1703 – Siege of Alt-Breisach

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Hierarchical Path: War of the Spanish Succession (Main Page) >> Sieges >> 1703 – Siege of Alt-Breisach

The siege lasted from August to September 1703


With a combined Franco-Bavarian army operating on the Danube, the Imperialists were forced to redirect part of the army of Margrave Louis of Baden to Bavaria. This left the French army campaigning on the Rhine with the initiative. The Imperialists having evacuated the Lines of the Lauter, these defensive works were immediately demolished by the French.

After much deliberations to decide which fortress of Freiburg, Alt-Breisach or Landau should be the target of their operations, Louis XIV, the Duc de Bougogne and the Maréchal de Tallard finally chose to lay siege to Alt-Breisach. Louis XIV then sent the Maréchal de Vauban to supervise the planned siege of Alt-Breisach.

On 10 August, the Lieutenant-General Comte de Marsin marched to Willstätt with 4,500 men, most of the French artillery, baggage.

On 11 August, French baggage reached Bouchers near Strasbourg. Meanwhile, Saint-Second's Brigade set off from Fort-Louis and encamped at Offendorf. Marsin with the artillery marched from Willstätt towards Kenzingen. The Duc de Bourgogne marched at the head of the main body from Erlach to Zunsweier.

On 12 August, Marsin marched to Kenzingen while the Duc de Bourgogne marched to Schuttern.

On 13 August, the Duc de Bourgogne marched to Ettenheim. Furthermore, 10,000 peasants were requisitioned to build a circumvallation to cover the siege.

On 14 August, Marsin with 1,500 dragoons made a demonstration in front of Freiburg while the Duc de Bourgogne marched to Riegel and Endingen. Furthermore, Saint-Second's Brigade escorted the artillery train from Strasbourg to Neuf-Brissac and baggage followed. In the evening, the Maréchal de Vauban joined the army.


At the beginning of the XVIIth century, Alt-Breisach had a great importance. The fortress covered an important passage over the untamed current of the Rhine, which multiplied in several branches both above and below the fortress, forming numerous dead arms, marshes and floodplain covered islands. The fortress dominated the main arm of the river. Furthermore, two roads ran along the right bank of the Rhine, only a little above the level of the river, leading to Kehl and, via Freiburg, through the Black Forest. While the banks of the Rhine are generally flat from Basel down to Strasbourg, the foothills of the Tuni-Berg and and of the Kaiserstuhl are only 5 km from the Rhine at the height of Alt-Breisach. Between the heights and the fortress, a plain spread out. One of the arms of the Rhine was used as a moat along the foot of the glacis. Thus, Alt-Breisach was surrounded by the Rhine, by a tributary arm of it, and by the plain of soft ground. However, to the south-east, a dry country covered with fields and villages was adjacent to the fortress.

On the land side, the walls of the fortress were divided in seven sections defended by strong bastions and deep moat. From south to north, the seven bastions, which had been restored by Vauban, were designated as: Vermandois (aka Josef), Sainte-Croix, Richelieu (aka Carl), Mazarin (aka Amalia), Dauphin, Queen’s Bastion and Visinar. At the foot of the glacis of the northern and north-eastern sections, there were six walled lunettes beyond the moat formed by an arm of the Rhine.

Inside the fortress the Eckers or Krähen-Berg, also called Windmühlen-Berg or simply "the upper fortress", which was enclosed by an old wall, formed the core work of the place. From this point, one had a clear view of the surroundings.

A 250 m long bridge linked the fortress with a large island where there was an old demolished defensive work, the Jacob entrenchment. Finally Fort Mortier was located beyond the arm of the Rhine forming this island. Two km to the south-west of this fort, the French had the strong fortress of Neuf-Brissac protecting the road on the left bank of the Rhine. They used it as an assembly place and a depot for their army.

Alt-Breisach had two gates on the land side: the New Gate between the Sainte-Croix Bastion and the Richelieu Bastion; and the Old Gate between the Queen’s Bastion and the Visinar Bastion. In front of the Vermandois Bastion, sometime called the upper Rhine entrenchment, there was a walled cofferdam along which ran a 5 m wide fascine causeway.

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The Fortress of Alt-Breisach was under the command of FML Philipp Count Arco seconded by Major-General Ludwig Count Marsigli. The garrison of the place consisted of 3,458 men. Arco had already received instructions from the Margrave of Baden to hold the place at all cost and to the last man.

The fortress was very well provisioned with ammunition and powder. However, the garrison counted only 1 artificer and 12 gunners under Captain Heinze to serve 41 artillery pieces. Similarly, the garrison had provisions to sustain a three-month siege.


