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Istria Military -- the Town of Rijeka and the Contingencies of Napoleonic Warfare in the Years 1796-1797

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy


At the end of the XVIIIth century, the consequences of the July 14th French Revolution (1789) were taking a heavy toll on politics and upsetting the social scene of all European countries. It was in 1793 that hostilities broke out between Revolutionary France and the major European potentates, who had allied to oppose the overwhelming threat of social disorder and civil anarchy.

The climax of intolerance had reached its apex with the execution of the last Bourbon king, Louis XVI (1754-1793), in Paris. The first Coalition (1793-1797) of the allied sovereignties was steadily formed against the French post-monarchic establishment, and it became effective by massive enrollments of infantry troops and cavalry units. Austria, Prussia, England, Spain, Holland, Neaples, and Piedmont-Sardinia ordered their armies forward to preserve the constituted order, the legitimacy of power, and the territorial integrity of the kingdoms. In the strategic sphere, defensive expectations turned into preventive war operations against the armes of the Revolution.

Upsetting political changings were taking a new course. The social emergence of the new revolutionary order and the mystification of the pseudo-libertarian ideals of libert, egalit, fraternit, did not seem to approaching the urban aggregation of Fiume, a secluded site of the Austrian empire on the Adriatic coast. The industrious  town inhabitants conceived for some years linking a peaceful course of civic life and economic prosperity.

In 1796, when a talented General of the French Republic named Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed head of the Arme d Italie(1), the operational theatre was brought from the Rhine frontier to Piedmont; then, to Austrian Lombardy. Amazed at the relentless advance of the French Revolutionary troops, the citizens of Rijeka began following with unconcealed trepidation the hard-fought military confrontations in the battlefields of Northern Italy. While stubbornly fighting the Imperial military deployment in the western plains known as the Venetiae, Napoleon was confronted with the static defensive of the Austrian stronhold of Mantua; because of the siege operations, and disappointed by the inefficacy of the blockade, the Gnral en Chef preferred losing touch and attacking by surprise the Pontificial territories of the Legazioni Romagnole (Ferrara, Bologna, and Ancona).

Dismayed at the loss of the town of Ancona (an important harbor of the Adriatic sea) to the conquering French-Republican units, the people of Rijeka felt serious apprehensions about their future and their military necessities. Strategic reflection indicated taking sound measures of protection to defend against any attack on land, and to avert any daring action carried out through the sea to the coastal shore. The shrewdness of the Governor of Rijeka, Alessandro Paszthory, was a relevant factor. Building up a stout defensive asset; the Hungarian magnate turned military leader thought carefully about taking defensive dispositions to reinforce the military line at the harbour against enemy attack. Regular militia units assembled in town from nearby Croatia to reinforce the Rijeka garrison. Further improvements were made to the defensive capabilities, and weapons and saltpetre were distributed to the local inhabitants.

A whole town was militarized, and ready to stand in arms and repel any French threat. The general situation remained tranquil in the Quarnaro (Kvarnerski zaljev); however, French troops could not move offensively toward the Venetiae because the stronghold of Mantua had not yet been taken. In 1797, French-Republicans finally succeeeded in overcoming the defenses of Mantua, and the town of Ancona which had been lost in the winter of 1796 was occupied. In the Doric town, some ships were moored; and three Pontifical ships called tartanoni succeeded in sailing and taking refuge in Fiumes coastal harbor. The strident reports of the fugitives put the Austrian authorities on the alert. On February 15, 1797, the French frigate La Brune was sighted in the Istrian waters of the harbour of Rovigno; the French demanded pilots to guide the ship to Venice, even threatening to bombard the town if the request was not granted. Finally, a recalcitrant Rovignese called Paolo Narida was persuaded to act as a pilot for the French, and the frigate left for the Adriatic sea.

