First battle of Altenkirchen, 4 June 1796

The first battle of Altenkirchen (4 June 1796) was an early success during the French invasion of Germany in the summer of 1796, and saw General Kléber force the Austrians to abandon their positions around Altenkirchen and retreat to the Lahn.

The French plan was for General Jourdan's Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse to cross the Rhine around Dusseldorf. This would force the Archduke Charles to abandon his positions on the west bank of the Rhine west of Mainz to face Jourdan, and this in turn would allow General Moreau's Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle to cross the Rhine much further to the south and advance towards the Danube.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1796
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1796

The Austrian right wing, under the Duke of Wurttemberg, was posted on the west bank of the Rhine between Neuwied (on the Rhine) and Altenkirchen, twenty miles further north, with a line of outposts along the River Sieg, which flows into the Rhine opposite Bonn.

On 30 May General Kléber crossed the Rhine at Dusseldorf and advanced south. On 1 June he captured the bridge at Siegburg and forced the Austrians to pull back ten miles south-east to Uckerath, where the Duke of Wurttemberg had gathered a division. Kléber prepared to attack Uckerath, but the Austrians retreated again, this time to a strongly fortified position at Altenkirchen. Kléber arrived in front of the new Austrian position on 3 June and decided to mount an attack on the following day.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

The Austrian line stretched east from Altenkirchen to Kroppach, and was really too long for the number of troops available. Kléber decided to attack in three columns. On the left General Soult advanced south east from Hilgenroth (north of Altenkirchen) towards Kroppach. Lefebvre took command of the central column, which attacked Altenkirchen. The right attacked Almersbach, two miles to the south-west of the town. General Collaud had command of a central reserve and General Ney, with a strong detachment of light troops was sent south west to turn the Austrian left and get onto their lines of communication.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

The French attack was a total success. Soult pinned down the Austrian reserves. The French right took Schonberg and Almersbach, and forced a regiment of Austrian Grenadiers to surrender. Lefebvre and Collaud advanced to the foot of the heights of Altenkirchen, supported by a heavy artillery bombardment.

With his left turned Wurttemberg was forced to abandon Altenkirchen. Overnight the Austrians retreated twelve miles south-east to Freilingen, while by the end of the day Lefebvre had reached Hachenburg, eight miles to the east of Altenkirchen. The French took 1,500 prisoners and captured 12 cannons and four flags during the battle.

The Archduke Charles reacted to the French victories at Siegburg and Altenkirchen exactly as the French had hoped. He moved his main force back across the Rhine and moved north to face Jourdan. Würmser, who now had command of the Austrian left, was ordered to protect Mainz, giving Moreau a chance to cross the Rhine. Two weeks later, at Wetzlar, the Archduke outmanoeuvred Jourdan and forced him to retreat back across the Rhine, but by then the French attack had achieved its main aims.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 February 2009), First battle of Altenkirchen, 4 June 1796 ,

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