Siege of Turin

Summary

The siege of Turin took place in 1706 during the War of the Spanish Succession. More than 44,000 French soldiers surrounded the fortified citadel of Turin, defended by about 10,500 Savoy soldiers who fought hard from May 14 until September 7, when the army defending the city commanded by Prince Eugenio and Duke Vittorio Amedeo II forced the enemies into a hasty retreat.

The siege lasted one hundred and seventeen days; at the conclusion of the war, with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and Rastadt the following year, Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, became the first king of his dynasty.

For the relevant dimensions and importance of the city (one of the very few European capitals to which a scientifically studied siege has ever been laid), it had great international resonance.

Some historians consider the siege of Turin the event that marks the beginning of the Risorgimento.

Background

In 1700 Charles II of Habsburg, king of Spain, died without descendants. For some years, however, the health of the sovereign, which had never been good, had worsened, suggesting the worst. The European monarchies, well aware of the situation, began a complex diplomatic activity on the succession.

In particular, Louis XIV of France of the Bourbon dynasty of France and Emperor Leopold I of the Habsburg dynasty mobilized: the former because he had married Maria Theresa, daughter of the first bed of Philip IV of Spain and half-sister of Charles, and the latter because he had married Margaret Theresa, sister of Charles, daughter of the second bed of Philip IV.

In reality, what was at stake was the control of Spain and its possessions in Europe and beyond the Atlantic. In addition, the Habsburgs of Austria made claims as belonging to the same dynasty until then reigning in Spain.

Undecided about what to do, Charles II asked for advice to the Pontiff, who, in order to avoid that with Spain in the hands of the Habsburgs, the same concentration of power that about two centuries before had occurred with Charles V, thought good to advise the Spanish sovereign to designate as his successor a Frenchman. Charles II accepted the advice and designated as his successor Philip of Bourbon, nephew of Louis XIV.

At the opening of the will, it was inevitable that conflict would break out, as the new Spain-France alliance was destined to subvert the European balance. The conflict that followed is known as the War of the Spanish Succession and lasted for over ten years, ending with the Treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastadt (1714).

The conflict saw on one side England, the Hapsburg Empire, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands; on the other side France and Spain, which had accepted the new king Bourbon. The Duchy of Savoy was located between France and Milan, which was in the hands of Spain and constituted the natural corridor of connection between the two allies, so Louis XIV almost imposed to the Duke Vittorio Amedeo II the alliance with the French-Hispanics for obvious strategic needs.

Vittorio Amedeo II, supported by his cousin Eugenio di Savoia-Carignano, count of Soissons and great leader of the imperial troops, had the intuition that this time the main game between France and the Empire was played in Italy and not in Flanders or Lorraine. On the basis of this conviction, he formed an alliance with the Hapsburgs, the only ones who, in case of a victorious outcome of the conflict, could guarantee the complete independence of the Savoy state.

In fact an alliance with France, in case of victory of the latter, would have done nothing but accentuate the state of subjection of the Savoy, which had lasted for about a century, while the Emperor promised Monferrato, part of Lomellina and Valsesia, Vigevanasco and a part of the province of Novara. It was a clever choice, intelligent but also risky, because in case of defeat the Savoy State would have been annihilated and swept away together with its dynasty.

The choice of field made by Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy in the autumn of 1703 (Treaty of Turin) induced Louis XIV to start the war operations that had Savoy first and Piedmont later.

The Citadel

Torn between two fires (France to the west and the Spanish army controlling Lombardy to the east), the Savoy lands were surrounded and attacked by three armies; having lost Susa, Vercelli, Chivasso, Ivrea and Nice (1704), only the Citadel of Turin remained to resist, a fortification built by Duke Emanuele Filiberto I of Savoy about one hundred and forty years earlier, around the middle of the sixteenth century.

An important role was played by the counter-mining tunnels, dug below the citadel”s ramparts, in which the artillery battalion”s mining company, made up of 2 officers, 2 sergeants, 3 corporals and 46 miners with, in support, 350 labourers (diggers) and 6 guards, guaranteed the control of the underground and the placement of explosive charges destined to ruin the work of the besiegers. The depth of the galleries, arranged on two levels, reached almost fourteen meters, just above the water table.

Inside the citadel was of particular importance the cistern, a circular building located at the center of the parade ground. This well ensured for the whole period a constant reserve of water that took supply from the water table below, aspect of no small account in a situation of siege. Its diameter measured 20 meters, it emerged of two floors from the ground and then descended 22 meters to the water table reached by a wide helicoidal ramp, its design had no equal in any other European fortress.

The citizens carefully prepared themselves for the siege. Food was supplied from the accumulated stocks, from the small city gardens or even from Porta Po; water came from the wells. For the supply of food, a fundamental role was played by the farmhouses of the Turin plain (especially in Vanchiglia).