On 21 March 1797, French units entered the town of Trieste virtually unopposed, and ready to move forward in force to attack Rijeka on land. Brigade-General Joachim Murat, heading 30 hussars, had briefly gone to Trieste (March 23); but he rapidly left after having pillaged 21000 francs from the civic cash. Thereafter General Charles-Franois-Joseph Dugua came with a strong force; next day, at the roaring of the guns, the French tricolour was hoisted on the castle of Trieste.

On 26 March 1797 the tree of liberty was planted (a largely pagan ceremony full of animistic substratum). The citizens had to take an oath of obedience and fidelity to the French Republic one and indivisible. A communiqu in French, Italian, and German was issued for citizens to hand over all weapons within 24 hours, and imposing the use of the French tri-colour cockade. Furthermore, Napoleon fixed the war-contribution for the town at 3,000,000 lire tornesi.

Some days before, the local Austrian Kommandantur had given dispositions activating a first defensive line of strongholds all around the Rijeka area. The main features of the defensive asset were centered in the villages of Lipa and Castua (Kastav), actually the starting point of the fortified entrenchments, reaching to Laurana (Lovran), a town (80 km. from Trieste; 17 km. from Rijeka) on the Quarnaro coast. Because of the advancing French troops, and due to their numerical inferiority, the Austrian garrison forces in Trieste were forced to retire to Lipa; the commanding-officer, Pittoni, did not spare himself and showed tactical prudence. Shrewdly given dispositions permitted the Imperial defensive deployment to take a defined shape; furthermore, some infantry units were soon sent to Castua and Laurana. Each location was defended by a company of Croatian Grenzer coming from the military regions of the Krajne.

On 4 March 1797, some well equipped and martial looking troops from nearby Slovenia came to Rijeka, the Infanterie Regiment Hessen-Darmstadt. One month later (April 4), the much feared confrontation against the French-Republican troops began with a tremendous clash. A chef de brigade named Dagobert attacked the Austrian outposts at Lipa, causing military preassure and heavy losses. Facing a heavy barrage of fire, heavy losses, and untold damage, Pittoni resolved to propose a truce. Negotiations were enacted, and the Imperial regimental force of Hessen-Darmstadt retired beyond the urban asset of Rijeka. Infantry battalions reached and re-deployed in between Sussak and Buccari; in this area the units gathered together with the Imperial contingents and with the Croatian militias leaded by Obrist (i.e. Colonel) Kazimir.

On 4 April 1797, Rijeka was facing abandonment by Austrian regular forces; all infantry platoons had left the urban gates, but during the retreat there was desultory pillaging and the destruction of some sailing-boats belonging to businessmen and shopkeepers of the town. Severe damages were sustained by the troops that would have to defend the local population. Because of consolidated warfare experience, the multi-ethnic Imperial troops largely composed by Croats and Bosniacs wanted to hamper the French about food victualling. Behaving with severe military discipline, they were to paradoxally cause major troubles to the citizens of Rijeka who  were not at fault with the great turmoil engendered by warfare operations. When the French neared the gates of the town, the people of Rijeka lacked any military resource for a determined and armed resistance. Harboring limited hope against superior enemy forces, they sent an envoy to the French-Republicans who had taken full control and military supervision in the area of Lipa and Castua.

The notable Luigi Peretti was charged with the mission to perorate the interests of the town, and avoid any . Overcoming some difficulties, Peretti had himself led to the chef de brigade Dagobert. According to tradition, the austere soldier replied:

You are Hungarian, and therefore know that the French nation esteems the Hungarian nation no less than her own. The brave Hungarian fights himself for his king and we fight for honour. I assure you in the name of my General Bonaparte, and I promise you on my word of honour, that your persons and properties will be respected.

The French entered the city, and to avoid any social recrudescence and seeds of discontent, behaved well toward the inhabitants. Not to alienate the sympathies to the French forces in a foreign land, the French officers had to fear the possibility of civil uprisings. The treatment accorded to Fiume in 1797 was generally good; the care by the French can be considered a model of the political plan that General Bonaparte, who had become an Emperor, would carry out ten years later in order to push Hungary to become an ally against Austria. If Fiume was abandoned and left unguarded by the Austrian and Croatian forces, at Sussak the Croatian troops of Captain Jesic had prepared strong entrenchments to stop the French advance. The lines of comunications were cut, and the bridge on the Fiumara was destroyed. The positions of the belligerants were peaceful for five days.

