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The special collections treasure trove – Switzerland as a theatre of war in 1799

The war for European supremacy between France and the Russian-Austrian coalition came to Switzerland in 1799. The Library Am Guisanplatz has preserved letters written by French generals that help to illustrate these events.

16.04.2019 | Christine Rohr-Jörg

In his letter dated 31 October 1799, Général en Chef Masséna congratulates Général de Division Jean de Dieu Soult in the name of the French Directorate for his successful military campaign. Ornate letterhead with the heading 'Armée du Danube'.
In his letter dated 31 October 1799, Général en Chef Masséna congratulates Général de Division Jean de Dieu Soult in the name of the French Directorate for his successful military campaign.

The military conflicts that took place in parts of today's Switzerland culminated in the First and Second Battles of Zurich (June and September 1799, respectively). The French emerged victorious from the Second Battle, and the Helvetic Republic's continued existence under French control was thereby ensured.

The Library Am Guisanplatz BiG keeps letters written from September to December 1799 in which French generals kept one another informed of daily developments. These documents are also available in digital form.

You can read the orders given by the French Général en Chef André Masséna, or reports sent by the generals to Général de Division Jean de Dieu Soult.

Keep in mind that these letters were written by generals, and were exchanged via mounted couriers. They contain information about specific troop movements and the generals' assessment of their enemy's strength. General Majnoni in Schänis wrote in his 26 September letter to General Soult in Kaltbrunn:

"[…] Mes découvertes viennent de m'assurer que Utznach est abandonné par l'ennemi. […]. Il serait urgent de faire attaquer Bencken prendre la cavalerie & l'inftr ennemie qui se trouvent absolument coupés. J'attends vos ordres & un peu de cavalerie. […]"

There were also reports of supply shortages, the influence of the weather, and of the soldiers' level of exhaustion. The following was reported by General Adolphe-Edouard-Casimir-Joseph Mortier in his letter dated 7 October to General Soult, after the Austrians had been successfully pushed back in the Sarganserland:

"[…] Depuis six jours la troupe manque de pain. Elle est harassée et a besoin de repos, la brige de droite, avec laquelle j'étais, a failli perdre une partie de son monde dans les neiges, plusieurs chevaux de l'escadron du 10e de Chasseurs on été tué dans les rochers. Cette marche est pour nous la plus pénible que nous ayons faits depuis la guerre. […]"

What is not mentioned in these letters is that the population suffered greatly from the effects of war, and that the forces threatened to plunder food, horses, feed and funds if these were not readily made available.

In October 1799, the last Russian troops were driven out of the left bank of the Rhine. The Austrians had already left the area by this time. And Suvorov, who, crossing the Gotthard, had endeavoured to join the Austrian troops, instead was forced to retreat to Vorarlberg.

The BiG's letters end with these events. While the BiG unfortunately does not possess the complete correspondence, these preserved letters help illuminate interesting aspects of the war from the French generals' point of view.

 
 

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