades of night began to cover this immense field of slaughter, many a French officer and soldier went searching high and low for a comrade, a countryman or a friend. If he came across someone he knew, he would kneel at his side trying to bring him back to life, press his hand, staunch the bleeding, or bind the broken limb with a handkerchief. But there was no water to be had for the poor sufferer. How many silent tears were shed that miserable night when all false pride, all human decency even, were forgotten!
When the action started, field hospitals were set up in farms, houses, churches and convents, and even in the open under the trees. Here, officers wounded in the morning had been given some sort of treatment, and after them non-commissioned officers and soldiers. All the French surgeons showed tireless devotion to duty; several took no rest at all for more than twenty-four hours. Two of them, working in the ambulance directed by Doctor Méry, Surgeon-in- Chief of the Guard, had so many amputations to make and so many dressings to apply that they fainted away. In another ambulance, one of their colleagues was so exhausted that he had to have his arms steadied by two soldiers as he went about his work.
During a battle, a black flag floating from a high place is the usual means of showing the location of first-aid posts or field ambulances, and it is tacitly agreed that no one shall fire in their direction. But sometimes shells reach these nevertheless, and their quartermaster and ambulance men are no more spared than are the wagons loaded with bread, wine and meat to make soup for the wounded. Wounded soldiers who can still walk come by themselves to these ambulances; but in many cases they are so weakened by loss of blood and exposure that they have to be carried on stretchers or litters.
Over the long stretch of broken country, twelve and a half miles long, over which the battle raged---after all the confused phases of the gigantic conflict---soldiers, officers and generals could have but a vague notion of the outcome of the numerous engagements that had taken place. Even while they were fighting, they could hardly tell what was going on beside them. This ignorance was made worse in the Austrian Army by the lack of proper and adequate general orders.
All the hills between Castiglione and Volta were alight with fires, fed with the wreckage of Austrian caissons and with branches broken from the trees by shells and by the storm. Before these fires soldiers set their wet clothing to dry, while they slept on the stones or on the ground nearby. But there was no rest yet for such of them as were unwounded, for water had to be found to make soup and coffee, after a whole day without food and rest.
What harrowing experiences and cruel disappointments! Whole battalions were left without food; companies which had been ordered to drop their knapsacks had nothing at all. In some quarters there was no water, and the thirst was so terrible that officers and men alike fell to drinking from muddy pools whose water was foul and filled with curdled blood.
A group of Hussars, coming back to camp between ten and twelve o'clock at night, dead tired, after a fatigue in search of wood and water to make coffee, found so many dying men who begged for water along their way that they had emptied almost all their water-bottles to satisfy their needs. They managed, however, to make their coffee; but then, just as it was ready to drink, shots were heard in the distance and the alarm was sounded. The Hussars mounted quickly, and rode off in the direction of the firing, without taking time to swallow their coffee, which was spilt in their haste. They soon found that what they had taken for the enemy returning to the charge, was only firing from the French outposts, where sentinels had mistaken some of their own soldiers, looking for wood and water, for Austrians. After this alarm, the harassed cavalrymen returned to throw themselves on the ground and sleep all night without having taken any nourishment. As they made their way back, they again passed many wounded men crying out for water. A Tyrolean lying near their bivouac kept calling to them, but there was no water to give him. The next morning they found him dead, with his mouth full of earth and foam on his lips. His swollen face was green and black, and he had been writhing in fearful convulsions; the nails on his clenched hands were twisted backwards.
The stillness of the night was broken by groans, by stifled sighs of anguish and suffering. Heart-rending voices kept calling for help. Who could ever describe the agonies of that fearful night!
When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth, it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches of Solferino were literally thick with dead. The fields were devastated, wheat and corn lying flat on the ground, fences broken, orchards ruined; here and there were pools of blood. The villages were deserted and bore the sears left by musket shots, bombs, rockets, grenades and shells. Walls were broken down and pierced with gaps where cannonballs had crushed through them. Houses were riddled with holes, shattered and ruined, and their inhabitants, who had been in hiding, crouching in cellars without light or food for nearly twenty hours, were beginning to crawl out, looking stunned by the terrors they had endured. All around Solferino, and especially in the village cemetery, the ground was littered with guns, knapsacks, cartridge-boxes, mess tins, helmets, shakoes, fatigue-caps, belts, equipment of every kind, remnants of blood-stained clothing and piles of broken weapons.
The poor wounded men that were being picked up all day long were ghastly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look as though they could not grasp what was said to them; they stared at one out of haggard eyes, but their apparent prostration did not prevent them from feeling their pain. Others were anxious and excited by nervous strain and shaken by spasmodic trembling. Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery, and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death-struggle.
