11 September 1709 dawned foggy, and both Lord Orkney and Colonel de la Colonie, perhaps a thousand yards apart at the time, thought that this was advantageous for the Allies, letting them form up without interference from French guns. ‘It was hardly 7’oclock when we marched to the attack,’ observed Orkney,
and it really was a noble sight to see so many different bodies marching over the plain to a thick wood where you could see no man, as all Schulenberg’s, Lottum’s, Argyll’s and Webb’s foot marched and fronted to the wood to attack. I fronted quite another way, to the high ground where the mouth of the defile was, so that we made a crocket [a protrusion in the main line]. My orders were to bring my right into the wood, cross the plain, and advance my line up to their entrenchments. As the others beat them from their retrenchments, such a fire of musketry and cannon I believe no man alive ever heard, and great execution was done on both sides with our artillery.
De la Colonie found himself facing Orkney in the very centre of the field. A fourteen-gun battery came into action on the right of his regiment, almost touching the Gardes Français, the next unit along.
I noticed the officer commanding the artillery in front of our brigade, who was not terribly young, but so active in his task that he lost no opportunity to hasten the fire of his battery: I was able to see the balls plunge deep into the depth of the enemy column. But as soon as a breach was made, it was at the same instant filled up, and the enemy marched, meanwhile, at a normal pace.
As the Allied infantry advanced, they made a quarter-turn to the right, and disappeared into Sars Wood, ‘in the place where their battery had made a breach’. ‘The head of this column soaked up all the fire of our infantry which was entrenched before it,’ said de la Colonie, ‘and which did it terrible damage, but it did not slacken in its stubbornness.’ As the column vanished into the smoke and confusion of the wood, an Irish brigade was ordered to leave the central entrenchments and move into the wood, and de la Colonie’s brigade was told to replace it. Later his own brigade was ordered to follow the Irish.
The first order which was brought to us, addressed to the brigade major, we refused to obey because of the importance of retaining the post we then held, and the danger of abandoning it; but a lieutenant general came a second time to order us, with great passion, to march.
De la Colonie’s memory has compressed the events of several hours into a single narrative, and the vision-narrowing effects of stress, combined with the obscuration caused by the grey-white powder smoke, meant that he could never see what went on to his flanks. The fighting in Sars Wood was a bitter close-quarter struggle, with successive Allied attacks being checked and fresh battalions committed to replace broken ones. Sergeant John Wilson wrote of
an obstinate engagement for the space of two hours in which there was a great effusion of blood on both sides, the armies firing at each other bayonet to bayonet. And after they came to stab each other with their bayonets and several came so close that they knocked one another’s brains out with the butt end of their firelocks.
Having taken the first part of the wood, the attackers found more trees and earthworks before them.
This action continued both desperate and bloody which continued for the space of five hours with incredible fury and resolution on both sides. And all this while doubtful of success because the enemy rallied and regained, with extraordinary valour, the entrenchments from which we had beaten them.
Allied progress was agonisingly slow and costly, and, as senior officer casualties were to show, death was often the price of superfine cloth and gold lace. Eugène was hit in the neck but refused to have his wound dressed: if the Allies won, he said, there would be time enough later, and if they lost it would not matter. John Marshall Deane, whose 1st Foot Guards saw some very hard fighting, regretted that
abundance of men was lost in our side at these bold attacks, and amongst the rest a great many of our commanding officers as generals, brigadiers, colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors and officers of all ranks, likewise several gentleman officers and engineers belonging to the two trains of artillery, and abundance of good old experienced soldiers.
The Duke of Argyll, whacked three times by spent musketballs, heard his soldiers mutter that he must be wearing a breastplate, and ripped open his waistcoat and shirt to show them that he was not. ‘The Duke of Argyll went open-breasted amongst the men to encourage them to behave as became Englishmen,’ wrote Mrs Davies. ‘You see, brothers, he said, I have no concealed armour, I am equally exposed with you.’ She went forward into the wood to take her husband some beer, but her dog began to howl, leading her to fear the worst. ‘I ran amongst the dead,’ she wrote, ‘and turned over near two hundred, amongst whom I found Brigadier Lalo, Sir Thomas Prendergast, and a great number more of my best friends, before I found my husband’s body which a man was stripping. At my approach he went off, and left his booty.’
