British Forces in Western Germany 1757-59

The Battle of Krefeld on a painting by Emil Hünten.

Map of the Battle of Krefeld on June 23 1758.
Source: Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, volume III by the German Grosser Generalstab

Rarely had military fortunes changed so rapidly. In September 1757 the French thought they had won definitively in western Germany and only a few mopping-up details remained. By May 1758 the tables were turned, Ferdinand had an army 40,000 strong and France was floundering. Richelieu’s replacement on the western front proved an even greater disaster than his philandering predecessor. Now in his fiftieth year, Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Comte de Clermont, a prince of the blood, was an oddity in that he had been destined for holy orders but then given a papal dispensation to become a soldier, after which he had fought at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Raucoux during the War of Austrian Succession. The peculiarity of his position was that he retained his clerical benefices as Abbot of St Germain-des-Prés and was known mockingly by his troops as the ‘Général des Bénédictines’. Evidently Clermont had a line in gallows humour, for it is said that he wrote to Louis XV as follows on taking up his command: ‘I found Your Majesty’s Army divided into three parts. The part which is above ground is composed of pillagers and marauders; the second part is underground; and the third is in hospital. Should I retire with the first or wait until I join one of the others?’

Clermont was hardly exaggerating. French losses in the winter campaign amounted to more than 16,000 in dead, wounded, prisoners and deserters with another 10,000 sick. But as one of the great aristocrats of the ancien régime, Clermont had pull. With the able collaboration of Belle-Isle at the War Ministry, he made good the numbers. By May he could muster 32,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and Belle-Isle promised him he would have an army nearly double that size by the end of June. Clermont was an efficient if unimaginative soldier and he was taken unawares by the energetic Ferdinand, who crossed the Rhine near the Dutch border on 1–3 June after constructing a pontoon bridge. Madame de Pompadour, now secure in Louis XV’s favour and always keen to take the rest of the Bourbon family down a notch or two, wrote to him witheringly: ‘What a humiliation, monsieur, to allow the enemy to build a bridge across the Rhine and land 6,000 men a day on the other side.’ But Clermont’s humiliation was not yet complete. Despite the reassurances from his friend Belle-Isle that Ferdinand was now dangerously exposed, Clermont could make no impression on him. He did at least hold his own in the indecisive battle at Rheinberg on 12 June 1758 but nine days later Ferdinand won a hard-fought victory at Krefeld. Faced with the threat that Ferdinand might invade the Netherlands, Belle-Isle had to detach to Clermont’s aid a second French army, which was supposed to be helping Maria Theresa and the Austrians in Bohemia.

Seven thousand British troops joined Ferdinand after Krefeld, but the Anglophone and German-speaking troops did not meld seamlessly. Differences in culture and military tradition were compounded by the language barrier, except in the case of the officer class who usually spoke French to one another. The British troops were indisciplined, prone to illness and lacked the hygiene of their German counterparts while their officers were touchy and arrogant, inclined to treat the Hanoverians as natural inferiors. There were numerous niggling items of discord between the two sides: the Germans, for example, resented the extra forage required by the horse-loving British. The choice of British commander was perhaps especially infelicitous. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough, though modest and generous, was ignorant, careless and insouciant, and was a particularly poor diplomatic choice in that in the previous war he had complained vociferously about the behaviour of German troops. But Marlborough died before Krefeld, in October 1757, and the British command fell to his deputy – an even more disastrous appointment, as it turned out.

At forty-two, Lord George Sackville, second son of the Earl of Dorset, was sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hypersensitive to criticism. A heavily set, melancholy-looking individual, with clear blue eyes, protruding lower lip and an ugly snout of a nose, Sackville was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and had fought at Fontenoy with Cumberland (also later in the Jacobite rising and under Wolfe in Scotland). MP for Dover since 1741, he was an important political figure whom Pitt and Bute had wanted as their Secretary of State for War in 1757. But the great barrier to Sackville’s political and military advancement was the hatred of George II. Sackville had attached himself to the rival court clustered round the King’s hated eldest son Frederick and his son George (later George III). Sackville’s drive and energy were not matched by tact or an ability to make himself popular. His joining the Anglo-German army was a case in point. Leicester House favoured military raids on the French coast and was strongly opposed to German entanglements, but by accepting the position with Marlborough Sackville showed poor political nous. His appointment was simply Pitt’s way of co-opting Leicester House into a German adventure but the Prince of Wales did not see it that way. Sackville simply weakened his status with Bute and Leicester House without commending himself to George II. He made fresh enemies without making any new friends.