There were poor fellows who had not only been hit by bullets or knocked down by shell splinters, but whose arms and legs had been broken by artillery wheels passing over them. The impact of a cylindrical bullet shatters bones into a thousand pieces, and wounds of this kind are always very serious. Shell-splinters and conical bullets also cause agonizingly painful fractures, and often frightful internal injuries. All kinds of splinters, pieces of bone, scraps of clothing, equipment or footgear, dirt or pieces of lead, often aggravate the severity of a wound and double the suffering that must be borne.
Anyone crossing the vast theatre of the previous day's fighting could see at every step, in the midst of chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable and misery of every kind. Some regiments had dropped their knapsacks, and the contents had been rifled by Lombard peasants and men of the Algerian Sharpshooters, who snapped up whatever came their way. Thus, the Light Infantry of the Guard had left their packs near Castiglione, so that they could march light when they went to the help of Forey's Division attacking Solferino. They fought all day long, pushing further and further ahead, and finally spent the night near Cavriana. Next morning at daybreak they went back for their knapsacks, only to find them empty; everything had been stolen in the night. The loss was a cruel one for those poor soldiers. Their underclothes and uniforms were dirty and stained, worn and torn, and now they found all their clothing gone, perhaps all their small savings with it, besides things of sentimental value that made them think of home or of their families---things given them by their mothers, or sisters, or sweethearts. Looters stole even from the dead, and did not always care if their poor wounded victims were still alive. The Lombard peasants seemed especially greedy for boots, and wrenched them ruthlessly off the swollen feet of the dead.
There were solemn scenes and pathetic episodes, besides these dreadful incidents. Old General Le Breton went to and fro in search of his wounded son-in-law, General Douay. He had left his daughter, Mme. Douay, amid the scenes of wild confusion a few miles away, in a state of fearful anxiety. Here Lieutenant-Colonel de Neuchèze lay dead, killed as he leaped to take command when he saw his chief, Colonel Vaubert de Genlis, thrown from his horse badly wounded. A bullet had struck de Neuchèze's heart. Colonel Genlis was in a high fever, and only now was being given first-aid; and beside him lay Second Lieutenant de Selve de Sarran, of the Horse Artillery, who had only been out of Saint-Cyr for a month and had to lose his right arm. Here again was a poor Sergeant-Major of the Vincennes Light Infantry, with both legs shot through. I was to see him again in hospital at Brescia, and yet again in the train from Milan to Turin. He died as a result of his wounds, in the Mont Cenis Tunnel. Lieutenant de Guiseul, who was believed to be dead, was discovered where he had fallen, unconscious, still holding his flag. Nearby, in the centre of a mass of dead-Austrian lancers and infantrymen, Turcos and Zouaves---lay the body of a Mussulman officer, Larbi den Lagdar, in his elegant Oriental uniform. The dark, weather-beaten face of the Lieutenant of Algerian Sharpshooters, lay on the breast of an Illyrian captain whose tunic still gleamed spotlessly white. These piles of human wreckage gave forth a stench of blood.
Colonel de Maleville, who had been wounded fighting heroically at Casa Nova, now breathed his last; Major Pongibaud died during the night and was buried. They found the body of the young Count de Saint Paer, who had risen to the command of his battalion only a week earlier. Second Lieutenant Fournier, of the Light Infantry of the Guard, had been gravely wounded the previous day, and now his military career was ended. He was only twenty years old; he had joined up as a volunteer, at the age of ten; at eleven he became a corporal, at sixteen a Second Lieutenant. He had been in two African campaigns, and during the Crimean War was wounded at Sebastopol.(3) The last bearer of a name which was one of the most glorious of the First Empire was to die at Solferino---Lt. Colonel Junot, Duke of Abrantès, Chief of Staff of the former military commandant of Constantinople, the brave General de Failly.
The lack of water was more and more cruelly felt; the ditches were drying up, and the soldiers had for the most part only polluted and brackish water to quench their thirst. Wherever springs had been found, armed sentries were posted to keep the water for the sick. Near Cavriana, a swamp that had become foul served for two days to water twenty thousand artillery and cavalry horses. Some wounded, riderless beasts, after wandering all night long, dragged themselves towards the horselines as if asking their fellows for help, and were shot to put them out of their misery. One noble, beautifully caparisoned charger strayed into the middle of a French detachment, the saddlebag he carried still fixed to his saddle. It contained letters and objects that showed he must have belonged to the valiant Prince of Isenburg. A search for his master was begun, and the Austrian Prince was discovered among the dead bodies, wounded and unconscious from loss of blood. But he was immediately treated by the French surgeons and was eventually able to go home to his family, who had given him up for dead and had been wearing mourning for him for several weeks.
