At the Battle of Schliengen (26 October 1796), both the French Republican Army commanded by Jean-Victor Moreau and the Austrian army under the command of Archduke Charles of Austria claimed victories. The village of Schliengen lies close to the border of present-day Baden-Württemberg and Switzerland, in the Kreis Lörrach.
In the French Revolutionary Wars, Schliengen was a strategically important location for both armies. Control of the area gave either combatant access to southwestern German states and important Rhine river crossings. After retreating from Freiburg im Breisgau, Moreau established his army along a ridge of hills, in a seven mile line on heights that commanded the terrain below. Given the severity of the roads at the end of October, Archduke Charles could not flank the right French wing. The French left wing lay too close to the Rhine. Instead, he attacked the French flanks in force, which increased casualties for both sides.
Although the French and the Austrians claimed victory at the time, military historians generally agree that the Austrians achieved a strategic advantage. The French withdrew from the battlefield in good order and several days later crossed the Rhine River at Hüningen. The battle is commemorated on a monument in Vienna and on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Initially, the rulers of Europe viewed the French Revolution as a dispute between the French king and his subjects, and not something in which they should interfere. As revolutionary rhetoric grew more strident, they declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe as one with the interests of Louis and his family; this Declaration of Pilnitz threatened ambiguous, but quite serious, consequences if anything should happen to the royal family.The French position became increasingly difficult. Compounding problems in international relations, French émigrés continued to agitate for support of a counter-revolution. On 20 April 1792, the French National Convention declared war on Austria. In this War of the First Coalition (1792–1798), France ranged itself against most of the European states sharing land or water borders with her, plus Portugal and the Ottoman Empire.
Initially the Coalition forces achieved several victories at Verdun, Kaiserslautern, Neerwinden, Mainz, Amberg and Würzburg, but in 1795, a series of defeats at the hands of Jean Baptiste Jourdan pushed the Austrian force further east into Germany. Supporting Jourdan's right flank, Jean Victor Moreau even made a daring raid on the Bavarian capital of Munich. By late 1796, however, the theater of war had moved to the Rhineland, and Austria and France struggled for control of the river and its crossings.
The Rhine River flows west along the border between the German states and the Swiss Cantons. The 80-mile (130 km) stretch between Rheinfall, by Schaffhausen and Basel, the High Rhine (Hochrhein) cuts through steep hillsides over a gravel bed; in such paces as the former rapids at Laufenburg, it moves in torrents. A few miles north and east of Basel, the terrain flattens. The Rhine makes a wide, northerly turn, in what is called the Rhine knee, and enters the so-called Rhine ditch (Rheingraben), part of a rift valley bordered by the Black Forest on the east and Vosges Mountains on the west. In 1796, the plain on both sides of the river, some 19 miles (31 km) wide, was dotted with villages and farms. At both far edges of the flood plain, especially on the eastern side, the old mountains created dark shadows on the horizon. Tributaries cut through the hilly terrain of the Black Forest, creating deep defiles in the mountains. The tributaries then wind in rivulets through the flood plain to the river.
The landscape was impressive, but rugged. A nineteenth-century traveler described it, "The mountains in the vicinity [of Müllheim] are bold; the dark ravines contrasting with its sunny fronts offer some exquisite scenes. The Rhine...lay revealed before us for many a league, twisting and twining like a serpent of silver ... dotted with innumerable islands, and flowing through a most extensive plain, perfectly flat. Our elevation was considerable and the eye ranged over a great extent of country: Elsace [sic], in France, and the level country as far as Bingen, would have been seen to their furthest limits had not the distance melted the extreme verges into 'thin air'. Many were the villages, and hamlets, and woods sprinkled over the landscape...." The traveler described additional walks, in which the forest of dark pine bordered directly on the road, "checquered by glades in which browsed sheep and goats."
The Rhine River itself looked different in the 1790s than it does today; the passage from Basel to Iffezheim was "corrected" (straightened) between 1817 and 1875. Between 1927 and 1975, a canal was constructed to control the water level. In 1790, though, the river was wild and unpredictable, in some places more than four or more times wider than the twenty-first century, even under regular conditions. Its channels wound through marsh and meadow, and created islands of trees and vegetation that were periodically submerged by floods. It was crossable at Kehl, by Strasbourg, and Hüningen, by Basel, where systems of bridges and raised roads made access reliable.
