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Rhine Campaign of 1796
Part of War of the First Coalition
DateJune 1796 to January 1797
LocationSouthern Germany
Result Austrian victory
Habsburg Monarchy Habsburg Austria
Habsburg Monarchy Swabian Circle
Electorate of Saxony
Electorate of Bavaria Electorate of Bavaria
France Republican France
Commanders and leaders
Habsburg Monarchy Archduke Charles
Habsburg Monarchy Graf Wartensleben
Habsburg Monarchy Count Latour
Habsburg Monarchy Franz von Werneck
France Jean Jourdan
France Jean Moreau
Units involved
Habsburg Monarchy Army of the Lower Rhine
Habsburg Monarchy Army of the Upper Rhine
France Army of Sambre-et-Meuse
France Army of Rhin-et-Moselle

The Rhine Campaign of 1796 (June 1796 to January 1797) saw two Habsburg Austrian armies under the overall command of Archduke Charles brilliantly outmaneuver and defeat an attempt by two Republican French armies to conquer southern Germany. At the start of the campaign the French Army of Sambre-et-Meuse under Jean Baptiste Jourdan faced the Austrian Army of the Lower Rhine in the north, while the French Army of Rhin-et-Moselle led by Jean Victor Marie Moreau confronted the Austrian Army of the Upper Rhine in the south. After sending large reinforcements to Italy in May, Austria was forced onto the defensive. Moreau crossed the Rhine and beat Charles' southern army at the battles of Ettlingen on 9 July and Neresheim on 11 August. Both French armies penetrated deeply into southern Germany in August.

Because the two French armies operated independently, Archduke Charles was able to leave Maximilian Anton Karl, Count Baillet de Latour with a weaker army in front of Moreau and move heavy reinforcements to help Wilhelm von Wartensleben's army in the north. In battles at Amberg on 24 August and Würzburg on 3 September Charles defeated Jourdan and compelled his army to retreat to the west bank of the Rhine. With Jourdan neutralized, Charles left Franz von Werneck to keep an eye on the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse and turned on Moreau who belatedly began to withdraw from southern Germany. Moreau briskly repulsed Latour at Biberach and safely reached the Rhine before Charles cut him off from France. However, in the battles of Emmendingen and Schliengen in October, Charles forced Moreau to retreat to the west bank of the Rhine. During the winter the Austrians reduced the French bridgeheads at Kehl and Huningue. Despite Charles' splendid success in Germany, Austria was losing the war in Italy to a new French army commander named Napoleon Bonaparte.


In a decree on 6 January 1796, Lazare Carnot gave Germany priority over Italy as a theater of war. Jean Baptiste Jourdan commanding the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse was instructed to besiege Mainz and cross the Rhine into Franconia. Farther south, Jean Victor Marie Moreau leading the Army of Rhin-et-Moselle was ordered to mask Mannheim and invade Swabia. On the secondary front, Napoleon Bonaparte was to invade Italy, neutralize the Kingdom of Sardinia and seize Lombardy from the Austrians. Hopefully, the Italian army would cross the Alps via the County of Tyrol and join the other French armies in crushing the Austrian forces in southern Germany. By the spring of 1796, Jourdan and Moreau each had 70,000 men while Bonaparte's army numbered 63,000, including reserves and garrisons. Additionally, François Christophe de Kellermann counted 20,000 troops in the Army of the Alps and there was an even smaller army in southern France. The First French Republic's finances were in poor shape so its armies were expected to invade new territories and then live off the conquered lands.[1]

Oval painting of a young man with wavy hair in an elaborate white military coat.

