Minden 1759 II

(German) Map of the Battle of Minden 1759. The work is based on a seperate map in Großer Generalstab / Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung (Hrsg.): Der Siebenjährige Krieg 1756–1763, Bd.11: Minden und Maxen, Verlag Ernst Siegfried Mittler & Sohn, Berlin 1912 (= Die Kriege Friedrichs des Großen, Theil 3).

Relentlessly the British battalions pressed forward onto the French cavalry, 7,000 strong, who could do nothing to stop them as they were equipped with sabres and pistols, and not muskets. Seeing that they were in danger of becoming sitting targets, the cavalry commander gave the order to charge. Commanding the cavalry was the Due de Fitzjames, yet another forty-seven-year-old at Minden that day. Grandson of James II of England and son of the Duke of Berwick, the Jacobite warrior who was killed at Philipsburg in 1734 (the young Fitzjames was at his side when he died), the Duc de Fitzjames was a veteran of a dozen battlefields, first in the War of Austrian Succession and more recently at Hastenbeck, Krefeld and Lutterberg. Now he ordered the Marquis de Castries to lead the first cavalry wave of eleven squadrons in a daring attempt to demoralise and rout the enemy. Spörcken’s infantry had just one round apiece, after which it would be a combat of bayonets against sabres. Every round had to tell.

A series of crashing volleys from the superbly disciplined British regiments tore the heart out of the French cavalry; those who survived the deadly fire and got through to the enemy were finished off with the bayonet. As the French retreated, their tormentors reloaded and stood ready for the next charge. Fitzjames then ordered his second line – twenty-two squadrons – to charge. Now, if ever, the British proved their calibre for their casualties were mounting and yet there was no sign that they were losing their heads or becoming downhearted. Lieutenant Montgomery summed up the situation nonchalantly: ‘These visitants [i.e. the first French cavalry wave] being thus dismissed, without giving us a moment’s time to recover the unavoidable disaster, down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the person of the Gens d’Armes.’ Once again murderous volleys tore holes in the careering horsemen; once again a few French horsemen got through only to be skewered at point-blank range; once again the German infantry reloaded and stood ready. This time they did not wait for a third charge but surged forward. In so doing they exposed their right flank, and the Comte de Guerchy on Fitzjames’s left saw his opportunity.

Forced to turn their second line half-right to meet this new challenge, the hard-pressed Spörcken’s infantry now had just three battalions to pit against a new enemy nearly three times as strong. It would have gone hard with them, had not Ferdinand spotted the new development and ordered to their support five battalions of Scheele’s men (situated on Spörcken’s right) and a brigade of heavy artillery. Ferdinand had only just plugged this hole when the French launched another cavalry attack, this time under General de Poyanne and 2,000 horsemen. This was not a frontal attack like Fitzjames’s but an enveloping movement on Spörcken’s left flank and rear. This was the crux of the battle, for Poyanne’s attack was the most dangerous French movement so far. Lieutenant Montgomery continued his recital: ‘The next who made their appearance were some regiments of the Grenadiers of France, as fine and terrible looking fellows as ever I saw. They stood us a tug, notwithstanding we beat them off to a distance, where they galded [goaded] us much, they having rifled barrels, and our muskets would not reach them. To remedy this we advanced, they took the hint and ran away.’ But how much longer could the British regiments really withstand this dual envelopment, by infantry to the right and cavalry to the left and rear?

This was the supreme moment of glory for the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who have had Minden among their most prized battle honours from that day on. Ably supported by the Hanoverian Guards, they fought like lions, taking the brunt of a frenzied attack from front, flank and rear. The hindmost ranks turned and faced about, knowing there was no reserve behind them. For a brief moment they wavered and looked likely to break. Vicious fighting ensued with the French tearing large holes in the defence and the British holding firm and closing the gaps. Again and again Guerchy’s infantry tried to make the breakthrough but were driven off by close, precise fire, with the Anglo-Hanoverian artillery joining in during the final stages of the titanic struggle. Finally Ferdinand was able to get reinforcements to the vital arena. Wutginau’s column (from the centre and thus immediately to the left of Scheele’s) came up, and its right wing, composed of Hanoverians and Hessians, caught the French in the flank. More slaughterous close-quarter and often hand-to-hand fighting resulted. Poyanne’s cavalry were the first to snap. Soon the flower of French horsemen, the Gendarmerie and Carabineers, were streaming away in defeat, having lost half their numbers. By this time General Imhoff ‘s column on the Anglo-German left centre had come into line. They were late onto the field partly because they had marched all night and partly because Spörcken’s column crowded them out by advancing so quickly and impetuously. Their arrival completed the disarray of the French who had been trying to rally. The remaining French cavalry were especially devastated. As Fitzjames desperately tried to get them to regroup and mass, the big guns further decimated them. Finally Fitzjames ordered his remaining horsemen to charge, but their attempt was flung back with ease by an allied army already confident of victory.

