Marlborough, p.55Richard Holmes
Neither army could get at the other without passing through one of the gaps, and with alert cavalry on both sides it was impossible to ‘steal a march’ and pass a gap without the enemy being able to react. On 8 September, after jockeying around the Boussu gap, the two armies moved up to either end of the Louvière and Aulnois gaps. Marlborough had to leave forces to invest St Ghislain and Mons, and Lieutenant General Henry Withers, with nineteen battalions and ten squadrons, was still on his way down from Tournai. On the eighth Villars told Louis:
I have the honour to inform your Majesty of the resolution taken to assemble the army and give battle to the enemy … I have the honour to tell your Majesty that I am delighted that M le Maréchal Boufflers is here; if we attack, he will bear witness that it is with good reason; if we do nothing, I will be pleased that such a brave man will bear witness that we could not have done better.50
Early on the ninth Marlborough rode forward to reconnoitre, and saw Villars’ army coming up in four large columns. For a moment it seemed as if he might simply push on through one of the gaps beside Thiery Wood, which would have caused some consternation as Eugène was away covering the Boussu gap, but by midday it was evident that he was entrenching a position including Sars Wood on its left and Lanière Wood on its right.
Marlborough was in no position to attack on the ninth. His army was spread out watching the gaps, and what Orkney called ‘a prodigious dusty rain’ caused much confusion. It was only towards mid-afternoon that he had enough guns available to bombard the French, by which time they had ‘began and cannonaded us pretty briskly, particularly where our English foot were, and killed us a good many men’.51 Surprisingly, the Allied commanders decided not to attack on the tenth either. Neither Withers’ men, who would be freed by the fall of St Ghislain on the tenth, nor four German battalions ordered down from Mons, had yet arrived, but Marlborough and Eugène were already stronger than Villars, and the French position grew more formidable by the minute. Failure to attack on the tenth was indeed a serious mistake. ‘Either the battle should have taken place on the 10th or not at all,’ declares Ivor Burton.52 Marlborough, however, was anxious not to miss the chance of what he hoped would be a decisive contest, and trusted to his own skill and his army’s courage to win it.
‘The Allies could not attack the day we arrived,’ recalled de la Colonie, who was to command a Bavarian brigade in the French centre, ‘nor the day afterwards.’53 He watched the Allies preparing a great battery of about thirty heavy guns, facing his position, but at the same time the soldiers of his own army were working with passionate energy on their own position. Five arrowhead-shaped redoubts, their parapets thick enough to be cannon-proof, were thrown up on the open ground between Sars Wood and Bléron Farm, with a gentle slope between them and the Allies. A battery of thirty guns was tucked carefully into a re-entrant near Thiery Wood, while the trees on the forward edges of the French-held woods were felled with their tips facing the expected direction of assault. Where possible leaves were stripped and branches sharpened, but even without these refinements an abatis of felled timber presented a cruel obstacle to attacking infantry. Entrenchments for infantry and guns alike creased the landscape, dug by famished men who now rose supremely to their task. Not long before they had grumbled when Villars had come to speak to them, intoning, with mock piety, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Now they roared ‘Vive le Roi’ and ‘Vive le Maréchal Villars’ as he rode amongst them. Old Boufflers, born in 1644, was senior to Villars as a marshal of France, but freely agreed to serve under his command, and the sight of this stubby warrior reminded men that he was a doughty defensive fighter, and there were cheers for him too.
