Battle of Rastatt, 5 July 1796

The battle of Rastatt (5 July 1796) was a minor French victory during General Moreau's invasion of Germany in the summer of 1796. On the night of 23-24 June Moreau had crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg and established a bridgehead on the east bank. General Latour, the Austrian commander on the Upper Rhine, had been caught out, and most of his troops were to the north, around Mannheim. Over the next few days the French expanded their bridgehead, and on 26 June they won a minor victory over the Austrian troops in the area (combat of Renchen) which forced Latour to retreat to Rastatt, twenty five miles to the north of Strasbourg.

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

The French had established their bridgehead on the narrow plain between the Rhine and the mountains of the Black Forest. Latour, at Rastatt, was defending the line of the Murg between the mountains and the Rhine, but further south the French were already across the mountains, having reached Freudenstadt. The Murg traces a rather peculiar route through the mountains. It rises at Obertal, four miles from the east flank of the Black Forest. It flows east from Obertal to the edge of the mountains, then turns north and flows through the Black Forest, passing through Gernsbach and Gaggenau, before emerging on the Rhine plain at Kuppenheim. It then flows north-west to the Rhine, passing through Rastatt on its way. 

In the aftermath of the French victory at Renchen Moreau had a chance to overwhelm Latour's isolated command at Rastatt, but he missed that chance, spending six days reorganising his army. St-Cyr was given command of the centre, Férino of the right and Desaix of the left.

While Moreau was making his preparations the Archduke Charles, with the main Austrian army, was moving south from the Lahn, where he had just forced a second French army, under General Jourdan, to retreat back across the Rhine. Aware that speed was of the essence the Archduke led his cavalry and Hotz's division on a rapid march south, and by 5 July he had reached Durmesheim, five miles to the north of Rastatt.

Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr
Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr

By 5 July Latour had managed to gather most of his scattered army together around Rastatt, and mistaking Moreau's slowness for weakness, he decided to attack the French left, which was posted between the Black Forest and the Rhine. Moreau responded by moving part of his centre to support his left. The Austrian attack seems to have faded rather quickly, for the rest of the battle was dominated by Moreau's counterattack.

This battle involves an unusually complex match of respective left and right wings. The French force involved was made up of their left wing (Desaix), between the mountains and the Rhine and part of the centre (St-Cyr). The French right wing was facing south and was not involved in the battle. The Austrian force began the battle facing the French left, with the Austrian right near the Rhine and the Austrian left on the western edge of the mountains, so Desaix's right, part of the French left, faced the Austrian left.

Moreau decided to outflank the Austrian left by marching down the Murg valley. Taponier's division was to attack down the valley, leaving Stein at Freudenstadt on the eastern slopes of the mountains. The Austrian left ran from Kuppenhein, where the Murg leaves the mountains, along a wooded ridge to Gernsbach. Austrian sharpshooters on this line could harass Desaix's line, which ran west from Ebersteinbourgh (south-west of Gernsbach).

Taponier's attack began at five in the morning. His division forced three Austrian battalions to retreat from Gernsbach north to Ottennau. Further west General Decaen, who had command of Desaix's right wing, forced four Austrian battalions under General Deway to abandon Kuppenheim. General Lacourbe then swept the Hungarians and Grenadiers off the left bank of the Murg between Kuppenheim and Gernsbach, completing the defeat of the Austrian left.

Once the attack on the Austrian left was under way, Moreau decided to send two columns to attack the Austrian right, on the plains next to the Rhine. Sainte-Suzanne's brigade was to attack towards Rastatt from the woods at Soudweier, while to his left General Delmas's division was to attack along the line of the Rhine from the wood of Otterdorf (west of Rastatt).

Sainte-Suzanne's brigade emerged from the woods on time, at about 4pm, but Delmas was delayed on the march. This allowed Latour to concentrate his artillery against Sainte-Suzanne, and this brigade suffered heavy casualties. Eventually Delmas reached the fighting, and the combined French force was able to capture the wood of Rastatt. To their right Jobat's brigade captured the village of Niederbuhl, one mile to the south-east of Rastatt.

With his left beaten and his right in danger Latour decided to retreat across the Murg, using the bridge at Rastatt and a number of fords. This was an orderly retreat, covered by the Austrian artillery and a large force of cavalry. The French 2nd Regiment of Chasseurs took part in a successful fight in the streets of Rastatt, but they were unable to interfere with the retreat. On the night of 5-6 July Latour retreated north to Ettlingen (just to the south of Karlsruhe), where he met up with the Archduke Charles and his advance guard.

The Archduke was now in a slightly vulnerable position, with most of his army several days to the north, but Moreau didn’t mount a pursuit of the Austrians. Instead he spent the next three days in the lines at Rastatt, and by the time he did advance north the Archduke had been joined by most of his army from the north. When the French did advance they had to fight a much stronger opponent (battle of Ettlingen or Malsch, 9 July 1796).

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 February 2009), Battle of Rastatt, 5 July 1796 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_rastatt.html

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