Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Outbreak of the 1859 Franco-Austrian War

In 1848 rebellions broke out in nearly all the small states of Italy. These aimed to introduce some democracy, to liberalise social and economic conditions and to unite Italian-speaking peoples into one state. The Austrians at this date ruled Trentino, Venetia and Lombardy directly while Austrian puppets – mostly relatives of the Austrian Emperor - ruled in Parma, Romagna, Modena and Tuscany.

At first the revolts were successful. The rulers were driven into exile or forced to concede democratic reforms. King Charles Albert of Piedmont, a relatively liberal kingdom in northwestern Italy, sensed Austrian weakness and invaded Lombardy. His advance was halted at the Battle of Custoza where Austrian reinforcements marched over the Alps defeated the Piedmontese. The defeat of Piedmont took the impetus out of the revolts. Over the course of the next year the autocratic rulers, with Austrian help, reimposed their rule and abrogated any democratic reforms.

The events of 1848 had convinced most Italians that any future success for democracy and liberalism would come only under the leadership of Piedmont. However, the new king of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel II, feared the Austrian armies and refused to co-operate with any of the plans put to him.

However, in 1859, Emperor Napoleon III of France was looking for a small foreign war in which he could emulate the success of his famous uncle Napoleon I. His agents told him that the Italian states were ripe for another rebellion and that Austria was suffering internal problems. Napoleon III therefore offered to help Piedmont defeat Austria in return for Nice and Savoy. Victor Emmanuel agreed and war was declared on 26 April 1859. The peoples of Tuscany, Parma and Modena at once rose in rebellion, tying down the Austrian garrisons located in those states and safeguarding the southern flank of the French-Piedmontese advance.

This is an extract from Historical Atlas of World at War by Rupert Matthews

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