The road to Waterloo: Week 7 (6 – 12 Apr 2015)

Battle of Occhiobello
The Battle of Occhiobello took place on 8 and 9 April 1815. It was a turning point in the Neapolitan War which began on 15 March when Joachim Murat, King of Naples, declared war on the Austrian Empire.

70 Days to Waterloo

Murat was brother-in-law to Napoleon Bonaparte who installed him as King of Naples and Sicily in 1808. Following the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, Murat began to distance himself from Napoleon and signed a treaty with the Austrians in January 1814 as a means of protecting his throne. However, as the Congress of Vienna progressed he became increasingly aware of the European powers’ intention to remove him and return the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily to their pre-Napoleonic rulers. On hearing of Napoleon’s return to France in March 1815, Murat aligned himself with the Bonapartist cause and made his declaration of war against Austria.

After issuing the Rimini proclamation on 30 March, inciting all Italian nationalists to join his cause and rise in revolt against their Austrian occupiers, Murat and his force of 40,000 men advanced towards Bologna. On 3 April, the day after capturing Bologna, Murat’s Neapolitan army defeated an outnumbered Austrian force on the banks on the Panaro River.

In a letter to Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, on 5 April, Wellington voices his concern over the possible implications of Murat’s threat, stating: “As for my part, I am convinced […] that, if we do not destroy Murat, and that immediately, he will save Bonaparte.” [MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/457/1]

However, Murat’s proclamation of 30 March did not have the intended effect and he received little support from the Italian populace. Despite this, on 8 April, he attempted to cross the bridge over the Po River at Occhiobello and enter Austrian controlled territory. By now, the Austrians had been reinforced and after repeated attempts to cross the river the Neapolitan’s were finally repulsed. By the end of the second day, Murat was compelled to retreat.

In a letter to Wellington, on 21 April, Richard Trench, second Earl of Clancarty, writes: “The Italian news is good: Murat retreated to Bologna, Ferrara débloqué. The only fear here stated is lest the Neapolitan force should retire so far that the Austrians, now reinforced, will not be able to have a fair fight with them in the open country.” [MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/455/29]

With the morale of his troops diminished, Murat would now have to establish a defensive position and prepare for the inevitable Austrian counterattack.

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