The siege of Turin 1: Up to 12 May 1706

1 Siege: Background and Preparations

1.1 Preface

The siege of Turin was the culmination of the campaign against Savoy that the French had started in 1703. As such it is quite possible to start the description of the siege with Victor Amadeus' switch to the allied side in that year. I however planned to make this a detailed description of a siege, and have therefore decided to start it at the time the French arrived before the city in 1706 in order to start the actual siege.

1.2 Background

  • Turin Castello
  • The Castello of Turin, not to
  • be confused with the citadel.

Louis XIV had settled all his hopes for the 1706 campaign on kicking Savoy out of the alliance. Capturing Turin would not only achieve that, but would also relief the Franco-Spanish armies of a thorn in their side menacing their communications with Italy proper. It would furthermore give Louis a strong grip on some of the nicest parts of the Spanish Inheritance.

The road to Turin had seemed quite easy in 1703, but now that they had finally arrived before Turin it was 1706. It seemed that fighting Savoy, its little army (supported by imperial troops) and above all its duke were something quite different to marching into some German duchy. Its strongpoints had almost all been captured by now, but especially Verrua and to a lesser extent Chivaso had offered such a strong defense that only in June 1705 the Po had been finally opened to transport siege guns to Turin. A first half-hearted attempt had then been made to besiege Turin, but had failed, primarily due to allied pressure in the North East.

This had been the first sign of more serious efforts by the alliance to help Savoy. A duty they had been neglecting up to the siege of Verrua. After capturing Verrua and Chivasso the alliance had however seen the immediate danger, and had assembled an army that, commanded by Eugen, had failed to reach Savoy, but had succeeded in posing such a threat that the first siege of Turin had failed. Because the alliance would no doubt again try to reach Savoy in 1706, and because a siege would almost automatically succeed when a town is not relieved, the second siege would boil down to a race. On the French side would be engineers digging their way up to the town, on the imperial side would be an army that would have to pass the covering force at the Adige and then race to Turin before the engineers had breached its walls.

The siege of Turin can however be described while omitting the events to the east, and just letting the liberation army appear on 7 September. The fact that the covering force was doing its duty far to the east, trying to keep a relief force from entering into the Po valley seems to cause this. Such a description would however view the Italian events of 1706 as consisting of two operations: A siege against Turin, and a defensive operation on the Adige. The fact that the French commanders did indeed act as if they had little to do with each other does not justify a description of the events as separate operations.

The French had one supreme commander in Italy: the duke of Vendome, who also held authority over the siege. The fact that he was in the east barring an imperial entry into Italy indicates that keeping the empire out of Italy was the most important objective for the French. Achieving this objective would enable them to conquer the rest of Savoy (i.e. Turin), failing it would endanger not only their operations against Savoy, but also their other Italian possessions. When Eugen started to penetrate into Italy however, the besieging force did not start to cooperate with the forces in the east. In stead it just carried on as if nothing had happened, negating the strategic situation they were in. In order to give the reader a complete view of the strategic situation, I end each chapter with a description of events pertaining to the liberation army.

1.3 The fortifications of Turin

  • Fortifications of Turin in 1706
  • The fortifications of Turin in 1706

Above is a schematic overview of the fortifications of Turin. The whole ensemble measures about 4 kilometers from west to east and 2 kilometers from north to south. One immediately notices the citadel standing somewhat apart from the city proper. The city itself was ringed by seventeen bastions covered by ravelins, the whole surrounded by a glacis (not on the map). Counted from the citadel and then going clockwise, the first three bastions, facing west, had been newly constructed at some distance of the town proper, while leaving the previous fortifications intact. There were four normal gates (the double black lines) in these walls.

What we have thus far described can be viewed as a standard form of fortifications like many other towns had. Quite recently these had however been strengthened considerably in order to get the surrounding heights and rivers under control. In front of the northwestern tip of the town walls the strong 'Opera a Corno' (corner work) had been constructed. Between this and the northwestern tip of the citadel lay a small work called 'Freccia di Porta Susa'. Running north form the Opera a Corno a line with three redoubts called Linea di Valdoc, reached up to the Dora. In combination with trenches running parallel to the Dora, and the works covering the bridges over the Dora, this included the suburb of Pallone into the defensive perimeter. The land between the Dora and the Po was protected by the four Ridotti di Vanchilia. South of these the three Ridotti del Valentino enlarged the grip on the Po, while in between these seven redoubts were fortifications covering both sides of the Borgo di Po.

  • The Po at Turin
  • The Po in Turin

On the other side of the river was a landscape that consisted of the outer reaches of the Collina del Po, the same heights on which the fortress of Verrua lay. The fortifications on these hills formed a triangle with its tip pointing east (schematic on the map). This was crowned by the Aresco fortress on a height of 394 meters. On the northern side of the triangle were the redoubts of St. Bino ed Evasio, Franchignono and Canera. On the southern side was the strong Capucini fortress, and five other fortresses. The fortifications of the Borgo del Po could be considered as a kind of citadel should these outer works and fortresses on the other side of the Po be conquered.

