NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Fontenoy

How many of these decisive battles involve England or France?

Name: The Battle of Fontenoy
The War: The War of the Austrian Succession
When:  11 May 1745
Where: Outside the town of Fontenoy, a few miles south-east of the city of Tournai, western Belgium.
Type: Land
Forces/Commanders: 52’000 troops and 101 guns of the “Pragmatic Allies” (Great Britain, Hanover, Austria and the Dutch Republic) under Prince William of Britain, the Duke of Cumberland against 50’000 troops and 110 guns of France under Maurice de Saxe.


“We must all conquer or die together.”
-Maurice de Saxe, to Louis XV during the battle.

“Gentlemen of the French Guards, fire!”
“Gentlemen, we never fire first, fire yourselves.”
-Officers of the British Coldstream Guards and the French Grenadiers, upon meeting in battle. Told by Voltaire, not necessarily true.

“Cuimhnigidh ar Luimnech agus feall na Sassonach!” (“Remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy!”)
-Battle cry of the Irish Brigade, fighting for France.

What Happened:

The War of the Austrian Succession was another in a long line of convoluted conflicts between the royal families of the European continent in the 17th and 18th century. This one had begun in 1740 when a woman, Marie Theresa, inherited the ruling seat of the Hapsburg lands, including Hungary, Austria and Parma. Despite her deceased Fathers attempts to secure her succession, numerous neighbouring nations, ruled by men, refused to recognise her right, putting forwards their own claims.

Of course, a woman being on the Hapsburg throne was just an excuse for what was little more than a grab for power and land from the Royal Houses of Europe. Within a few years, two loose coalitions, Britain, the Netherlands and Austria on one side, France, Bavaria, Spain and Prussia on the other, had sprung up, with the war spreading to clashes in North American, African and Asian colonies.

France’s main conflict was with Britain, the old enemy, and it was the Anglo-Allied armies on the continent that France had in mind when it launched an offensive in the Low Countries in 1744. The offensive, led by Louis XV himself, had gone well enough, with several key fortresses falling, but setbacks on other fronts, in Germany and Italy, had led to the force being reduced in number. Louis XV was dealing with the enemy on the Rhine from late 1744 on, leaving the command of the 60’000 French troops still in the Low Countries to one of his Marshals, Maurice de Saxe.

His opponents in the area, a numerically superior force comprised of British, Dutch and Hanoverian soldiers, was slow to move and racked with command problems, its leading figures arguing more about the cost of transporting supplies than engaging the enemy. Sensing weakness, De Saxe moved to continue the previous offensive as the year drew to a close. He aimed to get control of the central parts of the United Provinces and the Austrian Netherlands, but was delayed in the starting of his plan by poor weather, the marshalling of forces and illness.

The Allies were not entirely dormant, sending the nominal Commander-in-Chief of all Allied armies to take direct command of the forces in the Low Countries. This was Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, one of the younger sons of the British King, George II. Only 24, he took command of those forces in April, complemented by men like Count Konigsegg of Austria and Prince Waldek of the Netherlands.

De Saxe gathered his own force and moved out on the 21st of April, his forces moving towards Mons. The Allies decided upon a defensive strategy, choosing to wait and see what the French would do before reacting.

The movement towards Mons was a decoy, one that succeeded in tricking the Allies into believing that Saxe would besiege it. In fact, the majority of his force was moving towards the more strategically valuable town of Tournai. Saxe aimed to draw the Allied armies towards Mons, take Tournai in a quick siege, then face the enemy army on ground of his choosing, or failing that, in sieges.

The ploy worked, the Allied armies caught flat footed by the French movements. On the 30th April Saxe had his siege in place around Tournai, the Allies a week away. He quickly set watch over the surrounding area, getting the best reconnaissance possible on the enemy movements.

Atrocious weather hampered the Allied movements, and it was not until May 9th that Cumberland reached the general area, approaching from the south-east, his route taking him past the small hamlet of Fontenoy, five miles from Tournai. Saxe was well informed of the Allied movements, and had the area well scouted for a defensive position. Louis himself arrived to observe the battle around the same time.

Saxe left over 20’000 troops to besiege Tournai, and moved the rest into position around Fontenoy itself, south of the nearby River Scheldt. Some preliminary skirmishing took place on the 10th, as French pickets were driven from the close by villages of Verzon and Bourgeon. Both sides now held fixed lines, the French bulging out around Fontenoy itself. Battle was joined on the 11th.

France held the high ground, their right and centre anchored by villages and their left defended by a wood. Further, several redoubts had been built from earth and wood, manned by regiments and artillery throughout the line, making any attack on the French position a difficult prospect. One of the most crucial was that constructed between Fontenoy and the Barry Wood, dubbed “d’Eu”. Saxe also placed a substantial reserve to the rear, which included several battalions of the Irish Brigade, Irish and descendents of Irish, who had chosen to fight for Louis against England.

