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The battle of Neuwied (18 April 1797) was the only significant fighting during General Hoche's brief time in charge of the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse, and saw him fight his way out of the French-held bridgehead at Neuwied and force the Austrians to abandon their positions north of the River Lahn. For the first few months of 1797 the Rhine front had been quiet. The Austrians had moved the Archduke Charles to the Italian front, while the French spent the time reorganising their armies.
At the end of the 1796 campaign General Jourdan resigned as commander of the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse and was replaced by General Beurnonville. In the spring of 1797 he was replaced by General Hoche. Hoche reorganised the army into three corps, under Championnet, Grenier and Lefebvre. The cavalry, which had been distributed in small packages with each infantry division, was formed into three divisions, one for each corps.
At the start of April the Directory finally decided to go onto the offensive on the Rhine, hoping to prevent the Austrians from moving any more troops back towards Vienna to face Napoleon. Hoche decided to repeat the strategy that Jourdan had used successfully in 1797 – one wing of his army would be sent to cross the Rhine at Dusseldorf in the hope that the Austrians would move north in response. Hoche would then make his main crossing further south, at Neuwied.
Hoche was fortunate to have two bridgeheads across the Rhine, but the position at Neuwied was hemmed in by strong Austrian fortifications. The Austrian line ran from Zollengers (probably now Engers, on the Rhine four miles to the east of Neuwied), around to the fortified village of Heddesdorf, one and a half miles to the north of Neuwied, and now absorbed into that town. The Austrian line was covered by six redoubts, with three more at Heddesdorf. This line was held by a large Austrian force under General Kray.
On 17 April Championnet, with the French left, crossed the Rhine at Dusseldorf and advanced south towards the Sieg. General Werneck, the commander of the Austrian army on the Lower Rhine, thought he saw a chance to defeat the two wings of the French army separately. He posted his right at Neukirch, his centre at Dierdorf and ordered Kray to pull out of the lines around Neuwied and join the centre at Dierdorf.
Hoche began to cross the Rhine to Neuwied at 3 am on the morning of 18 April. His right crossed first, followed by the centre and then the reserves. By 8 am the French were across the river, and were ready to attack the weakly defended Austrian lines. Off to the north-east Wernick realised he was in trouble. He didn't dare attack Championnet on the Sieg while there were strong French forces on his left, and so he ordered Kray to retrace his steps and return to the fortified lines around Neuwied.
Hoche began his attack at eight, as soon as his army was across the river. Lefebvre's attack on the right was a complete success. He captured the redoubt at the extreme left of the Austrian line, then took the village of Zollengers. The Austrians attempted to make a stand at Bendorf, a short distance to the east, but were forced out by Richepanse's chasseurs. Lefebvre then followed the Austrians as far as Montabauer, eighteen miles to the east.
At first Grenier was equally successful, pushing back Kray's left and right flanks, but in the centre a single Austrian redoubt held out. The first two French attacks were repulsed, but the redoubt was finally captured at about ten by the carabineers of the 9th légère and the grenadiers of the 37th line. This two hour long delay gave Kray time to conduct an orderly retreat and he joined Werneck at Dierdorf, twelve miles to the north-east, where the Austrians took up a new position behind a creek. While the Austrians only faced Ney's cavalry and light artillery they held their new position, but when Grenier's infantry and D'Hautpout's heavy cavalry joined Ney the Austrians retreated to Hachenburg.
While Hoche was crossing the Rhine Championnet was crossing the Sieg, and in the early afternoon the French left and centre joined up around Dierdorf.
Werneck decided to reunite his scattered divisions at Neunkirchen, thirty miles to the north-east of Neuwied, on the far side of the River Nister. Hoche made the mistake of following him with the bulk of his army, only sending Lefebvre east to the Lahn. At one point Ney threatened the southern flank of the Austrian line of retreat, but he was held off at Salzberg long enough for them to reach Neunkirchen.
On the right Lefebvre captured Limburg, sent five battalions to guard the roads south to Wiesbaden and Koenigstein open and then camped north of the Lahn. If Hoche had made his main effort on his right, then he might have beaten the Austrians to Wetzlar, but on the night of 19-20 September Werneck escaped across the Lahn. Hoche still had a chance to trap the Austrians north of the Main, but on 22 April, as he was approaching Frankfurt, Lefebvre discovered that Napoleon had signed the Preliminary Peace of Leoben. Hoche had no choice but to arrange an armistice with Werneck, and the Austrians were able to retreat from their vulnerable position.
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