It was from August that the situation began to worsen, when the French closed the country roads and intercepted the supplies of ammunition that arrived by river. The municipality decided to help the hungry but, together with the other expenses of war, the siege came to cost 450 000 liras per month (one lira corresponded to the daily salary of an artisan), a huge sum.

The municipality had to sell land and incur debts to find the money. Fear of bombs, which targeted the city, caused the effigy of the Consolata to be placed on the doors of the houses, hoping for the Virgin”s protection. Catholic and Lutheran regiments also wore the image of Mary on their hats.

It was the frequent use, on the part of the French, of incendiary bombs (the so-called boulets-rouges) that claimed the most victims among the civilian population. It is calculated that in the period of the siege, the French-Spanish troops launched 95,000 cannon balls, 21,000 bombs and 27,700 grenades on the city of Turin.

Public order in the city was guaranteed by the constant presence of the militia and the police, who were assigned many tasks. First of all they were in charge of supervising the entire system of extinguishing the frequent fires that developed as a result of the enemy”s attacks and the repression of looting attempts. Particular attention was also given to the control of foreigners in the city, which to enter had to register and lay down any weapon except the sword.

The underground defense of fortresses and castles, used since ancient times, had a new impetus and systematization after the fall of Famagusta, in 1571 and, above all, after the long siege of Candia, concluded in 1689, operations conducted by the Ottoman forces who made extensive use of underground attacks.

As early as 1572 Emanuele Filiberto ordered the construction of the casemate called Pastiss, equipped with its own countermeasure gallery, to defend the San Lazzaro bastion of the Citadel. However, it was only in the months preceding the French attack of 1706 that an extensive and capillary system of counterworks, designed by Antonio Bertola, was actually built under the ramparts and the main works of the citadel and the urban defenses.

As already mentioned, for water supplies, the Citadel was equipped with the Cisternone, a huge well (whose shape recalled that of St. Patrick) thanks to which the military stronghold could be said to have a source of water practically perennial. These war measures, which had been enlarged over the years, had made Turin one of the best defended cities in Europe.

Already in August 1705 the French-Spanish armies were ready to attack Turin, stationed near the Citadel, but the commander – the general Duke de la Feuillade – thought that the available men were still too few and preferred to wait for reinforcements.

This choice turned out to be a mistake, because it gave the city the opportunity to fortify itself further up the hill and at the same time to tighten around its Citadel in view of a long siege.

The work of fortifying the Citadel lasted throughout the winter between 1705 and 1706 and a large part of the city”s population contributed to it. The main works consisted in the construction of the rampart around the stronghold, which allowed a better security for the riflemen. It was made, moreover, an intense and dense network of tunnels and galleries that had no equal in any other European stronghold of the time. The works were planned by the lawyer Antonio Bertola who, after leaving the legal profession, was put in charge of the Savoy military engineers.

To prepare for the imminent siege, the city authorities established the garrison of the Turin stronghold which included over 10,000 men divided into 14 imperial battalions and 14 Piedmontese battalions, cavalry units, cannoneers and miners.

The siege

It began on May 14th when the Franco-Spanish troops (now composed of over forty thousand men) strategically positioned themselves in front of the fortress. Two days before, there was the total eclipse of the Sun on May 12, 1706, which at 10:15 a.m. obscured the vault of heaven, making the Taurus constellation stand out. The Sun was for antonomasia the symbol of Luigi XIV (called the Sun King) and this event gave great impulse to the Turin people, who imagined an easy victory. The astronomical event is remembered by some verses of the poem in Piedmontese language L”Arpa Discordata, written in the years following the siege:

The marshal of France Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, an expert creator of siege techniques, would have preferred a lateral attack on the city, considering the dense network of counter tunnels prepared by the besieged an insidious obstacle; but de La Feuillade disregarded him by having forty-eight military engineers prepare the excavation of numerous trench lines.

Marshal Vauban did not physically participate in the siege of Turin, although he was personally interested in it. In 1705 he had been charged by Louis XIV to draw up a project for the conquest of the city, which he knew was very well defended. In July 1706 he was in Dunkerque, from where he wrote on the 23rd a letter of disapproval of the approach decided by the besieging general La Feuillade. His participation, apart from the project of the previous year, was therefore a participation by correspondence. What for Vauban was a dangerous “quibble of mines” will in fact prove fatal.

For their part, the besieged, supported by the population (who participated directly in the battle) and strong in the dense network of tunnels so feared by Vauban, inflicted numerous losses to the enemy army. The battle went on for the whole summer of 1706.