Although in retrospect the partnership of Prince Ferdinand and Lord Sackville was an accident waiting to happen, in 1758 Sackville confined himself to complaining about Ferdinand’s Fabian policy and the continual retreats. After Krefeld, though, even his mouth was shut. Krefeld was a setback to France almost as serious as Rossbach. In England, where Ferdinand was lionised as a hero, Pitt realised the potential value of the western front. Properly reinforced, Ferdinand’s Anglo-Hanoverian army could pin down huge French forces, not only preventing them from fighting Prussia on the eastern front but also making it impossible for Versailles to reinforce its beleaguered garrisons in India and North America. Expertly managed by the Duke of Newcastle, Parliament voted to send to Germany another five battalions of infantry and fourteen squadrons of cavalry. After a further embarrassment with the fall of Düsseldorf (July 1758), Clermont meanwhile was replaced by the fifty-four-year-old Louis-Georges Erasme, Marquis de Contades, who had a long and distinguished military career, beginning in Italy and Corsica in 1734–35, extending through the war of 1740–48 and most recently taking in the battles of Hastenbeck and Krefeld.

Contades showed more respect for Ferdinand than Clermont had, and played cat-and-mouse with him, probing and making contact with his vanguard, but never allowing Ferdinand’s main army to get close to him. There was stalemate as both sides faced each other across the Erft river from 14 to 24 July, but the French grew stronger every day as Belle-Isle made good his promises about increased numbers. Ferdinand, still waiting for the British reinforcements before making a decisive move, resolved to withdraw and put the Rhine between himself and the French, but Contades moved north swiftly to hem him in between the confluence of the Roer and Meuse rivers. Ferdinand was now in deadly peril, in imminent danger of having his communications cut, and Contades came within an ace of a stunning victory, but he narrowly failed to take the all-important bridge at Mehr that would have sealed Ferdinand’s doom.

Belle-Isle now decided that the only way to finish off Ferdinand before he became even more powerful with extra contingents from Britain was to use a second army against him. This force was commanded by the vanquished Marshal of Rossbach, Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise. Another of the great French aristocrats, Soubise was a member of the influential Rohan family, had been Louis XV’s aide-de-camp in the War of Austrian Succession and had served as Governor of Flanders and Hennegau. Something of a French Cumberland, Soubise was notorious for the catastrophe at Rossbach but his many supporters at court would talk up a minor victory at Lutterberg in Hesse rather as Cumberland’s cronies had portrayed his walk-over victory at Culloden as a glittering triumph of the military art. The truth was that, aged forty-three, Soubise was a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent and owing everything to his being a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, who assiduously pushed for his promotion far beyond his intrinsic abilities.

Realising Ferdinand’s military calibre, Belle-Isle urged caution and close coordination between the armies of Contades and Soubise. Resentful and envious of each other, Contades and Soubise each waited for the other to act and refused to collaborate on a detailed strategy.

September found both of them writing peevishly to Belle-Isle to know what the other proposed to do. Belle-Isle fulminated at his two generals for being the passive dupes of Ferdinand, warned that French military honour was being compromised, and advised them that France was becoming the laughing stock of Europe. Finally Soubise stirred himself and began marching towards Hanover. But he seems to have taken fright at his own decisiveness, feared he was over-exposed and, blaming Contades for having been slow to support him, withdrew to Kassel. There, stiffened by the Due de Fitzjames, the timid Soubise finally felt strong enough to give battle. Marginally victorious at Lutterberg on 12 October – though some critics thought the battle drawn – he failed to support Contades when he in turn finally made a move and threatened Münster, an important allied base. This was another timid probe, carried out too late and with too small forces to be a serious threat.

By the end of 1758 all of Belle-Isle’s efforts had produced a null result in west Germany. Despite all the reinforcements he had thrown into the western front, the French armies were again suffering numerical shrinkage and under-equipment. That winter Belle-Isle wrote to the future Duc de Choiseul (then Comte de Stainville, French ambassador in Austria): ‘Two-thirds of our infantry are without clothes and consist either of men who have had no rest for fifteen months, or of recruits who are not strong enough to withstand the cold and rain of this late season.’ Meanwhile his past, present, future, actual and putative generals spent most of their energy intriguing against each other and trying to discredit or belittle each other in the eyes of Louis XV: Soubise, Richelieu, d’Estrées, Broglie, St-Germain, Contades and Clermont were only some of the principals involved in the Machiavellian and disgraceful game, for the Dauphin himself had petitioned his father hard to be allowed to succeed Clermont as Commander-in-Chief. The truth was that Louis XV had no one of the calibre of Marshal Saxe in the last war, or even of Lowendahl, and some Jeremiahs lamented that in France military science had gone into a tail-spin. Ferdinand, by contrast, had been a brilliant success. At the beginning of 1758 the French had occupied most of Hanover but by the end they occupied not an inch of it. Understandably George II was the great champion of Ferdinand. In September he awarded him £2,000 a year for life and in December Frederick of Prussia appointed him a Field Marshal. But Ferdinand seemed to some critics to be running out of ideas, and it was noteworthy that he went into winter quarters in mid-November 1758 and did not try to repeat his exploits of the previous year.

