The Legion at Magenta

The Battle of Magenta by Gerolamo Induno. Musée de l’Armée, Paris

Left: Legionnaire, Crimea, winter 1854-55: From Benigni, L d’O(1), a uniform in the Musee de l’Emperi, and general material in G d’U no 37. Note ‘duck’s bill’ peak of 1852 kepi, worn without insignia by the Legion. (The term kepi was not official until 1874 but is used here for brevity.) Some 60,000 examples of the crimeene coat were issued in midnight blue, grey-blue, and British dark grey coat cloth. It differed from the capote in having a hood and cape, and horizontal flapped pockets in the skirts. The 1845 belt and giberne are worn. The leather canteen appeared early in the 1850s; the haversack was unofficial, but widely tolerated on campaign, as was the sash of red or blue, worn over the coat.

Centre: Lieutenant-colonel, 2* RE, Italy, 1859: From regulations, portraits, and the Benigni plate of the death of Col de Chabriere, although we have demoted our field officer by one rank. The 1858 kepi, of reduced proportions , has a gold chinstrap, and for this rank triple lace at four points vertically, and a triple quatrefoil knot on the top. For this rank the lace above the band is gold/silver/ gold/silver/gold; and the epaulettes are silver. The frock is the 1845 officer’s tunic, with the black everyday service belt and two sword suspenders. The horse furniture has field officer’s gold and crimson decoration and plain black holster covers.

Right: Corporal of fusiliers, 2* RE, Italy, 1859: From Benigni, L d’C) 3 . and G d’U no 37. The uniform of the ‘old’ non-Swiss regiment after the 1856 regulations; the 1858 kepi has a brass regimental number. The 1852 regulations introduced the green epaulettes rwith red crescents. Corporal’s rank is marked by forearm stripes in red and the 1831 glaive sabre. The leather equipment is 1845 pattern, with additional belly-pouch; note that the tent-pole is now halved. The old square tin canteen with a ntral spout was still observed. White summer campaign trousers were worn at Magenta; we show the crimson cold-weather type.

In many respects the Crimean War prepared the way for French intervention in Italy by weakening Russia and creating mistrust between Saint Petersburg and Vienna, the two powers that had most seriously attempted to uphold the status quo that emerged from the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Each now distrusted the ambitions of the other in the Balkans, the flourishing of a rivalry that would eventually provide a pretext for World War I. Louis-Napoleon’s desire to challenge Austrian control of Lombardy and Venetia was curiously hastened by an attempt on his life by an Italian nationalist, Felice Orsini, on the evening of January 14, 1858, as the emperor was making his way to the Opera. For a variety of reasons, which included an emotional attachment to the cause of Italian unity, the desire for Imperial glory to reinforce the popularity of his regime, a bid to appear as the champion of the “modern” cause of the consolidation of nations and the more concrete prospect of acquiring Nice and Savoy for France, in July 1858 Louis-Napoleon concluded a secret pact with the prime minister of Piedmont, Camillo di Cavour. In April 1859, the cunning Cavour tricked Austria into a declaration of war, and French troops rushed to his aid.

The first regiment of the Legion was poorly prepared to undertake this campaign. Understrength, the government had shifted it to Corsica in April 1859 in the hope that it would attract enlistments from Italians eager to fight for the unity of their nation. When, in the following month, it was shifted to Genoa, the 1er étranger counted barely six hundred men and was brigaded with the 2e étranger, which arrived directly from Oran. On June 4, 1859, after a series of marches and reconnaissances, the two armies met before the town of Magenta.

The countryside that stretched away before the small town of Magenta was typical of that of the Lombard plain—a level carpet of orchards and vineyards segmented by walls, lanes and hedgerows. However, the legionnaires who stood gazing upon it in the gentle heat of June 1859 were not seduced by its pastoral beauty. If the broken nature of the terrain removed the threat of a cavalry attack, it offered a perfect series of strong points and lines of resistance for a determined infantry. For most of the morning, the legionnaires had advanced, seeing nothing of the Austrians but straining beneath the weight of their heavy blue overcoats and knapsacks surmounted by a tent half, pole and cooking equipment. At midday they halted to await the arrival of the rest of the corps. The red tile roofs and warm ocher walls of Magenta were visible a mile and a half away through the foliage.

