The Battle of Fontenoy

Introduction

In June I travelled to Belgium to walk the old battlefield of Fontenoy, which is situated about five miles south west of the city of Tournai in the province of Hainault. My main aim in writing this article, and hopefully others on eighteenth century battlefields in Europe, is to follow the ideas in Chris Scott’s editorial (Battlefield, Volume 6 Issue 4) and try to relate how the ‘field’ influenced the ‘battle’. I may have just managed to cover the most salient points of the Fontenoy battlefield before they disappear forever under a maze of motorway links and conurbation areas, and I hope that this article will instil a sense of urgency on fellow Battlefield Trust members to walk this site before it is too late.

A brief outline of the events leading up to the battle and the positions of the various formations of the opposing armies will set the scene for a discussion of the topography of the ground as it was on that fateful morning of the 11th May 1745, and the subsequent changes that have occurred to the battlefield over the last two hundred and fifty years.

 Background

The War of Austrian Succession came about as a result of the death of the Emperor Charles VI of Austria on 20th October 1740. By the famous Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 Charles changed the order of succession so that his daughter, Maria Theresa would take precedent over other claimants to the Hapsburg throne. The unstable position of Austria gave the Prussian King, Frederick the Great a chance to overrun the province of Silesia, and thereafter in May 1741, despite strong opposition from the Prime Minister of the day, Walpole, King George II of England, who had much sympathy for the plight of Austria, travelled to Hanover where he formed an army, to become known as the Pragmatic Army, of British, Dutch, Hanoverian, Danes, Hessians and Austrians which forced Frederick to redeploy some of his forces against any threats from Hanover and Saxony.

The years 1741-1742 were uneventful for the British forces under King George. However on the 27th June 1743 the battle of Dettingen was fought in which the king took command in person, and it was the last time that an English monarch led an army in battle. The battle itself was of no great strategic importance, but it did once again prove the steadfastness of the British infantry.

Things became quieter again on the British front during 1744, and George II returned to England leaving the British contingent under the command of his third son, the Duke of Cumberland. A professional soldier, Cumberland was made Commander-in-Chief of all the Allied forces in 1745.

By the spring of 1745 the French army under Marshal Maurice de Saxe had hoodwinked the Allies by a well-directed feint towards the town of Mons. While this was in progress and diverting the attention of Cumberland the French suddenly appeared before the fortress of Tournai and surrounded the garrison. Not wishing to leave the door to western Flanders in French hands Cumberland ordered his army to march to its relief.

The delay entailed in collecting the Allied forces, together with the uncertainty of the threat towards Mons had given Marshal de Saxe time to prepare a favourable position on which to receive the Pragmatic Army, and given the fact that he already had all his engineers from the siege of Tournai on site to oversee the construction of his battlefield fortifications, it is small wonder that he himself thought his position almost impregnable.

The French right wing was anchored firmly on the river Scheldt at the fortified village of Antoing. Here the houses had been turned into miniature fortresses, the streets were barricaded and slit trenches were dug around the outskirts of the village to enable an even greater volume of fire to be delivered by the defenders. On the east bank of the Scheldt a strong battery of artillery was installed so as to enfilade any advance on Antoing from the south. From Antoing the French line extended to the west for just over a mile until it reached another fortified village, Fontenoy. Along this line de Saxe had constructed three redoubts each about 400 meters apart. These were not just constructed as a kind of breakwater upon which the enemy columns would have to loose formation in order to attack and then reform after passing between them, but also to facilitate counterattacks, allowing the French cavalry to flow through in pursuit of a beaten foe.

The village of Fontenoy, like Antoing was turned into a strongpoint with cannon placed to cover every approach. From here the French line turned at right angles to the north for approximately 1000 meters following the course of a sunken road across a plateau leading to the Bois de Bary (Wood of Barry). Behind the sunken road de Saxe placed two lines of infantry, supported by two lines of cavalry of around 60 squadrons.

