Battle of Malplaquet 11th September 1709

Memorial to the battle which stands astride the main ridge of the French defence

Louis XIV had sought peace terms unsuccessfully and Marlborough now sought a major battle which would prove conclusive. The French armies were in a poor state of moral and Marshal Villars commanded an army which would be almost impossible to replace. A long bad winter led to the allies taking the field later than usual but their initial aim was to reduce the French fortresses along the frontier with the Spanish Netherlands and open a route into northern France. Marlborough started with Tournai in July. It proved to be a hard nut to crack with much sapping and it was the first siege where the allies had to deal with mines. These produced massive underground explosions which killed hundreds. The garrison surrendered under negotiated terms and the city was occupied on 5th September. After this the gloves were off and King Louis authorised Villars to seek battle. The allies then decided to capture Mons but it was necessary to move quickly before the French could react effectively. A strong mixed infantry and cavalry force under Earl Orkney with the Dutch General Pallandt were sent to seize Saint-Ghislain and on to invest Mons. Prince Frederick of Hesse-Cassel and Cadogan followed bringing the total force to 120 squadrons and over 4,000 infantry. If they were unsuccessful they were to pass Mons to the north and capture the line of the River Trouille east of the city. Saint-Ghislain proved to be too strong but Mons was invested by 7th September.

 

Marshal Villars army was occupying strong defensive lines along the Rivers Lys, Scheldt and Scarpe. He had been joined by infantry under Marshal d’Artagnan and cavalry under Marshal Boufflers and he now advanced from Quiévrain towards forested areas southwest of Mons. He feinted towards St Ghislain on 7th September before closing up to the woods as Marlborough’s troops marched from Tournai.

 

Marlborough had to stop Villars reaching Mons by covering two routes between the forests known respectively as the Gap of Bossu in the north and the Gap of Aulnois in the south. On 8th September Eugene with his German and Imperial Austrian corps was deployed to cover the Gap of Bossu whilst Marlborough took his Dutch and British troops to cover Aulnois. The French army was seen approaching early on 9th September and it became apparent that Villars was committing his troops to battle but he was not enticed into conflict through the woods and took a strong defensive position in the Aulnois Gap near Malplaquet. He was well placed here with a firm position and a strong cavalry force in reserve. Villars then detached his cavalry, under the Chevalier de Luxembourg, further south to cover the gap opposite Maubeuge.

Display board map at the monument showing the deployment on 10th September in the Aulnois Gap.

French cavalry - blue, infantry - brown; Allied cavalry - green, infantry - black

Eugene joined Marlborough for a recce’ during the evening of 9th September and they made a joint appreciation of the situation. If the French advanced through the gap the Allies would attack them in the open but any delays in attacking would give the French more time to strengthen their defences. An early morning attack on 10th September against such defences was impractical because the Allied heavy artillery was still moving forward. Similarly a large force of 19 battalions and 10 squadrons was being brought forward from Tournai by General Withers and would not arrive before 11th September. Marlborough intended to use this strong corps against the French left flank once battle had started. In addition, the terrain was considered difficult and careful preparations were needed for a formal attack so, overall, a day’s delay was considered worthwhile.

 

The battlefield lies on a small ridge running along the border between France and Spanish Netherlands. The woods were close on either side of the Aulnois Gap and there was a circular copse in the middle of the gap, the Bois de Thiery, with Bleiron Farm on its southern side. Streams ran north and south from the ridge. The ground to the north was broken and boggy but to the south it was firm with a wide plain around Malplaquet providing good cavalry country.

Map by Victor Falk at fr.wikipedia

The French dug in and built a defensive line of redans (salients or angled earthworks with two faces pointing towards the enemy) along the ridge across the gap which they manned with 18 battalions and artillery. The Bleiron farm, on their right in the gap, was fortified and a battery of 20 heavy guns was sited to fire obliquely along a fold in the ground towards Bois de Thiery. Further right 46 battalions under the Comte d’Artagnan, built earthworks in the Bois de Laniéres. On the left 53 battalions under Marquis D’Albergotti prepared defences in the Bois de Sars. Three short breastworks were built and guns were sited in a triangular piece of woodland which enabled them to provide enfilade fire across open ground in the centre. Trees were felled and chained together to make obstacles and breastworks, stripped branches were sharpened to build abatis (ramparts) and fields of fire were cleared.

Bleiron Farm

Villars relied on the density of the woods on either side for further protection, particularly on the left. Some earthworks were prepared but unfinished on open ground on the left near La Folie farm. Behind the defences lay the plain of Malplaquet where he deployed 260 squadrons of cavalry.

