Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/190
178 [IN THE NETHERLANDS
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
combinations failed, and doubtless helped to create the legend of his incapacity, which finds no support either in the opinion of Coburg, the representative of the old school, or in that of Scharnhorst, the founder of the new.
Souham, who commanded in the temporary absence of Pichegru, had formed his own plan. Finding himself with the major part of his forces between York and Clerfayt, he had decided to impose upon the former by means of a covering detachment, and to fall upon Clerfayt near Rousselaer with the bulk of his forces. This plan, based as it was on a sound calculation of time, space, strength and endurance, merits close consideration, for it contains more than a trace of the essential principles of modern strategy, yet with one vital difference, that whereas, in the present case, the factor of the enemy’s independent will wrecked the scheme, Napoleon would have guaranteed to himself, before and during its development, the power of executing it in spite of the enemy. The appearance of fresh allied troops (Kinsky) on his right front at once modified these general arrangements. Divining Coburg’s intentions from the arrival of the enemy near Pont-à-Marque and at Lannoy, he ordered Bonnaud (Lille group, 27,000) to leave enough troops on the upper Marque to amuse the enemy’s leftmost columns, and with every man he had left beyond this absolute minimum to attack the left flank of the columns moving towards Tourcoing, which his weak centre (12,000 men at Tourcoing, Mouscron and Roubaix) was to stop by frontal defence. No rôle was as yet assigned to the principal mass (50,000 under Moreau) about Courtrai. Vandamme’s brigade was to extend along the Lys from Menin to Werwick and beyond, to deny as long as possible the passage to Clerfayt.
This second plan failed like the first, because the enemy’s counter-will was not controlled. All along the line Coburg’s advance compelled the French to fight as they were without any redistribution. But the French were sufficiently elastic to adapt themselves readily to unforeseen conditions, and on Coburg’s side too the unexpected happened. When Clerfayt appeared on the Lys above Menin, he found Werwick held. This was an accident, for the battalion there was on its way to Menin, and Vandamme, who had not yet received his new orders, was still far away. But the battalion fought boldly, Clerfayt sent for his pontoons, and ere they arrived Vandamme’s leading troops managed to come up on the other side. Thus it was not till 1 A.M. on the 18th that the first Austrian battalions passed the Lys.
On the front of the main allied group the “annihilation plan” was crippled at the outset by the tardiness of the archduke’s (fifth or left) column. On this the smooth working of the whole scheme depended, for Coburg considered that he must defeat Bonnaud before carrying out his intended envelopment of the Menin-Courtrai group (the idea of “binding” the enemy by a detachment while the main scheme proceeded had not yet arisen). The allied general, indeed, on discovering the backwardness of the archduke, went so far as to order all the other columns to begin by swerving southward against Bonnaud, but these were already too deeply committed to the original plan to execute any new variation.
The rightmost column (Hanoverians) under von dem Bussche moved on Mouscron, overpowering the fragmentary, if energetic, resistance of the French advanced posts. Next on the left, Lieutenant Field Marshal Otto moved by Leers and Watrelos, driving away a French post at Lis (near Lannoy) on his left flank, and entered Tourcoing. But meantime a French brigade had driven von dem Bussche away from Mouscron, so that Otto felt compelled to keep troops at Leers and Watrelos to protect his rear, which seriously weakened his hold on Tourcoing. The third column, led by the duke of York, advanced from Templeuve on Lannoy, at the same time securing its left by expelling the French from Willems. Lannoy was stormed by the British Guards under Sir R. Abercromby with such vigour that the cavalry which had been sent round the village to cut off the French retreat had no time to get into position. Beyond Lannoy, the French resistance, still disjointed, became more obstinate as the ground favoured it more, and the duke called up the Austrians from Willems to turn the right of the French position at Roubaix by way of a small valley. Once again, however, the Guards dislodged the enemy before the turning movement had taken effect. A third French position now appeared, at Mouvaux, and this seemed so formidable that the duke halted to rest his now weary men. The emperor himself, however, ordered the advance to be resumed, and Mouvaux too was carried by Abercromby. It was now nightfall, and the duke having attained his objective point prepared to hold it against a counter attack.
Kinsky meanwhile with the fourth column had made feints opposite Pont-à-Tressin, and had forced the passage of the Marque near Bouvines with his main body. But Bonnaud gave ground so slowly that up to 4 P.M. Kinsky had only progressed a few hundred paces from his crossing point. The fifth column, which was behind time on the 16th, did not arrive at Orchies till dawn on the 17th, and had to halt there for rest and food. Thence, moving across country in fighting formation, the archduke made his way to Pont-à-Marque. But he was unable to do more, before calling a halt, than deploy his troops on the other side of the stream.
So closed the first day’s operations. The “annihilation plan” had already undergone a serious check. The archduke and Kinsky, instead of being ready for the second part of their task, had scarcely completed the first, and the same could be said of Clerfayt, while von dem Bussche had definitively failed. Only the duke of York and Otto had done their share in the centre, and they now stood at Tourcoing and Mouvaux isolated in the midst of the enemy’s main body, with no hope of support from the other columns and no more than a chance of meeting Clerfayt. Coburg’s entire force was, without deducting losses, no more than 53,000 for a front of 18 m., and only half of the enemy’s available 80,000 men had as yet been engaged. Mack sent a staff officer, at 1 A.M., to implore the archduke to come up to Lannoy at once, but the young prince was asleep and his suite refused to wake him.
Matters did not, of course, present themselves in this light at Souham’s headquarters, where the generals met in an informal council. The project of flinging Bonnaud’s corps against the flank of the duke of York had not received even a beginning of execution, and the outposts, reinforced though they were from the main group, had everywhere been driven in. All the subordinate leaders, moreover (except Bonnaud), sent in the most despondent reports. “Councils of war never fight” is an old maxim, justified in ninety-nine cases in a hundred. But this council determined to do so, and with all possible vigour. The scheme was practically that which Coburg’s first threat had produced and his first brusque advance had inhibited. Vandamme was to hold Clerfayt, the garrison of Lille and a few outlying corps to occupy the archduke and Kinsky, and in the centre Moreau and Bonnaud, with 40,000 effectives, were to attack the Tourcoing-Mouvaux position in front and flank at dawn with all possible energy.
Battle of Tourcoing.
The first shots were fired on the Lys, where, it will be remembered, Clerfayt’s infantry had effected its crossing in the night. Vandamme, who was to defend the river, had in the evening assembled his troops (fatigued by a long march) near Menin instead of pushing on at once. Thus only one of his battalions had taken part in the defence of Werwick on the 17th, and the remainder were by this chance massed on the flank of Clerfayt’s subsequent line of advance. Vandamme used his advantage well. He attacked, with perhaps 12,000 men against 21,000, the head and the middle of Clerfayt’s columns as they moved on Lincelles. Clerfayt stopped at once, turned upon him and drove him towards Roncq and Menin. Still, fighting in succession, rallying and fighting again, Vandamme’s regiments managed to spin out time and to commit Clerfayt deeper and deeper to a false direction till it was too late in the day to influence the battle elsewhere.
V. dem Bussche’s column at Dottignies, shaken by the blow it had received the day before, did nothing, and actually retreated to the Scheldt. On the other flank, Kinsky and the archduke