The Devil Must have Carried Them: Oudenarde Part I

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde, John Wootton

Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome.

Louis, Duke of Burgundy.

The French were astonished to find themselves beaten in the race for Lessines. Vendôme was in favour of hurrying on to catch Marlborough before he could cross the Dender in strength, but Burgundy was more cautious, and wanted to get the Scheldt between him and the Allies. Accordingly, the French called off their operations at Oudenarde and sheered away for Gavre (Gavere), six miles below Oudenarde on the Scheldt. When it came within his reach, Chanclos hacked at their rearguard with Wallis’s Dragoons. Marlborough realised that if the French were able to bridge the Scheldt at Gavre they could then fall back towards the security of their frontier fortresses, and Berwick’s imminent arrival would bring the forces to near-parity. The French might lose Bruges and Ghent, but any opportunity for bringing them to battle in the open would be lost.

Accordingly, he ordered Cadogan, with eight squadrons, sixteen battalions and thirty-two light ‘regimental’ guns, the army’s pontoon train and a strong party of pioneers – perhaps 10,000 men in all – to make straight for Oudenarde. Once there, he was to supplement its two masonry bridges with five pontoon bridges (two in the town and three downstream), which would enable the main body of the army to cross as fast as possible, and to hold a bridgehead on the far bank to give the newly-arriving troops space to form up. Cadogan was on the move at one on the morning of the eleventh, and about eight hours later he reported that he was in sight of Oudenarde and the French were still at Gavre, east of the river. His five leading battalions were across the river by midday, and the bridges were complete soon afterwards. The French had begun their own rather more leisurely crossing at about ten o’clock on 11 July.

The field of Oudenarde is the most difficult of Marlborough’s battlefields to grasp, for the expansion of the town, especially in the form of light industrial premises and market gardens on the water meadows north of the river, obscures the traveller’s vision. The view enjoyed by Cadogan from the high ground at Eename, just above his bridging site north-east of the city, is hard to duplicate today. But for Cadogan, who had something of his master’s eye for the ground, the picture was very clear. The Scheldt meandered northwards through Oudenarde, built on both its banks, and then curled out in a great eastward bend south of Gavre. Inside the bend rose a range of low irregular hills, laced by streams – the most substantial of them the Norken, the Diepenbeek and the Marollebeek – which flowed down to the Scheldt. Almost due north of Oudenarde, and a little over four miles from its ramparts, were what some contemporaries called ‘the heights of Huyshe’, bosky hillocks, one of them crowned, then as now, by a windmill. The Norken flowed across the southern front of this little ridge. The main Ghent road followed the northern bank of the river, while the tree-lined Bruges road ran north-westwards over the wooded ridge of the Boser Couter through the village of Oyke. The area’s dark soil was fertile, its villages prosperous. In the short term the heavily-cultivated low ground on the Scheldt’s north bank would be crucial, for if Cadogan was to gain Marlborough room for manoeuvre he had first to seize this.

Cadogan kept his first four battalions, all of them Prussian, close to the Scheldt to protect the crossing. He formed up the remainder of his infantry on the axis of the Ghent road, with Joseph Sabine’s brigade, carrying its Union colours in action for the first time, on the left, and Plattenburg’s Dutch and Scotch-Dutch battalions on the right: Major General Josef Rantzau’s Hanoverian dragoons were on the left of the foot. Lieutenant General the marquis de Biron, responsible for covering the flank of the French army as it crossed the Scheldt, was on the move towards Cadogan, with two brigades of infantry, comprising seven good Swiss battalions, and one regiment of horse, perhaps 5,000 men. However, he could not see the crossing site, and when he heard shots as the leading Swiss bumped into Rantzau’s troopers near the village of Eyne he rode to the windmill there to see what was happening. His second in command, Major General Pfeiffer, in Eyne with the leading brigade, had quickly summoned the second brigade. Biron, who had now seen the crossing site and Cadogan’s force, rode back to hasten the arrival of this reserve, and sent a galloper to tell Vendôme what was happening.

