First Battle of Zurich

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Coordinates: 47°22′0″N8°33′0″E / 47.36667°N 8.55000°E / 47.36667; 8.55000

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First Battle of Zurich
Part of the War of the Second Coalition
Grossmünster church, Zurich. River Limmat, Zürich
Date4–7 June 1799
Zürich, Switzerland
Result Austrian victory
Flag of France.svg France Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor (after 1400).svg Austria
Commanders and leaders
André Masséna Archduke Charles of Austria
Friedrich Freiherr von Hotze
30,000 40,000
Casualties and losses
1,700 3,500

In the First Battle of Zurich on 4 – 7 June 1799, French general André Masséna was forced to yield the city to the Austrians under Archduke Charles and retreat beyond the Limmat, where he managed to fortify his positions, resulting in a stalemate.

André Masséna French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

André Masséna, 1st Duc de Rivoli, 1st Prince d'Essling was a French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original eighteen Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon, with the nickname l'Enfant chéri de la Victoire.

Limmat river in Switzerland

The Limmat is a river in Switzerland. The river commences at the outfall of Lake Zurich, in the southern part of the city of Zurich. From Zurich it flows in a northwesterly direction, after 35 km reaching the river Aare. The confluence is located north of the small town of Brugg and shortly after the mouth of the Reuss.

The Helvetic Republic in 1798 became a battlefield of the French Revolutionary Wars. During the summer, Russian troops under general Korsakov replaced the Austrian troops, and in the Second Battle of Zurich, the French regained control of the city, along with the rest of Switzerland.

Helvetic Republic former Swiss polity under Napoleonic domination

In Swiss history, the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803) represented an early attempt to impose a central authority over Switzerland, which until then had consisted of self-governing cantons united by a loose military alliance.

French Revolutionary Wars series of conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European monarchies from 1792 to 1802

The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 and resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted France against Great Britain, Austria and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Alexander Korsakov Russian general

Alexander Mikhailovich Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian general remembered as an unlucky assistant to Alexander Suvorov during his Swiss expedition of 1799–1800.

Map of Zurich, 1800 Karte Zurich 1800.jpg
Map of Zürich, 1800


Political and diplomatic situation

Initially, the rulers of Europe viewed the revolution in France as an event between the French king and his subjects, and not something in which they should interfere. As revolutionary rhetoric grew more strident, they declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe as one with the interests of Louis and his family; this Declaration of Pillnitz threatened ambiguous, but quite serious, consequences if anything should happen to the royal family. [1] The French position became increasingly difficult. Compounding problems in international relations, French émigrés continued to agitate for support of a counter-revolution. On 20 April 1792, the French National Convention declared war on Austria. In this War of the First Coalition (1792–1798), France ranged itself against most of the European states sharing land or water borders with her, plus Portugal and the Ottoman Empire. Although the Coalition forces achieved several victories at Verdun, Kaiserslautern, Neerwinden, Mainz, Amberg and Würzburg, the efforts of Napoleon Bonaparte in northern Italy pushed Austrian forces back and resulted in the negotiation of the Peace of Leoben (17 April 1797) and the subsequent Treaty of Campo Formio (17 October 1797). [2]

Declaration of Pillnitz political event

The Declaration of Pilnite, more commonly referred to as the Declaration of Pillnitz, was a statement issued on 27 August 1791 at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden (Saxony) by Frederick William II of Prussia and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II who was Marie Antoinette's brother. It declared the joint support of the Holy Roman Empire and of Prussia for King Louis XVI of France against the French Revolution.

War of the First Coalition 1790s war to contain Revolutionary France

The War of the First Coalition is the traditional name of the wars that several European powers fought between 1792 and 1797 against the French First Republic. Despite the collective strength of these nations compared with France, they were not really allied and fought without much apparent coordination or agreement. Each power had its eye on a different part of France it wanted to appropriate after a French defeat, which never occurred.

Battle of Verdun (1792) battle

The first Battle of Verdun was fought on 29 August 1792 between French Revolutionary forces and a Prussian army during the opening months of the War of the First Coalition. The Prussians were victorious, gaining a clear westward path to Paris.

