Custoza: Opening the Battle
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Austria’s 1866 war with Prussia and
Italy would be a military disaster for the
monarchy, driving it out of its powerful positions
in both Germany and Italy. While the Austrian
navy could take pride in its performance,
the army had only one clear victory to which
it could point: Southern Army’s crushing
defeat of the Italians at Custoza on 24 June.
“It was not just an episode of military
history,” German nationalist historian
Heinrich Friedjung wrote of the battle, “it
was the proof that Austria could still assert
herself as a great power, despite the loss
of her hegemony in Germany and Italy.”
The Second Battle of Custoza is the centerpiece of our Battles of 1866: Custoza game. While one of the
most violent clashes of this period, it’s
little known in the United States, home to
most of our customers, so we have an overview
of the battle starting today, in multiple
heirs. Ludwig von Benedek (seated, left) and
the Southern Army staff, 1863. John stands
at center, Maroicic to his right stares into
La Marmora's Plan
Austrian leaders had expected an Italian
invasion since the end of their last war in
the region seven years before. Vienna issued
mobilization orders for Southern Army on 21
April 1866, right after Prussia and Italy
signed an offensive alliance against Austria,
with Prussia to decide when war began.
On 14 June Prussia declared the German Confederation
dissolved and invaded Hesse-Kassel and Hannover;
four days later Prussia declared war on Austria.
On 20 June the Italians informed Austrian
outposts that war would begin on the 23rd.
Southern Army had an excellent staff organization,
at least by the Austrian Army’s standards.
Chief of staff Franz Freiherr von John had
a very high reputation and would later serve
as army chief of staff and as Austria-Hungary’s
war minister. The officers at army headquarters
in Verona saw themselves as the heirs to Radetzky,
and went to war with great confidence despite
being outnumbered by at least three to one.
One factor weighing against the confidence
was the army’s new commander; Archduke
Albrecht had little combat experience.
Across the border, the Italian leadership had
much less confidence. Presented with two options
to invade Austrian territory, the Italians chose
both, dividing their forces between a thrust
across the Mincio River, aimed at Verona, and
one across the lower Po aimed at Venice.
Custoza area topography. The Autostrada
did not exist in 1866.
Alfonso la Marmora, accompanied by King Vottorio
Emanuele himself, would lead the march on
Verona. Italian intelligence indicated that
“the Austrian campaign plan is absolutely
defensive. They will remain in their fortresses
without defending the countryside and will
The fortresses on which the Italians expected
the Austrians to rely were the famed works
of the “Quadrilateral.” Two huge
modern fortresses anchored the position, Verona
and Mantova, each capable of sheltering an
entire field army. Two smaller but potent
works at Peschiera and Legnano completed the
Each fortress lay about a half day’s
march from two others — close enough
that reinforcemertns from two others could
fall on the rear of a beisieging enemy army,
but far enough away to make it difficult to
impossible for anything short of a huge force
to screen more than one of these threats.
To the north lay the Alps and Lake Garda,
protected by a powerful squadron of armored,
screw-driven gunboats. To the south lay the
swamps of the lower Po basin. Any invader
hoping to reach Venice and the Austrian heartland
beyond would have to somehow neutralize the
Quadrilateral or risk its lines of communication.
Southern Army had at most 70,000 men available
for field action; the Italians put 220,000
into their two field armies. La Marmora’s
force (unofficially called the “Army
of the Mincio”) nominally brought about
140,000 onto the Custoza battlefield; but
so many Italian divisions saw little or no
action that at the key points the Austrians
usually had local numerical superiority.
La Marmora’s campaign plan centered
on the largest and most exposed of the fortresses,
Mantova. With Southern Army believed to be
well east of Verona, two of the three Italian
corps would occupy a line between Peschiera
and Verona, to stop Southern Army from interfering
with the siege. These would have numerical
superiority (Southern Army was believed, rather
accurately, to contain about 50,000 front-line
troops), and a defensive mission, and so should
be able to hold off the Austrians fairly easily
while the remaining corps and the Italian
siege train reduced Mantova. It was the same
plan laid out by the king’s father during
the 1848 war that resulted in the First Battle
of Custoza, but would be undertaken with a
much greater superiority in numbers.
Italian cavalry patrols reported no Austrians
within the open ground between the fortresses,
but could not locate Southern Army. The Italians
began crossing the Mincio on the 23rd, not
expecting to meet resistance. All of the Italian
crossings took place under the eyes of Austrian
cavalry scouts; by evening Southern Army headquarters
had a good idea of Italian positions and goals.
One of the very few photographs of the
battle. Bersaglieri, probably from Pianell’s
2nd Infantry Division, gather to enter
Thought to be far to the east, Southern
Army was instead camped in and around Verona.
Albrecht left planning to John, who decided
on a dawn attack on the Italians, hoping to
catch them in march order and relying on the
densely cultivated terrain to screen Southern
The Austrian generals held a council of war
on the afternoon of the 23rd, studied the
scouting reports and endorsed the plan. Southern
Army’s Reserve Division and V Corps
moved out on the night of the 23rd, with IX
and VII Corps and the cavalry reserve following
at about 3 a.m. on the 24th. The Austrians
hoped to scatter the Italians quickly and
isolate them from their sources of supply;
all the Austrian formations left their medical
and supply trains within the Verona defensive
works and marched light.
