The Storming of Brescia 31st of March - 1st April 1849

FML. Julius von HaynauOn the 12th of March 1949 , King Charles Albert of Piedmont terminated the armistice that had been in force with Austria since his defeat during the campaign of the previous year. In the brief campaign that followed the King’s army was rapidly defeated by the Austrian forces in Lombardy under the command of Feldmarschall Joseph Graf Radetzky de Radetz. On the day of the decisive defeat of the army of Piedmont at Novara on the 23rd of March 1849, the citizens of Brescia with incredibly poor timing and judgment broke out in open revolt against the Austrian administration in Lombardy. Brescia, then a city of some 40,000 inhabitants became the scene of open insurrection against the very limited Austrian garrison. The mail from Milan was seized and the regimental baggage of the 44th Infantry Regiment Erzherzog Albrecht was plundered. Military personnel were detained and other government agents and employees were confined, ill-treated and in some cases murdered.[1] The town’s garrison, just two companies of the 8th Moravian Infantry Regiment Erzherzog Ludwig took post in the castle and opened fire on the city. The military hospital in Brescia at the time had some 4000 sick and recuperating soldiers and these managed to secure themselves by means of barricades within the building and those that could bear arms did so in the defence of that place. This was all the more so necessary as a delegation from the insurrectionist forces had made clear to the garrison of the castle that for every shot directed at the city, a patient at the hospital would be killed.[2] With this developing situation ongoing, the Austrian commander with responsibility for the Lombardo-Venetian provinces in the absence of Feldmarschall Graf Radetzky at the front, Feldmarschall-Lieutenant Julius von Haynau set about suppressing the Brescian revolt.

On hearing the news of the revolt, Feldmarschall-Lieutenant von Haynau despatched a force under the command of General-Major Johann Graf Nugent[3] on the 26th of March towards Brescia. The force, comprising of one battalion of the 13th Roman Banat Border Infantry Regiment, four companies of the 23rd Infantry Regiment Feldmarschall-Lieutenant Graf Ceccopieri, a troop of the 5th Chevauxlegers Regiment Fürst Liechtenstein and two guns met its first opposition at the small town of St. Eufemia just to the west of Brescia where the insurgents had barricaded themselves and destroyed various bridges. In short order St. Eufemia was assaulted, the insurgents put to flight and pursued to the gates of Brescia about an hour distant. However as Generalmajor Graf Nugent’s force of only 900 men was too weak to assault the fortified city, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 59th Infantry Regiment Baden in Verona were alerted and with two guns were sent to join Graf Nugent under the regimental commander, Oberst Julius Graf Bernay-Favancourt. Leaving Verona at 3 pm on the 28th of March they arrived at St. Eufemia 24 hours later by forced march. On the 30th of March the insurgents were cleared from the heights and the individual houses on the outskirts of the city. The four guns were placed in position on the main Verona road and shelled the Porta torre lunga. Unter-Lieutenant Friedrich Beck with half a company of the 59th Infantry Regiment was assigned as close protection for the guns.[4]

The city of Brescia was built in the form of an irregular quadrilateral with great buildings and in parts with long, wide streets and large squares. The whole was surrounded by a high wall and a deep trench. The gates were so barricaded that they could only be taken with the support of guns as were all the main streets. The houses and buildings were loop holed and the internal walls knocked through to facilitate movement and communications. The windows were protected with paving stones and furniture.

On the late evening of the 30th of March, Feldmarschall-Lieutenant von Haynau, the popular and energetic corps commander joined the small force at Brescia and was met with loud cheering from the troops. Although Feldmarschall Graf Radetzky  had set the 3rd Corps under Feldmarschall-Lieutenant Christian Freiherr von Appel in motion to Brescia following the battle of Novara, FML von Haynau feared any postponement of the attack would lead to the loss of the hospital and he immediately ordered that at 6 am on the following morning (31st of March) the 1st Battalion of the 59th Infantry Regiment under his personal command should reinforce the castle whilst the remaining troops would be formed into five columns, each with the mission to take up positions at one of the city gates and following the accomplishment of that on orders to begin the assault as follows:

1st column under the command of Major Peter von Vierendeels of the 59th Infantry Regiment on the road from Milan to Porta S. Giovanni: the 13th and 14th Company of I.R. 59 under Oberlieutenant Eduard Spieß and Hauptmann Julius von Engel, the 1st Company of the 13th Roman Banat Border Infantry Regiment and the 18th Company of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment.

2nd column under Oberstlieutenant Friedrich Fuchs of the 13th Roman Banat Border Infantry Regiment to take the Porta Pille on the north side of the city: 15th Company of I.R. 59 under Oberlieutenant Maximilian Heffele, the 3rd and 4th companies of the Border Regiment and a company of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment.

3rd Column on the road from Crema to Porta S. Nazzaro under Major Carl Fabius Terzaghi of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment: the 16th Company of I.R. 59 under Hauptmann Alois Kolber and the 5th Company of the Border Regiment. 

4th Column under Hauptmann Robert Kublang von Seltenhof of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment on the road from Cremona to Porta S. Alessandro: the 17th Company of I.R. 59 under Oberlieutenant Alexander von Graf and the 17th Company of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment.

5th Column under Oberst Julius Graf Bernay-Favancourt on the Verona road to Porta torre lunga: the 18th Company of I.R. 59 under Oberlieutenant Josef Schaub, the 6th Company of the Border Regiment, the 13th and 14th Company of the Ceccopieri Infantry Regiment, the troop of the 5th Chevauxlegers Regiment and the four guns. Generalmajor Graf Nugent and his Brigade Adjutant accompanied this column. 

