War of the Austrian Succession
French: under Marshal Maurice de Saxe, approx. 54,000 with 84 guns (rising to 63,000)
Pragmatic Army: under the Duke of Cumberland, approx. 44,000 with 91 guns
Location: 54° 34' N, 3° 27' E, Antoing, Belgium, just southeast of Tournai on the Scheldt River.
Weather: Mild temperatures. Visibility: Low ground fog in the morning, lifting about 0900. Ground: Soft and frequently soggy in low areas after days of heavy rain.
First Light: 04:27 Sunrise: 05:06 Sunset: 20:28 End of Twilight: 21:07
Moonrise: 16:40 waxing, 77% gibbous
All times UTC +1 (Alpha, Zulu +1)
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from lat/long and date)
The Cause of the War: The Pragmatic SanctionI have, of course, done other articles on battles during the War of the Austrian Succession--Mollwitz, Soor, Chutositz--but those took place in the eastern theater of that long war, between Frederick II and the Austrians. Fontenoy takes us to the west, between allies of Frederick (France) and the Austrians (Britain and the Netherlands). The war had already been going on for four years by the time Britain and the Netherlands decided to get into it. Its origins had long since evaporated from the minds of the various combatants
My father used to say there are two reasons for everything, the good reason and the real reason. In the case of the War of the Austrian Succession, the "good" reason was the outrageous idea that a mere girl should inherit the Hapsburg throne, or any throne, for that matter. All of the insecure male egos in Europe had not gotten over their misogyny about women governing. You'll remember my earlier post about the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and how the Hundred Years War started because of a dispute over succession to the throne of France via the female line; the infamous Salic Law. Well, four hundred years later, this dangerous idea of female inheritance was still getting the various male-chauvinist crowned heads' periwigs all twisted. They could see a trend developing, what with nasty women becoming heads of state since the middle of the 16th century (Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, Mary and Anne Stuart in England; Catherine I, Anna Ivanovna, and Elizabeth Petrovna in Russia). It didn't seem to end. Civilization itself was imperiled.
Charles VI, king of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia,Transylvania, Lombardy, the Austrian Netherlands, and a mess of principalities and spas all over Europe, had no male heirs (he also had been elected Holy Roman Emperor, but that was an elected and honorary title and had nothing to do with this). But the allies of Charles and, in the end, his enemies, sick of decades of war, eventually agreed to what was called the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, i.e. that the crowns of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, etc. should go to Charles's daughter when the time came and he didn't have any male heirs. They all reluctantly agreed, mostly to avoid yet another stupid succession war (there had already been two that century, the Spanish and Polish Successions).
But when the time came and Charles VI died, he only had a daughter, Maria Theresa, and the very male Elector of Bavaria, Charles Albert, thought he should be King of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and all those other places, not some 23-year-old girl. Remember the Salic Law? And because of all the incest among the nobility of Europe, he had some lawyers draw up some convoluted lines of inheritance (by marriage). So he threw a tantrum for war.
Now came the real reason for the war. Greed. Frederick II of Prussia wanted the rich province of Silesia from Austria. Louis XV of France wanted the Austrian Netherlands (today's Belgium) and some other places. And they both used Charles Albert's thin claim of succession as a righteous pretext to go to war to grab some rich territory. The British and the Dutch had their own equally cynical and covetous motivations; they wanted to take colonies and markets from the French. Also, whatever the French were for, the British and Dutch were against anyway. It was all very sordid.
But coming to the defense of a damsel in distress (Maria Theresa) or against an upstart woman were the "good" reasons on each side. As my dad used to say, the "good reason and the real reason."
It's really complicated. And from our perspective in the 21st century when wars are fought for very good and sensible reasons, indeed, it all seems so silly. (Yes, I'm being sarcastic.) Also, knowing all the background of political and economic factors in this arcane period has nothing really to do with understanding this particular battle, or for those who want to turn it into a set piece wargame. In the end, it really isn't very pragmatic at all.
So that's all I'm going to say about the War of the Austrian Succession. It won't be on the test.
Saxe lays his trap.
At the beginning of this fifth year of this tedious war, the French got the drop on the Allies (Britain, Hanover, the Netherlands, and Austria-Hungary). They cheated by starting early in March, before the normal campaigning season, invading the Austrian Netherlands (today's Belgium) with 95,000 men and laying siege to the big market town of Tournai on the Scheldt river. Louis XV's strategy was to just go for his ultimate prize and seize all of Belgium--or the Austrian Netherlands, as it was then known--and do it early. He had done so the year before, but got sick with smallpox (he got better!) and, after a series of setbacks in Bavaria, was forced to give it all up and retreat back into France at the end of the year. But he and his new commander, Marshal Maurice de Saxe, probably one of the most gifted soldiers of the age, saw how easily Flanders and the rest of this country had fallen to the discombobulated Dutch defense the year before. It should be no trouble to repeat the feat in 1745, for keeps this time.
|Marshal Maurice de Saxe|
Nearly 50 and sick with congestive heart failure
but still one of the outstanding soldiers on the
Continent in 1745. Painting by Maurice de la Tour.
So, as soon as the huge French army crossed the border in early April, it invested Tournai, which had about 7,000 surprised Dutch troops inside. Saxe also knew that besides taking this strategic town, the siege would be bound to attract a valiant rescue operation by the Pragmatic Army (so named to remind the Allied members they were fighting to uphold the Pragmatic Sanction supporting Maria Theresa's right to the throne...oh, never mind). As soon as the marshal crossed into Flanders, he sent a portion of his army southeast toward Mons as a diversion, and to give his main army time to invest Tournai. The ruse worked and the Pragmatics spent precious time marching toward Mons to intercept what they thought was the main French thrust.
The Allied Army in Flanders was now under the command of the young and talented (so his father thought) Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, third son of
|Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland|
Just twenty-four years old and already
Captain-General of a whole Allied army.
But Cumberland had confidence in his own star. Because so many of the sycophants in his father's court had assured him of his military prowess, he tended to believe it himself. It was another of those examples of someone being born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple (as we Americans like to say, drawing from our perpetually useful bag of baseball metaphors). So he took his new role as Captain-General of the Pragmatic Army very seriously. He may have been many things, but as we'll see, he was earnest and brave. And also a terrible manager. And a worse judge of talent; like Henry V, he peopled his staff with old drinking buddies, not necessarily with the best talent.
On April 29th, when he finally got news of de Saxe's true invasion target, Tournai, some 32 miles (52 km) west of Mons, Cumberland assembled what forces he had so far in Brussels and started slowly marching southwest to save the Tournaisians (Tournaians? Tournaisinis? Tournaises?). Just as Saxe hoped he would. Cumberland assumed in his correspondence, based on faulty intelligence, that de Saxe had, at most, 22,000 men around the town and though his own forces were not yet up to their full strength (only around 44,000), he felt had more than enough to defeat the French, particularly as the core of his army was composed of his undefeated British infantry.
Saxe, on the other hand, had an excellent network of intelligence throughout Flanders and knew how to exploit it. He quickly got word that Cumberland was moving slowly from Brussels through the Soignes-Ath-Cambron-Vezon route and estimated, because of his slow progress on the rain-soaked roads, that he would not be in front of Tournai before 10 May. He even accurately predicted the route he would take, running up past the market town of Antoing a couple of miles south of Tournai on the Scheldt River. The marshal had marked this ground well, and like Wellington at Waterloo seventy years later (and just 42 miles away, or 68 km, in case you're interested), he had kept it in his pocket.
He also didn't have only 22,000 that Cumberland's intelligence estimated, he had closer to 95,000 around Tournai, more than enough to not only meet Cumberland with overwhelming force, but to keep sufficient numbers in the trenches around the city to keep the siege going.
