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Sir John Fortescue’s ‘A Collision of Giants’

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Sir John Fortescue’s ‘A Collision of Giants’
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): J. W. Fortescue
Date Published: 2015/09
Page Count: 188
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-458-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-457-2

The redcoats at war in Europe during the 18th century

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 conflicts of the 18th century created our modern world. It was a time of invention, discovery and global expansion. Nations with established power sought to hold and develop their power, just as nations aspiring to power fought to grasp it. Bourbon France and Britain vied to bring as much trade and land as possible under their respective influences, whilst Prussia, under threat from east and west, struggled to assert itself. The continent had been in foment since The War of Spanish Succession. Another question of succession arose in Austria and opportunities for exploitation of instability and threats to treaties of alliance and established trade meant war was inevitable. During The War of Austrian Succession the British Army fought battles which emblazon regimental colours to this day—notably at Fontenoy and Dettingen. Before a decade of uneasy peace had elapsed, war broke out again. The Seven Years War—possibly the first ‘world war’—demonstrated the superior power of British arms and dealt blows to France from which it never recovered. The British Army earned more battle honours in Europe, including Minden, Emsdorf and Warburg and Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, revealed himself (according to Fortescue) to be the finest commander of British troops in the field on the continent between the periods of Marlborough and Wellington. This unique Leonaur volume includes maps and illustrations not present in the original text.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Then the French infantry of the Guard on Grammont’s right centre advanced likewise, cheering loudly, and opened a fitful and disorderly fire. The British, now thoroughly in hand, answered with a regular, swift, and continuous fire of platoons, the ranks standing firm like a wall of brass and pouring in volley after volley, deadly and unceasing such a fire as no French officer had ever seen before. The French Guards staggered under it and the British again raised an irregular cheer. “Silence,” shouted Stair imperiously, galloping up. “Now one and all together when I give the signal.” And as he raised his hat the British broke into the stern and appalling shout which was to become so famous on the fields of the Peninsula. The French Guards waited for no more when they heard it, but shrank back in disorder in rear of their horse, which now advanced in earnest against the extreme British left.
Clayton saw the danger. His left flank in the general confusion had never been properly secured, and though the fire of the French batteries by the river had ceased lest it should destroy their own troops, yet the Third Dragoons and the Thirty-third had been much weakened by it during their advance. Despatching urgent messages for reinforcements of cavalry, he put a bold face on the matter, ordered the dragoons, Thirty-Third, Twenty-First, and Twenty-Third forward to meet the French attack, and prepared to stand the shock. Down came the flower of the French cavalry upon them, sword in hand, at high speed. The Third Dragoons were the first to close with them. They were but two weak squadrons against nine squadrons of the enemy, their depth was but of three ranks against eight ranks of the French; but they went straight at them, burst into the heart of them and cut their way through, though with heavy loss. The Thirty-Third faced the attack as boldly, never gave way for an inch and brought men and horses crashing down by their eternal rolling fire.
Next to them the two regiments of fusiliers were even more hardly pressed. The gendarmerie came down upon them at full trot with pistols in both hands and swords dangling by the wrist. Arrived within range they fired the pistols, dashed the empty weapons in the faces of the British, and then fell in with the sword; but the fusiliers, as it was said, fought like devils, their platoon-fire thundering out as regularly as on parade, and the French horse fell back repulsed.
Still, gallantly as this first attack had been met, the numerical superiority of the French cavalry was formidable, and there was imminent danger lest the British left flank should be turned. The Third Dragoons had suffered heavily, after their first charge, from the bullets of a battalion posted in support of the French horse, but they rallied, and twice more, weak and weary as they were, they charged ten times their numbers and cut their way through them. But after the third charge they were well-nigh annihilated. All the officers except two, and three-fourths of the men and horses had been killed or wounded; two of the three standards had been cut to atoms, both silk and staves, by shot and shell, and in the last charge the third had dropped from a cornet’s wounded hand and lay abandoned on the ground.
A trooper of the regiment, Thomas Brown by name, was just dismounting to recover it when a French sabre came down on his bridle-hand and shore away two of his fingers. His horse, missing the familiar pressure of the bit, at once bolted, and before he could be pulled up had carried his rider into the rear of the French lines. There Dragoon Brown saw the standard of his regiment borne away in triumph by a French gendarme. Disabled as he was he rode straight at the Frenchman, attacked and killed him; and then gripping the standard between his leg and the saddle he turned and fought his way single-handed through the ranks of the enemy, emerging at last with three bullet holes through his hat and seven wounds in his face and body, but with the standard safe.
But now the First and Seventh Dragoons, which had been summoned from the right, came galloping up and fell in gallantly enough upon the French Household Cavalry. These were, however, repulsed, partly, it should seem, because they attacked with more impetuosity than order, partly because the French were armed with helmets and breastplates heavy enough to turn a pistol shot. The Blues followed close after them, but sacrificing order to speed were, like their comrades, driven back in confusion; and the French gendarmes, flushed with success, bore down for the second time upon the Twenty-first and Twenty-third and succeeded in breaking into them.
But the two battalions were broken only for a moment. Quickly recovering themselves they faced inwards, and closing in upon the French in their midst shot them down by scores. The Fourth and Sixth British Dragoons, together with two regiments of Austrian dragoons, now came up and renewed the combat against the French Household Cavalry, but it was not until after they had been twice repulsed that at last they succeeded, with the help of their rallied comrades, in forcing back the intrepid squadrons of the French horse.
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