Custoza: Charge to Glory
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Second Custoza is often called a “soldier’s
battle,” a dramatic way of saying that
both command staffs lost control of their
forces and let them brawl fairly unchecked
until the Italian army gave way. On 24 June
1866, Austria managed to pull out a major
field victory to salve the army’s pride.
previous installment we looked at Austrian
and Italian preparations for the battle. Today,
we’ll look at the role of the Austrian
cavalry in the battle.
Archduke Albrecht held titular command of
the Austrian Southern Army, but his chief
of staff, Franz Freiherr von John, laid out
the Austrian battle plan for the corps commanders.
Five formations would take up a broad east-west
arc facing the Italians. The far right (the
Reserve Division) would swing forward, to
the south, and separate the Italians from
the key bridges over the Mincio River. The
far left (the Cavalry Reserve) would pull
back, drawing the Italian forward to help
spring the trap.
Austria's cavalry represented the army's
social elite. As in all other European armies
of the period, Austrian practice divided the
cavalry into heavy and light regiments. Heavy
cavalry — in the Austrian army, cuirassiers
and dragoons — selected big men on big
horses, to provide shock action on the battlefield.
In 1860 the cuirassiers lost their armored
breastplates. Northern Army light cavalrymen
received carbines (some of them very effective
breechloaders) just before the 1866 war; Southern
Army's troop-ers made do with a horse pistol.
More emphasis on scouting and skirmishing
was also laid on the light cavalry. All of
the army's heavy cavalry served in Northern
Army in 1866.
Albrecht and John tapped Col. Ludwig Pulz,
commander of the 13th “Trani”
Uhlans, to lead Southern Army cavalry reserve.
They scrounged a hospital section and a horse
artillery battery from Army assets, but his
two brigades had only 16 squadrons between
them. Pulz kept one under his personal control,
and assigned the other to Col. August Bujanovics
On the afternoon of 23 June the Southern
Army's cavalry reserve occupied positions
south of Verona. During the night John directed
Bujanovics to send a cavalry squadron led
by a "resourceful and organized"
captain to undertake a thorough reconnaissance
of the territory between the Mincio and the
Adige. Accordingly, Bujanovics dispatched
Rittmeister Wilhelm Graf Pálffy-Daun
ab Erdöd and his squadron of the 3rd
"Prinz Karl von Bayern" Hussar Regiment.
Pálffy-Daun and his men left their
bivouacs at about 2:30 a.m. on 24 June. The
hussars found that the Italian advance had
not yet begun, and well before their 4 a.m.
return Army headquarters ordered the cavalry
brigades to prepare to move out.
“Attack of the Trani-Ulanen,”
24 June 1866.
Bujanovic’s brigade occupied the extreme
left flank of the Austrian army, with Pulz's
brigade to the north between Bujanovics and
IX Corps. The leading squadron, Rittmeister
Michael Hertlein’s 2nd Squadron of the
11th “Prinz von Württemburg”
Hussar Regiment, reported spotting an Italian
cavalry squadron on the Calori heights. The
Austrian cavalry could not close with the
enemy horsemen, and continued to move cautiously
down the main road toward Villafranca.
Pulz's cavalry brigade hit the road at 3
a.m. and then waited in march order for several
hours while Bujanovics’ brigade caught
up. The first contact, however, came from
Bujanovics’ troopers. Hertlein’s
squadron finally caught up with and charged
the Italian horsemen. The Italians withdrew
behind a pair of infantry battalions from
Prince Umberto’s 16th Infantry Division
of the Italian III Corps.
Enrico Della Rocca’s Italian III Corps
had moved out shortly before 4 a.m. All four
of Della Rocca’s divisions had crossed
the Mincio on the 23rd, taking most of the
day to do so, and then camped immediately
afterwards around Goito. Cugia's 8th Division
marched on the left flank of the corps, keeping
contact with I Corps. Nino Bixio’s 7th
Division and Prince Umberto’s 16th marched
by parallel roads on Villafranca and Somma
Campagna, while Govone’s 9th Division
trailed behind as the corps reserve.
