Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Battle of Dijon: Italian Victory Over Prussia

A battle that is not often remembered in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the Battle of Dijon, actually a series of three battles fought from October 29, 1870 to January 23, 1871. The Kingdom of Italy, still in its formative years, did not take sides in the conflict officially and public sentiment regarding the two sides changed dramatically over the course of the short conflict. Initially, most Italians were more supportive of Prussia which had most recently been an ally. The French Empire of Napoleon III had aided the Italians in driving Austria from Lombardy but had stopped short and then made peace which many in Italy viewed as almost a betrayal. The Prussians, in their previous war, had allied with Italy against Austria which resulted in Venice being restored to the Italian homeland. Napoleon had also garrisoned Rome with French troops and the Italian government was adamant that it wanted an end to the presence of any foreign soldiers on Italian soil. Toward this end, King Victor Emmanuel II had entertained the idea of assisting France in return for the withdrawal of French troops from Rome but Napoleon would not agree to this and so, despite a great deal of talk, Italy remained on the sidelines.

Many Italians hoped for a Prussian victory. However, that view changed completely with the downfall of Napoleon and the birth of the Third French Republic when Prussia  demanded the territory of Alsace from France. What had first been portrayed as a war of self-defense, then appeared to be a war of conquest and Italian opinion in many quarters shifted dramatically from favoring Prussia to favoring France. The Kingdom of Italy would still not participate in the conflict on an official level but many Italians would fight in the war on an unofficial level. The most famous Italian figure of the period, Giuseppe Garibaldi, offered his services. The French were reluctant to have him, remembering how he had fought them in front of Rome in the past but their situation was so desperate that they could hardly afford to refuse such an offer. Garibaldi arrived and was first given command of a small group of Italian volunteers but this was later expanded into the “Army of the Vosges” consisting variously from 5 to 15,000 men. It was a motley force of volunteers of diverse origins including Italians, French, Spanish, English, Irish and American fighters. They were organized into four brigades commanded by General Joseph Bossack (a Pole), Colonel Delpeck and Garibaldi’s sons Menotti Garibaldi and Ricciotti Garibaldi with General Bordone as Garibaldi’s chief of staff.

Garibaldi's General Staff
The military situation was dire. After the defeat of Napoleon at Sedan, the Prussians and their allies from the minor German states besieged Paris while also moving to consolidate their position and secure their flanks and supply lines. This included an advance on Dijon led by the Prussian General August von Werder, an experienced officer with a record of success. The Army of the Vosges had also tasted success when, on 14 November 1870, Ricciotti Garibaldi led 400 men in attacking and defeating about 1,000 Germans at Chatillon, taking 167 prisoners, capturing a great of weapons and ammunition and suffering only 6 killed and 12 wounded in the process. When word arrived that Dijon was being attacked by the Prussians, Garibaldi responded and moved to assist. However, before he arrived, the French had surrendered and the first battle of Dijon was over. Garibaldi knew he would be outmatched but that was a circumstance he had grown accustomed to in his career and so he was considering a night attack when the opportunity presented itself to surprise a portion of the Prussian army outside of town.

Garibaldi deployed his men and ambushed the Prussians who put up a fight but were caught in a withering fire and soon retreated. Garibaldi seized the opportunity and ordered his men to pursue, chasing the Prussians all the way back to Dijon. Not wishing to let up, Garibaldi pushed on and attacked Dijon the same evening his forces arrived, even though he had only 5,000 men. His men were aggressive and enthusiastic but had little training and experience, particularly compared to the magnificently drilled and disciplined Prussians. The fighting for the town went on all through the night but the Prussians held their ground and Garibaldi was finally forced to withdraw and fall back to Autun. This time it was the Prussians that pursued him. The Prussians applied fierce Teutonic pressure to Garibaldi and his men at Autun but the build-up of French forces near Dijon worried General Werder and so he cancelled the attack to concentrate all of his strength on Dijon, inadvertently saving Garibaldi from what appeared to be certain doom. In the end, Werder decided he would not defend Dijon anyway and evacuated his forces.