Using the cover of a thick fog, FML von Haynau led the 1st Battalion of I.R. 59 over the difficult path to the castle in pouring rain. The caste which stood on a hill on the north side of the town was reached by a narrow path which ran closely parallel to the city walls and although the insurgents opened fire on the small Austrian force most of the fire was ineffective. By 8 am Haynau had reached the castle but had lost two men killed and a further seven wounded from fire from a Closter just beneath the castle. He therefore had the Closter assaulted by a detachment of the 8th Infantry Regiment, the Castle’s original garrison and the insurgents killed. 

By 11 am Major von Vierendeel’s column had secure positions at Fuimicello on the Milan road having had two Gefreiters seriously and the Battalion Adjutant, Unterlieutenant Theobald Baron Seenuss lightly wounded. Oberstlieutenant Fuchs had taken up positions about the Porta Pille having suffered three wounded. The column under Major Terzaghi had reached S. Nazzaro by 9 am which they assaulted and expelled the insurgents from the occupied houses. Similarly the 4th column under Hauptmann Kublang had achieved its initial objective and was now observing the Porta S. Alessandro. Finally Oberst Graf Favancourt’s column was in position to assault the Porta torre lunga. All the columns had the strictest orders to let no one leave the city and to block all communications. Each column had to then secure its position and establish the necessary liaison and contact with its flanking columns and be prepared to resist any attack by the insurgents. 

At this stage FML von Haynau let it be known to the insurgents that he was himself in the castle and demanded unconditional surrender of the city. Around 11 am a delegation from the city appeared at the castle and requested an armistice of three hours so that they might have the insurgents lay down their arms. However during this period, the existing barricades were strengthened, further barricades erected and as the bells rang at two pm , fire was opened on the castle from the city. At half past three pm , his patience exhausted, FML von Haynau had the town bombarded from the castle and set in motion the general assault. The individual columns were to storm their assigned city gates and were then to attempt to fight their way to the municipal place. The Porta torre lunga was assaulted by Graf Favancourt’s column after a brief bombardment and after the outlying houses and obstacles were cleared, the colonel was the first to enter the city. In the ensuing vicious street fighting the Austrian troops cleared the adjoining streets against determined resistance from the insurgents.

In the meantime the 1st column was repulsed at the Porta S. Giovanni, the commander of the 14th Company of I.R. 59, Hauptmann von Engel being seriously wounded. The wounded officer was brought to safety by his men and the column took up positions in the houses in the immediate vicinity of the gate. The 2nd Column had similar difficulties at the Porta Pille and the commander of the 15th Company of I.R. 59, Oberlieutenant Heffele was killed along with four of his men. After two unsuccessful attempts to take the gate they were ordered that evening to proceed to the Porta torre lunga on the following morning and to open the Alessandro and Nazzaro gates from within the city.

The 3rd Column was more successful and quickly cleared the heavily fortified suburb of St. Nazzaro, pursued the insurgents from the walls and cleared the adjacent buildings. In so doing they considerably eased the following morning’s task of the 2nd Column. The 4th column could not take the adjacent houses to the Porta S. Alessandro and at 8 pm was also ordered to the Porta torre lunga to strengthen Oberst Graf Favancourt’s column.

Following the capture of the Porta torre lunga, General-Major Graf Nugent had split his force into two columns, one under his personal command and the other under Graf Favancourt. These now proceeded to fight their way into the city and in further bitter fighting; Graf Nugent was wounded in the foot. Although brought to safety and taken to the hospital of St. Eufemia he would die following the amputation of his wounded foot. Battalion commander Oberstlieutenant Matthias Miletz was also killed during the evening.

With the onset of darkness FML von Haynau ceased offensive operations for the night so that the exhausted troops might get some rest and the fighting died down. Although shooting continued throughout the night, the objectives so far taken were held and early the following morning, Palm Sunday, the assault continued. House to house fighting continued throughout the morning until at about midday a deputation of the city’s magistrates appeared before Hauptmann Heinrich Schetzko of the 1st Battalion I.R. 59. These were sent on to FML von Haynau accompanied by an officer. Von Haynau informed them that unless all firing ceased half an hour after they returned the assault would continue. In fact the firing increased and the battle was renewed. The insurgents were now inexorably cleared from the houses and streets, their barricades taken and the ring around the city ever more tightened. During the afternoon Graf Favancourt was wounded in the chest but around 5 pm it was all over. Refusing to negotiate further, FML von Haynau demanded unconditional surrender and this was accepted.

Graf Favancourt was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresia and would rise to the rank of General-Major in July 1850 and retire shortly afterwards. Two of his NCOs – Feldwebels Franz Pittrich and Mathias Mayer were awarded the Golden Bravery Medal.[5] Following the execution of some of the insurgents, FML von Haynau has gone down in history as the Hyena of Brescia, possibly rather unfairly considering the earlier murders by the inhabitants of the city. It was variously reported that some 2,600 corpses were found in the city. The general went onto command in Hungary, was promoted to Feldzeugmeister and was instrumental in putting down the rebellion there. He died on the 14th of March 1853 .



[1] Military Events in Italy 1848-1849 translated by the Earl of Ellesmere, John Murray, London 1851.

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] The son of the later Feldmarschall Laval Graf Nugent.

 

[4] The later Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces and Generaloberst, Friedrich Graf Beck-Rzikowsky, 21 March 1830 – 9 February 1920.

 

[5] Geschichte des k.k. Infanterie-Regiments Erzherzog Rainer Nr. 59 von seiner Errichtung 1682 bis 3. Juni 1882 by Oberst Justuz Knorz.

 

 

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