1848: War in Italy, Part IV
The Pope's Divisions
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
During the reign of Pius IX, papal troops saw action in six major campaigns, fighting the Austrians, Garibaldini, Italians and finally the Prussians. In April 1848, the pontiff's order to mobilize the papal forces and march to the Austrian border brought spontaneous demonstrations of enthusiasm across the Papal States.
On 24 April the Piedmontese directed the papal army to advance across the Po as far as the Piave River and stop FZM Laval Nugent's approaching Austrians. This would envelop Radetzky's army at Verona between the Piedmontese army and the pope's. Volunteers from across Venetia gathered at Vicenza to await the papal troops.
Pius IX's army was led by a former Piedmontese officer, Giovanni Durando, who had left Charles Albert's service some years earlier because of his strong liberal sympathies. The papal army included one regular division with four battalions of tough Swiss mercenaries and six of locally raised regulars, supported by 16 cannon, 800 regular cavalry, two companies of engineers and 600 papal carabinieri. Volunteers formed a second division of 14 battalions including civic guards from across the Papal States plus many students. The volunteer division lacked most supporting units, bringing only 70 cavalry and six cannon.
Durando and one of his political advisors, Massimo d'Azeglio, fired the troops with anti-Austrian ardor, telling them the pope had ordered a holy war against "the enemies of God and Italy," and implying that Pius IX would soon excommunicate all Austrians. As crusaders, the papal troops donned the cross as their emblem. The papal regulars crossed the Po on 29 April, with Durando again telling them the pope had blessed their crusade. In Rome on the same day, Pius IX issued an allocution which pulled the pontiff's army out of the war:
We willed no other command to our troops sent to the confines of the Papal territories than that they should protect the integrity of the Papal States. But when now some desire that we likewise with the other people and sovereigns of Italy should undertake a war against the Germans, we have at length thought it our duty that, in this your solemn assembly, we clearly and openly declare that it is abhorrent from our counsels.
Though Pio Nono may have willed it otherwise, this version of his army's march was patently untrue. Under pressure from hawkish cardinals, the pope had placed his troops under the operational command of Charles Albert, who clearly was not interested in merely defending his borders, and had named the liberal Durando to lead his army. Durando's staff included D'Azeglio, an intimate personal friend of Venetian revolutionary leader Danielle Manin and an influential liberal politician and journalist. This army clearly had not marched to the Po simply to serve as Pius' border guard.
Pius had very little choice. He could not, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, make war in the name of Catholic Italy against Catholic Austria. Seizing Austrian lands without resistance from the Habsburg army was not the same thing as making war on another Catholic power, and Austrian resistance at Peschiera in mid-April had shown that Radetzky's army would fight.
The liberal Catholicism which had played such a major role in forming Italian national consciousness in the early decades of the 19th century now lost its central position, as Pius turned toward reaction in an effort to hold his temporal power. Catholicism and Italian nationalism became deadly enemies. The long-term effects of this breach between church and state continued to be felt for decades afterward.
The more immediate effect turned his troops into stateless brigands, an army waging war on foreign territory against the will of its sovereign. Radetzky and the Austrian army treated the papalini as legal combatants, however, and did not subject prisoners to the reprisals leveled at former Austrian subjects who took up arms against the empire.
Like the pope, King Ferdinand of Naples sent troops to the Po but held them there to await further developments. To lead his army, Ferdinand named well-known liberal nationalist Guglielmo Pépé, a Neapolitan veteran of Napoleon's Grande Armée and the leader of the abortive military revolution of 1820. Pius' allocution rallied the Neapolitan priesthood to the counter-revolution, and at their urging peasants rose against the liberals. Together with royalist regulars they disarmed the liberal National Guard on 15 May, with Ferdinand's approval, and committed numerous atrocities.
Ferdinand's orders recalling Pépé and his army reached Neapolitan headquarters in Bologna on 22 May. Pépé resigned, then attempted to regain control of the troops and march the army across the Po to join Durando. Only about one-fifth of the Neapolitan contingent followed him, the rest obeying their king and returning home.
Durando sorely missed Pépé's 14,000 regulars. Pépé's men would have more than doubled the size of the papal force at Vicenza, but given Radetzky's swift movement to envelop Durando the additional forces most likely would have only delayed the result.
Laval Nugent's Austrian corps re-captured Udine near the western border of Venetia on 23 April after a two-day siege. While the papal army crossed the Po, Nugent's corps was crossing the Tagliamento northwest of Venice and trying to replace the bridges over the Piave burned by rebel bands.
