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Briefing - Joachim Murat and the Italian Campaign of 1815

The collapse of the French Empire in 1813-1814 led to the rapid dissolution of all of the satellite states which Napoleon had imposed on Europe save the Kingdom of Naples, ruled by his dashing, inept brother-in-law Joachim Murat.  Spurred on by his wife, Caroline Bonaparte, Murat had entered into negotiations with Allies even as he led the Emperor's cavalry against them.  Open treachery soon followed and as a consequence Murat was permitted by the Allies to retain his throne.  Murat's tenure, however, was precarious.  The Neapolitans were amused by him, but hardly liked him, and there had been widespread unrest for years.  Hapsburg Austria and Bourbon France were distinctly hostile.  By early 1815 the Bourbons were speaking of an expedition to unseat him, and a sizeable Austrian army remained in Northern Italy.  Fearing for his future, Murat began assembling his forces.  Then Napoleon's return from Elba seemed to change the equation.  The threat of a Franco-Austrian invasion evaporated as Napoleon's return diverted attention elsewhere.  With the immediate danger gone, Murat believed he had a chance.  Nevertheless, although Napoleon was even then approaching Paris, Murat brushed aside his wife's pleas that he coordinate his moves with those of the Emperor, and chose instead to act independently; he would make a bid for power claiming to champion Italian independence, believing that this would secure massive support from the restive people of Italy.

Murat’s field army was well-trained and numbered about 50,000 men with 56 cannon, backed up by a further 10,000 garrison troops and some 30,000 militia.  A substantial proportion of the troops were veterans, as were virtually all of the officers, many of whom had served in Napoleon's old Royal Italian Army.  Austrian forces were of approximately equal strength, but many of the troops were Napoleonic veterans, whole battalions of the Royal Italian Army having been bodily incorporated into the Hapsburg forces in 1814, and thus were a potential source of weakness which Murat intended to exploit.

Based on the reasonable assumption the Austrians would pull their forces northwards in order to concentrate for a decisive action in Po Valley, Murat developed a rather simple plan of campaign.  He would concentrate two corps; The Main Body would be on the Adriatic coast with 36,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 46 pieces of artillery, while the Royal Guard was to operate on the west coast with 5,800 infantry, 2,400 cavalry, and 16 pieces of artillery.  Each corps was to advance north, pushing the enemy before them.  When the Royal Guard reached Florence, it was to proceed over the Apennines to join the Main Body at Bologna.  Then, the united army, by then presumably swollen with thousands of volunteers and defectors from the Austrian ranks, would advance into the Po Valley for a show down.  His plans set, Murat moved with commendable speed.

The Austrians, of course, were by no means unaware of Murat's plans.  Baron Vicenz Friedrich Bianchi commanded about 55,000 men grouped in three corps.  His I Corps (20,600 men, including 2,500 cavalry, with 24 guns) -- commanded by Count Adam Albrecht von Neipperg, the lover of Maria Louise, Napoleon's estranged wife -- was at Venice, the II Corps (14,800 men with 18 guns) at Mantua, and the III Corps (20,500 men, including 2,500 cavalry, with 22 pieces of artillery) in Tuscany and the small duchies north of Rome.  As Murat had foreseen, Bianchi planned to let the Neapolitans advance north while he concentrated his own forces for a major clash in the Po Valley.

By March 19th -- even as Napoleon was about to enter Paris -- Murat's forces were positioned on the frontiers of the Papal States.  On March 22nd the Neapolitan army marched north.  There was little resistance, for Papal forces were virtually non-existent and Austrian ones were held well back.  Both columns made excellent progress.  At Rimini on March 30th, evoking the historic glories of Italy, Murat issued a stirring call for all Italians to help in the task of liberation and unification.  The response was poor.  No more than 350 men came forward, mostly former Napoleonic officers.  Despite this, Murat pressed on.  His army made excellent progress as it marched to the northwest along the historic Via Aemilia.   On April 2nd he reached Bologna with the Main Body.  There he discovered that the advance of the Royal Guard had been delayed, partially as a result of his instructions that it avoid passing directly through the city of Rome in order not to offend the Pope, and partially by some effective rear-guard work by local forces in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.  Rather than await the arrival of the Royal Guard, Murat resumed the advance.  The first serious encounter with the Austrians took place on April 4th.

About 12,000 men of the Austrian II Corps held the line of the Panaro, a small tributary of the Po.  Murat committed about 8,000 men.  Murat's troops successfully crossed the stream in the face of enemy resistance., and the Austrians fell back, uncovering Modena.  Several small actions over the next few days completely cleared the Austrians from the south side of the Po.  Then, on April 7th, Murat attempted to force his way across the Po itself.  He committed about 7,500 men to the effort and succeeded in gaining a bridgehead at Occhiobello.  But the Austrians, numbering about 8,000, counterattacked, driving his forces back across the river with severe losses.  The next day about 8,000 Austrians crossed the Po, and, marching nearly 30 kilometers south, made a night attack on a detachment of some 2,000 men whom Murat had posted at Carpi.  Aided by a well-prepared position, the Neapolitans held until the morning of April 9th before being forced back.  The Austrians were now in a position to threaten Murat's deep flank.  Murat hesitated, then, on April 10th, taking counsel of his fears, decided that the game was up, and, the enemy seeming too strong, ordered a retreat.

