House of Cards
Plan of Piacenza in the 17th century
Although the Queen of Hungary Maria Theresa
had been blindsided by the outbreak of the Second Silesian War in August of 1744, its botched execution had provided her with an opportunity. King Friedrich II
had intended to launch his invasion jointly with the French army, but the dilatory French advance had allowed the Austrians to launch a counterattack in Bohemia, and France subsequently lost its raison d'être
for the war in Germany when Emperor Karl VII Albrecht
died unexpectedly early in 1745, clearing the way for Maria Theresa’s husband Franz Stefan
, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to take the imperial throne. The Prussians were driven from Bohemia and fell back into Silesia in disarray, and were now left entirely alone to face a numerically superior Austro-Saxon alliance backed by British funds. Maria Theresa now had her chance to reclaim her Silesian province, signed away in a peace treaty that Friedrich had very unwisely torn to shreds.
Yet although the King of Prussia may have been diplomatically unwise he was clearly shrewd in the arts of war, and the Prussian army remained an extremely formidable force. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Prussians defeated the Austrians in two major battles in the summer of 1745. Not only was the Austrian army demonstrated to be inferior in quality to Friedrich’s well-drilled regiments, but its generalship was inferior as well. Supreme command had been entrusted to Prince Karl Alexander
, the brother of the new kaiser
Franz. He was at best a mediocre talent who had the misfortune of being pitted repeatedly against the King of Prussia, one of the greatest battlefield commanders of the day, who completely outmatched him in wit, instinct, and energy.
Britain had initially supported Austria’s campaign to reclaim Silesia. Although the British government had pushed hard for a reconciliation between Prussia and Austria so as to forge a united front against France, both the government’s ministers and King George II
were aghast at the perfidy of the Prussian king and angered by his sabotage of British policy. As it became clear that Austria’s armies were no match for the Prussians, however, British support for Vienna’s reconquista
quickly cooled. The members of parliament wondered why they were spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to maintain Austrian armies only for them to be thrown into the Prussian meat-grinder in a vain attempt to achieve aims that were of no consequence to Britain. By the autumn of 1745 the British government had returned to its old Carteret-era policy of trying to bring Prussia and Austria back to the peace table. Maria Theresa, however, was not having it.
The queen (now “empress-queen”) was famous for her stubbornness. Sometimes this served her well, as in the dark days early in the war when some wondered if Vienna itself would fall to the French; her indomitability and steely resolve probably saved the Habsburg realm from actual dissolution. By late 1745, however, her persistence was starting to look like childish petulance. Even as the Bourbons humiliated the Anglo-Dutch in the Netherlands and routed the Austro-Sardinians in Lombardy,
the queen rejected the offers of Friedrich and the needling of Britain’s ambassadors. In fact she preferred to make peace not with Berlin, but with Paris, and sent envoys to the French to discuss an end to the war which would leave Austria free to concentrate all its resources against Prussia. She offered to cede some small portion of the Austrian Netherlands to France, and suggested that Don Felipe
could have Savoy as his principality, for which the Sardinians would be compensated by some additional territory from the Austrian Milanese. Meanwhile, the Austrians and Saxons launched a new joint offensive against Brandenburg itself. That grand maneuver, however, was all for naught; Karl Alexander was whipped once more, the Saxon army was all but crushed, and Dresden itself was occupied by the Prussian army.
The Bayreuth Dragoons parade captured Austrian colors before King Friedrich, 1745
As winter approached, Vienna’s situation was extremely bleak. The Saxons had been defeated, the Sardinians were rumored to be looking for a separate peace, and the British were now threatening to withdraw their subsidies entirely if the Austrians did not make peace with Prussia. The whole year had seen an almost uninterrupted string of Austrian defeats on every front, and all of Maria Theresa’s allies appeared to have abandoned her. The only hope that remained for the redemption of Silesia lay in a swift peace with France, and the Empress-Queen was willing to pay dearly for it. She directed her ambassadors to offer Parma, Mantua, and Pavia to Don Felipe, as well as a considerable part of Flanders to France. But the French rebuffed her, for this represented less than their actual conquests thus far in Italy and the Netherlands, and the inexplicably Prussophile French foreign minister René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis d’Argenson
further insisted that any peace with Austria would have to include a guarantee of Prussia’s control of Silesia, a provision that made no sense given that reclaiming Silesia was the only reason Maria Theresa was seeking peace with France in the first place. This stubborn maximalism was to backfire spectacularly upon the French: By making peace with Paris impossible, d’Argenson guaranteed that Vienna would make peace with Berlin instead. Facing diplomatic isolation, financial ruin, and the complete loss of her Flemish and Italian provinces, the empress-queen finally relented and agreed to make peace with Prussia. Silesia was lost, but the Austrian forces in Germany were now free to make a swift return to Italy.
