Two disastrous campaigns against the rising tide of Revolution.
Among British Army historians the reputation of Sir John Fortescue stands virtually without equal. His comprehensive fourteen volume history is a work of unparalleled achievement in its field. Fortescue combines thorough source material research with insightful academic observation of the conduct of the campaigns he describes and of the decisions, errors and strategic and tactical options of their principal protagonists. The Leonaur editors have carefully selected passages from Fortescue’s magnum opus to create a series of books, each focusing on a specific war or campaign.
The bloody birth of revolutionary France heralded a period of conflict and instability which would hold Europe in its grip for decades. The ideology, which was central to the principals of revolution, demanded that its influence be spread abroad. This inevitably meant war with the nations for whom the regicide of Louis XVI was a terrible portent of potential futures. Driven by ideals, rather than military practicalities of any kind, the army of Revolutionary France could and should have been defeated quickly. France’s opponents were, however, burdened with procrastination and mismanagement. While the disarray of the British and their allies increased, France gathered resources, gaining confidence and ability, until it became a formidable foe. In later years Wellington would claim that the campaigns in the Low Countries taught the British Army how not to behave. The lesson, though brutally severe, was a timely one for the revolution’s most talented offspring, Napoleon Bonaparte, was about to enter the arena of war and politics.
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The troops at Mouveaux were disposed in two sides of a square, the left showing a front towards the east at Mouveaux, the guns stationed in the angle at the northern end of the village, and the right thrown back to the hamlet of Le Fresnoy. To the south, the British brigade of the Line under Major-General Fox, near Croix, sought to bar the way against part of Bonnaud’s division from Lille; but to defend the rest of the ground there were but three Austrian battalions. Of these half a battalion was stationed in Roubaix itself, and the remainder echeloned to the right rear of Fox’s brigade behind the sources of the Espierres brook, which ran along the southern skirts of the village.
These Austrian battalions seem to have been the first to give way, and one of them, by Craig’s account, did not behave as it ought; but they were pressed hard both in front and on their right flank, which, owing to the absence of the two battalions sent to Otto, was wholly uncovered. One brigade of Bonnaud’s division therefore succeeded in forcing its way between Mouveaux and Roubaix to Le Fresnoy; and the Duke thus saw Abercromby and the brigade of Guards absolutely cut off from him. Moreover, though he knew it not, the victorious French of Thierry’s and Daendels’s brigades were coming down from Wattrelos upon his rear. Seldom has a general found himself, through no fault of his own, in a more extraordinary position.
He had been assured that the Archduke Charles would join him from the south, and he had therefore ordered Abercromby to defend Mouveaux to the last extremity; but not a sign of an Austrian was to be seen whether to south or north. His first instinct was to ride to the Guards at Mouveaux; but this was seen to be out of the question. He then tried to make his way to Fox’s brigade, but found that the French were in possession of the suburbs of Roubaix, and that he was cut off from this brigade also. Realising then that, his Austrian battalions being dispersed, he had not a man left to him except two squadrons of the Sixteenth Light Dragoons, he took a small escort from them and rode to Wattrelos, hoping to obtain from Otto the means for extricating the Guards. Meanwhile he sent orders to Abercromby to retire to the heights on the east side of Roubaix.
Montfrault, however, had fared ill in his attempt to withdraw. Until he reached the ground between Wattrelos and Roubaix, his square preserved good order; but being attacked at that point by overpowering numbers from the south as well as from north and west, it was broken up, and fled in disorder towards Leers. Meanwhile General Fox, finding himself absolutely isolated, at length gave the order for his brigade, which so far had held its own, to retire. The retreat began in perfect order, and the brigade, having successfully fought its way to the road at Lannoy, followed it for some distance, under incessant fire from all sides, until checked by a battery covered by an abatis, which the French had thrown up on the road.
The first shots from this battery struck down several men, and Fox for the moment feared that surrender would be inevitable; but fortunately in the ranks of the Fourteenth was a French emigrant who knew the district well, and undertook to lead the brigade across country. It pursued its retreat therefore under constant fire of artillery and musketry in front and on both flanks, and with cavalry constantly threatening its rear; but it kept its assailants at bay, and at one moment made so sharp a counter-attack as to take temporary possession of some French guns.
Thus partly by good luck, partly by good conduct, partly by the misconduct and mismanagement of the enemy, the three battalions contrived to reach Leers, with the loss of all their battalion-guns excepting one, and of nine officers and five hundred and twenty-five men out of eleven hundred and twenty. The greatest credit was given to General Fox for the coolness, skill, and patience with which he extricated his brigade.
Abercromby appears to have begun his retreat from Mouveaux at about nine o’clock, but of necessity very slowly, having with him a considerable number of guns. The retirement was conducted in perfect order as far as Roubaix, the Seventh and Fifteenth Light Dragoons covering the rear with great gallantry. At Roubaix the French, though in occupation of the suburbs, were not in possession of the little walled town, which was still held by a dismounted squadron of the Sixteenth Light Dragoons. The place consisted of a single long street, the direct continuation of which led to Wattrelos, while, just outside the eastern gate, the road to Lannoy turned sharply to the right, being bordered on one side by a deep ditch and on the other by the Espierres brook.
The defile through the town took necessarily much time, but the guns emerged safely and the Guards also. Next to the Guards were the Austrian Hussars, still in the street; then in rear of them a party of the Fifteenth; next to this party were the Sixteenth, who were formed up in the market-place; and in rear of all were the remainder of the Fifteenth, holding the pursuing French in check. All was still in order when a French gun posted on the Wattrelos branch of the street suddenly opened fire from the edge of the town, sending shot after shot among the Austrian Hussars. The ordeal would have been a severe one for any troops, and presently the Hussars dismounted and tried to find a way out among the houses, but in vain.
The trial became unendurable as the French pressed on and opened fire on all sides upon the horsemen thus pent in for slaughter; and at last the whole body remounted, galloped wildly down the road, swung round the corner, where the French infantry thrust vainly at them with their bayonets, and raced onward for three or four hundred yards, when the foremost troopers suddenly found the way blocked by horseless guns. The French had brought a second gun to enfilade the road to Lannoy, and the drivers of the British cannon had fled. The shock of this mass of galloping horsemen suddenly checked was appalling. In an instant the ground was strewn with men and horses, kicking and struggling in frantic confusion, while a number of bat-horses dashed into the ranks of the Guards, plunging and lashing out, with their loads turned under their bellies.