Siege of Huningue, 26 October 1796-19 February 1797

The siege of Huningue (26 October 1796-5 February 1797) saw the Austrians eliminate the last French foothold on the east bank of the Upper Rhine in the aftermath of the unsuccessful French invasions of Germany in 1796. Huningue is the last French town on the Rhine before Basle and the Swiss border. The town passed into French hands in the early seventeenth century, along with part of the east bank. When Vauban fortified the town between 1679 and 1681 work was done on both sides of the river, but in 1738 the bridgehead on the east bank was returned to the Empire, and the fortifications were destroyed.

In June 1796 General Moreau crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg, and over the next month the Austrians were forced to retreat east from the Rhine. The French occupied the eastern bank of the Rhine opposite Huningue, and began to rebuild their fortifications. The bridge across the Rhine ran from Huningue to Cordonniers Island, close to the east bank, and a shorter bridge crossed from the island to the east bank. Vauban had built fortification on the island and on the east bank, and at first the French concentrated on rebuilding the fortification on the island, using the original foundations.

Moreau reached Bavaria before he was forced to retreat. On 26 October, after a retreat that lasted over a month, he crossed the Rhine at Huningue. General Abatucci was left to defend the town and the bridgehead. He was given orders to build a demi-lune on the east bank of the river, to protect the existing fortifications. The bridge across the Rhine was destroyed behind the retreating French, and a bridge of boats was built to connect the bridgehead to the town on the west bank.

If the Austrians had attacked Abatucci straight away then the French would probably have been swept away, but the Archduke Charles decided to attack the fortified camp at Kehl opposite Strasbourg instead. The Prince of Fürstenberg was given orders to observe Huningue, and he took those orders so literally that he allowed Abatucci to complete the demi-luni undisturbed. The Austrians built a line of contravallations on the heights that overlook the bridgehead, but they didn't start building their siege works until 15 November, when they began work on four batteries for heavy guns on the low ground close to the Rhine.

The bridge of boats was the biggest weakness in the French position. On 28 November Austrian gunfire broke the bridge. A number of the boats came ashore at Märkt, on the Austrian shore, and after that the garrison of the bridgehead could only communicate with the town by boats, which themselves came under heavy artillery fire. The French responded by building a counter battery on the west bank of the Rhine below Huningue, and for some time were able to reduce the weight of Austrian fire.

On 3 December the Prince of Fürstenberg finally decided to attack the bridgehead. At 11 in the evening three columns advanced to the attack, although only two of them were involved in the actual attack. This force came close to carrying the French works on the east bank, but the French launched a counterattack and the Austrians were forced back. This attack was costly for both sides. The Austrians suffered 2,000 casualties in the attack, while the French lost 800 men. Amongst them was General Abatucci, who was killed in the fighting.

Abatucci was replaced by General Dufour, who remained in command to the end of the siege. The fate of the bridgehead at Huningue was settled by the surrender of Kehl on 10 January 1797. This allowed the Austrians to move their heavy siege guns up the river to Huningue. On 25 January they began more aggressive siege works, digging their first parallel. Dufour responded with sorties on 29 and 31 January, each of which had some initial success before being beaten back.

The Austrians were now at the foot of the glacis. It was clear to Dufour that there was little point in prolonging the siege. He opened negotiations with Fürstenberg, offering the same terms that had been accepted at Kehl, where the garrison had been allowed to leave with all of their equipment. On 1 February Dufour and Fürtstenberg signed this convention, and by 5 February the French had evacuated the bridgehead at Huningue.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 February 2009), Siege of Huningue, 26 October 1796-19 February 1797 ,

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