What Vicenza, Home of the 173rd Airborne, Looked Like Two Centuries Ago
Historic reoccurrence is a controversial concept. However, events, especially in military history, often take place in similar sites. The reason for this phenomenon is simple. Throughout centuries logistics, weaponry and technology change, but terrain and strategic points continue to shape military campaigns.
Consequently, soldiers’ accounts share similarities in impressions, discomforts and adventures, even if they happen to belong to vastly different armies even separated by centuries. One intriguing example comes from Friedrich von Brühl, a Prussian serving in the Austrian cavalry who fought in the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte. In the fall of 1813 he wrote a lengthy letter home describing the city of Vicenza, Italy and the surrounding region of Veneto, an area known so well by many of today’s American soldiers and veterans. Vicenza, after all, is the home of a sizable U.S. Army garrison, with the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade and U.S. Army Africa.
Brühl’s letter comes from the enormous Buttlar-Venedien Family Archives recently deposited at the Prussian Privy State Archives in Berlin. The most significant find contained within these papers remains the complete intimate correspondence between the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and his wife Marie. Friedrich von Brühl, or “Fritz“as his family called him, was Madam von Clausewitz’s younger brother. As Marie’s preface of On War reveals, Fritz supported her in editing and publishing the seminal treatise after the military theorist’s untimely death in 1831.
In 1813–1814 the Austrian Army was heavily engaged fighting Napoleon. The real action occurred in Central Germany, at the Battle of Leipzig, where Napoleon personally led his troops in a costly and spectacular defeat at the hands of a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops. Fritz, however, was a junior cavalry officer in the Austrian Army in Italy. The Italian campaign against the French, who were led by Napoleon’s stepson and Viceroy in Italy Eugene de Beauharnais, was just a sideshow.
Fritz wrote a letter dated November 22, 1813 to his sister Marie informing her of his whereabouts and his first impressions of the Italian countryside. I have deciphered and partially translated the letter into English. “[Italy] resembles a garden, and one [because of its] beauty, eventually, boring,” Fritz von Brühl stated, “Instead of grain fields you see nothing but vineyards and cornfields and paddies. Everywhere mulberry trees form an unwieldy line, adorned with vine as if [it were] a garland.” This beauty, though, was equally menacing for a cavalry squadron because “all of these surroundings offer the enemy, which has nothing but infantry, the best protection.”
In an attempt to hold off the enemy’s advance, Beauharnais had retreated to the Adige River. The Austrians aggressively sought the next major clash and rushed through northern Italy. This disappointed Fritz, for it left little time to appreciate the cities and landmarks in a country which even then was a popular tourist destination. Instead, the troops had to hurry “in many unpleasant marches during the most disagreeable weather.” It was only when the Austrians arrived in Vicenza that they took a break and waited for reinforcements from the north.
Rather than catch up on sleep, the young officer decided instead to tour the city. Fritz’s report that he “found there many sophisticated and upright people” eager to show him Vicenza would come as a surprise to modern-day visitors. Today the city’s landscape is marked by various monuments proudly celebrating its resistance to Austrian rule (1814–1866). During the Revolution of 1848, Vicenza’s picturesque hill Monte Berico was, for instance, the scene of a bloody battle. However, in the fall of 1813 the Italians warmly welcomed the newly arrived Austrian troops. Despite initiating long-sought reforms, Napoleon had put an end to the Venetian Republic, which Vicenza had been part of since 1404, burdened the city with high taxes, and enlisted in his army its young male population.
Situated between two famous historic cities, Venice and Verona, Vicenza has frequently been overlooked by travelers throughout the centuries, despite boasting some of the most famous buildings of Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance premier architect. “Although I know nothing about architecture, I was very pleased to see the big, so-called Olympic Theater,” Fritz wrote. “[It] is the pride of [the city’s] educated class, that claims that not even in Rome such a building exists.” Even today the Palladio’s indoor amphitheater is the first local landmark where Italians take newly arrived U.S. soldiers during their initial orientation classes.
From Vicenza, the Austrians marched further west, towards the French stronghold Verona. Fritz fought in the bloody Battle of Caldiero for the control of the Adige River (French and Austrian troops had also clashed there in 1796 and 1805). “Early on the 15th, with the sunrise, a heavy cannonade announced the advancement of the enemy,” Fritz reported. “It was the viceroy, who had gathered all of his disposable force to celebrate his name’s day,” the young officer wrote in jest. Just a sentence later his mood darkened as he recalled the fierce and numerous French assaults that drove the Austrians in the afternoon back on the road toward Vicenza. Fritz lost his beloved commanding officer, had to ford a frigid creek, and spent a night, cold, wet, and on horseback. “On the next day we buried [the major] in Montebello — and by this occasion some shed tears who otherwise do not cry so easily,” he wrote.
Today Caldiero and the nearby San Bonifacio and Soave, where the clashes continued, are peaceful little towns well known among U.S. soldiers and their families, with cozy trattorie, bucolic castles, and pleasant wineries. Fritz, overwhelmed and tired after the Battle of Caldiero, lost any interest in touring the countryside. In the temporary ceasefire his regiment took quarters in Soave. To this day, this little town has preserved its medieval castle and surrounding walls, while its wineries produce what is probably the best-known white wine in Italy. Yet the young cavalry officer only cared that he had been comfortably billeted with a local family.
Not surprisingly, Fritz actively (and ultimately unsuccessfully) pursued transfer to the main war theater in central Europe. For their part, Italian soldiers in the French army deserted en masse (“everyday officers with different ranks and [from different] regiments come to us”), but the Austrians had to fight the French battle-hardened veterans for “hills, roofs, and gardens.” Italy’s rugged terrain favors defenders, and indeed U.S. troops in WWII faced similarly bitter struggles, as Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944 reveals. In fact, in 1813–1814, Beauharnais managed to hold off an army nearly twice the size of his own by skillfully exploiting factors of time and the local terrain. He surrendered only after Napoleon’s defeat.
While Fritz was far from a great writer, his letter brings forth knowledge about soldiers’ everyday life in the Napoleonic era beyond battles and campaigns. It also reminds us that, as much as technology has transformed war-fighting, little has changed in the way military men and women experience the world around them.
Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an independent scholar and journalist. Her biography, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making Of On War, just released by Oxford University Press-USA, is based on the newly discovered complete correspondence between Marie and Carl von Clausewitz. She and her husband are currently stationed in Vicenza, Italy. Follow her on Twitter at @VanyaEF.
Photo credit: Visual Information Specialist Paolo Bovo, U.S. Army