The French and allied armies confronting each other at Fontenoy. The blue-clad French in the foreground are Gardes Francaises.
Map of the Low Countries with Bergen op Zoom in the upper center.
King George’s habitual summer journeys to Hanover not only raised concerns among his ministers, fearing that a mishap during the voyage might bring the tricksy Prince Frederick to the throne earlier than was desirable, but raised eyebrows on the Continent. As the marquis d’Argenson wrote in his journal, ‘The King of England has gone to Hanover, which astonishes all Europe and makes the lower English classes say that he abdicates, for whoever quits a country loses it.’ Perhaps he had James II in mind. In the King’s absence, authority lay with the Lords Justices. This was effectively the cabinet acting in the manner of a regency, but, despite all being Whigs, it was a far from united group. Henry Pelham, the prime minister, his brother the Duke of Newcastle and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, were all protégés of Sir Robert Walpole, and even after Walpole’s resignation were acknowledged as being part of the first prime minister’s long ‘reign’ through the nickname the Old Corps. The Old Corps were distrusted by the king, who preferred the opposition Whig John Carteret, 2nd Earl of Granville, with whom he could chat away in German, much to the irritation of Walpole and his associates. But the Pelhams had one advantage, in that the Duke of Cumberland, the King’s favourite son, supported the Pelham ministry and the duke’s personal correspondence confirms that he tended to accept the counsel he received from the Duke of Newcastle in particular. Then there were the supporters of the King’s favourite Granville: Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton; Field Marshal John Dalrymple, 2nd Earl of Stair, since 1743 Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in ‘South Britain’ and John Hay, 4th Marquess of Tweeddale, Secretary of State for Scotland. Whether Britain was at war or not, internal politicking would continue as usual.
The Allies’ strategy in Flanders was to relieve the siege of Tournai by forcing the French into a battle four miles away to the east, near the village of Fontenoy. The French and Allied armies were quite evenly balanced – between 50,000 and 60,000 men on each side. The French king was already in Flanders with his son, the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, also Louis. According to Voltaire, Louis’ ‘Royal Historiographer’, the king and his son watched the battle from nearby, where Louis ‘observed every thing with great attention’. But as Cardinal de Bernis observed, ‘Two bullets might have deprived France of her master and her hopes.’ Knowing the Allies’ plans, Maréchal de Saxe had prepared a defensive position with a sequence of redoubts (enclosed gun positions located beyond the main defensive line), the strongest lying between Fontenoy and a wood called Barri or Barry, on a stretch of land that had a gentle incline. Here the guns were fixed in embrasures and manned by a battalion from the regiment of Eu under the command of the marquis de Chambona. As Voltaire describes it, the ‘cannon of this redoubt, with those which were planted to the left-side of Fontenoi, formed a cross-fire sufficient, one would imagine, to stop the efforts of the most intrepid enemy’. Running between Fontenoy and the town of Antoing were three further redoubts, each ‘furnished with three batteries of cannon, one of eight pieces, the other two of four’. The Allies planned for the Dutch and Austrian troops to attack between Fontenoy and Antoing while the British and Hanoverian troops attempted to pass between Barry wood and the ‘Redoubt d’Eu’.
As the British and Hanoverian infantry advanced, the fire from this redoubt (as Voltaire had stated) was relentless. But despite this, the British and Hanoverian troops as a body continued to move methodically forward, and, having topped the ridge, the two opposing armies were suddenly very close. The French refused to fire first. Rather than gallantry, this was a lesson learned at the Battle of Lens of 1648, where they had wasted their ammunition by firing first while out of range. The British infantry proceeded to fire, as Voltaire recalled: ‘lord Charles [Hay], turning about to his men, gave the word of command, in English, to fire! The English [sic] made a running fire ; that is, they fired in platoons, in this manner, that when the front of a battalion, four deep, had fired, another battalion made its discharge, and then a third, while the first were loading again.’ The French infantry, on the other hand, ‘did not fire; it was single, and four deep, the ranks pretty distant, and not at all supported by any other body of infantry : it was impossible but their eyes must have been surprized at the depth of the English corps, and their ears stunned with the continual fire.’ Eventually the ‘first rank being thus swept away, the other three looked behind them, and, seeing only some cavalry at the distance of above three hundred fathom, they dispersed . . . The English, in the mean time, advanced gradually, as if they were performing their exercise . . . Thus the English pierced beyond Fontenoy and the redoubt.’