The Allied plan was simple enough.  The British focused on the right, the Hanoverians in the centre and the Dutch/Austrians on the left. While attacks on the flanks weakened the French position, the main thrust would come at the Eu redoubt, a combined British/Hanover assault, under General Ingolsby, designed to pull away troops from the flanks. Following the capture of this position, a strong force of Allied infantry held in reserve would storm the gap and annihilate the French Army.

Ingolsby’s attack faltered however, as he hesitated to complete the passage next to the wood. He discovered a force of French “Grassins”, light infantry and cavalry, embedded in the woods who defended them tenaciously.  Ingolsby’s continued hesitance eventually brought Cumberland himself down to have a face to face meeting with the General.

Things were also unravelling in other places. Ingolsby’s attack was meant to be a prelude to assaults elsewhere. Now those assaults were forced to wait as well, easy prey for the massed French cannon. Furthermore, the leader of the Allied cavalry, General Campbell, had been killed early in the battle by a lucky shot, leaving the British horse without a commander. They went on to serve only a minor role in the rest of the battle.

Cumberland decided to order a general advance on all sections of the line at the same time. The Dutch attacked Fontenoy and the neighbouring town of Antoing. Both attacks were easily repulsed by the dug-in French, secure in their redoubts. The Dutch and Austrians took heavy losses, and were scattered for a time, several of their regiments routing back to safety. Another assault was attempted a few hours later, backed up by British regiments, but this too, was hurled back.

Cumberland’s attacks had thus far failed. Faced with the choice of attacking again or withdrawing, he choose to attack. This time he would personally lead the assault, which would come to be regarded as one of the most famous of the period.

Cumberland led 15’000 men, 20 brigades in all, towards the plateaus between Fontenoy and the Eu redoubt. Marching in neat formation, in three lines, the Allied column came under blistering French fire, from the redoubt and quickly manoeuvred smaller cannon. Entire sections of the attacking force were swept away with firing a shot, but maintained their formation.

Cumberland, despite the murderous fire, took advantage of one of the few weaknesses of the French line. Saxe had failed to anticipate such an attacking movement from the Allies, and had built no redoubt in the space between Eu and Fontenoy. The Allies now moved through this gap, but were forced to bear French fire from both directions.

Reaching the plateau, the British finally faced a line of French infantry for the first time in the battle. After allegedly exchanging insults and some colourful taunts, they exchanged musket fire. The British, thanks to the use of their own small battalion cannon, inflicted heavy casualties and caused the French line to buckle. Saxe ordered a cavalry attack to break their advance, but this was repelled.

It was a moment of crisis for Saxe, his previously strong position suddenly close to snapping. There was little reserve in place to stem the flow of the British, most of it having been sent to the right to aid in the defence against the Dutch attacks earlier.

Watching nearby, King Louis was advised by some to retreat, the battle seemingly near an end. Saxe convinced him to stay, the General now moving to the front in person in order to restore order.

The Allies advance had slowed significantly, with the lines under constant fire from three sides. Now formed into a three-sided square, Cumberland’s men spent the next while beating back sustained attacks from French cavalry and infantry, including the Irish Brigade. The fighting was chaotic, as unit after unit attacked the Allies only to be driven back. Saxe could not budge the Allied formation from their position, but its casualties were mounting.

In fact, Cumberland was in a far more precarious position then it may have seemed. With the Dutch on his left leaving the battlefield and his cavalry unmoved to his rear, all that he had was already in play. Freed up on their right, French forces moved to the centre of the battlefield to join in on the assault, the hollow square of the Allies unable to make more than a few hundred yards of progress.

Saxe sent the cavalry back in on repeated charges to delay the Allies long enough to make his final stroke. Mustering every available infantry unit, he attacked en masse. The Irish Brigade took huge casualties, but captured a British colour from the Coldstream Guard along with many cannon, the unit screaming their battle cry as they did it (see above, in reference to the Treaty of Limerick). This attack included the last of the exhausted French cavalry. Fighting hand to hand, musket to musket, the battle become a bloody slogging match of smoke and steel. Some British regiments had taken 50% casualties.

It was too much. The Allied column withdrew, first in a panicked state, before Cumberland reasserted control. Keeping formation, the Allies performed a fighting retreat, maintaining fire on the pursuing French. The British cavalry only now joined in, providing increased protection for the battered infantry. As the Allies reached Verzon, Saxe ordered his exhausted army to break off the pursuit, aware that he could not force a rout with the pitiful amount of horses he had left, especially compared to the largely untested British cavalry. Cumberland marched of the field. Saxe had taken the day. 19’000 casualties had been sustained between the two sides, 12’000 of them Allied, the bloodiest battle since Malplaquet 36 years earlier, a battle Saxe had also been present at.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

It decided that theatre of it, at any rate. The Allied army was is dire straits, reduced to half the size of the French, who now went on a conquering spree in the Low Countries. Tournai, Ghent, Ostend, Mons and Brussels fell within a year. In this, they were substantially aided by the sudden rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland, “the 45” rebellion, which took significant motivation from the outcome of Fontenoy. Up to 1748, the Allies faced more and more setbacks, with large parts of Holland also falling to the French, with Cumberland suffering more defeats to Saxe.