Looking north across the Plain of Malplaquet with Bois de Laniéres on the right

On the evening of the 10th Albergotti arranged a parley with Hesse and Cadogan and as word spread thousands of soldiers on both sides fraternised in the expectancy of peace. As soon as Villars heard of it he broke it off with suggestions that the Allies were using it for a close recce of the French positions. Marlborough continued with his plan to attack on the 11th and men from the battalions blockading Mons were used to take the reduced garrison at Saint-Ghislain to ensure a clear route for withdrawal should it become necessary. The situation was right for the battle and Marlborough had the support of the Dutch Deputies with no wrangling.

 

Marlborough’s plan was similar to that for Blenheim. He would attack both French wings and as Villars reduced his centre to defend them he would use his reserve to attack with infantry in the centre before letting his cavalry through to destroy the French cavalry on the plain in their rear. This would isolate the two wings to be destroyed piecemeal if they did not flee.

 

Eugene would launch the main assault on the right with 62 battalions of Imperial Austrian and German infantry plus a British brigade to overwhelm the French defences in the Bois de Sars. At the same time the Prince of Orange’s infantry, comprising 32 Dutch battalions and Danish, Swiss and Scots brigades, would attack the positions in the Boisde Laniéres. When Villars committed his reserves to his flanks Marlborough would attack the French central defences with Orkney’s infantry and once the gap was clear the Dutch General Auvergne would take the massed Allied cavalry of 30,000 horses through to destroy the French squadrons on the plain of Malplaquet.

Looking from the centre of the gap towards Bleiron Farm forward of the Allies' frontline

Early morning fog concealed Marlborough’s deployment of 128 battalions in front of the French defences. The lines for his main attack on the right wing were three deep, two deep on the left wing with just one line in the centre. Behind the centre line he had over 200 cavalry squadrons and 100 guns. 37 of these guns would move forward with the attacking infantry. Reveille for the Allied army at 0300 hours was followed with a measure of rum or gin and drumhead services. As the sun cleared the mists 200,000 men faced each other and at 0730 hours a battery of 40 Allied guns opened fire on the French centre redans and on the defences in the Bois de Sars triangle.

Display board map showing the opening of the attack 0730 - 0900 hours

At 0900 hours 85 battalions of Allied infantry assaulted the Bois de Sars and French artillery was brought to bear on them. Withers on the extreme right with 19 battalions and 10 squadrons sought to turn the French left flank as Eugene’s infantry under Lottum and Schulenburg moved into the centre and southern salient of the woods. They attacked in good order but suffered extremely heavy fire with serious losses. The first line was stopped in the open or at the forward edge of the wood but the second and third lines kept the attack going. Some breastworks were seized but order was lost for a while in the woods and troops fell back to re-form.

On the left wing Orange’s infantry moved past Bois de Thiery about 0930 hours and came under fierce French fire from 60 battalions against their 30 battalions. Orange was unhorsed and advanced on foot as his staff was shot around him. His left came into trouble as they approached Laniéres Wood from the French line which was on a spur running southeast of Thiery Wood and Bleiron Farm to Laniéres Wood. A battery of 20 cannons also raked the advancing infantry with round shot and grapeshot causing very heavy casualties.

Looking northwest over Orange's approach from Aulnois and forward southeast to the gap

The leading battalions suffered severely but Orange and his surviving generals pressed on and in places the abatis were overcome and the French infantry were driven back; a Scots brigade in Dutch service on the left successfully seized some breastworks but not for long. At this stage d’Artagnan’s 8 reserve battalions counter-attacked and drove the Dutch out and a retreat in good order was started. The French pursued them but fortunately Hesse-Cassel had 20 Dutch and Danish squadrons which he brought forward where the retreating troops stopped and about faced. Orange was unhorsed for a second time but led his men forward on foot, ran the gauntlet of the French batteries and again reached their entrenchments. Yet another counter-attack forced another retreat until Hesse-Cassel again formed the backstop. At Bleiron Farm a Danish brigade fought their way in against a ferocious defence but suffered a counter-attack from Swiss troops. Despite help from two Hanoverian battalions from Marlborough’s reserve the Danes were forced out.

 

At about 1000 hours on the right Eugene, having rallied his troops, launched another attack into the Bois de Sars and Schulenburg broke into it. Lottum’s German troops, still in the open were brought to a standstill before being reinforced with a British brigade from the centre. A counter-attack by the Marquis de Chemerault was thwarted when Marlborough sent Auvergne’s nearest squadrons forward and Villars ordered him to attack the Allied flank as the soldiers struggled through the woods. This started the thinning of the French centre.