Though Della Rocca had been assigned Pralormo's
brigade of light cavalry, consisting of the
Saluzzo and Alessandria light horse and the
Foggia lancers, he posted them behind Bixio’s
division where they could neither scout ahead
nor repel the Austrian cavalry. Each division
included a squadron of the Alessandria light
horse (one more remained as Della Rocca's
personal escort), and these horsemen performed
all the corps’ scouting and screening
Hertlein’s rash attack on the Alessandria
light horse drew more and more Austrian cavalry
forward as both Bujanovics and Pulz committed
additional squadrons. The Austrians came under
Italian infantry and artillery fire, but could
not come to grips with the Italian light horse.
The 'Heroic Assault'
Frustrated by this abortive attack, Lt. Col.
Maximilian Rodakowski of the 13th “Trani”
Uhlans chose this moment — about 7:15
a.m. — to go utterly berserk. His squadrons
already lined up in battle order, he rode
along their front in the ancient Austrian
battle ritual, clattering his pallasch against
the Uhlans’ raised lances and bellowing
in Polish. “Follow me!” he shouted.
“And when you can no longer see the
regimental standard, look out for the plume
of my czapka to see where the action is, and
show what the Trani-Ulanen can do!”
Rodakowski rides to glory.
With that, Rodakowski, his lancer's dolman
and long mustaches flowing behind him, spurred
his big chestnut charger forward and flung
his entire regiment on the nearest Italian
Pulz, in his post-battle report, feigned
complete ignorance of Rodakowski’s suicidal
attack — though he seems to have had
no second thoughts about afterwards collecting
the Military Order of Maria Theresa for the
“heroic assault.” Rodakowski received
the slightly less prestigious Order of Leopold;
it may have helped that Rodakowski’s
brother, Josef, occupied a senior slot at
the War Minstry. Maximilian had also been
one of the great Radetzky’s favorites
during the 1848 campaign, making his mark
as a fearless 22-year-old dispatch rider.
The 13th Uhlans were one of the Austrian
army's newest regiments, formed in 1860 from
Polish volunteers gathered for the 1859 war.
Its banners carried no battle honors; a lack
which chafed at its officers, given the overpowering
prestige-consciousness in the Austrian cavalry
arm. With such a pedigree, the regiment’s
great enthusiasm and vast lack of battle discipline
are not surprising. Rodakowski had served
as Pulz’s second-in-command from the
regiment’s formation. If Pulz did not
order the ill-advised assault — and
there is no evidence to suggest that he did
— he also had no one else to blame for
his regiment's impulsive behavior.
The attack caught everyone by surprise, including
Prince Umberto, who along with his staff desperately
lunged into a square formed by the Parma Brigade
just in time. The heir to the throne of Italy
stood his ground, according to Della Rocca,
with “all the qualities of a good soldier.”
Though Della Rocca claimed that the Austrian
cavalry burst out of dense cover close to
the Italian positions, Austrian reports admit
that Rodakowski's charge came across open
ground. The Italian infantry had plenty of
time to form squares to resist the attack.
The Bersaglieri, who had fanned out in a screen
of skirmishers, returned to shelter within
the close double ranks of the infantry and
opened a murderous fire on the Austrians.
Pulz, riding along the road from Verona,
watched a large dust cloud move rapidly toward
Villafranca. As he and his aides looked on
in amazement, Capt. Alfred Graf von Üxküll-Gyldenbrand
rode up to hand-deliver an order from Albrecht
reiterating that the Austrian cavalry was
not to attack Villafranca. The Austrian battle
plan called for Della Rocca's III Corps to
be drawn forward, toward the Adige, and even
a successful attack by the cavalry would seriously
damage the Austrian plans.
Some of today’s Trani-ulanan.
Female horse-holders were present at
Custoza, but women did not join the
Trani Uhlans until many years later.
