Battle of Melegnano, 8 June 1859

The battle of Melegnano (8 June 1859) was a costly action during the Austrian retreat after their defeat at Magenta (4 June 1859) and was a result of a French attempt to discover if the Austrians were planned to abandon all of Lombardy, or were planning to make a stand (Second War of Italian Independence). In the aftermath of Magenta General Benedek's VIII Korps had acted as the Austrian rearguard while the main army retreated towards the Chiese. Benedek posted Brigade Roden at Melegnano, on the road that ran south-east from Milan towards Lodi. This meant that the nearest Austrian troops were only ten miles away when Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel III made their triumphant entry into Milan on 8 June.

By 8 June the French and Piedmontese had lost touch with the main body of the retreating Austrians. Napoleon III decided to send two full corps - Baraguey d'Hilliers' I Corps and MacMahon's II Corps along the road from Milan to Melegnano in an attempt to find them and to discover if the Austrians were in full retreat or not. The French commanders knew that Roden was at Melegnano, and they decided to try and attack from two directions. MacMahon was to move down the main road towards Melegnano, then just before the town turn left and move around Roden's right flank. Baraguey d'Hilliers would follow, and attack along the main road. The two attacks were meant to be coordinated.

Both corps made slow progress. MacMahon's men had to cross difficult country, while Baraguey d'Hilliers had to get through II Corps' supply train, which blocked the road, while coming under fire from Austrian guns at Melegnano. When Bazaine's Division from I Corps finally reached the town Baraguey d'Hilliers decided to attack without waiting for MacMahon. The first French attack, led by the 1er Zouaves, ended in failure. Roden's men repulsed the attack and then counterattacked, forcing the French back.

Baraguey d'Hilliers' second division, under General de Ladmirault, now reached the scene. Baraguey d'Hilliers decided to try a smaller scale outflanking move, with Bazaine attacking frontally and Ladmirault carrying out the outflanking move. This attack made slow progress after Ladmirault's men got stuck in the same difficult country that was delaying MacMahon. They finally forced Roden's men back into the town's old castle, while Bazaine's division finally forced its way into the town. Even then the Austrians continued to fight well until MacMahon finally appeared on the scene, reaching a point from where he could bombard the road to Lodi. At this point Roden ordered a retreat, covered by Brigade Boer.

Both sides suffered unnecessary casualties at Melegnano. The French lost 153 dead, 734 and 64 missing (a total of 951) in a battle that wouldn't have been as costly if Baraguey d'Hilliers had been patient enough to wait for MacMahon to arrive. The Austrians lost 120 dead and 240 wounded, much lower losses than the French, but this was overshadowed by the 1,114 missing, most of them taken prisoner. Given that the main army was already in retreat the costly Austrian defence of Melegnano was also unnecessary, and a simple delaying action would have been more appropriate.

The French failed to take advantage of their eventual success, and over the next few days lost touch with the retreating Austrians. The final battle of the war, at Solferino (24 June 1859) would come as a surprise to both sides, neither of whom realised that they were marched straight towards their opponents.

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 (11 February 2013), Battle of Melegnano, 8 June 1859 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_melegnano.html

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