Waiting for Cumberland
The battlefield was constricted by a rather large wood to the northeast (the Bois de Barry) and the marshy banks of the Sheldt to the southwest. A long sunken road, a natural trench, ran eastward from the Castle of Antoing to the village of Fontenoy and then turned abruptly north toward the Barry Wood. The ground south of the road between Antoing and Fontenoy was open, as was the plateau behind Fontenoy, and the long, sloping ground in front of it toward the village of Vezon (see map above). It was perfect artillery terrain, and also perfect for funneling an enemy into a killing zone.
The Allied army began to show up in the villages a little over three miles southeast of Fontenoy on the evening of the 9th, from the exact direction de Saxe had counted on them coming. Cumberland and his staff, and about a dozen squadrons of dragoons as escort, rode toward Vezon to reconnoiter the battlefield. It was was here that they first saw the French campfires stretch from south to north in the distance. Patrols reported that the wood to the north of Vezon (the Barry Wood) seemed to be thick with enemy light infantry, but Cumberland dismissed this report as inconsequential. As soon as he saw where de Saxe was, he had already decided the best strategy was to go right straight for him. No fancy, unmanly maneuvering.
That same evening two miles away, as soon as his own patrols reported the arrival of the Allies, and in spite of heavy rains in the days before, de Saxe tasked his 500 pioneers, with as many borrowed infantry laborers as they required, to construct a series of redoubts all along this L-shaped line and to create a strong fortification around Fontenoy village. He had put off commencing work on these fortifications until he knew for sure that Cumberland was coming up this way. There had still been a chance he would have taken the northern, straighter road toward Tournai and, for that reason, he had left blocking forces north and east of the city.
Working around the clock, his men did heroic labor, building, in all, five strong redoubts, each garrisoned with artillery and infantry, and over two kilometers of gun bastions and firing trenches around Fontenoy and Antoing. The spur on the west side of the Barry Wood was also cut down to give the two redoubts there (named Eu and Chambonas, after their garrison regiment and its commander) clear fields of fire should the Pragmatics attempt to filter through the wood.
Detail of defenses around Fontenoy village.
Copyright 2017 Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved. Image protected by Digimarc watermark.
The Marshal knew that the British wing of the enemy army would take the position of honor, the right (or north) side, in front of the village of Vezon, making the Dutch attack around from the south toward the three redoubts on the Antoing-Fontenoy sunken road. This is exactly what he wanted. The British were the decidedly greater threat to his army. They were renowned for their discipline, their firepower, and their sense of their own invincibility. They had never lost a major battle on the Continent since the turn of the century. So he figured that his best chance was to force them into the constricted space between the Barry Wood and Fontenoy, where they would be subjected to overwhelming fire from both flanks and the front, unable to deploy to their full numbers. It would be his own Poltava, in emulation of one of his heroes, Peter the Great of Russia.
Saxe had more enemies than the Pragmatic Army, of course. Louis XV, who had come up from Versailles to be present during the operations in front of Tournai, brought with him his entourage of toadies, many of whom hated Saxe as an upstart foreigner (he was Saxon, after all, one of Augustus II of Saxony's many illegitimate children); they were jealous of his favor with their sovereign and his (to them) undeserved promotion to Marshal of France. So there was a lot of carping and making of duck faces. The Marshal, though, had a warm, personal relationship with the young king and was scrupulous about keeping his sovereign informed about his plans. As Louis rode the lines with him, listening intently to his plans, some of these harpies (Saxe called them "carpet generals") began to criticize his preparations, especially his building field fortifications, as unmanly and not respectful of French courage. They opined that the honorable thing to do was not to hide in trenches, but to stand up in the open and face the English like men. Louis, who was apparently indulgent of all of this kibbitzing, finally put his hand up. He said, loudly to Saxe, for all his powdered courtiers to hear, "In confiding to you the command of my army, I intend that everyone shall obey you, and I will be the first to set an example of obedience." Booyah!
Louis lived up to his word. Throughout the subsequent battle, even during the diciest parts, he never wavered in his support of Saxe's leadership, and never left the field of battle. It would not only prove to be Saxe's finest moment, it would also be Louis's.
Saxe carefully deployed his army in four lines, two infantry and two cavalry. Occupying the central position he felt that he could quickly shuttle needed reinforcements to either face of his position, while his enemy would be split and unable to support each of his wings as quickly. He also had his trusted left wing commander, Lutteaux, to send his elite Arqubusiers de Grassin, all crack shots skilled in the new light infantry tactics, into the Barry Wood to take up positions to worry the enemy northern flank. Finally, he held the four-battalion Normandie regiment and the Angoumois and Royal Corse regiments around the village of Ramecroix on his left flank to block any sweeping maneuver attempted by Cumberland around the Bois de Barry.
Meanwhile, Saxe sent out patrols to the hamlets of Bouregon and Peronne (see map) to act as pickets warning of the approach of the enemy and to set fire to the villages upon their approach to keep them from acting as shelters.
- We saw this same thing during the Battle of Blenheim 41 years earlier when the French pickets burned the little villages there too. One can't help but think of how cruel this was to the people who lived there, who would lose everything they had. And in an age when warfare was supposed to be so genteel, to civilians and the ordinary soldier, it really hadn't changed since the barbarity of the Thirty Years War, except that the soldiers weren't so murderous to the civilians themselves. They'd just destroy everything they had. De Saxe also had the outlying houses and barns in front of Fontenoy itself burned for the same reason, to provide a clear field of fire. Do you think the inhabitants were compensated? Did they have war insurance?
Cumberland courteously gave Saxe almost 36 hours to prepare. Instead of charging ahead immediately before the French could dig in, the new Captain-General gave his army another whole day to rest from their arduous 11 day, 50 mile march from Brussels (they'd had only five days of rest in that whole time!). He was nothing if not considerate of his men.
So, with two nights and a full day to thoroughly prepare his battlefield, Saxe felt ready. Late during the evening of the 9th his pickets in the outlying hamlets heard the distinct sound of drums coming up the road from Ath. They set the houses on fire and scampered back to the main line. The enemy had arrived.
These things take time.As the Pragmatic Army neared the battlefield, Cumberland's cavalry patrols reported again that while the woods on the northern flank were filled with an unknown number of enemy troops, the plain to the north of it seemed relatively unprotected. True to 18th century convention, the Duke called a council of war to debate the implications of this. Many of his generals, notably his cavalry commanders, Campbell, Crawford, Rothe, and Bland, as well as the Austrian representative, Konigsegg, vigorously recommended a strong cavalry envelopment wide around the Bois de Barry to roll up the French left and cut them off from their siege lines at Tournai. But Cumberland listened to the more cautious advice, that it would not be prudent to split up the army in the presence of the enemy, particularly as no one knew the strength of the force in the woods. So it was decided to shelve the envelopment idea in favor of a more direct, blunt force approach. If you have read my article on Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, you'll recognize this same frustrating situation, with Lord Crawford repeatedly imploring Cumberland, as Longstreet implored Lee, to move around to the right of the enemy and take them in the flank, and with Cumberland (and Lee) ignoring this prudent advice.
The Allies started sorting themselves out at Vezon and Bourgeon in the evening of the 10th. But they didn't attack right away. In this age of linear warfare, it took time for an army to deploy from a column of route to a line of attack. Considerable time. Also, the ground around the village of Vezon, where the Anglo-Hanoverian wing had to form up, was quite broken and choked with gardens, marsh, and orchards. And it was dark. Not ideal for forming lines of battle.