Joseph Yorke recalled, ‘word was brought that the left had already entered the opposite side of the village of Fontenoy, and if we did but attack it on the right at the same time we should soon be masters of it’. As a result ‘orders were immediately given by the Duke in person to the Highland regiment [the 43rd] to attack the village sword in hand and the two lines were ordered to follow ’em immediately’ which they did in ‘a spirit worthy of the nation and its Prince’. But in ‘vain did our Highlanders twice enter the French intrenchments: ’twas but to get out again with loss’ and rather than ‘being supported by the Dutch Infantry, ordered for that purpose, the ancient honour of their Republic having forsook them, they basely turned their backs upon the foe and left some of their officers to fight alone’. Captain Yorke concludes, ‘It was a cruel massacre of brave gentlemen, but ’tis a fate prepared for us all; may we all submit to it as well! I can’t say our spirits are at all dejected; for, to say the truth, both officers and men seem desirous to meet again on more equal terms.’
James Wolfe was eighteen years old at the time of the battle and already an experienced officer, having fought at Dettingen two years before. His regiment, Barrell’s, was at Ghent when the battle occurred, but he reported to his father that after the Dutch failed to support the British advance, ‘The army made a fine retreat, in such order that the French did not think proper to pursue them. The Duke, I hear, has shown in this action most unparalleled bravery, but was very sensibly touched when he found himself obliged to give over the attack.’ The Dutch were universally blamed for failing to support the British and Hanoverian troops. And, despite it being a technical victory for the French, the British had other ideas. As Philip Yorke (Joseph’s eldest brother) wrote to Horatio Walpole, ‘I think you very right in your judgment, that the French were only not beat.’ The other fact that the British seemed to be universally agreed upon was the heroic behaviour of the Duke of Cumberland. As Philip Yorke continues, echoing his brother’s description, the duke scorned to expose his men to more danger than he was willing to suffer himself, which ‘put them in mind of Blenheim and Ramilies’ and the great English General John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough: ‘in short, I am convinced, his presence and intrepidity greatly contributed to our coming off so well.’ Another officer praised in dispatches was Sir John Ligonier, ‘who, the duke writes, fought like a grenadier, and commanded like a general’. The duke, ‘determined to keep up strict discipline . . . drew out a pistol upon an officer, whom he saw running away’. Meanwhile Königsegg ‘was run over and bruised by the Dutch cavalry, in their flight; insomuch that when the army marched to Lessines, he was left at Aeth’. Philip Yorke concludes, ‘I have not heard, as yet, that the French plume themselves much upon their victory. Their accounts run in a modester strain than usual. It was certainly a dear-bought advantage.’ It was indeed. According to Cardinal de Bernis, Maréchal de Saxe’s comment to Louis after witnessing the carnage on both sides was, ‘Sire, you now see on what the loss or gain of a battle hangs.’
Some weeks later, Horace Walpole, writing to Horace Mann in Florence, observed, ‘All the letters are full of the Duke’s humanity and bravery: he will be as popular with the lower class of men, as he has been for three or four years with the low women: he will be the soldiers’ Great Sir . . . I am really glad; it will be of great service to the family, if any of them comes to make a figure.’ It is not clear what the notoriously waspish Walpole means here by the duke’s popularity among the ‘low women’, although the duke’s first mistress is known to have been the actress Nanny Wilson. More importantly, Walpole senses that here is a member of the House of Hanover who has the potential to win the hearts of not only the British army, but the British people. This would no doubt be assisted by the broadsheets circulated in Britain immediately after the battle reporting that it ‘lasted from Five in the Morning, till Five in the Afternoon’, and that all the while ‘his Royal Highness was constantly in the Heat, of the Action, encouraging the Men, rallying them when broken, leading them to the Charge, and at the same Time watching every Turn, and . . . making every Disposition that might procure him any Advantage’, concluding, ‘God be prais’d, his Royal Highness has not received the least Hurt.’
