Battle of Piacenza
|Battle of Piacenza (1746)|
|Part of the War of the Austrian Succession|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Comte de Gages
Marquis de Maillebois
| Prince Josef Wenzel
Marquis of Botta d'Adorno
Count Maximilian Ulysses Browne
|Casualties and losses|
|13,000 dead, wounded and captured||3,400 dead or wounded|
The Battle of Piacenza was a pitched battle between a Franco-Spanish army and Austrian army near Piacenza on June 16, 1746. It formed part of later operations in the War of the Austrian Succession. The result was a victory for the Austrian forces, led by Prince Josef Wenzel.
The Bourbon position
Following the battle of Bassignana and the splitting of the Austrian and Piedmontese armies, the Spanish and French armies co-ordinated their plans. Spain viewed either the capture of Turin and Milan desirable, but, since France wished to negotiate with Charles Emmanuel, this left Spain only with Milan. Therefore, on 28 November 1745 De Gages began the Spanish invasion of Lombardy. It was not long before the Austrian commander Prince Josef Wenzel of Liechtenstein retired his army prior to the Spanish advance out of fears his undermanned army would be destroyed. Milan surrendered peacefully, and by the end of the year most of Lombardy was in Spanish hands.
The situation facing Austria in early 1746 was this. The Bourbon armies occupied all of Lombardy save Mantua, and approximately 1/5 of Charles Emmanuel's realm of Piedmont-Sardinia. The French court now began negotiations with Charles Emmanuel in the hope of detaching Piedmont from its alliance with Austria whilst at the same time Marshal Maillebois was pressing the siege of Alessandria. By all reckoning the Infant Philip was now master of his new realm, and the Bourbons had been triumphant in Spain.
Charles Emmanuel reopens the battle for Italy
The Treaty of Dresden signed between Prussia and Austria on December 25, 1745, had as much impact for the fighting in Italy as it did for central Europe. Charles Emmanuel and his advisors saw this clearly. Evidently Austria, now freed from a war in Germany, would transfer the bulk of its army to Italy, and since the position of France and Spain had not altered, the King realised that they would not be able to match Austria's military buildup in the peninsula.
Although still negotiating with France the King realised that keeping his alliance with Austria was the more profitable gamble. Charles Emmanuel was no fool, however, and realised that he needed to buy himself time until Austria had completed her concentration in Italy. The easiest way to obtain this was to string out the negotiations for as long as possible until it was time to act. Consequently, he gave the French court until the end of February to reach an agreement; otherwise there would be a resumption of hostilities. He also requested that the French raise the siege of Alessandria and, in an extraordinary act of good faith, the French complied on 17 February 1746.
With the first of March, however, when the deadline had passed and the Austrian concentration was completed, Charles Emmanuel realized that the time had come to resume the war. The Piedmontese Army slowly began to move towards the French garrison at Asti and Alessandria. Having successfully disguised their intentions, Charles Emmanuel reopened the war in Italy on 5 March 1746 with an attack on Asti. Three days later the garrison had surrendered, and 5,000 prisoners fell into Piedmontese hands.
Bourbon retreat to Piacenza
The surrender of the garrison at Asti created major problems for the French army. Morale plummeted, and by the end of March Marshal Maillebois' army had lost 15,000 men to desertion, illness or capture. De Gages' Spanish army sat still at Piacenza, uncertain of what course of action to take in the face of the new danger caused by the Austrian concentration. Neither he nor the Infant Philip wished to retreat from Lombardy, due to the anger that this would provoke in Madrid. Unfortunately the Austrian command made the decision for them. By skilful manoeuvring the Austrians chased The Infant from Milan to Pavia. By April Parma, Reggio and Guastalla had fallen to Austria. In order to concentrate their dispersed forces the Spanish asked Marshal Maillebois to bring his French army westwards to join with the other Bourbon troops falling back on Piacenza from various directions.
Marshal Maillebois, however, was reluctant to abandon his lines of communication through Genoa and consequently only sent 10 battalions forward to Piacenza. The Spanish King Philip V and his wife Elizabeth Farnese, however, ordered De Gages to remain at Piacenza, and Louis XV, wishing to confirm Bourbon solidarity and ready to be obliging to his Spanish uncle, ordered Maillebois to place his troops under Spanish command. Reluctantly agreeing, the marshal ordered his troops to Piacenza and by June 15 the Franco-Spanish army was joined together.
