Franz Sebastian de Croix, Graf von Clerfayt, 1733-98

Franz Sebastian de Croix, Graf von Clerfayt (1733-98) was a senior Austrian general in the early years of the War of the First Coalition, and fought through the entire campaign in the Austrian Netherlands in 1792-94, before defeating a French offensive across the Rhine in 1795.

Clerfayt was born near Binche, just to the west of Charleroi in the Austria Netherlands. He entered the Imperial and Royal Army in 1753, as a Unterleutnant (2nd Lieutenant) in Infantry Regiment 30. During the Seven Years War Clerfayt fought at Prague (6 May 1757), Leuthen (5 December 1757) and Liegnitz (15 August 1760), gaining an impressive reputation, promotion to Oberst (Colonel commanding) of his regiment, and was awarded with the Maria Theresa Order.

After the Seven Years War Clerfayt resigned in protest at the Emperor Joseph II's reforms, and did not return to the army until the start of the War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778, when he was promoted to Generalmajor (Major-General). During the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-91 Clerfayt was promoted to General of Infantry (Feldzeugmeister), and was given command of a special corps that defeated the Turkish army that had invaded the Banat.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1792
War of the First Coalition -
Rhine Front 1792

In 1792, at the start of the War of the First Coalition, Clerfayt was appointed to command an Austrian corps in the Allied army under the command of the Prussian general the Duke of Brunswick. In that capacity Clerfayt took part in the sieges of Longwy and Verdun, and was present during the Allied defeat at Valmy. In the aftermath of the French victory at Jemappes in the Austrian Netherlands Clerfayt took command of the defeated Allied army, but by the start of the 1793 campaign he had been replaced by the Prince of Saxe-Coburg.

The Allies began the campaign of 1793 with a series of victories. Clerfayt commanded a division in the army that crossed the Roer on 1 March, defeating the French in the battle of Aldenhoven (1 March 1793). He then commanded the Allied left wing in the crucial battle of Neerwinden (18 March 1793), an Allied victory that triggered the fall of General Dumouriez and the Allied recovery of Brussels.

After that dramatic start to the campaign the Allies settled down to besiege a series of French fortresses. Clerfayt played an important part in the victory at Famars (23 May 1793), which allowed the Allies to besiege Valenciennes. He then went on to command the besieging force at Quesnoy (19 August-11 September 1793), one of the last Allied victories of the year. The Allies then moved on to besiege Maubeuge, but their slow progress had given the French time to raise new armies, and on 15-16 October the Allied covering army was defeated at Wattignies. Clerfeyt had command of the Allied army on the first day of the battle, but had been joined by Saxe-Coburg on the second day.

Over the winter of 1793-94 the Allies reorganised their armies. At first it was suggested that Clerfayt could take overall command, but the Duke of York, commanding the British contingent, refused to serve under someone of such comparatively low social rank. The British Government then decided that they wanted the Duke to operate alongside Saxe-Coburg in the centre of the Allied line, and so the British moved east, while Clerfayt moved west to take command of the Allied right wing, in western Flanders.

This put him directly in the way of the main French offensive of 1794. On 24 April, while Saxe-Coburg besieged Landrecies, three French armies invaded Flanders, starting from Dunkirk, Cassel and Lille. Clerfayt had been pulled south from his base at Tournai by a French attack on the small force linking his left wing to the main Allied army, but even when he returned to the front the Allies were badly outnumbered. Clerfayt was attacked and defeated at Mouscron (29 April 1794) while preparing to make an attempt to lift the siege of Menin (27-30 April 1794).

This defeat forced the Allies to send reinforcements under the Duke of York west to Flanders in an attempt to restore the situation. Clerfayt took up a position to the north of the Duke, facing west towards the French on a line that ran roughly from Courtrai to Tournai. On 10 May a French attack on the southern part of the Allied line was repulsed at Willems, but on 11 May Clerfayt was attacked and defeated at Courtrai, and was forced to retreat north.

The Allied line in Flanders was now broken in two, and Saxe-Coburg was forced to move west with his main army. On 17-18 May Clerfayt commanded the extreme right wing of the Allied army that was defeated at Tourcoing, and was blamed by some for his slow progress towards and across the Lys River.

On 22 May the French attacked the main Allied army at Tournai. The French were defeated, but after the battle the Emperor Francis II decided to return to Vienna and leave Saxe-Coburg and his brother the Archduke Charles to conduct the campaign. Clerfayt remained on the right of the Allied line, where during the first half of June the French besieged and captured Ypres. Clerfayt made two attempts to lift the siege, without success.