Despite the dramatic fall of Austrian Lombardy in the previous year, the Bourbon position in Italy was nevertheless precarious. The Austrian and Sardinian armies had been defeated and divided at Bassignana, but not destroyed, which meant that Bourbon-occupied Lombardy lay between two potentially formidable opponents. From a military point of view, the most sensible strategy was to force the capitulation of Sardinia, allowing the Bourbons to face the Austrians with their full forces. The Piedmontese fortress of Alessandria was already under siege, and once it fell there was not much else between the French army and the Sardinian capital of Turin except for the outnumbered Sardinian army.
Yet French forces were prevented from action by d’Argenson’s diplomatic maneuverings. D’Argenson respected Carlo Emanuele and saw Sardinia as an ideal French buffer state. As a consequence, as far back as 1744 he had been engaging in secret negotiations with Turin with the aim of convincing the Sardinian king to switch sides. Those talks had been largely fruitless, but in late 1745, with the Austrians on the retreat and French armies advancing into Piedmont, Carlo Emanuele expressed an interest in taking them a bit more seriously. D’Argenson floated a variety of proposals, but the main thrust was that Sardinia would annex most of the Milanese while renouncing its claims to Finale and ceding the Ligurian enclave of Oneglia to Genoa. Don Felipe, meanwhile, would receive Parma and Piacenza. Carlo Emanuele did not respond with great enthusiasm, but by December the situation was looking so bad that the king had no other choice but to tentatively give his support to the proposal.
The obvious problem was that nobody had bothered to ask Spain about this. Their reaction was predictably one of astonishment and rage. Spanish armies already
controlled Parma, Piacenza, and nearly the whole Milanese, to say nothing of the fact that Don Felipe had already declared himself King of Lombardy. Why on earth should victorious Spain cede territory to defeated Sardinia? King Felipe V
was absolutely astonished, and the official Spanish response to the treaty denounced it as “profitless,” “honorless,” and “shameful.” The instructions given to Spain’s ambassador to France were to obstruct the treaty by any means necessary.
D’Argenson’s plan was to browbeat both his ally and his enemy into submission simultaneously. To the Spanish, he insisted that this was the best deal they were going to get, and that if Madrid failed to sign the treaty France would just have to take its ball and go home, leaving Spain on its own in Italy (which was certain to lead to a catastrophic defeat). To the Sardinians he threatened complete destruction, as if they failed to agree to his terms the Spanish and French would descend upon them and trample them underfoot. Unfortunately for the minister, neither Spain nor Sardinia fell for his bluff. The Spanish knew very well that, whatever his foreign minister might say, King Louis XV
would not abandon his Spanish brethren and evacuate Italy. The Sardinians, aware of the Franco-Spanish rift, insisted that they could not possibly sign a treaty until they had guarantees from King Louis himself that Spain was on board and would abide by its strictures. By then, however, the Sardinians were also
aware of the Austro-Prussian treaty and its implications for Italy. The Austrians, unaware of his negotiations with the Bourbons, had already informed Carlo Emanuele of their planned reentry into Italy.
