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Battle of Chiari
Part of the War of the Spanish Succession
Date 1 September 1701
Location Chiari, modern Lombardy, Italy
45°32′N 9°56′E / 45.533°N 9.933°E / 45.533; 9.933
Result Austrian victory
Belligerents
 Austria France France
Spain Spain
Savoy Duchy of Savoy
Commanders
Habsburg Monarchy Prince Eugene of Savoy France Duc de Villeroi
Strength
22,000[1] 38,000
Casualties and losses
200[2] 2,000-3,800[3]

The Battle of Chiari was fought on 1 September 1701 during the War of the Spanish Succession. The engagement was part of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s campaign to attempt to seize the Spanish controlled Duchy of Milan in the Italian peninsular. Following the defeat at Carpi in July a new French commander, Marshal Villeroi, was sent to Italy to take command of King Louis XIV’s army with orders to attack the Imperial forces and drive them out of the country. However, Eugene, foreseeing the enemies intention of attacking at any price, had been content to entrench himself at the fortress of Chiari. In a battle that lasted several hours the Austrians inflicted heavy casualties on the Franco-Spanish forces, and scored an overwhelming victory. Villeroi was forced to withdraw across the river Oglio in November to winter in Milan, whilst Eugene occupied most of the Duchy of Mantua.

Contents

Prelude

After his defeat at the Battle of Carpi on 9 July 1701 the French commander, Nicolas Catinat, precipitously retired behind the river Mincio, leaving Prince Eugene in command of the whole country between that river and the Adige. Eugene now effected the passage of the Mincio at Peschiera del Garda, driving the French farther back across the Oglio.[4] (See map).

The failure of Catinat to withstand the advance of a much smaller Imperial army evoked indignation at Versailles, leading King Louis XIV to replace Catinat with the ageing duc de Villeroi. Villeroi – with orders to risk a battle – arrived in theatre in late August.[5] Louis needed a victory to assure the continued loyalty of Italy to his grandson’s regime. On 7 September, not knowing the battle had already been fought, the French King wrote to his commander, "I cannot tell you how pleased I am to have you in command … I have reason to believe that you will finish the campaign gloriously … "[6] Villeroi joined the army and his generals, the Duke of Savoy, Catinat, and the Prince of Vaudémont, and marched to find the enemy, confident he would drive them from Italy.

Battle

The north Italian campaign 1701.

Eugene welcomed the prospect of a decisive battle, and waited on the eastern side of the Oglio to be attacked. The Imperial commander had chosen his ground carefully, entrenching his troops and guns in front of the small fortress of Chiari. Streams protected his position on three sides: as there was not enough room for a cavalry engagement, Eugene could count on a frontal attack by the French infantry.[5]

Villeroi ignored Catinat’s warning that Eugene was in a strong position, remarking that the King, "had not sent so many brave men just to look at the enemy through their spy glasses."[5] On 1 September the Franco-Spanish infantry advanced. Deceived by the report of spies that the Imperialists were retiring, Villeroi crossed the Oglio and pushed on to Chiari expecting to attack their rear guard;[7] but the French commander encountered the whole Imperial army securely entrenched in their positions. Firing from point-blank range the Austrians drove back the French with a withering fire that took a heavy toll in a contest as destructive as any battle during the whole war in Italy.[7] With only minor losses the Imperial army had inflicted over 3,000 casualties in the ranks and over 250 officers. This number would grow rapidly as fever attacked the wounded.[8]

Villeroi lost personal control during the battle, and Catinat, despite being wounded, had to organise a retreat. The French dug themselves in only a mile or so away from the Austrians on the same side of the Oglio. Here, the two opposing sides remained for the next two months: the French were too much discouraged by their repulse to resume the assault, and Eugene was unwilling to risk the advantages he had gained by attacking the French in their strong defensive position.[5] However, as autumn advanced, conditions deteriorated in both camps: fodder was so short that Eugene’s horses were forced to eat fallen leaves. But the French suffered most because their camp was built on marshy ground, and they moved out first in mid-November, crossing the Oglio before entering winter quarters in the Duchy of Milan.[9]

Aftermath

In Milan the French presence proved increasingly unpopular: five million livres for soldiers’ pay and lodgings, and two million for fodder had soon been imposed on the local population, most of which had to be taken by force.[9] For his winter quarters Eugene proceeded to reduce the whole Duchy of Mantua, except the capital and Goito, which he closely blockaded. Shortly after, Eugene occupied Mirandola and Guastalla.[7] Eugene’s relationship with the local population had been good and he had kept a tight control: he executed 48 of his men for looting, telling the Emperor that he had ‘imposed more severe discipline than has possibly ever been seen in an army’.[9] But the Prince had received little cash from the Emperor, far less than he expected. Nevertheless, Eugene had secured a sound footing in northern Italy and, as he had hoped, his success helped to encourage the Maritime Powers to come to the aid of Leopold. On 7 September 1701 England and the Dutch republic signed the second treaty of the Grand Alliance, and prepared to join the war the following year and back the Emperor's claims to the Spanish possessions in Italy.

Although the French were still in Milan their position was weak: morale was poor and desertion was high. Louis wrote to Villeroi urging him to work closely with Catinat and, "not again to attack the enemy without advantage." "If you do … the King, my grandson, will lose Italy."[10] By October French optimism for the campaign was gone, but Louis hoped to send reinforcements for next year's campaign, believing the Emperor would not be able to make a comparable increase in Eugene’s strength. However, the campaign season was not yet over. As Villeroi settled down for the winter, Eugene was preparing to attack him at his headquarters in Cremona.

Notes

  1. ^ Chandler: The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p.302. All statistics taken from Chandler.
  2. ^ Henderson states 107, (36 dead, 81 wounded).
  3. ^ John Wolf puts the French casualty rate at over 3,300; Derek McKay puts it at 2,000.
  4. ^ Coxe: History of the House of Austria, vol.ii, pp. 482–483
  5. ^ a b c d McKay: Prince Eugene of Savoy, p. 60
  6. ^ Wolf: Louis XIV, p. 628
  7. ^ a b c Coxe: History of the House of Austria, vol.ii, p. 483
  8. ^ Wolf: Louis XIV, p. 629
  9. ^ a b c McKay: Prince Eugene of Savoy, p. 61
  10. ^ Wolf: Louis XIV, p. 630

References

  • Chandler, David G. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. Spellmount Limited, (1990). ISBN 0-946771-42-1
  • Coxe, William. History of the House of Austria, vol.ii. Henry G. Bohn (1864)
  • Henderson, Nicholas. Prince Eugen of Savoy. Weidenfield & Nicolson, (1966). ISBN 1-84212-597-4
  • McKay, Derek. Prince Eugene of Savoy. Thames and Hudson Ltd., (1977). ISBN 0-50087-007-1
  • Wolf, John B. Louis XIV. Panther Books, (1970). ISBN 0-586-03332-7
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