Villars gave Boufflers command of his right wing, with forty-six battalions in Lanière Wood under d’Artaignan and de Guiche. The twenty-gun battery swept the ground to their left front, and eighteen battalions, including the Swiss and French Guard, were entrenched opposite Bléron Farm. A nearby memorial now makes the tragic point that there were Swiss in both armies, and that they met in battle here. There were thirteen battalions, some of them Bavarian and Irish, manning the redoubts, with four in close support, and the bulk of the French artillery, some sixty guns, was sited to beat the open ground in front of them. Lieutenant General Albergotti commanded twenty-one battalions securing the angle where the line of the redoubts swung north to the edge of Sars Wood, and Lieutenant General de Goësbriand, in overall command of the left, had seventeen battalions near La Folie Farm. Most of the cavalry was drawn up just behind the redoubts, close enough to support the infantry if required, and to take advantage of any disorder produced by the repulse of an Allied attack, but not so close as to get caught up in the infantry battle. The gentle rise of the ground meant, though, that British cannonballs that skimmed above the low
crest defended by the redoubts went on to hit the cavalry behind. Villars’ units were under-strength, but he had some 85,000 men and eighty guns, posted to take best advantage of the ground.
Marlborough proposed to attack the French army in much the same way that he had at Blenheim and Ramillies, first unbalancing it, and then administering the knockout blow. In this case he would attack the French flanks, thereby inducing Villars to reinforce them from his centre, which would then be broken by direct assault. He had about 110,000 men and a hundred cannon. Though Withers’ men were not to arrive in time to form part of the attack on the left, as was first intended, he decided to commit them to his right, the closest part of the line to their direction of arrival, hoping that they might be able to crash their way through the ungarrisoned portion of Sars Wood and hook round the French left flank. Prince Eugène, in overall command on the right, recorded this as ‘a special attack’.
On the Allied right, Schulenberg was to assault Sars Wood with forty battalions, with d’Auvergne’s forty squadrons of Dutch cavalry close behind. Count Lottum would attack at the angle of Sars Wood and the line of the redoubts with twenty-two battalions, among them the Duke of Argyll’s British infantry. In the centre Orkney commanded fifteen battalions, eleven of them British, with 179 squadrons of cavalry to their rear – a sure sign that Marlborough intended to pass his cavalry through a French centre weakened by making detachments to the flanks. The young Prince of Orange, who had done so well at Oudenarde, commanded the left flank. Although he was not reinforced, as had been expected, by Withers, he nonetheless had thirty Dutch battalions, among them the Blue Guards and the Scots brigade, troops of the highest quality. The attack would begin at daybreak, signalled by a salvo from the entire British artillery, immediately taken up by the Dutch cannon.
11 September 1709 dawned foggy, and both Lord Orkney and Colonel de la Colonie, perhaps a thousand yards apart at the time, thought that this was advantageous for the Allies, letting them form up without interference from French guns. ‘It was hardly 7’oclock when we marched to the attack,’ observed Orkney,
and it really was a noble sight to see so many different bodies marching over the plain to a thick wood where you could see no man, as all Schulenberg’s, Lottum’s, Argyll’s and Webb’s foot marched and fronted to the wood to attack. I fronted quite another way, to the high ground where the mouth of the defile was, so that we made a crocket [a protrusion in the main line]. My orders were to bring my right into the wood, cross the plain, and advance my line up to their entrenchments. As the others beat them from their retrenchments, such a fire of musketry and cannon I believe no man alive ever heard, and great execution was done on both sides with our artillery.54
De la Colonie found himself facing Orkney in the very centre of the field. A fourteen-gun battery came into action on the right of his regiment, almost touching the Gardes Français, the next unit along.
I noticed the officer commanding the artillery in front of our brigade, who was not terribly young, but so active in his task that he lost no opportunity to hasten the fire of his battery: I was able to see the balls plunge deep into the depth of the enemy column. But as soon as a breach wa
As the Allied infantry advanced, they made a quarter-turn to the right, and disappeared into Sars Wood, ‘in the place where their battery had made a breach’. ‘The head of this column soaked up all the fire of our infantry which was entrenched before it,’ said de la Colonie, ‘and which did it terrible damage, but it did not slacken in its stubbornness.’ As the column vanished into the smoke and confusion of the wood, an Irish brigade was ordered to leave the central entrenchments and move into the wood, and de la Colonie’s brigade was told to replace it. Later his own brigade was ordered to follow the Irish.
