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


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.”

Stalled as­sault

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


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

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