General Jean-Etienne Championnet (1762-1800)

General Jean-Etienne Championnet (1762-1800) was a French general who fought on the Rhine in 1795-7, conquered the mainland part of the Kingdom of Naples but who fell foul of political intrigue and died while attempting to save the Italian position in Italy in 1799-1800.

Championnet was born in Valencia and enrolled in the Royal Army before the Revolution, where he took part in the Siege of Gibraltar of 1782.

In July 1789, during the Revolution, he joined the National Guard of Valence. He was promoted to sergeant in 1789, lieutenant in March 1790, premier adjutant général in September 1791 and chef of the 6th Volunteer Battalion of Drome in 1792 (an elected post in 1792). He served against anti-revolutionary forces in the east of France.

In November 1793 Championnet moved to the Army of the Moselle, and for the next few years he took part in many of the major campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars. He fought at the battles of Kaiserlautern (28-30 November 1793), Bischwiller and Haguenau, before on 23 December 1793 he was given command of his own detached corps. He led this unit at Landau and Worms and as a result was promoted to général de brigade on 6 February 1794. Promotion to général de division followed on 10 June 1794.

In 1794 he commanded part of General Jourdan's Army of the Moselle in the campaign that ended at Fleurus (26 June 1794). In mid-June the French besieged and captured Charleroi, and then formed up in a semi-circular line to repel an Allied counterattack by the army of the Prince of Saxe-Coburg. Championnet was posted at Heppignies, towards the French centre. During the battle his division was attacked by Prince Wenzel Anton Fürst von Kaunitz, and was able to hold them off all day. The French victory at Fleurus marked the beginning of the end of the two year long struggle for the Austrian Netherlands, which would remain under French rule until the end of the Napoleonic period. The Austrians slowly retreated during the rest of 1794, and after another serious defeat at the battle of the Roer (2 October 1794) abandoned their last foothold in the area. Championnet's division formed part of the French centre during this battle.

In 1795 he took part in General Jourdan's invasion of Germany, part of a two pronged attack. Championnet began the campaign successfully, with the capture of Dusseldorf, allowing Jourdan's main army to cross the Rhine. This drew the Austrian forces on the Rhine north, allowing the second French army under Pichegru to cross the river. The French campaign then ran out of steam, and the Austrians were able to force Jourdan to retreat back across the Rhine (battle of Hochst, 11 October 1795).

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

In the summer of 1796 he commanded a division in General Jourdan's army on the Rhine, during Jourdan's second invasion of Germany. His troops were amongst the first across the river on 3 July, helping establish a bridgehead. On 7 July Jourdan advanced from his bridgehead across the Rhine at Neuwied, heading for the River Lahn and one part of the Austrian army. Championnet's troops formed the advance guard that led the way along the Lahn. The Austrians attempted to intercept Championnet's rearguard, but  instead ran into Bernadotte's advancing troops. The resulting combat of Offheim (7 July 1796) was a French victory that saw them capture part of Limburg. The day's events convinced the Austrians to retreat, and the French were able to advance across the Lahn.

General Kleber at the battle of Heliopolis, 20 March 1800
General Kleber at the battle of Heliopolis, 20 March 1800

The French continued to advance while the Austrians, under General Wartensleben retreated. As the Austrians retreated south-east, they left a strong rearguard at Bamberg. On 4 August Championnet's and Grenier's divisions ran into this rearguard, and their advance guards suffered heavily losses during a rather thoughtless attack (combat of Bamberg, 4 August 1796). His division then played a minor part in the combat of Forchhiem (7 August 1796), another minor French success that came while General Kleber was briefly in command of the Army of the Rhine after Jourdan fell ill.

On 17 August Championnet's division ran into the Austrians at Augsberg (near the main road between Nuremburg and Amberg). A costly skirmish broke out and both sides were able to hold their position, although the Austrians retreated on the following morning. 17 August also saw Ney's advance guard of the main army defeat part of the Austrian army at Neukirchen (17 August 1796). The final French success of this campaign came at the combat of Wolfring on 20 August 1796, where the French defeated the rearguard of the retreating Austrians. Championnet's men formed part of the French right during the combat. 

A few days later the Archduke Charles, with the main Austrian army, moved against Jordan, and the French were soon forced to retreat. The Austrians almost managed to trap Jourdan's army on the Naab, but missed a chance for a major victory at the battle of Amberg (24 August 1796). At the start of the battle Championnet was posted to the south of the main French army, but he was soon forced to fall back on the main body. The Austrians were unable to make enough progress on the western flank of the battle, and the French were able to escape to the north-west. Championnet's division formed the centre of the new French line. He then led the French retreat across the Franconian Switzerland, a move that prevented the Austrians from blocking their move to the Rhine.  However instead of moving west immediately, Jourdan decided to try and make a stand on the upper Main, and suffered a defeat at Würzburg (3 September 1796). Championnet's division was posted towards the French front in the build-up to the battle, and in the centre during the battle itself. The battle began with a French attack, but the Austrians outnumbered them and soon forced the French to retreat. The crisis of the battle began in the centre, where Championnet's men were soon in trouble. Jourdan's attempts to help him endangered the French left, and the French were forced to retreat.

The French retreated to the Lahn, where they made a stand. The Austrians followed up. The Archduke Charles decided to make his main effort against the French centre-left, but spent the days before the attack successfully convincing Jourdan that the attack would come further to their left. As a result Championnet was posted fifteen miles to the east of Limburg, too far away to play any part in the fighting on 16 September (combat of Limburg).

The campaign ended with the second battle of Altenkirchen (19 September 1796), a rearguard action most famous for the death of General Marceau. After this battle Jourdan's army retreated north to the River Sieg, while the Archduke turned south to defeat Moreau.

