Dagobert Sigmund, Graf Würmser, 1724-97

Early Career
War of the First Coalition – The Rhine
War of the First Coalition – Italy

Early Career

Dagobert Sigismund Graf Würmser (1724-1797) was an Alsatian officer who spent most of his military career in Austrian service, eventually rising to the rank of Field Marshal. He is best known for his two failures to raise Napoleon's siege of Mantua in 1796-97 but before that he had been successful against the French on the Rhine.

Würmser was born at Strasbourg in 1724 and served in the French army as an officer of hussars. During the Seven Year's War he commanded an irregular legion, which in 1762 transferred from the French to Austrian armies. At that date France and Austrian were allies, but in 1797 this change of allegiance would be held against him by the French Directory. 

Würmser rose quickly through the ranks in the Austrian army. In 1763 he was promoted to Generalmajor. In 1775 he was made Inhaber (honorary colonel) of a hussar regiment and in 1778 he was promoted again to Feldmarschalleutnant (lieutenant general).

Würmser further enhanced his reputation during the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-79). Although this war lacked any major battles Würmser successfully defended the fortified camp at Jaromirz, raided Ditterbach and destroyed a Prussian army under Prince Hessen-Philippstal near Glatz. He was rewarded with promotion to full general and the Commander Cross of the Maria Theresa Order.

War of the First Coalition – The Rhine

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1792
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1792

In 1793 Würmser was appointed to command the Army of the Upper Rhine. The previous year had seen the French capture Mainz and advance on Frankfurt before being forced back across the Rhine. In 1793 the Allies besieged Mainz (14 April-23 July 1793). After the fall of Mainz the Allies went onto the offensive. Würmser was fighting alongside a Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick. In September-October the Allies came up against the strong Lines of Weissenburg, but on 13 October 1793 Würmser's men smashed their way through these lines and briefly threatened to conquer Alsace.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1793
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1793
In the aftermath of this success Würmser and Brunswick prepared to go into winter quarters, but their French opponents, Generals Pichegru and Hoche, decided to go onto the offensive in an attempt to raise the siege of Landau. Hoche attacked the Prussians, and although he was defeated at Kaiserlautern (28-30 November 1793) the Duke of Brunswick was forced to retreat after a defeat at Froschwiller (22 December). This left Würmser exposed to attack, and he retreated to Weissenburg, taking up a position around the Geisberg. On 26 December 1793 Hoche launched an attack on this strong position (battle of the Geisberg) and Würmser was forced to retreat back across the Rhine.  In January 1794 Würmser was removed from command, but he was soon restored to favour, receiving the Grand Cross of the Maria Theresa Order.

During the first half of 1795 Würmser was raising a new Austrian army in the Black Forest. He was thus not involved in the events of the spring and early summer of 1795, but the French were also largely inactive in this period. By mid-summer Würmser had reached the front, and was facing General Pichegru on the Upper Rhine. The main French offensive came further north, where General Jourdan crossed the Rhine and briefly threatened the Austrian position. Pichegru had an early success, capturing Mannheim, but he failed to take advantage of this success. The French were soon forced back across the Rhine, and then on 29 October General Clairfayt launched an attack on the French siege lines around Mainz. Pichegru and Jourdan were forced to retreat in different directions. Würmser advanced to besiege Mannheim, which fell on 22 November. He was then able to cross the Rhine and turn south to face Pichegru. Faced with these setbacks the French agreed to an armistice, which lasted across the winter.

War of the First Coalition – Italy

In June 1796 the newly promoted Feldmarschall Würmser was appointed to command the army in Italy, where Napoleon had forced his way across the Alps, knocked Piedment out of the war and begun a siege of Mantua. Würmser made two attempts to raise the siege, each time splitting his army into several columns and giving Napoleon a chance to defeat each one in turn.

Würmser's first relief effort was the most dangerous. While Würmser led the main Austrian column down the Adige valley General Quosdanovich advanced west of Lake Garda. At the end of July Quosdanovich emerged from the mountains and captured Brescia. Napoleon was forced to abandon the siege and concentrate his army at the southern tip of Lake Garda, from where he could turn against each Austrian army in turn. Würmser contributed to his own defeat. Rather than concentrate on joining up with Quosdanovich and defeating Napoleon he dashed south to Mantua. This gave Napoleon a chance to defeat Quosdanovich in two battles at Lonato (31 July and 4 August). Having reached Mantua on 2 August, Würmser then turned north in an attempt to join up with Quosdanovich, but it was to late and instead he was defeated alone at Castiglione (5 September 1796).

Würmser's second relief attempt was rather less successful. This time he decided to leave part of his army, under Davidovich, around Trento in the Adige valley, while he led the main army east along the Brenta Valley. At Bassano, where the river emerged from the mountains, he planned to join up with a third Austrian army and turn south west towards Mantua.

Unfortunately for the Austrians this movement coincided with a French advance up the Adige Valley, Napoleon having been ordered to cooperate with the army of the Rhine, then fighting on the Danube. Napoleon fought his way up the Adige Valley to Trento. When he learnt that Würmser had slipped away to the east, Napoleon decided to follow him down the Brenta Valley. On 7 September Würmser's rear guard was caught and defeated at Primolano, just inside the mountains, and on the following day Napoleon won a second victory in two days, at Bassano. Würmser's army was split in two. One part, under General Quosdanovich, escaped to the east, while Würmser managed to reach Mantua. Once there he turned to fight, but was defeated over two days (battle of San Giorgio, 14-15 September 1796).

In the aftermath of this defeat Würmser was forced to take refuge in Mantua, remaining there for the rest of the siege. Two more relief attempts failed, and on 2 February 1797 Würmser was forced to surrender. The French Directory demanded that he be executed as a Frenchman fighting against the Patrie, but Napoleon allowed him to return to Austria. Würmser's health had been destroyed during the siege and he died six months later.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 February 2009), Dagobert Sigmund, Graf Würmser, 1724-97 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_wurmser.html

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