Wurmser, Dagobert-Sigismond de
b. 7 May 1724, Strasbourg
d. 21 April 1797, Vienna
"Count, Field-Marshal, and Grand Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa. Born, according to Oettinger's 'Moniteur des dates' on 22 September 1724, died in Vienna on 22 August 1797. His place of birth is given as Schlettstadt, and by others as Strasbourg, in Alsace. The offspring of a distinguished Alsatian family ... Wurmser entered his King's service as a French subject, was a cavalry officer, and as such took part in the earliest campaigns of the Seven Years War under Marshal Soubise. However, when France made peace with England in 1762, Wurmser transferred with the Legion he commanded to the Imperial and Royal army, where he, from the campaigns of the Seven Years War, in which he had especially distinguished himself in so-called 'irregular war', was already well-known, and fought in the last campaigns of the Seven Years War in the Imperial service. At the concluding of the Peace of Hubertusburg, on 15 February 1763, he was a General-Major, received a regiment in 1773, and when it was disbanded, he received in 1775 the 8th Hussar regiment, which he then kept until his death.
The next opportunity to prove himself in the Imperial service presented itself during the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-79). In July 1778 he was to cover the main army, which was positioned in the entrenched camp at Jaromer. For this purpose he made his hussars advance to attack the enemy, with his dragoons in support. At the same time, the artillery fired so effectively that the enemy soon began to give way with losses. Appointed to be commander of the winter cordon, he had the village of Dittersbach, which was occupied by the regiment of Thaden, attacked by Colonel Klebeck with the Croats, due to which 400 of the enemy were killed, as many made prisoner, and eight colours were captured. Thereafter, in January 1779, he advanced into the county of Glatz in five columns, two of which, commanded by General-Major Count Kinsky, took Habelschwerdt on 17 and 18 January. While one column secured the undertaking from outside, the other, under the leadership of Colonel Pallavicini, stormed the place, made the Prince of Hessen-Philippsthal and 700 men prisoner, and captured three cannon and seven colours. Wurmser himself led the third column, and had the blockhouse at Oberschwedeldorf set on fire by howitzers, whereby General-Major Terzi, who was covering the undertaking with the remaining two columns, threw back the enemy support, which was hurrying from Glatz, and by this opportunity took 300 Prussian prisoners. Meanwhile, Wurmser steadfastly maintained the advantageous position at Rückerts and Reinerz, from where his patrols reached to very near Glatz, and were able to spread out along the Silesian borders, whereby he made the enemy concerned for Schweidnitz.
When the one-year War of the Bavarian Succession, or so-called 'potato war' ended with the signing of the Treaty of Teschen on 22 February 1779, the Emperor Joseph II transferred the courageous general, who moreover had already on 21 November 1778 been honoured with the award of the Cross of Commander of the Order of Maria Theresa by the Chapter, to the overall command of Galicia, a highly important post when the clouds of the Turkish War (1788-1790) began threateningly to gather, because of the proximity of the future theatre of war. But the courageous general was to see no action this time.
Then, in the New Year of 1793, as the events in Western Europe took a doubtful turn, he received the command of the army on the Upper Rhine. On 31 March, he crossed the Rhine at Kertsch, between Mannheim and Speier, attacked the rear-guard of General Custine on the following day, and threatened Landau. Then as the French sought to penetrate to the relief of Mainz through Rohrbach and Germersheim, he thwarted their plan and attacked them with success on 27 July in the woods of Offenbach and in their lines at Essingen, drove them from Bienenwalde on 23 August, carried out a major reconnaissance on the 27th, and on 11 September ordered the attack on Bandenthal, which General Pejacsevich carried out with great bravery, and finally on 13 October broke through the lines of Lauterburg and Wessenburg, which were held to be impregnable, whereby these two towns with their camps, tents, baggage, horses, many firearms, 31 cannon, 12 colours, 90 drums, and other war materials were captured, and 750 French taken prisoner. On 25 October 1793, the Emperor awarded the hero the Grand Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa from the Chapter. But all these victorious battles were fruitless, the blood of the death-defying warriors was spilt in vain. A historian wrote for this reason: 'As Wurmser was not strongly supported by the Duke of Brunswick, due to jealousy and envy, and the minor south German princes already at that time played an unworthy game with the German army, maintained secret understandings with the French, and supplied them with food, carts, and generously and amply supported them with all the military requisites, so the Imperial army saw itself obliged to retreat at the end of December. Then, through the withdrawal of the Prussian army, the Austrian right wing was very badly exposed to the superior enemy numbers.' The Austrians, who were reduced in numbers by the preceding bloody battles and weakened by their efforts, were attacked by the French in greatly superior numbers and always with fresh troops, and Wurmser, in continual battles, of which that on 26 December was decisive, had to move back over the Rhine. His energetic complaints about the bad supply and support on the part of the Vienna Hofkriegsrath had the consequence that he became unpopular for his urgings, was recalled in January 1791 [sic], and was replaced by the Prince of Waldeck. But the experienced warrior was not to remain inactive for long: already in August 1795 he again received overall command of the Austrian army on the Upper Rhine. Then he fought the French in the battles, which were victorious for our arms, of Handschuhsheim, and of Mannheim on 18 October, and captured this fortress on 22 November, while he had to contend against the base cabals of Graf Oberndorf, the minister of Pfalz. Meanwhile, the war in
northern Italy , which was so unfortunate for Austrian arms, forced the army on the Upper Rhine to complete inactivity, and Wurmser remained in Mannheim in a holding position, until, appointed Field-Marshal, he took over from Beaulieu as commander-in-chief of the army in Italy.
