Siege of Kehl, 28 October 1796-10 January 1797

The siege of Kehl (28 October 1796-10 January 1797) saw a sizable French garrison defend a strongly fortified camp on the east bank of the Rhine opposite Strasbourg for three months before the camp was evacuated after prolonged Austrian attacks.

The village of Kehl had changed owners on several occasions. In the 1680s it was taken by France, and Vauban constructed fortifications around the village. In 1738 Kehl was returned to the Empire, but only after the fort had been demolished and the ditches filled.

On 23 June 1796 General Moreau crossed the Rhine from Strasbourg to Kehl at the start of his invasion of southern Germany. He ordered work to begin on rebuilding the fortifications, and on a large fortified camp. Kehl sits between the river Rhine and Kinzig, just to the south of the point where the Kinzig flows into the Rhine. In 1796 there were several islands nearby in the Rhine, the most important of which was Erlenrhin, to the south of Kinzig. Since the 1790s the area has been extensively altered, and Erlenrhin is no longer traceable.

Kehl was surrounded by three lines of fortifications. The first ran up the Rhine and across to the Kinzig and covered the approaches to the bridges over the Rhine. The second ran downstream and covered the swampy area where the two rivers joined. The third, on the extreme right of the position, protected the island of Erlenrhin. The fortified camp was protected by an inner line of defences that ran from Erlinrhin on the right across to Kehl on the left. A strong redoubt called Trous-de-Loup was built in the centre of this line. The post house and cemetery of Kehl were isolated in front of the left part of this line, and so a second line of defences ran from the Trous-de-Loup to the cemetery. On the right the small communication bridge that ran from the mainland to the island of Erlenrhin was protected by a large redoubt, while the island was guarded by an odd shaped redoubt which was known as 'le Bonnet-de-Pretre', or Priest's bonnet.

Moreau's expedition ended with a retreat back to the Rhine, and on 26 October he crossed back into France at Huningue. The Austrians then moved their main army, under the Archduke Charles, down the river to besiege Kehl. Charles allocated 52 battalions of infantry and 46 squadrons of cavalry, all under General Latour, to conduct the siege, while other Austrian forces blockaded Huningue. Although the siege began on 26 October the Austrians didn't begin digging the siege works until 21 November. This pause gave General Desaix, the commander of the French garrison in Kehl, a chance to complete the fortifications and prepare for the siege. Desaix's biggest advantage was that Kehl was connected to the west bank by permanent bridges. There was thus no chance that starvation would end the siege.

When the Austrians did begin to build the siege works they were on an impressive scale. Kehl was surrounded by a circuit of fifteen large redoubts. The Austrian line ran through Sundheim, facing the fortified camp between the Rhine and the Kinzig. It crossed the Kinzig at Neumuhl, ran north from there to Bodersweier and then west towards the Rhine at Auenheim.

On 22 November, the day after the Austrians began to build their siege works, Moreau led a large scale sortie from Kehl. 16,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry in three columns attacked the left of the Austrian line. Two redoubts between the Rhine and the Kinzig were destroyed, and Sundheim was captured, but the French failed to reach their main target – the Austrian artillery park – and were forced to retreat back into their lines when Latour attacked in force. Moreau himself was hit in the head by a musket ball that had lost all of its force, while his aide-de-camp Delelée was badly wounded. 

On the night of 23-24 November the Austrian batteries opened fire for the first time. After that the French were under constant fire, and the recently constructed defences soon began to suffer. Latour made a series of attacks on the French lines. The first three were made against the fortified camp and the island of Erlenrhin, the fourth against the French left on the Kinzig. On 5 December Touffue island fell to the Austrians. On 10, 11 and 12 December the Austrians attempted to take the post house, and finally succeeded on 19 December.

The weather then intervened. Heavy rain fell from 20-26 December, flooding the trenches. At one point Latour even considered abandoning the siege, but the trenches soon dried out, and on 1 January 1797 the Austrians captured the redoubt of Trous-de-Loup. On the following day they turned west and attacked Erlenrhin Island. The outlying works and the horn work fell. The island was only saved when General Lecourbe withdrew the flying bridge connecting the island to the rest of the camp, giving his men no option but to counterattack. The Austrians were forced to abandon their attack, but it was now clear that Erlenrhin was now vulnerable to attack, and on 5 January it was evacuated.

The loss of Erlenrhin and most of the defences of the fortified camp convinced Moreau that there was little point attempting to hold Kehl for any longer. He opened negotiations with the Austrians, and on 9 January signed a convention agreeing to evacuate the place. On the next day the last French troops crossed the bridges back to the west bank, and the siege ended.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 February 2009), Siege of Kehl, 28 October 1796-10 January 1797 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_kehl.html

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