Battle of Turbigo, 3 June 1859

The battle of Turbigo (3 June 1859) saw the French secure two crossing points over the Ticino River, allowing them to get a foothold in Austrian Lombardy

In 1859 there were two main crossing points over the Ticino near Magenta. The main road and rail bridges crossed the river just to the west of Magenta. The road bridge was called the Ponte di Boffolara, after a village a few miles to the north east. On the western bank was the hamlet of San Martino, with an inn, railway station and Piedmontese custom post.

Five or six miles further to the north, at Turbigo, there was another river crossing, this time by ferry. In both cases the western bank of the river was higher than the eastern bank, so if the Austrians wanted to defend the river crossings they would have to do it on the west bank. They chose to fortify a bridgehead at San Martino, which by the start of June was defended by troops from Clam Gallas's newly arrived corps.

For most of May the main armies had been campaigning, with the French and Piedmontese concentrated in the area around Alessandria and the Austrians to their north. In late May Napoleon III decided to move his entire army to the left and attack the vulnerable Austrian right wing. After a Piedmontese victory at Palestro (30-31 May 1859) the Austrians finally realised what was happening, and Feldzeugmeister Franz Count Gyulai decided to retreat east, out of Piedmont and back across the Ticino into Lombardy. His aim was to defend Milan and prevent the Allies from advancing into the Austrian part of northern Italy.

As the Allies advanced east in pursuit of the Austrians the French Imperial Guard and Marshal MacMahon's II Corps made up the left wing of their army. On 2 June General Camou, commander of the 2nd Division of the Guard was ordered to cross the Ticino at Turbigo, while General Espinasse, from II Corps, was ordered towards San Martino. On the Austrian side Clam Gallas had five battalions in the San Martino bridgehead, but he had received rather confused orders from Gyulai and considered the defences to be very weak.

Camou had a surprisingly easy time. Clam Gallas had entrusted the defence of the river to Marshal Franz Freiherr von Cordon's Division. Cordon had troops at San Martino, but only a few scouts on the east bank at Turbigo. When Camou arrived on the west bank at around 3.45pm these scouts moved away, and the French were soon able to get some chasseurs across to the east bank. Camou then began to construct a pontoon bridge, which was completed by 7.30. Camou's men crossed the river, and by the morning of 3 June he had occupied Turbigo village, and his men were guarding the entire line of passage across the river and a nearby canal. MacMahon was ordered to move his entire corps to Turbigo.

Clam Gallas was informed of the river crossing late on 2 June, and at 10pm he ordered the garrison to retreat and the bridge to be blown early on 3 June. The attempt to destroy the road bridge was not a success. The second pier from the left bank was blown, but although the two linked arches were damaged, they remained passable to infantry. Clam Gallas ordered a second attempt to be made to blow the bridge, but there wasn't enough gunpowder left and the demolition had to be left half completed.

While the engineers were failing to destroy the bridge, Cordon took a sizable force north towards Turbigo. This consisted of four complete battalions, part of two others, a battery of horse artillery and part of a rocket battery. By 7am he was at Cuggiono, and had sent patrols out towards Turbigo.

On the other side of the river Marshal MacMahon arrived at Turbigo at around 2pm, and led La Motterouge's 1st Division across the river. MacMahon and Camou advanced to the village of Robecchetto, where he planned to base his corps. The two generals climbed the church tower, from where they could see the first of Cordon's troops approaching. The two generals returned to Turbigo, where they ordered the first available troops to occupy Robecchetto.

This unit happened to be a newly raised regiment of native light infantry from Algeria, the Tirailleurs Algériens, also known as the Turcos. They were ordered to attack the village from two directions - the 1st battalion from the south and the 3rd from the west, with the 2nd in reserve. Other troops were also ordered forward to support them. The Turcos found Austrian troops in Robecchetto, but cleared them out with a bayonet charge. Cordon temporarily stopped the retreat with some of his artillery, but MacMahon was able to bring up a larger battery and the Austrians were forced to continue their retreat.

The battle of Turbigo was a minor affair, but it had significant results. The French only lost 8 killed and 42 wounded, the Austrians 25 dead, 46 wounded and 35 missing. Its significant was that on a day which began with the Austrians arguing about which bank of the Ticino to defend the French established a secure crossing point and by the end of the day already had II Corps on the eastern bank.

On the following day the two armies blundered in the first major battle of the campaign (battle of Magenta, 4 June 1859). MacMahon's corps played a major part in this unexpected encounter victory, which ended as a French and Piedmontese victory and forced the Austrians to evacuate Lombardy.

The Second War of Italian Unification 1859-61, Frederick C. Schneid. Focuses on the three separate conflicts that made up the Second War of Italian Unification (the Franco-Austrian War, Garibaldi's invasion of the kingdom of Naples and the invasion of the Papal State), the conflict that saw the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. [read full review]
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Solferino 1859: The Battle for Italy's Freedom, Richard Brooks. The battle of Solferino was the main event in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, a key moment in the unification of Italy, and the first battle to be decided at least partly by the extensive use of the railway and steamships and rifled artillery. It also led directly to the foundation of the Red Cross, but despite these claims to fame it has since been overshadowed by the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. Brooks' volume is an excellent single-volume account of the entire campaign, and will be of value to anyone with an interest in nineteenth century warfare [see more].
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 February 2013), Battle of Turbigo, 3 June 1859 ,

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