The French Invasion of Liechtenstein

Vaduz Castle, built during the Middle Ages

The French Revolution in Paris in July 1789 would have disastrous effect on Liechtenstein and its people. During the First War of the Coalitions, French Troops occupied the left bank (Switzerland) of the Rhine from 1789 to 1792. The Swabian League, wary of French intentions, tried to drum up support from where ever they could. They even asked the Prince of Liechtenstein to contribute some troops. He sent fifteen infantrymen and two cavalrymen to stand guard against possible invasion by the French. In 1793 eight men were sent as reinforcement to Liechtenstein’s Swabian League contingent. That same year local authorities formed a militia of all able bodied men from the age of 18 to 50. Austrian troops occupied the Principality in 1794 as a safeguard against the French forces just across the Rhine in Switzerland. This was the calm before the storm.

In 1796 the French Marshal Jourdan invaded Bavaria, and Vorarlberg marching through the Rhine Valley. The French, after winning battles at Bregenz and Lauterach, on Vorarlberg’s northern border near the Bodensee, Lake Constance, occupied part of the Vorarlberg. The Swabian league, seeing the writing on the wall, surrendered and Liechtenstein was no longer at war. Austria then regained the Vorarlberg in 1797 with the treaty of Campo Formia. The First Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and Sardinia collapsed shortly there after.

The short-lived Helvetian Republic was formed in 1798 under French guidance in Switzerland. The French encouraged the Helvetians to annex Graubünden, just across the Austrian border south and west of Liechtenstein and also the Vorarlberg. The Austrians, of course, were a bit upset at this idea and began to strengthen their defenses by forming new alliances and building up their armies. They also tried to suppress any revolutionary ideas. Baron Franz von Auffenberg, the commanding general of the Austrian military in Vorarlberg recommended that regular militia units be formed and on Aug. 9, 1798, two militia units totaling 3,000 men were formed.

On Dec. 24, 1798, Austria, Great Britain, Russia, Turkey, Naples, Portugal and the Vatican formed the Second Coalition against the French. The French countered by moving several armies to their eastern borders, which ran roughly along the Rhine River. The Principality of Liechtenstein sat squarely on the front lines of the impending conflict. The French stationed an army of 40,000 men under Marshal Jourdan in the Lake Constance and Schaffhausen region. Another 30,000 troops were with Marshals Massena and Oudinot in Eastern Switzerland. To oppose Massena, the Austrians stationed their armies in the Vorarlland and Grisons, 13,000 men under Von Hotze at Berenz, 7000 troops under Auffenberg near Chur, 5000 at Feldkirch, and two Austrian battalions totaling a 1000 men with four cannons on the Luziensteig near Mayenfeld. They worked frantically to strengthened their fortifications in Vorlaberg as well as stocking large warehouses in Feldkirch and Bregenz with necessary supplies to fight a war.

In January of 1799, Vorarlberg with a population of around 85,000 had raised a force of 10,000 men, a mixture of career soldiers, militiamen and locals. A local Capt. Alfons von Gerbert commanded the troops from the Feldkirch area. There were also six battalions of regular soldiers consisting of Austrian line infantry and troops from the Croatian border, numbering nearly 3,000 men. Every male between the ages of 16 and 60 were called up to help defend the area. They armed themselves with whatever weapon they could find.

The Coalition planned to begin operations in April 1799 with 125,000 men in Southern Germany, 60,000 in western Austria and 110,000 Russians under the famous Field Marshall Alexander Suvorov in Italy. Baron Friedrich von Hotze with a corps of anti-French Swiss soldiers stood guard along the Rhine in Vorarlberg, Liechtenstein and the Swiss border areas of Luziensteig and Graubünden.

The French with 200,000 men in five armies had planned to strike in the beginning of March of 1799 but on hearing of the Russian movement in Italy attacked in the Upper Rhine to prevent the Austrians and Russians from linking up.

The Austrians chose Feldkirch as their main defense as it sat on the strategic crossroads in the Central Alps. Here lay the Rhine Valley and the road from the Arlberg, and the mountain range east of Feldkirch. To the west lay Switzerland. The Ill River with the main bridge, then the Heiligkreuzbrücke, the Holy Cross Bridge, joins the Rhine at this point. The surrounding mountains formed a natural barrier to an invader’s easy approach to the city. To the north lay the Ardetzenberg, to the west the Schellenberg and the Blasenberg while to the east were the Stadtschrofen and the Känzele and the towering cliffs of the Ill River Gorge.

The weakest point in Feldkirch’s defenses was the valley to the south – Liechtenstein. The Austrians built two lines of strong fortifications between the city and the little Principality. The old fortifications such as Castle Schattenberg, built in the middle ages, had lost their defensive value as the city had spread a ways beyond them. On March 4, 1799, the Austrian called up the Vorarlberg militia to take their positions ready to repulse any French advance. A small troop was stationed in the Vaduz castle on the hill above the village. The players were all in place. The terrible drama was about to begin.

The people of Liechtenstein were to once again suffer the cruelties of war when the Directory – Napoleon was not yet Emperor – ordered its army to take the offensive early in 1799. In the first week of March 1799, the French under Messena crossed the Rhine near Bendern heading north to the Eschnerberg just south of Feldkirch. Oudinot stormed the Luziensteig scattering the Austrians in three days of hard fighting. Other French forces crossed the frontier at Strassburg and Basel. By nightfall of March 6th 1799 the French have reached and occupied the Schellenberg. They stationed their cannons on the Gantenstein to fire at the fortifications outside Feldkirch. The Rhine Valley south in Liechtenstein was in the hands of the French.