The treaty called for meetings between the involved parties to work out the exact territorial and remunerative details. Convened at a small town in the mid-Rhineland, Rastatt, the Congress quickly derailed in a mire of intrigue and diplomatic posturing. The French demanded more territory. The Austrians were reluctant to cede the designated territories. Compounding the Congress's problems, tensions grew between France and most of the First Coalition allies. Ferdinand of Naples refused to pay agreed-upon tribute to France, and his subjects followed this refusal with a rebellion. The French invaded Naples and established the Parthenopean Republic. Encouraged by the French Republic, a republican uprising in the Swiss cantons led to the overthrow of the Swiss Confederation and the establishment of the Helvetic Republic. [3] The French Directory was convinced that the Austrians were planning to start another war. Indeed, the weaker France seemed, the more seriously the Austrians, the Neapolitans, the Russians, and the English discussed this possibility. [4] In mid-spring, the Austrians reached an agreement with Tsar Paul of Russia by which the legendary Alexander Suvorov would come out of retirement to assist Austria in Italy with another 60,000 troops. [5]

Second Congress of Rastatt

The Second Congress of Rastatt, which began its deliberations in November 1797, was intended to negotiate a general peace between the French Republic and the Holy Roman Empire, and to draw up a compensation plan to compensate those princes whose lands on the left bank of the Rhine had been seized by France in the War of the First Coalition. Facing the French delegation was a 10-member Imperial delegation made up of delegates from the electorates of Mainz, Saxony, Bavaria, Hanover, as well as the secular territories of Austria, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, the prince-bishopric of Würzburg, and the imperial cities of Augsburg and Frankfurt. The congress was interrupted when Austria and Russia resumed war against France in March 1799 at the start of the War of the Second Coalition, thus rendering the proceedings moot. Furthermore, as the French delegates attempted to return home, they were attacked by Austrian cavalrymen or possibly French royalists masquerading as such. Two diplomats were killed and a third seriously injured. The congress was held at Rastatt near Karlsruhe.

Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies King variously of Naples, Sicily, and the Two Sicilies

Ferdinand I, was the King of the Two Sicilies from 1816, after his restoration following victory in the Napoleonic Wars. Before that he had been, since 1759, Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples and Ferdinand III of the Kingdom of Sicily. He was also King of Gozo. He was deposed twice from the throne of Naples: once by the revolutionary Parthenopean Republic for six months in 1799 and again by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805.

Parthenopean Republic Republic of Naples of 1799

The Parthenopean Republic was a Revolutionary France - supported Republic in the territory of the Kingdom of Naples, formed during the French Revolutionary Wars after King Ferdinand IV fled before advancing French troops. The republic existed from 21 January 1799 to 13 June 1799, when Ferdinand's kingdom was re-established.

Outbreak of war in 1799

The French Directory's military strategy in 1799 called for offensive campaigns on all fronts: central Italy, northern Italy, the Swiss cantons, the upper Rhineland, and Holland. Theoretically, the French had a combined force of 250,000 troops, but this was on paper, not in the field. [6] As winter broke in 1799, General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan and the Army of the Danube, at a paper strength of 50,000 and an actual strength of 25,000, [7] crossed the Rhine between Basel and Kehl on 1 March. This crossing officially violated the Treaty of Campo Formio. [8] The Army of the Danube advanced through the Black Forest and, by mid-March, established an offensive position at the western and northern edge of the Swiss Plateau by the village of Ostrach. [9] André Masséna had already pushed into Switzerland with his force of 30,000, and successfully passed into the Grison Alps, Chur, and Finstermünz on the Inn river. Theoretically, his left flank was to link with Jourdan's right flank, commanded by Pierre Marie Barthélemy Ferino, at the far eastern shore of Lake Constance. [10]

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan Marshal of France

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, 1st Comte Jourdan, enlisted as a private in the French royal army and rose to command armies during the French Revolutionary Wars. Emperor Napoleon I of France named him a Marshal of France in 1804 and he also fought in the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815, he became reconciled to the Bourbon Restoration. He was one of the most successful commanders of the French Revolutionary Army.

Army of the Danube

The Army of the Danube was a field army of the French Directory in the 1799 southwestern campaign in the Upper Danube valley. It was formed on 2 March 1799 by the simple expedient of renaming the Army of Observation, which had been observing Austrian movements on the border between French First Republic and the Holy Roman Empire. It was commanded by General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, 1st Comte Jourdan (1762–1833).

Rhine river in Western Europe

The Rhine is one of the major European rivers, which has its sources in Switzerland and flows in an mostly northerly direction through Germany and The Netherlands to the North Sea. The river begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of the Swiss-Liechtenstein, Swiss-Austrian, Swiss-German and then the Franco-German border, then flows through the German Rhineland and the Netherlands and eventually empties into the North Sea.

At Elgg, Hotze established his forward posts; although the winter snows had melted, the ground was still soggy and the streams were still in full spring flow. Eulach en Elgg 721.jpg
At Elgg, Hotze established his forward posts; although the winter snows had melted, the ground was still soggy and the streams were still in full spring flow.

