The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.
Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.
Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.
Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.
The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.
Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.
The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.
Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.
Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.
General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.
The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:
We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.