Battle of Neerwinden, 18 March 1793

The battle of Neerwinden, 18 March 1793, was a major Austrian victory over the armies of Revolutionary France that helped to temporarily expel the French from the Austrian Netherlands, and caused the downfall of General Charles Dumouriez, the victor of Jemappes. On 1 February 1793 the French Republic expanded the scope of the War of the First Coalition by declaring war on Britain and the Netherlands.

At first Dumouriez's invasion of Holland had prospered. While he attacked and captured a number of fortresses close to the coast, General Miranda began a siege of Maastricht, at the southern tip of the Netherlands, but on 1 March an Austrian army under the Prince of Saxe-Coburg launched a counterattack across the Roer, defeating the French at Aldenhoven on 1 March, and then forcing them out of Aix-la-Chapelle on 2 March. Dumouriez was forced to leave his army in Holland and travel south in an attempt to save the army in Belgium.

Dumouriez joined that army on 13 March at Louvain, and almost immediately decided to go onto the offensive. After a series of minor clashes along the road between Liège and Brussels, Saxe-Coburg had taken up a position behind the Kleine Geete, with its centre around the village of Neerwinden.

The Austrian right, under Archduke Charles, was posted across the Tirlemont-Maastricht road, in a position just to the east of the Kleine Geete river. The Austrian left, under General Clairfayt, was posted from Neerwinden (at the north) to Oberwinden (at the south of the line), a little further back from the river, with the Mittelwinden hill between the two villages.

Dumouriez's plan assumed that the Austrian's would be strongest on their right, where they were defending their supply lines, and so he decided to attack in strength around their left. The army was split into eight columns. On the French right General Valence was to use one column to outflank Oberwinden, the second to attack the village head-on and the third to capture the hill at Mittelwinden. In the centre the Duc de Chartres was to use his two columns to attack around Neerwinden. On the left General Miranda was to use one of his columns to capture Leau, to the north of the main battle, and the other two to attack along the high road.

The attack on the French right began with a surprise crossing of the river at 7.00am, but Valence was unable to capture the Mittelwinden hill until noon. Neerwinder was captured early then abandoned. The duc de Chartres recaptured it for the French, only to be driven out. Further south Oberwinden was taken by the French then retaken by Clairfayt. An Austrian cavalry attack then forced the French to pull back further. Dumouriez attempted to attack with his entire right wing, but without success. By the end of the day the Austrian left was in roughly the same positions as at the start of the day, with Dumouriez and the French right still facing them.

On the left Miranda began his main attack at around noon, having already captured the village of Orsmael, but the main fighting took place between three and six in the afternoon. Miaczynski's column captured the village of Dorsmael, but was then expelled from it by a series of determined Austrian counterattacks. Miranda's second column attacked the Archduke Charles, but was unable to make any headway against his strong defensive position, and was forced to retreat when it was attacked by Austrian troops from Dorsmael. Finally the attack on Leau ended in failure when the column ran into part of the Austrian second line. Miranda was forced to retreat back across the Kleine Geete towards Tirlemont. In a letter of 21 March Miranda reported that one general officer was killed and over thirty officers killed or wounded, including his aide-de-camp, while 2,000 men were killed or wounded on his flank. Overall French losses were around 4,000, while the Austrians lost 2,000 men.

Either late on the day of the battle, or early on the following morning, Dumouriez discovered that he was isolated in front of Neerwinden, and was forced to retreat. In the suspicious atmosphere of the French Revolution any defeated general immediately came under suspicion. Miranda's supports accused Dumouriez of deliberately sacrificing their hero, who he no longer trusted politically, by giving him orders that could not be successfully carried out. This may be somewhat unfair – if the attack on the Austrian left had succeeded as planned, then Miranda wouldn't have faced such a difficult task.

Dumouriez's conduct was soon exposed to constant attack within France. After a minor defeat at Louvain on 21 or 22 March, he opened negotiations with the Austrians. General Mack (famously defeated at Ulm) agreed to let the French army retreat beyond Brussels unmolested, an arrangement that helped preserve that army, but that further exposed Dumouriez to attack by the radicals. By now he was seriously considering attempting to use his army against the increasingly radical National Convention, but in early April it became clear that his army would not support him in this, and on 5 April he defected to the Austrians.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 January 2009), Battle of Neerwinden, 18 March 1793 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_neerwinden_1793.html

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