The Austrians had arrayed their own army in a line from the Tyrol to the Danube. A force of 46,000 under command of Count Heinrich von Bellegarde formed the defence of the Tyrol. Another small Austrian force of 26,000 commanded by Friedrich Freiherr von Hotze guarded the Vorarlberg. The main Austrian Army—close to 80,000 troops under the command of Archduke Charles—had wintered in the Bavarian, Austrian, and Salzburg territories on the eastern side of the Lech river. At the battles of Ostrach (21 March) and Stockach (25 March), the main Austrian force pushed the Army of the Danube back into the Black Forest. Charles made plans to cross the upper Rhine at the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. Friedrich Freiherr von Hotze brought a portion (approximately 8,000) of his force west, leaving the rest to defend the Vorarlberg. At the same time, Friedrich Joseph, Count of Nauendorf, brought the left wing of the main Austrian force across the Rhine by Eglisau. They planned to unite with the main Austrian army, controlling the northern access points of Zürich and forcing an engagement with Masséna. [11]

By mid-May, French morale was low. They had suffered terrible losses at Ostrach and Stockach, although these had been made up by reinforcements. Two senior officers of the Army of the Danube, Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen and Jean-Joseph Ange d'Hautpoul, were facing courts-martial on charges of misconduct, proffered by their senior officer, Jourdan. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr were sick, or claimed they were, and had left the army's encampments to recover their health. Masséna's force had been repelled by Hotze's army at Feldkirch, and forced to fall back, and LeCourbe's failure to push through against Bellegarde's Austrian force in the Tyrol, meant Masséna had to pull his southern wing back as well as his center and northern wing, to maintain communication with the retreating armies on his flanks. At this point, also, the Swiss revolted again, this time against the French, and Zürich became the last defensible position Masséna could take. [12]


After pushing the Army of the Danube out of the northern portion of the Swiss Plateau—the territory north of the Rhine and south of the Danube—following the battles at Ostrach and Stockach, Archduke Charles' sizable force—about 110,000 strong—crossed the Danube west of Schaffhausen, and prepared to join with the Vorarlberg Corps of Friedrich, Baron von Hotze before Zürich. During the month of May André Masséna, now commander of both the French Army of Helvetia and the Army of the Danube began pulling back his forces to concentrate towards Zürich. Charles crossed the Rhine at Stein with an advanced corps of 21 battalions and 13 squadrons under Nauendorf on 20 May, while two days later in the evening, Hotze crossed at Meiningen and Balzers with 18 battalions and 13 squadrons. On the 23rd the Archduke led 15 more battalions and 10 squadrons over the Rhine at Büsingen. [13] [14]

Learning of the double-pronged advance, Masséna seized the opportunity to drive a wedge between the two Austrian commands and on 25 May launched attacks against Hotze's Corps to the east and Nauendorf's to the north. Hotze's advance troops under Petrasch were driven from Frauenfeld by Soult, while against the Archduke Michel Ney erupted from Winterthur, seized Andelfingen and threw back Nauendorf from Pfyn. Although the French were forced to withdraw on the appearance of Austrian reserves, nevertheless for a loss of 771 men they'd inflicted some 2,000 casualties and 3,000 prisoners on the Austrians. [15]

On the 27th Ney was wounded and his men driven from Winterthur, Masséna thereafter concentrated his forces at Zürich, closely pressed by the Archduke Charles and Hotze.

By the end of the month the French were positioned: Soult's Division was on the Zürichberg overlooking the open country to the north from an entrenched camp constructed by Andréossi. To his left Oudinot's Division lay in support, with Gazan's brigade in the town of Zürich itself. Tharreau's Division continued the line across the Aare, with troops under Lorge' guarding the left of the Rhine to Basel. To Soult's right Chabran guarded the south of Lake Zürich, with outposts stretched to link with the troops of Lecourbe' at Lucerne and the Andermatt valley. In all some 52,000 French and Swiss troops. The entrenchments on the Zürichberg were in a 5 mile long semi-circle from Riesbach to Hongg, but were incomplete. [16]

Charles decided to launch his main attack by the surest (though difficult) route, directly against the Zürichberg with his left and centre, holding his right wing back to protect his line of retreat.

Jelačić's advance against Witikon

On 2 June, Archduke Charles became aware that Hotze's advance guard under Jelačić was advancing up against the main French positions near Witikon, and sent a message ordering him not to attack until all his other troops were ready; however, from 3:00am on the 3rd, Jelačić was already engaged against Humbert's brigade by the time these instructions arrived and the action soon grew into a desperate fight. After 4 hours Soult's men were driven from Witikon and the fighting continued all through the day. As things began to look serious for Soult, Masséna, musket in hand, led a counter-attack at the head of his reserve grenadiers. The combined effort eventually pushed back the Austrians and secured the camp after a bloody fight, the French losing 500 killed and wounded, including Masséna's Chief of Staff Chérin mortally wounded. [17]

Map of the First Battle of Zurich, 4 June 1799 Map of the First Battle of Zurich.jpg
Map of the First Battle of Zurich, 4 June 1799