Garibaldi on the march to Dijon
Garibaldi and his men planned to move to Dijon, occupy the town themselves and fight a defensive battle against the Prussians. After a rest and careful planning, his men began the grueling winter march to Dijon. The town was occupied, defenses were manned and Garibaldi and his troops waited for the inevitable Prussian attack. That attack came, from the west, on January 21, 1871 and lasted for four days. The fighting was fierce and surged back and forth between both sides with attacks and counter-attacks. Eventually, the Prussians were defeated and forced to retreat. For Garibaldi, the crowning achievement of his forces was the capture of the flag of the 61st Pomeranian Regiment. It was the only regimental flag that the Prussian forces lost in the entire war and is part of why the battle for Dijon is a page of military history that the Germans would rather forget about. Eventually of course, as France did lose the war, the Prussians came back and kept up the pressure until Garibaldi withdrew his exhausted soldiers. France agreed to hand over Alsace-Lorraine to the newly united Germany and to pay heavy war reparations. The French, however, seemed almost as embarrassed by Garibaldi’s victory as the Prussians. He had succeeded where they had failed and the only one to claim a German flag as a trophy was an elderly Italian rather than the professional French army. The locals, of course, were appreciative and elected Garibaldi to represent them in the National Assembly (to Garibaldi’s surprise) but as he was Italian and not French he was not allowed to take up his seat.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Royal Quote

"For this beloved country, which is the blessed land in which my dearest children were born and educated, I make an ardent prayer, to the Virgin Mother of God, a prayer which mingles with yours, so that God may bless us all and so that He may save Italy."
-Queen Marie Jose

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

King Umberto I, Remember

On this day in 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by an anarchist. During his reign, the Kingdom of Italy had secured alliances with major powers and first expanded overseas in East Africa. He fought in the Italian Wars for Independence, helping make Italy a free and united nation. His life and times should not be forgotten.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

King Ferdinando I of the Two-Sicilies

The reign of the Spanish over southern Italy and the island of Sicily, in its last instance, can be traced back to their seizure from the Austrian Hapsburgs during the War of the Polish Succession. At that time, the son of King Philip V of Spain, Charles, was placed on the throne. He had previously been Duke of Parma before moving to Naples as part of the constant struggles and trade deals between the great powers over the states of the Italian peninsula. Eventually, he succeeded his brother as King Charles III of Spain (Carlos III) and so he passed the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily to one of his sons, Ferdinand, who had been born in Naples on January 12, 1751. He was to preside over a time of immense tumult, trepidation and transition in the history of southern Italy, ending ultimately in the creation of a new political entity called the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies. Little Ferdinand was only in his eighth year when he became King Ferdinand IV of Naples and III of Sicily when his father became King of Spain. King Charles III was forbidden by treaty from continuing to rule over all three kingdoms personally so choosing his third son to succeed him in Naples was a way of ensuring that the Spanish Bourbon dynasty would still retain the crown.

Obviously, as a small child at the time, actual power remained in the hands of the King of Spain or those officials appointed by him to administer southern Italy. At the head of the local government was a council of regency led by Bernardo Tanucci, a native of Tuscany and servant of the King of Spain who had fully embraced the “Enlightenment” ideas that were sweeping the educated elites of society in those days. Tanucci wanted to keep power centralized in his own hands, “reform” the Catholic Church and make government and society more “rational” as he saw it. His efforts to establish state supremacy over the Church earned him an excommunication from Pope Clement XIII, which he responded to by seizing a couple of Catholic monasteries. Unfortunately, his control of the government also gave him considerable power over the upbringing of his young monarch and he was certainly not a positive influence. Because he wished to hold on to power for himself as much as possible, he made sure that King Ferdinand IV learned only what he wished him to know. He encouraged the boy to be frivolous and concentrate on indulging rather than educating himself. Tanucci did, however, make sure that the King grew up with his sense of values.