Papal regulars and Venetian volunteers successfully challenged the Austrian attempt to cross the Piave at Sacile on 3 May. The Austrians suppressed towns on the western side of the river. Leaving most of his forces along the Piave, Nugent sent the rest north to re-take the city of Belluno in the foothills of the Alps.
The Italians fell back to Treviso to await the rest of Durando's army, allowing Nugent's men to cross the Piave in safety. The papal volunteers, once they arrived, fought a sharp action with the Austrians at Montebelluna, about halfway between Belluno and Treviso. The papal troops and local volunteers fought well, with the papal dragoons suffering 80 percent casualties, but fell back when reinforcements failed to arrive promptly. Andrea Ferrari, commander of the papal volunteer division, brought his reserves into action slowly, hampered by his troops' poor discipline. Durando with the elite Swiss brigade started for the battlefield but turned to the west when he received reports indicating that the Austrian attack was merely a diversion to cover a flanking march. This turned out to be purely imaginary, but the damage was done and the papal army retreated to Treviso in disorder.
On the 17th Nugent, citing pain from an old head wound, handed over his corps to FML Georg Thurn. Soon afterward Radetzky ordered the corps to Verona to join the main army. Thurn's troops attacked Vicenza on the 23rd and again on the 24th, while most of his troops passed south of the city on their way to Verona, led by Maj. Baron Münchhausen's cavalry patrol. Unable to force the approaches to the city and disordered by a counterattack from the pope's Swiss grenadiers, hurriedly rushed to the city by railroad (apparently the first use anywhere of the railroad to commit troops to battle), the Austrians abandoned their attack on Vicenza and moved on to join the main army.
Though Radetzky used these new reinforcements to march against Goito, he did not forget the threat to his communications. In early June, as Schwarzenberg argued Radetzky's inability to attack, the Austrian army returned to Vicenza. The Veneto's only rail line terminated in Vicenza, and the city not only lay across the main route from Verona to the east but also blocked the southern exit of one of the key mountain passes leading to Trent in South Tirol. The Austrians arrived the day before Vienna issued orders to seek peace.
After a heavy bombardment the Austrians stormed the city on the morning of 10 June. Vicenza had few modern fortifications, but Durando had posted his troops along the outlying heights to prevent direct artillery fire into the city. The papal troops erected barricades across all the streets and turned many houses into small forts, and based their defense on Vicenza's seminary and largest convent.
After the defenders turned back a single Austrian brigade, Radetzky ordered a mass attack by all his forces except a sizable reserve. Dragging their cannon forward, the Austrian assault columns, usually spearheaded by jäger and grenzer companies, began to make progress. Even the Austrian cavalry dismounted and joined the fighting on foot.
Durando placed the bulk of his forces on the heights of Monte Berico south of the city, anticipating correctly that Radetzky would advance along the same lines as Thurn two and a half weeks earlier. Durando entrusted Enrico Cialdini, a Modenese colonel serving with the papal volunteers, with two of the Swiss battalions plus several volunteer outfits. Durando placed the remainder of his volunteers to cover other, less likely routes of advance and kept his remaining Swiss in reserve. Though Durando had posted Ferrari's division at Treviso to hold off any further Austrian columns from the east, many of the papal volunteers disagreed with this deployment, deserted, and joined local volunteer units in Vicenza.
The volunteers and tough Swiss mercenaries held on in furious fighting, during which both Cialdini and D'Azeglio were seriously wounded. The Italians lost the heights when Col. Kopal, commander of the Austrian 10th Feldjäger battalion, fell from his horse mortally wounded. The Salzburgers went completely berserk, taking the heights and the cloister of Madonna del Monte. Durando entered the church personally to take part in the defense, and a massive close-quarters bayonet fight raged around the altar and pews of the sanctuary. A number of the monastery's Servite fathers perished during the battle; the Austrian staff history claims they took up arms and fought alongside the papal soldiers. The staff history also, however, describes the Austrian troops as "drunk with victory" as they poured through the cloister and into the houses of Vicenza's suburbs adjoining it below. Drunken Grenzers later destroyed the famous Veronese painting "Banquet of San Gregorio" in the refectory and committed other atrocities.
