1703-11-15 – Combat of Speyerbach
Prelude to the Battle
In October 1703, the French Maréchal Tallard invested the Fortress of Landau in an attempt to recapture it. The Imperialists had made themselves masters of this fortress more than one year before, in September 1702.
Unable to come to the rescue of Landau, the Habsburg asked the Duke of Marlborough, commander-in-chief of the Allied army in the Low Countries, for assistance. Marlborough sent a corps commanded by the Prince of Hessen-Kassel which should make a junction with the Imperialist troops of the Count of Nassau-Weilburg stationed on the right bank of the Rhine.
At the beginning of November, the Count of Nassau-Weilburg crossed the Rhine with his troops and 12 guns near Daxlanden.
On 10 November, the defenders of Landau heard four gunshots, the agreed signal. Prince Hessen-Kassel with his Allied corps arrived at Frankenthal and Dürkheim. Tallard now badly needed support and sent several couriers to Marshal Pracontal who was still in Lorraine.
On 13 November, the small Imperialist corps (4,000 men) under the Count of Nassau-Weilburg effected a junction with the larger Allied corps (16,000 men) under the Prince of Hessen-Kassel near Spires. Additional troops were supposed to join them in a few days. This Allied army planned to march on Landau on 16 November.
The two corps had no unified command and encamped in different locations: Dudenhofen (Dutch troops), Mechtersheim and Heiligenstein (Palatine troops). These camps were far from Spires, on the right bank of the Rhine, on the same side as Tallard's and Pracontal's troops!
The Prince of Hessen-Kassel as well as the Count of Nassau-Weilburg had information about the movements of Pracontal's Corps but they estimated that it was too far away to reach Landau in time. This was a big mistake.
On 14 November, Colonel Frankenberg at the head of 400 horse bumped into a few French squadrons near Esslingen (4 km from Landau). He immediately retired. Frankenberg reported this engagement to the commanders who were comforted in their idea that Tallard's troops were lying around Landau and Pracontal still far away (in fact Pracontal's Corps had already passed Kaiserslautern). Tallard was well informed about the movements of the Allies. He ordered Pracontal to take position at a precise location on the road between Landau and Spires.
On the evening of 14 November, Tallard set off from Landau with his main body, leaving only 6,000 men under Lieutenant-General Laubanie to continue the Siege of Landau. Tallard then marched to Nieder Essingen where he arrived at 10:00 p.m.
Description of Events
On 15 November at 4:00 a.m., Pracontal with 19 sqns and 800 foot (transported on farmers carriages) arrived at the assigned rendezvous. His cavalry had ridden for 30 hours non-stop. Tallard was now at the head of 18,000 men (28 bns and 72 sqns).
At daybreak, Tallard marched in five columns in the direction of Spires.
Around 10:00 a.m., a Palatine carabinier arrived from the outpost at the camp of Heiligenstein, announcing that the whole French army was close by. He then asked for a fresh horse and rode towards Spires to bring the message of the Allied generals who doubted the exactness of it.
While the Allied generals were arguing about the exactness of this message, their troops were waiting for orders. New messengers continued to arrive, confirming the initial message. Finally the colonels present in the Dutch camp near Dudenhofen and in the Palatine camp near Heiligenstein called their troops under arms.
Around noon, Tallard’s Army reached Schwegenheim, 6 km west of Heiligenstein after an exhausting march across a difficult terrain. Tallard then deployed his army in two lines. His first line immediately advanced in the direction of the camp Heiligenstein.
The Allies were encamped with their right anchored on Spires and their left at Petite-Hollande (unidentified location) in a very open country. The Allied army was still in its camps with its staff at Spires.
At 1:00 p.m., a patrol informed the commanders that the entire French army was marching in order of battle against their camp. All was confusion in the Allied camps. The Count of Nassau-Weilburg finally arrived on the battlefield. Some regiments tried to deploy in order of battle.
At this moment, 14 French sqns, which masked the deployment of the French first line, advanced against the hastily deployed and partially formed line of the Palatine infantry (Rehbinder, Sachsen-Meiningen, Lübeck and Leib-Regiment zu Fuss). However, these Palatine rgts held firm and drove back the attack.
The Count of Nassau-Weilburg sent orders to the artillery, which was still in the camp of Mechtersheim, to advance to Heiligenstein as soon as possible.
The Count of Nassau-Weilburg and Major Count Vehlen then placed themselves at the head of a few Palatine sqns (Leiningen (aka Linange), Venningen, Wittgenstein and Leib-Regiment) and pursued the retiring French cavalry over a meadow which was bounded on the left by an impenetrable morass, and on the right by scrubs and woods. However, several French bns had taken positions in these woods and as the Palatine cavalry approached, they opened a devastating fire. The Palatine sqns became disorganised, turned and routed.
