THE BATTLE 

 

THE BATTLE OF FONTENOY

MAY 11th, 1745

MAURICE DE SAXE and William Augustus DUKE OF CUMBERLAND

 

Maurice de Saxe was an illégitimate son of August III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, and of Maria-Aurora of Königsmarck. Winner at Fontenoy, Raucoux and Lawfeld.

 

FRENCH UNIFORMS AT FONTENOY

Regiments of Normandie, du Roi, Royal-des-Vaisseaux

FRENCH UNIFORMS AT FONTENOY

Regiments of Hainaut,du Dauphin, Royal-Corse

MAP OF THE COUNTRYSIDE OF FONTENOY (1745)

French defensive dispositions on the evening of 10 mai 1745

BRITISH HATMAN AND GRENADIER

DUTCH GRENADIER

 

Ist Foot regiment (Scots Guards) and 12th Foot regiment (Duroure) and regiment Oranje-Vriesland

DISPOSITION OF THE ARMEES ON THE MORNING OF FONTENOY

In yellow, the troops of Netherlands, in red, the Anglo-hanoverian forces, in grey and white, the French troops forming a vast triangle . Fontenoy is forming the apex of the French defensive position.

Lieutenant general Biron at the head of the French Guards

THE RECTANGLE FORMATION, ADOPTED BY THE BRITISH TROOPS IN FRONT OF THE FRENCH ARTILLERY, INFANTRY AND CAVALRY

 

A SOLDIER OF THE IRISH REGIMENT OF DILLON HELPING A WOUNDED BROTHER IN ARMS

FRENCH OFFICER IN 1745

KING LOUIS XV ACCLAIMED BY HIS TROOPS

CANNON BALLS AND FRENCH SWORDS

FRENCH MILITARY HOSPITAL AT GUERONDE

FONTENOY: THE BLOODY PRICE

Common grave discovered in July 1992 which contained 12 skeletons killed by French cannon shots

( site of the British Howitzers)

TOURNAI 1745-2005 FONTENOY

THE BATTLE OF FONTENOY

During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), Austrian Flanders was invaded by the army of King Louis XV of France. In 1744 the French had occupied Menen, Ieper, and the forts of La Kenoque and Veurne, which they had rapidly reduced.

In December 1744 the French king entrusted Marshal Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750) with the task of preparing a fresh offensive. The ailing but cleaver de Saxe intelligently decided to group his forces (90,000 soldiers) on a line between Lille and Maubeuge, at the same time he also moved to lay siege to the city of Tournai.

In order to confuse his enemies a diversion was made towards Mons. On April 21 st 1745, after making a fainting movement towards Mons the French suddenly switched their advance and moved on Tournai, which was invested on April 25 th .

Lacking good information the Allied forces, commanded by William August, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) who was the second eldest son of King George II of England, gathered his army near Brussels and began to move in the direction of Mons, falling for the bait laid by de Saxe. Soon realizing that he had been hoodwinked by the French Marshals manoeuvrings, Cumberland then changed his line of march towards Tournai.

On May 9 th the Allied army, comprising of some 48,000 troops, and containing Dutch, British, Hanoverian and Austrian contingents made contact with the French outposts around the village of Vezon.

Badly informed, the Allied army, led by the young William Augustus Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) quickly rally near Brussels and on April 30th, 1745 first went into the direction of Mons, before finally turning right in the direction of Leuze and of Tournai. On May 9th, 1745, the Allied army, strong of some 48.000 soldiers and grouping Dutch, British, Hanoverian and Austrian regiments came near Vezon into contact with the first French unities.

Three redoubts linked Fontenoy to the city of Antoing on the French right flank. Behind his centre de Saxe drew up most of his powerful cavalry squadrons, together with strong infantry units, which included the famous Irish Brigade, “The Wild Geese.” The French forces numbered around 48,000 men, with a further 20,000 covering the siege of Tournai. The only weak point in de Saxe's position was his line of communications across the river with his forces around Tournai, which relied upon two pontoon bridges.

On May 10 th the allied advance guard occupied the villages of Vezon, of Maubray and the hamlet of Bourgeon, thereafter on the 11 th May their main body deployed facing the French. Once again, owing to faulty reconnaissance, Cumberland completely underestimated the strength of the French position, being totally unaware of the redoubts covering the Wood of Barry, and only after the British and Hanoverians began their advance over what was considered to be clear ground between the wood and Fontenoy did Cumberland become aware of their existence. The strong flanks of the French position only now became apparent to the allied commander, and securing or masking these became a matter of great importance.

The Dutch tried to carry Fontenoy by direct assault, being thrown back by the terrible fire of the defending French battalions. The Dutch battalions of general Cronström now advanced on the far left, their attack also being repulsed by the French artillery of the redoubts and of Antoing, while confusion and muddled orders prevented some battalions of Hanoverians and British from carrying the Redoubt d'Eu on the French left. Both wings of the French army were to remain a constant problem for the allied forces throughout the battle.

