The Austrian military occupation of the Oltreticino Novarese in 1849

Reprinted with permission from La Voce Scaligera, Journal of the Associazione Filatelica Numismatica Scalegera, Verona, Italy, May 1998

By Elio Balossini; translated by Salvatore J. Rizza

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Introductory historic and geographic background: 'Oltreticino Novarese' is translated as 'beyond the Ticino River in the area of Novara'. The Ticino River was the border of the Lombardy Region under Austrian occupation in 1849, when the Sardinian Army, over 80,000 strong, moved forward under the leadership of King Carlo Alberto from its Piedmont territory in an attempt to forcibly occupy Lombardy. The King was first across the Ticino River bridge near Trecate and met no Austrian resistance. Marshal Radetzky had out-maneuvered the Sardinian frontal attack. He had marched his army farther south, crossing the Ticino, and put himself to the rear of the Sardinian Army. Upon hearing the report from his scouts, Carlo Alberto turned his army about and fought the Austrians 'beyond the Ticino River before Novara'. The Sardinian Army was soundly defeated with huge losses. Carlo Alberto surrendered and was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Victor Emannuel who was married to an Austrian Archduchess. He received relatively better surrender terms than his father, but it still cost his kingdom dearly.

The tragic Battle of Novara of 23 March 1849 saw the defeat of the Army of Sardinia which was beaten by the Royal Imperial Austrian Army and was the inglorious end of the First War of Independence. The Austrians occupied the upper reaches of the Novara-Ticino River area, and from Arona to Borgoticino to Mortara and Valenze and the fortress stronghold of Alessandria. This map shows the countries which came together to form the northern part of Italy.

Countries map

SP=Kingdom of Sardinia & Piedmont; L=Lombardy (the black blob is Milan); Ti=(South) Tirol; Ven=Venetia; Pa=Dutchy of Parma; R=Dutchy of Modena; Tu=Tuscany; I=Istria; PS=Papal States.

Towns map
The Austrian High Command for the Piedmont region was installed at Novara. This occupation continued until 26 August when, after the signing of the Treaty of Peace of Milano on 8 August 1849, the Duke of Genoa entered Novara, and the Austrian troops recrossed the Ticino River and returned to Lombardy.

The relations with the Austrians were initially handled by the Sardinian Commissioner of War for the Novara Division, Michele Rapallo, who utilized for his very own office correspondence the interesting handstamp illustrated below, which was used continuously until 1864.

Sardinian Commissioner of War cachet

From the middle of April 1849, the Sardinian Government found it necessary to send a high military office, Colonel Mathieu, with the duty of Royal Extraordinary Commissioner attached to the Austrian General Headquarters, that had stayed in Novara until the withdrawal of all the Austrian troops from the Piedmont region. Colonel Mathieu utilized for his very own office correspondence the rare handstamp, 'The Royal Commissioner Attached to the Austrian General Headquarters', which was used between April and August 1849. I also know of a letter from Colonel Mathieu bearing the same franking, but handwritten.

Royal Commissioner cachet

Sardinian military cancelConcerning the correspondence of the Sardinian military, keeping in mind the very short period of hostilities (20-23 March 1849), that correspondence is truly rare. According to Pozzolini Gobbi, there are only two letters known bearing the new postmark with a rosette within a double circle, and the phrase 'R.POSTA MIL. e MIL. SARDA', both used with the date, 25 March 1849, as shown here.

This postmark replaced the preceding straight line block letter postmark utilized in the military campaign of 1848. As interesting as is the evidence given in the Sardinian military postal history, the same can be said for the Austrians. The Administrative Management of the Imperial Royal Field Posts of Milano (one of four in operation in the Austrian military campaign of 1849) instituted at the end of March 1849 an Express Military Courier for the transport of the military correspondence of the IV Army Corps occupying the Eastern Piedmont Region.

The Service, initially, connected Milano with Novara, where, on 30 March 1849, an Imperial Royal Post Office had been established in the field. A unit of Austrian infantry collected and consigned to this office the correspondence addressed to and coming from the Austrian units occupying the region beyond the Ticino River in the Novara Region. In the last week of April the route of the Express Courier Service was lengthened to Alessandria with intermediate stops at Mortara and Valenza. The civil Sardinian Post Office was in this locality functioning as a collection and distribution point for the Austrian military. The office of the Austrian Imperial and Royal Post Office for the Novara Campaign was never provided with a postal handstamp, while the Sardinian post offices at Mortara and Valenza postmarked the Austrian military correspondence with the normal double-circle handstamp which had recently been introduced. I don't know about Alessandria because I have never seen Austrian military correspondence originating from that locality.

The Austrians withdrew from Alessandria on 18 June and from Valenza on 11 August 1849. The daily service of the Express Courier of the Austrian military from Milano was progressively limited to Valenza and Novara, and was thereafter definitely suspended during the last week of August 1849, when the occupation troops vacated the Ticino Region and reentered Lombardy.

From this quite interesting and as yet practically unknown period of postal history, I am able to show two very rare existing documents.

Imperial and Royal Purveyor letterThe first is a letter from the Imperial and Royal Purveyor of the Austrian Posts at Milano, dated 6 April 1849, and addressed to the postal office for the Novara Campaign, in which it speaks about equipment that will be necessary for the functioning of a campaign post office.

Office of the Campaign Military Post Office of NovaraThe second is a letter dispatched from Novara on 4 May thereafter and addressed to the Milanese Director of the Austrian Campaign Post Office, in which there is a complaint of a lost document that had been consigned to the military postal courier on the Novara-Mortara route. On the front of this letter there is, as frequently occurred with the correspondence from the Austrian office, the sender being identified as the Office of the Campaign Military Post Office of Novara.

To close these short notes, I would like to underscore that, because of the brevity of the military campaign of 1849, which concluded the First War of Independence of our Risorgimento, the postal history documentation received is truly quite small, and at times quite rare, whether it be Sardinian or Austrian. For that which concerns the Austrian occupation of the region beyond the Ticino River at Novara and/or Alessandria, all the affirmations that I have made are corroborated by original documents that I have examined. There is no existing literature worth mentioning. I hope that this article will stimulate some research by colleagues to establish whether there existed in Alessandria a second office of the Imperial and Royal Campaign Post Office in the Piedmont Region occupied by the Austrians.

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