1709-09-11 – Battle of Malplaquet
Prelude to the Battle
For the campaign of 1709 in Flanders, the Maréchal de Villars had remained on the defensive and prevented the Allies from entering France. However, at the beginning of September, the Fortress of Tournai surrendered to the Allies who then turned their attention to Mons. Villars advanced in this direction and entrenched his army in the vicinity of Malplaquet, near Mons, ready to accept battle to relieve Mons.
The entrance from the westward to the gap of Aulnois or southern entrance to the plain of Mons is marked by the two villages of Campe du Hamlet on the north and Malplaquet on the south. About 1.5 km in advance of these villages the ground rises to its highest elevation, the opening being about 3,000 paces wide, and the ground broken and hollowed to right and left by small rivulets. This was the point selected by the Maréchal de Villars for his position. It was bounded on his right by the forest of Lanières, the greatest length of which ran parallel to the gap of Aulnois, and on the left by a forest, known at different points by the names of Taisnières, Sars and Blaugies, the greatest length of which ran at right angles to the gap.
Villars occupied the Forest of Lanières with his extreme right, his bns strengthening the natural obstacles of a thick and tangled covert by means of abatis. From the edge of the wood, he constructed a triple line of entrenchments, which ran across the opening for full a third of its width, when they gave way to a line of nine redans. These redans in turn yielded place to a swamp backed by more entrenchments, which carried the defences across to the wood of Taisnières. Several cannon were mounted on the entrenchments and a battery of 20 guns before the redans. On Villars's left the forests of Taisnières and Sars projected before the general front, forming a salient and re-entering angle. Entrenchments and abatis were constructed in accordance with this configuration, and two more batteries were erected on this side, in addition to several guns at various points along the line, to enfilade an advancing enemy. Feeling even thus insecure, Villars threw up more entrenchments at the villages of Malplaquet and Chaussée du Bois in rear of the Wood of Sars, and was still hard at work on them to the last possible moment before the action. His right wing consisted of infantry deployed in two lines, the left wing too was essentially composed of infantry. Finally in rear of all stood his cavalry, drawn up in four lines. The whole of his force amounted to 95,000 men.
The position was most formidable, but it had its defects. In the first place. the open space before the entrenchments was broken at about a km’s distance by a small coppice, called the Wood of Tiry, which could serve to mask the movements of the Allied centre. In the second place the Forest of Sars ran out beyond the fortified angle in a long tongue, which would effectually conceal any troops that might be directed against the extreme left flank. Finally, the French cavalry, being massed in rear of the entrenchments could take no part in the action until the defences were forced, and was therefore incapable of delivering any counterstroke.
The Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène de Savoie accordingly decided to make a diversionary attack on the French right and a true attack on their left front and flank. Villars would then be obliged to reinforce his left from his centre, which would enable the defences across the open to be carried, and the whole of the Allied cavalry to charge forward and cut the French line in twain.
Description of Events
The dawn of the 11 September broke in dense heavy mist which completely veiled the combatants from each other.
At 3:00 a.m., prayers were said in the Allied camp, and then the artillery was moved in position:
- 40 pieces were massed in a single battery in the open ground against the French left, and were covered with an epaulement for defence against enfilading
- 28 pieces were stationed against the French right
- the lighter pieces were distributed as usual among the different brigades
Then the Allied columns of attack were formed
- 22 bns under Count Lottum were directed against the eastern face of the salient angle of the Forest of Taisnières
- 36 bns of Eugène's army under General Schulenburg against the northern face
- a little to the right of Schulenburg, 2,000 men under General Gauvain were to press on the French left flank in rear of their entrenchments
- in rear of Schulenburg, 15 British bns under Lord Orkney were drawn up in a single line on the open ground, ready to advance against the centre as soon as Shulenburg and Lottum should have done their work
- far away beyond Gauvain, to the French left, General Withers with 5 British bns, 14 foreign bns and 6 sqns was to turn the extreme left at the village of La Folie.
- for the feint against the French right, 31 bns, chiefly Dutch, were massed together under the Prince of Orange.
The Allied cavalry was detailed in different divisions to support the infantry. The Prince of Orange was backed by 21 Dutch sqns under the Prince of Hesse; Orkney by 30 sqns under Auvergne; Lottum by the British and Hanoverian cavalry, and Schulenburg by Eugène's horse. The orders given to the cavalry were to sustain the foot as closely as possible, without advancing into range of grape-shot, and, as soon as the central entrenchments were forced, to press forward form before the entrenchments and drive the French army from the field.
The whole force of the Allies was as near as may be equal to that of the French.
Attack of the Allied Right Wing
At 7:30 a.m., the fog lifted and the guns of both armies opened fire. Eugène and Marlborough thereupon parted, the former taking charge of the right, the latter of the left of the army.
