The Battle of Staffarda, 18 August 1690, was fought during Nine Years' War in Piedmont-Savoy, modern-day northern Italy. The engagement was the first major encounter in the Italian theatre since Victor Amadeus, the Duke of Savoy, had joined the Grand Alliance in opposition to France earlier that year. The battle was a clear victory for the French commander, Nicolas Catinat, who proceeded to take other Piedmontese strongholds. The French also overran most of the Duchy of Savoy, but due to sickness, lack of infantry, and problems with supply, Catinat was unable to besiege Amadeus's capital Turin as King Louis XIV had hoped.
By 1690, the Nine Years' War was in its third year. The greater part of the forces involved on both sides was engaged in the Spanish Netherlands where the Dutch, with considerable English and a little Spanish help, concentrated their war effort. Along the Rhine – where ultimately the war would prove no more decisive than the Netherlands' campaign – the German Princes provided the bulk of the troops to face France. The one area where the Allies had great hopes of forcing – " … a door … into France, big enough … for us to get in at", was Italy.
The territories of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, split into several distinct areas: the County of Nice, the Duchy of Savoy, the Duchy of Aosta, and the Principality of Piedmont. Nice occupied the region on the Mediterranean where the Alps meet the sea; Savoy occupied the region where the Alps border the French province of Dauphiné; and Piedmont, which also contained the capital city of Turin and was the most important and populous region, linked the mountains to the Po valley. King Louis XIV tended to consider the Savoyard state as subsidiary to his rule – despite Amadeus's determination to maintain his independence he was often little more than a vassal compelled to follow the French king's wishes. Even before the outbreak of the war Louis XIV had a military presence in Italy with the control of two imposing fortresses: Pinerolo, to the west, annexed by France fifty years earlier in defiance of the 1631 Treaty of Cherasco; and to the east in Duchy of Montferrat, the fortress of Casale, acquired in 1681 after Ferdinand Charles, Duke of Mantua, surrendered it to Louis XIV in exchange for an initial payment of 1,000,000 livres and an annual subsidy of 60,000 livres.
At the beginning of 1690 Amadeus had yet to declare himself against Louis XIV. Although his small army (8,000 men at the start of 1690) aroused only French contempt, Louis XIV understood that he had to retain Savoy in the French orbit. Ignoring Amadeus's own sovereign interests, the French sought guarantees and made their demands on the Duke: Amadeus was either to send 2,000 infantry and three dragoon regiments to assist French forces in the Spanish Netherlands – nearly half his army – or, he was to unite them with Nicolas Catinat's forces for an attack on the Spanish Milanese; he was also to hand over to Catinat the citadel of Turin and, further down the Po River, Verrua. If he did not do so he would, in Louvois' words, "be punished in such a manner that he remembers it for the rest of his life."
French demands from the Duke were nothing less than an attack on Savoyard independence, and the intimidation ultimately proved counter-productive. In the early summer of 1690 Amadeus realised he had to stand up to France and he began to look towards the Grand Alliance. But he had conditions. Amadeus reiterated his family claim to the Duchy of Montferrat, over which the House of Savoy was in perennial dispute with the Duke of Mantua, stipulating the razing of Casale as the minimum he would accept in this region; he also demanded the reacquisition of Pinerolo as the sine qua non of Savoyard entry into the war on the Allied side, and sought to take over at least one French place in Dauphiné. Amadeus's hectic preparations for war and his negotiations for financial assistance from England and Spain, were followed by a declaration of war against France on 4 June.
In July Catinat took command of French forces in Piedmont, totalling some 12,000 men. Amadeus, meanwhile, received 10,000 Spanish reinforcements from the Spanish possession of Milan, and was also promised 5,000 Imperial troops under Prince Eugene of Savoy – a cousin of Amadeus. Additionally, Amadeus's Protestant community, the Vaudois, who had previously suffered religious persecution from Louis XIV and Amadeus alike, had since become reconciled with their Duke, and took up arms in defence of their valleys. Little quarter was asked or given when fighting the French.