The cavalry screen of the 7e Chasseurs à cheval passed through their ranks moving toward the rear, driven in by three columns of advancing Austrians. Captain Rembert of the 1er éttanger was the first to spy the white coats of the enemy across the vineyards. Impulsively he shouted a command to attack. The Austrians, momentarily taken aback, quickly recovered their composure when they realized that Rembert’s Legion company was heavily outnumbered. At this moment, Colonel Louis de Chabriere, commanding the 2e étranger, ordered his men to down packs and charge, just as he pitched from his horse—dead. The line of legionnaires and zouaves heaved forward in a piecemeal fashion as each section discovered an opponent to his front. In the confusion of walls, vineyards and smoke, the Austrians began to withdraw, firing as they retreated. Zédè’s company pursued, climbing over walls, stepping past the bodies of dead zouaves, until halted by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Martinez. The captain of the grenadier company that Martinez had deployed as skirmishers to cover his front returned to report Austrian troops filing out of Magenta. Martinez ordered a charge, and legionnaires and zouaves cheered, leveled their bayonets and rushed forward. “The Austrians hardly resisted but surrendered en masse” Zédé wrote, “and we were furious to see the officers ride away with their flags. Only one was captured, and that was by the zouaves.”

As the 2nd Corps of legionnaires and zouaves stood poised to storm the town, MacMahon arrived and, as he trotted past the Legion, uttered the statement that today adorns the wall of almost every Legion bar: “Void la Légion! L’affaire est dans le sac!” (“The Legion is here! The affair is in the bag!”) But the affair was far from being in the bag. The easy part of the battle was over. Magenta remained in the hands of the Austrians, who were now represented by the Croatians, soldiers who specialized in shooting the wounded and who singlehandedly might have inspired the Geneva Convention of 1864j and by their crack Tyrolean mountain troops. As legionnaires and zouaves waited impatiently for the orders to storm the town, the Imperial Guard was ordered into line. The reaction of the hardened veterans of Africa to the arrival of the pampered Parisian household troops was predictable: “The Guard! Get them out of here! Let them go stand guard at Saint-Cloud! The chambermaids of the Tuileries [Palace] will be too sad if they get hurt!”

The 2nd Corps was drawn up into serried ranks. To their front, the Austrians organized their artillery and infantry behind a railway embankment that formed a convenient breastwork in front of the town. “The charge was spontaneous,” Zédé wrote. “The hurrahs, the cries of En avant! were shouted, zouaves and legionnaires hurled forward. Neither cannon nor the volleys of the Austrians could stop them and this torrent rolled toward Magenta carrying all before it.” However, like a wave breaking over a sea wall, the French attack shattered as it slapped against the Austrian defenses. In fact, two attacks failed, with heavy losses, before the French finally succeeded in breaking into the town. “From this moment, all was disorder and confusion,” Zédé continued. “Everything dissolved into desperate struggles among small groups.” Several officers were killed, including General Espinasse, an ex-Legion officer, shot down as he led a charge. Martinez, his face covered with blood after a bullet took away his left eyelid, directed his troops to break down doors and charge up stairs. Fires broke out in the disputed houses, adding smoke to an atmosphere already suffocating with heat, dust and powder. Prisoners, when there were any, were gathered in the church on the square. The fighting died out only at dawn on June 5.

The officers attempted to re-form the regiment, but that proved impossible. The victorious soldiers intended to celebrate, and had lost little time in breaking into the wine cellars and smashing open the casks. The cellars soon became flooded with wine, and the men so drunk that more than one survivor of the Battle of Magenta was found in the morning floating face down, drowned in wine. The scene in the streets of Magenta was a mixture of tragedy and farce—Zédé found it impossible to distinguish the dead from those who were merely dead drunk. One could walk from one end of the town to the other without once setting foot on the ground, so thickly lay the corpses of men and horses and the inert forms of inebriated soldiers: “One heard nothing but the moans of the wounded,” Zédé remembered. Soldiers moved about stripping the dead of their boots, uniforms and ammunition, so that before long many of the bodies lay “in a state of nature.” The next day they were pitched unceremoniously into a common grave.