Attack on the Zürichberg

The next day on 4 June, Charles crossed the Glatt and launched a broad attack in five columns:

Oudinot, though missing half of his force in Zürich, nevertheless threw himself on Rosenberg, attempting to drive in the Austrian flank. After a desperate fight, the French were driven back, Oudinot carried from the field wounded by a ball in the chest. Charles' right flank under Nauendorf (15 battalions and 9 squadrons) remained held back to guard Glattfelden. [18]

On the Zürichberg, Soult's Division was assailed by three columns and pinned down to their trenches. Repeated assaults were beaten off and the fighting bogged down into an intense firefight. At 2:00pm, Charles assembled five battalions from his reserve including his own Guard of Honour and directed Olivier, Count of Wallis to lead these storming up the hill. Leaving one battalion to watch the bridges, Wallis led the other four up a steep and narrow ravine against the French defences. The combat degenerated into close hand-to-hand fighting, with soldiers using the butts of their muskets against the French abatis.

At last at 8:00pm, after a desperate fight, the Austrians were able to break through and pour into the camp behind. Sword in hand, Soult and his staff placed themselves at the head of a few companies of troops, launched a counter-attack against the rear of the Austrian column and drove them back to the bottom of the hill. Masséna urged his artillery to redouble their efforts and brought up his reserve of grenadiers. The Austrian attack crumbled; those in the camp were scattered, those behind driven back. [19]

Over the course of the day, Charles lost 2,000 men, including three generals wounded, and 1,200 prisoners. [20] The French lost more than 1,200 killed and wounded.


After the bloody fighting on the 4th Charles fell back a short distance to recover and devise a second attack for the 6th. Masséna used the time on the 5th to regroup, and that night as the Austrians assembled for their attack, he withdraw to a strong position in front of Zürich, abandoning 28 guns commandeered from Zürich. His forces were now more concentrated, while the lake would oblige his opponent to divide his forces.

The second day of battle never came. At noon on the 6th, following a parley, the French were allowed to leave Zürich, Masséna withdrew to the Uetliberg and arrange his line along the banks of the Limmat. In Zürich, Charles found 150 cannons of various calibers. The outcome of the battle also damaged Austro-Russian relations, because Charles failed to follow up on the French defeat. [21]

In terms of personnel, both sides lost a general: Louis Nicolas Hyacinthe Chérin and Olivier Wallis. [22]

See also


  1. Timothy Blanning. The French Revolutionary Wars, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 41–59.
  2. Blanning. pp. 41–59.
  3. Blanning. pp. 230–232.
  4. John Gallagher. Napoleon's enfant terrible: General Dominique Vandamme, Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008, ISBN   978-0-8061-3875-6 p. 70.
  5. Albert Seaton. The Austro-Hungarian army of the Napoleonic wars. London: Osprey, 1973, ISBN   978-0-85045-147-4, p. 15.
  6. A.B. Rodger. The War of the Second Coalition: A strategic commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964, p. 158.
  7. John Young, D.D. A History of the Commencement, Progress, and Termination of the Late War between Great Britain and France which continued from the first day of February 1793 to the first of October 1801. Two volumes. Edinburg: Turnbull, 1802, vol. 2, p. 220.
  8. Blanning, p. 232.
  9. Gunther E. Rothenberg. Napoleon's Great Adversary: Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army 1792–1914. Stroud (Gloccester): Spellmount, 2007, p. 74. For further information on the Army of the Danube's movements and orders, see Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. A Memoir of the operations of the army of the Danube under the command of General Jourdan, taken from the manuscripts of that officer. London: Debrett, 1799, pp. 140–144. For further information on its size and composition, see Army of the Danube order of battle, or Roland Kessinger, Order of Battle, Army of the Danube Archived 7 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine . Retrieved 3 December 2009.
  10. Rodgers, pp. 158159.
  11. Ramsey Weston Phipps. The Armies of the First French Republic. Volume 5: The armies of the Rhine in Switzerland, Holland, Italy, Egypt and the coup d'etat of Brumaire, 1797–1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, pp. 49–50; Digby Smith. The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill, 1998, ISBN   1-85367-276-9, p. 156;
  12. Rodger, pp. 158162.
  13. Shadwell p.99
  14. Hotze's force included in the seven battalions and two companies of line infantry, a single battalion of light infantry, six squadrons of dragoons, a squadron of seasoned border infantry ( Smith 1998 , p. 167).
  15. Shadwell p.103-105, Phipps V p.97-98
  16. Phipps, V, p.101
  17. Phipps V p.101
  18. Shadwell p. 121–123
  19. Shadwell p. 124
  20. Generals Hotze, Wallis and Hiller. Phipps V p. 103
  21. Smith, 158.
  22. Smith, 158.

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Further reading