Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/193
IN THE NETHERLANDS] 181
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
the fog and to the want of ammunition. The fierce threats of St Just (who had joined the army) to faire tomber les têtes if more energy were not shown were unnecessary, and within two days the army was advancing again. On the 18th Jourdan’s columns recrossed the river and extended around Charleroi in the same positions as before. This time, having in view the weariness of his troops and their heavy losses on the 16th, the prince of Orange allowed the siege to proceed. His reasons for so doing furnish an excellent illustration of the different ideas and capacities of a professional army and a “nation in arms.” “The Imperial troops,” wrote General Alvintzi, “are very fatigued. We have fought nine times since the 10th of May, we have bivouacked constantly, and made forced marches. Further, we are short of officers.” All this, it need hardly be pointed out, applied equally to the French.
Charleroi, garrisoned by less than 3000 men, was intimidated into surrender (25th) when the third parallel was barely established. Thus the object of the first operations was achieved. As to the next neither Jourdan nor the representatives seem to have had anything further in view than the capture of more fortresses. But within twenty-four hours events had decided for them.
Coburg had quickly abandoned his intention of closing on his right wing, and (after the usual difficulties with his Allies on that side) had withdrawn 12,000 Austrians from the centre of his cordon opposite Pichegru, and made forced marches to join the prince of Orange. On the 24th of June he had collected 52,000 men at various points round Charleroi, and on the 25th he set out to relieve the little fortress. But he was in complete ignorance of the state of affairs at Charleroi. Signal guns were fired, but the woods drowned even the roar of the siege batteries, and at last a party under Lieutenant Radetzky made its way through the covering army and discovered that the place had fallen. The party was destroyed on its return, but Radetzky was reserved for greater things. He managed, though twice wounded, to rejoin Coburg with his bad news in the midst of the battle of Fleurus.
On the 26th Jourdan’s army (now some 73,000 strong) was still posted in a semicircle of entrenched posts, 20 m. in extent, round the captured town, pending the removal of the now unnecessary pontoon bridge at Marchiennes and the selection of a shorter line of defence.
Coburg was still more widely extended. Inferior in numbers as he was, he proposed to attack on an equal front, and thus gave himself, for the attack of an entrenched position, an order of battle of three men to every two yards of front, all reserves included. The Allies were to attack in five columns, the prince of Orange from the west and north-west towards Trazegnies and Monceau wood, Quasdanovich from the north on Gosselies, Kaunitz from the north-east, the archduke Charles from the east through Fleurus, and finally Beaulieu towards Lambusart. The scheme was worked out in such minute detail and with so entire a disregard of the chance of unforeseen incidents, that once he had given the executive command to move, the Austrian general could do no more. If every detail worked out as planned, victory would be his; if accidents happened he could do nothing to redress them, and unless these righted themselves (which was improbable in the case of the stiffly organized old armies) he could only send round the order to break off the action and retreat.
In these circumstances the battle of Fleurus is the sum rather than the product of the various fights that took place between each allied column and the French division that it met. The prince of Orange attacked at earliest dawn and gradually drove in the French left wing to Courcelles, Roux and Marchiennes, but somewhat after noon the French, under the direction for the most part of Kléber, began a series of counterstrokes which recovered the lost ground, and about 5, without waiting for Coburg’s instructions, the prince retired north-westward off the battlefield. The French centre division, under Morlot, made a gradual fighting retreat on Gosselies, followed up by the Quasdanovich column and part of Kaunitz’s force. No serious impression was made on the defenders, chiefly because the brook west of Mellet was a serious obstacle to the rigid order of the Allies and had to be bridged before their guns could be got over. Kaunitz’s column and Championnet’s division met on the battlefield of 1690. The French were gradually driven in from the outlying villages to their main position between Heppignies and Wangenies. Here the Allies, well led and taking every advantage of ground and momentary chances, had the best of it. They pressed the French hard, necessitated the intervention of such small reserves as Jourdan had available, and only gave way to the defenders’ counterstroke at the moment they received Coburg’s orders for a general retreat.
On the allied left wing the fighting was closer and more severe than at any point. Beaulieu on the extreme left advanced upon Velaine and the French positions in the woods to the south in several small groups of all arms. Here were the divisions of the Army of the Ardennes, markedly inferior in discipline and endurance to the rest, and only too mindful of their four previous reverses. For six hours, more or less, they resisted the oncoming Allies, but then, in spite of the example and the despairing appeals of their young general Marceau, they broke and fled, leaving Beaulieu free to combine with the archduke Charles, who carried Fleurus after obstinate fighting, and then pressed on towards Campinaire. Beaulieu took command of all the allied forces on this side about noon, and from then to 5 P.M. launched a series of terrible attacks on the French (Lefebvre’s division, part of the general reserve, and the remnant of Marceau’s troops) above Campinaire and Lambusart. The disciplined resolution of the imperial battalions, and the enthusiasm of the French Revolutionaries, were each at their height. The Austrians came on time after time over ground that was practically destitute of cover. Villages, farms and fields of corn caught fire. The French grew more and more excited—“No retreat to-day!” they called out to their leaders, and finally, clamouring to be led against the enemy, they had their wish. Lefebvre seized the psychological moment when the fourth attack of the Allies had failed, and (though he did not know it) the order to retreat had come from Coburg. The losses of the unit that delivered it were small, for the charge exactly responded to the moral conditions of the moment, but the proportion of killed to wounded (55 to 81) is good evidence of the intensity of the momentary conflict.
So ended the battle. Coburg had by now learned definitely that Charleroi had surrendered, and while the issue of the battle was still doubtful—for though the prince of Orange was beaten, Beaulieu was in the full tide of success—he gave (towards 3 P.M.) the order for a general retreat. This was delivered to the various commanders between 4 and 5, and these, having their men in hand even in the heat of the engagement, were able to break off the battle without undue confusion. The French were far too exhausted to pursue them (they had lost twice as many men as the Allies), and their leader had practically no formed body at hand to follow up the victory, thanks to the extraordinary dissemination of the army.
Tourcoing, Tournay and Fleurus represent the maximum result achievable under the earlier Revolutionary system of making war, and show the men and the leaders at the highest point of combined steadiness and enthusiasm they ever reached—that is, as a “Sansculotte” army. Fleurus was also the last great victory of the French, in point of time, prior to the advent of Napoleon, and may therefore be considered as illustrating the general conditions of warfare at one of the most important points in its development.
The sequel of these battles can be told in a few words. The Austrian government had, it is said, long ago decided to evacuate the Netherlands, and Coburg retired over the Meuse, practically unpursued, while the duke of York’s forces fell back in good order, though pursued by Pichegru through Flanders. The English contingent embarked for home, the rest retired through Holland into Hanoverian territory, leaving the Dutch troops to surrender to the victors. The last phase of the pursuit reflected great glory on Pichegru, for it was conducted in midwinter through a country bare of supplies and densely intersected with dykes and meres. The crowning incident was the dramatic capture of the Dutch fleet, frozen in at the Texel, by a handful of hussars who rode over the ice and browbeat the crews of the well-armed battleships into surrender. It was many years before a prince of Orange ruled again in the United provinces, while the Austrian whitecoats never again mounted guard in Brussels.