1711 – Siege of Bouchain
The siege lasted from 9 August to 12 September 1711
It was early summer of 1711. Marlborough's Army, having taken the important fortress of Douai the previous year, maneuvered indecisively in northern France, blocked by the French Lines of Ne Plus Ultra – a massive series of fieldworks stretching from the Channel Coast to the Ardennes at Namur.
The allied army had been weakened by the withdrawal of Prince Eugène's Army to cover the Upper Rhine, as the deposed Elector of Bavaria attempted to take advantage of the disruption caused by the death of Emperor Joseph.
On 6 July, Marlborough captured the small fortress of Arleux, just to the north of the Lines, west of Bouchain, both to deny its use to the French as a sally-port, and to secure the water supply to Douai, which could be cut off by damming the canal that supplied the town.
On 22/23 July the French army crossed the Lines and retook Arleux, so the Duke was wrong-footed by Villars as the allied army was too far to the west to intervene in time.
On August 4, Marlborough, initially furious, soon retook the initiative by marching his army as if to assault the Lines near Arras, and carrying out a detailed personal reconnaissance there in full view of Villars' covering army.
That night the army struck camp, leaving their campfires burning to deceive the French, and marched eastwards to Arleux.
At midnight a force from Douai under Cadogan crossed the unguarded French lines, and by 8:00 a.m. the advance guard of the main army was also crossing over.
Villars, arriving on the scene with a few hundred cavalry, realized he had been outmaneuvered, and though he attempted to offer battle in front of Bourlon Wood, Marlborough declined to attack, the Maréchal's position being strong.
Villars thus drew off and attempted to hinder Marlborough's siege of Bouchain which followed.
The city of Bouchain, long the capital of Ostrevant County, is one of the oldest cities in the northern region. There is already evidence of its existence at the time of the lake. They are still found in Roman times, then Merovingian.
The chroniclers tell us that the city was fortified in 691. It was not to lose its ramparts until 1893.
The investment was formed on 6 August, the very day after the lines had been passed, and an important piece of ground occupied, which might have enabled Villars to communicate with the town, and regain the defensible position.
On the morning of 7 August, the Allies completed the crossing of the Scheldt and encamped with their right at Iwuy, opposite Estrun, and their left at Noyelles on the Selle. Their headquarters were established at Avesnes-le-Sec. Woods and ravines covered the front of their camp. They kept their bridge near Estrun. Villars reacted by sending the Brigadier d’Affry to Bouchain with 800 grenadiers, 2 bns, and 2 dragoon rgts (dismounted). He also sent 8 bns and 2 dragoon rgts to reinforce Valenciennes; and 4 bns at Le Quesnoy.
On the morning of 8 August, the Allies threw a bridge over the Scheldt at Neuville for their communication with Douai, which was supplying their bread. Then 60 sqns crossed the Scheldt to bar the road from Douai.
On 9 August, Villars detached M. d’Albergotti with 30 bns across the Sencette to establish entrenchments from Bac-de-Vasnes, across the hills of Marcq and Marquette, up to Wavrechain (more exactly Wavrechain-sous-Faulx), along the marsh extending along the Sensée up to Bouchain. These entrenchments would have kept open his communications with Bouchain on its southern front. Marlborough at once saw this design, and at first determined to storm the works ere they were completed.
On 10 August, General Fagel, with a strong body of troops, secretly crossed over the Scheldt and marched towards the new French entrenchments. But Villars having heard of the design, sent the Maréchal de Montesquiou to reinforce Albergotti’s Corps, thus bringing Albergotti’s forces to 75 bns. Meanwhile, with the rest of his infantry and cavalry, Villars marched directly against the Allied camp, attacking the allied posts at Iwuy with such vigor, that Marlborough was obliged to countermarch in haste to be at hand to support them.
On 11 August, the French completed their new entrenchments which formed a half-circle with their right and left anchored on the Sensée. They could host 50 bns and 50 sqns. However, only 40 bns under M. d’Albergotti were assigned to their defence while 26 cannon were established at Wavrechain.
The French then started to work on a new road across the marsh of Wavrechain to establish a communication between the entrenched camp and Bouchain. Four additional bns were sent to reinforce the fortress, bringing its garrison to 8 bns, 8 grenadier coys, and 2 rgts of dismounted dragoons. The Maréchal de camp de Ravignan replaced M. de Selve, who had fallen ill, as commander of the place.
