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Francesca II Gonzaga versus Charles VIII: A League army under Gonzaga seeks to destroy a French army marching home under Charles, but the Taro River separates them. Will Gonzaga’s audacious attack plan overcome not only the terrain but one of the most reputable armies in all of Europe?
This battle is classified as a draw and had little eventual consequence but did create a situation in which decisive results and consequences were possible. In a strategic sense, the French were able to achieve their objective of continuing their retreat to France as a result of their tactical victory over League forces on every front. However, League cavalry was able to loot the French baggage train, claiming 180,000 gold ducats as well as forcing most French soldiers to go without tents, dry clothes and food for the night (Nicolle, 1996: 73). Aside from sowing tensions among the League commanders, the League army may have been in a better state compared to the French after the battle, suffering proportionately fewer casualties and possessing more fresh soldiers. Of course, neither army followed up the battle with any bold action, and thus the battle is remembered only as an indecisive draw.
Gonzaga’s plan of attack appeared flawless but obviously had significant problems. Contradictorily, the League’s goal was the enemy’s total destruction and yet over a quarter of its soldiers guarded the camp. Taylor explains that the battle is notable for the “bad choice of ground by the [League], and for the over-elaboration of their tactical scheme. Lack of determination prevented them from driving their attacks home or from making use of their reserves, while indiscipline ruined the most promising feature of the plan – the diversion of the [light cavalry]” (1973: 115). The League plan correctly identified the French center and Charles as the most promising target and allotted 10,000 men in the battlegroups of Gonzaga, Garlino, Fortebraccio and Montefeltro to defeat the 3,900 men of the French center and rearguard. However, the above factors eroded the mass and energy of the main thrust: “Thus, at the moment of confrontation, Gonzaga and Fortebraccio were left without support, and the French probably outnumbered them” (Santosuosso, 1994: 242).
Following the failure of the League plan, League subordinate commanders showed some initiative in securing the fords Gonzaga and Fortebraccio’s battlegroups would use to retreat as well as firing off artillery to deter any French counterattack.
Numbers for this battle are drawn from Santosuosso who describes the composition of each army’s many moving parts in detail (1994: 228-232). Nicolle’s Osprey edition was extremely helpful with the battle’s events, with only a few difficult reconciliations between the two sources. However, Nicolle appears to have forgotten to multiply the number of French lances, which denote units of six, not individuals, and as such Santosuosso is favoured in this regard. I did however add the 1,000 low-quality infantry to the French baggage train that Nicolle mentions (1996: 53) but Santosuosso omits.
– Jonathan Webb
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Nicolle, David. Fornovo 1495: France’s Bloody Fighting Retreat. Oxford: Osprey, 1994.
Santosuosso, Antonio. “Anatomy of Defeat: The Battle of Fornovo in 1495. International History Review 16.2 (1994): 221-250.
Taylor, Frederick Lewis. The Art of War in Italy 1494-1529. Westport: Greenwood, 1973.
Charles VIII: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_VIII_of_France
Francesca II Gonzaga: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_II_Gonzaga
French artillerymen: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_178_figure_1.htm
French infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_161b_figure_1.htm
French light cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_169_figure_1.htm
French men-at-arms: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_178_figure_1.htm
Italian artillerymen: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_178_figure_1.htm
Italian infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_169_figure_1.htm
Italian light cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_169_figure_1.htm
Italian men-at-arms: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_169_figure_1.htm
Map of Europe: http://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/Witches442/442ReferenceMaps.html
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
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