In Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany
During a recent trip through Germany I spent a delightful week in Freiburg im Breisgau where I attended university in the early 1970s. It has been thirty years since I was last there and I was curious how much the town had changed over the years. What a treat it was to wander about places that held so many fond memories from the past. While I was there I reflected on its long history and I recalled a time when this place, where the Black Forest merges with the Rhine River valley, was the site of a major battle over three centuries ago.
The Battle of Freiburg during the Thirty Years War is popularly known as the Three Day Battle as it took place on three non-consecutive days - August 3, 5 and 9/10, in 1644. A united French army of approximately 16,000 troops commanded by a young Louis II de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghein and a cousin of Ludwig XIV, and by Marshal Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne, tried to recapture the city which had recently fallen to a Bavarian army under General Field Marshal Franz, Baron von Mercy on July 28, 1644 following a five week siege.
Mercy had fought the French at Tuttlingen in November 1643 and began to assert Bavarian hegemony throughout Swabia, Breisgau and the Upper Rhine. In April 1644 Maximillian I sent an army under Mercy through the Black Forest to engage French forces under Turenne near Breisach, on the Rhine near Freiburg. After laying siege to Uberlingen, on Lake Constance, in May 1644, Mercy left a covering force there and advanced his army of approximately 16,000 troops toward Freiburg and the Rhine where it arrived on June 26. The French under Turenne, not prepared to do battle against a superior Bavarian army, were forced to watch helplessly as Mercy besieged the French garrison in the city which fell a month later. A French army under Enghein finally arrived in Breisach on August 2 fresh from his great victory of Rocroy to reinforce Turenne. But they were too late to save the city. By this time the Bavarians were well entrenched on the Schönberg and Lorrettoberg, known then as the Schlierberg, on the southern edge of Freiburg. Nevertheless, the young and brash Enghein, who assumed command of the united French armies, chose to launch a full frontal assault against the Bavarian positions on August 3.
The first day of the battle found approximately 16,000 French troops advancing from Breisach. Enghein and his army of 10,000 proceeded directly to the foot of the Schönberg near Ebringen, while Turenne’s 6,000 troops advanced through the hills south of the city to Wittnau in order to attack Mercy's entrenchments from the rear. Turenne encountered the enemy at Wittnau and forced the Bavarians to retreat toward Merzhausen where Mercy’s resistance stiffened preventing Turenne from gaining his objective at Uffingen and the flanking of Mercy’s defensive line. In the meantime, Enghein’s force slowly advanced up the slopes of the Schönberg under merciless Bavarian firepower. The French suffered heavy casualties and were thrown into disorder. Forced to reassemble, Enghein mounted another assault against the entrenched summit of the Schönberg. Mercy, whose was forced to divide his troops in order to halt Turenne’s advance at Merzhausen, abandoned the Schönberg for new entrenchments on the Lorettoberg. The first day was a stalemate as rain began to fall.
There was no fighting on August 4 as the two French armies reunited at Merzhausen where they were deployed for a new assault against the Bavarian positions on the Lorettoberg. On August 5 Enghein attacked straight to his front with successive waves of troops. Fearing a breach the Bavarian line, Mercy ordered a quick counterstrike and forced the French to withdraw, again with heavy casualties. There was no fighting for the next three days. The French received food and supplies from Breisach while Mercy sought to resupply his troops from Villingen, to the northeast.
On the morning of August 9th Turenne marched his army via Betzenhausen and Denzling and into the Glottertal while Enghein and his cavalry remained at Merzhausen facing the Lorettoberg. It was his plan to have Turenne cut the Bavarian supply line forcing Mercy to either attack or retreat. Little did Enghein realize that during the night of August 9/10 Mercy had left a garrison facing him while marching to Sankt Peter to gather munitions. There Mercy and Turenne fought a quick yet indecisive forward action before retreating as the rest of Turenne’s army advanced through the Glottertal.
Enghein’s strategy failed and Mercy’s army, although suffering heavy casualties, withdrew intact to Rothenburg ob der Tauber without serious loss of weapons and material. Mercy abandoned Freiburg to the French yet his army survived to fight another day. The battle was a tactical victory for the French despite the heavy casualties and within the next two months Enghein and his united French army were able to conquer much of the Rhine valley.
Thankfully peace now reigns in a valley I love so much.
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