On the French left, in and around the Bois de Bary, de Saxe lavished still more of his considerable talents in field fortification. The wood was lined with infantry and many of the trees had been felled to form abattis. Two strong redoubts were constructed at the eastern side of the wood to dispute any turning movement, the most famous of these being known as the Redoubt D’Eu which had been built at the south-eastern tip of the Bois de Bary so as to enfilade any advance made by the Allies against the French centre. In support of this position was a reserve of picked infantry and cavalry regiments, including the Irish Brigade, the “Wild Geese”. In all the French army numbered 93 battalions, 146 squadrons and 80 cannon, some 70,000 troops, of which 27 battalions and 17 squadrons were left to cover Tournai.

The Battle – 11th May 1745

Cumberland reconnoitred the French position on 10th May and decided to pin down the French right wing by attacking with the Austrian and Dutch contingents between Antoing and Fontenoy. While these attacks were being made the British and Hanoverians would advance between Fontenoy and the Bois de Bary across what appeared to be open ground. The Pragmatic Army was comprised of 56 battalions of infantry and 87 squadrons of cavalry supported by 80 cannon, in all around 53,000 men. Cumberland’s plans proved impractical as they were based on very incomplete and hastily gathered information. He was not fully aware of the strength of the garrisons of Fontenoy and Antoing, and even less appreciative of the redoubts on the French left.

At 6am on the mourning of May 11th the Pragmatic Army began to deploy from the west through the villages of Vezon and Burgeon, under a heavy fire, and it was only now that Cumberland became aware of just how strong the French position really was. The attacks against Antoing and Fontenoy were beaten back by a terrible fire of cannon and musketry. On the Allied right confusion and muddled orders and counter orders caused an attack by British and Hanoverian troops on the Redoubt D’Eu to be badly handled by General Ingoldsby. His troops came under massive canister and musket fire at close range forcing them to retire with heavy losses.

While the Allied attacks on the French left and right were being driven back the British cavalry had deployed across the plain in front of Vezon. Here it was exposed to a withering fire from the French artillery but remained motionless while Cumberland and General Ligonier commanding the main body of the British infantry formed his regiments for an attack through a shallow valley and up the gentle slope of the plateau, across which ran the sunken road lined by 5000 French infantry.

At about 10.30am the British infantry, followed by the Hanoverians moved through the intervals of the cavalry lines, dressed ranks and began to advance to the steady beat of the drum. With their standards slapping in the breeze they began to climb the plateau. At every step men were killed or wounded, but the lines continued to advance. The fire from Fontenoy and the Redoubt D’Eu caused the column to compress in on itself until it became a compact mass 15,000 strong. When they were within 50 meters of the French front line the British infantry raised their muskets and fired as one man, shattering the well-ordered ranks of the French. Without pausing the British pressed on across the sunken road and into the heart of the French position. Here they were assailed by squadron after squadron of the finest cavalry of France, including the Maison du Roi, while the Irish regiment of Dillon attempted to come in on the British right flank, only to be beaten back by the steady roll of controlled musket fire.

Away on the left the Dutch had once again been forced back with heavy losses while attacking Antoing and Fontenoy, and this in turn enabled the French commander to divert still more fire upon the “Infernal Column”. Nevertheless the British and Hanoverians held their ground for almost four hours finally falling back when five more Irish regiments and 7 battalions of Swiss and French Guards assailed them. The retreat was carried out in good order with the British turning about to deliver punishing volleys into the ranks of their pursuers.

Cumberland has taken much of the blame, and rightly so, for the way in which he handled the battle; however the attack against the French centre could have been decisive. As Frederick the Great later remarked, ’ A quarter- wheel to the left or the right would have brought victory’. Even Marshal de Saxe himself declared that, ’ I did not think any general would be bold enough to venture such an attack’. As it was the Pragmatic Army lost almost 10,000 men, while the French suffered between 6,000-7,000 casualties.

