The French invasion of Germany 1688

A rare contemporary depiction from the Nine Years War (1689-1697), this painting has been hailed as Jan Wyck’s masterpiece.

Siege of Philippsburg 1688

The ‘reunions’

As we have seen above, the Turks launched their assault on Vienna just as the Emperor was preoccupied with the situation in the west. After the peace of Nijmegen (1679), Louis XIV sought to construct a militarily rational and defensible frontier. This was to be brought about by legal claims backed by military force. Special courts of justice, so-called ‘chambers of reunion’, took up vague French claims to ‘reunite’ and occupy neighbouring territories, with strong fortresses being built there soon after the French seizure. This policy particularly concerned Alsace (whose situation between France and the Reich had remained unclear after the peace of Westphalia in 1648), but also, amongst others, Luxemburg (a province of the Spanish Netherlands), Montbéliard and parts of the Palatinate where, after the accession of the house of Pfalz-Neuburg in 1685, a line loyal to the Emperor ruled.

In late September 1681, French troops occupied the Imperial Free City of Strassburg and the opposite bridgehead of Kehl on the east bank of the Rhine – both of eminent strategic importance as they commanded the most favourable crossing of the Rhine. At the same time, in Italy Casale, having previously been bought from the Duke of Mantua, was seized. As for Luxemburg, Louis XIV continued his tactics of occupation, bombardment and retreat until Spain declared war in October 1683. In June 1684 the French managed to capture the city and fortress of Luxemburg. The truce of Regensburg (15 August 1684), concluded for 20 years between France, the Emperor and Spain permitted Louis to retain, for the time being, Strassburg, Kehl, Luxemburg and his other ‘reunions’. Primarily concerned with the unsuccessful siege of Buda, the Emperor needed to secure peace in the west.

More recent research has emphasized the defensive character of Louis XIV’s actions: the Sun King was primarily interested in stabilizing earlier gains. But his actions appeared aggressive to his neighbours, who were unwilling to search for deeper motives.

It was with a heavy heart that Leopold I had consented to the Regensburg compromise of 1684; yet, in the long term, Louis’ brutal policy presented the Emperor with a unique opportunity to increase his glory and reputation so that, after vanquishing the Turks, he could also pose as defender of the Reich against French aggression. July 1686 saw the formation of the League of Augsburg, a wide-ranging association consisting of the Emperor, Spain (as a member of the Burgundian Circle), Sweden, Bavaria, Saxony, the Palatinate as well as the Bavarian, Franconian and Upper Rhenish Circles, determined to curb French ambition, if need be by force.

The French invasion of Germany

Permanently anxious about its eastern frontier, where extensive fortification work was begun after 1684, France viewed with growing concern Christian victories over the Turks. This eventually provoked a limited preemptive strike against the Reich. The bishopric of Cologne played a key role since Louis XIV could not push through his candidate as new elector. Thus the strategically important electorate was in danger of slipping from French control. In September 1688 France demanded the permanent recognition of its ‘reunions’; this came shortly after the Turks had lost Belgrade freeing the Emperor to intervene militarily in German affairs. French forces now crossed the Rhine, occupying the Palatinate and important fortresses in the Rhineland. The capture of Philippsburg late in October 1688 was strategically crucial, closing as it did the French defence line and turning it into a veritable iron curtain. Most strongholds surrendered to the French without a fight. In late autumn 1688 French troops invaded Swabia and Franconia, and war was declared on the Dutch Republic.

Yet the reaction of the Emperor and the Imperial Estates proved much more resolute than expected. Saxony, Brandenburg, Hanover, the Emperor, Bavaria and the south German Circles were quick to stand up to the French invasion. Internationally, France’s situation was indeed far from rosy: old-style French diplomacy vis-à-vis the Reich was no longer practicable, and traditional allies, such as Bavaria, Brandenburg, Saxony, Sweden or Poland, had joined the Habsburg camp. Even more important, the Stadholder William of Orange invaded England and ousted the Francophile James II in 1688–89, taking over in London and thus uniting the British kingdoms and the Dutch Republic against France. It was this new international situation which, together with the strengthened position of the Austrian Habsburgs, was to end French dominance.

In order to make the enemy’s advance towards the Rhine and the French frontier more difficult, the French army resorted to a scorched-earth policy, which caused an outcry throughout Europe: in the first half of 1689, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Oppenheim, Worms and Speyer were its initial victims. France’s ceinture de fer was now surrounded by a glacis of devastation where the approaching enemy would be unable to subsist. Against this background, renewed attempts to establish a French-dominated ‘third party’ in northern Germany proved futile.

