The French and Allied armies confronting each other at Fontenoy. The blue-clad French in the foreground are Gardes Francaises.
In 1745 British Captain General, the young Duke of Cumberland, adopted a more aggressive stance and sought to relieve Tournai, besieged by the French under Marshal Saxe. Cumberland’s infantry assailed the hastily prepared French position at Fontenoy (11 May 1745), demonstrating anew their discipline and fire control. The British troops were less raw than at Dettingen, but the battle showed the strength of a defensive force relying on firepower and supported by a strong reserve: the French had about 50,000 troops, the Allies 46,000. The French had prepared a series of redoubts, and the British had failed to reconnoitre them adequately. After several unsuccessful frontal attacks, and in the presence of Louis XV, Cumberland was forced to retreat with casualties far heavier than his opponents.
In the last attack, Cumberland’s troops advanced in a large rectangular formation, the Allied lines forming a kind of large column, breaking the first French line and defeating the French guards with heavy musket fire. However, the earlier failure to capture Fontenoy and the redoubts on the flanks led to the failure of this attack. Saxe deployed his reserves effectively. Although Cumberland’s infantry beat off successive attacks by the French cavalry, the French infantry, not held down by flank attacks as on a Marlborough battlefield, redeployed to attack the flanks of Cumberland’s column. Cannon were also fired into the Allied flanks. Attacked and under fire from three sides, the Allied troops began a fighting withdrawal under the pressure of the French attack. Saxe’s army included the Irish Brigade of Irish Jacobite exiles who played a major role in Cumberland’s defeat. They advanced with their drums playing the Stuart hymn, “the White Cockade”, and the officers encouraging their men with the Gaelic cry Cuimhnigidh ar Liumreck agus feall na Sassanach (remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy).
As at Dettingen, where Cumberland had been wounded, the British fought well. Unlike the Jacobites at Culloden, they did not break in retreat. The different results of Dettingen and Fontenoy reflected, in part, better French generalship, Saxe proving more effective in responding to developments than Noailles, but also the degree to which British steadiness and firepower were more effective in defence. Philip Brown was also present at Fontenoy, writing that afternoon,
I write this from a pass where our squadron with others are posted to protect and secure the regular and exact order in which our forces are retreating-it is about a mile from the field of blood and slaughter, where true English courage and bravery hath been exercised and displayed in as high a degree as is possible for mankind to act. His Highness the Duke was never excelled by any hero whatever. He exposed his person everywhere the same as the most private soldier. But success is not always to the valiant and brave-would intrepid, calm courage and resolution have carried our point we had not now been a retreating-but our brave and not to be excelled forces are retreating in as much order as they advanced. We wish for nothing more than that the enemy would advance from behind their batteries and if they should my life upon it we should destroy them all. I admire and adore that kind Providence who hath been my great protector and preserver of my life and limbs during such a cannonading of nine hours, as could not possibly be exceeded and which that at the battle of Dettingen was nothing to. There were batteries continually playing upon our front and both flanks at the same time during the whole attack which was made by the infantry and they supported by the cavalry.
Brown continued with a personal reflection that reflected the familial dimensions of the economics of war:
we are now part of the body of force which are posted as the rear guard to cover the retreat of the whole army, so that it is very uncertain whether I may yet live to see out the day or the sun rising the next morning should the enemy determine to harass us in our retreat-it was great pleasure to me that my commission was not signed when we marched to the battle to think that if I fell the money deposited would be preserved to my dear relations and friends.
Brown’s letter is interesting for other reasons. The encomiums heaped on Cumberland’s personal conduct at Fontenoy were indeed universal. Contemporary praise for his personal bravery can, however, be contrasted with strictures on his generalship. For, as Brown tacitly admits, the British cavalry were mere spectators at Fontenoy and were only used to cover the retreat: the service he was upon when he wrote his letter. The cavalry was to the rear of Cumberland’s column. The Duke’s handling of his cavalry has been criticized. 30 In effect, he relied not on manoeuvre, but on force. His was the strategy and tactics of the direct approach, but, at Fontenoy, it fell victim to Saxe’s clever exploitation of the advantages of resting on the defensive. Nevertheless, poor British generalship was balanced by the dogged savage qualities of the men in the ranks.
Napoleon suggested that Fontenoy prolonged the ancien régime monarchy in France by thirty years. The victory was followed by a rapid French advance, as the less numerous and divided Allies were outmanoeuvred and lost the ability to mount a successful response. The fall of Tournai (19 June) was followed by that of Ghent (15 July), Oudenaarde, Bruges (19 July), Dendermonde, Ostend (23 August) and Nieuport (5 September). The loss of the last two was especially serious as they were ports from which attacks on Britain could be mounted. The interrelationship of the defence of the British Isles and conflict in the Low Countries was amply demonstrated. By gaining these ports, France acquired invasion bases east of Dunkirk and, thus, increased British vulnerability, because British squadrons based in Portsmouth or Plymouth were not well placed to thwart such a threat, while, once free in the North Sea, the French could choose where to land along Britain’s long east coast.