The Neapolitan Army fell back in good order, closely followed by the Austrians, who made little effort to interfere.  The pace was leisurely, so that by April 15th, Murat's army had fallen back no more than 50 kilometers from the Po, and was standing on the banks of the Reno, a small river a bit to the southwest of Modena.  Here Murat decided to attempt a stand, posting about 15,000 men with 35 guns along the banks of the stream and a further 2,200 with two guns at the village of Spilimberto, covering an important river crossing on his left flank.  The Austrians committed over 20,000 men but had only 28 pieces of artillery.  Along the Reno the Neapolitans did well, repeatedly beating off attacks by the bulk of the Austrian forces, who finally gave up.  But the situation at Spilimberto turned out differently.  Murat's detachment was surprised and destroyed by a considerably smaller enemy force.  With his flank uncovered, Murat chose to fall back once again.  Over the next five days he retired about 100 kilometers, abandoning Bologna. On April 20th he halted on favorable ground on the Ronco, a small stream about 40 kilometers northwest of Rimini, on the Adriatic coast.

The Austrians had followed Murat closely.  Bianchi, who now had both his I and II Corps at hand, surveyed Murat's position on the Ronco and decided to forgo a general attack.  Instead, he sent II Corps southwards into the Apennines with instructions to march south and then east, in order to outflank the enemy.  He then used his I Corps to screen Murat's position.  Apprised of the Austrian flank march in relatively short order, Murat undertook several small, but sharp actions against the enemy in which his forces Neapolitans generally came off well.  Nevertheless, concerned over the threat to his flank, he resumed the retreat on April 23rd.  Rimini was given up as the army fell back to the south, re-entering entered the Papal States.  Rear-guard actions were by now almost daily affairs, with particularly severe ones occurring at Macerata-Feltria on April 29th and Senigallia on the 30th.  In these engagements the Neapolitans generally did well, but non were sufficiently decisive as to relieve the pressure on Murat's army.  The retreat continued.  On May 1st, Murat re-entered his kingdom at near Ancona, just 42 days after marching north, having advanced some 500 kilometers, and then retreated the same way.  At Ancona Murat finally linked-up with his Royal Guard.

The Royal Guard had advanced cautiously in the face of some skillful rear-guard fighting by the small Grand Ducal Tuscan Army and the Austrian III Corps.  By the time the Guard reached Florence, Murat had already fallen back from Bologna.  Virtually isolated, the commander of the Royal Guard decided to fall back, retreating over the Apennines towards the Adriatic.  After a difficult march, the Royal Guard arrived largely intact and fit by May 1st, for the Austrian III Corps had not pursued, but rather had advanced south along the west coast, to pass through Rome with the intention of striking directly at Naples.

Murat's situation was growing desperate.  Casualties, detachments, and desertion had reduced his forces to but 30,000 men.  Though Bianchi had no more than half this number in his I Corps, which was leading the pursuit down the coast, he had an equal number in his II Corps, which was somewhere to the west, in the Apennines, in a position to take the Neapolitan army in the flank or fall on its lines of communications.  And even as Murat contemplated his situation it grew worse.

On May 1st the Austrian II Corps, under Bianchi's personal direction, arrived with 12,000 infantry and 24 pieces of artillery, some 25 miles in Murat's rear  on the coast at Tolentino.  Murat was now trapped between two enemy forces.  Not lacking in courage, Murat decided on a desperate gamble.  Leaving two divisions and some cavalry -- about 12,000 men -- to entertain the Austrian I Corps, he marched south with the Royal Guard and his two other divisions, perhaps 18,000 men in all.

Tolentino was actually the first general action of the campaign, for Bianchi had skillfully avoided committing his forces to a decisive fight until he had the upper hand.  At Tolentino he assumed a strong position on Monte Milone.  Murat's leading elements came up late on May 2nd and he immediately threw them into action.  Attacking with considerable skill and élan they cleared the Austrians out of their position, though at considerable cost, a number of generals falling in the process.  The Austrians fell back to a secondary position.  Neapolitan morale soared, not least of all that of Murat himself, for he saw the possibility of crushing Bianchi in a final action on the morrow.  That evening Murat his plans.  He would rest and reprovision his army during the morning of May 3rd, lulling Bianchi into believing he was not going to act, and then attacking in the late afternoon.  But Murat failed to imposed rigid discipline on his troops.  So, early on the 3rd many of his men dispersed over the countryside to forage.  Now this might not have mattered much, had not something unexpected occurred.

