The Battle of Fontenoy took place on 11 May 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, in the Belgian municipality of Antoing, near Tournai. A French army of 50,000 commanded by Marshal Saxe defeated a slightly larger Pragmatic Army [a] of 52,000, led by the Duke of Cumberland.
Despite setbacks elsewhere, at the end of 1744 the French held the initiative in the Austrian Netherlands, and their leaders considered this theatre offered the best opportunity for a decisive victory. In late April, they besieged Tournai, which controlled access to the upper Scheldt basin; this made it a vital link in the North European trading network and the Allies marched to its relief.
Leaving 22,000 men in front of Tournai, Saxe placed his main force 8-kilometre (5.0 mi) away in the villages of St Antoine, Vezin and Fontenoy, along a naturally strong feature which he strengthened with defensive works. After a series of unsuccessful flank assaults, the Allies attacked the French centre with a column of 15,000 men, which nearly succeeded in breaking through before being repulsed.
Although the Allies retreated in good order, Tournai fell shortly afterwards, followed by Ghent, Oudenaarde, Bruges and Dendermonde. The withdrawal of British forces in October to deal with the Jacobite Rising facilitated the capture of Ostend and Nieuwpoort; by the end of 1745, France controlled much of the Austrian Netherlands, threatening British links with Europe.
However, by early 1746, France was struggling to finance the war and began peace talks at the Congress of Breda in May. Despite victories at Rocoux in October 1746 and Lauffeld in July 1747, the war continued until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.
The immediate cause of the War of the Austrian Succession was the death in 1740 of Emperor Charles VI, last male Habsburg in the direct line. This left his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, as heir to the Habsburg Monarchy, [b] whose laws excluded women from the succession. The 1713 Pragmatic Sanction waived this and allowed her to inherit, but this was challenged by Charles of Bavaria, the closest male heir.
The dispute became a European issue because the Monarchy formed the most powerful single element in the Holy Roman Empire. A federation of mostly German states, it was headed by the Holy Roman Emperor, in theory an elected position but held by the Habsburgs since 1440. In January 1742, Charles of Bavaria became the first non-Habsburg Emperor in 300 years, with the support of France, Prussia and Saxony. Maria Theresa was backed by the so-called Pragmatic Allies, which in addition to Austria included Britain, Hanover and the Dutch Republic.
After four years of war, the main winner was Prussia, which captured the Austrian province of Silesia during the 1740 to 1742 First Silesian War. The richest province in the Empire, Silesian taxes provided 10% of total Imperial income and contained large mining, weaving and dyeing industries. Regaining it was a priority for Maria Theresa and led to the 1744-1745 Second Silesian War.
Shortly after Charles died in January 1745, the Austrians over-ran Bavaria and on 15 April, defeated a combined Franco-Bavarian force at Pfaffenhofen. Charles' son, Maximilian III Joseph, now sued for peace and supported the election of Maria Theresa's husband, Francis Stephen, as the new Emperor. With Bavaria out of the war, Austria could focus on Silesia.
In the first half of 1744, France made significant advances in the Austrian Netherlands, before being forced to divert resources to meet threats elsewhere. Maurice de Saxe persuaded Louis XV this was the best place to inflict a decisive defeat on Britain, whose military and financial resources were central to the Allied war effort. His plan for 1745 was to bring the Pragmatic Army to battle on a ground of his choosing, before they could establish numerical superiority.
The Austrian Netherlands, often referred to as Flanders, was a compact area 160 kilometres wide, the highest point only 100 metres above sea level, dominated by rivers running east to west. Until the advent of railways in the 19th century, commercial goods were largely transported by water and wars in this theatre were fought for control of major waterways, including the Lys, Sambre and Meuse. The most important was the River Scheldt (see Map), which began in Northern France and ran for 350-kilometre (220 mi) before entering the North Sea at Antwerp. Saxe planned to attack Tournai, a town close to the French border that controlled access to the upper Scheldt basin; this made it a vital link in the trading network for Northern Europe and the Allies would be compelled to fight for it.