The Royal Regiment of Ireland was the last to come in from Tournai, where it had been levelling the siege works, and it is impossible for us to be certain whether it actually formed up on the right of Withers’ detachment, which is where it should have gone, or was a good deal further to the east, and engaged in the fighting for Sars Wood, as David Chandler suggests. In any event, as Captain Parker recalled:
We continued marching slowly on, till we came to an opening in the wood. It was a small plain, on the opposite side of which we perceived a battalion of the enemy drawn up, a skirt of the wood being in the rear of them. Upon this Colonel [Richard] Kane, who was then at the head of the regiment, having drawn us up, and formed our platoons, gently advanced towards them, with the six platoons of our first fire made ready. When we had advanced within a hundred paces of them, they gave us a fire of one of their ranks: whereupon we halted, and returned the fire of our six platoons at once; and immediately made ready the six platoons of our second fire, and advanced upon them again. They then gave us the fire of another rank, and we returned them a second fire, which made them shrink; however, they then gave us the fire of a third rank after a scattering manner, and retired into the wood in great disorder; on which we sent our third fire after them, and saw them no more.
Parker’s comrades found, amongst the forty dead and wounded marking the enemy’s line, the wounded Lieutenant O’Sullivan, who told them that they had beaten the Jacobite Royal Regiment of Ireland. Parker’s regiment had only four killed and six wounded.
On the Allied left the Dutch attack fared much worse. At their first attempt the Dutch on the extreme left actually got into the entrenchments in Lanière Wood, but were dislodged by a counterattack by the Régiment de Navarre, ‘which happened at that time to be composed of very short men, nearly in rags’. The Dutch Blue Guards, further to the right, were raked by the concealed French battery and fell in their hundreds. As the Dutch tide ebbed the Prince of Hesse-Cassel brought his cavalry forward to discourage a counterattack. The Dutch, Scots and Danish battalions rallied and attacked again, only to be scythed down in their windrows by French musketry and cannon fire: Generals Fagel, Spaar and Oxenstiern were among the dead. ‘The Hollands army suffering very much,’ wrote Private Deane. ‘The 2nd and 3rd battalions of Blue Guards being bloodily smashed and broke, insomuch that the three battalions altogether cannot make above 800 men … And a great many other regiments in the Hollands service being very much broke and shattered.’
At a little before eleven o’clock Goslinga galloped over to Marlborough, who was preoccupied with the battle for Sars Wood, and urged him to support the Dutch attack. Marlborough rode across to his left, congratulated Orange on the valour of his men, and told him to make no more assaults for the moment, but simply to keep the French right fixed and unable to move. Commentators have not been slow to blame the Prince of Orange for what was, by any standards, a disaster. The redoubtable C.T. Atkinson suggests that Orange was simply meant to ‘demonstrate’ against the wood, but ‘suddenly converted his demonstration into real attack’, though he gives no evidence to support this interesting deduction. Marlborough was perhaps a mile away from the Dutch attack, and we cannot suppose that he would have mistaken, over a period of several hours, the noise of a real attack as opposed to a feint. Nor is it really credible to suggest that Orange was so piqued at the absence of Withers’ detachment that he decided to risk his own life repeatedly, and to persist in a course of action that killed most of the generals to whose care he had been entrusted, not to mention thousands of his rank and file. The suggestion that he lost direction in the smoke and thus attacked the wrong wood is not wholly incredible, but does raise the issue of what wood he was meant to attack, and, again, why Marlborough, probably just within sight and certainly within earshot, did not intervene.
Marlborough never blamed Orange, even at a time when a scapegoat would have been useful. Indeed, he told Godolphin: ‘Our left was Dutch troops only, who behaved themselves extremely well but could not force the enemy’s retrenchments, so that their foot has suffered more than any other nation.’ It is more likely that, just as Marlborough did not tell Orkney that his role at Ramillies was essentially diversionary, preferring to keep his options open until he could see how the battle was shaping, so at Malplaquet he did indeed order Orange to attack Lanière Wood. What surprised him, and most Allied commentators, was how very well the French fought. There were those who, like Sergeant Wilson, maintained that French soldiers could only fight from behind entrenchments and barricades, but the fact remains that at Malplaquet, Villars’ men withstood a shock that had broken their comrades at Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde, and Marlborough had underestimated their staying power: perhaps the French had underestimated it themselves. In sum, it is hard to disagree with David Chandler’s judgement that ‘the fact that Marlborough unquestioningly shouldered the responsibility for Orange’s attacks should at least dispose of allegations of misconduct or blatant error on the part of the Prince of Orange’.