A feature that is not that obvious from looking at the map are that the moats were dry, but very deep and sustained by masonry. Another feature is that the town, and especially the citadel had a magnificent system of mines. From the citadel these ran on two levels under the outer works as far as the outlying freccie. This meant that an enemy approaching the citadel had to count on the ground blowing up under his feet

1.4 The defenders of Turin

After a war lasting since 1703 one could expect the garrison to consist of a collection of leftovers. To begin with it consisted of 6 regiments (on battalion strength) of Imperial infantry numbering 1,500 men and 17 battalions of Piemontese infantry numbering 6670 men. Next to this there were 1,500 cavaly of which 1,000 had no horses and were used to man the artillery. A regular battalion of artillery was also present. The operation of the defenses was directed by 24 engineers and 20 engineers in training, sustained by a few hundred mineurs and personnel attached to the mines and artillery. The artillery of Turin consisted of 226 canons and 28 mortars, its powder stored in bomb free storages. All in all the garrison thus counted about 10,500 men. Furthermore reinforced by the city militia of 8 battalions commanded by count Giuseppe Provana.

Initially Victor Amadeus himself commanded the defense, but soon he left the town with most of the cavalry (not in the above calculation). With these he would harass the besiegers from the surrounding countryside, and so these should in a sense also be counted among the defenders. After he left the command of the town would be taken over by imperial lt-feldmarschall Victor Daun. Under him Marquis di Caraglio commanded the town and count La Roche d'Allery commanded the citadel. Count Solaro della Margherita commanded the artillery, Bertola the engineers, and Colonel Della Rocca d'Arazzo the infantry. Della Rocca also commanded the fortifications east of the Po, while the German general Regal commanded the Porta Susa sector, and Baron de Saint Rémy commanded in Pallone.

1.5 The French army

The French commander La Feuillade had in 1705 performed a short attempt to besiege Turin, but his 20,000 troops had then proved to be inadequate. For this new attempt his army had been brought to somewhere between 40,000 and 44,000 men. This had been achieved by sending him 22,000 recruits and some of the finest infantry batallions. The composition of this army has been estimated at 63 batallions counting 31,000 men, 73 squadrons numbering 8,000, two artillery battalions numbering 1,000 men, 48 engineers and some mineurs. It seems that there were also 4 Spanish battalions present. In general this army was excellently equipped with everything needed for a protracted siege. The siege train numbered 110 cannon and 59 mortars, these could be supported by 62 field guns. La Feuillade was assisted by the generals de Chamarande, D'Arène, D'Aubeterre, Guébriant, De Vibraye, Gevaudin, d'Estaing and Valdesfuentes. The artillery was commanded by general D'Houville while general Tardiff commanded the engineers. Later on the Duc d'Orleans would arrive to take up the nominal command.

1.6 French plans

Louis XIV and the French staff had already discussed the best way of attacking Turin since before the first attempt by La Feuillade in 1705. There were basically two parties that got heard by Louis. The first one was that of Vauban. He advocated to take the fortified heights east of the Po before doing anything else, estimating this could be done in three weeks. Then the linea di Vanchilia had to be taken, after that the city, and finally the citadel. These last three steps to take two months. Vendome and La Feuillade were of a totally different opinion. They feared that taking the fortifications on the heights east of the Po, that lay on hills comparable to those of Verrua, would lead to a protracted bloodbath just like they had experienced there, especially because the heights could be continously resupplied from the city. It was their opinion that the old citadel sticking out above the terrain, and lying externally of the city was the weakest point. They advocated an attack there stating that by using enough artillery it was possible to reduce the old citadel to rubble in no time. (The defenders of Turin disagreed with both and thought that the side of Porta Nuova, i.e. the southern side was the weakest.) It is peculiar that Vauban also twice gave an opinion on the force needed to take Turin. In September 1705 he had estimated that 42,000 men were more than enough. In June 1706, when the siege had already started, he had however changed his opinion and, referring to the abilities of Victor Amadeus, he declared that 55,000 men were needed.

Both parties were probably not aware of all the improvements that had recently been made to the defenses. Vauban probably did not know that the fortresses on the hills were by now quite modern. Vendome and La Feuillade were probably not aware that the freccie (small ravelins) and counterguard recently constructed around the citadel largely solved the weaknesses of the obsolete construction of its core. Next to that the appearance of the Opera al Corno meant that the citadel was not as exposed by now as it had been. Louis XIV, probably thinking that the commanders on the ground probably had the best insight into the affair, decided to give his blessing to the plans of Vendome and La Feuillade. The final plan of directing the main attack to the citadel while performing a diversionary attack on the city to the north of it was thus approved.

2 The East: The front on the Adige

2.1 Battle of Calcinato, Eugen retreats to the Adige

In the beginning of 1706 the Imperial army was closer to Turin then it would be for most of the siege. It's winter quarters had been west of the Mincio, in Ghedi, Montichiari, Lonato, and north of there along the banks of the Chiese and lake Garda. After retreating from Ghedi it had been surprised by Vendome in the night of 18 - 19 April being attacked in the area between Montichiari and Calcinato. In this battle of Calcinato, often called a rout, the Imperial army had lost somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 men. Eugen, who had arrived on the scene a short time after, had then retreated the army and relocated it in a position east of the Adige. There he had begun to rebuild the army, privately letting Daun know that this would take him two months to get everything in order. Vendome had achieved a strategic success because the Imperial army had been rendered unable to aid Turin for some time to come.

Chapter 2 of the siege of Turin