From stalemate to peace

In May 1689, the Emperor and the Dutch Republic signed an alliance directed against France which England joined in September. This sensational ‘Grand Alliance’ between the Catholic House of Austria and two Protestant powers not only provided Vienna with the backing of a mighty-league against France; it also secured for Leopold specific guarantees from the Maritime Powers concerning the Spanish inheritance. In June 1690 Spain joined the Grand Alliance, followed by Victor Amadeus of Savoy in October of the same year, as well as Brandenburg, Bavaria and other German territories in 1691.

It was the summer of 1689 before the Reich troops rallied to launch their counter-offensive. Despite the ongoing Turkish war the Emperor planned to send up to 45,000 of his own troops to the Rhine. Reality was, as always, different: in May 1689 only a fraction stood by, while, just as in the Turkish war, German princes rivalled for the supreme command. Early in September 1689, the German main army under Charles of Lorraine recaptured Mainz and Bonn in early October. But the main theatre of war eventually shifted to the Spanish Netherlands, where the French gained the upper hand. Imperial troops were not involved there. On the Rhine, however, a stalemate seemed to obtain after 1690. After the untimely death of the Duke of Lorraine in April 1690, Max Emanuel took over supreme command. Eventually, the number of Imperial forces in south Germany had to be further reduced in favour of a new theatre of war: after joining the Grand Alliance, the Duke of Savoy desperately needed military assistance against the French who already controlled Savoy and, from their bases at Pinerolo and Casale, raided Piedmont. The imperial auxiliary corps was commanded by the duke’s cousin, Eugene of Savoy; yet even before its arrival Victor Amadeus risked battle, only to be defeated at Staffarda near Saluzzo (18 August 1690). Military help had hence to be stepped up: the number of Imperial forces alone was to be raised to 12,000 men in 1691, and also most of the Bavarian troops were transferred to the Italian theatre, in return for which Max Emanuel became commander-in-chief of the auxiliary corps before he was appointed Stadholder of the Spanish Netherlands in December 1691. The disastrous setbacks on the Turkish front necessitated further reductions in the Imperial military presence in south Germany. Thus the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ was put into other hands, as many easterners had already recommended at the start of the war on two fronts; in 1692, of a total of 36,000 men deployed on the Upper Rhine, only 9,000 were Imperial soldiers.

Most detrimental was no doubt the lack of an undisputed leader following Lorraine’s death. The appointment of Baden in 1693 remedied the matter somewhat but until the very end, given France’s strong defensive position, the south German theatre of war was characterized by defence and uneventfulness – a drôle de guerre marked only by occasional French forays (Heilbronn, 1692; Heidelberg and the western parts of Württemberg, 1693).

It was in Piedmont that the Imperial effort was greatest, though it remained far below what Vienna had promised. In 1692, the allied troops marched into France from Piedmont and devastated the Dauphiné; though superior in number, they could make no lasting conquests and were even defeated again at Marsaglia the following year (4 October 1693). As a result, the Duke of Savoy, by now war-weary, entered into peace talks with France, eventually leaving the war in 1696. Louis XIV handed back all French conquests in Savoy and Piedmont, notably the strategically important strongholds of Pinerolo and Casale. The allies had to accept the neutralization of northern Italy (October 1696).

After 1695 Imperial troops also went into action in Catalonia, where the French had launched an offensive the previous year. The Emperor sent two regiments, which were unable to prevent the French capture of Barcelona in August 1697.

From the early 1690s France had sought to divide the Grand Alliance by bilateral peace negotiations: secret discussions with Imperial representatives took place in 1692–93 and again in 1694. These talks were facilitated by the absence of a common goal among the members of the anti-French alliance. Spain and the Emperor wanted to see France’s borders reduced to those of 1648–59, as had been laid down at the outbreak of war. England, on the other hand, was prepared for immediate peace, if France would recognize the Revolution settlement and sufficient respect for its colonial and trade interests.

Early in May 1697 a peace congress opened in Rijswijk near The Hague. The more grandiose hopes of the Emperor soon gave way to the more limited objectives of England and the Dutch which were quickly joined by a war-weary Spain. The latter three signed the treaty on 20 September 1697 (with Spain regaining Luxemburg and Barcelona), followed by the Emperor and the Reich on 30 October. Breisach and Freiburg were returned to Austria, while after decades of French occupation the duchy of Lorraine (within the borders of 1670) was restored to its old dynasty. France kept Strassburg, but handed back other ‘reunions’ as well as the bridgeheads of Kehl, Philippsburg and the part of the fortress of Huningue situated on the right bank of the Rhine. Given their considerable strategic importance Kehl and Philippsburg were declared Imperial fortresses where, without prejudice to the possessory rights of the prince-bishop of Speyer for Philippsburg and the margrave of Baden for Kehl, the ius protectionis et praesidii was exercised by the Reich and safeguarded by Circle troops and small Austrian detachments until the second half of the eighteenth century. By and large, then, Rijswijk, which in no way reflected France’s superiority on the battlefields, marked a withdrawal of the French monarchy.


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