Archduke Charles

At the end of the Rhine Campaign of 1795 the two sides called a truce. This accord lasted until 31 May 1796 when it was terminated by the Austrians. The Army of the Lower Rhine was commanded by the 25-year old Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen and counted 90,000 troops. The 20,000-man right wing under Duke Ferdinand Frederick Augustus of Württemberg was on the east bank of the Rhine behind the Sieg River observing the French bridgehead at Düsseldorf. The garrisons of Mainz Fortress and Ehrenbreitstein Fortress counted 10,000 more. The remainder of Charles' army was posted on the west bank behind the Nahe River. Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser led the 80,000-strong Army of the Upper Rhine. Its right wing occupied Kaiserslautern on the west bank while the left wing under Anton Sztáray, Michael von Fröhlich and Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé guarded the Rhine from Mannheim to Switzerland. The original Austrian strategy was to capture Trier and to use their position on the west bank to strike at each of the French armies in turn. However, Wurmser was sent to Italy with 25,000 reinforcements after news arrived of Bonaparte's early successes. In the new situation, the Aulic Council gave Archduke Charles command over both Austrian armies and ordered him to hold his ground.[2] At the start of the campaign, the 80,000-man Army of Sambre-et-Meuse held the west bank of the Rhine down to the Nahe and then southwest to Sankt Wendel. On the army's left flank, Jean Baptiste Kléber had 22,000 troops in an entrenched camp at Düsseldorf. Carnot's grand plan called for the two French armies to press against the Austrian flanks. But first, Jourdan's army would push south from Düsseldorf. It was hoped that this advance would induce the Austrians to withdraw all of their forces from the Rhine's west bank. It would also focus Austrian attention northward, allowing Moreau's army to more easily strike in the south. The right wing of the Army of Rhin-et-Moselle was positioned behind the Rhine from Huningue northward, its center was along the Queich River near Landau and its left wing extended west toward Saarbrücken.[2] Pierre Marie Barthélemy Ferino led Moreau's Right Wing, Louis Desaix commanded the Center and Laurent Gouvion Saint-Cyr directed the Left Wing. Ferino had three divisions under François Antoine Louis Bourcier (9,281 infantry, 690 cavalry), Henri François Delaborde (8,300 infantry, 174 cavalry) and Augustin Tuncq (7,437 infantry, 432 cavalry). Desaix had three divisions led by Michel de Beaupuy (14,565 infantry, 1,266 cavalry), Antoine Guillaume Delmas (7,898 infantry, 865 cavalry) and Charles Antoine Xaintrailles (4,828 infantry, 962 cavalry). Saint-Cyr had two divisions commanded by Guillaume Philibert Duhesme (7,438 infantry, 895 cavalry) and Alexandre Camille Taponier (11,823 infantry, 1,231 cavalry). Altogether, Moreau's Army of Rhin-et-Moselle numbered 71,581 foot soldiers and 6,515 cavalry. Gunners and sappers are not included in the total.[3]


French cross the Rhine

Map of the Rhine River

Map of Rhine River shows Düsseldorf and the Sieg and Lahn Rivers in the north and Strasbourg and Mannheim in the south.

According to plan, Kléber made the first move, advancing south from Düsseldorf against Württemberg's wing of the Army of the Lower Rhine.[2] On 1 June 1796, a division of Kléber's troops led by François Joseph Lefebvre seized a bridge over the Sieg from Michael von Kienmayer's Austrians at Siegburg. Meanwhile, a second French division under Claude-Sylvestre Colaud menaced the Austrian left flank.[4] Württemberg retreated south to Uckerath but then fell back farther to a well-fortified position at Altenkirchen. On 4 June, Kléber defeated Württemberg in the Battle of Altenkirchen, capturing 1,500 Austrian soldiers, 12 artillery pieces and four colors. Archduke Charles withdrew the Austrian forces from the Rhine's west bank and gave the Army of the Upper Rhine responsibility to defend Mainz.[5] After this setback, Charles replaced Württemberg with Wilhelm von Wartensleben. Afterward the duke became a harsh critic of the archduke.[6] Jourdan's main body crossed the Rhine on 10 June at Neuwied to join Kléber[2] and the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse advanced to the Lahn River. In the south Maximilian Anton Karl, Count Baillet de Latour took command of the Army of the Upper Rhine in place of Wurmser.[7]

Color-tint print of a large-eyed man with his hair cut in the late 1700s style. He wears a dark blue military coat with a line of yellow braid.

