French invasion of Switzerland

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French invasion of Switzerland
Part of the French Revolutionary Wars
The Battle of Grauholz. The Last Days of Old Bern. Painting by Friedrich Walthard (1818–1870).
Date28 January – 17 May 1798

Decisive French victory

  • Switzerland becomes a French client state
Flag of Switzerland.svg Switzerland Flag of France.svg French Republic
Swiss rebels
Commanders and leaders
Karl Ludwig von Erlach Guillaume Brune
Alexis Schauenburg
Philippe Romain Ménard

The French invasion of Switzerland (French: Campagne d'Helvétie, German: Franzoseneinfall) occurred from January until May 1798 as part of the French Revolutionary Wars. The independent Old Swiss Confederacy collapsed, both by this foreign invasion and simultaneous internal revolts, termed the "Helvetic Revolution". Its Ancien Régime institutions were abolished and replaced by the centralised pro-French Helvetic Republic.

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, Prussia, Russia 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.

Old Swiss Confederacy (1291-1798)

The Old Swiss Confederacy was a loose confederation of independent small states within the Holy Roman Empire. It is the precursor of the modern state of Switzerland.

Early Modern Switzerland aspect of history

The early modern history of the Old Swiss Confederacy and its constituent Thirteen Cantons encompasses the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) until the French invasion of 1798.



Before 1798, the modern region of Vaud belonged to the Canton of Bern, to which it had a dependent status. Moreover, the majority of Francophone Catholic Vaudese felt oppressed by the German-speaking Protestant majority of Bern. Several Vaudese patriots such as Frédéric-César de La Harpe advocated for independence. In 1795, La Harpe called on his compatriots to rise up against the Bernese aristocrats, but his appeal fell to deaf ears, and he had to flee to Revolutionary France, where he resumed his activism.

Canton of Bern Canton of Switzerland

The canton of Bern or Berne is the second largest of the 26 Swiss cantons by both surface area and population. Located in west-central Switzerland, it borders the canton of Jura and the canton of Solothurn to the north. To the west lie the canton of Neuchâtel, the canton of Fribourg and canton of Vaud. To the south lies the canton of Valais. East of the canton of Bern lie the cantons of Uri, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Lucerne and Aargau.

Frédéric-César de La Harpe Swiss political leader

Frédéric-César de La Harpe was a Swiss political leader, scholar, and Vaudois patriot best known for his pivotal role in the formation of the Helvetic Republic, and for serving as a member of the Helvetic Directory.

French First Republic republic governing France, 1792-1804

In the history of France, the First Republic, officially the French Republic, was founded on 22 September 1792 during the French Revolution. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First Empire in 1804 under Napoleon, although the form of the government changed several times. This period was characterized by the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the National Convention and the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction and the founding of the Directory, and, finally, the creation of the Consulate and Napoleon's rise to power.

Liberty tree erected in Basel. This act was repeated in other Swiss places to symbolise revolution and liberation. Bild Freiheitsbaum Basel.jpg
Liberty tree erected in Basel. This act was repeated in other Swiss places to symbolise revolution and liberation.

In late 1797, French general Napoleon Bonaparte, who had just successfully conquered northern Italy and founded the Cisalpine Republic, pressed the French Directory to occupy Switzerland; soon 10,000 troops gathered near the city of Genève. [1] Valtellina, Chiavenna and Bormio, dependencies of the Three Leagues, revolted and with French support seceded from the Confederacy to join the Cisalpine Republic on 10 October 1797. In December, the southern part of the Prince-Bishopric of Basel was occupied and annexed to France. [2] The atmosphere inside Switzerland had changed significantly due to these developments, and many pro-French patriots hoped, and anti-French conservatives feared, that the Revolution would now spread to the rest of the Confederacy, with or without direct French military intervention. France used the dissatisfaction of the rural elites in the dependencies and the Enlightened citizenry in the cantons to stimulate revolutionary excitement. [2]

Cisalpine Republic French client republic in Northern Italy (1797-1802)

The Cisalpine Republic was a sister republic of France in Northern Italy that lasted from 1797 to 1802.

French Directory Executive power of the French Constitution of 1795-1799

The Directory or Directorate was a five-member committee that governed France from 2 November 1795, when it replaced the Committee of Public Safety, until 9 November 1799, when it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Coup of 18 Brumaire, and replaced by the French Consulate. It gave its name to the final four years of the French Revolution.

Valtellina valley in Northern Italy

Valtellina or the Valtelline is a valley in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, bordering Switzerland. Today it is known for its ski center, hot spring spas, bresaola, cheeses and wines. In past centuries it was a key alpine pass between northern Italy and Germany and control of the Valtellina was much sought after, particularly during the Thirty Years' War.