Due to this, King Ferdinand IV was more adept at sports and other pleasurable pursuits than he was at administration by the time he reached his majority in 1767. As an absolute monarch, Ferdinand IV could rule as he wished but he still kept Tanucci on his council. His first action as King of Naples and Sicily was to expel the Jesuits from his domain, an act which undoubtedly pleased Tanucci greatly. His second priority was to find a suitable wife to ensure that the Bourbon reign would continue. The choice ultimately fell on Archduchess Maria Carolina, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary (making her, of course the sister of Emperor Joseph II and Queen Marie Antoinette). More like her brother than her mother, Queen Maria Carolina was also receptive to the new ideas of the “Enlightenment” and favored what would become known in monarchial history as “enlightened despotism”. She was like her mother in that she was strong-willed and assertive. In 1768 she and King Ferdinand were married as part of an Austro-Spanish alliance and by the terms of the treaty the Queen was given a place on the governing council where she made her wishes known. This caused a clash with Tanucci, who was used to being in charge, but the Queen emerged triumphant over the old courtier.

Many came to believe that the Queen was the real ruler of Naples, a charge not without some facts to support it. King Ferdinand had been discouraged throughout his youth from taking much interest in government and was known among some of the public as il ré lazzarone which, while hard to translate exactly, could be understood as the ‘peasant king’ or someone who behaves in a very low-class way. He was not known for his great virtue but he and the Queen certainly had a productive marriage if not a happy one as they had eighteen children. Rather remarkable considering that both, at various times, said they found the other unattractive and stayed together only out of a sense of duty and obligation. Still, the King could have his fun while the Queen worked to consolidate her own position of power. Naples was effectively still being ruled by the King of Spain through Tanucci until the Queen succeeded in having him dismissed over the issue of the Freemasons (Tanucci banned them, the Queen wanted the ban lifted). The Queen took her advice from her Austrian homeland, such as strengthening the navy, and took the country much closer to Great Britain through the influence of an Englishman who was one of her favorites (and about whom there was no shortage of gossip). She also tried to patch up relations with the Catholic Church.

All of this caused a great deal of bad feelings amongst the Spanish Royal Family. The Queen had appointed an Englishman to power at around the same time King Charles III was going to war against Britain alongside France and the fledgling United States. Ties with Austria and Britain increased to the extent that one could easily wonder which country really held power over Naples. For the average Neapolitan, however, none of this might have mattered. They were used to doing things their own way and would ‘keep calm and carry on’ no matter which foreign dynasty happened to be ruling them at the moment. However, the experiments with the philosophy of the “Enlightenment” undermined traditional reverence for the monarchy. In some countries, this had no immediate effect so long as the country was well governed. Unfortunately, under King Ferdinand IV, Naples was not being well-governed. The Queen’s English favorite had actually done considerable harm to the administration of the country. So it was that a perfect storm was brewing in Naples when word came of the outbreak of the French Revolution, culminating in the horrific regicide of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

The effort, nominally by King Ferdinand IV, to be an “Enlightened Despot” came to a screeching halt and the King and Queen turned in a decidedly reactionary direction due to the alarming events in France. In 1793 Ferdinand IV pledged the Kingdom of Naples to the War of the First Coalition against republican France and began trying to root out any hint of republicanism or republican sympathy in southern Italy wherever it could be found. However, when he was obliged to make peace with France in 1796 revolutionary agitation at home started to increase again. Queen Maria Carolina persuaded King Ferdinand to declare war on France again in 1798 and though Neapolitan troops briefly marched north and occupied Rome, it was a complete fiasco with the army retreating at the first sign of a French advance (the Neapolitan army had a very poor reputation in this period). The revolutionary forces in Naples saw their chance and began to rise up in imitation of their radical French counterparts. The Royal Family, fearful of sharing the fate of the French King and Queen, immediately fled to Sicily with help from Britain.

