Battle of Tourcoing

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French forces raise the cap of liberty in the Neumarkt, Cologne, 1794.

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Positions of the armies at the start of the 1794 campaign

When the British troops arrived in the Low Countries in 1793, the war had already begun a year earlier, and the French were hard pressed, attacked by a coalition that included Austria, Prussia, Spain and the Dutch. Including German auxiliaries, 17,000 of whom were hired in 1793, the British army in the Low Countries rose to 37,500 by late 1794. As in previous wars in the Low Countries, the British army, under George III’s son, Frederick, Duke of York, found itself confronting the problems of co-operating with allied forces operating to a different agenda. The campaign faced problems from its inception, although an Anglo-Austrian force defeated the French at the Camp de Famars on 23 May, Valenciennes surrendered on 28 July, after a successful siege, and on 18 August, at Linselles, the Guards under Major-General Gerard Lake drove back a larger French force under Jourdan and Béru at bayonet point. However, the British army, assisted by Hanoverian and Dutch forces, was ordered to besiege Dunkirk, a potent symbol of Anglo-French hostility and one whose fortification had only been permitted by the Treaty of Versailles of 1783. It was mistaken to attack Dunkirk, for it was not a crucial target and, by failing to remain with the Austrians, the British became a more tempting target for French attack. Once York reached Dunkirk, he found himself without the necessary siege artillery. Delays in its dispatch enabled the French to regain the initiative, first by flooding the marshes near the town and then by moving up a relieving army that pushed back the less numerous British and Hanoverians at Hondschoote (6 September). Dispersed French units wore down the defenders, and the French were then victorious, with a final attack. York abandoned the siege and withdrew to winter with the Austrians at Tournai.

In 1794 the Austrians and British had some initial advantages in the Austrian Netherlands, winning engagements at Villers-en-Couches (24 April) and Beaumont (26 April). In the latter cavalry attacks on the French flanks defeated advancing columns with heavy casualties. The British cavalry proved stronger than its French counterpart, which had been greatly disrupted by the Revolution, not least because the bloodstock was hit when many horses were eaten. British success culminated in the battle of Willems (10 May): the French cavalry was swept aside and their infantry broken. Repeated cavalry attacks supported by infantry and cannon broke a French square.

However, on 17-18 May 1794, in the battle of Tourcoing near Tournai, the French under Pichegru used their local numerical superiority to defeat British and Austrian units: in the battle, York’s army was given inadequate support by the Austrians, and it was forced to stage a fighting withdrawal. Thereafter, York retreated, pushed back by stronger French forces, abandoning the Austrian Netherlands and falling back through the United Provinces during a hard winter. The British fought well when they engaged, but they were outnumbered and had lost the initiative, and the river lines could not be held, not least when the rivers froze.

Nijmegen, which the French had attacked, was evacuated on 7 November, and, although the more numerous French were driven across the Waal in the battle of Tüyl on 30 December 1794 and defeated by a British attack at the battle of Buren on 8 January 1795, the outnumbered British, now under Lieutenant-General William Harcourt, retreated through inhospitable terrain. Their medical, transport and supply systems proved inadequate and the army suffered greatly from sickness, reducing its effectiveness. There was a terrible shortage of shoes, bread and uniforms. In April 1795 the British were evacuated from Bremen, although a small cavalry force remained in Germany until that December.

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Battle of Tourcoing, (17-18 May 1794)

The Battle of Tourcoing halted the Allied advance from Flanders into northwest France during the campaign of 1794. The fighting was scattered and confused, and did not produce a decisive victory for either side. The Allies, however, decided to take up defensive positions and make their main effort farther south.

The French plan for 1794 called for an advance by the Army of the North on Brussels, capital of the Austrian Netherlands. The Allies hoped to make their main effort around Landrecies. By the second week of May several French divisions under General Joseph Souham had advanced in the midst of the Allied right wing. Generalmajor Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich recognized the opportunity to cut off Souham and crush his force by means of a concentric attack by Allied forces around Tourcoing. Mack’s plan called for six separate columns, but their movements were hampered by lack of communications and coordination. Although the Allies had 80,000 men in the area, only 62,000 were able to participate in the battle.

Souham recognized the situation as well. In the absence of General Jean-Charles Pichegru, he planned to throw most his forces against the Allied right under Feldzeugmeister Franz Sebastian de Croix Graf von Clerfayt. Reports of movements by Austrian and British troops on 16 May caused Souham to scrap that plan and concentrate his forces on the two columns advancing against him in the center. When the Allied attack began on 17 May, things quickly fell apart. Clerfayt’s column on the right was held up by an unexpectedly fierce French defense on the river Lys. Columns on the left under Archduke Charles and Feldzeugmeister Franz Kinsky Graf von Wichinitz und Tettau were hampered by fog and moved more slowly than expected. Only the central columns, consisting mostly of British and Hessian troops under the Duke of York, achieved their goals for 17 May. The Guards Brigade particularly distinguished itself in overrunning several French defensive positions.

By the morning of 18 May Souham had massed his forces. Archduke Charles and Kinsky ignored orders to move faster, and Clerfayt was diverted by General Dominique Vandamme’s brigade. Souham’s main attack quickly captured Tourcoing and forced the British from their advanced positions. Showing remarkable discipline, the British Guards cut their way out of several encirclements, though the British cavalry and artillery suffered great losses. During the retreat on 18 May the civilian drivers cut the traces and abandoned most of the guns and caissons, and thus the cavalry regiments following on the same road were not able to pass easily. Needless losses of horses and men resulted.

By 19 May most of the Allied forces were back at their starting point. French losses were approximately 3,000 men killed and wounded, and 7 guns lost. Allied losses were heavier, with 4,000 men killed and wounded, and another 1,500 captured. As many as 50 guns were captured.

Tourcoing was a moral defeat for the Allies. The Austrians, who were the dominant partners, decided to remain on the defensive in Flanders. The Battle of Tournai on 22 May confirmed this decision. The French, on the other hand, saw Tourcoing as a victory, confirming their method of warfare as superior to prevailing orthodox tactics.

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