The first event of what would become known as the "Helvetic Revolution" happened with a patriot uprising in Liestal in the Canton of Basel on 17 January. The rebels demanded legal equality, erected a liberty tree and burnt down three Vogtei castles by 23 January. [3] On 24 January 1798, the urban elite of Vaud proclaimed the Lemanic Republic (French: République lémanique) [4] in Lausanne, which became its seat of government. [5] Next, citizens and subjects in countless Swiss cities, cantons and their dependencies rebelled, and after the example of Vaud, more than 40 other short-lived republics were proclaimed in February, March and April throughout the country. [1]

Liestal Place in Basel-Landschaft, Switzerland

Liestal is the capital of Liestal District and the canton of Basel-Landschaft in Switzerland, 17 km (11 mi) south of Basel.

Canton of Basel Historical canton of Switzerland

Basel was a canton of Switzerland that was in existence between 1501 and 1833, when it was split into the two half-cantons of Basel-City and Basel-Country.

Liberty pole tall wooden pole surmounted by a Phrygian cap

A liberty pole is a tall wooden pole, often used as a type of flagstaff, planted in the ground, surmounted by a Phrygian cap. The symbol originated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar by a group of Rome's Senators in 44 BC. Immediately after Caesar was killed, the leaders of the assassination plot went to meet a crowd of Romans at the Roman Forum; a pileus was placed atop a pole to symbolize that the Roman people had been freed from the rule of Caesar, which the assassins claimed had become a tyranny because it overstepped the authority of the Senate and thus betrayed the Republic. In his "Apotheosis of Venice" (1585) Paolo Veronese has the ascendant Venice flanked by several symbolic persons, one of whom represents Liberty, dressed as a peasant hoisting a red Phrygian cap on a spear. During the French revolution, the Roman pileus was confused with the Phrygian cap, and this mis-identification then led to the use of the Phrygian cap as a symbol of liberal democratic republicanism.


At the invitation of French-speaking factions in Vaud, 12,000 French troops under general Ménard invaded Vaud on 28 January. An alleged incident, in which French soldiers were killed by Swiss soldiers, was cited as an pretext. [1] They occupied Vaud without resistance and were cheered on by the population. A second army under general Schauenburg advanced from Mont-Terrible, the former Prince-Bishopric of Basel, towards Bern and demanded its government to put pro-French Revolutionary parties in power. The Bernese refusal to do so was used by the French to justify war. On 3 February, the Légion fidèle or "Loyal Legion" was formed out of French-speaking volunteers from Vaud who wished to stay loyal to Bern and recapture the Lemanic Republic.

Balthazar Alexis Henri Schauenburg

Balthazar Alexis Henri Schauenburg, was a French general who served in the wars of the French Revolution and the Empire. He briefly commanded the Army of the Moselle in 1793 during the War of the First Coalition. A nobleman, he joined the French Royal Army as a sous-lieutenant in 1764. The French Revolution led to rapid promotion and then to arrest for the crime of being an aristocrat. Later restored to command, he commanded Kehl in 1796 and invaded Switzerland in 1798. He served in Jean Victor Marie Moreau's army in 1800 and held commands in the interior under the First French Empire. He retired from the army in 1814 and died in 1831. Schawembourg is one of the names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe, on Column 23.

Mont-Terrible French department between 1793-1800

Mont-Terrible[mɔ̃ tɛ.ʁibl] was one of the 130 departments of Napoleonic France, with its capital at Porrentruy.

Prince-Bishopric of Basel principality

The Prince-Bishopric of Basel was an ecclesiastical principality within the Holy Roman Empire, ruled from 1032 by Prince-Bishops with their seat at Basel, and from 1528 until 1792 at Porrentruy, and thereafter at Schliengen. The final dissolution of the state occurred in 1803 as part of the German Mediatisation.

Contemporary drawing of the battle of Neuenegg, 5 March 1798. Schlacht bei Neuenegg 1798.jpg
Contemporary drawing of the battle of Neuenegg, 5 March 1798.

There were minor skirmishes on 2–5 March 1798, leading to the swift collapse of the Old Confederacy. On 5 March, the French attained a clear victory in the Battle of Grauholz over the Bernese forces, confirming Vaud's secession. It led to even more dependencies across Switzerland declaring themselves independent republics. However, the Directory desired a single central republican state at France's eastern border, not dozens of small ones, and steered towards (re)establishment of national unity, though this time with equality for all its subdivisions. A new Constitution had already been written in Paris by Peter Ochs and approved by the Directory. Many Swiss rebels detested it, and the National Convention in Basel passed a modified version, which was then adopted by many other entities, but the French government insisted on the original. A proposal by Supreme Commander Guillaume Brune on 16 and 19 March to divide Switzerland into three republics was also overruled; Paris enforced its design. [6]

Battle of Grauholz battle

The Battle of Grauholz on 5 March 1798 was a battle between a Bernese army under Karl Ludwig von Erlach against the French Revolutionary Army under Balthazar Alexis Henri Schauenburg. The battle took place at Grauholz, a wooded hill in what is now the municipalities of Urtenen-Schönbühl and Moosseedorf in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. The government of Bern had already surrendered the previous day and the Bernese defeat at Grauholz ended their resistance to the French in the north of the canton.