The Battlefield Today

Anyone whishing to explore the battlefield of Fontenoy today would be well advised to take a car. I walked almost the whole length and breadth of the battlefield and covered a leg shattering 22 miles, from 9am in the morning until 5.30pm in the afternoon with only two breaks for refreshment. The problem is that the whole site is now bisected by a motorway (A16), and much of the area around Antoing and Fontenoy has been given over to new housing estates and factory units. Likewise much of the ground over which the British and Hanoverians advanced has been built upon, and their deployment area east of Verzon cut-up by feeder roads to the motorway. However there are still a few good spots to visit that give a reasonable impression of what the ground was like at the time of the battle.

When arriving at the battlefield on the N7 road from Tournai the visitor’s first destination should be the village of Ramecroix. From here you can walk or drive to the church at Les Wiots, about one mile distant. Around this area the Irish Brigade were stationed and the French King, Louise XV had his vantage point to view the battle. Past the church at Les Wiots the road leads to a dead-end after about another mile near the connecting links to the A16 motorway and the N52 national route. It was here, or possibly on land now covered by the motorway in the immediate vicinity that the Redoubt D’Eu was situated, and this point marks the south-eastern tip of the Bois de Bary (now sadly no longer here). Photograph 1 shows the view looking back towards Ramecroix and the flat nature of the land upon which de Saxe drew up part of his cavalry.

Retracing your steps go back to Les Wiots and take the feeder road onto the N52. This will take the visitor towards Antoing and the exit road to Fontenoy. When arriving at Fontenoy village turn left at the main crossroad for about 200 metres until the Celtic Monument is reached on the left hand side of the road. Possibly the only marker to the battle, this stone Celtic cross was erected as a memorial to all the Irish on both sides who were killed in the battle. Ironically the Irish and Belgium Post Offices issued a single common design stamp to commemorate the battle on its 250th anniversary in 1995 depicting the cross-flanked by two soldiers of the Irish Brigade. I cannot recall any similar commemorative actions being taken by the British Post Office or the British Army, which is very sad considering the loss of so many of our own soldiers in this great battle. Photograph 2 shows the Celtic cross and the building to the rear, which dates back to the time of the battle.

Returning to the crossroad in Fontenoy take the road to Vezon on the left. Just before the bridge under the motorway take the small road on the left and climb the slight rise of ground leading to a motorway works exit. The visitor is now at the spot where the left flank of the British and Hanoverian column climbed out of the valley and came under fire from the French batteries around Fontenoy. Photograph 3 shows part of the old sunken road in the foreground, while the sugar beet factory on the left of the picture marks the spot of some of the outlying batteries of French artillery defending Fontenoy.

Retracing your steps return to the road leading to Vezon passing under the motorway bridge. From here one can obtain a good view across the countryside looking towards Vezon village and the ground across which the British cavalry deployed, and from where the “Infernal Column” began its advance. I was told that a number of cannon balls had been found around this area but no one could say what had happened to them.

Do not continue along the road to Vezon but instead turn left following the cross-country road in the direction of La Louviere. Once again the ground rises to the plateau along which ran the French front line and the sunken road. It does not take much imagination to picture the scene that presented itself to the French infantry and artillery manning this line. The whole valley would have been one mass of moving colour as the British cavalry regiments deployed to allow the passage of the infantry and light artillery through their ranks. To the French the natural glacis-like slope rising from the valley below them to their position on the crest of the plateau must have appeared an ideal killing ground. Photograph 4 shows the ground looking from the French position along the sunken road down the almost imperceptible slope over which the British and Hanoverian infantry advanced. From this position one can also obtain a clear idea of the extent of the French line running across the plateau. The ground here has not been subjected to any great upheavals and the line of the sunken road is easily traced following the contour line along the edge of the plateau as it crosses between Fontenoy and the modern wood of Bois Notre-Dame near the outskirts of the village of La Muche.

Continuing on the road to La Louviere and take the small rough track off to the right approximately half way between the turn off from Vezon and La Louviere itself. Proceed along it for about 300 meters. The visitor is now on the other side of the motorway (N52) at the spot where the Bois de Bary formed a tongue of woodland at the tip of which stood the French Redoubt D’Eu. It was the concentrated fire from this point, as well as the destructive enfilading fire from Fontenoy that caused the British and Hanoverian regiments to draw-in their lines, thus making movement and normal battlefield deployment almost impossible. Photograph 5 shows the site of the French centre between Gueronde and the Bois de Bary. On this ground the Allied column was assailed by the massed squadrons of the French and, a little further to the right, by the Irish regiments of the “Wild Geese”.