On 4 February 1759 Soubise, appointed commander of the army projected for the invasion of England, handed over to the forty-year-old Duc de Broglie. Victor François, Duc de Broglie, would prove to be the most capable French army commander in the Seven Years War, and the year 1759 would have gone better for France if he had been confirmed as supreme commander in Germany. He inherited a much healthier situation than at the beginning of 1758 for, under Belle-Isle’s energetic leadership, the two French armies in Germany had been extensively re-equipped and retrained. Broglie’s Army of the Main contained fifty squadrons of cavalry and fifty battalions of infantry – a total of 31,000 men. Contades’s Army of the Lower Rhine was much larger, with ninety-one squadrons and 100 battalions (66,000 men). With this army of nearly 100,000 men, Belle-Isle intended to drive the pestilent Ferdinand across the Weser river. With Broglie’s army in support, Contades was to cross the lower Rhine in June, capture Münster and Lippstadt and sweep the enemy before him. The obvious snag was that Ferdinand might take the offensive first. To preempt this and give themselves a sound base of operations, the French seized the free city of Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve. They used an underhand trick to secure admission, then overpowered the garrison while the citizens were sleeping. Frankfurt became the base for French operations during the rest of the war; it was easily defended and could be supplied by the river.

Five miles north-east of Frankfurt the French fortified the strong natural position of Bergen covering the approaches from Kassel and sought to make it all but impregnable. This single fact determined allied strategy for 1759. Ferdinand strengthened his bases at Münster and Lippstadt, with subsidiaries at Nienburg, Hameln Stade and Hamburg, and patiently built up his total numbers to nearly 72,000 by April 1759, including two new companies sent from England. Originally he had been planning to attack the French in Hesse but that scheme was aborted when Frederick of Prussia told him he had no troops to spare. Lacking the manpower to tackle Hesse, Ferdinand now played cat and mouse with the French in a winter campaign lasting through January-February 1759, but found himself outpointed by Broglie. Initially threatened on his right flank, Broglie neatly turned the tables on Ferdinand by trying to punch through his right. Perhaps realising that he faced an opponent of real military calibre, Ferdinand finally sheered off after a face-saving, protracted and confusing (confused?) war of manoeuvre. At length he made up his mind to attack the main French strength at Frankfurt. He left Münster on 22 March, determined to test to the limit the strength of the French position at Bergen.

French military planners had not been exaggerating when they boasted that Bergen was the dream defensive position, difficult to outflank and high enough to provide an overview of any approaching enemy forces while providing plenty of cover. Two miles north-east of Frankfurt was where Broglie intended to begin drawing up his forces. The battleground he selected was adjacent to flat and marshy country on the right which ran to the steep escarpment topped by Bergen. On the left the terrain was not so steep. Wooded and striated by streams, with open country between the woods and Bergen, it was cut across by two sunken roads, impeding any attack from the east. Bergen itself was enclosed by a fortified wall, eighteen feet high and three feet thick, outside which were farms, orchards and enclosures, surrounded by banks and hedges. In front was the hill of Am Hohen Stein, offering some protection to an attacker on its eastern slope; but the western slope, extending to the scarp on the right and the woods on the left, was devoid of cover. North-west of Bergen, 1,000 yards away and set on a knoll, was a tower, the Bergen Warte, dominating Bergen and the 1,000 yards of open land between it and the village. South of Bergen the escarpment ran westwards until it hit the River Main. Here Broglie awaited Ferdinand’s coming with some 30,000 men, eight battalions in Bergen itself and another thirteen held in reserve. On his left, behind the woods, were the Saxons; in the centre, behind the Bergen Warte, were the cavalry; the artillery was in the centre, between the sunken roads. Ferdinand, relying on false estimates of enemy strength from his scouts and an irrational belief that the French were not present in strength, was confident that Broglie could not hold his position and proposed to attack 30,000 seasoned defenders with a numerically inferior force, computed at 24,000–27,000 troops.

