1708 – Siege of Lille
The siege lasted from 13 August to 21 October 1708
In May 1708, the French concentrated a large army (131 bns and 216 sqns, approx. 80,000 men) in the plains of Saint-Symphorien near Mons and marched to Braine-l’Alleud. The Duke of Marlborough tried to avoid a battle with the superior enemy and made an evasive movement towards Leuven (aka Louvain).
Throughout the month of June, the indecisiveness of the French led to a sort of armistice.
|Did you know that...|
|After the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709, a false rumor spread that Marlborough had been killed in the engagement and a French folk song “Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre” was created to mark this event.
Acknowledgement: Dr. J. Fiala for this interesting anecdote
Then, on 6 July, the French suddenly occupied Ghent, Passchendaele and Bruges. On the same day, Prince Eugène de Savoie arrived at Marlborough’s camp and they both discussed how to react to the French offensive. The result of these talks was the famous victory of the Allies at Oudenarde, on 11 July.
Soon afterwards the Duke of Berwick arrived with additional French troops. On 15 July, the Army of the Moselle also arrived at Bruxelles.
On 18 July, FM Count von Nassau received orders to march with Imperial and Palatine troops to Ath, where he would make a junction with Marlborough’s Army.
The French remained in there camp, Marlborough proposed to surprise Paris, but Prince Eugène refused this idea and suggested to lay siege to Lille. Finally, Eugène’s proposal was accepted.
On 27 July, Louis XIV wrote to the Duc de Bourgogne, ordering him, if the Allies lay siege to Lille or Tournai, to join his two armies and to attack them; and if they preferred to lay siege to another place, to besiege Oudenarde.
On 10 August, Prince William of Orange was detached from “Great army” with 34 sqns and 31 bns to join the siege corps.
On 12 August, the siege artillery, transported from Bruxelles, crossed the Scheldt River and, from there, was escorted by Marlborough’s troops to Menin.
Lille, the capital of French Flanders, was one of the early conquests of Louis XIV, in 1668. Situated in a swampy plain and watered by two rivers, the Deule and Marque, its natural position presented difficulties of no ordinary kind to a besieging force, and, in addition, it had been fortified by Vauban with his utmost skill. It was a well equipped fortress.
The best of the French officers and generals were there to defend this important place. The governor of the place was Maréchal Louis-Francois de Boufflers, who had arrived at Lille on 27 July.
The garrison initially consisted 17 bns, 4 dragoon sqns and 200 horse. On 10 July, the Duke of Berwick had sent a reinforcement of 3 bns and 3 dragoon sqns, bringing the garrison to a total of 20 bns, 7 dragoon sqns and 200 horse. Furthermore, the inhabitants had raised 4 militia rgts of 500 men each.
Description of events
The Allied leader divided their responsibilities: Prince Eugène was responsible for the siege itself, while Marlborough should cover the siege corps and prevent the arrival of any relief.
When Berwick was informed that the Allies planned to lay siege to Lille, he effected a junction with the army of the Duc de Bourgogne and advanced towards Bruxelles, hoping to draw the Allies away from Lille.
On 12 August
- At 8:00 a.m., Nassau's Corps (34 sqns and 31 bns) arrived in sight of Saint-André-lez-Lille and encamped with its right at Marquette-lez-Lille on the Deule River, where Nassau established his headquarters, and its left on the road leading to Menin opposite the Madeleine Gate.
- To cover the march of the convoy and to prevent any attack by the garrison of Tournai, Prince Eugène marched from Helchin (aka Helkijn)with the main body of his army, crossed the Espierres stream on several bridges and encamped at Templeuve with his right at this village and his left towards Chin (unidentified location) some 4 km from Tournai.
- The convoy of the Allies completed the crossing of the Scheldt. The four bridges previously established near Pottes were removed and the artillery (80 siege pieces, 20 field pieces and 60 mortars) marched by way of Rekkem to Menin.
- Marlborough's main body decamped from Warneton and Wervik, crossed the Lys at Menin and marched to Helchin where it joined the detachment that Prince Eugène had left behind. Marlborough established his headquarters and his right at Helchin and extended his left beyond the mill of Clare towards Menin. Marlborough with his 72 bns and 124 sqns was now in a good position to cover the siege corps and secure the line of supply from Bruxelles, Ath and Oudenarde.
In the night of 12 to 13 August, Nassau's Corps invested Lille from the side of Saint-André-de-Lille.
On 13 August in the morning, Prince Eugène's Corps marched by way of Pont à Tressin, where it crossed the Marcq River and completed the investment of Lille. Eugène established his headquarter in the Los Abbey on the Deule River, in front of the Saint-André Gate of Lille.
