Battle of Emmendingen, 19 October 1796

Retreat to the Rhine
The Terrain
Austrian Positions and Plans
The French Plan
The Battle
20 October

The battle of Emmendingen (19 October 1796) was an Austrian victory that removed any chance that General Moreau's Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle might have been able to retain a foothold on the eastern bank of the Rhine at the end of his retreat from southern Germany.

In the summer of 1796 the French had launched a two-pronged invasion of Germany. Moreau reached the outskirts of Munich before he discovered that Jourdan had been defeated at Amberg and Würzburg and was retreating back to the Rhine. Moreau began a slow retreat back to the west, with an Austrian army under General Latour following close behind. Moreau was not yet ready to abandon his campaign completely, and on 2 October turned back and inflicted a costly defeat on Latour at Biberach, but the Archduke Charles was now beginning to threaten his rear, and Moreau was forced to continue his retreat.

Retreat to the Rhine

On the day after the victory at Biberach, Moreau was still in a potentially dangerous position. The Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle was eighty miles east of the relative safety of the Rhine valley, on the southern banks of the Danube. To reach the Rhine they would have to cross two mountain ranges – the Alb and the Black Forest. Latour's army had been beaten at Biberach, but not destroyed, and was still following their retreat. Generals Nauendorf and Petrasch had joined up at Hechingen, on the northern slopes of the Alb. The Austrians also had troops just to the north of Strasbourg on the eastern banks of the Rhine, and the final defeat of Jourdan's army at Altenkirchen (19 September) had freed the Archduke Charles to move south with reinforcements.

Moreau had been hoping to cross the Black Forest using the Kinzig valley, which would have brought him out onto into the Rhine valley close to Strasbourg, but this route was now closed to him. Instead he decided to use the Höllental. This valley crosses one of the highest sections of the Black Forest, twenty miles north of the Swiss border, running from Hinterzarten in the east to Kirchzarten and Buchenbach in the middle of the mountains. A wider valley then runs west to Freiburg im Breisgau, at the edge of the Rhine plains.

This route soon left the army rather stretched out. While the bulk of the army moved to Riedlingen, ten miles to the west of Biberach on the Danube, the advance guard crossed the Alb and captured Villengen and Rothweit, towards the southern end of the gap between the Alb and the Black Forest. The left wing of the army followed them across, and took up a position at Rothweit, facing north to guard against any move by Nauendorf. The right wing of the army moved to Tuttlingen, at the southern end of the Alb, and turned east to face Latour.

The centre of the army, under Saint-Cyr, forced the passage of the Höllental. The two Austrian battalions guarding the pass, under the command of Colonel Aspres, were forced to retreat out of the valley and to Emmendingen, six miles to the north of Freiburg im Breisgau. Saint Cyr entered Freiburg on 12 October, and the rest of the army followed across the pass on the next few days. The heavier equipment took a more southerly route, and made for Huningue, almost on the Swiss border, protected by Tharreau's and Paillard's brigades, who fought a number of minor rearguard actions against General Froelich's light troops.

Moreau's next objective was to open communications with the fortified camp at Kehl, opposite Strasbourg, where he had first crossed the Rhine back in June. Rather than re-cross the Rhine and advance up the French held west bank to Strasbourg, he decided to fight his way up the east bank.

The Terrain

The battle of Emmendingen took place in the Elz valley. This valley zigzags its way through the Black Forest before emerging onto the Rhine plain north of Freiburg in Breisgau. The section of the valley involved in the battle runs south-west through the mountains from Elzach, through Bleibach and Waldkirch. Just to the south west of Waldkirch the river emerges from the mountains and turns to the right, flowing north-west towards the Rhine, with the Black Forest to its right. This section of the river passes through Emmendingen and reaches Riegel. In 1796 the river turned north at Riegel and ran parallel to the Black Forest until it reached the Rhine some way to the north. Riegel sits in a narrow gap between the Black Forest and an isolated outcropping of volcanic hills known as the Kaiserstuhl.

Austrian Positions and Plans

Moreau's chances of success in this venture got worse with every day that passed. On 15 October the Archduke Charles reached Offenburg, fifteen miles to the south east of Kehl, where he joined up with Petrasch and Nauenbourg's left wing. Latour emerged from the Kinzig valley on 17 October, and on 18 October reached the camp of Mahlberg, fifteen miles further south. Condé and Froelich were at Neustadt, at the east end of the Höllental, and General Wolf was a little further south, at Waldshut. The Archduke originally wanted to launch an attack on the French on 18 October, but Latour's men needed a day to recover from their march, and so the attack was postponed until the following day.

The Archduke split his army into four columns. General Nauendorff was in the upper Elz valley with 6,000 men (8 battalions and 14 squadrons). He was to advance south west towards Waldkirch. 

