The War of Austrian Succession and its most notable battle
The Battle of Fontenoy was one of the most notable engagements in The War of Austrian Succession. An allied army, from Britain, Hanover, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire, fought the French army under Maurice de Saxe in the vicinity of Tournai, Flanders in May 1745. Notably the so called ‘Pragmatic Allies’ were commanded by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, youngest son of George II, who is best remembered for putting down the Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden in 1746. On the French side, both the monarch, Louis XV, and the Dauphin were present. Cumberland’s grand attack failed and the French held the field at the conclusion of the engagement, though at a huge cost in lives for both armies. This excellent book examines this battle, and its times, in detail. It includes two overviews of the battle (one by James Grant) and also includes an examination of the Battle of Dettingen and Wade’s Campaign, the Scottish Rising, the Siege of Pondicherry, a review of regiments engaged in Flanders and the services of the Irish Brigade during the War of Austrian Succession. This exclusive edition benefits from the inclusion of maps and illustrations which were not present in original editions of these works.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
On the other hand, Cumberland seems to have given no orders to the left wing after his second attack began. He was indeed as completely isolated in the centre of his gigantic square as was Nelson while the Victory was locked in a death embrace with the Rédoutable. Then the Dutchmen remained quiescent on the left. Nor did the garrison of Tournai make a sign. They were effectually contained by the strong force manning the trenches, and attempted no sortie, which might have proved an effectual diversion in the French rear.
Now it was that Cumberland tardily bethought him of his splendid cavalry, which had stood unwilling spectators of their comrades’ exertions. He sent Lord Crawford orders to charge. The ground in front was not less suited to cavalry than the rolling plains of Waterloo, but the cross-fire from Fontenoy and the redoubt was a more serious obstacle. However, bugles rang out, the British regiments trotted up the slope, while some Austrian and Dutch squadrons advanced on their left. Cumberland himself rode back to bring up the Ligoniers (7th Dragoon Guards), and Lord Crawford headed the Horse Guards. Running the gauntlet of Fontenoy and the Redoubt D’Eu, they were advancing to the rescue of their hard-pressed comrades when they were involved in the backward surge of a mass of Dutch and Austrian fugitives.
The immense strength of Crawford’s charger alone saved him from being trampled to death. He rallied the broken squadrons, but they were again hurled back by a tide of runaways. Two squadrons of the Blues were got together, and were joined by the North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) and Hawley’s (1st Royal Dragoons), which charged in alternate squadrons. But the hour for useful cooperation was past, and the cavalry effected little in support of their comrades’ advance. It must be admitted that until the general retreat they were very poorly handled. Shock tactics were invented by Frederick the Great at a later period, and the true role of cavalry was not grasped by leaders of 1745. But Cumberland’s neglect to employ these fine regiments until the very eve of retreat must be reckoned among his sins of omission at Fontenoy.
It was now past 1.30 p.m. The hollow square had again advanced several hundred yards beyond the flanking batteries, sweeping all before it by sheer force of impetus. Its frontal breadth was undiminished; and the farther it pushed the more readily were losses repaired by line regiments, which joined it without orders. In point of fact, it was rapidly melting away under the awful flanking fire, and had already lost a third of its strength. The mighty phalanx was evidently without guidance. It swayed to and fro in indecision; but each man kept a proud mien, as though he were conscious of standing a master of the battlefield.
These oscillations did not escape Count Löwendahl. Meeting his perplexed chief, he exclaimed, “Marshal, this is a great day for the king: these people will never be able to escape him!” The pair galloped back to Gallows Hill, which was only 500 yards from the British square. A tumultuous council raged round Louis XV.; but all agreed that nothing had succeeded hitherto because nothing had been done in concert. From the French side Fontenoy had been but “an affair of outposts.” It was resolved to unite all the forces available in a final effort to roll back the tide of victory.
Before this could be effected it was necessary to pulverise the enemy with grape-shot, to which they could not reply, their own artillery being within the square. Voltaire has stooped so low as to falsify history in order to credit the all-powerful Duc de Richelieu with this masterstroke. (Siècle de Louis X V, chap. xiv.) A note preserved in the French War Ministry proves that it was prompted by a Captain Isnard of the Touraine regiment, whose great service was recompensed with the Cross of St Louis. Observing four cannon unemployed on the field, and as many more which could readily be brought up, Isnard suggested that they should be dragged within point-blank range of the enemy’s square. This was immediately done, and a salvo of grape-shot cut lanes in the solid mass of human flesh. Our ranks closed up; but endurance has its bounds, and some confusion was caused by the awful carnage.
Saxe watched the effect of his artillery-fire, while he mustered every available man for the final effort. As the Dutch remained motionless, he was able to withdraw all the troops posted to repel an attack on his right flank. He rallied the broken infantry regiments, especially Vaisseaux and Normandie, which had returned again and again to the charge with admirable spirit. Count Lally-Tollendal ran from rank to rank imploring his chiefs to employ the brave Irishmen. His appeal was answered. The remains of Dillon’s, and the other regiments of the Irish Brigade, flung themselves on the British right flank.
A simultaneous attack was made on its left by all the regiments which had been posted between Fontenoy and Antoing. The French and Swiss Guards, eager to revenge their repulse, assailed the front, and exchanged volleys, muzzle to muzzle. While Saxe and Löwendahl were leading the infantry against the foe, Biron, D’Estrées, and Richelieu brought up the whole Household Cavalry to charge the British front. In seven or eight minutes our victory was converted into defeat. Deserted by their allies, and assailed by overwhelming forces, our magnificent infantry were pressed slowly back. With heavy hearts did Cumberland and Königsegg give orders for a general retreat.
For twelve hours our men, still numbering 11,000, had been without food or rest. It was inevitable that some disorder should have attended their first retrograde steps. But the rigid discipline of those days shone brightly in an hour of mortal stress. Each battalion rallied round its colours, and compact formation was speedily restored. The Carabiniers and Noailles’ regiment attempted to break our rear. They were received by the Guards and Zastrow’s Hanoverians with a fire so withering that they were well-nigh destroyed. The line battalions faced about every hundred paces, and held pursuers in awe.
Cumberland exposed his life freely in order to keep the men together, and Ligonier rode coolly off to collect scattered units. He found Lieut.-General Howard’s (The Buffs) still advancing in line, with drums beating, against the enemy in front, in the very midst of French tents and camp-kettles.