At about midday Villars was strengthening his failing left wing by leaching troops from his centre, the Irish brigade first, with de la Colonie’s Bavarians to follow, hoping to attack Schulenberg’s men when they emerged from the wood. In the process, as Boufflers was to tell Louis, ‘our centre was deprived of infantry by the necessity to send it to the left’. Marlborough, prompted by Schulenberg, told Orkney to press on into them, and ordered d’Auvergne and Hesse-Cassel to prepare to follow him with their cavalry. ‘It was about one o’clock that my 13 battalions got up to the retrenchments,’ wrote Orkney, ‘which we got very easily, for as we advanced they quitted them and inclined to their right.’
Villars might yet have reaped a dividend from weakening his centre, for he had by now assembled some fifty battalions ready to counterattack the Allies as they emerged from Sars Wood. He had just been told that the redoubts had been lost when he was hit in the knee by a musketball: he tried to retain command, but fainted, and was carried off in a sedan chair. At the same moment another general was killed and Albergotti himself was seriously wounded. Command of the French left wing now passed to Puységur, but he failed to launch the quick counterattack that might have jarred the Allies. However, when Miklau’s ten squadrons of cavalry, which had accompanied Withers’ outflanking force, appeared near La Folie well ahead of the infantry which might have supported it, it was roundly charged by ten squadrons of carabiniers and scattered.
In the centre, though, the battle was now turning decisively against the French. The Allied cavalry began to pass through Orkney’s battalions, ‘and formed up’, as he tells us,
under [e.g. covered by] my fire. The enemy were in two lines on the other side of the retrenchment, and there was Boufflers at the head of the Maison du Roi and the gens d’armes. I took care not to fire even when they came pretty near – only some platoons to make them pay us respect, and to give us opportunity to form our horse on the other side of the retrenchments. But, as our horse got on the other side their horse came very near ours. Before we got 80 squadrons out they came down and attacked; and there was such pelting at each other that I really never saw the like. The French fired a little, but ours not at the first. We broke through them, particularly four squadrons of English. Jemmy Campbell, at the head of the grey dragoons, behaved like an angel, and broke through both lines. So did Panton, with little Lord Lumley, at the head of one [squadron] of Lumley’s and one of Wood’s. At first we pushed them, but it did not last long, for they pushed back our horse again so that many of them ran through our retrenchments … However, more squadrons went out, and sometimes they gained a little ground, and were as fast beat back again. I could see however it go better in other places … While the horse were engaged, I had little to do but encourage them, in which I was not idle, but oftentimes to little purpose.
That genial soldier of fortune Peter Drake, now serving with the Maison du Roi, was shot in the calf and received two sword-cuts in the unavailing struggle to hold back the Allied horse. Drake believed that the second Allied cavalry attack worked because cannon had been hauled forward to support it. ‘The success of this last attack was greatly owing to a large number of cannon, and small mortars continually firing and throwing their shells into the woods, which tore down whole trees,’ he affirmed. He tried to surrender to a cavalry officer, but took the wise precaution of keeping his carbine cocked and handy. The officer aimed a pistol at him, and ‘his shot and mine went off instantaneously, I shot the upper part of his head, and he tumbled forward; his ball only gouged my shoulder, and tore the flesh a little’. An officer in the same regiment later accepted Drake’s surrender.