Shortly after sunrise, 0506, Cumberland received a report from his scouts that the low ridge ahead of him (between Fontenoy and the woods) was concealing a considerable force of French infantry and artillery, entrenched on the flanks in strong positions. As the landscape was wrapped in early morning fog (there was still considerable moisture in the ground from the days of rain), neither side could see the other. So the fog worked for awhile to give the Allies time to deploy. But by about 0700 it had started to burn away and the Dutch artillery, which had unlimbered in front of Bourgeon, started to a slow bombardment of the French in their fortifications at Fontenoy. The French, in turn, started firing back slowly. And so began a two hour waste of ammunition on both sides.
As the morning fog lifted, the French in the center, seeing the British infantry forming up in front of Vezon, about a mile away, started cannonading them as well. Of course, at that range, the state of artillery technology was not capable of doing much but random damage (effective range of even the 12 pounders being only about 650 yards with the French Army's Valliere guns, at the time, among the most advanced artillery in Europe). Also, given the soggy nature of the ground from days of rain, the ricochet of roundshot would have been reduced, further lowering their effect. But the bounding cannon balls could still irritate the British.
View from just in front of the French center toward Vezon, where the British and Hanoverian infantry was shuffling to deploy. Image from GoogleMaps Street View.
Meanwhile General Ligonier, Cumberland's infantry commander, began the tedium of getting his 20 British and five Hanoverian battalions into a line of attack. It was important to respect the relative seniority of the various brigades in the sequence in which they deployed. You couldn't have a more "junior" brigade form on the right of a more "senior" one, after all. What! Are you nuts? Gentlemen would be insulted. The first line had to be of the most senior British regiments, beginning with the 1st Guards ("Grenadiers") on the far right, the post of honor, then the 2nd Guards ("Coldstream"), the 3rd Guards ("Scots"), then the 1st Royal and so on. Of course they lined up by brigade, with each brigade composed of three or four single battalion regiments, and it was the senior regiment of each brigade that gave the brigade its rank order. I know, the protocol is mind-numbing. But if they didn't do it this way, Western Civilization as they knew it would collapse (as it ultimately did anyway in 1789) and there would be no point in fighting the war at all. At the very least there would be duels between the insulted regimental commanders afterward.
While all this was going on, French cannon balls kept rolling at the ends of their trajectories through the redcoats' lines. The slowing shot were, at this extreme range, easy to spot in flight and equally easy to step out of the way of, so no infantry were killed and only a few injured. But it bothered Cumberland enough that he ordered his cavalry commander, James Campbell, to bring one of his dragoon brigades forward to present themselves as human and equine shields to his evidently more valued foot. I'm sure the dragoons appreciated that. They were supposed to sit there passively on their horses and catch the shot from the French while the infantry behind them took their own sweet time in getting themselves organized. Since the dragoons were bigger targets on their horses and closer to the French, they did take some grisly casualties. Even a slow, bounding, 4 pound shot could disembowel a horse or take off a leg. Which is exactly what happened to General Campbell himself. A "spent" ball smashed his leg and he was taken off the field, where he eventually died from loss of blood.
Incensed, Cumberland ordered his artillery chief, Col. Lewis, to bring up his own six pounders and howitzers and fire back. No sense just one side wasting ammo. He was also eager to avenge the wounding of his dear friend, James Campbell. With the press of men in front of Vezon trying to find their appropriate places in line, there was considerable disruption of the deployment process to get the British guns through the shuffling lines and unlimbered in front of the heroically patient dragoons. So it took about an hour (and more delay in the infantry deployment) for Lewis's guns to open a counterfire on the French. Almost poetically and sadly, one of the first casualties on the French side from this bombardment was none other than the poor Duc de Grammont, the same aristocrat whose impetuosity had been responsible for the French losing the Battle of Dettingen two years before.
Who are those rude people in the woods?
While Cumberland was trying to manage all of this confusion, he got a report from one of his commanders that there was somebody firing at their flank from the Bois de Barry. These somebodies would have been the Arquebusiers de Grassin, an elite light regiment in the French Army. This new danger would, it was explained to him, present a considerable hindrance to his proposed attack on the main French line. True to form, Cumberland called another council of war to discuss this development. Someone again thought he should throw his cavalry around the wood in a sweeping, outflanking movement. Cumberland looked blankly at this suggestion; hadn't they already been over that? After more discussion it was suggested that an ad hoc assault brigade be formed and to go over and clear the woods of whoever was shooting at them. Cumberland liked this idea and told Col. Richard Ingoldsby, an old drinking buddy, to take four battalions--the 12th (Duroure's), 13th (Pultney's), and the 42nd (Munro's, also known as "The Black Watch") as well as Boschlanger's Hanoverians and the two companies of Nederlander Freicorps that the Austrians had graciously lent the Allies fighting for their cause--and go over and see about clearing those woods, like a good chap.
|A nattily dressed Arquebusier de Grassin|
Then the Duke turned his attention back to sorting out all of the deployment confusion with his infantry. It had been discovered, as soon as the more senior regiments started lining up right to left in their customary three rank lines, that there would not be enough room on the narrow front Saxe had provided for him to attack. So it was decided that the British foot would have to condense their lines and form up in six ranks instead. This would cut in half their customary firepower, but it was the only way to cram everybody into the narrow space. The resulting formations would be similar to the columns of attack that Napoleon's infantry would use in 60 years.
Then came another setback. After about an hour, Ingoldsby sent a message saying he had tried to eject those people from the Barry Woods, but he had no idea how many there were and was cautious about charging in there blind. There seemed like overwhelming numbers from their fire (there were only about 800, but the Arquebusiers were such crack snipers that their fire seemed like it must be coming from several times more). Cumberland dropped what he was doing and galloped over to see for himself. When he reined up, Ingoldsby pointed out the smoke and popping coming from the edge of the woods and asked his friend if he might have some of Col. Lewis's artillery to sweep them out of there. Sighing, Cumberland granted his request and sent for Lewis to break off some of his guns and lend them to the timid Ingoldsby. Then the Duke rode back over to Vezon see what was holding up his main deployment again.
|A grenadier of Doroure's 12th Foot|
one of the two regiments who nearly
Ingoldsby made one more, less-than-half-hearted attempt, but by this time, the Arquebusiers, noticing the timidity of the British, crept back to their original positions and started picking them off again. The hapless Ingoldsby sent back to his commander one more time that the position was too strong and requested more troops. Swearing, Cumberland personally dropped everything one last time, galloped over, relieved Ingoldsby of his command, and ordered his four battalions to return to their parent brigades. He'd just deal with the flanking fire from the wood when he came to it. Ingoldsby was later court-martialed for his cowardice and failure to obey orders, though a witness at his trial said he plainly heard Cumberland tell the officer, "to attack the battery in the wood and to maintain himself if he could; if not to make the best of his way off." Confusing and limp orders if there ever were.
These distractions with the relatively minor action on the flank already started to reveal Cumberland's unfitness for command. His attention easily captured by details and petty problems that his subordinates should have dealt with themselves (had he selected subordinates based on their military prowess instead of their pub companionship), he felt he had to micro-manage everything. As we'll see, he macro-mismanaged the battle.
The Dutch jump the gun, literally
Meanwhile, waiting for the order to begin their attack on the French southern flank, the Dutch under Prince Waldeck, had had an easier time deploying their own battalions and squadrons. The ground in front of and to the west of Bourgeon was more open, and though they too were compelled, because of the narrowness of the area between the burnt out villages of Bourgeon and Peronne, to deploy in double ranks of six, they had got themselves sorted out by about 0700, hours before the British. And they waited.
And waited for the message from Cumberland or some sign that the right wing had started their attack. The plan, as discussed and agreed on in earlier councils of war, was for both wings to commence their attacks simultaneously, mutually supporting each other. So there was a considerable amount of pacing by the impatient Dutch while the two sides' batteries took desultory potshots at each other. Like the British, the Dutch ranks were also irritated by French gunfire, and they were getting itchy to get on with it. It is one thing to march steadily into the face of fire, but more stressful still to stand and just take it. I do not know if, as Marlborough had done with his infantry at Blenheim, Waldeck allowed his men to lie down while they were waiting. A prudent commander would have.
