The Battle of Dürnstein – My ancestors in the Napoleonic War

On 11. November, a big battle of the Napoleonic Wars took place in Dürnstein and Loiben in the Wachau in Lower Austria. My Great-Great-Great-Great Grandaunt Barbara Artner was living in Dürnstein (then called “Thirrnstein”) at that time. Reason enough to look closer at this chapter of history and the horrific war experience of the inhabitants of Loiben and Dürnstein.

Napoleon’s rise

Napoleon, born on 15.August 1769 on this Island of Corsica,  made a steep career in the course of the French Revolution due to his military talent. After a coup, he became First Consul of the French Republic, until he declared himself Emperor of the French in 1804.

In April 1805, Great Britain, Sweden and Russia formed a Coalition against France. In August 1805, Austria joined this so-called “Third Coalition”. After Emperor Francis I. of Austria (formerly last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation as Francis II. and founder of the Hereditary Empire of Austria) sent his troops to  Bavaria (an ally of France) on 8. September 1805, Napoleon declared war on Austria.  The Austrian Army lost several combats around Ulm in Germany, after which the French marched towards Vienna. That was when they arrived in Loiben and Dürnstein three weeks later, where an Austrian-Russian Army had retreated before already.


The Battle of Dürnstein and Loiben

On 10. November 1805 the French advance party reached Dürnstein and after skirmishes with some smaller Russian units, won the plain between Dürnstein and Rothenhof. The Russians and Austrians had made the close town of Krems their headquarter.

In the battle of 11.November, about 10.000 French under the command of Marshall Moitier and and Austrian-Russion Army of 24.000 men (under the command of Johann Heinrich von Schmitt and General Kutusow) were involved. The battle started with the French moving forward, as they thought, the Russians had retreated.

A column led by Schmitt and a men called Andreas Bayer who knew the surroundings well launched a flanking assault on the French which caused great confusion among the enemy. Finally, the allied troops won Dürnstein and the French retreated to Weißenkirchen.

In the course of the battle, each side lost about 4.000 men (although reported figures vary significantly), among them Johann Heinrich von Schmitt, the Austrian Chief of Staff.

Chronicles of the Town of Krems in Lower Austria (cited in the book “Niederösterreich Geschichte und Kultur in Bildern und Dokumenten”, Publisher Otto Müller Verlag, 1982) gives the following account:

“In the Village of Oberligen, 60 dead bodies were found, in Unterloiben 500 dead bodies. Several Thousand were washed away in the Danube River, which seemed to be coloured blue for hours due to the uniforms of the dead French soldiers.”

The allied troops won the battle, but the Russian Army nevertheless retreated towards Moravia. On 14.November 1805, the Napoleonic troops marched into Vienna.

Ober- and Unterloiben as well as big parts of Dürnstein were destroyed, the vineyards were burned.

The inhabitants, among them the family Artner

The experience of these days in November must have been horrible for the inhabitants of Dürnstein and Loiben. At first, they were plundered by the French, then by the Russians.  People were killed, Houses were destroyed, Vineyards were burned, supplies were stolen and churches were desecrated.

As the Chronicles of Krems (in “Niederösterreich Geschichte und Kultur in Bildern und Dokumenten”, publisher: Otto Müller Verlag, 1982) mentions on the  11.November in Loiben schildert:

“The inhabitants had to suffer appalling things on the day of the battle, many hid in a cellar of the vicarage in huge fear. Friends and enemies both raged in the same manner, actually the allied Russians were worse than the French. They intoxicated themselves with the wine, destroyed the wine barrels and spilled all the wine.”

Barbara Grünseis, my Great-Great-Great-Great Grandaunt had married Leopold Artner, a bailiff from Dürnstein, on 9.February 1802 im the Village St. Peter in der Au in Lower Austria. After the wedding, the couple lived in Dürnstein and had four children (one of whom died in young years unfortunately).

At the time of the battle, there was therefore the son Karl already born and zwo and a half years old and daughter Theresia was one and a half years. They were living in Dürnstein 43. How did they cope during the Battle of Dürnstein? I can say for sure that there were no deaths in the family in the course of the battle.

(Unfortunately, Leopold Artner died at the age of only 45 due to tuberculosis. His wife seems to have left Dürnstein after his death. So far, I could not establish, where the family went.)

Other inhabitants were not spared by the atrocities of the armies, as one can see in the death records of Loiben and Rothenhof:

On 12.November died Elisabeth Karl, widow of Christoph Karl, winemaker, domiciled in Unterloiben no.16 at the age of 64 years. As cause of death, the following is written: “Shot by plundering Russians”. There is also the note: “Was buried at the Cemetery of Loiben by those burying the bodies of the soldiers who died in the battle”.

In the Village of Rothenhof, Paul Mayr died on 16.December 1805, a “widow, winemaker and juryman“, at the age of 87. According to the death register, he died of “old age and shock of war, as he was plundered lying in bed with illness“.

There are several similar entries in the register of Unterloiben and Rothenhof. Particularly elderly people suffered a great shock from the battle.

Today, commemorative plaques and the “French Monument”, the “Franzosendenkmal” (which was build according to the design of Friedrich Schachner) close to Loiben, remind of the days of the Battle of Dürnstein.


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