Jean Baptiste Kleber, 1753-1800

Jean-Baptiste Kléber (1753-1800) was one of the most able of the French revolutionary generals, and is most famous for his short period in command of the French army in Egypt.

Kléber was born in Strasbourg on 9 March 1753, the son of a mason. He grew into an impressive figure, 6ft 2in tall and described as ‘Mars in Uniform’. He was educated at grammer school, and then joined the Bercheny Hussars. However his first attempt to join the army was stopped by his mother, and instead he moved to Paris, where he spent two years working for an architect. He then moved to Besancon, but had to leave after fighting a dual. In 1775 he moved back to Strasbourg, then in 1776 enrolled at the Munich Military Academy (allegedly with the aid of two German nobles he had helped in a tavern brawl). In 1777 he enrolled as a cadet in the Austrian Kauntiz Infantry Regiment.  He was promoted to ensign in November and second lieutenant in 1799. After four years in that rank he resigned from the Austrian Army and returned to Strasbourg, where he worked as an inspector of public buildings and works in Belfort.

In July 1789 Kléber was elected as a captain in the National Guard. In 1792 he volunteered to defend the frontiers of France. He was made adjutant major in the volunteer 4th Haut-Rhin battalion, and fought at the siege of Mainz (October 1792-July 1793). At the end of the siege Mainz fell, but the garrison was allowed to leave with the full honours of war in return for agreeing not to fight against the Austrians for one year.

The Republican government responded to this agreement by sending the Mayencais to the Vendée to fight the Royalist rebels in that area. Kléber performed well in the area, earning promotion to général de brigade, winning a major victory at Cholet (17 October 1793) and promotion to général de division on the following day. Despite these successes, he was repulsed by the atrocities being committed by the Republicans in the area.

In May 1794 Kléber moved back  to the Revolutionary armies in the Austrian Netherlands. In May he fought successfully on the Sambre, holding off an Austrian attack on 24 May. He fought at the battle of Fleurus (26 June 1794), commanding part of the French reserve, and launching a counterattack that helped prevent the Dutch contingent in the Allied army (under the Prince of Orange) from taking part in the main battle. In the aftermath of this French victory, the Austrians began to withdraw from the Austrian Netherlands, which became the first French conquest of the Revolutionary Wars.

Kléber fought at the battle of the Ourthe (18 September 1794), a French victory that helped push the Austrians out of their last foothold in the Netherlands. He then fought at the battle of the Roer (2 October 1794), where his artillery played a part in the French victory (at this battle his two divisions were commanded by the future marshals Ney and Bernadotte). He was given command of the siege of Maastricht (17 September-14 November 1794), with around 40,000 men. The defenders surrendered soon after Kléber began to bombard the city, giving the French good winter quarters. Kléber then attempted to cross the Rhine, but he was defeated by Melas at Zahlbach (1 December 1794). This was followed by a lengthy, but rather ineffective, siege of Mainz (14 December 1794-29 October 1795), with the French on the west bank of the Rhine and the Austrians on the east bank.

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

In 1796 Kléber commanded the left wing of the northern half of the French army on the Rhine front. At the start of the campaign in late May he commanded the French troops at Dusseldorf, the only Rhine crossing in French hands. On 30 May Kléber crossed the Rhine and advanced south towards the Austrians under Wurttemberg.  Kléber defeated the Austrians at Siegburg (1 June 1796), and again at Altenkirchen (4 June 1796). As the French had hoped, the Archduke Charles moved north to face Kléber and his superior Jourdan, allowing Moreau to begin an invasion of southern Germany. However things soon began to go wrong. On 15-16 June the Archduke defeated the French at Wetzlar, and Jourdan was forced to retreat back to the west bank of the Rhine. Kléber was left on the east bank to try and hold Uckerath, but was lucky to escape after a hard fought rearguard action on 19 June.

The French were soon able to launch a second crossing of the Rhine. Kléber crossed at Dusseldorf on 27 June, turned south, and crossed the Sieg on 30 June. He then sent troops up the river to try and outflank the Austrians, winning a minor victory at Wilnsdorf (4 July 1796). He then held off an Austrian attack at Ober-Morlen (9 July 1796), before winning the battle of Freidberg (10 July 1796).

Kléber captured Frankfurt (16 July), during a brief period in command of the entire army of the Sambre-and-Meuse while Jourdan was ill. Kléber then defeated the Austrians at Forchheim (7 August 1796) on the River Rednitz, forcing them to retreat towards Nuremburg. Jourdan then resumed command, just as the Archduke Charles arrived in the northern theatre, forcing the French to retreat to avoid being destroyed. The Archduke missed his best chance at Amberg (24 August 1796), although Kléber was lucky to escape after the battle. The French managed to stay just ahead of the Austrians all the way back to the Rhine.

Kléber then fell out with Jourdan, in December resigned his command, partly because he believed he hadn’t been given full credit for his successes.

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

In February 1797 he returned to Alsace, where he spent the rest of the year involved in local politics. In 1798 he was introduced to Napoleon, and accompanied him on his invasion of Egypt, commanding a division. He carried out an opposed landing at Alexandria (2 July 1798), and was appointed as governor of the city after a head wound meant he couldn’t take part in the next stage of the campaign. He soon began to fall out with Napoleon, arguing with him over his lack of planning for his march across the desert towards Cairo.

Early in 1799 Kléber took part in the invasion of Syria. He helped capture Gaza (25 February 1799) and Jaffa (16 April 1799), but the French then got bogged down outside Acre. Kléber fought well at the battle of Mount Tabor (16 April 1799), holding on for ten hours until Napoleon arrived with reinforcements, but once again argued with Napoleon over the conduct of the siege of Acre.

He missed the battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799), Napoleon’s last victory in Egypt.

When Napoleon returned to France, he appointed Kléber as his successor. Kléber had 10,000 French troops, but their morale was poor, they were isolated from France, and a sizable Ottoman army was on its way. Kléber almost immediately opened negotiations with the Ottomans, using Sir Sidney Smith, a controversial British naval officer, as an intermediary (as well as the unofficial British representative).

On 24 January 1800 Kléber agreed to the Convention of El Arish with the Ottomans and Sir Sidney Smith. The French agreed to withdraw from Egypt, as long as they could be returned home on Turkish ships. Expected that the treaty would be ratified, Kléber pulled out of Cairo and other inland positions and concentrated his men in Alexandria, Aboukir and Rosetta. Unsurprisingly the British refused to accept this agreement. Kléber received this news on 13 March and was forced to return to the offensive. He defeated the Ottomans at Heliopolis (20 March), after forming his infantry into four large squares, and recaptured Cairo. He was able to put down a second uprising in Cairo, but before he could make the position more secure he was assassinated by a Muslim from Aleppo on 14 June. In the following year the British invaded, and after a costly victory agreed to very similar terms as in the Convention of El Arish.

Napoleon's Commanders 1Napoleon's Commanders: Vol 1, Philip Haythornthwaite. Despite the emphasis on Napoleon, the scale of the Napoleonic Wars meant that his Marshals played a significant role in the early French successes. This volume covers the careers of the most important French commanders up till the Austrian campaign of 1809. [SEE MORE]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (29 January 2019), Jean Baptiste Kleber, 1753-1800, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_kleber.html

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