De la Colonie thought that the first shock of cavalry was violent but indecisive, but that the Allies had the edge after they had rallied and passed through the redoubts again. He admitted that those grey-horsed dragoons – he called them ‘the Scots Guards of the Queen’ – were very good indeed. He reckoned that Villars was wounded during the second phase of the cavalry battle, and argued that if Boufflers had not ordered a retreat the battle might yet have been won, for there were fresh cavalry further back to support the Maison du Roi. All the evidence suggests that he was too sanguine, for the French infantry on both flanks had now begun to give way. Puységur’s men had at last been taken in the flank by Withers’ detachment, and the dogged Schulenberg had hauled seven twelve-pounder guns through the wood and begun to gall the French from its southern edge. Puységur knew that it was time to go, and ordered a retreat on Quiévrain. On the French right, d’Artaignan, who had taken command when Boufflers rode to the centre to assume command of the whole army, fell back on Bavay. Some historians suggest that he was forced from his entrenchments by another Dutch assault, but Marlborough admitted that ‘we were afraid to make them advance, having been twice repulsed’. De la Colonie was right to say that this was not broken infantry, seeking safety in flight, but formed brigades coming off, badly mauled but in good order. The Allied cavalry followed the French rearguard to the banks of the little Hogneau, but the chevalier de Luxembourg’s well-handled rearguard kept them at bay, and there was nothing approaching collapse and pursuit. Sensitive to French accusations of ‘our not pressing them in their retreat’, Marlborough told Sarah that ‘we had not foot’ to support the cavalry, as the infantry on his right were too far away and the Dutch on his left were too badly knocked about.
Most combatants recognised at once that there was something wholly shocking about Malplaquet. The Allies probably lost just over 20,000 killed and wounded, with the burden falling disproportionately on the Dutch, with 8,462 casualties, and the French perhaps 12,000. Later that month Boufflers told Louis that 6,000 of his soldiers were still receiving treatment, and this takes no account of those killed on the spot or who died of wounds in the days after the battle. His official list gave 240 officers killed and 593 wounded, but only seventeen prisoners. Lord Orkney, who had seen many a stricken field, told his brother:
As to the dead and wounded, I leave you to the public letters: but depend on it, no two battles this war could furnish the like number. You will see great lists of generals and officers. I can liken this battle to nothing so much as an attack of a counterscarp from right to left; and I am sure you would have thought so, if you had seen the field as I did the day after. In many places they lie as thick as ever you saw a flock of sheep; and, where our poor nephew [Colonel Lord] Tullibardine was, it was prodigious. I really think I never saw the like; particularly where the Dutch guards attacked, it is a miracle. I hope in God it may be the last battle I may ever see … The French are very proud they have done so well. I doubt it is with us as it was with the French at the battle of Landen …
There is hardly any general that either is not shot in his clothes or his horse … many had 3, 4 and 5 horses shot under them. None alive ever saw such a battle.
Major Blackader was soon to become Lieutenant Colonel Blackader, for his commanding officer, Colonel Cranston, had been ‘killed by a cannon-ball … shot in at the left breast and out at the back: he spoke not a word’. The morning after:
I went to view the field of battle … in all my life, I have not seen the dead bodies lie so thick as they were in some places among the retrenchments, particularly at the battery the Dutch guards attacked. For a good while I could not go among them, lest my horse should tread on the carcasses that were lying, as it were, heaped on one another … The Dutch have suffered most in this battle of any. Their infantry is quite shattered; so that it is a dear victory.
Corporal Matthew Bishop and some comrades had hoped, ‘having no tents to fix’, that they could spend the night in a convenient house, but found it ‘full of miserable objects, that were disabled and wounded in such a manner that I thought them past all recovery’. They looked elsewhere, but ‘all the hedges and ditches were lined with disabled men … the horrible cries and groans of the wounded terrified my soul, so that I was in tortures and fancied I felt their sufferings’.
Marlborough himself thought that ‘There never was a battle in which there has been so many killed and wounded as this, for there are very few prisoners, considering the greatness of the action.’ He told Boyle that this was because ‘in the heat of the battle there was little quarter given on either side … Most of the officers we have taken are wounded.’ On 13 September he wrote to Villars, lying wounded at Le Quesnoy, to wish him well after ‘the accident which you suffered in the battle’, and to propose measures ‘for the succour of officers and others of your army who have been left on the field of battle, or who have dragged themselves into neighbouring houses’. If Villars was to dispatch wagons to Bavay, the wounded would be collected and could then be sent, on parole, wherever Villars wished. Marlborough intended to send Cadogan there on the fourteenth, at whatever hour Villars thought suitable, to supervise ‘prompt succour and transport’. In case Villars was ‘no longer with the army’, he copied the letter to Boufflers.