The marshal, enjoying an alfresco lunch by the roadside between Gavre and Huysse (Burgundy, tellingly, was some short distance away, lunching with his own entourage), was not pleased. ‘If they are there,’ he declared, ‘then the devil must have carried them. Such marching is impossible.’ He looked hard at the southern horizon, where he could see clouds of dust announcing that Marlborough’s main army was on its way. Vendôme’s decision, although quickly made, was probably the right one. Biron was told to attack the bridgehead as soon as he could: Vendôme himself would take the cavalry of the left wing to support him, and a message was sent urging Burgundy to follow with the left wing’s infantry. Vendôme hoped to brush Cadogan away from the crossing site and hold the line of the river before Marlborough was up in strength.

Everyone in the Allied army soon knew that they were running a race against time. Lieutenant General Natzmer wrote:

On the march we received the cheerful news that Cadogan had thrown bridges over the Scheldt at Eename, near Oudenarde, without any resistance, and also that the enemy, coming up from Alost, were planning to cross the river at Gavre.

This news filled us with joy and in our eagerness we sought out my Lord Duke to allow us to advance at a faster pace.

Even the lowly Private Deane could see what was afoot:

we marched by break of day, and by 2 in the afternoon we came to Oudenarde, which was a good five leagues, where we were drawn up on the rampart walls until more of our horse advanced, which they did in brave order about 2 in the afternoon. The front of our army passed that river and as fast as they came over were drawn up, in brigades, in order of battle towards the defiles, as well to sustain Major General Cadogan …

Eugène was there in person, though his troops were still far behind. ‘Towards 12 o’clock the head of our cavalry of the right wing reached the bridges and crossed by the pontoons at a brisk trot,’ he wrote, ‘but the infantry took longer to move, and it was several hours later that they began to cross.’ ‘It was no longer a march,’ declared Goslinga, ‘but a run.’ As successive units breasted the rise at Eename they could see ‘the dust of the enemy’s march in the air as far as the Scheldt; a certain sign that the enemy was trying to cross it before us and dispute the passage’. As this happened, ‘the power of emulation was so great that we could not keep the troops detached to guard our baggage; more than half of them absconded to join their companies on the march’. Goslinga, overcome by the mood of the moment, gave ten pistoles to some dragoons to help clear the way for him. He remained critical of Marlborough, who ‘appeared visibly exhausted, and did not give any positive order for the encouragement of his troops’. However, this was one of those moments when an army, shocked and perhaps a little ashamed to have been outwitted, felt strength bubbling back into its veins, and sensed what was required of it without much need for orders. Marlborough and Eugène remained, for the moment, at Cadogan’s crossing site, ‘the sacred anchor for the whole army’, where they heard the musketry to their right swell from a mutter to a roar.

We cannot be sure quite when Vendôme mounted his horse and rode down to meet Biron, for in the wake of the French defeat the issue soon became politicised. Vendôme argued that it was as early as ten in the morning, and that he could not get Burgundy to move till four in the afternoon: if only the royal prince had moved when he was asked to do so, the French would have enjoyed a famous victory. Saint-Simon, in contrast, suggests that it was not until two o’clock, after Allied cavalry had begun to cross and the window of opportunity was closing fast, that Vendôme was sure what was happening. Eugène certainly thought that the marshals’ failure to agree on a joint course of action and carry it out promptly was fatal. ‘But for this misunderstanding,’ he admitted, ‘we should perhaps have been defeated; for our cavalry was engaged a full hour before the infantry could join it.’ In contrast, the French Lieutenant General d’Artaignan (sic) maintained that his own infantry was very slow in getting into action in adequate numbers. ‘As the army came up,’ he wrote, ‘we found the enemy had already moved in such strength that we could not oppose the passage of the river, and the business reduced itself to a general action.’ The official Allied account reckoned that it was not until five o’clock that there was more infantry than the sixteen battalions that had accompanied Cadogan.

When Vendôme approached Eyne he found that the expected counterattack had not taken place. The Allies facing Biron had grown more and more numerous, and a six-gun battery (sited, had Vendôme but known it, by Marlborough in person) had just come into action behind the village of Schaerken on Cadogan’s left. Lieutenant General the marquis de Puységur, Burgundy’s chief of staff and a noted military theorist, had arrived to lay out a camp, and warned him that the ground to his front was impassable. Marshal the marquis de Matignon, another staff officer, agreed, and told Biron to stay where he was. Vendôme reluctantly agreed that an attack was indeed impossible, and moved off to the right with his own cavalry. This happened at about three o’clock, thought the author of the official Allied account: ‘The French cavalry in the plain before our advance guard began to disappear, taking their ground towards their own right.’ The Allies themselves thought that the Diepenbeek in front of Eyne was indeed an obstacle – ‘marshy, and hardly passable for horse, though very narrow’ – so Puységur’s advice was not as foolish as is sometimes suggested.

