The siege of Turin

Chapter 6 of the siege of Turin Chapter 7: September

The liberation

Allied Planning

thumb of view from Superga thumb of map of preparations Thumb of view to Superga

Having arrived near Turin on 31 August, the princes of Savoy now set to planning and executing the final stages of their plans to lift the siege. On 1 September the main force was deployed for a grand inspection by the two princes. This of course had its practical purposes, but may also have been intended to raise the moral of the troops. Meanwhile engineers laid two bridges with protective fortifications across the Po in order to enable the allied army to cross.

On 2 September a detachment of 1,200 cavalry and 500 infantry under general Fels then took Chieri, probably with a view to securing the route to the siege works in the hills east of Turin. The two princes meanwhile rode to the Superga hill in order to get a good view (see photo) of the siege. From this position of less then five kilometers from the city the princes could see most of the lines of circumvallation and countervallation. The allies now had a basic choice between trying to introduce some resources into the town and going for an all out assault on the French lines. They chose the last alternative, and the look they had from Superga hill helped them to decide where they should attack.

The most obvious point of attack would be the section in the hills to the east. Success or (just as important) failure would keep the princes on their lines of communication to the east. The French had however counted on this, and, using the terrain, had made this section of their lines very strong. That left only the lines west of the Po, and there was an obvious weak point there. While the section south of the Dora had a strong wall of countervallation as well as a strong circumvallation, the section to the north only had a wall of countervallation (directed to the city). The princes thus saw a section that had no protection whatsoever against an attack from the outside.

The reasons that the French had for not building a wall of circumvallation were threefold. It was on the other side from that from which the liberation army was expected, a liberation army would have to perform a dangerous flanking march to get there, and finally, the French thought the section between Stura and Dora that narrow that the allies would not be able to use it to deploy an assaulting army. For the allies however, these reasons would not impede them from planning their assault just there. This assault would be accompanied by a secondary move against the lines in the hills. This was to be composed of a quite large force of primarily militia. It was to cover the communications of the main force, to bind some French forces to the hill section, and to try to introduce some provisions into the city.

Apart from these military decisions Victor Amadeus took another decision while on Superga. In the chapel that then stood on the hill he promised the Virgin Mary to build a church on Superga in case he would succeed in lifting the siege. This is the sumptuous Basilica Superga that now is on the hill. In 1949 a plane carrying 'Il grande Torino' would crash into the church giving rise to another myth.

French Planning

On the French side meanwhile, Orleans had arrived in the besieging camp, collecting his whole army there on the 31 August, with 10 Battalions arriving on 5 September. The first thing the French had done was performing a second general assault on Turin on the 31st (see previous chapter). After this failure the imminent arrival of the allied army induced the French to hold a council of war. In this council were present: Orleans, La Feuillade, Marsin, and the generals De Chamarande, Saint-Fremont, De Vibraye, Galmoy, D'Estaing, De Murcey and Albergotti.

One of the primary concerns in this council would have been the strength of the opposing forces. The French had about 34,500 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. In regular troops the allied strength amounted to about 24,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. To this should be added the Turin garrison of less than 5,000 men, and about 8,000 militia that Victor Amadeus had recently brought under arms. It seems the French side thought the allied strength even less than it really was, but the fact was that in open battle they would have outnumbered the allies by about three to two. Anyhow, the council started to argue about whether they should fight an open battle or await the allies covered by their lines.

There were reasons not to risk open battle. Primarily that deploying their army to give battle would give the allies good opportunities to introduce some kind of reinforcement into Turin, while it would not necessarily force them to accept a battle. Marsin and La Feuillade were therefore for awaiting the allies behind the lines. De Murcey was of the same opinion, stating that one could still seek battle in case they were cut off from their supplies. All other members were for facing battle. Of these Albergotti proposed to leave most infantry in the lines and face the allies with 40 battalions and 100 squadrons. D'Estaing proposed to march against the allies if they would cross the Sangone. Orleans was most vehemently for attacking the allies. With the majority thus in favor of action, and the supreme commander siding with the majority the affair would have been decided thus, but Marsin prevented this. He showed the council a letter from Louis XIV giving him supreme authority in case of dissent amongst the command, and thus the French army stayed in the lines.