Once ensconced in Palermo, King Ferdinand showed his fangs and began massacring any suspected republican he could get his hands on. However, back in Naples, the middle and upper classes that had supported him had been left to the bloodthirsty mob and so quickly called on the French for help. The result was the occupation of southern Italy by French forces and the establishment of the ridiculous contrivance known as the Parthenopaean Republic. In response to this outrage, and in an illustration of how far he had back-peddled from his “Enlightenment” days, King Ferdinand turned to one of the most dashing and fascinating characters of Italian history, the rich, religious, royalist reactionary Ruffo, that is His Eminence Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo. I must admit here to my partiality as Cardinal Ruffo and his exploits have always been a favorite of mine. The Italian cleric landed in Calabria and raised a counterrevolutionary force of irregulars he dubbed the ‘Army of the Holy Faith’ (they were commonly known as the Sanfedisti). With artillery from Britain and some additional support from Russia, Cardinal Ruffo went after the revolutionaries Old Testament style and his cohorts of religious royalists soon had the whole of southern Italy in an uproar and eventually forced the French to agree to an armistice and wash their hands of the region. It was a glorious and unexpectedly successful operation that was also a colorful adventure, with pious as well as gruesome elements to it.

By July of 1799 King Ferdinand IV had moved from executing republicans in Palermo to executing republicans in Naples, so things were moving in the right direction. However, Napoleon was not going to permit a Bourbon monarchy to remain on the continent he wished to dominate and soon French troops were on their way back led by the Emperor’s brother Joseph. Once again, in 1806, King Ferdinand and his retinue fled to Palermo and Joseph Bonaparte was appointed King of Naples by his brother. Still, the French were constantly having to deal with guerilla attacks and were issued a stinging defeat by the British in the south though the British expedition withdrew afterwards. In 1808 Ferdinand IV received a new nemesis when Joseph Bonaparte was withdrawn to become King of Spain and replaced by Marshal Joachim Murat. He did not have much sense but he was more of a threat as he was more popular than his predecessor, mostly because of his ambition which pushed him toward Italian independence rather than French domination. This naturally led to problems with Napoleon and eventually Murat was defeated by the Austrians and after he fled to France, the Austrian Imperial Army marched in to Naples and announced the restoration of King Ferdinand IV to his throne.

During this time, the Bourbon King and Queen had been having problems of their own in Sicily. The British had given them a subsidy and a garrison to guard them and naturally expected no small amount of influence to coincide with this protection. They tried to steer the country in the direction of a Burkean constitutional monarchy, to encourage popular support for the establishment by having people invested in it rather than for fear of being shot. King Ferdinand was more of the “better dead than red” persuasion and ultimately this resulted in the Queen being exiled and the King forced to issue a classical liberal constitution and make his son regent. However, once Napoleon was defeated and the British had pulled out, King Ferdinand reversed all of that, went back to absolute monarchy, enlisted the help of Austria in regaining his throne in Naples and had Murat shot when he made a bid to restore himself.

At the Congress of Vienna, King Ferdinand IV of Naples abolished the Sicilian constitution and declared himself King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies. All previous agreements were annulled, all enemies or potential enemies of the regime were executed and the Austrian army remained to garrison southern Italy and enforce his rule. He also appointed an Austrian commander-in-chief of the Neapolitan army. All of this caused increasing resentment among the populace and a growth in the revolutionary secret society known as the Carbonari. In 1820 there was a mutiny among the army and an attempted military coup led by General Guglielmo Pepe which forced King Ferdinand I to issue a constitution while at the same time sending troops to stamp down a rebellion for independence in Sicily. All of this chaos drew the attention of the great powers of the Holy Alliance who feared a revolutionary outbreak could spread. King Ferdinand repudiated, again, the constitutional concessions he had made, further damaging his credibility and winning himself no friends amongst the other crowned heads of Europe for his antics. In the end, Prince Metternich sent another Austrian army to occupy southern Italy, defeating the Neapolitan rebels and securing Ferdinand I on his throne once again.

