Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Battle of the Italians: Victory in Russia

In 1812 the French and all those powers subject to or allied with Napoleon launched the invasion of Russia. It was one of the largest military operations undertaken in Europe up to that time. Among the forces included were those of the (Napoleonic) Kingdom of Italy led by Napoleon’s step-son Viceroy Eugene de Beauharnais. It was a considerable commitment for the country. With a total military strength of around 90,000 soldiers the Italian contingent of the invasion force sent to Russia numbered some 27,000 men and of these some 25,000 were fated never to see the sunshine of Italy again. However, they fought with extreme skill and courage and no battle showed their ability more than the Battle of Maloyaroslavets on October 24, 1812, a town in Kaluga Oblast, Russia. It was a stunning defeat for the Russians but failed to changed the overall strategic situation. Five days earlier Napoleon had abandoned the ruins of Moscow and began moving southwest with the Italian forces of de Beauharnais in the vanguard. The Russians, under the overall command of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, thought this was only a minor force and not the lead elements of the entire French army. He dispatched forces to intercept them and both sides were pulled into a major battle.

Although the Franco-Italian forces initially held the numerical advantage, the Russians poured in more and more manpower until they had employed more than 25,000 men against the 20,000 French and Italian troops whose numbers were reduced in the early part of the battle. When the Russians arrived from the south, they found Maloyaroslavets already occupied by the Franco-Italian forces and the French held a key bridgehead that was vital for control of the battlefield. The Russians attacked relentlessly, but the French counter-attacked and control of the town shifted from French to Russian control some five times. Just when it seemed the French were victorious, Russian General Raevski arrived with 10,000 fresh troops and pushed them out of most of the town, though the soldiers holding the bridgehead stubbornly held on. When all seemed lost, de Beauharnais committed the Fifteenth (Italian) Division to the battle led by General Domenico Pino, Minister of War for the Kingdom of Italy. The Italian troops smashed into the Russian lines with reckless intensity and before nightfall had broken the Russians and forced them to retreat.

It was the courage and determination of the Italian troops that played the decisive part in the battle, so much so that it came to be known as the “Battle of the Italians”. The Italian troops fought largely unsupported by the French. The Italian Royal Guard under the direct command of Viceroy Eugene de Beauharnais acquitted themselves particularly well as one observer noted that the Italians ‘fought like lions’. Looking back on the campaign later, Napoleon himself said that, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitle it evermore to rank among the bravest troops of Europe”. When the Russian Marshal Kutuzov arrived on the scene, he decided against risking a larger battle by continuing the struggle the following day. However, he did not need to. The way of the French had been blocked and due to the defeat of French forces under Murat at Vinkovo, Napoleon decided to turn west and begin the long retreat from Russian soil. The Italian soldiers had won for themselves a matchless reputation for their heroism during the campaign in Russia, particularly at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets but the ruinous retreat decimated their ranks and left the Kingdom of Italy with only a skeletal army to defend themselves from the Austrian and British attacks that were to come later and which ultimately brought down the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. Still, some of the men survived and many people would remember what they had accomplished. The dream of a restored and fully independent Kingdom of Italy was one that would not die.

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