If you have read Jacopo Gelli's short biography of Giuseppe Radaelli, you may remember that he served in the Monferrato Light Cavalry Regiment in the 1859 campaign against the Austrian Empire. Today I'm going to go over some of the details of that service, including an account of his squadron's action in the Battle of San Martino written by the commanding captain.
Much of this information comes from a 1908 book named Patria Esercito Re ("Homeland, Army, King") by Leopoldo Pullè, which is essentially an autobiography of his proud military career. Most importantly for us though is that in 1859, he served in the same squadron as our Giuseppe Radaelli.
With the great desire to see the Austrians kicked out of their homeland, about a dozen Milanese men, including Radaelli and Pullè, decided to flee Milan to avoid possible conscription in the Austrian army and to instead volunteer in the Piedmontese army. They crossed the Ticino River and went to Vigevano, where a reserve squadron of the Monferrato Light Cavalry was posted under the command of Captain Gerolamo Avogadro. With more and more volunteers joining them in Vigevano over the coming weeks, Avogadro had the task of turning them into effective cavalry soldiers. Among their intensive training over the following months, Avogadro taught them a method of thrusting on horseback that was supposedly of his own invention. Here is how Pullè describes its execution:
"The man on horseback, with his sabre in hand, had to prop himself up on the stirrups, tighten his knees, rise from the saddle, turn the left hand upside-down and grip the horse’s withers between the thumb and index finger, and thus leaning the body as far forward as possible, strike the blow, then immediately go back to guard."This description closely resembles the method of thrusting on horseback described in the 1873 Cavalry Regulations, which was the implementation of Radaelli's sabre system on horseback. It seems likely then that Avogadro's method had significant influence on Radaelli.
With their training completed and war being declared at the end of April, the volunteers joined the Monferrato Cavalry's 2nd squadron, with Avogadro taking command of it. The Monferrato regiment consisted of four squadrons, each with about 100 men. For a few weeks these four squadrons provided protection and reconnaissance as the Austrian army attempted to out-manoeuvre the French and Piedmontese armies. Once the majority of the French forces had arrived by mid May, however, the Austrians started pulling back eastward, at which point the allied forces took the offensive.
The allied forces were victorious in several engagements over the next month, with two squadrons of the Monferrato cavalry taking part in the Battle of Montebello, however it wouldn't be until the 24th of June that Radaelli's squadron would take part in any action. On this day in eastern Lombardy, the French-Piedmontese forces unexpectedly came into contact with the Austrians. The engagements took place over a front of about 18 km, centring on the town of Solferino, from which the battle takes its name. The Italians however engaged the Austrians about 7 km to the north of Solferino, near the town of San Martino. We now go to the report written by Captain Avogadro himself, addressed to the regimental commander Alberto La Forest de Divonne, of his squadron's action on that day:
"On the day of the 24th of June, at about 12 o'clock, Your Lordship commanded me to escort the 5th Battery commanded by Captain di Bassecourt. When the battery was in position, one section was protecting its left flank, the other its right flank. With the retreat ordered, a platoon of each section spread out in open order to cover and protect the retreat of the artillery and a few battalions of the Pinerolo Brigade, who carried out a textbook retreat under deadly fire. In this action I lost the brave soldier Noirat, who was severely wounded in the thigh and died immediately after the surgical operation; his horse died on the spot. I am very grateful to be able to report, to the commander of the Corp, that the soldiers all kept a praiseworthy composure, even though it was the first time they had truly been under fire. The lieutenant Count Girolamo Fè conducted himself admirably well; not only by staying firm, but by showing great intelligence in transporting his section where it was needed, in due time; especially since a gun controlled by his section was missing its limber due to it having left a moment earlier for ammunition. Sergeant Martinoli distinguished himself in helping and guiding the young scouts, and was the last to retreat, not wanting to leave the field without leading Noirat to safety. In order to inform Your Lordship well of each individual, one should not omit saying a few words of praise for the medic in 2nd [Squadron], who tended to several wounds under cannon fire, ahead of his squadron, and was admired by those who saw him.For this action at San Martino, Avogadro was awarded the Gold Medal of Valour and the squadron was "put on the order of the day" by the army (essentially equivalent to a mention in dispatches). As we can also see at the end of this account, both Pullè and Radaelli are given honourable mentions by Avogadro as having performed admirably in the day's action. Radaelli and Avogadro would continue to be in contact following the war, with both of them serving in the Monferrato Cavalry again in 1866. When Settimo Del Frate (who also volunteered with the cavalry in 1859) wrote his 1868 manual on Radaelli's sabre system, it was dedicated to one Colonel Gerolamo Avogadro.