The King of Sardinia understood that this was a game-changer, and from then on acted purely in bad faith. He had no intention of signing a treaty with the Bourbon powers - perhaps he never did - but needed to string along the negotiations until the Austrians were ready. To this end, the king informed d’Argenson that he remained favorable to a treaty and would give the French and Spanish until March to come to an agreement, but asked that as a gesture of good faith the French lift their siege of Alessandria. The credulous d’Argenson happily agreed, for he was already inclined to favor the carrot rather than the stick. He not only instructed Marshal Charles Louis, Duc de Belle-Isle
to lift the siege but ordered him to withhold from any offensive action against either the Piedmontese or
the Austrians in Italy so as not to spook Carlo Emanuele. Belle-Isle was as shocked and furious as the Spanish, but he could not disobey. D’Argenson was supremely confident that he was on the verge of a major diplomatic coup, and even convinced King Louis to write King Felipe a letter assuring him that “Success is certain… our enemies will be confounded by this stroke.”
The amateurish bullying of d’Argenson crippled the French in Italy. When March arrived with no treaty in sight, Carlo Emanuele did exactly what he said he would and returned to to the Austrian fold.
One might expect that the French would have been prepared for this, but d’Argenson had not only failed to keep Belle-Isle informed of the progress of negotiation, but had not even bothered to tell him about Carlo Emanuele’s March deadline. As a consequence, when a Sardinian army abruptly lay siege to Asti on the 5th of March the garrison was caught totally unprepared. Their commander had noticed Sardinian troop movements in the area, but was under the mistaken impression that a treaty had already been signed and that the Sardinians were French allies now. The thundering of the Sardinian siege artillery quickly disabused him of this notion. He surrendered the fortress two days later, well before Belle-Isle could make any attempt at relief.
The complete ruination of the Bourbon cause now began to unfold. Belle-Isle demanded Spanish assistance to conduct a swift counterattack against the Sardinians, but Don Felipe flatly refused him; he would not stir from Milan, nor would he even consent to sending Belle-Isle his siege guns, which were presently arrayed against the citadel of Milan which was still in Austrian hands. In fact he did the opposite of what Belle-Isle asked for and ordered the Spanish troops in the vicinity of Alessandria to withdraw. Belle-Isle had no choice but to fall back towards Bassignana. This sudden retreat, the fall of Asti, and the “betrayal” of the Sardinians sent French morale crashing through the floor, and desertion spiked dramatically. The exasperated Belle-Isle was further confounded by the infante’s
decision to withdraw all Spanish forces from the Riviera and Genoese territory, and warned him that this would put the coastal route - the only reliable link between France and her armies - in great danger. The infante
mocked the marshal and haughtily informed him that the Spanish could take care of themselves.
That claim was about to be tested. The Spanish were now facing an Austrian army 45,000 strong under one of the strongest lineups of generals Vienna had yet fielded: Feldmarshall Josef Wenzel, Fürst von Liechtenstein
was in overall command, supported by generals Schulenburg
, and Bärnklau
. The Austrian offensive began in March, advancing in multiple columns westward through Lombardy. The Spanish needed to consolidate their forces, but could not seem to manage it. Their main army under Fernando de la Torre y Solís, Marqués de Campo Santo
was at Piacenza, but the infante
would not leave Milan and the Marqués de Castelar
refused to abandon Parma, apparently because he was trying to impress the Queen by not abandoning her hometown to the Austrians. Don Felipe eventually had no choice; Bärnklau made a threatening move towards the city on March 20th and the infante
fled. Castelar, however, refused to budge until it was too late. When he finally attempted to make his escape, he found that Browne, leading the southernmost Austrian column, had already seized the crossings over the Taro with his light troops so as to cut him off from Piacenza. Campo Santo led the main army towards Parma to relieve him, but turned back prematurely, finding the Austrians too strong and fearing the possibility of being cut off from Piacenza. An attempt at a breakout to the south by Castelar was foiled by Browne, and he was bottled up in Parma where he would ultimately have to surrender along with most of his 8,000 men in June.
