1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fontenoy

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FONTENOY, a village of Belgium, in the province of Hennegau, about 4 m. S.E. of Tournai, famous as the scene of the battle of Fontenoy, in which on the 11th of May 1745 the French army under Marshal Saxe defeated the Anglo-Allied army under the duke of Cumberland. The object of the French (see also Austrian Succession, War of the) was to cover the siege of the then important fortress of Tournai, that of the Allies, who slowly advanced from the east, to relieve it. Informed of the impending attack, Louis XV., with the dauphin, came with all speed to witness the operations, and by his presence to give Saxe, who was in bad health and beset with private enemies, the support necessary to enable him to command effectively. Under Cumberland served the Austrian field-marshal Königsegg, and, at the head of the Dutch contingent, the prince of Waldeck.

The right of the French position (see map) rested on the river at Antoing, which village was fortified and garrisoned, between Antoing and Fontenoy three square redoubts were constructed, and Fontenoy itself was put in a complete state of defence. On the left rear of this line, and separated from Fontenoy by some furlongs of open ground, another redoubt was made at the corner of the wood of Barry and a fifth towards Gavrain. The infantry was arrayed in deployed lines behind the Antoing-Fontenoy redoubts and the low ridge between Fontenoy and the wood; behind them was the cavalry. The approaches to Gavrain were guarded by a mounted volunteer corps called Grassins. At Calonne the marshal had constructed three military bridges against the contingency of a forced retreat. The force of the French was about 60,000 of all arms, not including 22,000 left in the lines before Tournai. Marshal Saxe himself, who was suffering from dropsy to such an extent that he was unable to mount his horse, slept in a wicker chariot in the midst of the troops. At early dawn of the 11th of May, the Anglo-Hanoverian army with the Austrian contingent formed up in front of Vézon, facing towards Fontenoy and the wood, while the Dutch on their left extended the general line to Péronne. The total force was 46,000, against about 52,000 whom Saxe could actually put into the line of battle.

The plan of attack arranged by Cumberland, Königsegg and Waldeck on the 10th grew out of circumstances. A preliminary skirmish had cleared the broken ground immediately about Vézon and revealed a part of the defender’s dispositions. It was resolved that the Dutch should attack the front Antoing-Fontenoy, while Cumberland should deliver a flank attack against Fontenoy and all in rear of it, by way of the open ground between Fontenoy and the wood. A great cavalry attack round the wood was projected but had to be given up, as in the late evening of the 10th the Allies’ light cavalry drew fire from its southern edge. Cumberland then ordered his cavalry commander to form a screen facing Fontenoy, so as to cover the formation of the infantry. On the morning of the 11th another and most important modification had to be made. The advance was beginning when the redoubt at the corner of the wood became visible. Cumberland hastily told off Brigadier James Ingoldsby (major and brevet-colonel 1st Guards), with four regiments and an artillery detachment, to storm this redoubt which, crossing its fire with that of Fontenoy, seemed absolutely to inhibit the development of the flank attack. At 6 a.m. the brigade moved off, but it was irresolutely handled and halted time after time; and after waiting as long as possible, the British and Hanoverian cavalry under Sir James Campbell rode forward and extended in the plain, becoming at once the target for a furious cannonade which killed their leader and drove them back. Thereupon Sir John (Lord) Ligonier, whose deployment the squadrons were to have covered, let them pass to the rear, and, hearing the guns of the Dutch towards Antoing, pushed the British infantry forward through the lanes, each unit on reaching open ground covering the exit and deployment of the one in rear, all under the French cannonade. This went on for two hours, and save that it showed the magnificent discipline of the British and Hanoverian regiments, was a bad prelude to the real attack. Cumberland’s own exertions brought a few small guns to the front of the Guards’ Brigade, and one of the first shots from these killed Antoine Louis, duc de Gramont, colonel of the Gardes Françaises, and another Henri du Baraillon du Brocard, Saxe’s artillery commander.

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It was now 9 a.m., and while the guns from the wood redoubt battered the upright ranks of the Allies, Ingoldsby’s brigade was huddled together, motionless, on the right. Cumberland himself galloped thither, and under his reproaches Ingoldsby lost the last remnants of self-possession. To Sir John Ligonier’s aide-de-camp, who delivered soon afterwards a bitterly formal order to advance, Ingoldsby sullenly replied that the duke’s orders were for him to advance in line with Ligonier’s main body. By now, too, the Dutch advance against Antoing-Fontenoy had collapsed.