He arrived at the headquarters in Trento on 1 July 1796, with the task of relieving Mantua from its siege at any price. For this purpose, he divided his army, which numbered 60,000 men, into three corps: the first was to go round Lake Garda from Rovereto and threaten the French rear; with the second, which Wurmser commanded in person, he intended to drive the besieging corps from Mantua; the third was to cross the Po, and try to reach Piacenza, in order to drive the enemy from the Milanese. The first of the marches and combats between 23 July and 3 August were fortunate for Austrian arms. The attack undertaken by Wurmser on 2 August succeeded completely. The enemy was driven back in great disorder, and all the siege artillery was captured. The same fortune did not favour the column commanded by General Quosdanovich, 25,000 strong, which had advanced too far from the mountains into the plain of Brescia. This circumstance was used by Bonaparte, who surrounded part of the column, attacked it with greatly superior numbers, scattered it completely, and seized its cannon. After this, the French were able to unite and unexpectedly advance again with their complete force towards the Field-Marshal, who was advancing towards the Mincio, and had no knowledge of the defeat of his first column. The Austrians were defeated on 5 August at Castiglione, and thrown back to Rovereto. Mantua was once more blockaded by the French. Wurmser's attempt to liberate the fortress between 1 and 13 September failed. The old general advanced with the main column through the Valsugana (as it was the only exit into the Italian plains that was not watched by the enemy) and via Legnago to Mantua. Although General Davidovich was thrown back from Trento by the French, and the latter gained the defiles to the rear of the Austrian army, Wurmser succeeded in breaking through with his cavalry and throwing himself on Mantua. [NB: In the opinion of this translator, the foregoing summary of Austrian operations from July to September 1796 is distinctly inaccurate, and gives Wurmser much more credit than he deserves. A different version of events may be found in David Chandler's 'Campaigns of Napoleon', or the translator's own 'The Road to Rivoli'.]
And now began a spectacle that will be eternally memorable in military history: Wurmser's defence of Mantua against the many times superior besieging army of the French. For four months, the Alsatian hero with admirable judiciousness, courage, and perseverance, defended the place against the strong blockading army, and not until the slight possibility and probability of relief, complete lack of food and medicines wore down the general imperious, on 2 February 1797 under the most honourable conditions to capitulate and give up the fortress. Bonaparte himself expressed in his report to the Directory on the fall of the of the fortress in the most honourable way, on the courageous commander of the same. Wurmser then went to Vienna, and was to take overall command in Hungary. However, the health of the seventy-three-year-old Field-Marshal, sorely tried by the strains of the last wars and the siege of Mantua, did not allow him to take up this command, which was so important in those days, and after long suffering, he succumbed to his rapidly increasing weakness.
Though the last events of his warlike life appear to darken his military glory, they do not in the least decrease his glory as warrior and commander. Military history will accept him more as a courageous warrior than as a far- and deep-thinking commander, and lay claim for him, in appreciation of his chivalrous virtues, the title of 'a knight without fear and without reproach'. But when one reads the description of his campaigns with care, there still remains enough for one to recognise in him a skilful tactician, who, if his dispositions did not always succeed, bore the least blame for this, as envy, intrigues, and the treachery of the generals operating with him also thwarted his most well calculated measures.
As for the view that he possessed more courage than actual talent as a commander, one may call for assistance on the science of Cranioscopy [Phrenology], which was still very young at that time, and refer to a claim by Dr Gall, who had found the organ of courage predominantly developed in him, and kept Wurmser's skull in consequence as one of the rarest show-pieces of his collection. However, predominant courage did not diminish the existence of tactical talent and the spirit of leadership.
Wurmser was not only a soldier, he was also a man, and joined culture and humanity to all the qualities of the commander, of which assertion the fact that he was a member of the Prague Freemasons' lodge 'Truth and Harmony' may be given as evidence, and that he possessed understanding for the religious needs of his soldiers and took care for their satisfaction is proved by the fact that in Prague he arranged for his Protestant soldiers to have their own Divine Service, even before the Protestant inhabitants of the city had arranged such a thing for themselves. He also suggested in the State Council the matter of approving the use of the Seiler liturgy, acknowledged as an excellent work in Protestant areas, for the Protestant soldiers of the Austrian army, wherein he was seriously supported by the State Councillors Martini and Simon Thaddäus Baron von Reischach.
The general's tomb had the fate of Mozart's grave, in that the place where the mortal remains of Wurmser lay has been vainly sought. However, Dr Gall possessed Wurmser's skull, though how he came by it is unknown. From all enquiries it emerges that due to a cemetery being left open, Wurmser's grave was opened and his skeleton reached the hands of collectors of curiosities, and his skull those of Dr Gall." Wurzbach, C., von. Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich, Vienna, 1856-91, vol 59, p. 1-5.
See also Tulard, J. Dictionnaire Napoléon. Paris, 1987.