On 15 August, Marsin marched back from Freiburg and invested Alt-Breisach; the Duc de Bourgogne marched to Burkheim, just a few km downstream from Alt-Breisach. Finally, a floating bridge arrived from Huningue and Neuenburg. The floating bridge was established near Fessenheim and Balgau. The Fortress of Alt-Breisach was defended by only 3,500 men.

By 17 August, baggage and two convoys of artillery escorted by Saint-Second's Brigade had already reached the camp of the besiegers. Vauban supervised the tracing of the circumvallation, depots and three artillery parks (at Hoshstetten, Écrevisse Mill and Biesheim). Vauban established his headquarters at Biesheim while the Duc de Bourgogne and Tallard established their own in Gindlingen. In the evening, the floating bridge on the Upper-Rhine was completed and part of the artillery started to pass the river. However, the level of the Rhine had risen more than 1.5 meter.

The circumvallation would extend from the banks of the Rhine 3 km upstream from Alt-Breisach up to Fort Bernhard near the south-western heights of Kaiserstuhl and from there by Gündlingen to the Rhine 4½ km downstream of the fortress.

By 18 August, Alt-Breisach was completely invested: 12 bns and 15 sqns under Lieutenant-General Locmaria encamped upstream; 22 bns and 24 sqns under Lieutenant-General Marsin in the centre; 11 bns and 18 sqns under Lieutenant-General Zurlauben downstream; 4 bns guarded the bridges; 1 bn occupied Fort Mortier and 2 sqns were at Neuf-Brissac.

On 20 August, 46 boats arrived to form a bridge downstream from Alt-Breisach.

On 22 August, the floating bridge downstream of Alt-Breisach was completed.

On 23 August, three redoubts located too far from Alt-Breisach were occupied by the French whose artillery now totalled 64 siege pieces and 32 mortars or pierriers.

Field-Marshal Thüngen not only remained idle in the Lines of Bühl but detached 5 new bns to reinforce the Margrave of Baden. Seeing this the Duc de Bourgogne recalled 3 bns posted on the Bruche.

In the night of 23 to 24 August, the French opened the trench on the right with 1,200 workers supported by 5 bns and 1 sqn. Work also continued on a battery (10 guns, 6 mortars) established in an island.

On 25 August, the French battery of the island opened on Alt-Breisach but soon 4 of its guns were dismounted. Work also started on another battery of 8 pieces. Meanwhile, the rightmost trench came within 200 meters of the covert way of the “Richelieu Counterguard”.

In the night of 26 to 27 August, the garrison of Alt-Breisach made two sallies, one against the head of each trench. Colonel Tanner led the largest column (1,000 men). The Chevalier de Croissy at the head of 1 grenadier coy and 1 piquet drove back the sally against the rightmost trench. The Imperialists were more successful against the leftmost trench where they drove back workers before being repulsed by a detachment of Du Roi Infanterie.

On 27 August, the new French battery added its weight to the battery of the island, seriously slowing down the fire of the artillery of the place. Meanwhile, the rightmost trench reached the vicinity of the “Richelieu Counterguard” and of the covert way of the “Sainte-Croix Redoubt”.

On 29 August, the Duc de Bourgogne visited the trenches for a second time.

By 31 August, the head of the two trenches were joined. Meanwhile, all French batteries (totalling 38 guns and 26 mortars) continued to fire on the place, almost silencing the Imperial artillery.

In the night of 31 August to 1 September, the French worked on three ditches to gain access to the place.

In the night of 1 to 2 September, the French passed the forward ditch in two places and took position on the glacis.

In the night of 2 to 3 September, the French passed the ditch of a redoubt. On the Imperialist side, 2 coys of the Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry which had occupied 2 forward redoubts retired to the fortress.

In the morning of 3 September, the French stormed the redoubt.

In the night of 3 to 4 September, 2 French coys attacked the angle of the covert way of the “Rhine Bastion” and suffered heavy losses (4 officers killed, 40 grenadiers killed or wounded). The French artillery then concentrated its fire on the “Rhine Bastion”.

On 4 September, the French established a breaching battery against the ravelin and left face of the Vermandois Bastion. Tallard was informed that the Imperialists had thrown a bridge at Lauterbourg and that their cavalry was on the march to pass on the left bank.

On 5 September

  • French
    • The Duc de Bourgogne detached M. de Vertilly with 1,500 horse to reinforce the corps posted on the Bruche under M. de Streff. He also sent M. de Laubanie at Molsheim to take command in these quarters.
    • In the afternoon, the battery of the last parallel created a breach in the Vermandois Bastion.
  • Imperialists
    • An Imperialist corps with 6 guns, 2 mortars and 8 pontoons reached Haguenau where it passed the Moder. Furthermore, a large number of peasants were ordered to assembled at Drusenheim with tools.

