BR08 Custoza (24 June 1866)
The Austrian leaders had expected an Italian invasion since the end of last war in the region in 1859. Austrians knew also that the Royal Italian Army, hastily cobbled together from the armed forces of several smaller states during the preceding five years, lacked a professional supply service and relied exclusively on hired civilian wagons to bring up its food and ammunition. Southern Army had an excellent staff organization: chief of it was Franz Freiherr von John. The officers at army headquarters in Verona saw themselves as the heirs to Radetzky, and went to war with great confidence but the army’s new commander, Archduke Albrecht, had little combat experience and he left planning to John.
On the other side the Italian leadership had much confusion: presented with two options to invade Austrian territory, the Italians chose both, dividing their forces between a thrust across the Mincio River, aimed at Verona, and one across the lower Po aimed at Venice. Austrian Southern Army had at most 70,000 men available for field action; the Italians put 220,000 into their two field armies. La Marmora’s force (unofficially called the “Army of the Mincio”) nominally brought about 140,000 onto the Custoza battlefield; but so many Italian divisions saw little or no action that at the key points the Austrians usually had local numerical superiority.
Alfonso la Marmora, accompanied by King Vittorio Emanuele himself, would lead the march on Verona. La Marmora’s campaign plan centered on the largest and most exposed of the fortresses, Mantova. With Southern Army believed to be far east of Verona, two of the three Italian corps would occupy a line between Peschiera and Verona, to stop Southern Army from interfering with the siege. On the 23rd of June La Marmora's Army crossed the Mincio river. The following day it resumed its slow advance and commanders assuming that the Austrians were not in the area. They did not send light cavalry units in reconnaissance. Meanwhile the Austrian Southern army had stolen a march on their enemy. Informed of the Italian advance by cavalry units, Austrians had moved to within striking distance of the Italians. Thought to be far to the east, Southern Army instead marched west from Verona to the north of the Italians, in an attempt to move behind the Italians so as to cut them off from the rear, and thus, slaughter them. Von John decided on a dawn attack on the Italians, hoping to catch them in march order. As the 24th dawned Austrians were on the move aiming to occupy the strategic hills around Custoza and on the flank of the Italian army's advance. Fortunately for the Italians, La Marmora changed the direction of his front, toward the same heights the Austrians were trying to use as launching point for their attack. So the Italians occupied the high ground with some units available, while efforts were made to bring the rest of the scattered Italian army to the battlefield.
Of the three main attacks planned by the Austrian leadership, Army's right wing would have the toughest assignment. The Reserve Division would march well to the west, then turn sharply south to seize the bridges across the Mincio. John do not appear to have expected either formation to run into heavy resistance in the twisting valley of the narrow Tione stream, where V Corps and the Reserve Division grappled with the Italians. On the Reserve Division’s left flank, Maj. General Gabriel Rodich’s V Corps would also march west, then turn south to occupy the heights few km. north-east of Custoza. In the center of the Austrian army, Feldmarschallleutnant Joseph Maroicic’s VII Corps had the task of occupying the Italian army's attention long enough for the flanking attacks to work their way around the enemy positions. To the left of Maroicic lay the Austrian IX Corps. Maj. Gen. Ernst Hartung: troops had the shortest march of all the Austrian formations, and had orders to attack straight out of Verona in the direction of Sommacampagna. At the far left of the Austrian line, two small brigades of light cavalry under command of Col. Ludwig Pulz. For the battle, John had strict orders for Pulz: the Italian right flank needed to be pulled forward, toward Verona, so the Austrian right wing could cut them off from their bases. Under no circumstances were the cavalry to attack the Italians. As is the way of careful battle plans, that was exactly what they did as soon as they spotted the Italian infantry. Although the attack was ineffectual, it created a panic in the Italian rear and immobilized three Italian divisions around Villafranca, who for the rest of the battle only took a defensive posture. 3rd Corps headquarters of General Della Rocca, 7th Division (Bixio), 16th Division (Prince Umberto I) and the Army Cavalry Division, were spectators. Though assigned a brigade of light cavalry to screen his troops, Della Rocca posted the horsemen behind his infantry. The indecisiveness of Della Rocca, allowed a large part of the Italian army to just stand around and watch the battle, rather than joining in perhaps decisively.