On 7 April 1797, the armistice of Judenburg was granted. It was followed by the peace of Leoben (18 April 1797); the peace clauses were then ratified with the treaty of Campoformio (17 October 1797). Adhering to the peace of Leoben, the French forces had to leave Fiume. From Campoformio till the year 1809, Fiume was left under the geo-strategical sphere of Austrian dominance, while Istria and Dalmatia lost the secular political connection that had gathered them to Venice, thus passing under French rule.

After the French retreat (10 April 1797), Croatian Grenzer units entered in town committing pillaging and rape; their behaviour seemed like a punishment toward the benevolence of the Fiume population in that difficult warfare emergency. Once more, the inhabitants of Fiume-Rijeka underwent a string of impositions. Motivation can not be discerned in these events, except to have originated in the secular antagonism existing between themselves and the surrounding hegemonic pushings of the Slavic world.


(1) After having been appointed Gnral en chef of the arme d Italie on 2 March 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte took leave (12 March) to reach his assigned command for the campaign in Italy. On 10 March he had married Josephine Beauharnais (Marie-Josphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, widow of viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais).

Trieste Area: Chronological References

10 April 1797: the troops of General Dugua left Trieste, to reach Klagenfurt on Napoleons dispositions.

14 April 1797: leaded by captain Jesich and by capitano Bonomo, a mixed force composed by hussars and nearly 300 Croat infantry, and supported by a strong number of peasants, attacked the remaining French garrison.

A most severe engagement happened, and the French-Republican forces were routed at Cattinara.

Trieste is entered by the forces of the Empire.

The glorious enterprise is fruitless; on respect of the accords of truce taken on April 7, the Austrian units had to evacuate the town.

17 April 1797: Napoleon signed the treaty of Leoben, with its infamous secret clauses; Austria, lost Belgium and Lombardy, and was compensated with the Terraferma veneta, Istria, and Dalmatia.

This preliminary treaty will be perfectioned at Campoformio, on 17 October 1797, with the cession of the town of Venice to the Habsburgs.

29 April 1797: Napoleon Bonaparte reached Trieste; he reassured the notables of the town; furthermore, he had a lenient discount made on the war contributions of Trieste (the sum was established at 2600000 francs).

Istria 1797: Chronological Elements

March: General Bonaparte enters in the town of Gorizia; April: the town of Fiume is occupied by French forces; May: occupation of Venice, Pirano, Parenzo, Montona, Rovigno; June: the democratisation and the istitution of the democratic municipalities in the Venetian Istria begins.

June: Austrian troops enter Parenzo, Rovigno, Pinguente, Pola; 17th October: peace of Campoformio: France cedes to Austria the Venetian Istria.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Pollonio, A. L Istria Veneta dal 1797 al 1813. Gorizia, Istituto Regionale per la Cultura Istriana, 1998.

Aa, V. Fiume s a Magyar-Horvath tengerpart. In A Magyarorszg vrmegyi s vrosai, Budapest 1895.

Aa, V. Povijest Rijeke (Storia di Fiume). Tipograf, Fiume-Rijeka 1988.

Benussi, B.. L Istria nei suoi due millenni di storia. Venezia, Marsilio, 1997.

Depoli, A. Fiume una storia meravigliosa. Libero Comune di Fiume in esilio, Padova 1969.

Gigante, S. Storia del Comune di Fiume. Bemporad, Firenze 1928.

Kobler, G. Memorie per la storia della liburnica citt di Fiume. Mohovic, Fiume 1896.

Modrich, G. La Dalmazia. Torino, 1892.

Tomsich, V. Notizie storiche sulla citt di Fiume. Mohovic, Fiume 1896.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006

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