GREAT BATTLES Fontenoy
The Duke of Cumberland & his European allies face off against a formidable foe in the form of Maurice de Saxe, in service to the French crown
The duke of Cumberland’s British and allied force faces the formidable Maurice de Saxe
The men of the British Guards Brigade advanced shoulder-toshoulder towards the Gardes Francaises south of Tournai in western Flanders on 11 May 1745. The French fired a ragged volley that did little damage to the British, but in response the well-trained redcoats raised their muskets and fired a crashing volley of their own at the densely packed French unit. They then stepped through the thick smoke from their guns and fired two more thunderous volleys at close range.
The French line recoiled in the face of the devastating British musketry, falling back on the second line 300 paces behind it. The British resumed their advance across the wide field carpeted with fallen Frenchmen. It was late morning, and the British troops of the Pragmatic Army had just achieved their first major success of the day against their foe.
Opportunity for conquest
The Battle of Fontenoy occurred during the fifth year of a conflict known as the War of Austrian Succession. The war erupted when Habsburg Princess Maria Theresa ascended to the Austrian throne following the death of her father, Emperor Charles VI. Charles had introduced a provision known as the Pragmatic Sanction that signalled a break with established tradition by allowing his daughter to succeed him when he failed to produce a male heir.
Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, France, Spain and Sweden declared war on Austria over the matter, each hoping to profit by annexing Austrian territory or other means. Great Britain, Russia, Sardinia and the United Provinces allied themselves with Austria. Austria’s allies achieved a significant, if inconclusive, victory over the French in 1742 when King George II’S Pragmatic Army triumphed over the French at Dettingen in Bavaria.
The Austrian Netherlands became a key theatre of the war in 1744 when a French army nominally under the command of King Louis XV successfully invaded the region. Although the French withdrew to counter an Austrian thrust against Alsace, they returned again the following year when Marshal Maurice de Saxe besieged the Dutch-garrisoned fortress at Tournai in April 1745. A long-standing treaty between the United
Provinces and Austria allowed the Dutch to garrison key fortresses in the Austrian region as a security measure against French aggression.
This time it fell to King George’s 24-yearold son to lead the Pragmatic Army. Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, took command of the multinational army in Brussels. The Pragmatic Army totalled 46,000 British, Hanoverian, Dutch and Austrian troops.
The French had a significant advantage in command, as 48-year-old Saxe had far greater experience commanding troops than his young opponent. Saxe was the illegitimate son of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony. Although Saxe had initially served in the Imperial army, in 1719 his father purchased for him the colonelcy of a German regiment in the French army.
Saxe rose quickly to senior command in the French army. In 1741 he masterminded the capture of Prague, for which he was promoted to marshal. He suffered from acute dropsy, making it extremely painful, though not impossible, for him to ride a horse. For that reason, he moved around the battlefield in a small horsedrawn wooden chariot outfitted with a chair. His physical condition in no way dulled his appreciable talent as a military commander.
Cumberland was the second surviving son of King George II of Great Britain. The prince had performed with distinction as a major general at Dettingen, where he'd received a severe wound in the leg. The newly appointed captain-general of the Pragmatic Army faced a formidable challenge managing the egos of his Dutch and Austrian subordinate commanders.
Even before the army marched there was disagreement. Although Austrian commander Marshal Joseph Königsegg counselled that they should await further reinforcement, Dutch commander Karl August Friedrich, Prince of Waldeck-pyrmont concurred with Cumberland that the army should march immediately to the aid of the beleaguered Tournai garrison. Cumberland’s decision to relieve Tournai was skewed by his mistaken belief that Saxe
“SAXE WAS ACUTELY AWARE THAT THE BRITISH INFANTRY OUTCLASSED THE FRENCH INFANTRY IN REGARD TO DRILL AND DISCIPLINE”
had no more than 30,000 troops. Saxe was delighted to learn that the Pragmatic Army was marching against him, as he had besieged Tournai specifically to lure Cumberland into a pitched battle. The slowness of Cumberland’s advance afforded Saxe ample time to select advantageous terrain.
The widespread adoption of the flintlock musket with an offset ring bayonet in the early 18th century enabled infantry to dominate the battlefield and relegated cavalry to a secondary role, in which it typically exploited the breach in the enemy line made by the infantry. Saxe was acutely aware that the British infantry outclassed the French infantry in regard to drill and discipline. For that reason, he went to great lengths to even the odds by ensuring that his French army would receive the attack on high ground strengthened by field fortifications.
The lie of the land
Leaving 17,000 troops to besiege Tournai on 26 April, Saxe led a field army of 50,000 men eight kilometres (five miles) southeast of the city, where he deployed them on a wide plateau on the west bank of the Scheldt River to await the Pragmatic Army. His right wing was deployed on an east-west axis from Antoing to Fontenoy, and his left wing was positioned on a north-south axis from Fontenoy to Ramecroix. To strengthen his line
between towns, Saxe ordered the construction of three artillery redoubts on his right wing and two on his left wing. To deny his enemy the cover of an expansive tract of forest, known as the Bois de Barry, opposite his left wing, Saxe ordered the crack Arquebusiers de Grassin to occupy it. Fearing that the arquebusiers might be overwhelmed, he ordered the Irish Brigade, nicknamed the 'Wild Geese', to support them if necessary.
