In the wake of the German invasions of France in 1914 and 1940 it is very easy to forget that for hundreds of years the traffic went decidedly the other way.
Blücher crosses the Rhine on New Year’s Eve 1813
Louis XIV waged a particularly terrible campaign in the Rhinelands during the War of the Grand Alliance (or Nine Years War) in 1688-1697 during which Worms Cathedral among others was sacked by French troops who smashed every stained glass window and even stole the body of the church’s founder and first bishop from his grave before the altar.
Likewise, the wars of the Spanish Succession, Austrian Succession and Seven Years War (1700 to 1763 in span) took place in Germany and the Low Countries far more than they did in France.
During the Revolutionary Wars the lands of Germany were again subjected to French invasion from 1800 onwards and finally in 1806 when Napoleon crushed the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt.
Outdated and still living on the glories of Frederick the Great over 50 years before, Prussia was thoroughly humbled in 1806. Though it made itself an ally of France, Berlin was occupied and the people burned for revenge.
The Confederation of the Rhine was created soon after the defeat of Prussia, largely composed of the many princely micro-states that made up “Germany” at the time and which were allied to Napoleon alongside the larger kingdoms of Bavaria, Baden, Saxony and Württemberg.
The result of this military conquest was that secular revolutionary principles were applied as they had been in France and churches were stripped of the land and power many had held since it was bequeathed to them by Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century.
Among the land taken and sold off to new secular owners were the monasteries’ vineyards. Think of many of Germany’s vineyard names, Domberg, Klosterberg, Kirchberg, Domprobst, Himmelreich, Kapellenberg etc, they all refer to a time when the owners were monastic orders.
Garibaldi before Dijon
Although the Rhine states and other German kingdoms were allies of the French, it didn’t stop the victorious troops of the First Empire effectively occupying the area and making as many demands on wine and women as the Germans would make on France 100 years later.
With Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812, Prussia rose again and declared a war of revenge and national liberation and crucially not just for Prussia but for all Germany and all of the German speaking peoples.
Napoleon was pushed back through Germany in 1813 by the Russian/Prussian/Austrian alliance and decisively defeated at Leipzig the “Battle of the Nations” in October – the largest battle in Europe until the First World War 100 years later.
His position in Germany untenable, Napoleon fell back to France with the allies hot on his heels. One Prussian army under general Gebhard Blücher crossed the Rhine on New Year’s eve and into New Year’s day 1813/1814 through the vineyards of the Rheingau, and Mittel-Rhein.
The exact point of his crossing was at Kaub by the famous Burg Pfalzgrafenstein in the middle of the river – a familiar sight to all Rhine travellers and not far round the northward bend of the river at Rüdesheim-am-Rhein/Bingen.
The Silesian 3rd Army as it was known threaded their way down through the vineyards, crossed the river and marched through the town of Bacharach on the other side of the Rhine and up through the vineyards on the other side. Part of their progress into Champagne will be related in a later segment.
The cowing of France in 1814/1815 with Prussia resurgent as a European power was to prove important for the future of Europe.
Many years later, with Bismarck at the helm of Prussian foreign affairs the goal of German unification, a seed somewhat sowed in 1813, was near – a war with the hated enemy over the Rhine might be just the thing to more fully bind the German peoples together.
War came in 1870, largely at Bismarck’s instigation. Unlike 1806, this time the situations were reversed. The French army, badly-led and outgunned and living off the glories of Napoleon Bonaparte (and led by his nephew Napoleon III) were sent reeling in a number of bloody engagements throughout July and August.
Fighting raged through the vineyards of Alsace and Lorraine and by September victory was at hand, with one French army besieged in Metz and reservists still stuck in their depots, only the Army of Châlons in Sedan posed a threat to the combined German armies.
French troops defending Paris at Champigny-sur-Marne in 1870
The Prussian general, Helmuth von Moltke, moved quickly to encircle the French, desperate to trap them in what he called a “kesselschlacht”, cauldron battle, with the French unable to escape and destroyed by the German’s Krupp artillery.