View from the Dutch start line toward the redoubts around Fontenoy. The village of Bourgeon would have been in smokey ruins and not as built up, but you can see what a clear field of fire for the French the ground was. Image from Google Maps Street View.
But at about 0900 Waldeck thought he definitely heard signs that the British had commenced their attack. What he probably heard was the firing from Col. Lewis's guns and the musketry going on in front of the Bois de Barry. There was no galloping messenger bearing an order from Cumberland to commence his attack, but Waldeck mistook the opening salvos from Lewis's six pounders as the signal to start. In reality, the British were nowhere near ready and wouldn't be for another couple of hours at least.
Nevertheless, and probably to the relief of the 18,000 Dutch foot and horse, Waldeck passed the word for the regimental drums beat the charge and the battalions started to march toward the French between Fontenoy and Antoing (see map above). The 21 battalions were supported on the left by Hessen-Philipsthal's 3,660 horse (27 squadrons), who swept around the burned hamlet of Peronne. To the rear of the infantry came General van Schlippenbach's 1,000 cavalry (seven squadrons). This was a march across open ground in the face of 10,000 muskets and 36 guns in prepared positions, both from front and flank. In terms of conditions and scale it must have also resembled Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg 120 years later, where 16,000 infantry also marched across a mile of open ground toward strong enemy positions and massed artillery.
|Karl August, Prince of Waldeck|
"Come here! Give us a hug!"
Just within musket shot of the three redoubts (about 80 yards), the Dutch infantry, leaning into the intense fire and falling fast, came to a halt. Men started huddling behind each other, causing their lines to become deep mobs, consequently making them even more vulnerable to the raking artillery. This untenable ordeal didn't last but a few minutes before, one by one, men started running back the way they had come, some actually even led that way by their regimental commanders. One infamous cavalry commander, Col. Appius, even fled the field with his squadron, galloping back to Ath, where he sent an hysterical message back to his government that all was lost and the Allies had been defeated. Not helping.
The Dutch assault had failed before it even got to the first redoubt.
To their credit and professionalism, except for Co.l Appius, the Dutch didn't vacate the field entirely. They were still under command. Most of them rallied back with their regiments around Bourgeon and out of effective range of the French artillery, who stopped firing to let their cannons cool and replenish their ammunition. Waldeck's men had been stopped and beaten back, but were ready for another go.
The Dutch and the Prince, though, felt betrayed by their allies, of which there was no sign of support during this charge. They had done their part, according to plan, but where were the British and Hanoverians? The Dutch felt like fools, left in the lurch. After the battle the blaming began and the British disparaged their longtime Dutch allies as cowards. But the Dutch were right, their friends had left them on their own.
Oh, sorry. Can we try again?Of course, by this time, the British weren't nearly through getting their own battle line in the right order.
Cumberland got a polite but urgent "Where the *expletive* were you?" message from Waldeck about his failed attack on the left and asked--also politely--for better support the next time. The Duke, distracted by the organizational mess he was having on the right, and now free of micro-managing the debacle Ingoldsby had created in the Barry Wood, ordered the Hanoverian commander, General Thomas von Ilten (known disparagingly as "The King's Confectioner" because of his reputed cowardice at Dettingen) to take his four remaining foot regiments (Zastrow, Oberg, Sporken, and Campen), as well as the Black Watch and Duroure's regiments (42nd and 12th Foot) and assault the eastern face of the Fontenoy fortifications while Waldeck tried another go at the south face again. He then sent a deferential message to the Dutch commander; would he be so awfully grand as to please try again as his lordship was going to put in a strong attack from his own side this time. Promise.
I imagine Waldeck exhaled a deep sigh of resignation at getting this message.
When Col. Sir Robert Munro, of the Black Watch, heard that his regiment was to take part in a direct assault of the fortified village at Fontenoy, he couldn't wait for the rest of the brigade to come up, but led his men right at the French, with Duroure's 12th joining them on their right. As they neared the French line, Munro heard the French order to fire and immediately ordered his men to hit the dirt. They all did and a salvo of canister and musketry sailed over them. Munro himself, a very fat man, did not lie down, saying later that was afraid he wouldn't be able to get up again, and gamely stood up to the hail of lead, miraculously unscathed. Then he ordered his lads up and they hurled themselves into the trenchline before the French could reload, hacking and yelling, driving the third battalion of Dauphin out of it. Duroure's regiment did the same thing with the second battalion Dauphin. But the French rallied and fresh battalions came forward and began firing down into the trench at the redcoats. Munro and Duroure, realizing they were unsupported (the Dutch and Hanoverians had yet to begin their own charge) ordered a withdrawal. The bulky Munro himself had to be physically hoisted out of the trench by four men. They then took shelter behind the burned out ruins of Fontenoy's houses to the southeast, waiting for the Dutch.
The Dutch and Hanoverians came forward eventually, but began to suffer the same galling fire from all the French artillery and musketry (now reoccupying the trenches) as before. They halted, the Dutch well short of where they had even achieved earlier in the first assault, and withdrew. The Dutch were done. They didn't completely leave the field, but they rallied on their start lines, observing the rest of the battle from a safe distance.
Disgusted, the two British regiments just huddled behind the ruins of the Fontenoy suburbs and waited for the opportunity to retreat themselves.
Still the main British assault, which was supposed to support this one, hadn't yet started.
Finally, the main attack begins.
At about 1100 everything seemed finally ready on the Allied right. Cumberland rode to the front of his 23 British and Hanoverian regiments, drew his sword and started the main attack. The two lines (each in six-rank depth) began to march slowly forward, pulling their supporting 3 pounder guns with them. Rothe's dragoons, who had been screening them before, rode to the rear to provide support, or ready to exploit a breakthrough should the infantry force a general retreat of the French.
For Saxe, this was going to be the moment of truth. He had been pleased with how his right flank and Vauguyon's men in Fontenoy had beaten back the two Dutch assaults and the small attack by the two British regiments. But he was not worried about the Dutch any longer, and never had been, really. What he was worried about was the British main attack.
The French hadn't beaten the British in a battle yet this century. He knew his men knew that and that they were nervous as hell. Often, when someone expects to fail, the expectation becomes self-fulfilling. He was also worried that, in spite of his strict orders to stand fast and not counter-attack, that some hot-headed aristocrat (as Grammont had been at Dettingen) would break ranks with his battalion or squadron and go at the British, starting an avalanche of disobedience, only to be cut to ribbons by their formidable musketry. He was fully expecting this, in fact.
But he had a plan. A plan similar to Mohammed Ali's "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. And he didn't call any councils of war to discuss it.
As the two lines of Allied infantry approached the bottleneck between the Bois de Barry and Fontenoy, the negligence of not securing either the fortified village or the redoubt on the northern flank started to hit home. While the Cumberland and his artillery chief, Col. Lewis, believed he had largely eliminated the French guns in the previous, long artillery duel, it became apparent as his infantry came within effective range that those guns were very much in operation (same as Lee's mistaken belief that Alexander's overwhelming artillery bombardment prior to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg had suppressed the Union artillery). And now those guns started enfilading the British and Hanoverian formations in a murderous crossfire.
Nevertheless, the stalwart redcoats pressed on up the shallow slope of the narrow ridge. In so doing they found that they had to condense their frontage even more as they drew away from the batteries on either side. By the time they reached the top of the ridge between Fontenoy and the woods, they had become three lines. Here, waiting for them just behind the ridge line were the six battalions of the French guard regiments, four of the Gardes Francaises and two of the redcoated Gardes Suisses, 4,000 of the elite of the French Army, plus another four battalions of the Aubterre and the Swiss Courten Regiments (2,400). The advancing Allied line halted about 50 yards from this formidable sight.
