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The Battle of Solferino, 1859

The Battle of Solferino was fought on 24th June 1859 between imperial Austria and a combined force of French and Piedmontese troops. It was an exceptionally bloody affair but one from which a lasting and unexpected benefit accrued.

In March of that year King Victor Emmanuel II ofSardinia/Piedmont saw an opportunity to renew the campaign for Italian independence from Austria. He had been promised French support and this was forthcoming as soon as Austria demanded that Piedmont back down and the latter refused to do so.

The Battle of Solferino was the third clash between the opposing forces and by far the most serious. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria took personal command of an army of about 160,000 men, and was met by a comparable force, led by King Victor Emmanuel and Emperor Napoleon III of France. The battle took place near Lake Garda in northern Italy.

The emperors did not prove to be particularly good as generals and soon lost control of their forces, which continued to pummel each other all day in a series of engagements strung out along the Mincio River.

The end result was victory for the French-Piedmontese army, but at huge cost in terms of casualties. It is estimated that both sides had around 15,000 men killed or wounded.

Politically, the battle was a step closer towards Italian reunification and independence, and France gained control of Nice and Savoy.

One of the stretcher-bearers with the unpleasant task of retrieving broken bodies from the battlefield was a Swiss man named Henri Dunant. He was deeply affected by the horrors he had witnessed and later wrote a book that described them. More than that, he went on to found an organization devoted to the task of helping the victims of war and conflict. This became the International Red Cross, which continues this work – and more – to the present day.

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