The war ended in October 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle. France gave up almost all of the territory it had gained in return for the re-acquisition of Cape Breton Island in North America. The treaty was not very popular in France, many of its citizens seeing the terms as an outrageous concession after notable military victories.

Regardless, Saxe was a national hero, praised by Louis, though many military figures criticised his decision not to pursue the Allies further at the battles conclusion. He died five years after the battle, severe illness crippling him throughout the later part of his life, to the extent that he was not present at much of the early stages of the battle due to it.

Cumberland was praised for his bravery, but criticised for his lack of tactical knowledge, especially due to the underuse of the British cavalry. He went on to earn the nickname “Butcher” for his brutal suppression of the Jacobite rebellion, to fight in the last years of the Austrian Succession War and the Seven Years War, in which he was again defeated by a French army. Obese and suffering the ill-effects of a battle wound suffered years previously, he retired to private life in London, dying in 1760.

Ingolsby faced a court-martial for alleged cowardice, which he won. The Dutch took a large portion of the blame for the defeat in many eyes, coming nowhere near matching the performance of the British.

As for the apparent reason for the war in the first place, a woman succeeded to the Hapsburg throne, Marie-Theresa survived, having her right to rule recognised at the cost of some eastern territory.

Tactical/Technological Innovations

Fontenoy is one of the main battles of the period, demonstrating the technology and tactics of the period to a tee. Saxe successfully utilised natural advantages, such as the ridge and the woods, to gain better position over his opponent, and his forces positioned to the degree that the French were able to withstand Cumberland’s attack for a substantial period of time.

Saxe also successfully utilised his cavalry to the full, unlike Cumberland, recognising when they were useful and when they were not. Finally, in positioning his redoubts and cannon, Saxe left Cumberland with no option but to face a maelstrom in order to try to grab victory.

Despite the defeat, the brave actions of the British troops within the column were seen as evidence of their superiority to their French counterparts, who could only remove them from the field following hours of sustained attacks with everything that they had left.

Fontenoy is a precursor to the large scale encounter battles that would lay waste to much of Europe within half a century.

Macro-Historical Importance

Huge, though it might not seem so. Aside from insuring French dominance over the Low Countries for the next century, the battle had numerous knock-on effects. The Jacobite faction within Britain used it as a motivation for rebellion. The battle drained Allied resources from other theatres of combat, with other Allies forced to send troops to assist the efforts in the Low Countries.

Moving beyond that, the victory was crucial in stabilising the Bourbon regime in France. Victories are always popular, and the removal of the threat to the north made France, a nation beginning to creak, stronger. It is not too much to say that the victory at Fontenoy deferred the beginning of the French Revolution for a time, a sentiment that people like Napoleon agreed with.

Moving beyond Europe, the battle had another effect. Victory at Fontenoy allowed France the opportunity to demand back the fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in North America, a position captured by British colonists in a vicious 46 day siege earlier in the war. While the peace treaty was unpopular in France, it was more unpopular in the colonies, where the relinquishing of the position caused great unhappiness amongst those who had sacrificed much in order to capture it, in a war that was not strictly their affair. This unhappiness bubbled, growing as another war, the Seven Years War, required American resources. This dissatisfaction eventually grew to becoming one of the main causes for the American break with Britain and the resulting Revolution.

If things had been different, if say, the Dutch had launched another attack coordinated with Cumberland’s main advance, driving the French from the field, the results are incalculable. It is a very real possibility that the nearby Louis XV would have been captured. The French position in the Low Countries, while not done, would have been smashed.

The effects within France would have been devastating, perhaps even revolutionary. The war effort as a whole would have turned in favour of the Pragmatic Allies, perhaps ensuring a very different [peace settlement a few years later.

Moreover, what kind of effect the retention of Cape Breton Island would have had, is a fascinating question. Imagine if some of that anger against the crown within the American colonies never existed, or was never given an initial stoke?

In National Consciousness

Fontenoy lacks the remembrance of other battles in the large pantheon of Anglo-French conflicts.

The actual battlefield is today dissected by a motorway, and largely lost under urban developments. The only physical memorial is a Celtic Cross, raised in remembrance of the Irish soldiers who died, on both sides.

It is said that numerous relics of the battle were unearthed during the construction of said motorway, but their current location is a mystery.

Famous writer Voltaire wrote on the battle, being the source for some of the more fantastical stories coming out of the clash, such as the rejoinder mentioned above in the Quotes section. 

Fontenoy has been the subject of numerous pieces of literature and art, such as paintings by Vernet and Blarenberghe and Lenfent.

Fontenoy deserves its place here for its importance to the period and its effect on the wider world.

For more of NFB’s Decisive Battles check out the index here.

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2 Responses to NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Fontenoy

  1. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

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