On 14 August, 10,000 peasants started to erect the circumvallation entrenchments, which extended from Haubourdin on the Upper Deule, by way of the mill of Arbrisseau, the villages Rouchin, Lezennes, Hellemes, Flers, Marcq-en-Barœul, Marquette-lez-Lille, to Wambrechies, the farm of Cliquenois, Lambersart and Lomme up to the Abbey of Loos (probably Englos). The entrenchments were 2.83 m high, the breastwork 4.71 m thick.
The siege corps now consisted of 53 bns and 89 sqns.
On 17 August, the siege artillery (80 heavy guns, 20 big mortars and 4,000 ammunition wagons), which had been assembled at Menin, arrived at the camp before Lille along with an escort provided by Marlborough and destined to reinforce the corps of Prince Eugène. The artillery park was established between the Abbey of Marquette and the village of Marcq.
On 19 August, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel and King August arrived at Marlborough's camp near Helchin. They then joined Prince Eugène at the siege of Lille. On the same day, Louis XIV ordered the Duc the Bourgogne to make a junction with Berwick's Army at Mons.
On 22 August, Marlborough sent his heavy baggage to Menin, in preparation for his manoeuvres to prevent the two French relief armies from effecting a junction. Prince Eugène sent him a large detachment from his siege corps to assist him in his enterprise.
In the night of 22 to 23 August, Prince Eugène used 4 Palatine bns, 2 Imperial bns and 2 Hessian bns, along with 5,000 peasants, to open the trench before Lille, forming two distinct attacks: one directed against the hornwork of the Saint-André Gate, the other against the hornwork of the Madeleine Gate. The two attacks were separated by the Marcq stream. Boufflers made a sortie against the attack directed on the Madeleine Gate, but could not prevent the Allies from establishing their first parallel some 500 m. from the covert way.
For two days, 10 bns of Imperial, Saxon and Palatine troops assumed trench duty under the command of FZM Prince Württemberg. Other troops under the command of Prince William de Orange did the same for three days. Despite the fact, that the circumvallation entrenchments were not yet finished, siege troops began digging the trenches.
On 23 August, a detachment of Prince Eugène's siege corps advanced to Lambonpont (unidentified location), on the road leading from Lille to Esperierres, within distance to make a junction with Marlborough's Army.
On 24 August, two batteries opened on the city walls. On the same day, Louis XIV asked once more to the Duc de Bourgogne to make a junction with Berwick's Army.
On 26 August, informed that the Allies had opened the trench in front of Lille, Louis XIV changed his mind and instructed the Duc de Berwick to advance against the siege corps of the Allies; and the Duc de Bourgogne to try to make a junction with Berwick. But these new instructions arrived too late.
On 27 August, the artillery of Prince Eugène opened against Lille.
On 30 August, the two French armies – now around 110,000 men – made a junction at Lessines.
On 1 September, to the astonishment of the French, Marlborough marched to the lowland of Lille, where he took position and waited for the attack of the French army. Prince Eugène should send all disposable troops to support Marlborough.
On 4 September, all troops that Eugène could spare joined Marlborough.
On 5 September, Marlborough had 102 bns and 232 sqns deployed to engage the French. However, the French general staff considered that the Allied positions were unassailable and abandoned their plan to offer battle.
On 6 September, the troops that Prince Eugène had detached to reinforce Marlborough’s Army rejoined the siege corps.
On 7 and 9 September, Louis XIV reiterated his orders to attack the Allies and relieve Lille.
By 7 September, there were already 13 batteries with 155 guns in action, causing heavy damages.
On the evening of 7 September, 1,600 grenadiers, 1,600 fusiliers, 2,000 workmen and 30 carpenters, organized in 4 columns, attacked the counterscarp. Four bns belonging to the trench corps formed the reserve. The attack was thrice renewed, the attackers lost 399 men killed and 211 wounded.
In the night of 7 to 8 September at Lille, the Allies established lodgements at the four angles of the covert way.
On 10 September, on direct orders of Louis XIV, the Duc de Bourgogne advanced again withthe French relief army. Prince Eugène hastened once more to support Marlborough.
On 11 September, the Palatine Major-General Baron Volkershoven was severely wounded as he was inspecting the trenches (he would die on 19 December).
On 17 September, after some inefficient gunfire, the French army retreated to the right bank of Scheldt.
On 21 September, Prince Eugène was wounded at the head and Marlborough took command of the siege. In regard of the high losses suffered by their soldiers, both generals decided to rely on methodical attack with mines. On the same day, additional British troops landed at Ostend.
