Battle of Amberg, 24 August 1796

The battle of Amberg (24 August 1796) was a chance for a major Austrian victory that saw the Archduke Charles miss a chance to destroy General Jourdan's Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse. After crossing the Rhine at the start of July Jourdan had followed the Austrian Army of the Lower Rhine as it retreated east, first along the Main then to Nuremburg and finally east across the hills around the River Pegnitz, until on 20 August the French and Austrians were facing each other across the River Naab. Jourdan was stretched out along a ten mile front, with (from south to north) Collaud and Grenier at Schwarzenfeld, Championnet and Bonnaud opposite Schwandorf and Lefebvre at Nabburg.

War of the First Coalition - Main Battles of the Rhine Front
War of the First Coalition
Main Battles of the
Rhine Front

In late July and early August the main Austrian army, under the Archduke Charles, was in the south facing a second French invasion led by General Moreau, but after his defeat at Neresheim (11 August) the Archduke decided to leave a covering force to watch Moreau and take his own army north to face Jourdan. Charles was in a very good position to block Jourdan's retreat to the Main and force him to attempt to escape across more difficult roads further north. Jourdan's best line of retreat from the Naab took him to Nuremburg, fifty miles to the west. His rearguard, under Bernadotte, was posted at Neumarkt, thirty miles to the west of the Naab and ten miles to the south of the road to Nuremburg. The Archduke crossed the Danube at Neuburg, 40 miles to the south of Nuremburg. On 22 August he forced Bernadotte to retreat from Deining, and on the following day from Neumarkt back to Altdorf, thirteen miles to the east of Nuremburg. By the end of 23 August the Archduke's leading forces had reached Nuremburg, while the French had only just begun to retreat from the Naab.

The Archduke was now in the perfect position to block Jourdan's retreat to the west. The only route across the Franconian Switzerland available to the French emerged at Forchheim, fifteen miles to the north of the leading Austrian troops, but forty miles west of Amberg, the French position at the start of 24 August. There were a number of good defensive positions in the hills to the east of Forchheim where the Archduke could have delayed the French for long enough to allow General Wartensleben to attack then from the east. The only problem with this plan is that it might have exposed the Austrians to defeat in detail, for they would only outnumber the French if Charles and Wartensleben could combine their forces. Rather then risk advancing north from Nuremburg, the Archduke decided to head north-east from Neumarkt towards the French position at Amberg. His troops didn’t arrive in time to play a major part in the battle, and so the main Austrian forces involved in the fighting on 24 August came from General Wartensleben's force. 

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

Late on 23 August Jourdan began to retreat from Naab. He hoped to take the main road across the hills to Nuremburg, and so at dawn on 24 August General Bonnaud, with the cavalry, advanced along the road to Kastl (to the south of Jourdan's intended route). Bonnaud soon ran into Austrian troops advancing from the south-west. Some were from Nauendorf's force, but ominously for the French they also included troops from the Archduke's main force. The main French army was still concentrated around Amberg. Championnet was to the south, with his advance-guard at Haselmühl on the River Vils, and his main force a few miles to the west, at Lengenfeld. Collaud was on the heights of Sainte-Trinité, to the north of the town. The rest of the army was concentrated on the heights to the west and north-west of the town. 

The Battle

Wartensleben had orders to follow the French if they began to retreat from the Naab. He advanced west in three columns. On the right General Kray, with ten battalions and twenty-four squadrons, advanced to Aschach (three miles to the north-east of Amberg), and then towards Collaud on the heights of Sainte-Trinité. Wartensleben commanded the centre, 14 battalions and 32 squadrons, which advanced on the road from Schwarzenfeld to Amberg. This brought it into contact with Championnet's advance guard. On the left General Staader, with nine battalions and twenty-one squadrons, was to advance from Schwandorf to Lengenfeld, south of Championnet's position on the Vils. He was then to cross the river and join up with the Archduke's leading forces.

Both French flanks were soon forced back. Wartensleben forced Championnet's advance-guard out of the mill at Haselmühl, while Kray forced Collaud to retreat from the heights of Sainte-Trinité. The entire French army then joined Jourdan, on the heights to the west of the town. Wartensleben was now joined by Nauendorf, and by General Werneck, with the Archduke's central column, but despite their best efforts, and support from a heavy artillery bombardment, the Austrians were unable to push Jourdan off the heights.

Despite this success Jourdan knew that he couldn't afford to remain at Amberg, and so towards the end of the day he ordered a retreat north-west to Sulzbach. By the end of the day the French had taken up a position that stretched west from Sulzbach, six and a half miles to the north-west of Amberg. Collaud was posted to the south-east of the town, Championnet, with the French centre, was posted on the plateau to the south of the town, and Grenier, with the right, was at Bachetsfeld, four miles to the west.

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

This retreat was protected by General Ney and the rear-guard, who suffered most of the casualties the French took during the day. Despite Ney's best efforts to save then, the infantry of the rearguard (two battalions from the 23rd demi-brigade) were soon isolated. They formed squares, and fought off a number of cavalry charges before Austrian artillery broke the squares, allowing the cavalry to break in. By the end of the day the French had lost 2,000 men, the Austrians only 400.

The Retreat

Although Jourdan still held the eastern end of the road across the hills to Nuremburg, the Austrians were now at the western end. This forced the French to cross the Franconian Switzerland, an upland area bounded on its south and east by the River Pegnitz, which runs south from the city of Pegnitz to Hohenstadt, where it turns west and flows to Nuremburg.

Jourdan was informed that the only route across the hills that was practical for artillery ran from Velden (seven miles north of Nohenstadt) west to Oberachtel (six miles from Velden), then north-west for three miles to Hiltpoltstein. A road then ran north-west from Hiltpoltstein up to Ebermannstadt and from there down the Wiesent valley to Forchheim. Jourdan decided to send Kléber, with the left wing and the gunners, to Vilseck then Engenthal, while the bulk of the army went to Oberachtel, then west to Vorra before moving up the Pegnitz to Velden.

On the night of 25-26 August Championnet and Collaud camped at Oberachtel, 8 miles to the north-west of Sulzbach, while Kléber stopped at Vilseck, five miles to the east, to attack as a rearguard against the Austrian troops coming from the east. On the next day most of the French army passed through Velden and reached Hiltpoltstein, but Kléber was cut off by an Austrian force. He had to abandon the road west from Vilseck to Velden and instead made a wide flanking move to the north-west, eventually reaching Betzenstein, from where he was able to rejoin the main army. The march became very chaotic when the army passed through Velden, and if the Austrians had been following in any strength then they may have been able to win a decisive victory in the hills, but the French were given time to sort out the confusion.

On 26 August the Austrians were in the wrong positions to delay the French retreat. Only Lichtenstein, at Erlangen, was in the right area, and the main body of the army was at Sulzbach. Over the next few days the Archduke unsuccessfully attempted to stop the French from retreating to the west, but on 3 September he inflicted a second defeat on Jourdan at Würzburg, and the French were forced to continue their retreat back to the Rhine. General Moreau, campaigning on the south bank of the Danube, learnt about the defeat of Amberg in the German newspapers. Although his advance continued for a few days longer, when the news was confirmed he too began to pull back towards the Rhine.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 February 2009), Battle of Amberg, 24 August 1796 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_amberg.html

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