Perhaps Orleans already knew of the opinion beforehand because on the evening of the 31st he had already asked Versailles for formal orders about whether to wait or fight. After the council's decision he privately tried to convince some of his generals to change the opinion, but he failed in this. On the other hand he was however quite self assured about the outcome of a possible battle, thinking he would win an easy victory in case of an allied assault. The practical consequences of the council's decision were that the lines in the hills were reinforced with palisades, and that the line of circumvallation between the Dora and the Stura was reinforced and it's moat was filled with water. The French were however quite consistent in their opinion about the stretch between the Dora and the Stura: It was neglected. Only on 5 September the French made a start with designing a circumvallation line on this stretch. Even when construction finally started on the 6th it was not taken too seriously, even though the allies had already crossed the Dora. Therefore, even on the day of battle, not all of the circumvallation line was on the prescribed height. However this may be, on the day of battle a line of circumvallation, of three kilometers running rather straight from Dora to Stura, was in place, armed with 39 big guns. Sufficiently manned it would no doubt prevent any allied attempt to break the lines.

The allies march

thumb of map of march to circumvallation

The princes of Savoy now began with the final stages of the succors. Their army had taken provisions for a few days with it, and the main part had crossed the Po near Carignan on 4 September. It's first camp would be on the banks of the Sangone between Beinasco and Mirafiori. On the same day the detachment that was to operate in the hills had reached Chieri. It counted about 9,000 men composed of 2 Imperial battalions, 2 Savoy Battalions, 1 Valdense battalion, 8 militia battalions, and 1 cavalry regiment. In the end this secondary move proved very important.

On 5 September the main army continued its advance, circling around Turin on an average distance of 8 kilometers. This march from the Sangone to the Dora was potentially very dangerous, because it was a flanking march. This meant the French had the opportunity to strike at an army that would have difficulty to deploy in time to resist such an attack. To counter this danger the allied army marched in three columns. The infantry was on the right, so it could relatively easily make front to an expected attack. The left column consisted of cavalry, while the artillery and baggage was in the center column. These measures in the end proved quite superfluous because the enemy took no action. The allies could therefore easily make a camp near the Dora with the left facing Pianezza and the right near the Turin Rivoli road.

The march was not all quite however: On the same day the allies found out that a large enemy convoy was moving to Turin on the left bank of the Dora. It consisted of bout 1,300 mules and horses carrying supplies for the besiegers and the princes were therefore determined to get their hands on it. The convoy was protected by an escort which was probably composed of a cavalry and a dragoon regiment. The princes sent two cavalry detachments to attack it under command of general Del Visconti assisted by Di Monasterlo and Falkenstein. These crossed the Dora on horseback and fell upon the convoy near Pianezza. The resistance of the escort was short. A small part of the escort, accompanied by 200 mules would succeed in fleeing, 200 were made prisoner, and the rest succeeded in reaching the castle of Pianezza. The allies were however soon reinforced with a.o. some Grenadier companies commanded by the prince of Anhalt. They then lost no time in encircling the castle. What happened next gave rise to another piece of folklore as an old woman named Maria Bricca pointed out a secret entrance leading to the cellar of the castle. Using this entrance the allies took the castle that same night, killing or imprisoning the defenders. The booty amounted to some 500 mules with supplies. The most remarkable aspect of this incident is that the French did not do much to aid the defenders of Pianezza. The only French move consisted of an attack by only 160 cavalry against the allied camp on the right bank of the Dora, a move they could not seriously expect to have any impact.

The allies could therefore easily lay bridges across the Dora near Alpignano on the 6th, and succeeded in bringing their army across. From there they marched east again and set up camp between the Dora and the Stura. For this they choose a terrain protected by a canal, with the left wing of the camp somewhat to the east of Venaria Reale and the right wing facing Collegno (somewhat east of Pianezza). The detachment led by Santena had meanwhile approached the French works in the hills while carrying the supplies it would try to introduce into the city. Finally, Daun had been informed of the plans and was planning a sortie in order to support the actions of the main army.