On 20 October 1796, Jean-Victor Moreau's army of 20,000 united south of Freiburg im Breisgau with the troops of Pierre Marie Barthélemy Ferino, to defend the southwestern corner of the German states against the approaching Archduke Charles. Ferino's force was smaller than Moreau had hoped, bringing the total of the combined French force to about 32,000. His army was isolated from the flanking army of Jourdan, which had retreated toward Mainz, further to the north, so Moreau chose to organize a careful retreat toward Basel, planning to cross the river at Hüningen. A rear guard protected the retreat out of Freiburg im Breisgau, and the French retreated through the Rhine valley, with the river on one side, and the Black Forest on the other. The Archduke entered the Breisgau on 21 September, where he was joined by both the Army of Condé of Louis Joseph, Prince of Conde and the corps of General Michael von Fröhlich. His combined forces of 24,000 followed Moreau's rear guard from the Freiburg, southwest, to a line of hills stretching between Kandern and the river.
After a retreat of approximately 38 miles (61 km), Moreau halted at Schliengen and distributed his army in a 7.5 miles (12 km) semicircle along a ridge that commanded the approaches from Freiburg. He placed his right wing, commanded by Ferino, at the neighboring heights of Kandern (altitude 1,155 feet (352 m)) and Sitzenkirch, and his left wing at Steinstadt. His center occupied the village of Schliengen (altitude 820 feet (250 m)), and his entire force guarded a front protected by a small stream, the 14 miles (23 km)-long Kander that flowed out of the mountains west of Kandern and plunged 755 feet (230 m) into the Rhine when it passed Steinstadt. For extra protection, Moreau also posted a body of infantry in front of his center, giving it added depth.
The Austrian army, augmented by the Army of Condé under the prince's command, approached from Freiburg. One strategy would be to turn the French right flank, at Kandern. In the summer, with dry roads and long days, this might have been feasible, but in late October, after the autumn rains, the roads would have been muddy and rutted, and nightfall came early. Rather than see his enemy slip from his grasp, Charles divided his army into four columns: the Condé's Emigré Corps formed the far right column, and the Condé's grandson, Louis Antoine, Duke of Enghien, commanded its vanguard; the second column, commanded by the young but reliable Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg, included nine battalions and 26 squadrons; the third column, commanded by the experienced Maximilian Anton Karl, Count Baillet de Latour, included 11 battalions and two regiments of cavalry. The fourth, commanded by the dependable Friedrich Joseph, Count of Nauendorf, included the entire vanguard of Charles' corps.
Charles ordered the first two columns, under the Prince Condé and Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg, to keep the left wing of the French army in check, preventing it from swinging around his army's rear in a flanking maneuver. The two larger columns, under Latour and Nauendorf, were to attack the French right wing in force, and to turn it so that the French army's back was to the Rhine.
Despite specific orders to the contrary, the Conde's Corps formed down the river at Neuburg and made a spirited attack on Steinstadt; they took the village with a bayonet charge and remained there under severe artillery and musket fire for the rest of the daylight hours. The second column, under command of Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg, formed at Müllheim, and took the hill opposite Schliengen, which also was heavily defended by General of Division Gouvion Saint-Cyr. Saint-Cyr tried several times to retake the position, but Fürstenberg's column clung to its prize throughout the day. Latour's column, divided into two smaller columns, took two well-defended vineyards between Schliengen and Feldberg, about 6 miles (10 km) to the northeast , dislodging the French after obstinate resistance; the second portion of Latour's column approached Eckenheim from the reverse angle, and forced a French contingent from the village.
On the far Austrian left, Nauendorf had the most difficult march. He divided his column into several smaller groups, and approached Kandern from several sides, up the steep slopes by coordinating contact between his column and Latour's, using Maximilian, Count of Merveldt's regiment. Grueling combat followed the steep, uphill advance. He finished pushing the French from Kandern, and two hamlets beside it, and he sent a note to this effect to Latour. As the battle finished, a ferocious storm unleashed hail and wind. So ended the first day of the Battle of Schliengen, during which Charles' army had successfully taken both French flanks. Charles drew up his plans to attack the French center on the following morning.