To defend Bouchain, its governor, de Ravignan, had at his disposal 5,000 men against the 30,000 besiegers under the command of the Duke of Marlborough, but he could count on the advantage of having in his hands one of the strongest and best organized fortresses in France, surrounded by muddy lands for the confluence of the river Scheldt (Escaut) and Sensée. In addition, Villars' Army had taken position to the west of the Allied camp and was in constant contact with the besieged garrison.
On August 12, baffled in this attempt, Marlborough started to erect a chain of works on the right bank of the Scheldt, from Houdain, through Iwuy, to the Sette, near Haspres, while Cadogan strengthened himself with similar works on the left. Villars, however, still retained the fortified position which has been mentioned, and which kept up his communication with the town; and the cutting him off from this was another, and the last, of Marlborough's brilliant field operations.
On 13 August, the Allies completed their works. In the evening, half of the Allied army occupied the new entrenchments with its right at Azincourt and its left at Roeulx.
During the night of August 13, the French marked out three redoubts, which would have completed the Villars’ communication with Bouchain.
On the morning of August 14, the French redoubts were all stormed by a large body of allied troops before the works could be armed. That very day the allies carried their zigzag down to the very edge of a morass which adjoined Bouchain on the south, so as to command a causeway through the marshes from that town to Cambrai, which the French still held, communicating with the besieged town. But, to complete the investment, it was necessary to win this causeway; and this last object was gained by Marlborough with equal daring and success. A battery, commanding the road, had been placed by Villars in a redoubt garrisoned by 600 men, supported by 3,000 more close in their rear. Marlborough, with incredible labor and diligence, constructed two roads, made of fascines, through part of the marsh, so as to render it passable to foot soldiers.
Villars considered that it was impossible to relieve Bouchain and suggested to lay siege to Béthune as a diversion but the French Court did not authorize the project.
On 17 August in the morning, the French completed the new road linking Bouchain to Wavrechain. In the evening, Villars gave orders to d’Albergotti to send 5,000 men to reinforce the 5 grenadier coys defending the new road.
On the night of 17 to 18 August, before d’Albergotti had time to send reinforcements, the Allies detached 600 chosen grenadiers across the two roads to attack the entrenched battery. They rapidly advanced in the dark till the fascine path ended, and then boldly plunging into the marsh, struggled on, with the water often up to their arm-pits, till they reached the foot of the entrenchment, into which they rushed, without firing a shot, with fixed bayonets. So complete was the surprise, that the enemy were driven from their guns with the loss only of six men; the work was carried; and with such diligence were its defenses strengthened, that, before morning, it was in a condition to bid defiance to any attack.
On August 18, Marlborough succeeded to block communication between the Maréchal and Bouchain, also established a security corridor to connect his camp with the support of the Marchiennes Port.
Villars failed to break the siege. He was now effectually cut off from Bouchain, and the operations of the siege were conducted with the utmost vigor.
On the night of 21 August, the trenches were opened.
On the night of 22 to 23 August, the Allies worked at the trenches of their right or western attack, near their fort on a height adjacent to the marsh of Wavrechain. This attack was directed against the upper town along the Sensée River. They also worked at their left or eastern attack directed against the Valenciennes Gate.
On the night of 23 to 24 August, the Allies opened a southern attack on the right bank of the Scheldt and opened the trench on the road leading to Hordain.
On 30 August in the morning, the Allied batteries (a total of 50 cannon and 30 mortars) opened from their three attacks. From then on, a huge train of heavy guns and mortars thundered upon the works without intermission.
On the night of 30 to 31 August, the French drove the Allies out of the three flèches which they had recently captured.
On the night of 31 August to 1 September, Villars threw bridges upstream from Estrun in preparation for an attack against the Allied camp at Hordain and the village of Estrun, which was garrisoned by only 200 men. Around midnight, M. de Châteaumourant crossed the Scheldt on these bridges with approx. 5,500 men, which he divided in four detachments.
- The first detachment under Brigadier de Montgon advanced against Hordain. One hour before daybreak, Montgon attacked and drove back the 3 Allied bns encamped at Hordain (the fourth bn was away in the trenches). The camp was plundered and burned.