The battle

The terrain

The most marked feature of the battleground was that it was narrowed by the rivers Dora and Stura. Between these rivers the French circumvallation wall ran at almost right angles. In the center was a small work called La Cascina Arbani in front of it. The strongest part of the line was the southern sector were it rested on the well fortified castle of Lucento that was garrisoned by a battalion. To the north however it was generally less well made. The only other remarkable terrain feature was the forest of Collegno stretching along the Dora between Pianezza and Lucento.

The allied deployment

The allied plan has been saved for posterity in a day order. The infantry was to march in 8 columns, of which 4 were to form the first line. At a distance of a cannonshot, the infantry was to deploy in line, with a distance of somewhere between 300 and 400 feet between the lines, and enough distance between the 'brigades' to let the artillery and cavalry pass. The grenadiers, who were separated from their regiments were under the command of the prince of Anhalt, and divided in six groups, were to form two lines in front of the left wing (facing the weakest part of the circumvallation). The cavalry meanwhile was to ride behind the infantry, reconnoiter the terrain to the sides, and guard against enemy attacks on the flanks.

As soon as these two main lines would have been formed, the infantry were to march forward to half gun-shot distance, and await further orders there. The particular order of battle of the infantry was as follows:

Left columncentre Left columnCenter Right columnRight column.
Col. Dalmuth 6 Gren btns.
Anhalt: 9 Btns under:Württemberg 15 Btns. under:Rehbinder 10 Btns. under:Sachsen Gotha 18 Btns. under:Command
StillenZumjungenCoppeKönigseggGen. Kriechbaum
HaegenBonnevalEffernHarrachGen. Isselbach

Behind these was the first line of cavalry counting 54 squadrons, and behind that the second cavalry line of 25 squadrons. Amongst the cavalry were 17 Savoy squadrons. The supreme command was divided between the two princes of Savoy with Victor Amadeus being more on the left, and Eugen on the right.

The French deployment

There are a lot of conflicting records about the exact strength and disposition of the French army. It is most likely that the French force counted 97 battalions and 94 Squadrons, with 12 squadrons on their way to Chivasso to pick up a big supply convoy. On the eve of the battle their disposition seems to have been as follows: 40 battalions were in the eastern hills under Albergotti, 40 battalions and most of the cavalry were between the Po and the Dora under La Feuillade, and 17 battalions with 20 squadrons were between the Dora and the Stura facing the allied camp. This deployment was of consequence. The corps of Albergotti could march to the threatened sector by bridges across the Po at Madonna del Pilone and across the Dora connecting to those, but a redeployment would take six hours by this route. (another route led by a bridge between Sassi and Parco Vecchio but would take even longer). La Feuillade's troops however, would only have to cross the two bridges across the Dora at Lucento.

Sufficient readiness and alertness would however mean that all French troops could move to the threatened sector, but it would soon show that this was lacking in the French command. In the night of 6-7 September a large part of La Feuillade's cavalry would cross the Dora into the sector, but these were only accompanied by 6 battalions, and later also 30 dragoon squadrons. This meant that on the morning of the 7th the French had 23 battalions, 54 cavalry squadrons and 30 dragoon squadrons in the sector. Which estimates say would have accounted to about 8,000 infantry, 3,000 dragoons and 5,000 cavalry. These however did not only have to defend the circumvallation, but also the countervallation stretching for twice as long all the way to Parco Vecchio. This meant that all in all the battle for the circumvallation would be fought between 24,000 allied and 9,000 French infantry. The duke of Orleans would assume direct command in the sector, marshal Marsin and general De Murcey would directly assist him. General D'Estaing would command the right wing, and general Saint Fremont would command the left.

thumb of map of deployment

The Battle commences

The battle for the lines did not begin smoothly for the allies. As can be seen on the map the distance from the allied camp to the line was longer on the right wing than on the left wing, which was two kilometers closer to the line. To make this worse the terrain was also more difficult on the right. This would not have posed a problem had the brigades followed their orders, but, instead of waiting out of range of the enemy artillery, the left wing marched on, uselessly exposing itself to enemy artillery. This meant that the left wing suffered some losses, retreated a bit and then waited for the right wing.