In the end, as before, King Ferdinand abolished the constitution and tried his best to have all revolutionary elements executed but he depended on the Austrian military to sustain himself and, as before, this came at a price. By the end of his life, Austria was effectively ruling southern Italy in his name through the Austrian ambassador Count Charles-Louis de Ficquelmont. King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies, at the age of 73, gave up the ghost in Naples on January 4, 1825. He had started his reign with his country being ruled from Madrid and had ended it with his country being ruled from Vienna. In the intervening years there had never been any shortage of people, all outsiders, wishing to do his job for him. At first he had been content to leave matters to his wife but the horror that swept Europe after the outbreak of the French Revolution  changed all of that. Today he is often remembered as a rather crude and brutal man, constantly being propped up by foreign bayonets to maintain himself. He is the man who ate spaghetti with his fingers at the opera and had lots of people executed. However, before judging him too harshly, one should keep in mind the fact that he was intentionally raised to be disinterested in government and not really prepared for the task. Thus, it is no great surprise that he wasn’t terribly good at it. Also, after going along with the “Enlightenment” trend, his later penchant for putting people to death was a reaction to a very real fear that what had happened to his fellow Bourbon monarch in France could happen to him. What is unfortunate is that he too often broke his own word, damaging his reputation among his subjects and the other courts of Europe. It was a tendency that would be repeated with his successors and the pattern of his reign would, unfortunately, be repeated in a number of ways until the Bourbon reign over the Two-Sicilies came to an end.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Italian-American Hero Francis Vigo

One Italian who became a celebrated hero in the American War for Independence was Francis Vigo. A Piedmontese, he was born Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo on December 13, 1747 in Mondovì, Italy. Originally a soldier of fortune, like many Italians at the time, he came to America as part of the Spanish army stationed in New Orleans, Louisiana. When his service was finished he opened a fur trading business in the (then) frontier town of St Louis, Missouri in 1772. In 1783 he moved to Vincennes, Indiana and opened another fur trading business there, buying and selling among the Native Americans and the local settlers. When the American War for Independence broke out, Vigo aided the patriot cause and is most famous for his work as a scout and what we would today call an espionage agent for George Rogers Clark, leader of the rebel forces on the western frontier. While gathering information for Clark, Vigo was captured by Native Americans in service of the British Crown and handed over to the local British Governor, Henry Hamilton (aka "Hamilton the Hair Buyer" for his policy of rewarding Natives for the scalps of rebels).

Hamilton suspected Vigo of aiding the American rebels but as he was legally a subject of the King of Spain, he could not be held and as a possible traitor and so he was paroled but kept under close watch. However, Spain and France were both sympathetic to the American cause and there was also religious solidarity on the part of Catholics on the frontier in opposition to Protestant Britain. So, Father Gibault, the local Catholic priest, organized the French population of Vincennes to protest to the Governor for Vigo's release, even threatening to cut off the supplies sustaining the British garrison at Fort Sackville if Hamilton refused. Hamilton released Vigo but made him promise not to "do any thing injurious to the British interests on his way to St. Louis." Vigo was nothing if not honest and so he returned to St Louis first and then traveled to Kaskaskia to inform Colonel Clark of the British defenses at Vincennes. He had kept his word not to do anything to harm British interests "on his way to St Louis" while still carrying out his mission on behalf of Clark. Because of the information he provided, Clark was able to take Vincennes in 1779.

Vigo was also a very successful businessman and he was the leading financial backer of the American cause in the old northwest (as what is today known as the midwest was called at the time). He willingly exchanged paper promises from the Continental Congress for hard currency that was actually valued and useful. Unfortunately for Vigo, he was never repaid so his support for the cause of independence was a complete sacrifice for him. After the war, he continued his business, expanding his trade network to the east coast and in the early 19th Century was responsible for the establishment of Vincennes University as well as becoming the commanding colonel of the Knox County Militia before his retirement in 1810. He died on March 22, 1836, an honored and respected figure in the community but still not compensated by the American government for the great losses he incurred on their behalf. A monument in his honor today stands in the George Rogers Clark historical park in Vincennes, Indiana.