- The second detachment under Brigadier d’Aubigny made itself master of the village of Estrun.
- The third detachment under the Brigadier Chevalier de Livry marched along the Scheldt to intercept the Allied troops sent to the relief of Hordain but he arrived too late.
- The fourth detachment under Brigadier de Colandre was charged to make a diversionary attack against Iwuy. However, this detachment which was supposed to launch its attack after the other detachments was spotted too soon and spread the alarm in the Allied camps.
On 1 September at daybreak, the Allies came out of their camps and came to the support of Hordain and Estrun and Châteaumourant retired behind the Scheldt in good order. The army of the Allies remained deployed in order of battle for the entire day.
On the night of 1 to 2 September, the Allies erected an entrenchment on their right flank between Iwuy to Hordain.
The progress of the operations, notwithstanding the vigorous defence by the besieged, was unusually rapid. The Allies quickly recaptured the three flèches and opened breaching fire from their western and eastern attacks. As fast as the outworks were breached they were stormed; and repeated attempts on the part of Villars to raise the siege were baffled by the skillful disposition and strong ground taken by Marlborough with the covering army.
On 4 September, M. de Ravignan was forced to abandon most of the lower town of Bouchain.
On the night of 6 to 7 September, at their western attack, the Allies made two lodgements on the counterscarp of the upper town.
On the night of 7 to 8 September, at their western attack, the Allies made themselves masters of the counterscarp. At their eastern attack, they also managed to make lodgements on the counterscarp.
On September 9 and 10, the Allies perfected their lodgements and prepared for an assault across the ditch. They now had more than 60 artillery pieces in their various batteries and the walls were breached in many locations.
On 11 September at 10:00 a.m., the Allies launched an attack against the right bastion of the lower town. They were twice driven back but their third assault succeeded and they lodged themselves in this bastion. M. de Ravignan then evacuated the left bastion and retired inside the walls of the lower town.
On September 12 at 2:00 p.m., as the counterscarp had been blown down, the rampart breached, and an assault of the fortress was in preparation, the governor asked to capitulate. However, Marlborough wanted that the garrison surrendered as prisoners of war, a condition which M. de Ravignan refused. An hour later, the General Fagel agreed to grant the honours of war to the garrison but specified that it would have to be exchanged as prisoners of war.
On 13 September 1711, the French garrison surrendered but was denied the honours of war and declared prisoners.
On 14 September in the afternoon, the garrison (still 1,400 men fit for duty and 600 sick or wounded) marched out upon the glacis, laid down their arms, and were conducted prisoners to Tournai.
The two armies then remained in their respective positions, the French under the cannon of Cambrai, the Allies in the middle of their lines, resting on Bouchain. Marlborough here gave proof of the courtesy of his disposition, as well as of his respect for exalted learning and piety, by planting a detachment of his troops to protect the estates of Fénélon, archbishop of Cambrai, and to conduct the grain from thence to the dwelling of the illustrious prelate in the town, which now began to be straitened for provisions.
The Allies had 85,000 men (British, Dutch and Imperialists) under the Duke of Marlborough.
The French under Maréchal Claude de Villars had a total of 90,000 men. The garrison of Bouchain under Ravignan was about 3,000 men.
The Allies had lost 4,080 men; the French, 6,000 men killed or wounded, and 2,500 men taken prisoners.
Marlborough had broken through the French defensive Ne Plus Ultra lines and taken Bouchain after a siege of 34 days. Its capture left Cambrai the only French-held fortress between the allied army and Paris.
This article incorporates texts from the following books, which are now in the public domain:
- Alison, Archibald, Sir: The military life of John, Duke of Marlborough; New York: Harper & Brothers; 1848; pp. 282-285
- Pelet and François Eugène de Vault: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 10, pp. 421-438
BookWiki – Siège de Bouchain
Folkers, Maarten: 1711, England bent on peace, Death of Joseph, Bouchain in The Spanish Succession
Gallica – Plan du siege de Bouchain
HainautPédi@ – Siège de Bouchain en 1711 par Marlborough
Rijksmuseum – Beleg van Bouchain
Wikipedia – Siege of Bouchain (1711)
Dinos Antoniadis for the initial version of this article