1704-11-10 – Storming of Alt-Breisach
Hierarchical Path: War of the Spanish Succession (Main Page) >> Sieges >> 1704-11-10 – Storming of Alt-Breisach
Prelude to the Battle
After the successes of campaign of 1704, Prince Eugène de Savoie believed that it would be possible to recapture by a raid the Fortress Alt-Breisach, which had been lost in September of the previous year. It was known that the fortress was only defended by a weak garrison, which did not enforce very strict security measures. Prince Eugène charged Major-General Heinrich Ernst Baron Winkelhofen (aka Winkelhoff), the commander of the garrison of Freiburg, of this task. Winkelhofen's servant, with a French passport, repeatedly visited Alt-Breisach under the pretext of buying French wine and liqueurs. However, the information he brought back was not very reliable, he estimated the garrison to number some 700 men, while in fact it counted approx. 3,000 men.
The deepest secret was kept about the whole attack, only Major-General Winkelhofen and Lieutenant-Colonel de Briglieres from Carl Joseph Lothringen Infantry knew about it.
A day had been chosen, on which the usual hay from the neighbouring area was delivered to the fortress. Fifty wagons were to be loaded with weapons, grenades, rockets and pitch wreaths, covered with hay and poles. In several of these wagons were hidden 200 men (mostly officers and NCOs), who were to enter the fortress with the wagons disguised as carters and peasants and seize the gate. Lieutenant-Colonel Briglieres with 5 officers and 100 fusiliers disguised as peasants were to lead the wagon train. They planned to quickly overwhelm the gate guard and the guard on the ravelin. Afterwards, 200 grenadiers were to rush to the main gate in the courtine, 600 men would occupy the rampart and the eastern bastion of Sainte-Croix and disarm the main guard. Then the cavalry would invade the city, the rest of the troops would be set up on the glacis as a reserve.
On November 9, the commander of the castle of Freiburg, Colonel Baron Scherzer was informed of the planned attack, but despite his request was not involved in the enterprise.
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.
Description of Events
On 9 November at 9:00 p.m., Major-General Winkelhofen left Freiburg with the troops, Lieutenant-Colonel Briglieres leading the van. The head of the column of 2,300 foot consisted of 650 men of the Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry, followed by Erlach Infantry, Hildesheim Infantry and Carl Joseph Lothringen Infantry while 100 horse closed the march.
On 10 November, after a march of seven hours, Winkelhofen’s force reached a hollow around a deep dry channel, which ran almost parallel to the bastions of Sainte-Croix and La Butte. Three inhabitants of the place, who came through the gate confirmed to Winkelhofen that, for the moment, the garrison did not suspect anything. As luck would have it, Briglieres and his officers met the ordinary workers who were going to Alt-Breisach.
At 8:00 a.m., the first wagons hurried through the gate. The guard in the ravelin became suspicious and wanted to pull down the barrier, but he was killed by one of the officers with an axe. There was a fight between the invading Imperial troops and the guards. Briglieres had already reached the main gate with the first wagon.
At this moment, Commissioner Bierne arrived. He knew most of the ordinary workers, and immediately spotted unfamiliar faces, so he asked: "What do you want here?". His question was addressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Briglieres himself! Bierne thought that he was addressing a peasant, and dealt him a blow whereupon Briglieres fired at him with his pistol and missed… Bierne hid in the nearby ditch. The officers ran to the wagons, tore out their rifles and fired 15 to 20 shots at the commissioner but missed him, too. Bierne screamed, alerting the main guard, the attack was discovered.
The captain, who commanded the guard, killed five of the attackers, the others fled into the interior of the fortress. The French officer tried to pull up the drawbridge, but was unable to do so because one of the wagons was standing on it. However, he succeeded in lowering the portcullis, whereby the Imperial forces within the gate were separated from the Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry attacking from the outside. The foremost soldiers of this regiment directed a strong barrage fire through the grid onto the gate path, whereupon the French captain sent 15 grenadiers to the wall from where they directed such an effective fire on the invaders that in a short time 40 men were dead or wounded. Colonel Thanner was wounded, and Lieutenant-Colonel Dina and Major Schönbeck were killed by the fire of the French grenadiers, no one knew what to do next.
General Winkelhofen could not command, because he was suffering from gout, and remained at the barrier. The staff officers of the other regiments stayed with their units and so there was no officer who could seize initiative.
At this moment, the commander of the fortress, Lieutenant-General de Rousset appeared with two regiments, which immediately occupied the flanks of the bastions Richelieu and Sainte-Croix and opened crossfire on the bridge. The Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry standing there could neither move forward nor backward, the other regiments were immediately behind it. Erlach Infantry stood mostly within the ravelin; Carl Joseph Lothringen Infantry, on the covert way, behind Hildesheim Infantry, but none of the commanders thought of deploying their troops on the covert way to fire at Rousset’s regiments.
Lieutenant-Colonel Briglieres tried to open the portcullis from the inside, but an inhabitant smashed his shoulder in this attempt (300 inhabitants took part in the defence!).
At that moment, the commander of the gate guard with 50 men pushed the head of the Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry away from the drawbridge and managed to raise it. Unsettled by the devastating crossfire, the soldiers of Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry pushed to the ravelin, the officers could not stop them.
When Major-General Winkelhofen saw that his troops were beginning to flee the ravelin, he gave the order to retreat.
In this affair, Imperial troops lost around 300 men. Six men remained in Alt-Breisach wounded, one of them was Lieutenant-Colonel Briglieres. Furthermore, 16 men were taken prisoners in the covert way. The French lost only 20 men.
On 11 November, Major-General Winkelhofen wrote a letter to Prince Eugène and asked for an investigation by a court martial because of the failed operation. Lieutenant-General Margrave Ludwig von Baden was commissioned with the investigations, and Baron Winkelhofen was acquitted.
Order of Battle
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Lieutenant-General de Rousset
Summary: 4 bns and 6 free coys for a total of approx. 3,000 men
Imperial Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Major-General Heinrich Ernst Baron Winkelhofen
Summary: 2,300 men
Vanguard under Lieutenant-Colonel de Briglieres of Carl Joseph Lothringen Infantry
200 men, mostly officers, NCOs and picked fusiliers
Brandenburg-Bayreuth Infantry (650 men)
Carl Joseph Lothringen Infantry aka Osnabrück
100 horse from various regiments
Formanek, J.: Geschichte des k. k. Infanterie-Regiments Nr. 41 Vol. I, Czernowitz 1886
Pelet and François Eugène de Vault: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 4 pp. 602-673
Harald Skala for the initial version of this article