Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/188
176 [IN THE NETHERLANDS
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
camp,” and at once hurried off to bring up the reserves and to despatch cavalry to collect the fugitives. This Incident, amongst many, serves to show that the representatives on mission were no mere savage marplots, as is too generally assumed. They were often wise and able men, brave and fearless of responsibility in camp and in action. Jourdan led on the reserves, and the men fighting in the bushes on either side of the road heard their drums to right and left. Jourdan fell wounded, but Delbrel headed a wild irregular bayonet charge which checked the Hanoverians, and Houchard himself, in his true place as a cavalry leader, came up with 500 fresh sabres and flung himself on the Allies. The Hanoverians, magnificently disciplined troops that they were, soon re-formed after the shock, but by this time the fugitives collected by Delbrel’s troopers, reanimated by new hopes of victory, were returning to the front in hundreds, and a last assault on Hondschoote met with complete success.
Hondschoote was a psychological victory. Materially, it was no more than the crushing of an obstinate rearguard at enormous expense to the assailants, for the duke of York was able to withdraw while there was still time. Houchard had indeed called back the division he had sent to Bergues, and despatched it by Loo against the enemy’s rear, but the movement was undertaken too late in the day to be useful. The struggle was practically a front to front battle, numbers and enthusiasm on the one side, discipline, position and steadiness on the other. Hence, though its strategical result was merely to compel the duke of York to give up an enterprise that he should never have undertaken, Hondschoote established the fact that the “New French” were determined to win, at any cost and by sheer weight and energy. It was long before they were able to meet equal numbers with confidence, and still longer before they could freely oppose a small corps to a larger one. But the nightmare of defeats and surrenders was dispelled.
The influence of Houchard on the course of the operations had been sometimes null, sometimes detrimental, and only occasionally good. The plan and its execution were the work of Berthelmy and Gay-Vernon, the victory itself was Jourdan’s and, above all, Delbrel’s. To these errors, forgiven to a victor, Houchard added the crowning offence of failure, in the reaction after the battle, to pursue his advantage. His enemies in Paris became more and more powerful as the campaign continued.
Having missed the great opportunity of crushing the English, Houchard turned his attention to the Dutch posts about Menin. As far as the Allies were concerned Hondschoote was a mere reverse, not a disaster, and was counterbalanced in Coburg’s eyes by his own capture of Le Quesnoy (Sept. 11). The proximity of the main body of the French to Menin induced him to order Beaulieu’s corps (hitherto at Cysoing and linking the Dutch posts with the central group) to join the prince of Orange there, and to ask the duke of York to do the same. But this last meant negotiation, and before anything was settled Houchard, with the army from Hondschoote and a contingent from Lille, had attacked the prince at Menin and destroyed his corps (Sept. 12-13).
After this engagement, which, though it was won by immensely superior forces, was if not an important at any rate a complete victory, Houchard went still farther inland—leaving detachments to observe York and replacing them by troops from the various camps as he passed along the cordon—in the hope of dealing with Beaulieu as he had dealt with the Dutch, and even of relieving Le Quesnoy. But in all this he failed. He had expected to meet Beaulieu near Cysoing, but the Austrian general had long before gone northward to assist the prince of Orange. Thus Houchard missed his target. Worse still, one of his protective detachments chanced to meet Beaulieu near Courtrai on the 15th, and was not only defeated but driven in rout from Menin. Lastly, Coburg had already captured Le Quesnoy, and had also repulsed a straggling attack of the Landrecies, Bouchain and other French garrisons on the positions of his covering army (12th).
Houchard’s offensive died away completely, and he halted his army (45,000 strong excluding detachments) at Gaverelle, half-way between Douai and Arras, hoping thereby to succour Bouchain, Cambrai or Arras, whichever should prove to be Coburg’s next objective. After standing still for several days, a prey to all the conflicting rumours that reached his ears, he came to the conclusion that Coburg was about to join the duke of York in a second siege of Dunkirk, and began to close on his left. But his conclusion was entirely wrong. The Allies were closing on their left inland to attack Maubeuge. Coburg drew in Beaulieu, and even persuaded the Dutch to assist, the duke of York undertaking for the moment to watch the whole of the Flanders cordon from the sea to Tournai. But this concentration of force was merely nominal, for each contingent worked in the interests of its own masters, and, above all, the siege that was the object of the concentration was calculated to last four weeks, i.e. gave the French four weeks unimpeded liberty of action.
Houchard was now denounced and brought captive to Paris. Placed upon his trial, he offered a calm and reasoned defence of his conduct, but when the intolerable word “coward” was hurled at him by one of his judges he wept with rage, pointing to the scars of his many wounds, and then, his spirit broken, sank into a lethargic indifference, in which he remained to the end. He was guillotined on the 16th of November 1793.
After Houchard’s arrest, Jourdan accepted the command, though with many misgivings, for the higher ranks were filled by officers with even less experience than he had himself, equipment and clothing was wanting, and, perhaps more important still, the new levies, instead of filling up the depleted ranks of the line, were assembled in undisciplined and half-armed hordes at various frontier camps, under elected officers who had for the most part never undergone the least training. The field states showed a total of 104,000 men, of whom less than a third formed the operative army. But an enthusiasm equal to that of Hondschoote, and similarly demanding a plain, urgent and recognizable objective, animated it, and although Jourdan and Carnot (who was with him at Gaverelle, where the army had now reassembled) began to study the general strategic situation, the Committee brought them back to realities by ordering them to relieve Maubeuge at all costs.
The Allies disposed in all of 66,000 men around the threatened fortress, but 26,000 of these were actually employed in the siege, and the remainder, forming the covering army, extended in an enormous semicircle of posts facing west, south and east. Thus the Republicans, as before, had two men to one at the point of contact (44,000 against 21,000), but so formidable was the discipline and steadiness of manœuvre of the old armies that the chances were considered as no more than “rather in favour” of the French. Not that these chances were seriously weighed before engaging. The generals might squander their energies in the council chamber on plans of sieges and expeditions, but in the field they were glad enough to seize the opportunity of a battle which they were not skilful enough to compel. It took place on the 15th and 16th of October, and though the allied right and centre held their ground, on their left the plateau of Wattignies (q.v.), from which the battle derives its name, was stormed on the second day, Carnot, Jourdan and the representatives leading the columns in person. Coburg indeed retired in unbroken order, added to which the Maubeuge garrison had failed to co-operate with their rescuers by a sortie, and the duke of York had hurried up with all the men he could spare from the Flanders cordon. But the Dutch generals refused to advance beyond the Sambre, and Coburg broke up the siege of Maubeuge and retired whence he had come, while Jourdan, so far from pressing forward, was anxiously awaiting a counterattack, and entrenching himself with all possible energy. So ended the episode of Wattignies, which, alike in its general outline and in its details, gives a perfect picture of the character, at once intense and spasmodic, of the “New French” warfare in the days of the Terror.
- In the course of this the column from Bouchain, 4500 strong, was caught in the open at Avesnes-le-Sec by 5 squadrons of the allied cavalry and literally annihilated.
- One of the generals at Maubeuge, Chancel, was guillotined.