The siege of Turin chapter 5: 30 August

Pietro Micca

The burning moat

  • Statue of Pietro Micca
  • Statue of Pietro Micca

The action that made Pietro Micca famous had a link with the outcome of the first general assault. The general assault had left all kinds of things, and a lot of corpses in the moat. La Feuillade had wanted to evacuate the mostly French corpses and wounded, but Daun feared that agreeing to a cease-fire would give the French too good a look at the state of the fortifications and declined it. In order to prevent diseases from spreading he ordered these corpses and rubble to be lit by throwing all kinds of flammable materials on top of them. This had the added advantage of lighting the moat at night, and barring it somewhat. For some nights the fire was fed anew.

Struggle for the mines

  • The mines of Turin
  • The mines of Turin

In August the French had already tried on numerous occasions to enter the capital gallery of the Mezzaluna del Soccorso. In murderous battles they had been stopped each time, but now the French devised another plan. This was to conquer the gate of the upper gallery, and from there to get to lower gallery and enter below the Mezzaluna del Soccorso. It is said that this plan was aided by information they got from deserters who knew the particulars of the mines.

The gate was located in the outer corner of the moat that circled the mezzaluna. Though one might expect that this would be in French hands after the general assault, this was not the case. The Piemontese had kept it during the assault, and also when the fires were burning in the moat. Most of the time this gate was open in order to ventilate the galleries that suffered from poisonous fumes. The normal guard of the gate consisted of a handful of men.

At about twelve o'clock in the night of 29-30 August the French executed their plan. It is said that they were covered by smoke when 4-8 Frenchmen clad in iron armor entered the moat, and snuck up to the gate suddenly attacking it. Some of these were killed by the guard, but the guard was soon overcome by numbers. The French thus entered the mines, but one or more miners present fled the scene and closed the door on top of the stairs leading to the lower gallery.

The French had brought equipment with them and immediately began to destroy this door. Pietro Micca now arrived on the scene and met a miner who was trying to ignite the explosives that had been placed under the stairs for just such an occasion. It seems that in that moment they both saw that this explosive ensemble, consisting of a charge, a salsiccia (ca. 2 m long powder-filled tube that led to the charge), and a connecting fuse long enough to enable them to get away after lighting it, was not in working order. Sensing there was little time left, Pietro took over the task. He is said to have told his companion to get away saying: 'Tu sei piu lungho di un giorno senza pane; lascia fare a me, fuggi!' (let me do this, flee!). It is probable that Pietro Micca then applied the fuse he carried directly to the salsiccia without using the connecting fuse. (Others say he directly applied his fuse to the charge) Anyway, Pietro of course ran, but did not get far before the charge exploded.

The French inside the gate were doubtlessly all killed. Pietro Micca was too, he was blasted through the gallery, and probably died of pressure differences.

The effects of Pietro Micca's sacrifice

Pietro Micca is one of the few participants of the entire Spanish Succession War that has a museum dedicated to him. One might therefore think that his sacrifice somehow saved Turin. This is not the case, though one here has to discern between the real effects of his sacrifice and the possible effects of him not blowing up the stairway. As regards the actual effects, the explosion did not kill many French soldiers, and the French did not take much notice of it, the venture of the gate not being one of their major operations.

As regards the possible effects of him not blowing it up, some authors have long ago suggested that in such a case the French would have entered the citadel via the lower gallery and would thus have taken it, dooming the city. This seems very improbable to me, as the garrison would doubtlessly have killed the small force present, and have driven them back into the tunnel. On the other hand it seems to me that the French would only have had to march a very small distance into the tunnel in order to reach the place where the lower gallery crossed the galleries running under the flanks of the Mezzaluna del Soccorso. I doubt how the Piemontese could have prevented the French from effectively mining and destroying the outer ring of the Mezzaluna from there.

Pietro Micca as a folk hero

  • Turin Artillery monument
  • Turin Artillery monument

In order to show the real meaning of Pietro Micca in world history let us indulge in a little thought experiment: Let's suppose that in the manuscripts describing the siege of Turin the pages describing the acts of Pietro Micca had been lost and only been rediscovered in the 1960's. In such a case the history of the siege of Turin would not have been rewritten to show that Pietro Micca saved Turin. His acts would only have added a footnote to these histories just like their are such heroic footnotes in many other histories.

In stead of this Pietro Micca's acts got published by 1708, and though at first without his name, his acts soon captured the imagination of the people. To them it showed that the ways of the world were not only determined by the kings and nobility, but just as much by the actions of the common man. The veneration for Pietro Micca naturally reached it's zenith in the age of nationalism, a street, a statue and a place in the school books.

I also assumed that the museum Pietro Micca e dell'Assedio di Torino del 1706 dated from this time, but that it not the case. In 1958 Captain (now General) Guido Amoretti determined the exact location of the incident, and also found large stretches of the mines to be still intact. Therefore the museum was founded on top of these findings. It consists of two parts. The first part is a collection of objects relating to the siege. It is especially interesting for people who want to know more about the siege. The second part consists of the actual mines. The guided tour through these mines is an attraction that makes me recommend a visit to the museum also to people not at all interested in the history of Turin.

Changing ideologies of course meant that from the 1960's onward there was a sharp decline in the veneration for Pietro Micca. In times when there is little need for heroism the remembrance of Pietro Micca is nowadays perhaps not much more then Torinese folklore. On the other hand it is due to his acts that the remembrance of the siege of Turin is so dominantly present in the streets of Turin, perhaps sparking of a great tricentenary celebration in 2006.