Eugen and Victor Amadeus then went forward to take a closer look at the enemy line, and to show themselves to their soldiers in order to encourage them. They then ordered the artillery to open fire. It consisted of a battery of 15 guns positioned near the street from Venaria Reale to Turin, and several pieces positioned in front of the line. This was however an unfortunate undertaking, because the French artillery was covered, more numerous and heavier. After about one and a half hours the princes therefore decided to order the attack at about 10:30 AM.

The first line thus advanced at attack speed, keeping their muskets to their shoulder. The first to reach the line were the grenadiers on the left wing, closely followed by the Prussians. The left wing would however not succeed in conquering the line. Worse still, the French launched a counteroffensive against the left wing, and it was only saved by bringing up Haegen's brigade from the second line. The other columns suffered more or less the same fate, with their vigorous attacks meeting a just as resolute resistance they could not overcome.

The Breakthrough

This way the battle hung in the balance till Victor Amadeus received news from some of the Hungarian cavalry he had sent to reconnoiter the terrain. They advised him that the French line ran only till the old bank of the Stura, and that between the actual course of the Stura and this bank ran a stretch of terrain that was not covered by the French. Victor Amadeus then seized the chance that he saw, and took the four Hussar squadrons and some grenadier companies with him and marched. (It is to be noted here that there is considerable doubt as to how this flanking manoeuver was actually achieved. It seems improbable to me that the allies just marched over the stretch that was not covered by the line, or that the Hungarian cavalry just crossed the Dora and the grenadiers followed them. Perhaps it was a combination of the cavalry crossing to the rear, and the grenadiers quickly coming up in support. At least that is how I drew the map.) Victor Amadeus thus arrived in the flank of the French forces just as the Prussians were performing their fourth attack against the lines.

thumb of map of battle

The allies take the territory north of the Dora

The French Right then panicked and started to abandon the northern sector of the line. The French cavalry did react, but was only able to temporarily hold the allied advance. Soon perceiving that the Prussians had broken the line, the troops of Würtemberg and Rhebinder now also succeeded in breaking the lines. In stead of following their orders however, they did not wait and enable the cavalry to come by making some passages, but in stead started an immediate pursuit of the enemy. Their advance went to the church of Madonna di Campagn, but also to the right in order to help the fourth column. This way a large gap appeared in the allied lines, giving the French cavalry an excellent opportunity to slaughter some of the advancing infantry. Eugen perceived this danger, and had Stahremberg's regiment come up out of Bonneval's brigade. This regiment then closed the gap, occupied the abandoned lines and turned some of the French guns around. The French attack was fought off in a harsh encounter, effectively deciding the battle.

After having lost most of the line the French then tried to make front near the church of Madonna di Campagna. The allies continued their advance till the mouth of the Dora, thus effectively preventing any French support coming up from the hills. Having achieved this the allied cavalry moved through the passages opened up by the Stahremberg regiment. It charged against the French squadrons surrounding the duke of Orleans. Marshall was wounded to death then, and Orleans was wounded twice, inducing him to leave the battlefield. The ensuing absence of any direction to their defense put an end to effective resistance by the French, as their units fought more or less for themselves and disencouragement grew to despair.

Meanwhile Daun had observed that the French right was turned and had ordered his sortie. From the suburb of Pallone about 2,000 soldiers and 70 civilians advanced. Of these the cavalry went east along the Dora to prevent any reinforcements form crossing the Dora. The infantry went in the opposite direction, attacked the enemy flank, and made a lot of prisoners. The sortie was supported by artillery firing at the enemy and the bridges near Lucento. The French left wing, that was already threatened by attacks from different sides, now decided to abandon their positions, and started to retreat across the Lucento bridges, leaving a lot of prisoners, all the dragoon horses, and probably all 39 guns. The garrison of Lucento Castle followed this example, and igniting the magazines, started to retreat too.

General Saint Fremont, who had been ordered to direct the retreat, now ordered the destruction of the Lucento bridges, even though the center and right wing had not yet retreated. Abandoned, these forces tried to form a new line resting on the solid countervallation wall that counted many big redoubts, but vigorous attacks by the allies took these redoubts and prevented this scheme. The remaining forces then tried to flee. Some squadrons that were supported by battalions from across the Po succeeded in retreating over the Vanchiglia bridges, and most of the other cavalry succeeded in crossing the Dora at some point. The infantry did not fare that well however. While some of them tried to swim across the Dora or drowned in the attempt, most were taken prisoner.