Determined to punish Amadeus, Louis XIV had ordered Catinat to use his force to burn and tax (put under contribution) large tracts of parts of Savoy and the Plain of Piedmont – attempts by local peasants to retaliate were met by hanging anyone who was found carrying arms. However, the Marquis de Feuquieres, sent by Catinat with 1,200 troops to Luserna, suffered a major setback and was forced to abandon the town with the loss of some 600 men.
While Catinat's army manoeuvred on the Piedmontese plain Marquis de Saint-Ruth took most of the exposed Duchy of Savoy, routing the Savoyard forces; only the great fortress of Montmélian, less than 60 km north of Grenoble, remained in ducal hands. Although Savoy was far less important than Piedmont, its loss was a major setback for the Grand Alliance, making an invasion of France now much less likely. In a desperate attempt to halt the destruction and intimidation Amadeus – against the advice of Eugene – insisted on engaging the French with his own and Spanish troops. Believing that Feuquieres was lost, and anxious to catch the French whilst they were weak, Amadeus left his camp at Villafranca with the intention of attacking and surrounding Catinat.
Catinat left his camp at Cavour and marched south with the intention of taking Saluzzo; when Amadeus moved to stop him, the result was the engagement at the abbey of Staffarda on 18 August. Marshes and hedges impeded movement on the battlefield and sheltered the Savoyard line, but French troops eventually broke Amadeus's army. Only Eugene's command of the Savoyard cavalry and his conduct in retreat saved the Allied army from disaster. Amadeus suffered 2,800 casualties and 1,200 prisoners; he also lost 11 of his 12 cannon. Catinat's casualties amount to some 2,000 troops.
Catinat subsequently took Saluzzo, Savigliano, and Fossano. More of Amadeus's territory was put under contribution; those towns which Amadeus ordered not to pay – such as Ceresole and Autrive – were torched. When Eugene's Imperial troops finally arrived in Piedmont little could be achieved due to Spanish hesitancy and reluctance: in Eugene's words: " … they want to do absolutely nothing." The Imperial commander had to be satisfied with small raids against the enemy. In one such operation in September Eugene was unable to prevent his men – who were used to the brutality of the Turkish wars – castrating then killing 200 French prisoners.
Catinat proceeded to Susa, a vital fortress controlling communications with Briançon in Dauphiné, opening trenches there on 11 November; the stronghold capitulated two days later. But hopes of taking Turin, and capturing the Asti region and south-east Piedmont in order to link up with Casale had to be scaled back due to supply and communication problems, manning shortages, and sickness within the army. The French, therefore, unable to live off the resources of a devastated Piedmont, were forced into winter quarters in Savoy, Dauphiné, and Provence. Eugene's imperialists found quarters in Montferrat much to the consternation its pro-French ruler, the Duke of Mantua.
- Chandler: The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, 302. All statistics taken from Chandler.
- Lynn states around 1,000 casualties
- McKay & Scott: The Rise of the Great Powers 1648–1815, 49
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714, 164
- Storrs: War, Diplomacy and the Rise of Savoy, 1690–1720, 25. 6,800 infantry; 1,290 cavalry and dragoons
- Rowlands: Louis XIV, Vittorio Amedeo II and French Military Failure in Italy, 1689–96.
- Henderson: Prince Eugen of Savoy, 30
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714, 211
- McKay: Prince Eugene of Savoy, p. 33
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714, 213
- Chandler: The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, 302
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714, 214
- McKay: Prince Eugene of Savoy, 34
- Chandler, David G (1990). The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. Spellmount Limited. ISBN 0-946771-42-1
- Henderson, Nicholas (1966). Prince Eugen of Savoy. Weidenfield & Nicolson. ISBN 1-84212-597-4
- Lynn, John A (1999). The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714. Longman. ISBN 0-582-05629-2
- McKay, Derek (1977). Prince Eugene of Savoy. Thames & Hudson Ltd. ISBN 0-500-87007-1
- McKay, Derek & Scott, H. M (1984). The Rise of the Great Powers 1648–1815. Longman. ISBN 0-582-48554-1
- Rowlands, Guy (2000). Louis XIV, Vittorio Amedeo II and French Military Failure in Italy, 1689–96. The English Historical Review 115(462): 534–569
- Storrs, Christopher (1999). War, Diplomacy and the Rise of Savoy, 1690–1720. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55146-3
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