Peter Ochs Swiss politician

Peter Ochs was a Swiss politician who is best known for drawing up the first constitution of the short-lived Helvetic Republic.

Guillaume Brune French diplomat

Guillaume Marie-Anne Brune, 1st Comte Brune was a French soldier and political figure who rose to Marshal of France.

On 12 April 1798, 121 cantonal deputies proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, "One and Indivisible". The new régime abolished cantonal sovereignty and feudal rights. The occupying forces established a centralised state based on the ideas of the French Revolution. The clashes of April and May represent the last pockets of resistance against the recently established Helvetic Republic. The Nidwalden uprising (Schreckenstage von Nidwalden) in September was more serious, with 435 dead, including 118 women and 25 children. Its repression confirmed the new political situation.


Map of the French invasion of Switzerland and the simultaneous Helvetic Revolution. Helvetische Revolution.png
Map of the French invasion of Switzerland and the simultaneous Helvetic Revolution.
2 March 1798Battle of Lengnau Lengnau France vs. Bern
2 March 1798Battle of Twann Twann France vs. Bern
2 March 1798Battles of Grenchen and Bellach Grenchen, Bellach France defeats Solothurn
3 March 1798Battle of Col de la Croix Col de la Croix France vs. Bern
5 March 1798Battle of St. Niklaus Merzligen France vs. Bern
5 March 1798Battle of Fraubrunnen Fraubrunnen France defeats Bern
5 March 1798 Battle of Grauholz Schönbühl France defeats Bern
5 March 1798Battle of Neuenegg Neuenegg Bern defeats France
26 April 1798Battle of Hägglingen Hägglingen France defeats Zug
30 April 1798Battle of Wollerau Wollerau France defeats Schwyz
1 May 1798Battle of Stucketen-Chäppeli Beinwil SO France vs. Solothurn
2 May 1798Battle of Schindellegi Feusisberg France defeats Schwyz
2/3 May 1798Battle of Rothenthurm Rothenthurm Schwyz defeats France
17 May 17981st Battle of Pfyn Sion France defeats Valais
7–9 September 1798Nidwalden uprising Nidwalden France defeats Nidwalden


The invasion strained the recently concluded Treaty of Campo Formio (18 October 1797) that had ended the War of the First Coalition against France. Now, the European monarchies once again feared republican France was expanding its grip on the continent, and had to be opposed and driven back. The French conquest of Switzerland, which had maintained its neutrality ever since the outbreak of the French Revolution, was one of the reasons for the formation of the Second Coalition, and would see an Austro-Russian army conduct the Italian and Swiss expedition in 1799 and 1800.

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Canton of Vaud Canton of Switzerland

The canton of Vaud is the third largest of the Swiss cantons by population and fourth by size. It is located in Romandy, the French-speaking western part of the country; and borders the canton of Neuchâtel to the north, the cantons of Fribourg and Bern to the east, Valais and Lake Geneva to the south, the canton of Geneva to the south-west and France to the west.

Helvetic Republic former Swiss polity under Napoleonic domination

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Act of Mediation decree by Napoleon Bonaparte on 19 February 1803, re-establishing the Swiss cantons and the Confederation, abolishing the Helvetic Republic

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  1. 1 2 3 Nappey, Grégoire (2012). Swiss History in a Nutshell. Basel: Bergli Books. p. 43. ISBN   9783905252453 . Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  2. 1 2 Andreas Fankhauser (27 January 2011). "Helvetische Republik. §1.1 - Die politische Umwälzung". Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (in German). Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  3. Andreas Fankhauser (24 March 2011). "Helvetische Revolution §2. Die Helvetische Revolution vor dem französischen Angriff". Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (in German). Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  4. The word lémanique referred to the French name of Lake Geneva, Lac Léman. This followed the practice of Revolutionary France to erase the traditional toponymy of the Ancien Régime, and replace it with natural units such as rivers.
  5. Hug, Lina; Stead, Richard (1890). The Story of Switzerland. United States: Library of Alexandria. p. 210. ISBN   9781465597243 . Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  6. Andreas Fankhauser (24 March 2011). "Helvetische Revolution §3. Die Entwicklung nach dem französischen Einmarsch". Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (in German). Retrieved 26 May 2016.