At around 10 am a second Dutch attack ground to a halt against Fontenoy and the strong line of redoubts between Fontenoy and Antoing, while the Anglo-Hanoverian battalions tried in vain to approach Fontenoy; only the 43rd Regiment (later the 42nd and eventually becoming known as the Black Watch) managed to gain a toe-hold around Fontenoy, however under heavy volleys from the French defenders, together with a galling fire from their numerous artillery, the Highlanders were eventually forced to relinquish their position.

To the North of Fontenoy, the British troops, having formed ready for the assault, began to advance at around 10.30 am. Slowly the 21 Anglo-Hanoverian battalions began to climb the gentle slope, the famous “Ravine of Fontenoy”, and found themselves engulfed in a murderous fire on both flanks, as the French artillery around Fontenoy, and the cannon stationed inside and around the redoubts near the Wood of Barry poured their shot into the oncoming masses. Whole ranks were swept away, but still the column kept advancing.

At around 11.00 am the French Guards, having advanced ready to deliver their fire into the oncoming allied formations gallantly offered to allow the British to fire first. Whether this incident is indeed true, or whether it was used by Voltaire to add a little spice to his narrative is debatable, what it does show is that the profession of soldiering was taken very seriously by both sides, and warfare was considered to be a gentlemanly business. Whatever the case, it was the French who first began to waver as volley after volley rained into their ranks from the disciplined platoon firing delivered by the allied battalions.

Marshal de Saxe immediately ordered fresh troops to block the advancing column, and while more French infantry attacked its flanks, de Saxe threw-in his massed cavalry squadrons against its centre.

Despite the desperate efforts of the French regiments of Courten and Aubeterre to stem the allied advance a breach was gradually forced in the French line, which penetrated to a depth of some 300 yards. Although sustaining heavy losses, the “Infernal Column” of allied infantry grouped together in a tight mass, pouring out well-timed and sustained volleys from front and flanks. Having repulsed the first French onslaught the allied column now seemed poised to threaten the village of Fontenoy itself, cutting the French position in half.

Believing the battle to be lost, the courtiers urged the French King and his son, the Dauphin to leave the field. For his part, although suffering from acute pain caused by dropsy, Marshal de Saxe urged both his monarch and his soldiers to remain steadfast as he organized a counter attack, this was also, however, repulsed. Nevertheless the pressure exerted by these constant assaults by both cavalry and infantry, which included the heroic attacks by the Irish “Wild Geese” Brigade, and despite capturing the standard of the French cavalry regiment Noailles, Cumberland's offensive gradually ground to a halt.

With the arrival of fresh French troops on the field led by Lieutenant General Lowendal Cumberland ordered a retreat in the direction of Vezon village. At a little after 1.00 pm, as the allied column began to retire the mounting pressure from the French counter attacks began to cause disruption within their ranks. Penetrating the allied ranks Sergeant Wheelock of the Irish regiment of Bulkeley captured a flag from the English Guard Brigade, the only trophy taken by French troops at Fontenoy. Undismayed the British Guards continued to beat off the constant attacks of the French until the allied column had regained its original starting position.

Having secured a hold on the summit of the Fontenoy ravine once again, the French consolidated their position at 2.00 pm. One hour later the Dutch troops pulled back on the left flank, taking up a defensive grouping around the farm of Bouchegnies and their camp. Despite desultory firing from both sides, the battle of Fontenoy had ended.

The French King made a triumphal tour of his troops, congratulating and awarding those who had enabled him to be victorious, however the real victor of Fontenoy was Marshal de Saxe who never lost faith in his, or his soldiers capacity to hold the field.

The losses in this great battle were, on the French side, around 7,300 men. On the Allied the casualties were around 7,500 men, but most of their dead and wounded came from the Hanoverian and British contingents.

Deads were buried on the spot. The Allied army had lost 50% of his offensive strength.

Enthousiasted by the British defeat at Fontenoy, the Stuart Pretender decided to join Scotland and to revolt his people against the Kings of the Hanover House.

The besieged place of Tournai and its strong citadel endly fell under the hands of the King of France; the Austrian Flanders will be conquerred in less than two years and Netherlands directly threatened .

Signed in October 1748, the Aix-la-Chapelle's treaty though destroyed all the fruits of the French conquest. Louis XV gave back Flanders to Austria. The soldiers of Fontenoy, of Raucoux or Lawfeld were dead in vain, just, as a old French maxim said, "for the king of Prussia". Fontenoy entered into the legend and consacrated one expression : "The lace war".

 

Graham Morris

and

Alain Tripnaux