The French panic

Though the allies had soundly beaten the part of the French army that had been between the Dora and the Stura, their chances to beat the rest of the French army were not that great. La Feuillades corps and Albergotti's corps were protected by strong lines and (counting only regular soldiers) their forces were not that much smaller than the allied force. There were however circumstances that could obviously make the French soldier lose faith. Primarily, the French had lost many soldiers in the prolongued siege, secondly Marshal Marsin was mortally wounded, Orleans was wounded too, and the enemy was commanded by Eugen. Furthermore La Feuillade, who now was the highest ranking general, had not directed his troops to take any effective action, and probably did not inspire any confidence in his troops. All this made for an army that would anyway have little confidence. The fleeing troops arriving from north of the Dora than probably did the rest.

Though some batallions ranged along the Dora by General de Chamarande and General Saint Fremont kept order, and would hold their position for a while, the rest of the army fared differently: The majority of the troops that saw the defeat spontaneously started to retreat to the west in disorder. So great was the panic that they left guns, ammunition and supplies were they were. Only the abovementioned troops near the Dora would retreat somewhat later and take part of the field artillery with them to Piossasco (second map).

Albergotti, who still had a large force in hand, had not done much during the battle. Perhaps he had thought of aiding the troops to the west, but the appearance of Santena's force at Chieri and Moncalieri had probably prevented that. For Albergotti, the news of the defeat north of the Dora, was enough encouragement to think of saving his troops. He wanted to retreat back into Lombardy, but an express order by Orleans directed him to the west. Albergotti thus marched on the bridges near Cavoretto, taking some of the troops with him that had been defeated north of the Dora. There he would also pick up some of La Feuillades troops, assembling in total 47 batallions and 40 squadrons. The downside was that during his retreat to Piossasco he would leave his baggage, his artillery and quite some prisoners.

Historians have often made statements about whether Orleans shouldn't have retreated to the east, because his move west would have led to the loss of Italy. At the time the immediate argument against a retreat to the east was the fact that Moncalieri had been occupied by Piemontese troops. Next to that one can also doubt if it was at all possible to make a concerted retreat to the east, because a big part of the army had already retreated west. However that may be, the retreat went west, and Turin was free.

The princes enter Turin

At about 15:00 PM Eugen and Victor Amadeus crossed the Dora and entered the city through the Palazzo gate. Accompanied by the loud acclamation they went straight to the cathedral to thank god for the victory, and of course the Tedeum was celebrated enthusiastically there. The time to rest had not yet arrived however, and though the extent of the victory soon became clear, there were still some big fruits to be reaped from the victory.

The Pursuit

In the morning of the 8th, two cavalry groups of 500 each, one commanded by lt-colonels Eben and Saint Amour, and the other by colonel Hautois rode in the direction of Piossasco. Soon these were followed by a third strong column commanded by general Langallerie. These met the French rear-guard commanded by brigadier Coulange, who at succeeded in fending off Eben, who had ridden ahead. When the rest of the allied force came up however, the rearguard was defeated, Coulange killed, and all organised resistance ended. This resulted in a disorganised French retreat to Pinerolo, leaving many stragglers that were either taken prisoner, but just as often killed on the spot by the militia or the population. A few days later the remains of the French army would retreat on Briancon and the Alps, keeping Susa and Perosa as strongpoints.

The Results of the battle

The allied losses amounted to about 52 officers and 892 soldiers killed, and 182 officers and 2,120 soldiers wounded. The French an Spanish losses were much higher amounting to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers killed on the battlefield, about 5,000 prisoners (of whom 1,800 wounded), and next to that a lot of soldiers that had drowned. Mengin estimated that to these losses about 8,500 lost or killed during the pursuit should be added, bringing the total loss due to the battle at about 15,000 men. To this the disproportionate material losses should be added. These consisted of 146 siege guns, 40 field guns, 50 mortars, a field hospital, the tents, the siege train etc. etc. All in all the combination of these material losses with the loss in moral would make it impossible for the French army to excute any offensive move for some time to come.

Chapter 6 of the siege of Turin