On 25 September, the Maréchal de Boufflers wrote to the Duc de Bourgogne to inform him that he needed more men, more arms and more powder to defend Lille properly.
On 28 September, at the Engagement of Wijnendale, the French failed to intercept a very important supply convoy.
On 1 October, Prince Eugène, who had recovered from his wound, re-assumed command of the siege corps.
In the night of 7 October, Marlborough marched with 60 bns and 120 sqns to Oudenburg. The Duc de Bourgogne and Vendôme decided to seize this opportunity to capture Ath and Leffinge.
By mid-October, the Allies were master of the covert way of Lille, which had been attacked seven times and a large breach had been created in the right bastion. Furthermore, Boufflers had almost exhausted all his powder, with the exception of the 50,000 lbs that the king had instructed him to preserve for the defence of the citadel.
In the night of 18 October, the French surprise attack against Ath failed.
On 22 October at Lille, the breach in the two bastions facing the attack of the Allies were wide enough to launch an assault. At 4:00 p.m., the Maréchal de Boufflers asked to capitulate.
On 23 October, Boufflers surrendered the city of Lille under condition that he would retire in the citadel with the garrison on 25 October, that no attack would be launched against the citadel from within the city, that the sick and wounded and the cavalry (1,500 men who had taken part in the defence of the place) would be sent to Douai.
On 25 October, Boufflers evacuated the city of Lille and retired in the Citadel of Lille with 4,500 men (10,000 men at the beginning of the siege) while 1,500 horse and all transportable wounded marched to Douai. Prince Eugène immediately occupied and started siege of the citadel.
Between 14 August and 22 October, the Allies had lost 148 officers, 25 engineers, 100 NCOs and 3,422 men killed; and 319 officers, 39 engineers, 225 NCOs and 7,982 men wounded.
In the night of 25 to 26 October, Prince Eugène began to work at his first parallel in front of the Citadel of Lille.
Boufflers did not expect any relief by French army, but he was determined to defend the citadel for as long as possible.
On 25 November, Prince Eugèmne marched to Roubaix, leaving only 24 bns in front of the Citadel of Lille.
On 8 December, the Allies completed the erection of siege batteries. Boufflers realized that he had no further chance.
On 9 December, the Maréchal de Boufflers capitulated and surrendered the Citadel of Lille, obtaining the honours of war. He had defended the place during 3 months and 16 days…
After the surrender of Lille, the Allies decided to capture Ghent. Marlborough marched with his troops to this fortress and, on 10 December, Prince Eugène sent the siege artillery to Ghent.
On 11 December, Prince Eugène set off from Lille with the siege corps, leaving 20 bns and 2 sqns as garrison, and marched to Ghent.
On 16 December, Prince Eugène made a junction with Marlborough’s Army.
On 30 December, after a siege of 13 days, Ghent surrendered. The Allies then took up their winter-quarters.
Order of Battle
French Order of Battle
Commander of the place: Maréchal Louis-Francois, Duc de Boufflers
In the city (as of 29 July):
- Touraine (2 bns)
- II./Périgord (l bn)
- Foix (1 bn)
- Lafons (1 bn)
- Châteauneuf (1 bn)
- Caraman (1 bn)
- Brancas (1 bn)
- d'Angennes (1 bn)
- Poyanne (1 bn)
- Duthil (1 bn) unidentified unit
- Rasilly (1 bn)
- Swiss Villars (detachment)
- Swiss Greder (detachment)
- Swiss Pfiffer (detachment)
- Luxembourg (5 coys)
- Conflans (detachment)
- Noailles (detachment) unidentified unit
- Garde du Corps du Roi (1 sqn)
- Rannes Dragons (3 sqns)
- Compagnies franches de Dragons de Flandres (1 sqn)
In the Citadel (as of 29 July):
- Invalides (8 coys of 50 men each)
- Invalides (l coy of l00 men)
- Invalides (l coy of 200 men)
Reinforcements on 10 August:
- Poyanne (1 bn)
- Spanish (Italian) Pratamano (1 bn)
- Spanish Fusiliers of Spain (1 bn)
- Belleisle Dragons (3 sqns)
- Selected cavalry (200 men)
Anon.: Geschichte des K. und K. Infanterieregiments Markgraf von Baden No. 23, file I., Budapest 1911
Pelet and François Eugène de Vault: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 8, 1848, pp. 65-128
Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. I, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 504-510
French Archives du dépôt de la guerre, Vol 280l, Nr. 327 (French order of battle retrieved from the Nafziger Collection)
Bezzel, O.: Geschichte des Kurpfälzischen Heeres, Bayrisches Kriegsarchiv, IV. File, part 1 and 2, Munich 1925
Harald Skala for the initial version of this article