It was at this point that a supposedly famous and ludicrous episode took place. Whether it actually happened or not is in dispute, but it became legend and was meant to symbolize the acme of this age of civilized warfare. According to Voltaire's telling the story, when the British line halted in front of the French, a Capt. Charles Hay of the 1st Foot Guards advanced a few paces to the front of his battalion and theatrically taking out a flask from his coat pocket, offered a toast to his enemy, asking them to please not run as they had at Dettingen, but to stay and do him the courtesy of getting to know them better. He then bowed and invited them to make the first volley. An insult so gracious in its burn.
In response, so Voltaire's great anecdote goes, a Lt. Comte d'Anterroches of the Gardes Francaises stepped out in front of his own battalion and, taking off his hat and bowing ostentatiously, offered some erudite insults of his own and gallantly declined the generous offer of the English gentleman to fire first, saying that Frenchmen never take the first shot, and to please do so themselves. There must have been much tittering in the ranks.
Eduard Detaille's 1876 painting, "Le Salut," of the legendary niceties between the two respective Guards regimental officers. Detaille seems to have the Gardes Francaises arrayed in an echeloned column rather than a four rank line of battle. But at least the landscape looks like he may have actually visited the site; even the sunken road (right) is represented. And the spire from the church at Ramecroix can be seen on the horizon to the left. In the center distance rises smoke from the guns at the d'Eu redoubts, firing into the right flank of the British.
Whether this happened or not (and I doubt Voltaire, though there may have been some doffing of the hats), and whether either side could hear each other at 50 yards with all the banging of guns going off, the French fired first. Or, at least, a single musket went off, then a smattering of them, and then the whole French line opened up, all ranks emptying their muskets. According to the memoires of some who were there, most of these rounds sailed ineffectually over the heads of the British. This is not surprising since the British line was a little below the French and it would have been common for musket fire to be high.
Knowing that the French had shot their bolt, the British line now opened up with their famous, disciplined, platoon fire. The first "firing" (six of the eighteen platoons in each battalion) was supposedly so devastating that, according to one British officer, the entire front rank of all of the Gardes went down, almost 700 men. (I find this a little hard to believe, since it would mean that this one volley had an astounding 92% accuracy rate--assuming the British were still stacked six deep and only the first three ranks could fire). Also, since both lines were covered in smoke, it would have been difficult for the witness to have seen this in detail. Nevertheless, a whole lot of bullets found their mark.
Then the British, marched forward, closing the distance to 25 yards, and the second "firing"(the next six platoons in each battalion) leveled their Brown Bess muskets and fired.
Another rendering of the famous episode. In this one, at least, the French are in line. It is doubtful if either side could have heard at this distance and over the drumming and artillery fire. The salon painter, Felix Philippoteaux, who was fanatical in his attention to authenticity, has the 3 pounder battalion guns alongside the British line, before they were ordered pulled back when the formation became a square. Painting by Felix Philippoteaux 1872, who, with his son, Paul, also painted the famous Gettysburg Cyclorama
The French Guards, still fumbling to reload their own muskets, didn't wait around but all turned and bolted for the shelter of the cavalry behind them, where, to their credit, they stopped and rallied. It is more realistic to me that, with the reported casualties of 637 for all six battalions of the Gardes in the entire battle, most of them were probably inflicted in both of these two, close range volleys, rather than the first.
Saxe, for his part, and in spite of his illness (called "dropsy" back then, edema caused by congestive heart failure), rode all over the place, personally rallying shaken regiments, and pulling in reinforcements to shore up the line. It must have been excrucitiating for him. He even went over to double check the conditions on the south flank and was reassured that the Dutch were standing off, no longer a threat, and the two British battalions on that flank were huddled down behind the burned out buildings, held in check.
During this frenetic activity, an ally of Saxe's at the Court galloped up to tell the Marshal that the King, after the retreat of his Gardes, was being advised to abandon the field and save himself and the Dauphin. Several of the timorous sychophants had declared the battle lost (since they were expecting the British to beat them as they always had) and urging their sovereign to flee. Realizing this could spell disaster if the King was seen to abandon the field, Saxe galloped up to Louis on his hill and, throwing courtesy away, wanted to know "What *expletives deleted* advised that you flee?" The marshal glared around at his Court enemies, looking for that *expletive*. Louis, far less flapped than his entourage, looked his marshal in the eye and said, as much to calm him as his court, "I am sure the Marshal will do all he can. I will stay where I am." Saxe was calmed. Before he jerked his horse around to return to the battle, he said, "We must all conquer or die together." This great leader showed incredible courage not just in the face of shot and disaster, but in the face of his own monarch. I suspect that's why Louis liked him so much.
Galloping back to the center of the crisis where the massive, British juggernaut was grinding forward like a glacier, the Marshal gave heart to the second line of infantry under Gen. d'Estree (Regts. Couronne, Soissons, Royal, Hainault, Traisnel, Vaisseaux) who had, in true French elan fashion, already started to charge the British on his own. His troops were also met with the same withering fire and also thrown back with terrible losses. As they withdrew to reform, the first line of French cavalry now took it upon themselves to charge into the red line. This charge was doomed, of course, as cavalry could rarely break a solid line of bayonet armed infantry. These were also stopped dead in their tracks and forced to retire.
But even though Saxe had not ordered the cavalry counterattack, he had anticipated it. He knew his men and knew he couldn't restrain them from throwing themselves into heroic, suicidal charges. The French nobility really hadn't changed since Crecy and Agincourt. He also knew these charges would give him valuable time to bring up reinforcements. Early that morning, once he was certain that the Allies were all coming up the southern route via Vezon and Bourgeon, he had sent for his trusted Danish commander Lowendhal to bring his 6,000 infantry down from Tournai and for Richelieu his 3,400 cavalry. He had also sent back to the fortified bridgehead around Colonne to send over their reserve artillery. Now he rode over to the left and called on the six battalions of the Irish brigade (Louis's "Wild Geese") under the Earl of Thomond, and the four battalions of the Normandie Regiment to swing south and attack the British square from that direction. Finally, he rode back again to the King to ask his permission to unleash the 34 squadrons (5,000) of the Maison du Roi. And the King nodded.
Saxe's management of the battle stood in stark contrast to young Cumberland's. Both men were dynamos of energy, but Saxe used his to gallop everywhere, assessing the entire situation, issuing quick orders to move troops and bring up reinforcements, but leaving the actual combat to the subcommanders. Cumberland thought his duty was to fight in the front ranks like a Spartan king, leaving the management of the wider battle to nobody.
The crisis is contained.
Though the charges by the second line of French infantry and the first line of cavalry had both been stopped, they had achieved their purpose; they halted the forward momentum of the Anglo-Hanoverian attack. This gave invaluable time to Saxe. Also, though the French troops had been thrown back, they had not been routed. They were regrouping behind the second line of cavalry and ready to have a go again. As soon as each battalion or squadron was reformed, it marched forward again on its own, eager to get back into it. Compare this to the Dutch, who made just two faint-hearted attacks and gave up.
|Regt. Clare in French service|
Their red uniforms must have been
very confusing to the British.
The Irish Brigade under Charles O'Brien, Earl of Thormond, hit Cumberland's right flank. They weren't stopped by musket fire but threw themselves into a rare, open field, stabbing-punching-biting donnybrook with the hated Sassenach redcoats (well, both sides were wearing red coats, so it must have been confusing). The Irish were eventually forced to fall back but they too didn't flee; they just regrouped out of musket range and got ready for another charge. They were succeeded in the meantime by the Normandie Regiment, then the Vaissaux, who also gave as good as they got, even though the British musket fire kept stopping them and pushing them back. Regt Aubterre's tenacity was such that it was said you could see where they fought by the straight line of hundreds of white coated bodies.