Since the Austrian army outnumbered his own by some 15,000 men, De Gages worked out a plan which would make an Austrian assault costly and invite a Spanish counterstroke which would very well win the battle. Rejecting a stand in the crumbling town of Piacenza, Gages ordered ditches and artillery emplacements to be dug which would become a defensive line that the Austrians would have to attack. De Gages also ordered his troops to scout the areas to the north of Piacenza. Maillebois' arrival gave the Spanish general a combined strength of 40,000, but this had already begun to put a severe strain on the food supplies in the area, and also approaching from the west was a Piedmontese army of 10,000 men, which would firmly tip the balance in numbers in favour of the Austrians.
Consequently, with the Piedmontese only a day's march away, the French marshal urged that an immediate attack should be launched against the Austrians. This of course meant a change in the original plan. Instead of the original plan, the Spanish commander would now hold his centre lightly whilst concentrating on the flanks. The attack on the Austrian left would entail pushing it back towards the Austrian centre, and in an even more unorthodox move De Gages asked Maillebois to take his troops beyond the extreme right of the line, encircle the Austrian right flank and fall on its rear. The battle was set to begin at sunrise on the 16th.
The Austrians had spent the last few months emplacing their artillery, seizing Bourbon outposts and gathering in food supplies. The increasing mood in the Austrian camp was one of confident victory. The Austrian plan was much more simple than the Bourbon plan. They would let Gages waste his troops against his positions before counter-attacking once the attack had run out of steam, and on the morning of the 15th they began to deploy their forces to the north of Piacenza. Unfortunately for the French, Count Browne realised what Maillebois was up to and moved his units to block the French advance. The Marquis of Botta d'Adorno commanded the Austrian right and simply went to the expedient of putting his troops on the alert on the evening of the 15th. The Austrians now only had to wait for the Franco-Spanish attack.
On the morning of the 16th the Austrian artillery began to open fire on the Bourbon camp opposite. At the same time the Franco-Spanish army began its assault upon the Austrian lines. Marshal Maillebois' plan became unstuck in the very few minutes of his assault. Instead of a clear descent upon the Austrian rear, the marshal was unnerved to see Browne's troops drawn up in front of him behind a canal. To compound the problems the French force had emerged from the wrong place. The narrow valley they had gone down provided a bottleneck, and as soon as they emerged they were mown down by the Austrians. The marshal tried to bring more troops into the action, but his men were never to get near the Austrians due to the intensity of the Austrian fire. Finally Browne advanced his troop over the canal and the assault collapsed, many Frenchmen being cut to pieces in the narrow gully.
On the other flank, Gages had been able to advance his men right up to the Austrian lines, and his troops were slowly pushing the Austrians back in what seemed to be a much more even battle. However, Count Bärenklau finally managed to engage the Austrian cavalry into the fight and the Spanish line finally broke under the pressure. With the Spanish hurrying back towards Piacenza the Austrians were able to give chase. By 2 pm the battle was over and so were the Bourbon hopes in Italy.
The casualties in this battle tell the whole story. Austria suffered about 3,400 casualties, with about 700 dead. The Spanish army suffered about 9,000 casualties, and the French added about 4000 to this total. Of these, 4,500 were killed and 4,800 made prisoner, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm being one of them. Following the battle, the Bourbons evacuated Piacenza on 27 June, and were shepherded eastwards by the Austro-Piedmontese armies into the republic of Genoa.
Although not marking the end of the fighting in Italy, the attempt to exploit the victory by invading Provence at the end of the year ended up in failure, and the Austrians were expelled from captured Genoa by a popular revolt in December 1746.
- According to Reed Browning: "Few would have suspected it that day, but in fact the question of domination in Lombardy had now been effectively answered for the next half century". Browning, Reed: The War of the Austrian Succession. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995. ISBN 0312125615, p. 276.
- According to Jeremy Black, the battle of Piacenza "ended Bourbon hopes of overruning northern Italy and set the territorial pattern of the peninsula until the French Revolutionary Wars". Black, Jeremy: European Warfare, 1660-1815. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994. ISBN 185728173X, p. 127.
- Browning, p. 274
- Browning, p. 276
- Black 2002, p. 15.
- Black, Jeremy (2002-06-01). America Or Europe?: British Foreign Policy, 1739-63. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-36934-7. Retrieved 2015-06-07.
- Browning, Reed (2008). The War of the Austrian Succession. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-12561-5. pp. 273–276 Bibliography pp. 403–431.