The first order which was brought to us, addressed to the brigade major, we refused to obey because of the importance of retaining the post we then held, and the danger of abandoning it; but a lieutenant general came a second time to order us, with great passion, to march.55
De la Colonie’s memory has compressed the events of several hours into a single narrative, and the vision-narrowing effects of stress, combined with the obscuration caused by the grey-white powder smoke, meant that he could never see what went on to his flanks. The fighting in Sars Wood was a bitter close-quarter struggle, with successive Allied attacks being checked and fresh battalions committed to replace broken ones. Sergeant John Wilson wrote of
an obstinate engagement for the space of two hours in which there was a great effusion of blood on both sides, the armies firing at each other bayonet to bayonet. And after they came to stab each other with their bayonets and several came so close that they knocked one another’s brains out with the butt end of their firelocks.
Having taken the first part of the wood, the attackers found more trees and earthworks before them.
This action continued both desperate and bloody which continued for the space of five hours with incredible fury and resolution on both sides. And all this while doubtful of success because the enemy rallied and regained, with extraordinary valour, the entrenchments from which we had beaten them.56
Allied progress was agonisingly slow and costly, and, as senior officer casualties were to show, death was often the price of superfine cloth and gold lace. Eugène was hit in the neck but refused to have his wound dressed: if the Allies won, he said, there would be time enough later, and if they lost it would not matter. John Marshall Deane, whose 1st Foot Guards saw some very hard fighting, regretted that
abundance of men was lost in our side at these bold attacks, and amongst the rest a great many of our commanding officers as generals, brigadiers, colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors and officers of all ranks, likewise several gentleman officers and engineers belonging to the two trains of artillery, and abundance of good old experienced soldiers.57
The Duke of Argyll, whacked three times by spent musketballs, heard his soldiers mutter that he must be wearing a breastplate, and ripped open his waistcoat and shirt to show them that he was not. ‘The Duke of Argyll went open-breasted amongst the men to encourage them to behave as became Englishmen,’ wrote Mrs Davies. ‘You see, brothers, he said, I have no concealed armour, I am equally exposed with you.’ She went forward into the wood to take her husband some beer, but her dog began to howl, leading her to fear the worst. ‘I ran amongst the dead,’ she wrote, ‘and turned over near two hundred, amongst whom I found Brigadier Lalo, Sir Thomas Prendergast, and a great number more of my best friends, before I found my husband’s body which a man was stripping. At my approach he went off, and left his booty.’58
The Royal Regiment of Ireland was the last to come in from Tournai, where it had been levelling the siege works, and it is impossible for us to be certain whether it actually formed up on the right of Withers’ detachment, which is where it should have gone, or was a good deal further to the east, and engaged in the fighting for Sars Wood, as David Chandler suggests. In any event, as Captain Parker recalled:
We continued marching slowly on, till we came to an opening in the wood. It was a small plain, on the opposite side of which we perceived a battalion of the enemy drawn up, a skirt of the wood being in the rear of them. Upon this Colonel [Richard] Kane, who was then at the head of the regiment, having drawn us up, and formed our platoons, gently advanced towards them, with the six platoons of our first fire made ready. When we had advanced within a hundred paces of them, they gave us a fire of one of their ranks: whereupon we halted, and returned the fire of our six platoons at once; and immediately made ready the six platoons of our second fire, and advanced upon them again. They then gave us the fire of another rank, and we returned them a second fire, which made them shrink; however, they then gave us the fire of a third rank after a scattering manner, and retired into the wood in great disorder; on which we sent our third fire after them, and saw them no more.59
Parker’s comrades found, amongst the forty dead and wounded marking the enemy’s line, the wounded Lieutenant O’Sullivan, who told them that they had beaten the Jacobite Royal Regiment of Ireland. Parker’s regiment had only four killed and six wounded.