While Clerfayt was busy around Ypres, Saxe-Coburg was forced to move east in an attempt to life the siege of Charleroi. On 24 June this attempt failed (Battle of Fleurus), and the entire Allied position in Belgium began to crumble. As Saxe-Coburg retreated north to Brussels, Clerfayt and the Duke of York agreed to swap places. The Duke moving west and Clerfayt east to bring all of the Austrian forces together. This move made it easier for the Allied army to pull apart. On 15 July General Jourdan captured Louvain, and the Austrians began to retreat east. The Anglo-Dutch and Austrian armies were no longer firmly connected.

On 9 August Coburg resigned, and Clerfayt was appointed to replace him. Clerfayt's orders were to defend Luxembourg, Mainz and Mannheim, and made no mention of the Austrian Netherlands. Despite this Clerfayt suggested a coordinated advance to save Valenciennes and Condé, and meet with the Duke of York on 1 September to arrange this, but the fall of those fortresses ended that plan.

By the middle of September Clerfayt's line ran along the Meuse, from Ruremonde at the right to Liége, with the left thrown back to Sprimont. The left wing was covered by the Ourthe. Jourdan had been stationary for some time, waiting for General Scherer to recapture Condé and Valenciennes. By the end of August the fortresses had fallen, and after Scherer joined him Jourdan went onto the offensive.

On 14 September Kléber was sent to attack the Austrian right and centre, and then on 17-18 September Jourdan made his main assault, against the Austrian left (battle of the Ourthe). General Latour was unable to hold his position at Sprimont, and Clerfayt was forced back to the Roer.

Clerfayt's new position stretched from Ruremonde on his right, to Juliers and Aldenhoven in the centre, to Duerin at the left. Once again he was unable to hold the line of the river, and was pushed back to the Rhine (battle of the Roer, 2 October). Clerfayt's new position ran from Bonn at the left down to Duisburg at the right, with Jourdan facing him across the Rhine.

At the start of 1795 Clerfayt was promoted to Field Marshal, and given command for the Army of the Lower Rhine, with a front that stretched from Düssedorf to the Neckar at Mannheim. A second Austrian army, under General Wurmser, was taking shape in the Black Forest, but would not play an important role in the fighting until the summer.

By the summer of 1795 the French had two armies on the Rhine. In the north was General Jourdan with the Army of the Sambre and the Meuse, while to the south was General Pichegru with the Army of the Rhine and the Moselle. The two armies met around Mainz, where Pichegru was in charge of the French siege of the city.

At the start of September Jourdan crossed the Rhine at Düsseldorf, and further north in neutral Prussian territory. Clerfayt's right wing was forced to retreat, and by 20 September Jourdan was on the River Lahn, with his left at Wetzler and his right at Nassau. Further south Pichegru had captured Mannheim. He then made a half-hearted attempt to capture Clerfayt's main magazine at Heidelberg. Clerfeyt was forced to mouth south from his position on the River Mein to deal with this threat, but the French attack was repulsed by General Quasdanowich before he arrived on the scene.

Jourdan was now in a rather vulnerable position, isolated on the east bank of the Rhine and with his left flank only protected by the neutrality of Frankfurt. Clerfayt proceeded to ignore this neutrality, and marched part of his army around the French left. Jourdan was forced to retreat north and crossed back across the Rhine between Bonn and Coblenz (Battle of Hochst).

French politics then gave Clerfayt a chance to win his most famous victory. The Committee of Public Safety refused to allow Jourdan and Pichegru to operate together. Jourdan was ordered to remain around Düsseldorf, but with his right wing around Mannheim, and more troops besieging Mainz, while Pichegru was ordered to move south to cross the Rhine again. Clerfayt took advantage of this to split the French armies in two. On 29 October, having reinforced the garrison of Mainz, he launched an attack from the besieged city which overran the French siege works. Pichegru was forced to pull back to the south, with Clerfayt in pursuit. Mannheim then surrendered to Wurmser, who was able to cross the river and take over pursuit. This freed Clerfayt to move south to face Jourdan. On 16 December the Austrians defeated an attack on their lines, and Jourdan was forced to pull back to the Moselle.  

This ended the fighting for the year. With winter approaching Clerfayt arranged an armistice with Jourdan, which also included Pichegru's army, and retired into winter quarters. On his return to Vienna Clerfayt was applauded for his victories, but the armistice was less popular. Early in 1796 he fell ill, and his opponents used the chance to have him replaced by the Archduke Charles, ending his military career. Clerfayt died two years later. 

Clerfayt has a mixed reputation. His performance in the Austrian Netherlands was not always impressive, and he was criticised by the British for his slowness, but most of the time he was operating under someone else's authority. His last campaign, on the Rhine, was probably his most impressive, but even them he missed a chance to inflict a much more serious defeat on the French, allowing too many of his own troops to stay on the east bank of the Rhine and too many of the French troops around Mainz to escape.

For some reason no accepted spelling of Clerfayt's name has been adopted, and he will be found as Clerfayt, Clarfait, Clarfayt, Clairfait and Clairfayt in different sources.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 January 2009), Title, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_clerfayt.html

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