Late on the morning of May 3rd Murat’s best troops, the Royal Guard, suddenly advanced against the enemy without orders.  Unable to recall them, Murat sent everything he had to their support.  Rushing into the thick of the fighting, he personally led attack after attack.  The Austrians held.  One of the Neapolitan divisions broke.  The Austrians counter-attacked.  Panic began to work its wiles upon Murat's troops.  Murat ordered a retreat.  Personally taking charge of the rear guard, he held back the Austrians, permitting what was left of his army to escape, though failing in his efforts to get himself killed gloriously in action.  Once contact with the Austrians was broken, he eluded the trap, and led his troops on the road to Naples.  On May 18th,. after two weeks of constant retreat and rear-guard fighting, Murat re-entered his capital with but 8,000 men, the rest having melted away in the long trek over the mountains.  At Naples, Murat made strenuous efforts to recreate an army, but could manage to raise no more than 4,000 additional troops.  With Bianchi's II Corps close at hand, his I Corps mopping up the Adriatic fortresses, and his III Corps, after an initial reverse at Itri, just south of the frontier with the Papal States, now investing the great fortress of Gaeta, it was clear that the game was up.  Telling his Queen "All is lost, Caroline, save my life, and that I have not been able to cast away," Murat fled to France and an icy reception from his brother-in-law.

Murat's Italian campaign was a failure.  Whatever chance he had lay with in cooperation with Napoleon, who was preparing to advance in June, which would give ore time to prepare.  An advance into northern Italy at that time, in the name of the Emperor might well have resulted in a general rising against Austria, and certainly, at the very least, in serious defections from the enemy ranks.. at a time when Hapsburg forces were sorely needed on the Rhine.  Such an advance, if carefully coordinated with Napoleon's operations, might have proven considerably more successful.  But Murat, a dashing cavalryman, among the finest of the age, was neither a politician nor a strategist.  When he tried to play in the Big Leagues he found himself outclassed.  The result was a disaster.  Game to the end, when, months later he made an abortive bid to return to his throne, he asked only that the firing squad spare his face.

Order of Battle The Italian Campaign of 1815
Royal Guard 9 8 2 8,200
1st Div 12 - 1 9,700
2nd Div 11 - 1 9,000
3rd Div 12 - 1 9,300
4th (Res) Div 9 - 1 8,400
5th Div 6 - - 4,000
6th Div 3 - - 1,500
Cav Div - 11 - 3,000
Reserve 5 1 1 3,000
Gaeta Garrison 4 - 2 2,500
TOTAL 71 20 9 58,600
I Corps 15 18 3 20,600
II Corps 15 - 4 14,800
III Corps 16 12 3 18,000
Tuscan Bde 3 - - 2,500
TOTAL 49 30 10 55,900

Murat went into northern Italy with his first four divisions, the cavalry, the reserve, and the Royal Guard. The 5th Division was in Calabria, where it was watching for a possible invasion from Sicily, still held by the deposed Neapolitan Bourbons. The 6th was still in the process of formation in the Abruzzi. Each Austrian corps comprised an Advanced Guard (three battalions of light infantry and a battery) and an infantry division (two brigades, each usually of six battalions and a battery, though one in II Corps with seven battalions), with a cavalry brigade attached to I and III Corps. The Tuscan Brigade was operationally attached to III Corps. Both sides had additional forces which have been omitted. There were strong Austrians garrisons in the Northern Italy, and about 5,000 more troops of dubious quality from the Papal States and the minor duchies. Murat theoretically had 30,000 men available in the Neapolitan bourgeois militia, plus a small contingent of the Royal Guard which remained in Naples to protect Queen Caroline.

The Principal Engagements of the Italian Campaign of 1815
DateAction Side Troops Losses
Apr 4 Panaro Neapolitans* 8.0 0.8
Austrians 7.0 1.0
Apr 7 Occhiobello Neapolitans 7.5 1.2
Austrians * 8.0 0.5
Apr 8-9 Carpi Neapolitans 2.0 0.4
Austrians * 5.0 0.5
Apr 15 Reno Neapolitans * 15.0 0.5
Austrians 20.0 1.5
Apr 15 Spilimberto Neapolitans 2.2 2.2
Austrians * 1.0 0.0
Apr 21 Ronco Neapolitans * 1.4 0.0
Austrians 4.0 0.2
Apr 23 Cesenatico Neapolitans * 1.6 0.3
Austrians 1.4 0.5
Apr 29 Macerata-Feltria Neapolitans * 7.0 0.0
Austrians 15.0 0.5
Apr 30 Senigallia Neapolitans * 7.0 0.5
Austrians 15.0 1.5
May 2-3 Tolentino Neapolitans 15.0 4.0
Austrians * 12.0 2.0
Note: Troop and Loss figures are in thousands


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