But this lethal, British musket fire, as disciplined as it was, was starting to falter. Though the British were conserving their ammunition, their pouches were feeling lighter and they must have worried how much longer this fighting was going to last. These Frenchmen didn't seem to know when they were beaten.
More French cavalry charges thundered down on them, from both Herouville's 2nd line of cavalry and from the cream of the French Army, the Maison du Roi, they stopped each of these too in their tracks. Mostly. One squadron of the Noaille's Cavalerie did manage to ram through the 2nd Guards (Coldstream) and out into the middle of the square. These were savaged by the fresh Hanoverian reserves at the back of the formation and only 14 of the original 145 managed to fight their way out. Still, the fact that the square had been penetrated at all gave pause to everyone. French regiments that the British had thought they had already beaten once, then twice, were coming back for more. Even the Gardes, whom they had withered and driven off at the outset, were back, pouring fire into them. And all the while, the flanking rounds from the roundshot and canister from the Chambonas redoubt and Fontenoy's guns were still galling Cumberland's packed ranks.
The Duke sent back for Crawford, who had succeeded the dying Campbell as his cavalry commander, to come forward and deliver a charge himself, supporting the advance of the foot. It took awhile for the messenger to reach them before the British and Hanoverian horse began to move forward, but they had been positioned behind Vezon and were so hindered not only by the broken ground around that village, but also by the crowds of Dutch fugitives fleeing toward Ath. The horses' progress was slow. They never managed to get anywhere near the beleagured infantry square.
On the French side at one point, a Capt. Isnard, an enterprising young company officer of the recently arrived Touraine Regiment (the long awaited Lowendhal had shown up with his fresh division about 1330), saw two batteries of artillery standing idly next to the road--were these the guns that de Saxe had called for from Calonne?--and ordered the battery commander to follow him. He directed the eight guns to be set up about 100 yards from the corner of the British square and unload round after round of canister into them. The King later bestowed the Cross of St. Louis on this brash young officer for his initiative.
These last salvos may have been the final straw to the British. It was shortly after this that Cumberland and Konigsegg looked at each other and both concluded that the jig was up. They had lost almost a third of their men and they weren't making any more forward progress. What was left of their 23 battalions were now surrounded on three sides by at least 30 battalions and 100 squadrons of furious French, Irish, and Swiss. While they had inflicted about 7,400 casualties on the French (or a little under 12% of the total engaged), they themselves had suffered 4,616 casualties in their assault column alone, or 27%. Though they had seemed to have broken all of the French regiments again and again, they just wouldn't stay broke. These were not the same Frenchmen they had beaten at Dettingen, and all through the wars of Marlborough.
This panoramic painting by Louis Nicholas van Blarenberghe in 1779 shows the climax of the battle, as the beleaguered British square is attacked on all sides by the French. To the left can be seen the two redoubts at the end of the Bois de Barry, and the abatis of felled trees between them. Wave after wave of French cavalry assaults the red square, wearing it down. To the left the red-coated Irish brigade under Thomond assails the northern face. In the right foreground Louis XV (also in a red coat) and his son, the 16-year-old Dauphin, watch from the exaggerated height of the Notre Dame du Bois. The patriotic artist inaccurately depicts hundreds of red coated British fleeing in the distance, which was also an exaggeration. The British withdrawal was orderly.
Cumberland concedes defeat
About 1345 Cumberland regretfully ordered the giant square to begin its withdrawal. It was done nobly and with the same tremendous discipline that the advance had been achieved. Nobody broke ranks. They moved slowly backward, still delivering well-timed volleys by platoon as they had for the past two hours. Saxe noted this retrograde movement with great satisfaction and relief. His Rope-a-Dope strategy seemed to have worked, the British were leaving, and the unthinkable had happened; the French had beaten them in a standup battle.
Situation at the climax of the battle. Positions of the various French regiments are approximate as they were reforming and cycling back in for attack after attack as Blarenberghe's painting above shows. This map shows how isolated the main Anglo-Hanoverian wing had become.
As the Allied infantry slowly withdrew, they left the twenty or so cannon they had dragged with them to the enemy. The civilian contract teamsters who had delivered them to the battlefield had long since left. This was before the militarization of artillery transport, so it was not surprising. The gun crews spiked the tubes and abandoned them. Konigsegg was wounded in the retreat and taken to the rear. Cumberland stayed with his men, right up at the rear guard, supervising the withdrawal. He sent for Crawford to bring forward his cavalry to cover the retreat to and back through Vezon, which they did professionally. So much so that afterward, several infantry officers rose in toast to the cavalry at dinners back in Ath.
Reaching Vezon under the protection of Crawford's cavalry, the beaten but proud redcoats, British and Hanoverians, filed through the village on the 12 mile road back to Ath. Cumberland assigned Skelton's (32nd Foot) and Cholmondely's (34th) regiments, who had been among the least hurt, to take the rear guard.
|Marshal Saxe in his wicker, horse-drawn wheelchair (which he|
only got back into after the battle was won). He also had an
exotic escort of African bodyguards, like Napoleon's Mamelukes
55 years later, perhaps where Bonaparte got the idea.
The army was not the only one that needed to recover. Completely exhausted, Saxe's frail body, which he had held together through sheer adrenaline and will-power for the past two days, sensed the crisis was over and collapsed. His aides summoned his idiomatic, wicker, horse-drawn wheelchair and poured him into it, to carry him back up the Notre Dame hill to his sovereign. Louis expressed his profound gratitude and joy to his marshal, whom he encouraged to go take some well-deserved rest. Then the King rode with his teenage son, the Dauphin, over the battlefield, making him look at the mangled bodies and smell the death and reputedly said to him, "My son, meditate on this awful sight; learn not to sport with your subjects' lives, or pour out their blood in unjust wars." Of course, the Dauphin would be dead himself five years before his father, so wouldn't have an opportunity to apply this sage wisdom himself.
Fontenoy was one of the bloodiest battles of the mid 18th century. The French lost between 7,000 and 7,500 of their force, almost 12% of the total engaged. The Pragmatics, though, lost 7,581, mostly on the Anglo-Hanoverian wing (the Dutch lost only about 1,500 and inflicted only about 300 casualties on the French on their wing). This was a casualty rate of about 18% on the total forces engaged, but as I said above, the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry suffered much higher percentage of their personnel, 27%.
To the French, in spite of the human cost, the victory was one of great strategic significance. Because Cumberland failed to relieve Tournai, that city surrendered 11 days later, on 23 May. Saxe was able to systematically capture town after town throughout western Flanders for the remainder of 1745, and the rest of the Austrian Netherlands by 1748, giving France a huge bargaining chip in its negotiations at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.In gratitude, the King made Saxe a French subject, and promoted him to Marshal General, the highest rank in the kingdom, and bestowed on him the royal chateau de Chambord to live in for life. Saxe said thank you.
The results of Fontenoy also had some diplomatic victories for the French in the short term. Blaming each other for the defeat (the British on the Dutch for their lackluster performance on the left flank, and the Dutch on the British for their lack of support on both of the assaults they did make in the morning), the old national friendship was frayed to breaking. The Dutch States General, who had only reluctantly agreed to come in on a war from which they had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and had not formally declared war on France, decided to pull out. So Fontenoy knocked a major power out of its list of enemies.
And, finally, there was the patriotic and emotional benefit for the victory for the French. It was the first time the French had defeated their ancient enemy, the British, in open battle since the Hundred Years War. And it was a tremendous tonic for the nation and the French monarchy. Napoleon said he thought Fontenoy gave the monarchy another 30 years of life.