On June 8, the Duke of Feuillade sent a messenger to Vittorio Amedeo, in which it was offered the possibility to the duke to freely leave Turin to escape from the bombs. King Louis had given orders that the life of the enemy sovereign should not be put at risk, but he also refused to communicate the location of his apartments, so that they would not be bombed: “My lodging is where the battle is most furious”, he would have answered.

However, the duke had no intention of remaining in the city for long: on 17 June Vittorio Amedeo II left Turin at the head of 4,000 horsemen, giving life to a long series of guerrilla actions in lower Piedmont that were intended to divert as many troops as possible from the siege of the capital. Effectively La Feuillade, left the command of the operations of siege to the general Chamarande, launched to its pursuit with almost 10 000 men, until the duke of Savoia sheltered in the valleys occupied from the Waldensians. Considering the risks of engaging the enemy in a hostile and well known territory too high, the Duke de la Feuillade returned to the camp in front of Turin on July 20th.

Following the sortie of the duke from Turin the command of the military square was passed to the imperial general Virich von Daun, close collaborator of the prince Eugenio. The operations of siege went however ahead carrying the besiegers to back of the crescent of the Soccorso that protected one of the accesses to the Citadel. In the meantime the city was subjected to a hard and continuous artillery bombardment.

Soon in the city, following the total blockage of supplies from outside, black powder began to be scarce and within a short time the Piedmontese artillery had to limit their fire so as not to consume too much.

Among the main objectives of the French there was to find the entrance of a tunnel in order to penetrate en masse. The operation did not turn out to be easy: between 13 and 14 August an entrance was discovered, and the besiegers penetrated it after heavy losses. It seemed already all lost, but the Piedmontese resorted to explode the tunnel, burying the enemies.

Ten days later the French launched into a bloody attack on the Crescent, strong with 38 companies of grenadiers. The Piedmontese defended themselves also using inflammable material. In the end, the victory was of the Turinese, who forced the enemies to retreat again, but on the field were left over 400 victims on the Savoy side alone.

It is at this point that the famous episode of Pietro Micca takes place, who sacrificed his own life to stop the umpteenth French attack in the underground galleries. The situation seemed destined to precipitate for the Piedmontese, so much so that the Duke of Orleans, captain of Louis XIV”s army, had arrived in Turin and wanted to give it the coup de grace.

The besiegers, however, knew that the time at their disposal was short, because since May the Duke”s cousin, Prince Eugenio of Savoy, commander in chief of the imperial troops, after some victorious clashes against the French-Spaniards, was marching at the head of a relief army composed of about 20 000 men to Turin.

When at the end of August the imperial army was already in Piedmont, Prince Eugenio at the head of the vanguard reached Villastellone, near the Savoy capital. There he made camp his exhausted soldiers and went to meet his cousin Vittorio Amedeo in the night of the 29th.

The battle

On September 2, the two Savoys climbed the hill of Superga, from which they dominated the entire city, to study the tactics of counter-offensive and decided to bypass the enemy by employing the bulk of the army and part of the cavalry towards the north-west of the city, the most vulnerable, even if this involved a great risk for the proximity of the French lines.

The latter, for their part, could do nothing but feverishly try to lock themselves in their own trenches; the arrival of a relief force of such proportions clearly caught them unprepared. Eugene expressed himself contemptuously:

On September 5, in Pianezza, one of the convoys heading to the French camp was intercepted by the imperial cavalry. Thanks to Maria Bricca, it was possible to get in through a secret passage. This was a very important strategic success on the part of Prince Eugene of Savoy; the French would have fought with rationed ammunition.

On September 6, the outflanking maneuver led the Savoy troops to position themselves between the rivers Dora Riparia and Stura di Lanzo. The final clash began on September 7 when the Austro-Piedmontese forces disposed themselves on the entire front and repulsed every counter-offensive attempt of the French-Hispanics.

Prince Eugene”s plan was to break through the French right wing with the disciplined Prussian infantry of Prince Leopold I of Anhalt-Dessau. The attack, on this side, was particularly bloody, and only at the fourth attempt the Prussians managed to win the French resistance. In particular, the La Marine regiment, which was defending the French far right, ran out of ammunition in the middle of the decisive attack and, with no reinforcements or supplies available, was routed.

At this point, after having repulsed the counterattack of the Orléans cavalry, victory was only a matter of time. The imperial cavalry was reorganized by Prince Eugenio to definitively destroy the adversary, an attack in which Vittorio Amedeo II also participated. Numerically inferior, the French were forced to flee towards the bridges of the Po, abandoning the left wing to its fate.

The imperial forces of the center and the right wing had the task of keeping the opposing French troops engaged. An attempt of attack succeeded in bringing to the temporary break of the front of the Orléans, who was forced to intervene with part of the cavalry to close the breach. In this action he was wounded and Marsin was mortally wounded. Lucento, powerfully fortified and defended by two of the best French regiments, Piemont and Normandie, was never occupied by an assault, but was abandoned by the defenders, after having covered the retreat of the units that covered the French center and left.