From the British army camp at Ath the day after the battle, Joseph Yorke writes to his father observing, ‘My handwriting is sufficient to assure you of my being alive with[ou]t saying it, but I ought to add, that the Providence of the Almighty led me thro’ the utmost Perils in following my Royal master, without the least hurt.’ He reports that Lord Cathcart and Lord Ancram are wounded ‘but will do I believe very well’. The former had been shot in the face and, once healed, would, with a breezy flourish, cover the scar on his right cheekbone with a small strip of black silk, earning him the nickname ‘Patch’ Cathcart. Joseph continues, ‘I wish it had succeeded better, our Captain deserves better fortune. He is a true Hero.’ He concludes, ‘I hope things will go better another time, but Tournay will certainly be taken.’ In return, Lord Hardwicke expressed his relief, thanking God that his son was unharmed, yet ‘Would to God our private Joy was not now damp’d by the public Calamity.’ He continues that the duke’s behaviour ‘is universally extoll’d. It is the universal Voice of all the Letters, as well foreign as national. Surely nothing can equal it. It is happy that you have such an Example of a young Prince before your Eyes, whom I doubt not you will endeavour to serve & imitate in the best manner.’ Finally, ‘All our attention here is taken up in considerations how your Army may be reinforc’d & augmented. It is our misfortune that the King is upon the Sea, having embark’d on Friday noon, whereas the messenger [with news of the battle] arriv’d on Saturday morning.’ He signs off, ‘Don’t be dispirited. Our Cause is good, & if not at first, at last Providence will favour it.’
Despite the guarded optimism, after Fontenoy and the surrender of the citadel of Tournai that followed, events in Flanders had swung decidedly in favour of France. Regarding the situation with the Allied army, on 22 May (NS) the Duke of Cumberland had written to the Duke of Newcastle from the new British camp at Lessines that the ‘whole strength of this army is not thirty thousand men, I mean that can fight, & that’s but a poor army especially when the right wing has no sort of confidence in the left & for that reason can not be brought to exert their courage as the foot did last time’. Regular soldiers may believe in the cause for which they are fighting and if they admire and trust their leader they will certainly fight for him. But fundamentally they fight for each other. Confidence in the men either side of you in battle, as well as those within your regiment and beyond, is crucial. The duke continues ‘this letter of ill tidings’ by stating that he and Marshal Königsegg will endeavour ‘to save what we can of these poor remains of the last warrs conquests’ but ‘how much that will be God allone knows’. He concludes, ‘for my part thô I affect to be in spirits & talk of demollishing the French I shall be [contented] if we save Brusselles & Flanders’. Sir Everard, writing in a letter marked ‘private’ to the Duke of Newcastle, states that, in regard to Fontenoy, ‘The Duke bears it extreamly well & seems to turn his thoughts altogether forward . . . his preservation was a recompence to us, for our loss, We must all hope that nothing will induce Him to expose Himself so far again, & I wish your Grace wou’d say something to Him upon this occasion.’
However, despite the personal success for the Duke of Cumberland, it was still the case that the French had now won the advantage in the war. And Maréchal de Saxe proceeded to make full use of it. After the capitulation of Tournai, under the terms of which the Dutch agreed not to fight for France’s enemies, including King George, the city of Ghent fell, followed by Oudenarde, Bruges and Dendermonde. The vital ports of Ostend and Nieuwpoort remained in Allied hands and open to British ships. But if they too fell to the French, then Britain would have lost its vital transport and communications link to the Low Countries. As the duke had admitted, things were in a very bad way. Certainly what Britain did not need at this moment was a major distraction at home.