Decisive Austrian victory fought approximately 35 kilometers west of Liege, which briefly recovered the Austrian Netherlands from Revolutionary France, as Austrian artillery destroyed the advancing French columns.
After King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793, followed by France’s declaration of war on Great Britain and Holland on 1 February, the Convention decreed a new call-up of 300,000 men and invaded Holland. The Austrian army under Feldmarschall Friedrich Josias Graf Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (generally known as Saxe-Coburg) attacked the French-occupied Austrian Netherlands from the west and engaged the French forces under General Charles François Dumouriez along the Brussels- Liege road. After an Austrian victory at Aldenhoven on 1 March, the armies fought the Battle of Neerwinden across the Kleine Geete River, east of Tirlemont. In a three-pronged attack, the French made progress in the center and right, but their left wing was decisively defeated along the main road. The French retreated to Louvain, where they were defeated on 22 March, and the Austrians retook Brussels on 25 March.
Dumouriez tried to lead his men to Paris, planning to restore the monarchy, but they refused to follow, and he fled into exile. French generals would thereafter have to fight under the shadow of the guillotine, as the Terror took hold inside France.
After his victory at Jemappes (6 November 1792), Dumouriez had marched north into Holland with 23,000 troops, weakening his links with French forces in the Rhineland, while the Armée du Nord besieged Maastricht. The new Austrian commander, Saxe-Coburg, opted for an aggressive strategy and decided to attack the weak link in the French lines by advancing on Brussels (capital of Austrian Netherlands) from Liege with 30,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. After crossing the Roer, he defeated the French right wing at Aldenhoven on 1 March. Dumouriez hastily left his army in Holland and reached Louvain on 11 March, where he collected together 40,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry from the three French armies (Nord, the Ardennes, and Belgique, all reduced to division size). After a clash around Tirlemont on 17 March, Saxe-Coburg withdrew across the Kleine Geete River and deployed his light troops around the villages of Overwinden and Neerwinden, his main force on the hills above and his right wing anchored on the Brussels road. He intended to attack the French on 19 March, but Dumouriez preempted him.
With many volunteer battalions among the French, Dumouriez gambled on an assault on 18 March. Attempting a repeat of the victory at Jemappes, he planned an initial attack on the Austrian left and center to draw troops from their right. The French left, under General Francisco de Miranda, would then march down the main road to encircle the Austrian right. The broken ground forced Dumouriez to use eight columns (three on the right under the comte de Valence; two in the center under the duc de Chartres; and three under Miranda) to attack the Austrian positions. The swampy ground of the river valley would prevent the French from deploying into their two-company- wide attack columns. Their artillery would remain spread out across the entire front, while the cavalry would be unable to repel the Austrian mass attacks.
At 7:00 A. M. the French commenced their surprise attack by crossing the river. By noon, Miranda’s troops had taken Orsmael village by the main road bridge, forcing Saxe-Coburg to move his second Treffen (battle line) and most of his reserve artillery to support the right wing under Archduke Charles, which blocked the road. The rest of the Austrian reserve was moved south to protect the left flank around Racour. Although the French quickly drove back Austrian outposts, it was noon before Valence made any real progress with the French right toward the Mittelwinde hill, where he was to set up a heavy artillery battery and outflank the Austrian left. However, he realigned his attack toward Overwinden, intending to split the Austrian left and center, while his third column supported Chartres in the main assault on Neerwinden, where the left flank of the Austrian center was anchored.
The villages were fiercely contested. By 2:00 P. M. the French had taken Overwinden and the Mittelwinde hill, but this proved too small to accommodate a battery. Neerwinden had been taken by Valence’s third column, which had by then been evicted by the Austrian first Treffen under Feldzeugmeister Franz Graf von Colloredo, before Chartres retook the village. Coburg then moved his reserve to aid Colloredo in retaking Overwinden, but in the fierce fighting ammunition ran low, prompting Saxe-Coburg to launch a mass cavalry charge of twelve squadrons. Racour was retaken, and the first deployed French line was smashed, though the second held out until night fell.
As ordered, Miranda had started his attack across the bridge and down the main road around noon. By 4:00 P. M. comte Miaczynski’s column had advanced 4 kilometers and taken Dorsmael. Three times the Austrians assaulted the village before retaking it and putting Miaczynski’s column to flight. The second French column from Miranda’s wing under General Ruault de la Bonniere turned to engage Archduke Charles’s troops on the higher ground south of the road. Oberleutnant Josef Smola moved his artillery forward to halt Ruault’s column and to allow Charles time to realign his infantry. When Austrian infantry advanced from Dormael and fell into Ruault’s left flank, the volunteer units in the French column broke up and fled back over the bridge. The last French column, attempting a wide outflanking movement, headed for Leau around 2:30 P. M. but was repelled by the right wing of the Austrian second battle line.
As night fell, the French left disintegrated and withdrew on Tirlemont. After sustaining 4,000 losses, Dumouriez attempted to renew the attack next morning around Orsmael to cover his retreat but was engaged by Smola’s expanded battery at 200 meters’ range and forced to withdraw. The Austrians, whose chief of staff, Mack, was hailed as the architect of victory, lost about 2,000 men.
References and further reading Blanning, T. C. W. 1986. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802. London. Arnold. Chuquet, Arthur. 1891. Les guerres de la révolution. Vol. 5, La trahison de Dumouriez. Paris : Léopold Cerf. Lynn, John. 1996. Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-1794. Boulder, CO: Westview. Phipps, Ramsay Weston. 1980. The Armies of the First French Republic. Vol. 1, The Armée du Nord. London: Greenwood. (Orig. pub. 1926-1939.)