11 September 1709
COMBATANTS Great Britain, Austria, United Provinces, Prussia Vs France and Bavaria
CASUALTIES The alliance: 21,000 France and Bavaria: 11,000
The Battle of Malplaquet was fought to the thunderous sound of cannon and the crescendo of musket fire. An alliance of countries, which included Great Britain, Prussia, Austria and the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic), went to war to secure Europe from encroaching French control of Spain and her vast overseas empire. The battle that formed part of the War of Spanish Succession represented one of the bloodiest clashes of the whole campaign. It was also the most lethal engagement fought that century. The body count of the alliance forces and French forces numbered into the tens of thousands as gunpowder, cannon fire and heavy horse turned Malplaquet field into a bloody slaughterhouse.
The French allowed the alliance forces to come on to them, giving them the advantage of defence, cutting down the Austrian and Dutch troops that were trying to flank them. In the end, the French positions on the flanks were overwhelmed but not after thousands of alliance men lay dead through the intense barrage of firepower that confronted them. The British then smashed the French centre affecting a rout, allowing British cavalry to storm in and mop up the survivors. Despite the alliance carrying the day the casualties sustained by their troops meant that they could not go after the fleeing French forces; there simply weren’t enough men to action a proper pursuit. This allowed the French to live to fight another day.
Marlborough’s reputation received a serious blow the following year. He first besieged and captured Tournai, another important frontier fortification, but one whose loss did not breach the French defences. Most of the campaigning season was taken up by the siege. Well garrisoned, Tournai did not surrender until forced to do so by a shortage of food on 3 September. Marlborough moved on to besiege Mons, and attacked a French army, under the able Villars, entrenched nearby at Malplaquet, a position chosen so as to threaten the siege and provoke a British attack on terrain suited to the defence. The battle, on 11 September 1709, exemplified Marlborough’s belief in the attack, but it also indicated the heavy casualties that could be caused by the sustained exchange of fire between nearby lines of closely packed troops.
As later with Frederick the Great and his Austrian opponents, Marlborough’s tactics had become stereotyped, allowing the French to prepare an effective response. They held his attacks on their flanks and retained a substantial reserve to meet his final central push by nearly 30,000 cavalry. The French finally retreated in the face of eventually successful pressure on their left and centre, but their army had not been routed and they were able to retreat in good order. The casualties were very heavy on both sides, including 24,000 (8,000 of them British) of the 110,000 strong Anglo-Dutch-German force, although only about 12,000 of their opponents; indeed, the battle was the bloodiest in Europe prior to that of Borodino during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. As before, Marlborough’s tactics were based on the acceptance of the likelihood of heavy casualties, but at Malplaquet these casualties did not serve to obtain mastery of the battlefield. The heavy casualties affected Marlborough, not only by increasing political criticism, but also by making him less ready to risk battle.
As with the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, it was the momentum of result that was crucial. Marlborough went on to capture Mons (20 October) and Ghent (30 December 1709), but hopes of breaching the French frontier defences and marching on Paris were misplaced. In particular, heavy casualties among their soldiers lessened Dutch support for the war.
At the beginning of 1709, the military fortunes of Louis XIV in Flanders were at their lowest ebb of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The Allies had already overrun the Lines of Brabant and breached the pré carré at Lille. Villars commanded French armies in the north and wanted to attack before the Allies pressed to Paris. Louis resisted, but in a panic after the fall of Tournai that July, the king agreed to an autumn offensive. Villars concentrated all available troops, emptying forward French garrisons to fill out his field army. He allowed Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy to join their armies on September 10, a failing for which some historians later criticized him. Villars spent that same day entrenching behind extensive field fortifications on a battle line centered on the village of Malplaquet, anchored at either flank in dense woods. Villars knew Marlborough’s penchant for feinting against his enemy’s flanks, then attacking the center. To counter this now well-worn tactic, Villars set up his own infantry and cannon to bring fire on the center of his line from three sides. He distributed his cavalry behind the infantry line, but widely rather than concentrated at the center or along the flanks.
The French and their minor allies numbered perhaps 75,000 to 80,000 (there is wide disagreement among military historians on the actual number).Most of these troops were drawn from garrisons or were raw recruits. In addition to French units there were Bavarian, Irish, and Swiss allies and mercenaries, organized into 121 battalions of understrength infantry (about 400 men each), 260 squadrons of cavalry, and field batteries totaling 80 guns. Across from the French lines, Marlborough and Eugene commanded 86,000 Allied troops (Danes, Dutch, English, Irish, Hanoverian, Hessian, Prussian, Saxon, Scots, and Swiss), formed into 128 infantry battalions and 253 cavalry squadrons. The Allies also had a larger artillery train of 100 guns. The Allies approached the fields and woods where the French and Bavarians waited, each man in every regiment, squadron, and battery readying in his own way to engage an enemy in combat. What no man that day knew was that they and their fellows were about to participate in the greatest and bloodiest battle in European history prior to the Napoleonic Wars.
The attack began after breakfast with an infantry advance against the French left by Austrian and Prussian battalions. The attack slowed as ancient French regiments from Picardy and the Champagne region brought heavy musket and cannon fire to bear, inflicting numerous casualties on the Allies. On the right, predominantly Dutch and Scottish infantry regiments were repulsed with heavy losses as they assaulted well-prepared and dug-in defenses. At 10 A. M. the Allies reinforced each flank attack, where they continued to suffer heavy losses. The Wild Geese of the French regiment of “Royal Irlandais” were sent to counterattack the Allied right. They did so with their usual ferocity, until repulsed by countrymen from the “Royal Irish,” who were fighting at Malplaquet for Marlborough and Queen Anne. The French line began to sag, then finally gave way on the left. Around noon, Villars was forced to issue an order he was loathe to give his couriers and subcommanders: to reinforce his sagging flanks from the reserve, with troops until then waiting for Marlborough’s expected and signature heavy killing blow against the center. Villars was soon thereafter severely wounded while fighting on the left and had to be taken from the field.
Marlborough now thrust his tactical sword through the center of the French line, sending nearly 30,000 Allied horse to charge the infantry-poor redoubts left at the weakened center. They were met initially by a brave countercharge of French cavalry. As Allied assaults continued all along the line, both French flanks and the center began to give way. What saved the French Army from total disaster in the absence of Villars was an orderly, fighting retreat organized by maréchal Boufflers, who masterfully disengaged from the Allied armies around 3 P. M. The field was left to the Allies. On it lay 12,000 French killed and wounded. But the Allies were in no condition to pursue or exploit their victory: their own butcher’s bill was an astonishing 21,000 to 24,000 killed and wounded, the latter group including Eugene.
Stunned that such losses had been suffered in a single afternoon and might be yet again under Marlborough’s aggressive command style, governments in London and Amsterdam were henceforth leery of ever again allowing Marlborough to seek decision by meeting the French in open battle. The Dutch Army, in particular, never fully recovered from these losses, while in Great Britain, the heavy casualty lists from Malplaquet helped pave the way for the Tories to take control in the House of Commons and end participation in the war. Allied governments forced Marlborough and other commanders to resume more staid positional warfare during 1710 and 1711, while diplomats scurried across Europe conducting secret peace negotiations.