Josef Wenzel, Fürst von Liechtenstein
The final undoing of the Bourbon cause in Italy was a pair of orders, from Paris and Madrid, respectively, which amounted to strategic suicide. From Madrid, Campo Santo had received instructions that no matter what happened, he was to hold Piacenza; never mind that the Austrians massively outnumbered him and that the Sardinians were encroaching on his only line of retreat back to Genoa. Around the same time, Belle-Isle received his own instructions from Paris to rescue the Spanish. Up to this point Belle-Isle had been resisting the calls of Don Felipe to come to his aid - the irony of this was not lost on him - and had only sent a few battalions east to bolster the Spanish at Piacenza. Now, however, he was ordered to assist the Spanish with all his available strength, subordinate himself to the infante
and to follow his instructions, and to do all this “without regard to preserving his communications” - that is, regardless of what happened in Liguria, where the Sardinians were already pressing hard. Undoubtedly this was the product of King Louis’ feelings of commitment to his Spanish cousin, but rather strangely it was also urged by d’Argenson, who despite his utter contempt for the Spanish reasoned that the Bourbon cause in Italy could not prevail without them.
All available Bourbon forces now converged on Piacenza. The grand Gallispan army had suffered immensely from desertion and disease, and now numbered fewer than 30,000 men. The French had lost well over 10,000 men to desertion alone since February. This army now found itself surrounded on all sides: the Po to the north, the Apennines to the south, the Austrians to the east, and the Sardinians to the west. Liechtenstein steadily closed in on Piacenza from the east and south, taking Spanish outposts and advancing his lines of fortification ever closer to the city. The Sardinians were idle for the moment, but soon they were joined by Carlo Emanuele and began advancing towards the Trebbia. The Bourbons discussed attacking the Austrians before the Sardinians could arrive, but against an army 45,000 strong this seemed unlikely to succeed.[A]
On Belle-Isle’s suggestion, the Gallispan force attempted to cross the Po to the north, which was held by only 7,000 men under Schulenburg. This was to be covered by a Spanish demonstration against Liechtenstein to put him on the defensive and thus keep him from interfering. The Austrians saw through this, however, and Liechtenstein responded to this demonstration by ordering Browne to launch a counterattack while unleashing Bärnklau’s cavalry against the Gallispan left. The Spanish fell back in disarray, and the French were forced to halt their offensive over the Po to prevent the Austrians from sweeping them away entirely. Liechtenstein subsequently sent another 5,000 men over the Po to bolster Schulenburg, while the Sardinians reached the Trebbia. The Bourbons were trapped.[B]
Belle-Isle was famous for his daring escapes; he had managed to miraculously slip out of besieged Prague several years past, one of the finest military accomplishments of the war even if it was not greatly appreciated by the French at the time. If anyone could manage to break out of this confinement, it was him. But his enemy then had been complacent, while Liechtenstein and Carlo Emanuele were vigilant. Every attempt to break out foundered against the fact that the Austrians and Sardinians, who now outnumbered the Gallispan army more than two to one, had enough men to guard every direction strongly. Then Belle-Isle himself fell ill, a victim of disease running rampant through starving and overcrowded Piacenza, whose soldiers and citizens were reduced to eating horses and dogs. There was simply no initiative left in the Bourbon leadership, and on August 12th Don Felipe surrendered.
"The Spanish Bird Kick'd Into a Cage" - Don Felipe forcibly introduced to his "new principality" by Liechtenstein. British satirical print, 1746.
The Siege of Piacenza and the campaign leading up to it was certainly less flashy than the victories of Friedrich of Prussia or Maurice de Saxe, but it was just as decisive as their greatest victories. Don Felipe, the man for whom the Spanish were fighting the war, was captured.
The massive invasion force which had crashed into Italy in 1745 had all but ceased to exist. The remaining Spanish garrisons in Lombardy were rolled up swiftly thereafter. The French “line of communication” forces stretched from Nice to Novi withdrew through Liguria and over the Var, but most of them never made it; desertion, sickness, and the vigorous interdiction of Sardinian irregulars and the reinforced British fleet took a heavy toll, and a Sardinian army under General Karl Sigmund, Freiherr von Leutrum
succeeded in trapping some of them in Liguria by defeating a Franco-Genoese force at Sospel and capturing Ventimiglia and San Remo on the Ligurian coast.