Some of the soldiers who lay dead had a calm expression, those who had been killed outright. But many were disfigured by the torments of the death-struggle, their limbs stiffened, their bodies blotched with ghastly spots, their hands clawing at the ground, their eyes staring widely, their moustaches bristling above clenched teeth that were bared in a sinister convulsive grin.
It took three days and three nights to bury the dead on the battlefield,(4) but in such a wide area many bodies which lay hidden in ditches, in trenches, or concealed under bushes or mounds of earth, were found only much later; they, and the dead horses, gave forth a fearful stench.
In the French Army a certain number of soldiers were detailed from each company to identify and bury the dead. Usually they picked out the men of their own units. They took the regimental number on the dead man's belongings, and then, with the help of Lombard peasants paid for the purpose, laid the body, clothed, in a common grave. Unhappily, in their haste to finish their work, and because of the carelessness and gross negligence of some of the peasants, there is every reason to believe that more than one live man was buried with the dead. The decorations, money, watches, letters and papers found on the officers were later sent to their families; but it was not always possible to fulfill this duty properly, with such a vast number of bodies to be buried.
A son idolized by his parents, brought up and cherished for years by a loving mother who trembled with alarm over his slightest ailment; a brilliant officer, beloved by his family, with a wife and children at home; a young soldier who had left sweetheart or mother, sisters or old father, to go to war; all lie stretched in the mud and dust, drenched in their own blood! The handsome manly face is beyond recognition, for sword or shot has done its disfiguring work. The wounded man agonizes, dies, and his dear body, blackened, swollen and hideous, will soon be thrown just as it is into a half-dug grave, with only a few shovelfuls of lime and earth over it! The birds of prey will have no pity for those hands and feet when they protrude, as the wet earth dries, from the mound of dirt that is his tomb. Later someone will perhaps come back, throw on some more earth, set up a wooden cross over his resting place---and that will be all!
Austrian bodies lay in thousands on hills and earthworks, on the tops of mounds, strewn in groves and woods, or over the fields and plains of Medola. Over the torn cloth jackets, the muddy grey great coats, or once white tunics, now dyed red with blood, swarmed masses of greedy flies ; and birds of prey hovered above the putrefying corpses hoping for a feast. The bodies were piled by the hundreds in great common graves.
How many young Hungarians, Bohemians, or Roumanians, enrolled only a few weeks earlier, had thrown themselves down, worn out and hungry once they were out of the range of guns, never to rise again! Some were only slightly wounded, but so weakened by loss of blood that they died miserably from exhaustion and hunger.
Among the Austrian prisoners, some were terrified because someone had thought fit to tell them that the French, and especially the Zouaves, were merciless demons. Some of them, indeed, when they arrived in Brescia and saw trees bordering a walk in the town, asked in all seriousness whether those were the trees from which they would be hanged. Several, on being shown kindness by French soldiers, repaid them in the strangest ways---poor blind, ignorant fellows! On the Saturday morning, a French rifleman saw an Austrian lying on the ground in a pitiful state, and went to him with a flask of water to give him a drink. The Austrian could not believe that he meant well by him and, seizing the musket lying beside him, he struck at the Frenchman with the butt with all the strength he had left. The charitable rifleman was left with his heel and leg bruised. A Grenadier of the Guard went to pick up another badly wounded Austrian. The man reached for a loaded pistol which was beside him, and fired point-blank at his rescuer.(5)
"Do not be surprised by the harshness and roughness of some of our troops," an Austrian officer told me, "we have savages from the most distant corners of the Empire; in a word, we have real barbarians in our army. "
Some French soldiers were minded to take reprisals on a few prisoners whom they took for Croats, saying angrily that "those tight-trousers," as they called them, always killed the wounded. The prisoners were in reality Hungarians, who wear a uniform similar to that of the Croats but are much less cruel. I succeeded in explaining this distinction to the French soldiers and in getting the trembling Hungarians away from them. However, for the most part, with very few exceptions, the feeling of the French toward their prisoners was nothing but goodwill; thus, some Austrian officers were permitted to keep their swords or sabres, through the courtesy of French Army commanders. They were given the same food as the French officers, and their wounded were treated by the same doctors. One of them was even allowed to fetch his belongings. Many French soldiers shared their rations in a brotherly way with prisoners who were dying of hunger; others carried wounded men of the enemy army to field hospitals on their backs and gave them all sorts of care, showing remarkable devotion and profound sympathy. French officers nursed Austrian soldiers themselves; one of them bound up a Tyrolean's wounded head with his own handkerchief, because the man had nothing to cover it but a piece of old rag covered with blood.