It was now about 9 a.m. and Anhalt sensed a great opportunity not just to defeat but to annihilate the French army. Ferdinand sent orders to Lord George Sackville to enter the fray and tip the balance decisively with his fresh troops. Sackville had found the waiting period exasperating and began to fume at the delay and inaction. But now began one of the most disgraceful incidents in the Seven Years War. Two separate aides arrived from Frederick but with what Sackville claimed were contradictory orders, making no sense and in no way conforming with the battle plans discussed the day before; further confusion arose from the fact that the two messages were delivered independently and no one could agree which of the aides had arrived first. In the end Sackville rode to Ferdinand to find out exactly what his orders were. Ferdinand, already nursing a giant grievance against the British commander for the threat to leave him in the lurch, listened to Sackville’s explanation of confusion with icy politeness and then replied: ‘My lord, the situation has changed, my dispositions of yesterday can no longer have any effect; and in any case it is enough that I want it so and I beg you to do it immediately.’ Sackville bowed and withdrew but then took an unconscionable time about drawing up his cavalry on the heath and getting them into position. What was the reason for this slowness? Was Sackville confused by the earlier contretemps and still slightly dazed at Ferdinand’s words? Was he simply incompetent at cavalry tactics? Or was he, as his critics suggest and as seems most likely from his psychological profile, deliberately dragging his feet and ‘working to rule’ in rage at Ferdinand’s publicly delivered rebuke?

The battle continued without Sackville’s intervention. The French centre was by now decisively broken, but Contades riposted by throwing his sole hitherto uncommitted troops into the struggle. Eight battalions of Beauprieu’s in the right centre, to the left of Broglie and Nikolai, were just preparing to launch a shock attack when they were overwhelmed by a combined onset of nineteen Prussian and Hanoverian cavalry squadrons, backed up by four bayonet-wielding Hessian infantry battalions. Contades’s last forces were thrown back onto the pitiful remnants of the French cavalry. The only part of the French line still holding firm was the axis formed by Beaupréau’s second line and the ten squadrons of cavalry from Broglie’s left flank. But at this precise moment Wangenheim, hitherto on the defensive, unleashed his cavalry, all sixteen squadrons, who smashed through Nikolai’s two brigades and collided with Broglie’s cavalry. The thrusting, slashing combat of horseman against horseman was almost Contades’s last throw. On the left the Comte de Lusace and his Saxons meanwhile made a last effort against Spörcken’s infantry and performed valiantly. The Saxons actually forced the British heroes of the earlier struggle to give way, only to be beaten off when they came under artillery fire north of Hahlen. Seeing the day lost, Contades reluctantly ordered a general retreat. He was in danger of rout and annihilation, and all that was needed was the charge of the twenty-four cavalry squadrons that Sackville continued to manoeuvre around Hartum. They never appeared on the field. While Sackville was away receiving his reprimand from Ferdinand, his deputy Lord Granby actually ordered the cavalry forward on his own responsibility and they were just setting off at a trot when the peevish Sackville, smarting from the ‘insult’ offered by Ferdinand, returned from the interview and countermanded the order.

Ferdinand’s other chances for destroying Contades also came to nothing. Wangenheim’s infantry were slow to leave their entrenchments and in the end did so only after direct orders from Ferdinand, so whatever pursuit there was of the French right came from the heavily encumbered artillerymen. Broglie successfully covered the retreat of the French right, and by 11 a.m. the French were back across the Bastau, with Broglie occupying a position protected by Minden fortress. Even so he was hard pressed and soon found himself retreating right back through Minden itself. Brissac, covering the retreat of the French left, was theoretically in danger from the Erbprinz’s mobile columns, for Ferdinand had intended that he should envelop Brissac and close the road behind him, thus trapping the French left between Minden and the Porta Westfalica. But the Erbprinz, instead of pressing on to the bank of the Weser, allowed his worries about the forces under Armentières and Chevreuse to prey on his mind; in short, he feared that while he sought to trap Brissac, he might be ambushed himself and the two French commanders not at Minden might suddenly appear on his flank with superior numbers. At any rate the French made good their escape and by noon all firing had ceased; Contades got his army across the Weser and did not stop retreating until he reached Kassel.

The allies pitched their camp between Hahlen and Friedewalde and started sifting through the battlefield wreckage. Ferdinand had every reason to be proud. He had successfully enticed Contades to come out and fight, the French had been driven from Westphalia and Hanover was no longer threatened. The victory at Minden was crucial. Since Frederick of Prussia was defeated by the Russians at Kunersdorf on 12 August, if Ferdinand had lost at Minden and been forced to retreat east to Prussia, Frederick would have been in a desperate situation. Indeed, he came close to losing his nerve altogether after his defeat. A brilliant beginning to the battle, when he broke the Russian left wing and captured 180 cannon, petered out after furious fighting, when he was first thrown back and later routed. He had two horses killed under him and for two days could barely speak with rage and disappointment. To his favourite Frenchman, d’Argens, he wrote: ‘Death is sweet in comparison to such a life as mine. Have pity on me and it; believe that I still keep to myself a great many evil things, not wishing to burden or disgust anybody with them, and that I would not advise you to escape these unlucky countries if I had any ray of hope. Adieu, mon cher.’