Feldzeugmeister Wilhelm Graf Wartensleben, with 8,500 men (12 battalions and 23 squadrons) was to advance south across the foothills of the Black Forest and capture the Elz bridge at Emmendingen.

General Latour, with 6,000 men (8 battalions and 15 squadrons) was also to cross the foothills of the Black Forest via Heimbach and Malterdingen (east of Riegel) and capture the bridge of Köndringen, half way between Riegel and Emmendingen.

General Karl Alois, Prince of Fürstenberg, held Kenzingen, 2-3 miles to the north of Riegel on the original course of the Elz. He was ordered to make demonstrations against Riegel and to protect Rust, Kappel and Grafenhausen, to the north of the main Austrian position.

Further south General Froelich and the Prince of Condé were to pin down General Ferino and the French right in the Stieg valley.

The French Plan

Moreau's plan of attack was an almost exact mirror image of the Austrian plan. General Delmas was to attack Riegel, where he would clash with the Prince of Fürstenberg.

General Beauput was to occupy the heights of Malterdingen (3 miles to the north-west of Emmendingen) and Kondringen. He would face Latour's column.

The first division of the centre was to hold Emmendingen, where it would be attacked by Wartensleben.

Saint-Cyr, with the second division of the centre, was to attack north-east up the Elz valley towards Bleibach, where he would run head first into Nauendorff.

The attack would only involve the centre of his army, for General Desaix with the left wing was to the south, while General Ferino, with the right, was guarding the passes across the Black Forest. As a result the Moreau was outnumbered by the Archduke, even though only about 20,000 Austrians were involved in the attack. 

The Battle

The fighting in the mountains went the way of the Austrians. At dawn Saint-Cyr began to advance up the Elz valley, while Nauendorf prepared to move down the valley. Saint-Cyr decided to send a second small column across the mountains to the east of the valley, aiming for the village of Simonswald, located in a side valley. He hoped that this force would hit Nauendorf's left, and force him to withdraw from Bleibach. Unfortunately for the French Nauendorf had posted flankers on the heights alongside the Elz valley and Saint-Cyr's men were ambushed by Austrian riflemen. On the other side of the Elz valley more Austrian riflemen reached a dominating position at Kolnau, which overlooked Waldkirch. Saint-Cyr was forced to cancel the advance on Bleibach and withdrew to Waldkirch. Nauendorf continued to push him, and Saint-Cyr was forced to retreat another two miles to Denzlingen.

At about midday Latour's two columns attacked Beaupuy at Matterdingen. Beaupuy was killed early in the fighting and in the confusion this caused his division didn't receive an order to retreat along the Elz to Wasser, south of Emmendingen.

Wartensleben, in the Austrian centre, took all day to fight his way to Emmendingen. Two of his columns were held up by French riflemen posted in the wood of Landeck held, two miles to the north of Emmendingen, and he himself was badly wounded. The French were eventually forced to retreat late in the day when Wartensleben's third column threatened to outflank their right. The French then retreated across the river, destroying the bridges behind them.

At the end of the day Moreau was in a very poor position. Delmas was at Riegel and Endingen, at the north-eastern corner of the Kaiserstuhl. Saint-Cyr's right was behind Denzlingen, and his left at Unterreute. The French centre was at Nimburg, half way between Riegel and Unterreute. The French line faced north-east towards the Austrians. Over night on 19-20 October the Austrians repaired the bridge at Emmendingen, and by the morning of 20 October the Archduke was camped close to Denzlingen.

20 October

On 20 October Moreau finally abandoned any plans for an advance up the east bank of the Rhine. Desaix was ordered to cross the Rhine at Brisach (at the southern end of the Kaiserstuhl, and ten miles west of Freiburg) and advance north towards Strasbourg and Kehl.

The French centre withdrew from its most advanced positions, and took up a new position behind the Dresiam (the stream that runs from Freiburg north to Riegel). Ferino, with the right wing of the army, was still in the valley of Saint-Pierre, and if the French lost Freiburg he would be trapped between Condé and Froelich in the valley and the Archduke on the plains.

The French held out along the Dresiam just long enough to allow Ferino to reach safety. Condé and Froelich were close behind, and when they opened fire on the French right in Freiburg Saint-Cyr was finally forced to retreat. Further to the north-west Latour fought his way across the Dresiam on his fourth attempt, and the Prince of Fürstenburg captured Riegel.

The French retreated around the heights of Pfaffenweiler, and then pulled back towards the bridge at Huningue, close to Basle. On 22 October Moreau reached Schliengen, ten miles to the north of Huningue, and decided to make a stand to cover his retreat across the river.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 February 2009), Battle of Emmendingen, 19 October 1796 ,

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