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan

Leaving 12,000 troops to guard Mannheim, Charles reapportioned his remaining troops among his two armies. Then he swiftly moved north against Jourdan. The archduke defeated the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse at the Battle of Wetzlar on 15 June 1796 and Jourdan lost no time in recrossing the Rhine at Neuwied.[7] Following up, the Austrians clashed with Kléber's divisions at Uckerath, inflicting 3,000 casualties on the French for a loss of only 600. After his success, Charles left 35,000 men with Wartensleben, 30,000 more in Mainz and other fortresses and moved south with 20,000 troops to help Latour. Kléber withdrew within the Düsseldorf defenses.[8] Also on 15 June, Desaix's 30,000-man command mauled Franz Petrasch's 11,000 Austrians at Maudach. The French lost 600 casualties while the Austrians suffered three times as many.[9] After feinting at the Austrian positions near Mannheim, Moreau sent Desaix across the Rhine at Kehl near Strasbourg on the night of 23–24 June.[7] The 10,065 French troops involved in the initial assault crossing lost only 150 casualties. The defending forces, 7,000 men from the Swabian Circle, put up a sturdy defense before withdrawing. The Swabians lost 700 casualties, 14 guns and 22 ammunition wagons.[9] Moreau reinforced his newly-won bridgehead on 26 and 27 June so that he had 30,000 troops to oppose only 18,000 Austrians locally. Leaving Delaborde's division on the west bank to watch the Rhine between Neuf-Brisach and Huningue, Moreau moved to the north against Latour. Separated from their chief Latour, the Austrian left flank troops under Fröhlich and Condé moved away to the southeast.[7] At Renchen on 28 June, Desaix caught up with Sztáray's column of 9,000 Austrian and Reichsarmee (Imperial) troops. For 200 casualties the French inflicted losses of 550 killed and wounded while capturing 850 men, seven guns and two ammunition wagons. Henceforth, the Imperial troops (Kreistruppen) took little part in the campaign and they were disrmed by Fröhlich on 29 July at Biberach an der Riss.[10] Ferino pursued Fröhlich and Condé in the direction of Villingen while Saint-Cyr chased after the Kreistruppen. Latour and Sztáray tried to hold the line of the Murg River.[11] On 5 July 1796, Desaix attacked Latour at Rastatt and drove him back to the Alb River.[11] The French employed 19,000 foot soldiers and 1,500 horsemen in the divisions of Taponier and Bourcier. The Austrian brought 6,000 men into action under the command of Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg and Johann Mészáros von Szoboszló. The French captured 200 Austrians and three field pieces.[12] By this time Archduke Charles had arrived with reinforcements. Charles prepared to advance against Moreau on 10 July but the Frenchman surprised him by attacking first. In the Battle of Ettlingen on 9 July, Charles repulsed Desaix's attacks on his right flank, but Saint-Cyr and Taponier gained ground in the hills to the east. Anxious for his supply lines, Charles began a retreat to the east.[11] At Ettlingen, Moreau lost 2,400 out of 36,000 men while Charles had 2,600 hors de combat out of 32,000 troops.[13]

French offensive

Jean Victor Moreau

With Charles absent from the north, Jourdan crossed the Rhine for the second time and drove Wartensleben behind the Lahn. Pushing forward again, Army of Sambre-et-Meuse defeated its opponents in the Battle of Friedberg-Hesse.[14] In the 10 July action, the Austrians suffered 1,000 casualties against a French loss of 700.[13] Jourdan captured Frankfurt am Main on the 16th. Leaving behind François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers with 28,000 troops to blockade Mainz and Ehrenbreitstein, Jourdan pressed up the Main River with 45,000 soldiers. Following Carnot's strategy, the French commander continually operated against Wartensleben's north flank, causing the Austrian general to fall back. Buoyed up by their forward movement and by the capture of Austrian supplies, the French captured Würzburg on 4 August. By this time Wartensleben's army had shrunk to only 25,000 men.[14]

Meanwhile, in the south the Army of Rhin-et-Moselle clashed with Charles' retreating army at Cannstadt near Stuttgart on 21 July 1796.[13] The Swabians and Electorate of Bavaria began to negotiate with Moreau for an exit from the war. Charles retreated through Geislingen an der Steige around 2 August and was in Nördlingen by 10 August. At this date, Moreau had 45,000 men spread out on a 25 miles (40 km) front centered on Neresheim. Meanwhile, Ferino's right wing was out of touch far to the south at Memmingen. Charles desired to cross to the south bank of the Danube River, but Moreau was close enough to interfere with the operation. So, the archduke determined to launch an attack. The Battle of Neresheim on 11 August was a series of clashes fought on a broad front. The Austrians drove back Moreau's right flank and nearly captured his artillery park, putting the French in an awkward position. When Moreau got ready to counterattack the following morning he found that the Austrians had slipped away in the night and were crossing the Danube. Both armies lost about 3,000 men.[15]


  1. Chandler, David G. (1966). The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York, N.Y.: Macmillan. pp. 46–47. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Dodge, Theodore Ayrault (2011). Warfare in the Age of Napoleon: The Revolutionary Wars Against the First Coalition in Northern Europe and the Italian Campaign, 1789-1797. USA: Leonaur Ltd. pp. 286–287. ISBN 978-0-85706-598-8. 
  3. Smith, Digby (1998). The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill. p. 111. ISBN 1-85367-276-9. 
  4. Rickard, J. (2009). "Combat of Siegburg, 1 June 1796". Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  5. Rickard, J. (2009). "First battle of Altenkirchen, 4 June 1796". Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  6. "Austrian Generals of 1792-1815: Württemberg, Ferdinand Friedrich August Herzog von". Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Dodge (2010), p. 288
  8. Smith (1998), p. 115
  9. 9.0 9.1 Smith (1998), p. 114
  10. Smith (1998), p. 115-116
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Dodge (2010), p. 290
  12. Smith (1998), p. 116
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Smith (1998), p. 117
  14. 14.0 14.1 Dodge (2010), p. 296
  15. Dodge (2010), pp. 292-293


See also

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