There are number of lessons to be drawn from studying this battle. I'll only cover the three that I think are the most significant in terms of military history.
A Contrast of LeadershipI love this battle because as an "old and busted" character myself, it represents the triumph of age and experience over "new hotness". The Duke of Cumberland was unquestionably a brave and energetic young soldier. He showed how he could inspire men in the heat of battle and make quick, decisive decisions. His troops and his commanders evidently had great admiration for him and most of his officers wrote nothing but praise for his performance, even after he lost the battle. His father, George II, had high hopes for him. But he was no Black Prince.
As a commander-in-chief he was a mess. He got easily distracted by small problems and took his eye off the big picture. His constantly dropping what he was doing to go over and micro-manage the fiasco with Ingoldsby and the Bois de Barry greatly delayed the main assault. While it was admirable that he personally led the big attack on the French center, in so doing he took himself out of the commander-in-chief role, letting other events happen on their own. He never once rode over to confer with his left wing commander, Prince Waldeck, and seemed to be completely disinterested in what the Dutch were doing. Consequently, there was no coordination between the wings and the Dutch were twice left hanging while they attacked the southern face of the French position, expecting the British attack to be simultaneous...as had been agreed at one of those councils of war.
Finally, at the most critical phase of the battle he took himself completely out of overall command by personally leading the attack on the French center. Had he remained back in the center, between Vezon and Bourgeon, he would have been able to oversee the management of the whole battle. He would have been able to send in his cavalry when they were needed most for support, to drive away the French cavalry. He would have also been able to harangue and manage Waldeck to put in one more attack. He would have been able to reposition his artillery for maximum pressure on the right targets. But he didn't. He was too busy being The Black Prince in the fore of the fighting.
In the rest of his career, in fact, Cumberland's only military success was the following year when he defeated a disorganized, Jacobite army of almost half his own army's size at Culloden. And that fight was really won by the stalwart redcoats, standing fast and mowing down the howling Highlanders as they charged across a bog, wielding their quaint medieval weapons. After this solitary victory, he earned himself the title "Butcher" for the horrendous campaign of atrocity his troops waged against Scotland in punishment for their rebellion. So his legacy was not as great as his father had hoped.
By contrast, Maurice de Saxe, for all his age and infirmities, showed incredible stamina and energy. He was all over the battlefield for two days straight, almost without sleep. His management of all of his assets and his perspective of the overall situation was brilliant. He even knew how to take advantage of the inherent impulsivity of his sub-commanders, who he knew would likely charge at the enemy in banzai-charge fashion. This informed his strategy of attrition. Since he knew he outnumbered his enemy, and that his own soldiers, though frequently repulsed would just as frequently rally to go in again, he could just wear Cumberland down. And he called no councils of war. He just gave orders.
Saxe, who had written one of the most widely read treatises on warfare, Mes Reveries, knew how to apply lessons of the past to this situation. He had identified the battlefield he wanted and cunningly drew his enemy to him there. A student of Peter the Great, he consciously sought to repeat the victory at Poltava in 1709 in which the Russians pulled the aggressive Swedes past enfilading redoubts into a killing zone, where they wore them down and overwhelmed them. So, emulating Peter, he had his engineers build field fortifications to force the intimidating British infantry into a killing zone. Fontenoy was the Poltava of the West.
Finally, Saxe knew how to win the confidence of his monarch, who, surrounded by armchair generals (or "carpet generals" as Saxe disparaged them) might have interfered or turned tail when things got tight. Much of this had to do with the personal relationship the old man had with the young King. Saxe frequently stopped by to reassure Louis and took him on a tour of his dispositions to take him into his confidence. Much credit should also go to Louis himself for trusting this foreigner, and for showing the physical courage he knew he needed to to get his army to stand, especially at the climax of the battle when his most elite regiment, the Gardes Francaises, retreated the first time.
FirepowerEven though the French won this battle, they never did overcome the British infantry with firepower. Though the largest nation in Europe and arguably the most formidable military power (on land, at least), the French were also one of the most conservative in terms of tactics. One reason the British infantry had been so successful for half-a-century was their tried and true platoon fire practice, which they had, ironically, learned from the Dutch. By 1745, the French, who had been writing about innovations for a decade, hadn't put any of these new ideas into practice. They were still using the same old fire-by-ranks method they had during the War of the Spanish Succession and the previous century (though they had reduced their ranks from six to four). They had also been the last to adopt the modern cadenced marching and firing that nearly every other army had by this time.
The platoon fire method used by the British allowed them to deliver a near constant volume of fire, while always keeping a third of the line locked and loaded at all times. In contrast, the French, once they had fired off their ranks, were left with an awkward minute for everyone to reload, during which time they could be hit with three unanswered volleys by the British.
A British 1745 battalion showing the sequence of firing by platoons, the secret to British fire superiority in the 18th century. One third of the platoons would be firing, one third reloading, and one third loaded and ready. At all times a third of the line would have been ready to fire. The result was a near continuous delivery of fire and no interval in which the battalion was vulnerable.
Artillery firepower, however, did give the French an advantage. With heavier guns, concentrated in covered fortifications, they were able to achieve a mass of weight and crossfire that probably killed more British than their musketry did. In their reports, Col. Lewis and others claim that they were able to silence the French batteries prior to the grand charge, but like Col. Alexander's conclusion of the same thing at Gettysburg when he informed Lee that the Union batteries were silenced, they all turned out to be wrong. As soon as the Anglo-Allied line got within canister range of the French guns, they miraculously came back from the dead and opened up on their flanks, and kept it up for the next hour.
IntelligencePardon me, as an ex-intel officer myself, for making a plug for the strategic importance of intelligence, which encompasses not just surveillance and spying, but correct analysis and acting on that analysis.
One glaring difference between the two commanders was in their access and use of intelligence. Saxe, by far the more experienced soldier, had built up a comprehensive and wide network of agents and regular patrols throughout Flanders, both inside the enemy camp and across the countryside. This allowed him to track the enemy strength, movements, and intentions daily, almost hourly, in fact. He would know when, where, and with how many they would show up. And he'd even know how they'd deploy.
By contrast, Cumberland, young, new to his job, and having surrounded himself with amateurs for the most part, had a very weak and unreliable intelligence resource. This proved decisive. He underestimated Saxe's strength by more than two-thirds, believing that he had numerical advantage when the reverse was true. This may have been the source of his overconfidence, his slowness, and his surprise when the French just kept coming, with seemingly inexhaustible resources. To his credit, when it did dawn on him that perhaps he had miscalculated, he didn't panic but conducted a competent withdrawal, saving most of his army.
Fontenoy has already been published as several wargames. And I know from other sites and blogs that it is a popular battle for minatures gamers. Some of the issues I have talked about, such as relative firepower, have already been addressed, at least in the more sophisticated games. But there are others that I think should be modeled in algorithms.
French ImpetuosityGoing back as far as Crecy in 1346, the French aristocracy has long been noted for its impetuosity. This preference to attack all out from the outset has been prevalent. Usually (as at Crecy and Agincourt and Dettingen and Blenheim and Ramillies) it has gotten them into trouble. And it very nearly did at Fontenoy, except that Saxe knew how to exploit it, even in a defensive battle. He knew that individual commanders would impulsively charge without orders, but he so orchestrated his feeding of reinforcements that he used this to his advantage, as an automatic trip-hammer on the Allies. As a result, the British were constantly being attacked, almost without lull.
In a wargame, this tendency of individual French commanders to attack without orders could be simulated by writing an algorithm, or rolling dice, to see if front line units would charge individually, before the player wants them to. This feature would also encourage the French player to work that into his own strategy, as Saxe did.
