Podcast No 15 The War of 1859 and the peace of Villafranca



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Podcast No 15 – The War of 1859 and the peace of Villafranca
In the last podcast we covered the reasons for, and the build up to the war of 1859, sometimes called the ‘Second War of Independence’. In today’s podcast we’ll look at the course of that war, and discuss what it tells us about how Italy came to be unified.
The first thing to note is that the Piedmontese did not cover themselves in glory in the war of 1859. Cavour had hoped, and indeed had promised to provide a large army to match France’s contribution of 120,000 men. In reality Piedmont could only muster 60,000. The army was further hampered by their lack of maps, supplies and proper planning (these problems had also plagued Piedmontese forces in the ‘First war of Independence’ in 1848). Victor Emmanuelle insisted on leading the troops personally, despite the fact that he really wasn’t very good at it. Christopher Duggan describes the King’s fondness for ‘out-dated’ cavalry charges, for instance. As a result of these various difficulties the Piedmontese army actually arrived too late to take part in the first major battle of the war, at Magenta on the 4th of June.
This battle of Magenta was so destructive, so bloody that it gave its name to the deep, red colour of blood on the battlefield, known after as ‘Magenta’.
The second major battle, at Solferino on the 24th of June was even bloodier than Magenta, though this time Piedmontese forces did fight side by side with the French. Henry Dunant, a Swiss man, was so horrified by the suffering of the dead and dying that he was inspired to start a charity to aid those hurt by war. We now know that charity as ‘The Red Cross’, which carries out humanitarian work in war-zones across the world.
By the 24th of June, the way ahead seemed clear. Austria was on the verge of being pushed out of Northern Italy, and Piedmont was on the point of expanding her territory into Lombardy and Venetia, and perhaps even beyond this.
Before this fighting in the north had started, Cavour and the National society had been busy planning revolts in Tuscany, the Central Duchies and in the Romagna. Mack Smith says that ‘Cavour was playing his own game’, attempting to gain more for Piedmont than Napoleon perhaps wanted, and certainly more than had been agreed at Plombieres. Cavour’s plan was to create revolts and then to use Piedmontese troops, perhaps at the invitation of the ‘revolutionaries’ to restore order in these states. Having marched in and restored order, perhaps it might then be agreed that Piedmont should take over these states completely.
In late April 1859 around 80 Piedmontese policemen, dressed as Tuscan workers, were sent to Florence to start a protest against the Grand Duke. The Duke saw that Austria was going to be tied up fighting France, and promptly fled. After the victory at Magenta, the rulers of Parma and Modena also fled from their duchies, and soon after the Austrians withdrew their troops from the northern part of the Papal States, the Romagna, which then also revolted against the Pope’s rule. Many of the leaders of these revolts were Members of the National Society, and they then offered various forms of ‘unification’, ‘fusion’ and ‘annexation’ of these parts of Italy to Victor Emmanuel’s Piedmont.
This made Napoleon extremely cross, as the agreement at Plombieres had been very clear that Tuscany was not to be part of the Piedmont-dominated Kingdom of Upper Italy. The French Ambassador in Turin was sent to tell Cavour to stop encouraging these insurrections on the 3rd of July, just after the great Battle of Solferino, at which thousands of French soldiers had died. The ambassador wrote back to Paris to report on the meeting, reporting that: ‘I then told Count Cavour than I was instructed to mention certain underhand, disloyal manoeuvres. […] M. de Cavour was visibly embarrassed and nettled’.
We must remember that, as we discussed in the last podcast, France was trying to create a satellite state in Northern Italy, a new country which could be dominated by France. Under the original Plombieres agreement Piedmont was not entitled to make a grab for Tuscany, as she seemed to be doing. Louis Napoleon was concerned that, if she succeeded in creating a large Kingdom of Upper Italy, Piedmont would be too powerful for France to control properly.
It was this disloyalty, the fear that Piedmont was gaining too much out of the war, whilst France lost too much in terms of blood, and fear of Prussian attack, that led to Napoleon agreeing a cease fire with the Austrian Emperor at Villafranca on the 11th of August. We’ll talk about what was in the treaty shortly, but let’s go over the reasons why Napoleon stopped the war, just as France seemed to have Austria on the back foot.
Napoleon ended the war with Austria for three reasons: because France wasn’t getting what Napoleon hoped despite the great losses she was suffering; because Austria was too strong to defeat in battle in the short term, especially if Prussia entered the war on her side; and because Napoleon realised he couldn’t rely on Cavour. Let’s deal with these one at a time.
Firstly – Napoleon wasn’t interested in Italian unity. He wanted France to replace Austria as the dominant power in France. He had plans to place friends in royal positions in Italy; he wanted to re-create Piedmont as a satellite state of France, one which followed France’s orders and would be a capable ally in war; he wanted to destroy the settlement of 1815, so as to allow France to expand her power. None of this seemed to be happening. Piedmont was gaining much more than it had agreed too, and might end up being too strong to be dominated by France. At the same time, French losses were great. France herself was losing thousands of men in costly and gruesome battles. At Solferino for instance 12,000 Frenchmen were killed, for little gain. In the meantime Prussia made threatening noises about joining in against France.
Secondly, France was thus fighting further and further into Austrian territories, where Austria’s huge army could be brought to help with the fighting. It was becoming obvious that defeating Austria would cost too much, and bring little advantage to France. In addition by late June Prussia was concerned that Austria was becoming too weak, and that France might be getting too much power in Italy. She therefore mobilised some of her army. This was a great threat to Louis Napoleon – he could not afford to fight Austria and Prussia at the same time and on two fronts.
Finally, Cavour had shown himself to be un-trustworthy. Whilst French blood was being spilled he had worked to depose the leaders of Tuscany and to annex not only Tuscany, as well as Parma, Modena and the Romagna. This would make Piedmont too strong to be a satellite of France, and went much further than had been agreed at Plombieres.
The text of the Villafranca agreement (page 287 of Denis Mack Smith’s ‘The Making of Italy’), and which can be found on the website, illustrates these concerns. In it Austria gives up Lombardy to France, so that France can give it to Piedmont. However, the Austrian Emperor is confirmed as the ruler of Venice. There’s also a clause stating clearly that the rulers of the Central Duchies are to be restored, so that Piedmont should not take control of these.
Villafranca was agreed without the Piedmontese being involved in the discussions. Indeed Cavour only learned of the contents of the treaty from King Victor Emmanuel. Reports suggest that Cavour spent a couple of minutes hurling colourful swearwords at the King, before resigning.
So, today we have looked at the conduct of the 1859 war against Austria. We’ve seen how the Piedmontese forces contributed much less than the French, how bloody the battles were, and how Napoleon realised that France was gaining little from the war. We’ve also learned about Cavour’s actions in the Central Duchies, and the attempts to expand Piedmont’s borders into these areas. Finally we learned about the peace of Villafranca, and Cavour’s colourful reaction to it. Cavour was deeply unhappy about the loss of this opportunity to remove the Austrians and expand Piedmont’s borders.
However, within a year Piedmont had annexed Tuscany, the Romagna and the states of Parma and Modena, Cavour was back in the position of Prime Minister and Garibaldi was marching through Naples with the aim of uniting the whole of Italy. In the next podcast we’ll hear about how this came about.


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