Moreau appreciated his untenable position. If he remained on the ridge, Charles could turn his back to the Rhine and trap him. With luck, his troops might hold the Austrians off another day. There were hazards in trying to hold Charles off, though: in the meantime, the Austrians could swing behind him and cut him off from the bridge at Hüningen. With a strong rear guard provided by Generals Jean Charles Abbatucci and Jean Ambroise Baston de Lariboisière, night he abandoned his position in the night and retreated part of the 15 miles (24 km) toward Hüningen. By 3 November he had reached Raltingen, and evacuated his troops the next day.
After Moreau withdrew into France, Charles laid out plans to besiege Kehl and Hüningen, the two major bridgeheads across the river. Moreau offered an armistice to Charles, which Charles was inclined to accept. An armistice would free him to send a portion of his army into Italy, to relieve Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser at besieged Mantua. The Aulic Council in Vienna refused the armistice, so Charles ordered simultaneous sieges at Kehl and Hüningen, moving north with the bulk of his force to conduct the Siege of Kehl, and leaving Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg to conduct the siege in the south by Basel. While the Austrians were besieging these Rhine crossings, Moreau sent 14 Demi-brigades into Italy to assist in at Mantua. Charles captured Kehl on 9 January 1797, after a two-month siege, and Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg took Hüningen on 1 February. In Mantua, Wurmser surrendered on 2 February 1797, after 16,300 men were killed or died of sickness.
Notes and citations
- Timothy Blanning. The French Revolutionary Wars, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 41–59.
- Laufenburg now has dams and barrages to control the flow of water. Thomas P. Keppner. The Rhine. Handbook for Environmental Chemistry Series, Part L. New York: Springer, 2006, ISBN 978-3-540-29393-4, pp. 5–19.
- Kepner, p. 19–20
- Thomas Dyke, Jr. "Traveling memoirs. during a tour through Belgium, Rhenish Prussia, Germany." Volume 1. London: Longman, 1834, pp. 181–182.
- Dyke, p. 182.
- (German) Helmut Volk. "Landschaftsgeschichte und Natürlichkeit der Baumarten in der Rheinaue." Waldschutzgebiete Baden-Württemberg, Band 10, S. 159–167.
- Thomas C Hansard (ed.).Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1803, Official Report. Vol. 1. London: HMSO, 1803, pp. 249–252.
- (German) Charles, Archduke of Austria. Ausgewählte Schriften weiland seiner kaiserlichen Hoheit des Erzherzogs Carl von Österreich. Wien, W. Braumüller, 1893-94, p. 371.
- Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch. The History of the campaign of 1796 in Germany and Italy. London, 1797, p. 122.
- John Philippart. Memoirs, &c. &c. of General Moreau. London, 1814, p. 98.
- Graham, p. 122–23.
- Graham, pp. 123–24.
- Graham, pp. 124–25.
- Graham, p. 126.
- Philippart, p. 100.
- Digby Smith. Napoleonic Wars Data Book. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1999, pp. 125, 131–133.
- Blanning, Timothy. The French Revolutionary Wars, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998,.
- (German) Charles, Archduke of Austria. Ausgewählte Schriften weiland seiner kaiserlichen Hoheit des Erzherzogs Carl von Österreich. Wien, W. Braumüller, 1893–94.
- Dyke, Thomas, Jr. "Traveling memoirs during a tour through Belgium, Rhenish Prussia, Germany." Volume 1. London: Longman, 1834.
- Graham, Thomas, Baron Lynedoch. The History of the campaign of 1796 in Germany and Italy. London, 1797.
- Hansard, Thomas C.(ed.) Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1803, Official Report. Vol. 1. London: HMSO, 1803.
- Keppner, Thomas P. The Rhine. Handbook for Environmental Chemistry Series, Part L. New York: Springer, 2006, ISBN 978-3-540-29393-4.
- Philippart, John. Memoirs, &c. &c. of General Moreau. London, 1814.
- Smith, Digby. Napoleonic Wars Data Book. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1999.
- (German) Volk, Helmut. "Landschaftsgeschichte und Natürlichkeit der Baumarten in der Rheinaue." Waldschutzgebiete Baden-Württemberg, Band 10, S. 159–167.
- (German) Landnütnungsänderung als Folge der Rheinkorrektion. Rhine river map in 1790. This site has an English option. The map shows the complex web of islands and channels in the Rhine River in 1790.
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