But on the right the cannonade and the blunders together had roused a stern and almost blind anger in the leaders and the men they led. Ingoldsby was wounded, and his successor, the Hanoverian general Zastrow, gave up the right attack and brought his battalions into the main body. A second halfhearted attack on Fontenoy itself, delivered by some Dutch troops, was almost made successful by the valour of two of these battalions (one of them being the then newly raised Highland regiment, the Black Watch) which came thither of their own accord. Meantime the young duke and the old Austrian field-marshal had agreed to take all risks and to storm through between Fontenoy and the wood redoubt, and had launched the great attack, one of the most celebrated in the history of war. The English infantry was in two lines. The Hanoverians on their left, owing to want of space, were compelled to file into third line behind the redcoats, and on their outer flanks were the battalions that had been with Ingoldsby. A few guns, man-drawn, accompanied the assaulting mass, and the cavalry followed. The column may have numbered 14,000 infantry. All the infantry battalions closed on their centre, the normal three ranks becoming six. If the proper distances between lines were preserved, the mass must have formed an oblong about 500 yds × 600 yds (excluding the cavalry).

The duke of Cumberland placed himself at the head of the front line and gave the signal to advance. Slowly and in parade order, drums beating and colours flying, the mass advanced, straight up the gentle slope, which was swept everywhere by the flanking artillery of the defence. Then, when the first line reached the low crest on the ends of which stood the French artillery, the fire, hitherto convergent, became a full enfilade from both sides, and at the same moment the enemy’s horse and foot became visible beyond. A brief pause ensued, and the front gradually contracted as regiments shouldered inwards to avoid the fire. Then the French advanced, and the Guards Brigade and the Gardes Françaises met face to face. Captain Lord Charles Hay (d. 1760), lieutenant of the First (Grenadier) Guards, suddenly ran in front of the line, took off his hat to the enemy and drank to them from a pocket flask, shouting a taunt, “We hope you will stand till we come up to you, and not swim the river as you did at Dettingen,” then, turning to his own men, he called for three cheers. The astonished French officers returned the salute and gave a ragged counter-cheer. Whether or not the French, as legend states, were asked and refused to fire first, the whole British line fired one tremendous series of volleys by companies. 50 officers and 760 men of the three foremost French regiments fell at once, and at so appalling a loss the remnant broke and fled. Three hundred paces farther on stood the second line of the French, and slowly the mass advanced, firing regular volleys. It was now well inside the French position, and no longer felt the enfilade fire that swept the crest it had passed over. By now, as the rear lines closed up, the assailants were practically in square and repelled various partial attacks coming from all sides. The Régiment du Roi lost 33 officers and 345 men at the hands of the Second (Coldstream) Guards. But these counter-attacks gained a few precious minutes for the French. It was the crisis of the battle. The king, though the court meditated flight, stood steady with the dauphin at his side,—Fontenoy was the one great day of Louis XV.’s life,—and Saxe, ill as he was, mounted his horse to collect his cavalry for a charge. The British and Hanoverians were now at a standstill. More and heavier counter-strokes were repulsed, but no progress was made; their cavalry was unable to get to the front, and Saxe was by now thinking of victory. Captain Isnard of the Touraine regiment suggested artillery to batter the face of the square, preparatory to a final charge. General Löwendahl galloped up to Saxe, crying, “This is a great day for the king; they will never escape!” The nearest guns were planted in front of the assailants, and used with effect. The infantry, led by Löwendahl, fastened itself on the sides of the square, the regiments of Normandy and Vaisseaux and the Irish Brigade conspicuous above the rest. On the front, waiting for the cannon to do its work, were the Maison du Roi, the Gendarmerie and all the light cavalry, under Saxe himself, the duke of Richelieu and count d’Estrées. The left wing of the Allies was still inactive, and troops were brought up from Antoing and Fontenoy to support the final blow. About 2 p.m. it was delivered, and in eight minutes the square was broken. As the infantry retired across the plain in small stubborn groups the French fire still made havoc in their ranks, but all attempts to close with them were repulsed by the terrible volleys, and they regained the broken ground about Vézon, whence they had come. Cumberland himself and all the senior generals remained with the rearguard.

The losses at Fontenoy were, as might be expected, somewhat less than normally heavy when distributed over the whole of both armies, but exceedingly severe in the units really engaged. Eight out of nineteen regiments of British infantry lost over 200 men, two of these more than 300. A tribute to the loyalty and discipline of the British, as compared with the generality of armies in those days, may be found in the fact that the three Guards’ regiments had no “missing” men whatever. The 23rd (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) had 322 casualties. Böschlanger’s Hanoverian regiment suffered even more heavily, and four others of that nation had 200 or more casualties. The total loss was about 7500, that of the French 7200. The French “Royal” regiment lost 30 officers and 645 men; some other regimental casualties have been mentioned above. The Dutch lost a bare 7% of their strength.

Fontenoy was in the 18th century what the attack of the Prussian Guards at St Privat is to-day, a locus classicus for military theorists. But the technical features of the battle are completely overshadowed by its epic interest, and above all it illustrates the permanent and unchangeable military characteristics of the British and French nations.