At about this moment, the French batteries effectively intervened in the battle.
Shaken by the French artillery fire, as well as by the rout of the Palatine cavalry, some bns of the corps of Count Nassau-Weilburg began to waver and, in the absence of effective leadership, soon gave way. Disorder spread alarmingly in the ranks of Nassau-Weilburg’s Corps as the French infantry advanced to attack Heiligenstein.
A few sqns of Imperialist hussars led by Colonel Loosy threw themselves forward; but the fire of the French infantry drove them back killing Colonel Loosy.
The small Imperialist corps of the Count of Nassau-Weilburg, forming the left wing of the Allied army, was driven back and fled towards Spires, losing contact with the larger Allied corps forming the right wing.
The Allied artillery finally arrived near Heiligenstein after marching from Mechtersheim. A few bns of the District of the Upper-Rhine, which had initially been deployed in the second line of Nassau-Weilburg’s Corps, tried to make a stand but they were attacked in their left flank by French cavalry. They then broke and fled towards Spires. The horse teams of the Allies, driven by farmers, fled the field after the first shots, abandoning guns where they had been posted.
During the combats of Nassau-Weilburg’s Corps around Heiligenstein, the Prince of Hessen-Kassel had slowly assembled and deployed his own corps. But even after the deployment of the two lines, the commandant of the regiments in Dutch pay, had not brought any support to the crumbling left wing.
Finally, at the request of Count Vehlen, Major General Count Hompesch had come to the rescue of the Palatine cavalry with 8 sqns of the second line of the right wing, driving back some French bns. But he had immediately returned to the right wing while the Maréchal de Camp de Joffreville was leading 6 fresh French bns against Nassau-Weilburg’s Corps.
It is possible that the confusion at Heiligenstein was already so great that the Prince of Hessen-Kassel thought that any further support would come too late. It is also possible that he considered that the French left wing which was advancing from Harthausen was too threatening to risk a flank march towards Heiligenstein.
The Prince of Hessen-Kassel kept his troops deployed to the south of Dudenhofen and waited for the French attack.
At 2:00 p.m., the French cavalry under Generals Saint-Maurice and Hautefort seized this opportunity and attacked the infantry of the Allied right wing. However, the Allied infantry drove back two charges.
By 3:00 p.m., the entire left wing of the Imperialist corps had broken and left the field, leaving the Allied right wing completely isolated. Two bns (Palatine Grenadiers and Palatine Leib-Regiment zu Fuss) could not escape and were taken prisoners.
As the French launched a third charge against the Allied infantry, the entire cavalry of the Allied right wing (including the rgts which had previously been sent to the rescue of Nassau-Weilburg’s Corps) launched a counter-attack. During their advance to contact, the third rank of the Schulenburg Dragoons manoeuvered to charge the French cavalry opposing them on both flanks. In this cavalry combat, the French cavalry suffered heavy losses.
Tallard then used his artillery to prepare his next attack.
Around 4:00 p.m., Tallard hurled the 14 sqns of Fiennes’ and Gaetano’s brigades against the weakened and isolated Allied right wing. The Allies, who had already sustained very heavy losses, began to give way.
Since the beginning of the battle, the grenadiers of the Allied right wing had lost 66% of their men while De Carles Infantry had suffered 50% casualties. Furthermore, the Prince of Hessen-Kassel was wounded by a sabre blow at the head.
At about this time, the Prince of Hessen-Kassel was informed of the total collapse of the left wing.
At 5:00 p.m., as darkness had already set, the Prince of Hessen-Kassel ordered retreat of his army who crossed the Speyerbach on a bridge which was burned down afterwards. The exhausted French troops did not try to pursue.
On the night of November 15 to 16, the corps of the Count of Nassau-Weilburg returned speedily to Mannheim, and the Allied corps to Mainz by Mutterstadt.
In this combat, the French lost 600 dead and wounded (4,000 according to the Austrian Archives). Lieutenant-General Pracontal and brigadiers d'Auriac, Comte de Caylus, Marquis de Calvo and Coeteau were killed in action.
The Allies lost 4,000 men killed or wounded and had 2,000 men taken prisoners, including 149 officers. The Palatine Garde Grenadiers and Leibregiment zu Fuss suffered heavy losses. Prince Philipp von Hessen-Homburg, Colonel Count Nassau-Weilburg (son of the commander), Major-General von Tettau, the Palatine General Count Hochkirch, Colonel Aubach, Colonel Kranz and Colonel Loosy were killed in action. Major-General Isselbach (released at the end of 1705, Colonel Roche, Colonel Greder, Count Barbau and Colonel Bert were wounded and taken prisoners. The Allied camp along with 23 guns, 50 colours and standards, ammunition, tents and baggage were also captured. The debacle of the Allies was complete!