Epilogue

The French had lost about 6,000 men, compared to 3,000 Austro-Piedmontese. In the following days, nearly 7,700 Frenchmen still fell in clashes with the Savoyards or from their wounds.

Vittorio Amedeo II and Prince Eugenio di Savoia entered the now liberated city through Porta Palazzo and went to the Duomo to attend a Te Deum of thanksgiving. On the hill of Superga, in memory of the victory, the Savoy built the Basilica of the same name in which a Te Deum is still celebrated every September 7.

The artillery battalion that took care of the defense of the Savoy city was established in 1696 and included 6 companies with 300 cannoneers. At the beginning of the siege, the battalion proved to be insufficient for the management of all the available weapons and had to be integrated with 200 “Cavalieri” coming from the regiment “Piemonte Reale Cavalleria”. As many men from “Royal Piedmont” and 700 Germanic cavalrymen were instead prepared to carry out the night work of repairing the enemy artillery damage.

Each of the 6 Savoy artillery companies was composed of 36 soldiers of which 4 bombers, 1 drummer, 2 sergeants and 2 corporals. One company was also dedicated to the workers and one to the miners. The battalion had a chaplain and a surgeon. The artillery soldiers wore blue robes and pants and a black tricorn hat.

As for weapons, a 1706 inventory lists the following portable firearms stored in the Citadel Arsenal Armory:

In order to meet the needs of armament, new forges were set up alongside the foundry of the Turin Arsenal.

The Piedmontese infantry, on the other hand, was divided into 10 regiments, to which were added those mercenaries coming mostly from France (Protestant volunteers from Provence and the Midi) and Switzerland. The equipment of a Savoy infantry soldier consisted of a belt with a buckle from which hung the sword with a brass hilt, a bayonet, a gibassier placed on the right side and a powder. The grenadiers instead of the gibassier had the grenadier and instead of the sword a sabro.

Of the structure and the quantity of the French armies there is not much information. The number of the French-Spanish artillery is unknown, but it is estimated with reasonable approximation, that the formidable artillery of the besiegers could count about 250 cannons and 60 mortars. The French, moreover, made wide use of the so-called boulets-rouges, incendiary balls made of solid cast iron that were red-hot on hot coals and then thrown in the most sensitive points to the fires of the besieged city.

In memory of the battle, that so deeply marked the future history of Piedmont, some pillars were left engraved with the date 1706 and the effigy of the Madonna della Consolata (since the sanctuary of the Consolata was, almost miraculously, not damaged by the bombs). These pillars were placed in the points where the clash was more bloody, and still today it is possible to identify 23 survivors in various places.

To remember the battle, a future district of Turin was baptized with the name of Borgata Vittoria and there was built a church dedicated to Mary. Moreover, in the city center, there are many streets that remember, with their names, characters that distinguished themselves in the battle: from via Pietro Micca to via Vittorio Amedeo II.

Great manifestations were organized to celebrate the bicentenary and the tricentenary of the Battle: in 1906, in a Turin by then become the industrial head of Italy, the task to commemorate the war episode was entrusted to Tommaso Villa, under the patronage of the mayor of the city, Secondo Frola. For the occasion, historical conventions were organized, volumes were published, monuments were inaugurated (among which is remembered that of Leonardo Bistolfi, in front of the church of the Madonna di Campagna, later destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War). The great attention paid to the event led to the declaration, on August 25 of the same year, of the house where Pietro Micca was born, in Sagliano, as a national heritage site.

On the occasion of the third centenary, in 2006, the battle was re-proposed through a great historical reconstruction, thanks to the intervention of figures from historical associations of half of Europe: in memory of the event, a thematic exhibition was made available to the public in the Mastio of the Citadel of Turin.

Around the siege of Turin and its main protagonists (Prince Eugene of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, Pietro Micca) a vast and constant bibliographic production has flourished since the eighteenth century, including works of great collector”s value, such as those, for example, concerning Eugene”s battles accompanied by precious plates and also sought after individually.

The tricentennial, celebrated with great intensity of initiatives during 2006-2007, through the work of the Associazione Torino 1706-2006 (constituted not by private subjects but by about fifty associations, cultural institutes, study centers and supported by the City of Turin, by the Piedmont Region, by the Compagnia di San Paolo and by collaborations with other entities), includes among its lasting legacies also a wide and relevant update of the bibliography on the events linked to the War of the Succession of Spain, about which it seems opportune to offer, alongside other previous works, a detailed picture.

Conference proceedings

Sources

  1. Assedio di Torino
  2. Siege of Turin
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