In March 1745, George Wade was replaced as Allied commander in Flanders by the 24-year-old Duke of Cumberland, advised by the experienced Earl Ligonier. In addition to British and Hanoverian troops, the Pragmatic Army included a large Dutch contingent, commanded by Prince Waldeck, with a small number of Austrians, led by Count Königsegg.[c] Cumberland's inexperience was magnified by his tendency to ignore advice and internal divisions; Flanders was not a military priority for Austria, Waldeck was unpopular with his subordinates, who often disputed his orders, while the British resented and mistrusted the Hanoverians.
On 21 April, a French cavalry detachment under d'Estrées feinted towards Mons and Cumberland prepared to march to its relief. Although it soon became clear this was a diversion, French intentions remained unclear until the siege of Tournai began on 28 April. This uncertainty, combined with intelligence estimates that Saxe had only 30,000 men, meant the Allies failed to reinforce their field army with garrison troops; the 8,000 men at Namur and Charleroi could have changed the result of the battle.
After confirming the Allies were approaching from the south-east, Saxe left 22,000 men to continue the siege and placed his main force around the villages of Fontenoy and St Antoine, 8-kilometre (5.0 mi) from Tournai. As the French infantry were considered inferior in training and discipline to their opponents, where possible Saxe placed them behind defensive works or redoubts and fortified the villages.
His main defensive line ran along the crest of a plateau, the right resting on the Scheldt, Fontenoy in the centre and the Bois de Barry on his left, supported by the Redoubt d'Eu and Redoubt de Chambonas. The ground in front of Fontenoy sloped down to the small hamlets of Vezin and Bourgeon (see Battle map). Known as the Chemin de Mons, this meant a direct attack on the French centre would be exposed to prolonged fire from in front and enfilade fire from the flanks.
The Allies made contact with French outposts on the evening of 9 May but a hasty reconnaissance by Cumberland and his staff failed to identify the Redoubt d'Eu. Next day, British and Hanoverian cavalry under James Campbell pushed the French out of Vezin and Bourgeon. Campbell's deputy, the Earl of Crawford, recommended infantry clear the Bois de Barry, while the cavalry swung around the wood to outflank the French left. Dutch hussars were sent to reconnoitre the route but withdrew when fired on by French troops in the wood, and the plan abandoned. The attack was postponed until the following day, both armies camping overnight on their positions.
At 4:00 am on 11 May, the Allies formed up, British and Hanoverians on the right and centre, Dutch on the left and Austrians in reserve. The Dutch were tasked with taking Fontenoy and St Antoine, while an independent brigade under Richard Ingoldsby captured the Redoubt de Chambonas and cleared the Bois de Barry. Once both flanks were engaged, massed Allied infantry in the centre under Ligonier would advance up the slope and dislodge the main French army.
Because Cumberland estimated French numbers as no more than 30,000, he assumed their main force was in the centre and failed to appreciate the strength of the flanking positions. As he moved forward, Ingoldsby ran into the Redoubt d'Eu; only now did the real strength of the French left become apparent and he requested artillery support. The advance halted until the redoubt was taken, while his men skirmished with light troops in the woods, known as Harquebusiers de Grassins. These numbered no more than 900 but uncertain of their strength, Ingoldsby hesitated; given the earlier failure to detect the redoubt, his caution was understandable but delayed the main attack.
The Allied cavalry had been positioned in front of Vezin to screen Ligonier's infantry column as they formed up, exposing them to fire from cannon in the Redoubt d'Eu. One shot fatally wounded Campbell around 6:30 am; Crawford assumed command and the cavalry withdrew behind Vezin, where they spent most of the battle. At 7:00 am, Cumberland became impatient at the lack of progress and ordered Ingoldsby to advance with the main column, rather than storming the redoubt but failed to inform Ligonier. The Dutch attack on Fontenoy and St Antoine was repulsed with heavy losses and at 9:00 am, Ligonier sent an aide instructing Ingoldsby to attack the Redoubt d'Eu immediately. When Ingoldsby shared his new orders from Cumberland, Ligonier was apparently horrified.
At 10:30, the Dutch attacked Fontenoy a second time, supported by the 42nd Foot; after some initial success, they were thrown back and at 12:30 pm, Cumberland ordered the central column to move forward. This is generally agreed to have contained some 15,000 men, deployed in two lines.[d] Led by Cumberland and Ligonier, the infantry advanced up the slope, pausing at intervals to redress their lines and despite heavy casualties, retained formation as they reached the crest. It was at this point Lord Charles Hay of the Grenadier Guards apparently invited the Gardes Françaises to 'stand and not swim the Scheldt as they did the Main at Dettingen'.