The Allied prisoners were brought to Reims where they would remain in captivity until the end of 1705.
After his victory, Tallard returned with his army to his positions around Landau and sent Friesen's son, who had been captain in a Dutch regiment, to Landau to inform his father of the outcome of the engagement and to require him to surrender. At that time, most of the defences of Landau had been destroyed and its garrison counted only 2,000 fit for duty, most of them without firearms and gun powder.
On 16 November the garrison of Landau capitulated.
Order of Battle
Allied Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: G.d.C. Prince von Hessen-Kassel seconded by G.d.C. Count Nassau-Weilburg
Summary: 28 bns and 54 sqns
In the following table, units are listed from right to left in each line.
|First Line||Second Line|
|Right Wing under G.d.C. Prince von Hessen-Kassel|
|Anspacher Schmettau Dragoons (4 sqns)
Saxe-Gotha Hardenberg Dragoons (3 sqns)
Hanoverian Grenadiers (1 bn)
|Hanoverian Schulenburg Dragoons (3 sqns)|
Hessian Hessen-Homburg Dragoons (3 sqns)
|Left Wing under G.d.C. Count Nassau-Weilburg|
|Palatine Rehbinder Infantry (2 bns)
Upper-Rhine Nassau-Weilburg Cavalry ??? (2 sqns)
|Upper-Rhine Nassau-Weilburg Infantry (2 bns)|
N.B. there are several unidentified unit in the previous order of battle, they are indicated with ‘???’
There were also a few sqns of Imperialist hussars led by Colonel Johann Peter von Loosy of Loosy Hussars.
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Lieutenant-General de Tallard assisted by
- in the first line (from right to left)
- Lieutenant-General Locmaria
- Lieutenant-General Courtebonne
- Lieutenant-General Clérambault
- Lieutenant-General Surville
- Lieutenant-General Roussy
- Lieutenant-General Pracontal
- Maréchal de camp Humières
- Maréchal de camp Galmoy
- Maréchal de camp Blansac
- Maréchal de camp Forsat
- Maréchal de camp Imécourt
- in the second line (from right to left)
- Lieutenant-General Grammont
- Lieutenant-General Hornes
- Lieutenant-General Hautefort
- Lieutenant-General Saint-Maurice
- Maréchal de camp Sainte-Hermine
- Maréchal de camp Valsemé
- Maréchal de camp Joffreville
- Maréchal de camp Vaillac
- Maréchal de camp Du Chatelet
- Maréchal de camp Nogent
- Maréchal de camp d'Asfeld
Summary: 34 bns and 66 sqns
In the following table, units are listed from right to left in each line.
|First Line||Second Line|
|Hautefort's Dragoon Brigade (9 sqns)
Vertilly's Brigade (8 sqns)
La Vallière's Cavalry Brigade (7 sqns)
Monroux's Infantry Brigade (5 bns)
Calvo's Infantry Brigade (5 bns)
Polignac's Infantry Brigade (4 bns)
Croissy's Infantry Brigade (4 bns)
Silly's Cavalry Brigade (9 sqns)
Puiguion's Cavalry Brigade (7 sqns)
Dragoon Brigade (6 sqns)
Chepy's Cavalry Brigade (6 sqns)
Fraula's Infantry Brigade (6 bns)
Robecq's Infantry Brigade (6 bns)
Raffetot's Infantry Brigade (4 bns)
Gaetano's Cavalry Brigade (8 sqns)
Fiennes' Cavalry Brigade (6 sqns)
Abtheilung für Kriegsgeschichte des k. k. Kriegs-Archives: Feldzüge des Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen, Series 1, Vol. 5, Vienna 1878, pp. 374-378, Beilage 41-42
Bezzel, O.: Geschichte des Kurpfälzischen Heeres, Bayrisches Kriegsarchiv, IV. File, part 1 and 2, Munich 1925
Heuser E.: Die Belagerungen von Landau, Landau, 1913
Dolleczek: Geschichte der österreichischen Artillerie, Vienna, 1887
Kennel, Albert: Die Schlacht bei Speier am 15. November 1703, Speier 1895
Treuenfest, A. v.: Die Geschichte des Husarenregiments Nr. 3 Vienna, 1893
Oster, U. A.: Markgraf Ludwig v. Baden, Bergisch Gladbach, 2001
Stadtarchiv Landau, Belagerung der Stadt (Stich)
Vault, François Eugène de, and Pelet: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 3 pp. 159, 484-486, 913
Harald Skala for the initial version of this article.