Then Allied divisions of Orange and of Lottum then advanced in two dense columns up the glade. Presently the Dutch halted, just beyond range of grape-shot, while Lottum's column pushed on under a terrific fire to the rear of the Allied forty-gun battery and deployed to the right in three lines. Then the fire of the cannon slackened for a time.
About 9:00 a.m., a salvo of the 40 Allied guns gave the signal for attack. Lottum's and Schulenburg's divisions thereupon advanced perpendicularly to each other, each in three lines, Gauvain's men crept into the wood unperceived, and Orkney extended his British bns across the glade.
Entering the Wood of Sars, Schulenburg's Austrians made the best of their way through marshes and streams and fallen trees, nearer and nearer to the French entrenchments. The French let them approach within pistol-shot and delivered a volley which sent them staggering back; and though Schulenburg extended his line till it joined Gauvain's detachment, yet he could make little way against the French fire.
Lottum’s attack was little more successful. Heedless of the tempest of shot in their front and flank, the Germans pressed steadily on, passed a swamp and a stream under a galling fire, and fell fiercely upon the breastwork beyond; but being disordered by the ground and thinned by heavy losses they were forced to fall back.
Schulenburg then resumed the attack with his second line, but with all his exertions could not carry the face of the angle opposed to him. Picardie Infanterie, the senior regiment of the French Line, held this post and would not yield it to the fiercest assault. The utmost that Schulenburg could accomplish was to sweep away the regiments in the wood, and so uncover its flank.
Lottum, too, extended his front and attacked once more, Orkney detaching three British bns (Argyll’s Foot, Godfrey’s Foot and Temple's Foot) to his assistance, while Marlborough took personal command of Auvergne's cavalry in support. Argyll’s Foot Lottum's extreme left found a swamp between them and the entrenchments, so deep as to be almost impassable. In they plunged, notwithstanding, and were struggling through it when a French officer drew out 12 bns and moved them down straight upon their left flank. The British brigade would have been in a sorry plight had not Villars caught sight of Marlborough at the head of Auvergne's horse and instantly recalled his troops.
The British brigade scrambled on, and turning the flank of the entrenchment while Lottum's men attacked the front, at length with desperate fighting and heavy loss forced the French back into the wood.
Thus exposed to the double attack of Lottum and Schulenburg, Picardie Infanterie at last fell back, but joined itself to Champagne Infanterie, the next regiment in seniority; and the two gallant units finding a rallying-point behind an abatis turned and stood once more. Their comrades gave way in disorder, but the wood was so dense that the troops on both sides became disjointed, and the opposing lines broke up into a succession of small parties fighting desperately from tree to tree with no further guidance than their own fury.
The entrenchments on the French left had been forced, and Villars sent urgent messages to his right for reinforcements. But Boufflers could spare him none because he was still struggling to repel the attack of the Allied left wing.
Attack of the Allied Left Wing
About 9:30 a.m., half an hour after Schulenburg's and Lottum’s initial attack on the Allied right wing, the Prince of Orange, at the head of the left wing, launched an attack against the French right, which was under the command of General d’Artaignan. On the extreme left of Orange's division were two Scot regiments of the Dutch service (Tullibardine Infantry and Hepburn Infantry, and next to them King William's favourite, the Hollandsche Gardes. These were to attack the defences in the Forest of Lanières, while the rest fell upon the entrenchments in the open; and it was at the head of these 3 rgts that Orange took his place. A tremendous fire of grape and musketry saluted them as they advanced, and within the first few paces most of the Prince's staff were struck dead by his side. His own horse fell dead beneath him, but he disentangled himself and continued to lead the advance on foot. A few minutes more brought his bns under the fire of a French battery on their left flank. Whole ranks were swept away, but still the Prince was to be seen waving his hat in front of his troops; and his 3 rgts pressing steadily on carried the first entrenchment with a rush. They then halted to deploy, but before they could advance further, Boufflers had rallied his men, and charging down upon his assailants drove them back headlong.
On Orange’s right, success as short-lived was bought at as dear a price. The Prince still exerted himself with the utmost gallantry, but his attack was beaten back at all points. The loss of the Dutch amounted to 6,000 killed and wounded, the Hollandsche Gardes had been annihilated, and the Hanoverian bns, which had supported them, had suffered little less severely. In fact, the Prince's precipitation had brought about little less than a disaster.
The confusion in this part of the field called both Marlborough and Eugène to the Allied left to restore order. Further useless sacrifice of life was checked, for enough and more than enough had been done to prevent Boufflers from detaching troops to Villars.
Success on the Allied Right Wing
But soon came an urgent message requiring the presence of Marlborough and Eugène once more on the right. Schulenburg and Lottum had continued to push their attack as best they could; and British, Prussians, and Austrians were struggling forward from tree to tree, tripping over felled trunks, bursting through tangled foliage, panting through quagmires, loading and firing and cursing, guided only by the flashes before them in the cloud of foul blinding smoke. But now on the extreme right, Withers was steadily advancing, and his turning movement, though Marlborough and Eugène knew it not, was gradually forcing the French out of the wood. Villars seeing the danger called the Irish Brigade and other regiments from the centre, and launched them full upon the British and Prussians. Such was the impetuosity of the Irish that they forced them back some way, until their own formation was broken by the density of the forest.