Of the three main attacks planned by the
Austrian leadership, Albrecht's right wing
would have the toughest assignment. The Reserve
Division would march well to the west, then
turn sharply south to seize the bridges across
the Mincio. At the very least they would have
to interfere with Italian lines of communication
and supply between the main army around Custoza
and its bases in Italian territory west of
the river.The Austrians knew that the Royal
Italian Army, hastily cobbled together from
the armed forces of several smaller states
during the preceding five years, lacked a
professional supply service and relied exclusively
on hired civilian wagoneers to bring up its
food and ammunition. Even a minor threat to
the lines of communication held great promise
of hopelessly snarling the Italian advance.
The Reserve Division appears to have been
chosen for this task because its camps lay
the closest to the Mincio. But it was also
by far the weakest of the four Austrian maneuver
units. Not only did the division lack the
fighting power of the regular corps, it had
no engineers. Maj. Gen. Heinrich Rupprecht
von Virtsolog had slightly less than one regular
army brigade, reinforced by the scrapings
of various fortress garrisons — two
reservist “fourth” battalions
(the training establishments of regular regiments),
two reservist light infantry battalions, and
a regiment of Grenzer border guards, not considered
fit for first-line employment.
Orders for Pulz
On the Reserve Division’s left flank,
Maj. Gen. Gabriel Rodich’s V Corps would
also march west, then turn south to occupy the
heights around Sona, about five kilometers northeast
of the Custoza battlefield. Afterwards, V Corps
would drive the Italians southward. The twisting,
tortured valley of the narrow Tione River where
V Corps and the Reserve Division grappled with
the Italians in 1866 had seen very little fighting
during the 1848 battle, and Albrecht and John
do not appear to have expected either formation
to run into heavy resistance there. V Corps
numbered three brigades of regulars.
Franz Freiherr von John, architect of
the Austrian victory.
In the center of the Austrian army, Feldmarschallleutnant
Joseph Maroicic di Madonna del Monte’s
VII Corps had the task of occupying the Italian
army's attention long enough for the flanking
attacks to work their way around the enemy
positions. Like those of V Corps, Maroicic’s
three regular brigades came close to full
To the left of Maroicic lay the Austrian
IX Corps. Maj. Gen. Ernst Hartung, a noted
eccentric in an officer corps that prized
individualism, had been one of the heroes
of 1848 as a young captain, but had refused
battlefield ennoblement. His troops had the
shortest march of all the Austrian formations,
and had orders to attack straight out of Verona
in the direction of Somma Campagna. Afterwards
they would be the focus of a pivot movement
by the rest of the army, as the Italians were
rolled up from the east.
At the far left of the Austrian line, Col.
Ludwig Pulz commanded two small brigades of
light cavalry, created by stripping the three
line corps of their horsed component. The
horsemen had already performed good service
in keeping headqaurters apprised of Italian
movements and shooing away the half-hearted
Italian attempts to spot Austrian concentrations.
For the battle, John had strict orders for
Pulz — the Italian right needed to be
pulled forward, toward Verona, so the Austrian
right wing could cut them off from their bridgeheads.
Under no circumstances were the cavalry to
attack the Italians.
As is the way of careful battle plans, that’s
exactly what they did as soon as they spotted
the Italian infantry.
Attack of the Trani-Uhlanen on Bersaglieri
squares, opening shots of the Second Battle
Facing the Charge
La Marmora’s three corps commanders
had been chosen by the Italian king, and La
Marmora tasked his most reliable general,
Domenico Cucchiari of II Corps, with reducing
Mantova. That left his screen in the hands
of two bitter rivals, who agreed on only one
thing between them: They hated Alfonso La
Marmora even more than they hated each other.
Enrico Della Rocca was a personal friend
of the king; in the previous December he had
challenged La Marmora to a duel after a reprimand
for Della Rocca’s handling of rioters
in Torino. Della Rocca backed down after a
direct order from the king, who said he would
make it up to his friend when war came. Della
Rocca took that to mean command of the main
field army, and when it went to his hated
rival, he burned with resentment. Command
of III Corps gave him no joy, and he acted
accordingly at Custoza.
Giovanni Durando had commanded the hapless
papal army in the 1848 campaign and believed
he deserved the major command in 1866. I Corps
command did not suit him, either, and when
a shell fragment nicked his finger he fled
the Custoza battlefield, leaving his aide
to explain that the general “feared
he might develop tetanus without immediate
Durando’s I Corps held the Italian
left. Durando had four divisions, and left
one of them on the western bank of the Mincio
to watch for any sorties from the Austrian
garrison at Peschiera. More likely, he simply
wanted the division commander out of the way
— Giuseppe Salvator Pianell, the former
Minister of War to King Francis II of Naples,
may have been the most distrusted man in the
Italian army. Some Italian offi-cers suspected
Pianell of still serving his Bourbon master,
or considered him a traitor in Austrian pay.
Within a few hours he would be hailed as the
savior of the Italian Army.
Everyone hates Alfonso. The Italian
commander, Alfonso la Marmora.
Meanwhile, the other three divisions on the
east bank fanned out to await the Austrians,
not expected for at least another day.
On the right, Della Rocca kept his divisions
in close formation and did ...
nothing. He sat his horse alongside that of
Crown Prince Umberto, one of his division
commanders, and grumbled about his bitter
fate. When a messenger from one of his divisions
came begging for help later that morning,
Della Rocca informed him that he had no interest
in reports from “a mere lieutenant of
Though assigned a brigade of light cavalry
to screen his troops, Della Rocca posted the
horsemen behind his infantry. From there they
could only watch the Austrian cavalry charge
that opened the Second Battle of Custoza.
This piece originally appeared in February