Combat of Neukirchen, 17 August 1796

The combat of Neukirchen (17 August 1796) was an unnecessarily costly clash between General Ney's advance guard and a strong Austrian force that was one of the last French successes during General Jourdan's invasion of Germany in the summer of 1796. Since crossing the Rhine at the start of July Jourdan had followed the Austrians as they retreated up the Main and the Rednitz. The Archduke Charles, who had overall command of the Austrian armies on the Rhine, was faced with two simultaneous French invasions – Jourdan's in the north and Moreau's in the south. He decided to conduct fighting retreats on both fronts, pulling back towards the Danube, where he hoped to combine his two armies and crush whichever French army was most vulnerable.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1796
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1796

After the battle of Neresheim (11 August 1796) the Archduke decided to concentrate against Jourdan, and on 16 August he began his advance north from the Danube. General Wartensleben, the commander of the army facing Jourdan, had attempted to defend a position just to the north of Nuremburg, but on 7 August he was forced to abandon this line (combat of Forchheim). Wartensleben was ordered to retreat east, up the Pegnitz River and then on the Amberg, where the Austrians hoped to combine their armies.

The route from Nuremburg to Amberg runs up the Pegnitz valley for just under twenty miles, and then cuts across a range of hills to Sulzbach before heading south-east to Amberg. The Austrian rearguard, 13,000 men under General Kray, was posted at Sulzbach. Kray also posted a strong force further west, with it's right on the heights of Neukirchen and its left on the hills that overlook the road.

Moreau was forced to send most of his heavy equipment and guns along the main road, which was the only route capable of taking artillery. The infantry advanced on a wider front. On 16 August Lefebvre moved up the main valley to Hohenstadt, where the modern road leaves the river, while his advance guard approached Neukirchen. Gernier's division moved further east to Bachetsfeld, to the south of the Austrian position, with orders to get as close to the enemy as possible. Championnet's division, with Bonnaud's cavalry, moved across the hills to the south, leaving the main valley at Happurg.

The fighting on 17 August was triggered by General Ney, the commander of the French advance guard. Although he was badly outnumbered by Kray, Ney launched an impetuous attack on the Austrian lines. His small force was soon close to being surrounded by several Austrian battalions. Jourdan realised that his advance-guard was in danger, and ordered his divisions forward. General Grenier arrived first, and saved Ney. General Lefebvre then threatened Kray's right flank, and the Austrians retreated east to Sulzbach.

Kray reformed his line at Sulzbach. His right was on a hill close to the town, while his left ran south to a forest at Haar. The French soon forced Kray out of this new line. Collaud attacked the front of the Austrian position, Grenier attacked the centre, and Olivier's brigade advanced around the Austrian right wing at Haar. The Austrian right pulled back to Rosenberg (now merged with Sulzbach).

The battle ended at nightfall. Both sides camped on the battlefield, but early on 18 August Wartensleben decided to retreat back to the Naab. Kray was pulled back to Amberg, which he held for a short time before retreating again to Wolfring, where he fought another engagement on 20 August before joined the main force across the Naab.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 February 2009), Combat of Neukirchen, 17 August 1796 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/combat_neukirchen.html

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