Frederick was in the doldrums, but Ferdinand’s reputation, in danger of dipping after his first twelve months on a roll, was now once again sky-high. He had proved himself a good general who could think quickly and turn subordinates’ mistakes to his advantage. He had handled his artillery superbly, especially on the right as, but for the big guns, Spörcken’s corps would have been badly mauled and perhaps ‘eaten up’. Bergen had taught Ferdinand the importance of artillery and he had learned the lesson well. A delighted George II awarded him £20,000 and the Order of the Garter when he received news of Minden.

But for Contades the battle was a disaster and his reputation was in tatters. Belle-Isle wrote to his friend the Marquis de Castries, who at thirty-two had now added Minden to a long list of battle honours (Dettingen, Fontenoy, Roucoux, Lawfeldt, Rossbach, Lutterberg; he probably saw more front-line service than any other senior French commander in the eighteenth century): ‘I can’t understand why sixty squadrons at the height of their powers could not break nine or ten battalions of infantry, especially as the same British infantry also put to flight four of our infantry brigades who on their own were numerically superior to them.’

So alarmed and despondent was Belle-Isle that he sent the veteran sixty-four-year-old Marshal d’Estrées, now also a member of Louis XV’s elite Council of State, to Germany, officially as Contades’s ‘adviser’ but really to oversee operations and report directly to the War Minister, since Belle-Isle had lost confidence. As all the senior French commanders were madly jealous of each other, it was not surprising that d’Estrées immediately found much to criticise. He wrote to Versailles as follows:

I can’t recover from my surprise when I reflect that, in less than two months, a strong French army of 100,000 men has been reduced to about half that number. Here are the finest regiments in the French Army and one can hardly recognise them. To help poor Contades, against whom the duc de Broglie, the comte de Saint-Germain and Saint-Pern make such loud and derisive cries, I have made the least wounding report possible to the Court; but despite that, the mere reading of a factual recital of this battle is enough to ensure his immediate recall, unless he receives the protection of the woman of whom we have spoken so many times [i.e. Madame de Pompadour].

D’Estrées did not like what he saw in Germany and cannily resisted pressure from Versailles (and the despondent Contades himself) to take over command. But if Contades clearly had to be replaced to restore morale and credibility, who could replace him? Broglie was the obvious choice but he was not popular at court and was junior in rank to many would-be marshals who considered themselves just as good he was. But in the end Austrian pressure was decisive, and Broglie was confirmed as French Commander-in-Chief in Germany in November.

In many accounts of the Seven Years War in Germany, Minden receives scant mention compared with Rossbach and Krefeld, and especially the terrible maulings Frederick took from the Russians on the eastern front. But it is worth emphasising that it was a colossal military achievement. With 41,000 troops ranged against Contades’s 51,000, Ferdinand’s army inflicted 11,000–12,000 casualties; among the French infantry alone, six generals and 438 officers were killed. Ferdinand’s total losses amounted to 2,762, of whom 1,392 were from the heroic six British regiments, which lost an incredible 30 per cent of their fighting strength. These six regiments had seen off altogether thirty-six squadrons of cavalry and forty battalions of infantry; truly, as was said at the time, ‘at Minden the impossible was achieved’.

Although Minden relieved the pressure on Frederick, it was not the decisive battle it might have been had the war in west Germany been a self-contained affair. Ferdinand quickly cleared Hesse of the French and wanted to take Frankfurt and then push the French back to the Rhine. But he wasted time on triumphalism, with Te Deums being sung and fireworks (feux de joie) being let off. And after Kunersdorf Frederick’s pleas for help became so insistent that Ferdinand had to abandon his more ambitious plans. Frederick pressed him to move on Leipzig instead of Frankfurt, but Ferdinand was unwilliing to move to the eastern front until he had cleared the French out of Münster; otherwise they would retain it as a base for future threats on Hanover. Since Münster did not surrender until 22 November, it was only then that Ferdinand felt able to transfer troops to Frederick. Once again the western front restored Frederick’s fortunes. His defeats at Maxen (20 November) and Meissen (3–4 December), which made 1759 as black a year for Prussia as it was for France and Louis XV, restored the balance of continental fortunes to the Austrian coalition, even after Ferdinand (and his replacement Wangenheim, during the Prince of Brunswick’s frequent absences to confer with Frederick) had checkmated the initial moves of the new French commander, Broglie.

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