Monday, June 22, 2015

General Rino Corso Fougier

Rino Corso Fougier was born on November 14, 1894 in Bastia, France. In 1912 he enlisted in the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) and showed promise. He took the reserve officer student training course and in 1914 was commissioned a second lieutenant in command of a platoon of bicycle-mounted Bersaglieri. When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War I the following year he served with the Seventh Bersaglieri Regiment and was wounded in action on June 23, 1915 by a mine explosion while carrying out a reconnaissance mission. He pushed forward and earned the Silver Medal for Military Valor for his heroism. However, his aspirations caused him to look to the skies and he began training as a combat pilot at the Battalion Airmen School of Venaria Reale in Piedmont, earning his license in 1916 and becoming a combat pilot the following year. Posted to the 113th Squadron, he saw action in numerous air battles. He earned his second Silver Medal after taking on three enemy planes on May 20, 1917 over the Austrians' Banjšice Plateau, a fight in which he was wounded again. He served in other squadrons and was promoted to the rank of captain, earning a third Silver Medal along the way. After the war he was appointed to command his own squadron.

Previously, he was still officially a Bersaglieri officer but in 1923 the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) was officially established and in 1927 Fougier was promoted to lieutenant colonel. From 1928 to 1933 he commanded the First Wing and was singled out for praise by Air Marshal Italo Balbo. In 1930 he established the first school of aerobatics which would become a famous institution and during World War II the Italian pilots would be widely known for their aerobatic skill. In 1931 he was promoted to colonel and from 1933 to 1934 commanded the 3rd Air Brigade. Subsequently he saw colonial service as commander of the air forces in Libya until 1937. He commanded Italian air forces in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and saw action again in the Spanish Civil War in which Italian air power played a critical role. Afterwards, he was made inspector of air force training schools and had a couple of other assignments before Italian entry into World War II. Despite being pioneers in air warfare, Italy entered the conflict with some considerable disadvantages. Success in previous campaigns with older aircraft meant that innovation was not given the priority it should have and most Italian aircraft were outdated when Italy entered the war. The industrial capacity of the country was also insufficient to meet the demands of a world war.

In 1940, General Rino Corso Fougier received his most famous assignment; command of the Italian air forces operating in the Battle of Britain (see Italians in the Battle of Britain). Although they are not often remembered in histories of the Battle of Britain, the Italians actually did quite well, especially considering how outmatched their maneuverable but slow CR.42 biplanes were by the British Spitfires. The Italian pilots flew numerous missions, performed very well in air-to-air combat and inflicted about as much damage on the British as they lost themselves. Italian bombing raids on coastal installations also did considerable damage and forced the British RAF to divert resources which would have been better employed in fending off attacks by the German Luftwaffe. It was a campaign that deserves to be more widely known because the Italian pilots performed very well and were not without successes. At Felixtowne, Harwich and Ramsgate, the initial Italian air attacks went very well and the daylight raid on Ramsgate resulted in only five Italian aircraft being damaged by anti-aircraft fire. In air-to-air combat with the RAF the outmatched Italians generally gave as good as they got, inflicting as much damage as they incurred. Counting fighters and bombers, the Italian forces lost 15 aircraft in the Battle of Britain but destroyed an equal number of British aircraft in the process while dropping 54 tons of ordinance on the enemy.

Eventually, however, Mussolini determined that Italy's resources had to be focused on the Mediterranean (though there was the diversion of forces to Russia) and so the Italian Air Corps in Belgian operating against England was withdrawn. After the dismissal of General Francesco Pricolo, General Rino Corso Fougier was promoted to Chief of Staff of the Regia Aeronautica and Secretary of State. In 1942 he was promoted to General of the Army (Aviation) but his military career came to an end the following year with the downfall of the Fascist state and the armistice with the Allies. Because the Regia Aeronautica had been born in the Fascist era there were those who harbored suspicions about the whole organization and General Rino Corso Fougier was stripped of his post and left the military to retire to civilian life. Nonetheless, he had finished a remarkable career of service to his King and his nation. He died in Rome on April 24, 1963.