So the battle opened with an unplanned Austrian cavalry charge. Instead of an enveloping battle, the two forces collided head on, with both headquarters trying to discover what happened far from the frontline. Durando’s I Corps held the Italian left flank. Durando had four divisions,and left one of them on the western bank of the Mincio to watch for any sorties from the Austrian garrison at Peschiera. Maybe he simply wanted the division commander out of the way, Pianell, the former Minister of War to King Francis II of Naples. Some Italian officers suspected Pianell a traitor in Austrian pay. Meanwhile in the west Cerale's 1st Division had clashed with the Austrian Reserve Division around Oliosi and Monte Cricol. Cerale's Division was not fully deployed and in the fights for this area. After fierce fighting the 1st division was thrown out of Oliosi, broke, and fled to the Mincio. Along side them in the Santa Lucia and San Rocco area Sirtori's 5th Division was fairing slightly better. It to had bumped into the Austrian army, this time though in the shape of elements of Rodich's V Corps. Yet it was able to conduct a reasonable ordered withdraw to the area of Santa Lucia. Here they managed to stabilise their lines and the Austrian advance faltered.
Sirtori’s division was blocked from Monte Vento by Rodic’s other troops and by 8 AM, he was thrown back by fierce bayonet attacks. Brignone’s division had taken Belvedere Hill near Custoza after fighting with Hartung’s IX Corps. On Monte Croce the Italians were similarly enjoying success. Here elements of Hartung's IX Corps had advanced across the difficult terrain to attack the Italian grenadiers of 3rd Division on the summit. They struggled up the daunting slope but the grenadiers stood firm and repulsed the uncoordinated Austrian assault. So the tired Austrians retreated back and waited reinforcements to resume attack up Monte Croce against Italy's grenadiers. They were nearly surrounded by Austrians: the remaining forces on the heights had both of their flanks exposed and started to withdraw.
La Marmora noticed that the vital town of Custoza was not occupied. The Italian commander then ordered the divisions of Cugia (8th) and Govone (9th) up the heights to relieve Brignone. This forced the Austrian brigades of Böck and Scudier out of Custoza. Scudier then retired from the field, opening another gap in the Austrian line. Scudier withdrew and his brigade played little part in the rest of the battle. He was subsequently court martialled for cowardice after the battle. At this point in the battle, both sides were thinking they were facing a lost battle. La Marmora, deciding the battle was lost and wanting to secure his bridgeheads, ordered a retreat. Unbeknownst to La Marmora, Govone’s division had beaten back the VII Corps and captured Belvedere Hill. Rodich, in charge of the Austrian V Corps, had meanwhile been marshalling his forces for an attack. By 2 PM Rodic launched an attack on Monte Vento and Santa Lucia: his assault columns, smashed their way through the Italian line and gained these vital heights. When Sirtori’s division gave way, a hole appeared in the Italian line, which the Austrians exploited. Govone, who thought he had finally broken through the Austrian line, suddenly found himself isolated near Custoza. At this point, he was attacked in his other flank by Maroicic, at the same time Hartung’s Corps was ordered to restart the fight: after a bombardment by 40 Austrian guns, the Italians were driven out of Custoza at about 17:00 hours. This precipitated a general retreat of the Italian army, as individual soldiers and units.
Piedmontese generals, such as La Marmora, Della Rocca or Cialdini, had already proved mediocre commanders and poor mental elasticity, against the so-called 'brigands' in Southern Italy revolts (between 1861 and 1865). In the end, they won only after harsh repressions and brutality also against civilians. Now, against the Imperial Austrian Army they all showed their inability to command and take decisions and tactical inadequacy. Unfortunately, they were commanders of the first real 'Italian' Army, where there were good Neapolitan officers, such as Pianell, or Garibaldi's staff officers, such as Sirtori and Bixio, marginalized and looked suspiciously.
The stage is set, the battle lines are drawn, and you are in command. The rest is history.
- M. Gioannini, G. Massobrio, Custoza 1866. La via italiana alla sconfitta, Milano 2003.
- M. Scardigli, Le grandi battaglie del Risorgimento, Milano 2010.
Command Cards - 6
General Alfonso La Marmora
Command Cards - 4
The grey-bordered hexes are temporary victory medal for Austrian player; green for Italian player; Custoza is Temporary Medal Objective for both players.
Two Italian infantry units represent the Grenadiers' brigades: these units can move two hexes but may not move and battle in the same turn.
Italian infantry unit in Monzamabano represent Pianell's 2nd Division. Player may use them only after his/her fifth "Draw a Command Card" phase.
To reproduce the prodigious amount of coordinated assaults on the formidable hilltop positions in this scenario the "crossed-sword" dice result only scores one hit only if the infantry attacking unit is adjacent to the enemy.
Custoza is an hilltop village: unit defending it receive a double benefit.
The Tione stream is fordable.