The possible reason for the Allied column not being able to wheel to the right or left may have been the fact that it was so constricted and so harassed by the continued attacks of the French squadrons, attacks which were met not in square formation but by a constant roll of musket fire, that all that could be done was to hold onto the ground won thus far and hope that the flank attacks against Antoing and Fontenoy would take effect. As for the Allied cavalry there was just no room for it to be used in the assistance of the infantry. Cumberland was no Duke of Marlborough and did not even contemplate a wide outflanking manoeuvre with his mounted troops around the Bois de Bary; a manoeuvre which even if unsuccessful would at least have taken some of the pressure of his central advance and caused de Saxe to deploy part of his reserve to meet the threat.

Before returning to Fontenoy take time to visit the village of Vezon. Here one can still obtain a splendid panorama of the French position by looking from the shallow valley bottom where the Allied columns began to deploy for the attack back towards the plateau between Fontenoy and the Bois de Bary. Photograph 6 shows the view from midway between Vezon and the more modern village of La Muche towards the French main position on the crest of the ridge in the background. Over this ground the infantry advanced, passing through the lines of their cavalry in the middle distance before ascending the plateau.

Taking the road back to Fontenoy from Vezon take the first turning to the right before entering Fontenoy itself and climb the dirt track that runs behind the row of houses on that side. At the top of the ridge one has a good view of the French line running across the edge of the plateau. The high ground where the visitor now stands was the site of a number of French batteries, which caused much damage to the Allied column as it advanced. Photograph 7 shows the French position just to the rear of their main line along the sunken road, and just to the left rear of the French artillery batteries near Fontenoy.

The part of the battlefield between Antoing and Fontenoy has changed beyond all recognition with the exception of the ground around Bourgeon. Here the Dutch and Austrians moved forward to attack both of the villages mentioned above, and the three strong redoubts that connected them within the French main position. I did not have time to cover the whole field in this area but was told that there is (or was) a private collection of battlefield relics to be seen in the home of one of the patrons of a small bar either in Bourgeon itself or in the village of Vezoncheau, about one mile further south. There is a strange feeling of a cover-up when talking to the locals about the battlefield and the relics, or lack of, which have been found and suddenly disappeared without trace. When the motorway and its various connecting roads were being constructed sometime in the mid nineteen seventies or early nineteen eighties I was told that many relics of the battle were unearthed, including a number of skeletons and other fragments of human remains. When I asked what had become of these no one seemed to know. Likewise a collection of battlefield relics once on public display up until the nineteen fifties had also gone missing, and I was told that they had included a British ceremonial sword, several dozen cannon and musket balls and a cavalry cuirass. I will endeavor to pursue the matter further by contacting the Army Museum in Brussels and will keep members informed on my progress.

Members can obtain battlefield maps and details of all the regiments engaged on both sides, together with a guide to watering holes and feeding stalls for the footsore traveler by sending me a cheque or postal order for £1.50.

 

Photographs

 

Photographs taken during the 260th Anniversary of the Battle of Fontenoy

 

 

French Order of Battle:

Commander-in-Chief: Marechal Comte Maurice de Saxe.
(Field Command only, the King being present on the Battlefield)
French left wing (General Lutteaux.)
  Normandie Regiment (Foot)
  Corsican Regiment (Foot)
  Bulkeley Regiment (Foot) Irish
  Dillon Regiment (Foot) Irish
  Berwick Regiment (Foot) Irish
  Lally Regiment (Foot) Irish
  Clare regiment (Foot) Irish
  Rooth Regiment (Foot) Irish
French Centre (General Chabannes.)
  Regiment d’Eau (Foot) holding the Redoubt of the same name.
  Garde Swiss Regiment (Foot)
  Garde Francais Regiment (Foot)
  Audettere Regiment (Foot)
  D’Ouroy Regiment (Foot).Courten Regiment (Foot)
  Three Field Batteries of 6 guns each-6pdrs
Second Line Centre Reserve, (General d’Estrees).
  Royal de Vaisseaux Regiment (Foot)
  Hainault Regiment (Foot)
  Royale regiment (Foot)
  Soissonais’s Regiment (Foot).Royal Couronne Regiment (Foot)
  Audettere Regiment (Foot)
  Two Field Batteries of 6 guns each-4pdrs
Fontenoy Garrison, General Vauguyon.
  Dauphin Regiment (Foot)
  Beauvoisis Regiment (Foot)
  Two Field Batteries of 6 guns each- 6pdrs, divided to cover approaches to village
French Right Wing Commanded by General Montagne.
  Diesbach Regiment (Foot)
  Bethens Regiment (Foot)
  Crillon Regiment (Foot)
  Dismounted Dragoons Regiments, Mestre de Camp,Royaux, de Beaufremont.
  Field Battery 6 guns-4pdrs
  Redoubts Garrisoned by companies of Grenadiers from the above Regiments
  Redoubt guns, 4 to each-4pdrs
Antoing Garrison, General La Marck
  Piemont Regiment (Foot)
  De la Marine Regiment (Foot)
  Biron Regiment (Foot)
  Three Field Batteries of 6 guns each-4pdrs
Reserve Infantry on French Left Wing, General Comte de Lowenthal.
  Touraine Regiment (Foot)
  Nivernois Regiment (Foot)
  Auvergne Regiment (Foot)
  Field Battery 6 guns-4pdrs
French Cavalry Commander, General Clermont-Tonnerre.
  Left wing reserve General du Chayla.
  Egmont Dragoon Regiment
  Roussillon Dragoon Regiment
  Prince Camille Regiment
  Carabiniers Regiment
  De la Garde regiment
  Chevaux legers de la Garde Regiment
  Mousquetiers Regiment
  Grenadiers Cheval de la Garde Regiment
  Garde du Roi Regiment
French centre and right wing cavalry commanded by, General Clermont-Prince.
  Royal Cravattes Regiment
  De Fiennes regiment
  De Brancas Regiment
  Fitzjames Regiment
  Colonel-General Regiment
  Clermont-Prince Regiment
Reserve cavalry French centre commanded by General Richelieu.
  Masion du Roi Regiment
  Clermont-Tonnerre Regiment
  Les Cuirassiers Regiment
  Egmont Regiment
  Orleans regiment
  Tallyrand Regiment
Covering the intervals between the three redoubts on the French right, General Herouville.
  Barry Dragoon Regiment
  Noailles Regiment
  Penthievre Regiment
  Chabrillont Regiment
  Royal Etranger Regiment
  Berry regiment
  Artillery on the East bank of the Scheldt River-Field Battery of 12pdrs, 6 guns

 

The Pragmatic Army:

Commander-in Chief: The Duke of Cumberland.
Commander of the Austrian and Hanoverian Forces: Marshal Koenigsegg.
Commander of the Dutch Forces: Prince Waldeck.
Infantry under Major General Churchill.
  Austrian Freikorps
  42nd Foot(British)
  12th Foot (British)
  13th Foot (British)
  Field battery 6 guns-3pdrs
Infantry under The Earl of Albemarle.
  1st Foot (British)
  21st Foot (British)
  31st Foot (British)
  8th Foot (British)
  25th Foot (British)
  33rd Foot (British)
  19th Foot (British)
  8’’ Howitzer battery 6 guns; Field Battery 6 guns-3pdrs
Infantry under Major General Campbell.
  3rd Foot (British)
  23rd Foot (British)
  32nd Foot (British)
  11th Foot (British)
  28th Foot (British)
  34th Foot (British)
  20th Foot (British)
  Two field Batteries of 6 guns each-3pdrs
Infantry under General Ilten.
  Infantry Regiment Alt Zastrow (Hanoverian)
  Infantry Regiment Von Sporken (Hanoverian)
  Infantry Regiment Von Oberg (Hanoverian)
  Infantry Regiment Campen (Hanoverian)
  Two Field Batteries of 6 guns each-3pdrs
British Cavalry Commander Lt General John Campbell.
  Earl of Rothers Dragoons- 2nd Dragoons
  4th Dragoons
  Horse Guards
  Horse Grenadiers
British and Austrian Cavalry Commander Gen Hawley.
  Austrian Karolyi Hussar Regiment
  6th Dragoons (British)
  7th Dragoons (British)
  Ligonier’s Dragoon Guards (British)
Hanoverian Cavalry Commander Major General Wood.
  Leib, Von Montigny Regiment
  D’Acerre RegimentVon Dachenausen Regiment
  Von Wendt Regiment
  Von der Busch Regiment
Dutch and Austrian Commander Flank Column, Prince Waldeck.
  Marinen Grenadiers van Dorrh Regiment (Dutch)
  Marinen Grenadiers van Rijssel Regiment (Dutch)
  Oranje-Vriesland Regiment (Dutch)
  Waldeck Regiment (German)
  Field Battery of 6 guns -3pdrs
  Salis Regiment (Swiss)
  Bentinck Regiment (German)
  Constrom Regiment (Dutch)
  Field Battery 6 guns-3pdrs
  Constant-Rebecque Regiment (Swiss)
  Sturler Regiment (Swiss)
  Combined Grenadier Battalion (Dutch)
  Field Battery 6 guns-3pdrs
  Garde et Voet Regiment (Dutch)
  Zwitserche Garde regiment (Swiss)
  Schaumberg-Lippe Regiment (German)
  Buddenbroek Regiment (Dutch)
  Field Battery of 6 guns-6pdrs
General Halket Commanding Second line reserve.
  Van Smissaert Regiment (Walloon)
  Branckhorst Regiment (Dutch)
  Oranje-Groningen Regiment (Dutch)
  Broekhuysen Regiment (Dutch)
Cavalry Commanded by Prince Hessen-Philipsthal.
  Garde-Dragoner Regiment (Dutch)
  Nassau-Overkirk Regiment (Dutch)
  Caribinier Regiment (Dutch)
  Sandonville Regiment (Dutch)
  Buys Regiment (Dutch)
  Hop Regiment (Dutch)
  Rechteren-Overijssel Regiment (Dutch)
  Schlippenbach Regiment (Dutch)
  Hessen-Homburg Regiment (German)
  Ginken Regiment (Dutch)
  Massau Regiment (Dutch)
  Dragoons de Ligne Regiment (Austrian)
  Schaek Regiment (Dutch)
  Lynden Regiment (Dutch)
  Two Reserve Field Batteries-6 guns each-6pdrs

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Battle of Fontenoy”

    1. Thanks for the Irish (Wild Geese) input Dennis.
      My grandfather was from Tip, therefore I tend to have a little bit of nostalgia for Fontenoy.
      Visit La Tricorne site for details of events taking place in and around the battlefield.

      Best Regards,
      Graham (battlefield anomalies)

  1. Dear Peter,
    Thank you for visiting Battlefield Anomalies.
    My email is: graymo1815@gmail.com If you drop me a line I will put together a package containing maps and other details and get them off to you after the Christmas/New Year festivities. The price is only slightly higher at £2.50 allowing for the increase in postage over the last ten years!

    Very best regards,
    Graham

  2. Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to write this article. I’d like to include Fontenoy in our annual N.France/Belgium battlefields holiday this summer or next. Does your offer to supply maps etc still hold ? And is the cost still astonishingly modest at £ 1.50 ? Could you please drop me an email with your address and payee details for a cheque so that I can do the needful.

    1. Dear Peter,
      Thank you for visiting the website.
      I will put a package together with maps and other details,should have them ready just after the Christmas holiday if that is OK? If you would like to meet -up with Alain Tripnaux the foremost expert on this battle when you visit the site I can contact him and pass -on your email address?

      Send your contact details to : graymo1815@gmail.com

      Best Regards,
      Graham

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