In fact, the invasion of 1745 was a tiny affair-the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in western Scotland-and was mounted from Brest. Yet, it was followed up by a threatened French invasion from the Channel ports. In addition, the French used the early months of 1746, when most of the British army was engaged in confronting the Jacobites, to conquer much of the Austrian Netherlands. Brussels fell to Saxe on 20 February after a surprise advance. Trenches were opened before Antwerp on 24 May, the garrison surrendering after a week. The French then turned to clear the Meuse valley and south Brabant. Mons fell on 10 July after a month’s siege. Charleroi followed on 2 August, Namur on 1 October. These repeated blows destroyed the strategic axis offered by the Austrian Netherlands, an axis linking Britain to Germany, and thus covering Hanover from French attack, and an area from which the British could attack France by land. Neither option was provided by the United Provinces (Dutch Republic).
Returning to the Low Countries after Culloden, Cumberland and his troops played a major role in challenging the French. However, at Roucoux (11 October 1746), Saxe defeated an Anglo-Dutch-German army under Charles of Lorraine, in a battle that centred on the hard-fought storming of three entrenched villages by the experienced French infantry.
The following year, Cumberland found his plans affected by Dutch caution, had to move to protect Maastricht from a possible advance, and was outmanoeuvred by Saxe in a race to gain the best position between there and Tongres. Saxe defeated him at Lawfeldt (2 July). In the battle, the British infantry in defence of the village inflicted heavy losses on the attacking French, only surrendering their position on the fifth attack. 31 A massive cavalry combat on the flank was eventually won by the French with infantry support, but Saxe failed to exploit the victory, leading to accusations that he had deliberately spared his opponents so that they could fight another day, although his options were limited by the orderly retreat of the outnumbered British and by Cumberland’s ability to maintain the army as a whole near Maastricht.
Like Fontenoy, Lawfeldt gave the French the strategic advantage. It was followed by the siege and storming of the leading Dutch fortress, Bergenop- Zoom (1747), and by the successful siege of Maastricht (1748). The beaten Cumberland failed to respond effectively to French plans. In 1747 he did not fully appreciate the danger to Bergen-op-Zoom, although the garrison was strengthened by British troops and engineers, including the ballistics specialist Benjamin Robin.
The alliance in which the British played a major role was therefore far less successful than its earlier counterparts in the Nine Years’ and Spanish Succession wars. This reflected a number of factors, including quality of generalship. Saxe, not Cumberland, was the heir of Marlborough; and indeed Saxe, an illegitimate son of Augustus II of Saxony, had served under Marlborough and Eugene in 1709. He displayed Marlborough’s preference for bold manoeuvres, emphasis on gaining and retaining the initiative, ability to control large numbers effectively in battle, and stress on morale.
Cumberland was less effective, but it is important to note the difficulty of the task. He was up against the best army in Western Europe, and was part of a coalition force that found it difficult to grasp the initiative. The British could not match French manpower. In July 1747 Cumberland wrote to Henry Pelham, the First Lord of the Treasury, “when we think ourselves vastly extravagant by adding five battalions to our strength, France raises fifty”. Furthermore, the years since the War of the Spanish Succession had not provided opportunities to train the British troops. There was no equivalent to the War of the Polish Succession (1733-5), in which the French had gained considerable combat experience. In addition, the small size of the peacetime British army was a poor base for the rapid expansion necessary to fight a major Continental war.
The battles were complex affairs. The large number of men involved (200,000 at Roucoux, 215,000 at Lawfeldt), the fluidity of the fighting, and the extent to which each battle was a combination of a number of distinct but related struggles, anticipated aspects of Napoleonic warfare. The frontage at Roucoux was about 10,000 yards. These were also long engagements. Including preliminary cannonading, Dettingen and Fontenoy each lasted seven hours, Roucoux several, and at Lawfeldt the hard fighting for the village lasted four. In contrast, Culloden was a relatively short battle.
These problems of control and command were not the sole difficulties facing the British. They also suffered from the different nature of alliance politics compared to previous conflicts. The Dutch played a much smaller and less effective military role and, until William IV of Orange, George II’s son-in-law, seized power in Holland and Zeeland in 1747, Dutch political support for the war was far less than in the two earlier conflicts. Despite British hopes, William proved unable to increase the Dutch military contribution appreciably. The Austrians were more concerned about Prussia than France, especially during the Second Silesian War (1744-5), while, unlike in the Nine Years and Spanish Succession Wars, the French were not distracted by commitments in Spain; instead, Spain was an ally of France and active in attacking Austria in Italy. The war in the Low Countries played a smaller role in military and international relations than was the case in 1689-1713, but this affected the anti-French alliance, particularly Austria, rather than France itself. Indeed, the French were from 1744, and especially after Fontenoy, able to apply their strength effectively in the Low Countries. This was both cause and consequence of the failure of British Continental interventionism.
Despite her successes, France returned her gains when peace was negotiated at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1748. Her foreign trade had been greatly harmed by the British navy, her economy by a poor harvest, and her finances by the costly war. The French were also concerned by the advance of a British–subsidized Russian army towards the Rhine.