Rodakowski's lancers passed through the Italian
infantry squares only to crash into a deep
ditch. There, Pulz wrote later, their horses
somersaulted through the air and lancers spilled
to the ground. As the regiment attempted to
get across the obstacle, the horsemen presented
slow moving or immobile targets for the Bersaglieri,
who emptied many Austrian saddles with their
Things only got worse from there. Pulz's
other regiment, the 1st “Kaiser Franz
Josef” Hussars, followed Rodakowski’s
attack with one of their own while Bujanovics
flung all seven of his squadrons into yet
another mad charge. The hussars charged three
squadrons of the Alessandria light horse,
who withdrew behind another set of infantry
squares. Once again, the Austrian horsemen
came under deadly infantry fire.
The Italian Collapse
Fortunately for Pulz, Della Rocca and Prince
Umberto harbored no aggressive thoughts. The
Austrian cavalry spent the rest of the morning
collecting stragglers from the attacks and
resting its horses. With action always imminent,
the Austrians could not afford to unsaddle
their mounts, limiting the usefulness of the
operational pause. The cavalry, wrote Maj.
Gen. Karl Möring, a brigade commander
in V Corps, “has been taken care of
by the genius of Pulz and Bujanovics. What
I have heard of their heroism shows the mark
of the most brave officers, but they are completely
Italian inaction, Pulz explained, probably
came from the determination of Nino Bixio,
commander of the 7th Division, to hew to “the
dictates of the law” and strictly follow
orders rather than act with initiative. But
it was actually Della Rocca who vetoed Bixio's
proposal to attack the point where IX Corps’
left flank met Pulz’s cavalry. “We
settled, however, that he should wait for
a positive order from General La Marmora or
from me,” Della Rocca wrote later, “and
meanwhile retain his positions.”
At 3:30 p.m. Pulz received orders from John
to advance into the flat ground between the
Custoza heights and Villafranca, a zone previously
occupied by Bixio’s division. The old
Red Shirt had just pulled back on Della Rocca’s
order, preparing for a general retreat. The
Austrian troopers advanced slowly on their
tired mounts. Coming upon a group of Italian
infantrymen dug in at the hamlet of Ceschie,
Pulz brought up his lone horse artillery battery,
which shelled the demoralized defenders into
surrender in fairly short order.
Rodakowski in later years.
Pulz’s hussars began to round up dozens
of dazed and exhausted Italian soldiers from
the divisions which had fought on the Custoza
heights. “Entire units lay down their
arms,” Pulz reported, “coming
over to us, and in Villafranca others refused
to serve further.” A patrol from the
1st Hussar Regiment stumbled upon a seemingly
battle-ready Italian artillery battery, which
declined to fire on the startled horsemen.
This, Pulz wrote, symbolized the “complete
demoralization of the enemy.” As night
fell the cavalry reigned in and allowed the
Italians to pour over the bridges into Lombardy.
Lack of an aggressive cavalry pursuit drew
criticism from some later authors, but like
many things that “everyone knows,”
the notion that cavalry can ride down a defeated
army lies mostly in the realm of myth and
legend. After the Napoleonic Wars, only two
post-battle cavalry pursuits of the “classic”
type took place, neither of them in Europe.
George Thomas’ Union horse-men shredded
the Confederate Army of Tennessee in 1864
after John Bell Hood, operating in an opium-induced
state of paranoia, ordered his own army to
its destruction at Nashville. And after the
Battle of Cedar Creek, the Union cavalry rode
down much of Jubal Early's Confederate army.
Yet even these pursuits had critics who charged
that more could have been accomplished, or
that their results were overstated.
Rodakowski’s bizarre attack fit standard
Austrian practice of the time. “Cavalry
is a weapon,” wrote Prince Emmerich
zu Thurn und Taxis, commander of Northern
Army's 2nd Light Cavalry Division and pre-war
head of the cavalry school. “The officer
corps of the Imperial-Royal Army must act
as true descendants of knighthood.”
It would be Della Rocca’s actions —
shocking malfeasance bordering on treason
— that did far more to hamper the Italian
effort than Pulz could hope to achieve.
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