Ferdinand began by sending General von Gilsa into the orchards, where he quickly cleaned out the French. Broglie, commanding a panorama of the battlefield from his obsevation post on the Bergen Warte, ordered his reserves to counterattack. Emerging in a cloud from behind the walls of Bergen, they quickly repulsed the enemy. The seesaw battle in the orchards continued when Ferdinand ordered his Brunswickers into the fray and they in turn began to push the French back. One hundred yards from the walls the French dug in and a furious struggle commenced. Sensing that this was the moment to commit the last of his reserves, Broglie gave the signal to his veterans who decisively repelled the Brunswickers. Ferdinand next ordered his artillery to come to the aid of the Brunswickers but his gunners were caught by a murderous fire from the French artillerymen at the western end of the sunken road. Ferdinand’s principal lieutenant, Johann Kasimir, Prince of Isenburg, rallied his men for another charge but was counterattacked on the flanks; he fell, mortally wounded, and his men broke and fled. Ferdinand now expected an all-out assault but Broglie had no intention of going over onto the attack, as this would mean leaving his strong position and meeting the enemy in the open. This gave Ferdinand a welcome breathing space, so once again he rallied his men before withdrawing them to the Am Hohen Stein, vainly hoping that Broglie would pursue him there. When Ferdinand’s big guns were in position, he prepared for a final attack but cancelled the assault when he saw movements on the French side indicating an imminent charge. Broglie, though, was simply strengthening his left flank by positioning more artillery there and moving up his last six reserve battalions from the Bergen Warte. A period of phoney war developed, with the artillery exchanging shots and each side waiting for the other to make the first move, and so it continued until dusk. Ferdinand withdrew under cover of night but had sentries posted at dawn, waiting for what seemed like an inevitable attack. But it never came. Broglie, having been left on the field and with 1,800 casualties against Ferdinand’s 2,500, claimed the victory.

Ferdinand withdrew to the north, still in dread that Broglie would strike his slow-moving column; he was especially vulnerable now, with a tired, hungry and demoralised allied army. But the Anglo-Hanoverians were left to recoup in peace, as Broglie made no attempt to exploit his victory and indeed huddled fearfully near Frankfurt, apprehensive that Ferdinand would attack again. Both sides were left to ponder the implications of French success in the first campaign of 1759. Broglie’s performance was efficient rather than brilliant, since he fought from a well-nigh impregnable position, outnumbered the enemy in men and guns and had fresh troops who were not afraid of Ferdinand since they had not been involved in the 1758 defeats under Clermont and Contades. His failure to pursue Ferdinand was deplorable and showed once again that the tradition of Condé, Turenne, Saxe and Lowendahl was dead. Broglie had many enemies at court, who immediately tried to spread the rumour that his victory was really a defeat. The friends of the Prince de Soubise were particularly forward in this regard and even spread the canard that Broglie had abandoned his field hospital during the battle. Soubise’s champion was Madame de Pompadour and she in turn had the ear of the King. Broglie would not get his Marshal’s baton for a while yet. But if Broglie had been excessively timid, Ferdinand had been rash, complacent and over-confident, and perhaps the victories of 1758 had made him gravely underrate the French. That seems the most likely explanation for his extraordinary decision to make a frontal attack in a piecemeal fashion and without proper artillery support, though the false estimates produced by his scouts hardly helped. Ferdinand did not relish the task of reporting to Frederick, but for once the Prussian king did not nag him mercilessly, contenting himself this time with the suggestion that Ferdinand should at once increase his complement of heavy guns. Secretly Ferdinand blamed Frederick for his defeat, since the Prussian preoccupation with the eastern front meant that he had not been able to open his offensive at the beginning of March, as he wanted.

April–July 1759 was a very bad patch for Ferdinand, and now for the first time his Achilles heel became manifest. He cultivated a persona of professionalism and unflappability, but his mask of serene courtesy concealed anxiety and insecurity; some have speculated that he had a chip on his shoulder about Frederick, that Brunswick always felt itself to be in the shadow of Prussia and suffered the same feelings of inferiority that Poland has always had about Russia. Studies of the accident-prone invariably show depression lurking in the shadows, and it is surely significant that on 30 June, while riding with his aide-de-camp the Duke of Richmond, Ferdinand fell off his horse into a deep water-filled ditch and was almost drowned before being rescued.

Ferdinand’s principal anxiety was that when the French marched north in June on the summer campaign, they would have an army twice as strong as his. His difficult relationship with Frederick simply made his problems worse, for when he asked the King’s advice, Frederick soon lost patience with his ‘defeatism’: the King’s replies were initially cordial, shortly became peevish and thereafter downright insulting. The beginning of the summer campaign underlined Ferdinand’s worst fears. Advancing slowly but surely, the French took Münster and then Minden. The Marquis d’Armentière’s first attempt to capture Münster was beaten back with heavy losses, but he brought up reinforcements, forcing the defenders back into the citadel where, after a perfunctory defence, the garrison of 3,600 surrendered. Armentière then proceeded to Lippstadt to lend his weight to the siege being conducted there by the Duc de Chevreuses. Minden was another French triumph. Learning that the town was weakly garrisoned, Broglie sent his brother (the Comte de Broglie) with 1,500 infantry and 1,200 cavalry to seize it; the coup was successful but Minden was then looted in a way not seen since the Thirty Years War and it was with difficulty that the French commanders restored order.

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