Cadogan’s men had indeed spent some time filling part of the brook with fascines before they were ready to advance, and not long after three o’clock, with his Prussian brigade now summoned up from the crossings, Cadogan attacked. Sabine’s brigade, directly opposite the village of Heurne, advanced to the tuck of drum without firing a shot until it was twenty yards from the Swiss, and then began to slam in its platoon volleys. Three of the four battalions in the village surrendered almost at once, and the fourth, making off for Heurne, was caught in the open by Rantzau’s horsemen, curling round the northern end of Cadogan’s line, and cut to bits. The three battalions of the second brigade, probably on the western edge of Heurne, fell back in disorder.

Rantzau then turned his attention to Biron’s twelve squadrons, drawn up across the Ghent road, and charged them too, breaking La Bertoche’s regiment and capturing its colonel, standards and kettledrums. He then assailed the French cavalry drawn up between Royegem and Mullem, but although his initial impact did some damage he was driven off by weight of numbers. ‘Here it was that the Electoral Prince of Hanover distinguished himself,’ said the Allied account, ‘charging with his sword in his hand at the head of a squadron of Bulow’s dragoons. His horse was shot under him, and Colonel Loseke that commanded the squadron was killed, fighting bravely by him.’

As Rantzau’s men wheeled back they found that Natzmer’s twenty squadrons had arrived.

Cadogan himself came to me in great joy at our arrival and my coming up in his support. I crossed the village of Eyne, where the fighting had just ended, and formed up beyond it. Soon afterwards Prince Eugène came and greeted me: ‘I find you pretty far ahead.’ He then rushed forward to examine the enemy’s position for himself. In a little while he returned in great spirits, and exclaimed: ‘We have got to get at them hand over fist.’

It was easier said than done. Although ‘the troops continued to pass the bridges with great diligence’, the Allies were still desperately short of infantry, and the French army, like some great beast aroused from slumber, was at last beginning to grope forward. Burgundy sent Grimaldi with sixteen squadrons to look at the ground on Cadogan’s left, but his leading squadrons found the terrain very soft, and he reported that it was poor going for cavalry, so infantry should be used instead. This was certainly not a frivolous objection: Captain Robert Parker thought that the whole of this central area of the battlefield, now richly cultivated, was ‘a marshy piece of ground, full of trees and brushwood’. It was only on the western flank that it began to open out to ‘a spacious plain … here he [the enemy] drew up the greater part of his cavalry. At the end of this plain is the village [of] Oycke, which covered their right flank: here he also posted a good body of foot and dragoons.’ Grimaldi rode back to join Burgundy and his entourage at the windmill in Royegem, from which they enjoyed a good view of the field.

Cadogan had now got his infantry into line from Groenewald towards Schaerken, with Natzmer’s and Rantzau’s horsemen on his right flank. Successive waves of French infantry broke against Cadogan’s line, with Vendôme, in a fighting fury, half-pike in his hand, urging his men on. At perhaps five o’clock he asked Burgundy to throw the whole of the left wing against the cavalry on Cadogan’s right. Burgundy, advised by his staff that the ground was impracticable, decided not to attack, and the officer who rode down to give Vendôme these gladsome tidings was shot before he could deliver the message. It is hard not to sympathise with Vendôme, but equally easy to recognise that he would have been in a better position to argue his case had he been with Burgundy at the mill and not ‘fighting with a pike, like a private soldier rather than a marshal of France charged with the supreme control of ninety thousand men’.

It was the crisis of the battle. Before Vendôme realised that Burgundy’s attack would never materialise, the Duke of Argyll, pounding up from the bridges ‘with all possible expedition’ with twenty British battalions, came into line on Cadogan’s left, just in time to withstand Vendôme’s next assault. As the French seemed to be gaining ground, Count Lottum’s men, another twenty battalions, swung into action on Argyll’s left. Although the French took the inn (in fact a house of ill repute) at Schaerken at about 5.30, and were perhaps half a mile from the crossing site, Overkirk’s Dutchmen were now crossing the two stone bridges and two pontoon bridges in Oudenarde itself.