On the Allied left the Dutch attack fared much worse. At their first attempt the Dutch on the extreme left actually got into the entrenchments in Lanière Wood, but were dislodged by a counterattack by the Régiment de Navarre, ‘which happened at that time to be composed of very short men, nearly in rags’. The Dutch Blue Guards, further to the right, were raked by the concealed French battery and fell in their hundreds. As the Dutch tide ebbed the Prince of Hesse-Cassel brought his cavalry forward to discourage a counterattack. The Dutch, Scots and Danish battalions rallied and attacked again, only to be scythed down in their windrows by French musketry and cannon fire: Generals Fagel, Spaar and Oxenstiern were among the dead. ‘The Hollands army suffering very much,’ wrote Private Deane. ‘The 2nd and 3rd battalions of Blue Guards being bloodily smashed and broke, insomuch that the three battalions altogether cannot make above 800 men … And a great many other regiments in the Hollands service being very much broke and shattered.’60
At a little before eleven o’clock Goslinga galloped over to Marlborough, who was preoccupied with the battle for Sars Wood, and urged him to support the Dutch attack. Marlborough rode across to his left, congratulated Orange on the valour of his men, and told him to make no more assaults for the moment, but simply to keep the French right fixed and unable to move. Commentators have not been slow to blame the Prince of Orange for what was, by any standards, a disaster. The redoubtable C.T. Atkinson suggests that Orange was simply meant to ‘demonstrate’ against the wood, but ‘suddenly converted his demonstration into real attack’, though he gives no evidence to support this interesting deduction.61 Marlborough was perhaps a mile away from the Dutch attack, and we cannot suppose that he would have mistaken, over a period of several hours, the noise of a real attack as opposed to a feint. Nor is it really credible to suggest that Orange was so piqued at the absence of Withers’ detachment that he decided to risk his own life repeatedly, and to persist in a course of action that killed most of the generals to whose care he had been entrusted, not to mention thousands of his rank and file. The suggestion that he lost direction in the smoke and thus attacked the wrong wood is not wholly incredible, but does raise the issue of what wood he was meant to attack, and, again, why Marlborough, probably just within sight and certainly within earshot, did not intervene.
Marlborough never blamed Orange, even at a time when a scapegoat would have been useful. Indeed, he told Godolphin: ‘Our left was Dutch troops only, who behaved themselves extremely well but could not force the enemy’s retrenchments, so that their foot has suffered more than any other nation.’62 It is more likely that, just as Marlborough did not tell Orkney that his role at Ramillies was essentially diversionary, preferring to keep his options open until he could see how the battle was shaping, so at Malplaquet he did indeed order Orange to attack Lanière Wood. What surprised him, and most Allied commentators, was how very well the French fought. There were those who, like Sergeant Wilson, maintained
At about midday Villars was strengthening his failing left wing by leaching troops from his centre, the Irish brigade first, with de la Colonie’s Bavarians to follow, hoping to attack Schulenberg’s men when they emerged from the wood. In the process, as Boufflers was to tell Louis, ‘our centre was deprived of infantry by the necessity to send it to the left’.64 Marlborough, prompted by Schulenberg, told Orkney to press on into them, and ordered d’Auvergne and Hesse-Cassel to prepare to follow him with their cavalry. ‘It was about one o’clock that my 13 battalions got up to the retrenchments,’ wrote Orkney, ‘which we got very easily, for as we advanced they quitted them and inclined to their right.’65
Villars might yet have reaped a dividend from weakening his centre, for he had by now assembled some fifty battalions ready to counterattack the Allies as they emerged from Sars Wood. He had just been told that the redoubts had been lost when he was hit in the knee by a musketball: he tried to retain command, but fainted, and was carried off in a sedan chair. At the same moment another general was killed and Albergotti himself was seriously wounded. Command of the French left wing now passed to Puységur, but he failed to launch the quick counterattack that might have jarred the Allies. However, when Miklau’s ten squadrons of cavalry, which had accompanied Withers’ outflanking force, appeared near La Folie well ahead of the infantry which might have supported it, it was roundly charged by ten squadrons of carabiniers and scattered.
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