The First Battle of Custoza was fought on July 24 and 25, 1848 during the First Italian War of Independence between the armies of the Austrian Empire, commanded by Field Marshal Radetzky, and the Kingdom of Sardinia, led by King Charles Albert of Sardinia-Piedmont.
1848 was the year of revolutions as several cities and regions in Europe rose up in rebellion against their autocratic rulers. Revolts arose in many of the states of the Italian peninsula and Sicily, led by intellectuals and agitators who desired a liberal government. At that time, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was controlled by the Austrian crown. Charles Albert, King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, decided to exploit the uprisings and invade Austria. Charles Albert had previously agreed to constitutional reforms which had limited his power; as compensation for that he sought to expand his territories by attacking Austria.
In March 1848, the city of Milan had launched an uprising against the Austrian occupation of the city. At the same time, Venice proclaimed its independence from Austria and Charles Albert declared war on Austria. Field Marshal Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl, Graf Radetzky von Radetz, who was by this time 82 years old, recognised the seriousness of the situation and withdrew his forces from Milan to the defensive positions based on the four fortresses known as the Quadrilateral: Verona, Mantua, Peschiera, and Legnago. Radetzky was an excellent tactician but had few forces at his disposal and realised that until reinforcement arrived, to stay in the city would have led to a short siege and probable surrender. By withdrawing to the Quadrilateral, Radetzky was able to fight his opponents one by one.
His opponents were faced with an elderly commander with few troops but were widely dispersed from the Rivoli plateau to Governolo. Radetzky attacked the Piedmontese II Corps, and forced it to retire, first before Peschiera and then, after another successful attack, behind the river Mincio. These two attacks on successive days resulted in the Piedmontese Army being divided in two. The Piedmontese High Command reacted slowly to events on the battlefield but finally decided to attack the Austrian army in the rear. This attack was initially successful and the single brigade that was covering the Austrian rear was forced to retreat. However, Radetzki then stopped the advance of his forward troops and, turning his forces around, marched on the Piedmontese.
The following day, the Piedmontese were ordered to attack the enemy, however General De Sonnaz refused to obey the order, claiming that his troops were too tired. This lack of conviction amongst the Piedmontese commanders led to lacklustre fighting on the part of the troops. Realising that the enemy’s morale was low the Austrians attacked and forced the line back.
Despite high losses by the Austrians, King Charles Albert and his generals were demoralised. An armistice was signed and the Piedmontese Army retreated within the borders of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
The truce held until 12 March 1849, when Charles Albert, denounced it. The Austrians reacted immediately and the army, under the command of Radetzky, seized the fortress town of Mortara in Lombardy.
On the 22 March the Austrian and Piedmontese troops met at Novara, west of Milan. The Austrian troops outnumbered the Piedmontese and showed greater discipline. The Piedmontese had little support from the smaller Italian states and one of their generals, Girolamo Ramorino, was accused of disobeying orders before the battle, badly damaging morale. The Austrian forces, led again by Radetzky, drove the Piedmontese back to the foot of the Alps. The Austrian forces occupied Novara, Vercelli and Trino, and were poised to take the Piedmontese capital of Turin. Charles Albert abdicated in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel, and exiled himself to Oporto, Portugal, and died shortly thereafter. A peace treaty was signed on 9 August. Piedmont was forced to pay an indemnity of 65 million francs to Austria. Field Marshal Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl, Graf Radetzky von Radetz, returned to Austria a hero.
The Radetzky March, Op. 228, was composed by Johann Strauss Sr. and dedicated to Field Marshal Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl, Graf Radetzky von Radetz. Strauss had already used the theme in the Radetzky March in his Jubel-Quadrille, Op. 130. For the trio section of the March, Strauss incorporated an older folk melody called Alter Tanz aus Wien or Tinerl-Lied, which was popular with soldiers.
The Radetzky March was first performed 31 August 1848 in Vienna, after the victory at the battle of Custoza and soon became popular among regimented marching soldiers. When it was first played in front of Austrian officers, they spontaneously clapped and stamped their feet. This audience participation quickly developed into a tradition amongst Austrian soldiers and then spread to members of the general public.