At the start of 1797 he was given command of a corps in the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse, after General Hoche took command of the army. Hoche was ordered to go onto the offensive on the Rhine front, in an attempt to prevent the Austrians from moving reinforcements back to defend Vienna against Napoleon's troops from Italy. Hoche decided to send Championnet across the river first, to draw the Austrians north, then send his main force across at Neuwied. At first the plan worked - Championnet crossed the river at Dusseldorf on 17 April and the Austrians reacted by moving north and pulling out of their defensive lines at Neuwied. Hoche was able to lead his main force across the river early on 18 April, and the Austrians were forced to abandon their planned attack on Championnet. Hoche began a full scale attack on the Austrian lines early on 18 April (battle of Neuwied), and forced them to retreat to Neunkirchen. Hoche was unable to take advantage of this victory before on 22 April news arrived of the Preliminary Peace of Leoben, and Hoche had to agree an armistice with the Austrians.

Early in the War of the Second Coalition the Neapolitans under the Austrian general Mack launched an attack on Rome. In order to counter this Championnet was given command a new French Army of Rome, which consisted of 32,000 ill equipped French, Polish and Cisalpine troops (31 October 1797).  He decided to defend a line north of Rome, and Mack's troops were able to enter Rome on 25 November without a fight. The Neapolitan advance ran into trouble at Terni on 27 November, and an attempt to advance up the Tiber was defeated at Civita Castellana on 4 December. Championnet was able to outmanoeuvre the Neapolitan right wing at Cantalupo and Magliano Sabina, and the Neapolitan court retreated from Rome which was recaptured by the French two weeks after its lock. Ferdinand of Sicily fled to safety on Sicily onboard Admiral Nelson's flagship, and on 19 January 1799 Championnet ordered a siege of Naples. Although there was some resistance within the city, it had been secured by 23 January. Championnet established another of the French puppet republics in Italy, the short-lived Parthenopean Republic (founded January 1799, abolished June 1799). His army became the independent Army of Naples.

Championnet took his role as the protector of the new Republic seriously, and as a result fell foul of some of the more corrupt French politicians of the period. He was recalled and put on trial, but was then restored by the Directory that came to power in June 1799.

Championnet was given command of the Army of the Alps, at a time when the Italian armies in Italy were suffering a series of defeats. In the aftermath of the French defeat at Novi (15 August 1799) Championnet was also given command of the Army of Italy (replacing Moreau, who was moved to the Rhine front), taking up his new post in September. His two armies were some way apart, with the survivors of the Army of Italy around Genoa and the Army the Alps back on the Franco-Italian border.

Over the next few weeks he launched a series of small scale attacks on the Austrians, hoping to unite his two armies and save Cuneo, the last significant French stronghold on the northern Italian plains. In mid-September he ordered an advance in two columns in an attempt to bring the two divisions of the Army of the Alps closer together. This didn’t go well. Both columns began to move on 15 September, but by the end of the first day both were back where they had started. Duhesme's column was defeated at the combat of Pignerolo (15 September 1799) and Grenier at the combat of Rivoli (15 September 1799). On the following day both columns made more progress, but on 17 September the Austrians counterattacked and the two French columns were forced back to their starting point (combats of Fossano and Savigliano).

His next plan was for a more general advance, with four divisions which would form a new line on the northern side of the Apennines. Victor and Lemoine were given the task of advanced to Mondovi as part of a wider plan of operations, but the entire thing collapsed after Victor was repulsed at the outskirts of Mondovi (combat of Mondovi, 28 September 1799). The Austrians then reinforced the town, making it much less vulnerable to surprise attack.

In October Championnet made a more determined attempt to save Cuneo. He moved his HQ into the city on 11 October, and on 13 October Victor's troops captured the nearest Austrian position, at Beinette, four miles to the east. On the following day the Austrians counterattacked and retook the village, losing most of a battalion (Combat of Beinette, 14 October 1799). This helped convince Championnet that he would need to win a major battle before the start of winter if he was to save Cuneo. Accordingly he ordered General Saint-Cyr to bring the 12,000 disposable troops under his command north-west from Genoa towards Acqui. Saint-Cyr's men won one of the few French victories of this campaign, defeating an Austrian force at the combat of Bosco (24 October 1799) and forcing Melas to move one wing of his army back to Alessandria.

Although the Austrians defeated most of these attacks, their commander Melas realised that the French were planning a major attack, and withdrew to the area between Fossano and Marene near the Stura River.

Both commanders intended to attack on 4 November, triggering the battle of Genola (4 November 1799). Championnet decided to split his army into three, while Melas focused his efforts in around Savigliano. The Austrians were able to break the French line. Championnet managed to organise a second line, but this was also broken and by the end of the day the French had been forced back to Cuneo. On the following day the Austrians attacked again, and once again the French were forced to retreat. Championnet lost around 6,500-8,000 men in the battle, and decided to split his army again. One division was left near Cuneo, while the rest moved east to Mondovi. The Austrians sent part of their army to press towards Genoa, but they were defeated at the combat of Novi (6 November 1799), the third battle in the same area during 1799.

When Melas threatened to attack the Mondovi position on 13 November the French retreated without a fight, and Championnet moved his HQ back to Sospel, on the French side of the modern frontier. Cuneo fell to the Austrians on 4 December. The French now only held a narrow coastal strip leading to Genoa, and had lost all of Napoleon's earlier conquests. 

Championnet resigned from his command in December 1799. He died at Antibes in January 1800. His death was said to have been caused by exhaustion.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 February 2016), General Jean-Etienne Championnet (1762-1800),

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy