The opening land campaign of the war began with predictable sieges of key Rhine fortresses and punitive quartering of French troops that advanced against German lands and towns. The garrison defending Philippsburg resisted for a month, from September 27-October 30, in face of 30,000 enemy and the master of 17th-century siegecraft, Vauban. The fortress at Mainz fell thereafter. As had been done for the first time during the War of the Reunions, once again the French employed bombardment of fortified towns which would not yield as a tactic of terror and as a substitute for full siege. And yet again, French troops carried out the devastation of the Palatinate and scorched all other parts of Germany they reached.
This aggression combined with atrocity brought most German states into the war by the end of 1688: Bavaria, Brandenburg, Hanover, Hess-Kassel, and Saxony joined Leopold I and smaller German states already allied in the League of Augsburg. The Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire formally declared war on France on January 24, 1689. The United Provinces joined the fight on November 26, 1688, despite William III’s personal preoccupation with English affairs, as the Grand Alliance took shape. In addition to razing cities and villages of the Palatinate, into midsummer French armies burned out parts of Baden and Württemburg, and stretched collection of contributions as far as Bavaria. Then the French retreated, still scorching villages and earth as they departed for fortresses along the Rhine. Allied armies followed, vastly outnumbering the French and sometimes pushing bayonets at the backsides of retreating enemy. The Electors of Bavaria and Brandenburg led separate armies in discrete sieges of French fortresses, with mixed success. Charles V, dispossessed Duke of Lorraine and Imperial general, brought the main Allied army before Mainz, which he took after a siege that lasted from July 17 to September 8.
The defense of Mainz cost France the fortress and 2,000 casualties but used up most of the campaign season. There was a small clash at Walcourt (August 25, 1689) that decided nothing. There was also limited fighting in Flanders in 1689, while small-scale fighting occurred along the Pyrenees. James II landed in Ireland in March 1689, but the decisive fight there did not take place until 1690. The immediate impact of the start of the “Williamite War” or “Jacobite War” in Ireland was to convince the English Parliament to declare war on France, which it had been most reluctant to do until French troops accompanied James II in his landing at Kinsale in Cork. That May, a colonial expedition out of Massachusetts captured Port Royal in Acadia (modern Nova Scotia). A further effort to take Québec failed in October after a week of chaotic and ineffective siege.
As the war expanded on the European continent, it settled into a pattern of sieges, fights over lines, and campaigns of maneuver. Only occasionally were there battles, and while some of these were bloody, all proved indecisive. Each side raised huge armies, and the taxes and contributions needed to pay for greatly expanded land and naval forces. As in prior wars waged by Louis XIV, the dense population and complex topography of Flanders, along with mutual proximity of enemy armies and well-stocked French magazines, dictated that the Netherlands became the main fighting theater.
One of the largest battles in decades in Europe saw the French crush the Dutch at Fleurus (June 21/July 1, 1690), where maréchal Luxembourg employed brilliant and highly risky tactics quite unlike the standard fare of 17th-century generalship. But then Luxembourg failed to pursue a broken enemy, allowing Prince Waldeck to re-form at Brussels and reinforce from surrounding garrisons. Brandenburg and Spanish regiments and cavalry squadrons joined fresh Dutch troops and the survivors of Fleurus. In early August, this new Allied army of 55,000 took the field. The French also reinforced their several field armies. But facing superior numbers in both Flanders and Germany, Louis hesitated to undertake new sieges or offensives. A rare moment of prudence, or perhaps even fear, overcame the king, and he ordered his Flanders army into defensive lines. Assaults by Allied flying columns on these lines in late 1690 floundered. French cavalry and dragoon raids were also made into Dutch territory, in punishment and to raise contributions.
The war spread to northern Italy in mid-1690 as Victor Amadeus II brought Savoy into the Grand Alliance. The provocation was Louis’ demand that the duke surrender to France the key fortress town of Turin. Victor Amadeus refused and took the field, expecting assistance from his new allies. Nicholas Catinat moved sharply into Piedmont and defeated the Savoyards near the monastery at Staffarda (August 8/18, 1690). The conquest of Savoy for France followed the usual French pattern of rapid sieges and bombardment or executions of towns and villages that held out or refused contributions. It also entailed vicious fighting against guerilla Vaudois who had returned to their Piedmontese valleys from exile in Switzerland to fight the French, this time allied with their old duke. In other secondary theaters, small French and Spanish armies contested various fortresses and valleys in Catalonia and Roussillon while William and James fought it out in Ireland, culminating in the decisive fight at the Boyne (July 1, 1690). Fighting continued in Ireland for another year, but James’ cause was already lost by mid-July 1690.
William III returned to the United Provinces in February 1691. He immediately took charge of organizing a vast Dutch-German coalition for that year’s campaign in Flanders and the Rhineland, numbering in total over 220,000 men. The French also raised huge armies, but so many were France’s enemies in the Grand Alliance that Louis was compelled to deploy on five separate fronts- including along his Atlantic coastline-to prevent descents. The French magazine system in Flanders again allowed Louis’ northernmost army to literally steal a march on the enemy as the French invested and besieged Mons (March 15-April 8, 1691) before the Allies were ready to take the field. A huge force of 46,000 French encircled Mons, which was garrisoned by just 6,000 Dutch. William hurried into the field with 38,000 Allied troops but failed to relieve the city.
Luxembourg opposed William in Flanders that summer. The two nearly fought at Anderlecht in early June, then resumed a campaign of attempted sieges and effective blocking maneuvers. There was a small fight at Leuze on September 19 when Luxembourg attacked the Allied rear guard, but no battle ensued. In the Rhineland, a similar campaign of march and countermarch, maneuver and blocking maneuver, ate up the summer and fall without leading to more than skirmishing between isolated units and foraging parties. Similarly, fighting in the Pyrenees was, as usual, limited and indecisive. But there was real fighting with real consequences in northern Italy. Catinat invaded and quickly took Nice (April 2), Avigliana (May 29), and Carmagnola (June 9). Reinforced with 15,000 Habsburg troops, Victor Amadeus besieged Carmagnola in turn and retook it on October 8. However, another French army completed the conquest of Savoy while its duke was fighting in Piedmont.
The fighting season opened in 1692 much the same as it had in 1691: each side raised massive armies and deployed on multiple fronts, with the major armies and heaviest fighting taking place on the traditional battlefields of Flanders and the Rhineland, with lesser fights in Italy and along the Pyrenees. What was different was Louis’ plan to invade England, but this vain conceit was aborted when his battlefleet was destroyed at Barfleur-La Hogue in May. Louis attended the violent siege of Namur (May 25-July 1, 1692), accompanied by his full court of painters, musicians, writers, fops, and ladies. Namur fell, after which Luxembourg and William fought to a bloody draw at Steenkerke (July 24/August 3, 1692).
In Germany, the usual summer and fall maneuvers, raising of contributions, and executions of villages exacted a great toll on civilians without producing any larger strategic effect. The French were paid back in kind along the Italian frontier, where superior Allied armies for the first time burned fortresses and scorched French lands in an incursion in force into Dauphiné and Roussillon. The French retaliated by laying waste parts of Catalonia, even as Louis sent out diplomatic signals that he desired peace with Spain and perhaps with all the Catholic powers of Europe. This effort to divide the Grand Alliance along religious lines came to naught: Louis might be motivated by religious hatred against Protestantism in France, but the age when European wars and alliances might be determined by confessional allegiance had already passed. It was one of many things the king did not understand about his own time.