Rhine Campaigns (1792-1797)

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Battle of Neresheim

When war began in 1792, the French Revolutionary government’s key aim was to secure the nation’s “natural frontiers” of the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Rhine, so the river Rhine-being the only of these three natural features not yet identifying the French frontier-became their primary strategic objective. By 1794 the French had conquered the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium and Luxembourg) but had only secured the left bank of the central Rhine following their victory in Italy. The first French incursions into the Holy Roman Empire in Germany met with a combined Austro-Prussian response, but after that alliance’s collapse in 1795-with Prussia signing a separate peace at Basle on 5 April-French forces marched across the Rhine into southern Germany in 1796.

From the outset of hostilities on 20 April 1792 between France and the German monarchies, the French Revolutionaries planned to seize the Austrian Netherlands and the Palatinate (German states on the left bank of the Rhine). The Prussians favored a rapid march on Paris to restore the Bourbon monarchy, so the army commander, Feldmarschall the Duke of Brunswick, planned a steady advance against the belt of fortresses before marching into France. In August, 40,000 Prussians under Brunswick entered France, marching along the Moselle. The (Austrian) Army of the Upper Rhine would advance in the south, while a second advanced from the Austrian Netherlands on Lille. The Prussians took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun, but badly afflicted by dysentery, the weakened Prussian army was halted at Valmy on 20 September by a French army under General Charles Dumouriez. Although there was little fighting, the French steadiness and Brunswick’s retreat caused a sensation and gave the French the confidence to commence their own advances.

The (French) Army of the Rhine under General Adam de Custine invaded the Palatinate, taking Speyer on 30 September and the fortress city of Mainz on 21 October. Having reached the Rhine, he advanced up the Main valley to take Frankfurt. However, Brunswick’s army had recovered and defeated Custine at Frankfurt on 2 December, forcing the French army into a difficult retreat on Strasbourg by March 1793. A French garrison under General Francisco Miranda held out in Mainz against a Prussian siege, but the city fell on 23 July.

As Allied armies evicted the French from the Austrian Netherlands, the Austrians and Prussians returned to the offensive in the Palatinate. Feldzeugmeister Dagobert Graf Würmser’s Army of the Upper Rhine, which defeated Custine at Offenbach in July, smashed through the supposedly impregnable Weissenburg defensive lines in a series of bloody battles during September and October. Brunswick’s two victories over the (French) Army of the Moselle under General René Moreaux at Pirmasens on 22 July and 14 September cleared the French from the German left bank of the Rhine. However, amid growing mistrust, Austro- Prussian relations broke down and, despite a victory over the Army of the Moselle, now under General Louis Hoche, at Kaiserslautern on 28 November, Brunswick failed to advance into French Alsace.

As the Prussians reduced their forces along the Rhine to improve their position in Poland, the French regrouped for a renewed effort in 1794. They concentrated on the Austrian Netherlands and had defeated the Allies by June, forcing the British into Holland and the Austrians east to the Rhine. The reduction in French troops along the Rhine had enabled the Prussians to take Kaiserslautern in May, but once reinforced, the French were able to take Trier in August. After success in the Austrian Netherlands, General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan turned east with his Army of the Sambre and Meuse to cross the river Roer (Ruhr) in October to chase the Austrians from Maastricht, Coblenz, and Cologne that month, effectively securing the Rhine as the line of separation between the hostile forces. On 5 April 1795 the Prussians withdrew from the war after signing the Peace of Basle. In August, Jourdan crossed the Rhine, while General Jean Charles Pichegru’s Army of the Rhine and Moselle took Mannheim, before Pichegru commenced armistice negotiations with the Austrians in September. Isolated, Jourdan was routed outside Mainz in October by Würmser, who retook Mannheim the following month.

In June 1796 the French launched a two-pronged attack across the Rhine into southern Germany to engage the combined (Austrian) Armies of the Upper and Lower Rhine under Feldmarschall Archduke Charles. Jourdan’s advance was halted in the north by the archduke at Wetzlar on 16 June, but after indecisive fighting at Rastatt, General Jean Moreau’s Army of the Rhine and Moselle was able to push the archduke’s southern forces back to Neresheim, where they fought an indecisive action over 1-3 August. However, the archduke was then able to march north to combine with his northern troops under Feldzeugmeister Wilhelm Graf Wartensleben to defeat Jourdan at Amberg before driving him westward to crush him at Würzburg on 3 September. Although Moreau had driven the southern Austrian troops under Feldmarschalleutnant Maximillian Graf Baillet von Latour back to Munich, defeating him at Friedberg on 24 August and Biberach on 2 October, Jourdan’s defeat forced him to withdraw hastily westward. Defeated by Charles at Emmendingen, Moreau withdrew over the Rhine on 24 October.

Brief French incursions were launched over the Rhine in April 1797 in support of Bonaparte’s advance on Vienna, in which General Louis Lazare Hoche defeated Feldmarschalleutnant Franz Freiherr von Werneck at Neuwied on 18 April and two days later, Moreau defeated Feldzeugmeister Anton Sztaray Graf von Nagy-Mihaly at Diersheim before the armistice of Leoben concluded hostilities. The subsequent Peace of Campo Formio secured the left bank of the Rhine for France, although Austria had achieved its policy objective of swapping the Austrian Netherlands for contiguous territory in the former Venetian Republic.

References and further reading Blanning, Tim C. W. 1996. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802. New York: St. Martin’s. Chuquet, Arthur. 1886-1896. Les guerres de la révolution. 11 vols. Paris: Léopold Cerf. Griffiths, Paddy. 1998. The Art of War of Revolutionary France 1789-1802. London: Greenhill. Lynn, John A. 1984. The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Phipps, Ramsay Weston. 1980. The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I. Vol. 2, The Armées de la Moselle, du Rhin, de Sambre-et-Meuse, et de Rhin-et-Moselle. London: Greenwood. (Orig. pub. 1926-1939.) Wagner, A. 1981. Der Feldzug der K. Preussischen Armee am Rhein im Jahre 1793. Wiesbaden: LTR. (Orig. pub. Berlin, 1831.)

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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