On 6 September

  • French
    • The Duc de Bourgogne, fearing the advance of the Imperialists army on Strasbourg, sent 1,500 horse to reinforce the city.
  • Imperialists
    • In the morning, the officers of the garrison held a council of war. Since they had lost hope of any relief, they decided to surrender. At 2:00 p.m., the garrison of Alt-Breisach hoisted the white flag.

In the morning of 7 September, Alt-Breisach capitulated, its garrison obtaining the honours of war and free withdrawal with provisions for four days.

On 8 September, the garrison of Alt-Breisach (now down to 3,268 men and 5 artillerists) marched with 4 guns and 2 mortars under escort to Rheinfeld. Some 130 sick and wounded were left behind in the fortress. The French found 40 guns and 8 mortars, 95,000 kg of powder, 28,000 kg of lead, 10,000 bags of flour and 2,000 cannonballs and bombs in the place, much more than anticipated.


The French were now free to turn their attention to Freiburg or Landau. During this siege, they had lost 8 officers and 827 men killed or wounded.

On 4 February 1704, Hans Karl Baron Thüngen, as head of the martial court, sentenced Philipp Count Arco to death for his shameful capitulation at Alt-Breisach the previous year (on 6 September 1703). Arco was beheaded at Konstanz (some sources mention Bregenz).

Order of Battle

French Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: Duc de Bougogne seconded by Maréchal de Tallard

Summary: 36 cavalry sqns, 24 dragoon sqns, 49 bns On 4 February 1704, Hans Karl Baron Thüngen, as head of the martial court, sentenced Philipp Count Arco to death for his shameful capitulation at Alt-Breisach the previous year (on 6 September 1703). Arco was beheaded at Konstanz (some sources mention Bregenz) Cavalry (36 sqns)

  • Gendarmerie de France (8 sqns for a total of 880 men)
  • Mestre de Camp Général Cavalerie (3 sqns for a total of 330 men)
  • Cravates Cavalerie (3 sqns for a total of 350 men)
  • Bourgogne Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 220 men)
  • Orléans Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 220 men)
  • Brissac Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 200 men)
  • Saint-Pouanges Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 200 men)
  • La Vallière Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 200 men)
  • Noailles Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 200 men)
  • Sheldon-Irlandais Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 180 men)
  • Auriac Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 190 men)
  • Gaetano (2 sqns for a total of 190 men)
  • Croy Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 190 men)
  • La Baume Cavalerie (2 sqns for a total of 200 men)

Dragoons (24 sqns)

  • Colonel Général Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 300 men)
  • La Reine Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 240 men)
  • Hautefort Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 320 men)
  • Vassé Cavalerie (3 sqns for a total of 240 men)
  • Rohan-Chabot Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 240 men)
  • Bouville Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 240 men)
  • Verceil Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 250 men)
  • Pézeux Dragons (3 sqns for a total of 250 men)

Infantry (49 bns)

  • Navarre (3 bns)
  • Du Roi (4 bns)
  • Touraine (2 bns)
  • Royal-Artillerie (1 bn)
  • II./Sourches (1 bn)
  • II./Flandre (1 bn)
  • Nice (1 bn)
  • II./Boulonnais (1 bn)
  • II./Tournaisis (1 bn)
  • La Marche (2 bns)
  • Aunis (1 bn)
  • Sillery (2 bns)
  • Royal (2 bns)
  • La Couronne (2 bns)
  • Tessé (1 bn)
  • Robecq (2 bns)
  • Montroux (1 bn)
  • Brie (1 bn)
  • II./Auxerrois (1 bn)
  • Courrières (1 bn)
  • Van der Gracht (1 bn)
  • Hainaut (1 bn) Spanish?
  • Orléanais (1 bn)
  • Saint-Segond (2 bns)
  • Lassay (1 bn)
  • Bandeville (1 bn)
  • Santerre (2 bns)
  • Royal-Italien (1 bn)
  • Thouy (1 bn)
  • Greder Allemand (2 bns)
  • Chevalier de Fraulay (1 bn)
  • La Tour-Maubourg (1 bn)
  • II./Ile-de-France (1 bn)
  • Trécesson (1 bn)
  • Casteja (1 bn)

N. B.: there were also 6 bns, 6 cavalry sqns and 6 dragoon sqns under Maréchal de camp Sally on the Bruche River

Imperialist Order of Battle

Summary: 3,458 men


Vault, François Eugène de, and Pelet: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 3 pp. 416-459, 912

Abtheilung für Kriegsgeschichte des k. k. Kriegs-Archives: Feldzüge des Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen, Series 1, Vol. 5, Vienna 1878, pp. 340-352