This goaded the Gardes Françaises into leaving their defensive positions and firing prematurely, greatly reducing the impact of their first volley, while that of the British killed or wounded 700 to 800 men. The French front line broke up in confusion; many of their reserves had been transferred to support Fontenoy earlier in the day and the Allied column now advanced into this gap. From their position near Notre Dame de Bois, Louis XV, his son the Dauphin, Noailles and Richelieu saw their forces fall back in disorder. Noailles implored Louis to seek safety but Saxe assured him the battle was not lost and his deputy Löwendal ordered a series of cavalry attacks, which succeeded in forcing the Allies back.
With Cumberland isolated from the battle, no attempt was made to relieve pressure on Allied centre by ordering attacks on Fontenoy or the Redoubt d'Eu. Under fire from both flanks and in front, the column now formed a hollow, three sided square, reducing their firepower advantage. Although poorly co-ordinated, the French cavalry charges allowed their infantry to reform and at 14:00, Saxe brought up his remaining artillery to fire into the Allied infantry at close range. This was followed by a general assault, led by the Irish Brigade, who lost 656 men wounded or killed, including one-quarter of their officers.[e]
Led by Saxe and Löwendahl, the Gardes Françaises attacked once more, while D'Estrées and Richelieu brought up the elite Maison du roi cavalry. The Allies were driven back with heavy losses; the 23rd Foot took 322 casualties, the three Guards regiments over 700. Despite this, discipline and training allowed them to make a fighting withdrawal, the rearguard turning at intervals to fire on their pursuers. Once they reached Vezin, the cavalry provided cover as they moved into columns of march, before retreating to Ath with little interference from the French.
Although numbers are debated, Fontenoy incurred the highest battlefield casualties in western Europe since the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709. French losses were between 7,000 to 8,000 killed and wounded, the Allies 10,000 to 12,000, including those captured after the battle. Saxe was criticised for not following up. He later explained his troops were exhausted and incapable of doing so, while the Allied cavalry remained largely intact and fresh, their infantry unbroken and many of the 22,000 Dutch had not been involved. He was also in great pain, suffering from edema or 'dropsy' and had to be carried around the battlefield in a wicker chair and had to be helped onto his horse to meet Louis after the battle. These critics did not include Louis or Frederick the Great, who viewed Fontenoy as a tactical masterpiece and invited him to Sanssouci to discuss it.
The tenacity and discipline of the Allied infantry meant they avoided defeat but Fontenoy dispelled the notion of British military superiority held in Europe since Marlborough. In contrast to Saxe, Cumberland performed poorly; he ignored advice from his more experienced subordinates, failed to follow through on clearing the Bois de Barry and gave Ingoldsby conflicting orders. Although his courage was admired, the inactivity of the Allied cavalry was partly due to his participation in the infantry attack and loss of strategic oversight. Ligonier and other observers viewed Fontenoy as a 'defeat snatched from the jaws of victory'; understandable for a 24 year old in his first major engagement, these faults were also apparent at the Battle of Lauffeld in 1747.
In the recriminations that followed, the Dutch received much of the blame in English accounts for not relieving pressure on the centre by attacking Fontenoy. Ingolsby was court-martialled for failing to attack the Redoubt d'Eu, although his claim to have received inconsistent orders was supported by the evidence. He was wounded, while two regiments of his brigade, the 12th Foot and Böselager's Hanoverian Foot, suffered the largest casualties of the units involved. The court concluded his failure arose 'from an error of judgement, and not from want of courage' but he was forced out of the army.
With no hope of relief, Tournai surrendered on 20 June; by early September, the French controlled most of the Austrian Netherlands, including the vital ports of Ostend and Nieuport. Saxe continued his advance in 1746 after the British diverted resources to deal with the Jacobite rising of 1745. By the end of 1747, France controlled most of the Austrian Netherlands and threatened the Dutch Republic but their strategic position had declined due to the economic impact of the British naval blockade. They withdrew from the Netherlands under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748); returning the territorial gains that cost so much, in exchange for so little, popularised a French phrase "as stupid as the Peace".