After a desperate and bloody fight the French were defeated, Napoleon III surrendered, abdicated and the Second Empire fell.
General histories of the war usually end around there but the war continued into the winter of 1870 and on into early 1871. The fighting largely moved westwards into the Loire with fierce battles around Orleans and Le Mans as well as in the north-east of France with efforts to relieve Paris which was under siege.
Still less known are the battles around Burgundy. The German advance into Burgundy was largely entrusted to the XIV Corps under General August von Werder and Prince William of Baden and most of the troops came from that state.
The main thrust went first for Strasbourg, then Besançon and finally Dijon where there was a battle on 30 October which began on the heights of St Apollinaire and ended in street-fighting in the suburbs themselves, the French defenders initially making use of farms and vineyards to hamper the Germans’ advance.
After the fall of Dijon, the Germans were primarily concerned with checking the movements of the great Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi who had landed with an army of volunteers from Italy and on his march north had gathered more French volunteers to him which he turned into a ragtag band known as the Army of the Vosges.
Meanwhile, another French general, Camille Crémer, had formed another division around Beaune largely composed of the Gardes Nationals of the Côte d’Or and German operations between the capture of Dijon and the beginning of December were aimed at preventing a link up of Garibaldi and Crémer’s forces; which led to a great deal of marching and counter-marching across the Saone which does not need to be related here.
Luckily for them the two commanders failed to co-ordinate properly and continued to act independently of each other. In late November the Germans ventured south and there were skirmishes in and around Vougeot and Nuits-Saint-Georges but the troops were recalled when Garibaldi attempted to re-take Dijon later in the month.
However, Garibaldi and his Army of the Vosges were repulsed leaving the Germans free to deal with the build up of French troops in the Côte d’Or.
Baden troops advance on Nuits through the vineyards which are clearly visible in the foreground. The hills of the Côte d’Or can be seen in the distance.
Prince William and several divisions of Badeners advanced south in mid-December and found Crémer had taken up a strong position with nearly 13,000 men around Nuits-Saint-Georges, the main French infantry line being on the railway, which to this day constitutes the Paris-Lyon line, their right flank anchored on the Meuzin stream, while the artillery was positioned on the slopes behind.
The initial German advance from the east pushed in the French outposts at La Berchere and Boncourt. Then the Germans struck from the north pushing down from Gevrey and forcing the French to fall back on Vosne.
The Baden divisions then advanced out of La Berchere and Agencourt towards Nuits. Although supported by superior artillery they still had to cross over three-quarters of a mile under rifle and artillery fire and their losses were heavy.
Nearly 1,000 Germans were killed in the vineyards before Nuits-Saint-Georges and some 2,000 Frenchmen in defence of the town but, advancing into the teeth of French fire and with their formations disrupted by the vines the Germans threw their enemy back from the railway line and stormed Nuits which they then held until 6pm despite French counter-attacks.
The exhausted men then slept in the vineyards and market square of Nuits while the shattered French army retreated on Beaune and the Hospices was turned into a military hospital to deal with their wounded.
The Germans fell back the next day as Garibaldi tried to take Dijon for the second time
Garibaldi would take Dijon in early 1871 (as the Germans had pulled out) and was even made a deputy of the Côte d’Or after the war but in practice his army achieved very little. Dijon was awarded the Légion d’honneur for its citizens’ resistance on 30 October.
Paris was occupied in January 1871 and a united Germany was proclaimed a little later in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles – the same hall where Germany would be brought low 40 years later.
To this day though above the vineyards of the Rheingau (not far from where Blücher crossed) with the lyrics of the newly written Wacht am Rhein inscribed on its base stands the Germania Denkmal (below), a monument to military victory and German unification.
Next time: the bravest barmaids in history – women in the front line.
Previously: How the Barossa got its name