Fighting from the seminary and the nearby city cemetery, the pope's men repelled several assaults, during one of which Austrian brigade commander Prince Wilhelm von Taxis was killed. As darkness fell, the fighting continued from alley to alley and house to house. Once again the Austrian artillery made a difference, as Durando's troops had nothing to reply to the heavy mortars and howitzers. As they would in 1866, the Austrians formed mass assault columns for bayonet charges — and as in 1866, they suffered terribly from enemy rifle fire. Desertion continued to be a problem, with 538 Austrian troops disappearing during the course of the battle.
Some of the papal and Venetian volunteers hid in cellars or fled into the old city, but the pope's Swiss battalions fought with a ferocity at least equal to that of the crazed jägers. When troops of the Roman Civic Guard attempted to post white flags on their section of the entrenchments outside the city, battle-maddened Swiss grenadiers ripped down the banners and bayoneted their offending allies, including the commander of the Roman regiment, Col. del Grande.
Outgunned, and with the Austrians breaking into the inner city, Durando raised the white flag about midnight and sought terms. Some outraged local citizens opened fire on the flag party. Radetzky granted Durando the honors of war, an 18th-century convention allowing the papal troops to exit Austrian territory with their weapons in exchange for their solemn promise not to take up arms against Austria for the next three months. Durando did extract a formal promise from Radetzky not to retaliate against any local citizens who had supported the papal invaders. The victory secured not only Radetzky's communications, but ended talk of surrenduring Lombardy and led to imperial commissioner Hartig's firing.
The remainder of the pope's army left the field soon afterward. FML Franz Ludwig von Welden, with a new reserve corps from Trieste, began a bombardment of Treviso on 13 June. Those volunteers who had not slipped away to join Durando had been greatly demoralized by news of his surrender, and by nightfall the remainder of the pope's army, about 4,200 men, accepted the same terms as those offered at Vicenza. A handful of diehard nationalists, lead by Ferrari, refused to give up the fight and, risking sure death by hanging if captured, slipped away to join the defenders of Venice rather than march south in defeat.
The Piedmontese accomplished little while Radetzky fought the pope's divisions. The king rejected the advice of his oldest son, Vittorio Emanuele, to send part of the Piedmontese quickly to join Durando in hopes of either defeating Radetzky at Vicenza or at least tying up the Austrians long enough to allow the remainder of the Piedmontese army to capture Verona. It was a daring plan, but Charles Albert would have none of it.
"The king said," Della Rocca recalled, "that if he (Vittorio Emanuele) considered himself a general because he wore a general's uniform, he would teach him that he knew nothing, that he could only repeat a lesson taught him by others, and that he appeared to have forgotten that it was not for him to give advice to his superiors, who had never asked for it."
If Charles Albert did not want the prince's advice, that of his real generals didn't help much, either. Proposals to mobilize 50 battalions of National Guards came to nothing when it proved impossible to arm even all of the army's reservists. While the Piedmontese did manage to raise two reserve divisions of 12 battalions each, these formations lacked artillery, cavalry and sufficient officers. Meanwhile, despite continued desertions, Radetzky's forces grew stronger.
Learning of Radetzky's advance against Vicenza on 7 June, Charles Albert cautiously moved his army forward but could not decide whether to make another attempt at seizing Verona or to join Durando at Vicenza. Three councils of war over the course of five days produced no strategic plan and only managed to embitter the two Piedmontese corps commanders, Bava and De Sonnaz, against one another (Bava eventually left for Turin to sulk, but turned back at the sound of the gunfire from the Custoza battlefield).
While the Austrians pressed Durando's papal troops into the old city of Vicenza, De Sonnaz and 20,000 troops finally attacked Zobel's single Austrian brigade at Rivoli, site of the first Napoleon's famous victory of 1796. The Piedmontese took the historic place, but when news arrived of Durando's capitulation, they retired to their previous positions west of Verona. In less than two weeks following the defeats at Goito and Peschiera, Radetzky had seized the initiative in Venetia.
The papal army's crushing defeat at Vicenza did not deter one of the key participants, Enrico Cialdini, from trying to repeat the maneuver 18 years later. On the Austrian side, smashing the pontiff's army brought no great satisfaction — Pius IX remained spiritual father to millions of Austrian Catholics — and though Vicenza represents Radetzky's most complete victory, it is also by far the least celebrated. Albrecht did not try to repeat Radetzky's march in 1866 primarily because Cialdini did not advance quickly enough to allow it. But the religious and political ramifications of the 1848 battle doubtlessly also made it one less worthy of emulation.
Join the action as Radetzky's troops defeat the pope's renegade army in Battles of 1866: Custoza. Pre-order it today!