Eugene hastened to the spot to rally the retreating bns and though struck by a musket ball in the head refused to leave the field. Then up came Withers, just when he was wanted. The Royal Regiment of Ireland met one of the French Irish rgt, crushed it with two volleys by sheer superiority of fire, drove it back in disorder, and pressed on.
Around 2:00 p.m., Eugene also advanced and was met by the Maréchal de Villars, who at this critical moment was bringing forward his reinforcements in person. A musket shot struck Villars above the knee. Totally unmoved the gallant man called for a chair from which to continue to direct his troops, but presently fainting from pain was carried insensible from the field.
The French, notwithstanding Villars’s fall, still barred the advance of the Allies, but they had been driven from their entrenchments and from the wood on the left, and only held their own by the help of the troops that had been withdrawn from the centre. The moment for which Marlborough had waited was now come.
The forty-gun battery was moved forward, and Orkney leading his British bns against the redans captured them, though not without considerable loss, at the first rush. Two Hanoverian bns on their left turned the flank of the adjoining entrenchments, and Orange renewing his attack cleared the whole of the defences in the glade.
The Allied cavalry followed close at their heels. Auvergne's Dutch were the first to pass the entrenchments, and though charged by the French while in the act of deploying succeeded in repelling the first attack.
But now Boufflers came up at the head of the French Gendarmerie, and drove Auvergne's cavalry back irresistibly to the edge of the entrenchments. Here, however, the French were checked, for Orkney had lined the parapet with his British, and though the Gendarmerie thrice strove gallantly to make an end of the Dutch, they were every time driven back by the fire of the infantry.
Meanwhile the central Allied battery, which had been parted right and left into two divisions, advanced and supported the infantry by a cross-fire, and Marlborough coming up with the British and Prussian horse fell upon the Gendarmerie in their turn.
Boufflers, however, was again ready with fresh troops, and coming down upon Marlborough with the French Maison du Roi cavalry crashed through his two leading lines and threw even the third into disorder.
Then Allied batteries caught the French cavalry in their cross-fire.
Then Eugène coming up with the Imperial horse threw the last reserves into the mêlée and drove the French back. Simultaneously the Prince of Hesse hurled his sqns against the infantry of the French right, and with the help of the Dutch foot isolated it still further from the centre.
Boufflers quickly saw that the day was lost and ordered a general retreat to Bavay, while he could yet keep his troops together. The movement was conducted in admirable order, for the French though beaten were not routed, while the Allies were too much exhausted to pursue.
Around 3:00 p.m., Boufflers retired unmolested, honoured alike by friend and foe for his bravery and his skill.
The battle of Malplaquet is one of the bloodiest ever fought by mortal men. Little is known of the details of the fighting, these being swallowed up in the shade of the forest of Taisnières, where no man could see what was going forward. All that is certain is that neither side gave quarter, and that the combat was not only fierce but savage.
The Allies lost 22,939 men dead or wounded, due chiefly to the head on attack of the Prince of Orange against the French entrenchments. The Dutch infantry out of 30 bns lost 8,000 men, or more than half of number; the British out of 20 bns lost 1,900 men.
The French lost 11,000 men (including 1,200 officers), and the Allied captured 500 prisoners, 50 standards and colours and 19 guns.
Boufflers made a gallant retreat towards Le Quesnoy and drew within the lines extending from this place to Valenciennes.
Order of Battle
Allied Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Duke of Marlborough
Summary: 162 bns, 300 sqns, 120 artillery pieces
- First line (from right to left
- Sybourg’s Brigade
- Kelburn’s Brigade
- Orrery’s Brigade
- Two foreign brigades
- unidentified foreign dragoons (27 sqns)
- unnamed brigade
- unnamed brigade
- unnamed brigade
- unnamed brigade
- Second line
To do: the rest of the Allied OoB
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Maréchal de Villars assisted by Lieutenant-General d'Artaignan (commanding the right wing) and Lieutenant-General Legall (commanding the left wing).
Summary: 120 bns, 260 sqns, 80 cannon
To do: detailed OoB
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. I, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 518-527
- Abtheilung für Kriegsgeschichte des k. k. Kriegs-Archives: Feldzüge des Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen, Series 1, Vol. 11, Vienna 1886, pp. 103-110
- Kane, Richard: Campaigns of king William and queen Anne, from 1689 to 1712, London: J. Millan, 1745, pp. 84-85
- Treuenfest, A. v.: Geschichte des k. k. Infanterie-Regiments Nr. 20 Friedrich Wilhelm, Kronprinz von Preussen, Vienna 1878