Saxe deliberately left unfortified a 0.8-kilometre (0.5-mile) wide marshy ravine between Fontenoy and the Bois de Barry on the assumption that the enemy army would be unlikely to attack through that corridor. However, he did post troops behind it. To support his frontline troops, he established a reserve of 20 infantry battalions and 46 cavalry squadrons. The French guns were deployed in the three towns and redoubts. From a position safely behind the reserve, the royal entourage, composed of King Louis XV, the 15-year-old dauphin Louis and their attendants would be on hand to observe the battle.
Cumberland’s army departed Brussels on 30 April for the 80-kilometre (50-mile) march to Tournai. As the allied troops approached Tournai from the southeast on 10 May, they found Saxe’s army blocking their advance. Cumberland decided to try to turn the flank of the French left wing. To do so, his force would first have to capture the Bois de Barry. Because of the distances involved in securing the expansive forest, Cumberland detailed cavalry for the mission. Given that the managed forest was crisscrossed by trails, this was a plausible mission for the allied cavalry.
At 6am Cumberland ordered the prince of
Waldeck to prepare to attack the French right wing, and he instructed Brigadier General
James Ingoldsby to open the attack on the French left wing with his Highland Brigade.
The allied attack was hamstrung from the outset.
French sharpshooters in the
Bois de Barry drove off the Anglohanoverian horsemen trying to secure the woods. The horsemen rode to the rear in order to clear the ground for the infantry attack.
Similarly, the Dutch had no luck against the stout defences on the French right wing. The bluecoated Dutchmen reeled under the
heavy fire. Officers withdrew their battalions to realign them.
When a subordinate commander rode up to Saxe to congratulate him on the repulse of the Dutch, the marshal pointed to the British main force assembling for a full-scale attack, saying, “There are the British, and they will be a far more difficult meal to digest than what we have been served so far.”
Over on the right wing, the Highlanders moved briskly up the slope towards the French position but soon became pinned down under withering fire. When it became obvious that Ingoldsby was making no progress, Cumberland revised his orders. Instead of attacking the French left wing unsupported, Ingoldsby was ordered to support a renewed Dutch assault against Fontenoy. While the Dutch attacked the lower end of Fontenoy from the south, Ingoldsby would strike the upper end from the east. To boost Ingoldsby’s force, Cumberland ordered five Hanoverian battalions to join the Highland Brigade in the assault. Before he could redeploy his troops, Ingoldsby was severely wounded by a French musket ball. General Ludwig von Zastrow assumed command of the assault force.
Defending Fontenoy were the three battalions of the comte de Vauguyon’s Dauphin Brigade. The attackers would have to fight their way through a debris-filled ditch to engage a first line of musketeers in a fire trench. Behind the trench was a high wall, behind which were infantry and artillery positioned on a rampart.
The Dutch fared no better on their second assault at 10.15am, which was broken up by a storm of French iron and lead. Although the Anglo-hanoverian troops fought their way into the fire trench, they were driven off by elements of the Dauphin Brigade reinforced by the Brigade du Roi.
At that point, Cumberland could have withdrawn his troops and tried to reach Tournai by some other route, but because of his faith in his infantry, he decided to concentrate it in a column that he would send through the narrow ravine in the hope of smashing a hole in Saxe’s left wing. If they could open a wide breach in the French line, then the Anglo-hanoverian cavalry could fan out into the enemy rear. He therefore ordered veteran campaigner Lieutenant General Sir John Ligonier to lead six infantry brigades through the space between Fontenoy and the Bois de Barry. The force numbered 16,000 men.
Ligonier’s force would have to fight its way through the Brigade de Gardes. The elite royal brigade was led by the pigheaded duc de Gramont, a commander of questionable merit who had disobeyed orders at Dettingen that resulted in the French defeat. Stationed behind the Gardes were two lines of cavalry.
The grand push
Ligonier’s grand column, which was initially arrayed in three lines, with each line three brigades deep, stepped off at 11am. The red-coated troops marched into the ravine with drums beating, bagpipes wailing and flags flapping. French shells exploded in and around the column as it advanced with the determination inherent in a large force.
Some accounts of the battle posit that Captain Charles, the Lord Hay, of the 1st Foot
“THERE ARE THE BRITISH, AND THEY WILL BE A FAR MORE DIFFICULT MEAL TO DIGEST THAN WHAT WE HAVE BEEN SERVED SO FAR” – Marshal Hermann-maurice, comte de Saxe
French King Louis XV on his white horse receives the spoils of war presented by the Marquis de Saxe on foot and the Brigade du Roi
Sir Robert Munro, commanding officer of the Black Watch regiment, remained standing as French fire forced his Highland regiment to ground
The well-disciplined British 34th Life Guards stand their ground at Fontenoy
Marshal Maurice de Saxe commanded the French force and deployed his troops in a strong position studded with redoubts