Worried about his isolation on the European chessboard, absorbed by the tension which is mounting in the Piemont, Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria is devoured by his public life. Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), deprived of maternal joys, has to resign herself to family joys. Having only just given birth, she was unable to attend, on 24 August 1858, the marriage of her sister Princess Helena in Bavaria to Prince Maximilien of Tour and Taxis, heir to one of the most powerful Bavarian families. But another marriage and more rejoicing come to brighten the political climate, which is becoming more and more sombre. At eighteen, her sister Princess Maria marries, by procuration, on 8 January 1859, in Munich, Prince Francesco, Duke of Calabra, heir to the throne of Naples.
One week later, she is in Vienna. The two sisters, radiant, remain close to each other. Childhood memories are the best rampart against the world’s greyness. Maria, smaller and darker than Sissi, seduces the Court. A ball is given in her honour. The Empress appears at a ball for the first time since the death of her daughter. Eighteen months of sadness have not been completely effaced by Rudolf’s birth, but what charm, what painful maturity are hers when she appears on Franz-Josef’s arm. These few days with her sister have given her strength. Gaiety returns with the preparations for the real marriage.
At the end of January, Elisabeth accompanies her sister to Trieste, forseeing the fear of a young girl pushed into the arms of a prince whom she has never seen. Sissi married for love, Maria for State reasons, with, among other handicaps, that of not speaking Italian, while her husband doesn’t speak German.
Back in Vienna, a feeling of uselessness inhabits Elisabeth. She gets in the way in political conversations, she is an intruder in her children’s apartments, and she suffers to be deprived of her spouse, taken up with European politics.
Piemont arms itself and, on 9 March, prepares to mobilise against Austria. To this bad news is added, on the same day, that of the renunciation of his rights by Sissi’s eldest brother, Prince Louis-Wilhelm, Duke in Bavaria. Scandal: he wants to marry an actress, Henrietta Mendel. She is beautiful, but her beauty is not enough and, in both Munich and Vienna, this unfitting marriage causes a stir. Two days later, exasperated by clever propaganda, the Emperor of Austria addresses an ultimatum to the King of Piemont, Victor-Emmanuel. The trap works. Napoleon III has been waiting for this injunction. The ultimatum is, of course, rejected three days later and presented like a veritable declaration of war. The political combat becomes a duel between the two emperors. One, in Vienna, is only thirty-years-old and diplomacy is his weak point. The other, in Paris, is fifty-years-old and has a lot of experience of the customs of the European reigning families. On 3 May, France declares war on Austria “which has put itself in the wrong”.
This bad news obliges Franz-Josef to go to Italy to take command of his troops. He has to move quickly to be the first to occupy Turino and prevent the junction of the Piemontais and French troops. Franz-Josef announces his departure to Sissi. The unhappy Empress panics, she begs him to stay. As he refuses, she asks to accompany him. She cannot conceive of being away from her husband during these grave times. Franz-Josef, having taken care of a mountain of problems, leaves, on 29th, against his Ministers’ advice. Sissi follows him, she remains in the imperial train as far as Murzzuschlag, one hundred kilometres from Vienna. The goodbyes in the little station are heartrending. The Empress cries, she makes Franz-Josef promise to take care of himself, she multiplies advice to the aide-de-camp general, Count Grunne.
A couple crushed by the separation, that is the image of Sissi and Franz-Josef, whom war distances from each other for the first time. Sissi doesn’t stop praying. Three days later, the Emperor writes to her his first letter from the Front. He is in Verona where he sees that the greatest disorganization reigns among his troops. Amorous, he says in his letter:
“I take advantage of these first instants of my day to tell you again how much I love you and how much I long for you and our dear children…”
They had only left each other three days before.
Sissi writes back to Franz-Josef, begging him to let her come, she is ready to accept any conditions. He still refuses.
“There is no place for women and I cannot give a bad example.”
Elisabeth is constrained to inutility. Empress Eugenie has remained in Paris, but she is assuring the Regency and presides the Council of Ministers. And she has no mother-in-law…
On 4 June, at half-past-eight in the evening, one first great victory is in the hands of the French and the Piemontais. The village of low cottages with ochre and pink walls, where the affrontment takes place near Milan, is called Magenta. A victory that is dearly paid; four thousand dead on the French side, ten thousand killed on the Austrian side, twenty-five thousand wounded or ill. And Lombardy is lost. Three days later, Napoleon III enters Milan.
Sissi opens a hospital at Laxenburg and writes every day to the Emperor:
“Do you still love me?”
Franz-Josef loves her, but the debacle is there and, plunged into a report on the causes of the Magenta defeat, he hardly has time to cast an eye on the daguerreotypes of Sissi and the children that she sends him, accompanied by a bouquet of dried flowers.
“My love, my beautiful angel”,
writes the Emperor; and this overwhelming appeal:
“I beg you, in the name of your love for me, control yourself, attend public manifestations, visit charities, you would not believe how much you can help me by doing this. This will give courage to the population and will maintain the morale that I so much need…”
The next day, to the South of Garde Lake, at five o’clock in the morning, formidable French cannons shake a village perched at the top of a cliff. The hill, crowned by a tower which symbolises Austrian domination over Lombardy, is called Solferino. After twelve hours of combat under a crashing storm, the Solferino tower and the surrounding villages are lost. The count is frightening: seventeen thousand dead on the Franco-Piemontais side, twenty-two thousand dead on the Austrian side. A butchery. In the middle of the disembowelled cadavers and smoking ruins, a young Swiss bank trader vows to create an efficient auxiliary health service. His name is Henri Dunant, he will found the Red Cross.
Two days later, at Verona, Franz-Josef writes to Sissi:
“I had to order the retreat. Here is the sad story of an appalling day. I earned experience and I learned to know the feelings of a beaten general. (…) My only consolation, my only joy is to go now to join you, my angel…”
To be continued.