Battle of Neresheim, 11 August 1796

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The battle of Neresheim (11 August 1796) was a French victory that was the result of a rare error of judgement made by the Archduke Charles during his otherwise victorious campaign in Germany in 1796. In the summer of 1796 Carnot decided to launch a two-pronged invasion of Germany. His plan was for General Jourdan with the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse to cross the Rhine in the north while General Moreau with the Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle crossed in the south. His hope was that Jourdan's attack would force the Austrians to move north, allowing Moreau to reach the Danube and the Habsburg heartlands. 

At first the French plan worked. Jourdan crossed the Rhine at the start of June, and although he was soon forced back his attack did force the Archduke Charles to move the main Austrian army off the west bank of the Rhine around Mainz and up to the Lahn. This left Moreau facing General Latour, with a weakened Army of the Upper Rhine. On 23-24 June Moreau crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg, surprising Latour who was expecting him to cross further north. Over the next few days Moreau defeated Latour at Renchen (26 June) and Rastatt (5 July), expanding his foothold across the Rhine. On the same day as the battle of Rastatt the Archduke reached the southern front with the fastest part of his army, and over the next few days the rest of his army joined him. Charles planned to attack the French on 10 July, but Moreau pre-empted him, attacking on 9 July (battle of Ettlingen).

In the aftermath of this defeat Charles decided to withdraw east towards the Danube. Jourdan had crossed the Rhine for a second time, and was driving General Wartensleben back. Charles planned to meet up with Wartensleben and then defeat whichever of the two French armies was most vulnerable. This was to be a fighting retreat, and Charles made a brief stand on the Neckar, before retreating after the combat of Canstadt (21 July 1796). In early August the Austrian army reached the Danube, but Charles then changed his mind, and instead of continuing to pull back towards a junction with Wartensleben turned back to attack the French. 

Moreau was spread out along a dangerously wide front when the Austrians attacked. His centre was at Dunstelkingen, five miles to the east of Neresheim. His left was five miles to the north, at Schweindorf, with a flanking force another five miles to the north-west at Bopfinge. His right was three miles to the south-west of Dunstelkingen, at Dischingen, with another flanking force ten miles further south, at Medlingen, just north of the Brenz river and close to the Danube.

Charles planned to make his main attack against the French centre. This attack would be made in three columns. Charles was to command the central column (5,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry) which would attack Dunstelkingen. To his left Latour, with 5,500 men, would attack Eglingen and then Dischingen. To his right Hotz, with 7,500 infantry and 1,800 cavalry would attack Kösingen and Schweindorf.

The Austrian right was made up of two columns – the advance guard under Lichtenstein and the reserve under Sztaray. One of these columns was to attack the French flankers at Bopfingen and the other was to capture the Nordlingen-Neresheim road.

The most ambitious part of Charles's plan was on the left. Here Generals Froelich and Gruntz were sent to cross the Danube at Ulm, well to the west of the French right and join up with Genera Riese. This force was then to split into two columns. General Marcantini was to take 3,000 men to attack the French right at Dischingen, while another 7,000 men moved behind Moreau's main body to make sure the French couldn't escape into the mountains of the Swabian Albs.

The biggest problem with Charles's plan, and the reason it eventually failed, was that he had scattered his army over far too wide a front. The two armies were of about the same time, so if Charles was to take advantage of Moreau's poor position he needed to focus his attack on a particular part of the French line. In the event the attack on the French right succeeded, but the forces used weren't strong enough to exploit that success, while the attack on the centre failed.

On the Austrian left Froelich got no further than Albeck, six miles to the north-east of Ulm. Riese attacked Duhesme at Medlingen, but although 3,000 Austrian cavalry reached the Brenz at Giegen ahead of the French, Duhesme was able to escape north-west to Weissenstein. Marcantini got as Altenberg and Staufen three miles to the south-west of the French right at Dischingen. Riese then missed a chance to get into a dangerous position behind the French rear, and instead moved west to Heidenheim.

In the centre the Austrians forced Laroche's brigade to retreat into the castle at Dischingen, where they were reinforced by Lecourbe. An isolated French detachment was pushed out of Dunstetkingen by the Archduke's column. On Charles's right Hotz captured Kösigen, and the French fell back to a line of hills between that village and Neresheim. Hotz attempted to attack this new French position, but was forced back by Desaix, while to the north General Gazan forced Hotz's right wing to retreat back to Schweindorf.

The loss of Kösigen punched a hole between the French left and centre, but the Austrians were unable to exploit their success. To the north the Austrian right reached Bopfingen only to discover that the French had already evacuated the position. General Delmas combined with Gazan and part of Moreau's reserves to restore the position in the centre.

During the afternoon Charles renewed his attacks on the French centre, this time concentrating against Dischingen and Dunstelkingen, south-east of Neresheim. When Dunstelkingen village caught fire the Austrians attempted to advance, but they were unable to push the French off the heights of Baremberg. Moreau then counterattacked with his reserve, attacking between Dunstelkingen and Hoefen, just to the north of the main Austrian force. At some point during this fighting Moreau learnt of the defeat of his right wing, but he held his ground. At the end of the day the Austrians had a foothold behind the French right, but the attacks on the centre had failed. Both commanders spent the night worrying about their position, but while Moreau decided to attack in the morning, the Archduke reverted to his original plan and withdrew. Moreau was free to continue his advance down the Danube.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 February 2009), Battle of Neresheim, 11 August 1796 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_neresheim.html

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