The battle of Wetzlar (15-16 June 1796) was the first victory won by the Archduke Charles during his successful campaign in Germany in 1796, and forced General Jourdan and the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse to retreat back across the Rhine.
At the start of the campaign the main Austrian army, under the Archduke Charles, was on the west bank of the Rhine west of Mainz, posted between Kreuznach (close to the Rhine) and Baumholder, thirty miles to the west. The Austrian left wing, under the Duke of Wurttemberg, was posted on the east bank of the Rhine between Ehrenbreitstein (opposite Coblenz) and Altenkirchen. His outposts were on the Sieg River, which flows into the Rhine opposite Bonn.
The French plan, developed by Carnot, was for a two-pronged assault into Germany. General Moreau was to make the main assault, across the Upper Rhine, and advance towards the Danube. To make his task easier General Jourdan was to attack across the Rhine from Dusseldorf in an attempt to force the Archduke Charles to abandon his posts on the west bank of the Rhine and move north.
On 30 May General Kléber crossed the Rhine and on the following day he drove the Austrians off the Sieg (combat of Siegburg, 1 June 1796). Wurttemberg attempted to make a stand at Altenkirchen, but was forced to retreat again on 4 June (first battle of Altenkirchen).
Just as the French hoped, these victories forced the Archduke to pull back across the Rhine. On 10 June he crossed the river, and on 14 June he reached a position between Limburg and Wetzlar. When Jourdan learnt of the Austrian movement he too crossed the Rhine, and by 14 June the French line ran along the Lahn. The French right was at Ehrenbreitstein, opposite Coblenz and the centre in Limburg. General Lefebvre was on the south bank of the Lahn with orders to occupy Wetzlar. General Soult's brigade was posted at Herborn, to the north of Wetzlar, and the French had posts out as far as Giessen, ten miles east of Wetzlar.
Charles quickly realised that Wetzlar was the key to the French position. He planned to attack across the Lahn from Wetzlar to outflanking the French left. Jourdan would either have to fight with his back to the Rhine or retreat back to the west bank. The only fault in Charles's plan was that he wasted half of his army guarding the steep sided lower Lahn valley.
Four forces were allocated to the attack from Wetzlar. Kray, with 10,000 men moved to the heights of Braunfels, west of the town, and pushed his outpost up to the bridge at Leun. General Hotz, with 6,500 men was sent to Weilburg, another six miles to the west. They were to be supported by Werneck's reserves and a Saxon division coming from Gros Rechenbach.
Fighting broke out on the afternoon of 15 June when Lefebvre ran into the first Austrian outposts while approaching Wetzlar from the west. When he learnt that some Austrian troops were around Wetzlar he split his force into two columns. His right was sent to Leun and his left to Werdoft (north-west of Wetzlar). The French left pushed the Austrian outposts back towards the Lahn, capturing Altenberg Abbey (on the north bank of the Lahn just west of Wetzlar).
Charles responded by moving strong reinforcements to Wetzlar. The Austrians then attacked and captured Altenstetten, forcing the French to pull back two miles to Bergausen. The French line now ran south from Bergausen to Altenberg, but the Austrians attacked again, and Lefebvre was forced back to his starting point.
On 16 June the Austrians began to advance from Wetzlar. Werneck reached Greifenstein, ten miles to the west, while the Austrian left (Wartensleben) advanced to Hadamar, just to the north of the original French centre at Limburg.
The Austrian advance was virtually unopposed. When Jourdan realised that his left flank had been turned he ordered an general retreat, and the French army pulled away to the west. Soult was nearly left behind on the far left, and was only saved when Ney led a squadron of hussars through the advancing Austrians to warn him. Despite being closely pressed by the Austrians, Jourdan safely crossed the Rhine at Neuwied (north of Coblenz) although General Kléber, who was left on the east bank, attempted to hold a strong position at Uckrath (19 June 1796) and narrowly escaped disaster.
Although Jourdan had been forced back across the Rhine, his short campaign had forced the Austrians to move their forces north. Latour, who had now replaced Würmser in command of the Austrian left, was pulled out of position, and General Moreau was able to begin his part of the joint campaign, crossing the Rhine around Strasbourg.