King Felipe V
of Spain had not lived to see the disaster. He had died mere weeks before the surrender at Piacenza, and his death would be just as decisive as the defeat. Felipe, the first Bourbon king of Spain, had ruled for 46 years, and in that time he had assiduously (if not always successfully) pursued the reconquest of what had once been Spanish Italy in the days of his Habsburg predecessors. He had been aided later in his life by his forceful wife Elisabetta Farnese
, who had been the driving force behind Spain’s participation in the present war. Crucially, however, Elisabetta was Felipe’s second
wife; his first had been Maria Luisa of Savoy, Carlo Emanuele’s sister, and Felipe’s heir Fernando VI
was the issue of this first marriage. While the fact that he was Carlo Emanuele’s nephew did not necessarily make him a friend of the Sardinians, Fernando’s accession meant the immediate ejection of his stepmother and her favorites from power and the redirection of Spanish foreign policy away from Bourbon dynastic power politics. He immediately sent instructions to his army in Italy stripping Don Felipe of command and ordering a general withdrawal. Had such orders been issued a few months earlier the Gallispan army might have been saved.
Despite having ordered a tactical retreat, Fernando had no intention of precipitously leaving the war. The honor of Spain and the dynasty prevented him from simply abandoning his half-brother, and placing Don Felipe on some distant Italian throne actually had its attractions. Fernando disliked Felipe and lived in constant fear of assassination, and thus was hardly eager to have the infante
return to Spain. But the possibility of carving a principality out of Austrian land for a man presently in Austrian captivity seemed remote, and the total loss of the Spanish army in Italy had substantially diminished Madrid’s ability to apply military pressure. Formerly, Spain had been the most eager protagonist of the Italian war; now it was looking for a way out. The British, who had come to see France as their main enemy and relished the chance to divide the Bourbon powers, would soon move to take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity.
Genoa’s path out of the war was much swifter. The news of Piacenza struck the Genoese like a thunderbolt; it was said that when it was announced at the Major Council, some of the councillors openly wept. Alarmed by the Treaty of Worms and foreign support for the Corsican rebels, the Republic had bet everything on a Bourbon victory only to be laid bare to its enemies. Resistance was still possible; the Republic still had some 8,000 regular troops, thousands of militiamen, and around 4,000 French soldiers who had been trapped in Liguria. Behind their strong fortresses, the Genoese might have tried to hold out for Bourbon aid or at least some sort of negotiated peace. But Piacenza had broken the Genoese government’s will to fight. With the Sardinians already in Genoese territory, Genoa opened its gates to the Austrians and threw itself upon the mercy of the Emperor and Empress, hoping that by abasing themselves before Vienna they would be protected from the depredations of Carlo Emanuele.
It was of no great consequence but nevertheless interesting to note that among Leutrum’s force was Theodore’s Corsican battalion. When they marched into Ventimiglia, it was the first time soldiers of the Corsican state had set foot upon continental Genoese soil. At least in a technical sense, the occupied had become the occupiers.
 Although the Austrian Netherlands was in the midst of an invasion, Maria Theresa made no significant effort to protect it. In the first place, she was just not very interested in the Netherlands; they were far away and difficult to defend. She also reasoned that because it was in the strategic interest of the British and Dutch to keep the French from annexing the province, they could be counted on to do their best to defend it even without Austrian help. This assumption proved correct, but just because defending the Netherlands was an Anglo-Dutch priority did not mean that they would manage it successfully.
 It was indeed swift. FZM Browne led the first column of troops over the Alps in the middle of January, marching an astounding 13 miles per day over snow-covered mountains.
 The Spanish did eventually ratify the treaty - three weeks too late.
 Also captured was the hapless Duke Francesco III of Modena, who had been following the Spanish army since he had been ejected from his duchy by the Austrians early in the war. Largely ignored by both his allies and his enemies, he was not a hostage of significant diplomatic value despite being a sovereign ruler.
[A] With 10,000 more men and the leadership of Maillebois and Gages, this is exactly what the Bourbons attempted IOTL. The result was the Battle of Piancenza, a costly failure in which the Bourbons lost something near a third of their men.
[B] IOTL, Maillebois succeeded in crossing the Po against opposition and escaped the trap with his army. He was substantially aided, however, by the excellent leadership of Gages, as well as the fact that the Austrian command had been thrown into confusion by the sickness and resignation of Liechtenstein. ITTL, a less capable Spanish command coupled with a still-serving Liechtenstein and a more vigilant Austrian army foils this plan.