Tenacity and MoraleObviously, the high morale and phlegmatic character of the British and Hanoverian units should be modeled, making them harder to rout.
The French side, on the other hand, being more volatile culturally, would retreat more easily. However, it was also true that their courage and unit morale were very high, making them likely to be rallied and called back into action again and again. So the French units should be rated as volatile but easy to rally.
The Dutch forces, on the other hand, have been greatly maligned for their lack of ardor in this fight. Morale should be rated as low. However, they were stolid, if unenthusiastic soldiers. And they had a two hundred year tradition of military discipline and toughness. One rule I might add to a set would be to have their morale raised if the British wing attacked simultaneously, or if Cumberland came over to add his influence on the left wing.
ArtilleryIn 1745 it was common practice for artillery to be pulled to the battlefield by civilian contractors, who would then vacate themselves to a safe distance (if not go home outright) and let the gunners and impressed infantrymen man-handle the pieces across the ground. This is why it took so long for the Allies to move their guns up to the front to answer the French batteries. This slower, immobile nature of artillery should be accounted for in any wargame of this period. Once in place, they had to be moved by hand and could not be limbered up and galloped away. Which was one reason Cumberland told his men to just leave the 3 pounders they had hauled with them when he gave the order to withdraw.
The French artillery, too, was of heavier caliber than the Allied guns. The lightest French pieces were 4 pounders to the little 3 pounders and even pound-and-half gallopers of the British. The heaviest Allied tubes were 6 pounders and howitzers, while the French fielded 8, 12 and even 16 pounder cannon. So the Allies were getting a lot more iron thrown at them than they were able to throw back.
Some OOBs I have read have allowed the French an additional 50 or so light, 4 pdr guns "a la suedoises" (apparently in honor of Gustavus Adolphus, who had introduced the concept of light close support guns during the Thirty Years War). These were very small, experimental guns, like the light 3 pdr "galloper" battalion guns of the British. However, the conservative French did not like these almost from the beginning; there were complaints that they were inadequate and prone to bursting. It seems that the entire army in Flanders in 1745 had only 10 of these pieces. I read that the Arquebusiers had two with them, but I could find no other narrative that described them being used even as battalion close support.
Orders of BattleBefore you jump into this OOB to build your own armies for a wargame, know that I had a great deal of trouble finding any agreement in my various sources (see below) about the exact composition and strength of the armies. In fact there is wide disagreement. So the list below is a distillation of those sources. When there was wide variation, I tended to use contemporary sources when I could find them online, and where I couldn't, I defaulted to the source that cited a credible bibliography.
Caveats and Key to the Table
First Column Command is the name of the command or regiment, colored in the primary uniform coat color for each regiment. Where known, this includes the regimental number it would eventually be known as
Second Column Facing is the command level and type, using standard military symbology. This column is color-coded in the “facing” color of the regiment, that is, the cuffs, lapels, and sometimes turnbacks of their coats.
Third Column Flag is a miniature of the regimental flag, if known. If unknown, this cell is left blank.
Fourth Column Strength is the approximate strength of each unit. For this battle, I could find no source that listed individual regimental parade states. So, for unit strengths, I took the total reported strength of each army in the sourced OOBs and divided those by the number of battalions or squadrons, using that as the average. Then I corroborated this number with the regulation compliment of each type (from Kronoskaf) and see if it exceeded the average, adjusting downward if it was higher than regulation. The Allied army was not yet up to full strength --the campaigning season was so new-- that they had not yet received their replacements yet, so I adjusted down accordingly.
Fifth Column, Guns is the number of guns supporting each unit. The references I used in preparation of this article are, like the OOB, all over the place with exactly how many cannons and of what caliber each side had. Some even arm the French with 6 pdrs (as if!). I have made a best estimate based on what sources seem to have the most cited credentials, as well as a very useful contemporary map of the battle (Plan de la Bataille de Fontenoy) with the exact numbers and caliber of French batteries (at least) noted. I have also not included those light battalion 4 pdrs "a la suedoise" mentioned (except as specifically, the Arquebusiers de Grassin), as these were widely disparaged, not produced in nearly the numbers reported by my other sources at the battle (Kronoskaf gives only 10 for the entire army in Flanders), and discontinued for their general uselessness by 1748.
Seventh Column, Ranks is the doctrinal deployment depth for each army in 1745. While some of the sources I used claimed that the Dutch infantry deployed on the older 4-rank formation, since they were the ones who originally introduced the British to a 3-rank formation two generations before under William III, I can find no reference to when they reverted back to the old depth. So I have left them at 3-ranks.
ReferencesThe following are the sources I used in writing this article, building the OOB, and creating the maps. I have also created links to the book titles to my local bookstore (to support my home town), Powell's, the largest brick-and-mortar bookstore in the United States (and one of the deciding factors in my deciding to take that job in Portland way back then). Where Powell's does not seem to have a copy in stock, I have linked the title to Amazon.
Gandilhon, Denis, Fontenoy: France dominating Europe, 2008, Histoire & Collections, ISBN: 978-2-35250-057-5 The syntax in the English version of this book is a little difficult to follow; not sure the translation from the French is all that. But I could not find an original French edition. It is interesting to read in that it is effusive of praise for the French side and dismissive of the Pragmatic side.
Grant, Charles, The Battle of Fontenoy, 1975, William Luscombe, London, ISBN:0-86002-056-8
Funcken, Liliane & Fred, L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre en Dentelle, Vols 1 & 2, 1975-76, Casterman, ISBN 2-203-14315-0 and ISBN 3-203-14316-9
Lynn, John, "Ideals of Battle in an Age of Elegance" MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Winter 2003, Vol. 15, No. 2.
McNally, Michael, Fontenoy 1745: Cumberland's bloody defeat, 2017, Osprey Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4728-1625-2
Nosworthy, Brent, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics 1689-1763, 1990, Hippocrene Books, New York, ISBN: 0-87052-785-1
Reid, Stuart, King George's Army: 1740-1793: (3), Men-at-Arms Series 292, 1996, Osprey Publishing, London, ISBN: 1-85532-565-9 for information on British cavalry.
Reid, Stuart, British Redcoat: 1740-1793, Warrior Series 19, 1996, Osprey Publishing, London, ISBN: 1-85532-554-3
Snow, Peter & Dan, Battlefield Britain: Culloden, video, 2004, BBC.
An excellent series on explaining how battles were fought at various periods in British history, down to the individual soldier's experience. The episode on Culloden, a battle fought by the Duke of Cumberland and many of the same British regiments who fought at Fontenoy the year before, gives a particularly good description of contemporary battle tactics in 1745, particularly the problem with loading and firing a Brown Bess musket.
Online ReferencesSkrine, Francis Henry, Fontenoy and Great Britain's Share in the War of the Austrian Succession, 1741-48, 1906, William Blackwood & Sons, London,
This is an excellent site to get a feel for the ground, with a wealth of charts and wonderful panoramic views of the battlefield.
The French Wikipedia has probably the best resources I've discovered for uniforms, flags, and provenance of the various regiments of the French Army throughout the XVIIIth century. Si vous lizez le francais.
Kronoskaf, while it covers primarily the period of the Seven Years War, is probably the best vetted and most detailed online source for information about nearly all of the European forces of the age. Alas, since the Dutch didn't fight in the Seven Years War, their army is not covered. http://www.kronoskaf.com/syw/index.php?title=Main_Page
http://royalfig.free.fr/index.php?/category/24 Another good site for some information on the uniforms colors of the War of the Austrian Succession. Not as detailed as Kronoskaf is for SYW, but it does cover some of the Dutch uniform colors.
The link to Wikipedia's OOB for Fontenoy, which is based on sources published at the turn of the previous century and a good cross-reference for the above paper book sources.
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