The scout platoon on the right side, commanded by the brave Cav. Della Rovere, advanced to the right, and being informed by the infantry that a farmstead was occupied by the Austrians, they took action. Sergeant Crescio was the first, then Cav. Della Rovere accompanied by Corporal Contat, volunteer soldier Pullè, Corporal Ravoire, and soldiers Rischis, Deambrogio, and Mandreri; and they forced fifteen Tyroleans including their captain to surrender.
The captain handed over his sabre and sash to Cav. Della Rovere, the prisoners were divided with the infantry, and our men continued to hastily push back many Tyroleans who were harassing in the countryside.
With the retreat ended, and after a brief rest, the squadron resumed its escort of the 5th Battery; and, if I am not mistaken, at around 4 o’clock, seeing that the infantry, tired and weary, were retreating in somewhat conspicuous groups, I brought the left section forward, and through cries and example my soldiers encouraged their brothers-in-arms to move forward; on this occasion I lost the soldier Rasino, struck in the head by a ball. The volunteer soldier Franchelli, who stayed out of rank for special service, distinguished himself on every occasion. He rallied many deserters and once succeeded in leading a very large group onto the Bianca farmstead, using the cry: Long live the King!
The section commanded by Count Fè encouraged other squads to advance. At the last slope the charge was struck by three cannons, but the death of Colonel Carminati rendered our efforts vain. The artillery advanced greatly. After a brief rest, helped rather strongly by the left through the effective use of artillery directed by Major Thaon di Revel, the position was finally occupied.
The artillery took position; part of the infantry too, and I — with the consent of the head of general staff Cav. Ricotti — brought myself along with the whole squadron to the right flank of the artillery, as it was the weakest side, covering myself with the slope of the hill.
The cannons on both sides had almost stopped firing; only the musketry on the right flank made itself heard; when suddenly this became stronger, and our exhausted infantry hastily retreated, I immediately sent out a request for assistance, and seeing the position so strongly threatened, I immediately sent Cav. Della Rovere, with the platoon in open order, to cover our retreat; and myself having seen that I had to deal with more than 500 men, I brought forward the whole squadron and had them charge in a column against the Austrians, perpendicular to our right flank. After the first charge I rallied the squadron, and charging towards our front I managed to sweep up the plateau and drive them back to the valley. The few infantry that were still found on the plateau pursued the enemy and victory was sealed with the cry of Long live the King and Long live Monferrato.
Everyone did their duty, but yet there were those who distinguished themselves among the good ones. Della Rovere’s horse was wounded and died the next day. This young man was admirable all day. Sergeant Crescio and the volunteer Franchelli did as much as they humanly could, and even the former, wounded in the first charge, carried on the second charge and only withdrew on the order of his captain. Corporal Chaperon, the bugler Giaj-via, corporals Feroglio, Rossi, and Astesiano; Sergeant Martinoli, volunteer Radaelli, Turati, soldier Gamba, Corporal Contat, Corporal Beauquis, Corporal Raviore, Corporal Domange, soldier Colletta, soldier Cucaredo, and volunteer Pullè. In short, it was a true challenge; everyone wanted to be the best.
Colonel, I am glad to have been able to also add a laurel leaf to the crown already made in Montebello, work which will not be the last.”