On March 7, outnumbered Austrian troops tried to drive the French from their newly won positions, but the attack from four sides failed putting the Austrians on the defensive. The hard-pressed Austrians were only saved by a heavy snowfall that forced the French to seemingly hold up and seek warm dry shelter. Then around noon, as the Austrians were pulling falling back on Feldkirch, the French attacked their flank taking 675 Croatian troops prisoner. The French attacked again this time at the Mauser Wiese, a meadow in the flat Rhine Valley south of Feldkirch, driving the Austrians back and advancing as far as the Letzebühel, a hill just east of the road south to Liechtenstein.

In order to attack Feldkirch from the rear, the French moved towards Frastanz. Three companies of marksmen from the village of Montafon stopped them. A concentrated artillery barrage by the Austrians also stopped a French attack along the main road from Liechtenstein to Tisis. The French had reached the last entrenchment when their field commander, General Mueller, was fatally wounded. They fell and in disarray to the Principality’s border and regrouped at their headquarters at Nendeln.

The Austrians took advantage of the lull in battle to strengthen their defenses especially the Letzebühel front, a hill above the Tisis Road to Liechtenstein. They thought that the French would try a two-prong attack, one to the east towards Frastanz by way of the Letzebühel and the other along the Schellenberg to the Ill River. The Letzebühel was the site of an important battle with the Swiss in 1499 during the Appenzeller War.

On March 9, The Austrian moved troops to cover both their eastern and western fortifications. The French meanwhile drank, caroused and plundered the land under their control including Liechtenstein. They smash furniture, kill livestock or chopped their feet off and abused the local people. They demanded money and wine from the inhabitants threatening death if they did not get it. Four farmers were shot at Murren while many were wounded. Women were raped. It was reported that they nailed an old man to a barn door in Eschen. Whether the atrocities were true or not, the Austrian defenders, when they heard of them, vowed revenge and declared that no Frenchman would set foot in the Vorarlberg.

The village of Ruggell on the Rhine of the Schellenberg was spared most of the devastation of the French occupation but had much food and livestock taken by French troops as well as Austrian and Russian troops later.

On March 11 and 12, the Austrian, pulled some troops out of Feldkirch to stiff their forces on their left flank on the Bodensse. Four battalions were rushed from southern Germany to take their place at Feldkirch.

The front stayed quiet until Good Friday, March 22 when the French started to advance early in the morning towards Feldkirch in the country between Nendeln and Tisis on the Liechtenstein border. A unit of riflemen from Bludenz was sent to hold the village of Mauren while 50 men from the Rankweil Rifle Company and four Altenstadt militiamen rushed to the Schellenberg. Austrian riflemen from Bludenz and regular Austrian troops in Murren held off the French until 2 p.m. until they forced to retreat to St Antonius on the edge of Feldkirch to prevent being cut off.

The Austrian militiamen defending the Schellenberg hold off a force ten times their size. When the French brought up two cannon, the little unit of 55 men withdrew slowly fighting the French step by step, tree by tree. This courageous unit suffered only three militiamen wounded while inflicting greater casualties on the French. The battle continued between Tisis and Nendeln until evening without either side giving further ground. A temporary truce was arranged to give both armies time to lick their wounds.

The decisive battle began on Holy Saturday, March 23. Early in the morning General Nassena sent his 18,000 French troops forward towards Feldkirch. The Austrians on Blasenberg hill warned the commanders in the city of the French advance up the Schellenberg. Austrian troops who had been attending church rush to their defenses. At the height of the battle all looked lost as the Austrians began to run out of powder. The French had advanced to the barricades just outside Feldkirch. Then a crowd of women rushed up to the walls and barricades and joined the men in defending their homes. They rained a hail of stones, chunks of wood on the French, breaking the attack and forcing the enemy to retreat.

More French troops then moved up and forced the Austrians back to St. Antonius, part of present day Feldkirch suburb of Tisis. A company of the Peterwardeiner border battalion halted this advance. A second company counterattacked and ended the French breakthrough. The French under Massena continue to press their attack up the center on the road from Nendeln to Tisis.

Meanwhile another French force tried to outflank the Austrians by climbing the steep Hohen Älpele, a mountain above Letze, on the flank of the Letze fortifications. By 4 p.m. they reach the area known as the “Bear Cave”. The Austrians sent their last reserve of four companies to the high ground of the Letzebühel. Other militiamen attacked over a nearby ridge and hit the French in their rear at the Bear Cave forcing the French to retreat. The French tried one more attack at 7 p.m. but it was utterly routed by a combined barrage of Austrian artillery. The Battle for Feldkirch was over. The French suffered 2,200 casualties while the Austrians had 96 dead, 590 wounded and 100 taken prisoner.

General Massena withdrew his forces to Graubünden and General Oudinot crossed back over the Rhine. The retreating French devastated the countryside as they retreated.

The Austrians followed the French back down the Liechtenstein side of the Rhine valley and retook the Luziensteig. Archduke Charles crossed the Rhine at Stein while Hotze crossed at Balzers. Between them they drove Massena back to Zurich. The French occupation of the Principality lasted only three weeks this time.