Wounded soldiers wandered about searching for an ambulance. Polish legionnaire M. Kamienski, his arm shattered by a musket ball, spent the night on the ground next to three other wounded soldiers. The next morning, one of them told him to follow the railway tracks to the dressing station: “As for me,” the soldier said as he rolled a cigarette, “I’m going to die here without bothering.” It was probably just as well. Zédé discovered the spectacle at the dressing station to be “lamentable. The railway station, where the hospital had been established, overflowed with unfortunates laid out on the bare earth. During the entire night, the doctors had only their medical bags which they carried with them, no linen for bandages, no chloroform. . . . They could do little more than give water to the wounded.” The 2e étranger had lost four officers killed and 250 men killed or wounded. The Legion’s casualties included Kamienski, who perished a few days later of blood poisoning.

On June 7, the Legion marched into Milan to a triumphal welcome by Italians delighted to be liberated from the Austrian yoke. “Our camp was invaded by a population drunk with joy. Our soldiers were showered with food and wine, and taken into the houses where they were feted endlessly.” Exuberance, even Italian exuberance, had its limits, however. The officers of the Legion succeeded in capitalizing upon the delirium of the moment to entice some Italians to enlist. However, by the time they reached Genoa for reembarkation, most of the new recruits had vanished. Following a final, bloody and confusing battle at Solferino, the Emperor concluded a surprise peace with Austria on July 12. Cavour was disappointed that France’s rapid conclusion of hostilities denied him a full victory—he was able to seize Lombardy but not Venetia. But Louis-Napoleon had been genuinely upset by the deficiencies of the French army, had begun to glimpse the dangers a unified Italy posed for France and was further dissuaded by the mobilization of Prussian forces along the Rhine. For its part, the Legion for the first time participated in the victory parade in the French capital, a recognition of its role in the campaign.

The very least that one can say about the performance of the Legion at Magenta was that it fully matched that of the other French corps, like the elite zouaves. The 2e étranger was in the thick of the fight, and by all accounts acquitted itself with great courage. The obvious question to ask, especially given the fact that so many officers had gone on record as having a poor opinion of that corps, is, How did they do it? Was Magenta perhaps a fluke? The short answer is that it was not. The Legion added considerably to its battle honors in the 1850s—the elite battalion of the Legion maintained its discipline during the Battle of the Alma in 1854, when the first line of French troops rushed spontaneously at the Russian lines. The 2e étranger carried the honors of the day during the difficult Kabylia campaign of 1857. The fierce tribesmen who occupied the mountains to the east of Algiers were among the last to submit to French rule. Their stone villages, which clung to the ridges of their desiccated mountains, offered natural fortresses, which had to be taken one by one. In June 1857, a large number of Kabyles had concentrated at Ischeriden, a small village built upon the edge of a steep ravine. On the hills that dominated the village, the resistance had organized a series of defensive walls. Early on the morning of June 24, after a preliminary artillery bombardment lasting almost an hour, the French launched an attack by the zouaves and the 54th Infantry Regiment. The dissidents allowed the attackers to advance within a hundred yards hour, the French launched an attack by the zouaves and the 54th Infantry Regiment. The dissidents allowed the attackers to advance within a hundred yards before opening a heavy fire, which stopped the French dead in their tracks. While the 1st Battalion of the 2e étranger rushed to reinforce the zouaves and the 54th, the 2nd Battalion downed packs and marched against the right flank of the Kabyle positions. Without firing a shot, the legionnaires advanced upon the entrenchments despite heavy fire until they crossed the low stone wall and went to work with their bayonets. Taken from the flank, the Kabyle position unraveled.


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