 

Argyll’s brigade and two of Orkney’s battalions now pressed forward into the woods at the salient where 7,000 casualties lay, 30,000 infantry in solid masses and 5,000 French survivors struggled together in a great blood bath killing many, even hewing the dead. They stormed the defences at the triangle and the French withdrew to their rear positions where very fierce fighting continued. Officer casualties were high and control became difficult. Few prisoners were taken and the casualty rate was bloody and high.

 

At 1100 hours, Marlborough, who had been concentrating on Eugene’s attacks became aware of Orange’s situation as he prepared a third attack. With Eugene and the Dutch Deputy Sicco van Goslinga he rode over to the left wing and seeing the situation ordered Orange to stop, protected by Hesse-Cassel’s squadrons, and keep the French occupied whilst the battle continued elsewhere. Marlborough returned to his position in the centre behind the Grand battery and Eugene returned to Bois de Sars. The Allied right slowly gained ground moving forward with Wither’s corps and 20 squadrons from Eugene moving in a wide circle towards La Folie which began to turn the French left wing.

Display board map showing the closing phases

Villars saw this and asked Boufflers for reinforcements but his troops were engaged with the Dutch on the French right so he moved units from the centre to defend his left and reinforced them further with almost all the battalions from the redans. They faced Lottum and stopped him and Schulenburg but Eugene rode forward, rallied the Germans and continued the advance. He was wounded in the neck but kept going and by noon they were through the woods and on the edge of the plain. Schulenburg managed to bring some cannons up and opened fire as Withers made his way round the woods to the end of the French left wing.

 

After being forced out of the woods Albergotti withdrew and formed up on the line of the French reserves about 300 yards back from the woods. Both sides spent about an hour reorganising themselves to continue the battle. This episode in the battle is notable for a clash between the Royal Regiment of Ireland in British service and the Royal Regiment of Ireland in French service, the “Wild Geese”.

There were also Swiss troops on both sides

At 1145 hours Marlborough, joined by Eugene, rode through the Bois de Sars and saw the opposing forces each of about 25,000 men and the French entrenchments abandoned. He returned to his former position and issued orders. Orkney was to advance with his corps and several Prussian battalions to the line of the redans as the artillery brought cross-fire to bear on them in a fire and movement operation. Auvergne and his 30 squadrons were to follow up with Hesse-Cassel’s 21 squadrons keeping in line on the left. By 1300 hours the entrenchments were taken almost without resistance. The lead squadrons were joined by British cavalry under General Wood, Prussian and Hanoverian cavalry under General Bülow and the Imperialist cavalry under the Duke of Württemberg and Count Vehlen, a force of 30,000 horsemen all debouching and forming up ready for the charge. The greatest cavalry battle ever was about to begin.

 

As his was happening the forces under command of Withers, Lottum and Schulenburg, not in the best shape, came face to face with the force which Villars had assembled from Albergotti’s depleted brigades, his centre and his reserves. This was about 50 battalions and they were lined up over a mile about 200 yards from the Allied line. Wither’s cavalry under General Miklau came round the wood beyond la Folie and deployed to attack the French left flank. As they did so they were caught by eight squadrons of French carabineers. Six squadrons were sabred and the wounded slaughtered as the rest were driven back to the wood.

 

At this stage Villars was told of the situation in the centre and that he was about to lose his guns. The two sides came into action but his command group came under fire. Villars was wounded in his leg, Chemerault was killed and Albergotti fell from his horse and broke his thigh. In the resulting confusion the counter-attack was not started and after a pause the French left wing withdrew under a staff officer, Marquis de Puyesgur. Eugene ordered his troops to stand fast and went to join Marlborough.

 

Marshal Boufflers, hearing of Villars’ wounding, hurried forward to take command. The French cavalry had been formed up on the plain all day and suffered from cannon balls ricocheting from allied fire directed at the redans, known as “catching the overs”. They were anxious for action. Boufflers could see the allied troops coming through the redans and ordered the French cavalry forward to attack their hold on the Gap. The Dutch cavalry were not ready to receive them but fortunately a charge by British dragoons gave them the time they needed. The French tried six times but whenever the allied cavalry was thrown back the British and Prussian infantry fire from the redans forced the French back. Eventually Boufflers gave up and withdrew to the heath of Malplaquet. As the allied cavalry deployment was completed a vast mounted battle developed across the Malplaquet plain. Charges, re-forming and counter-charges took place for over an hour as the French horse was pushed back.

The battle was now over, the French left wing was in retreat and Orange had overrun the right wing whilst Hesse-Cassel threatened its rear, they too were in retreat. The situation was recognised by Boufflers and using his cavalry to cover the general retreat by 1500 hours the remnants of the French army was heading for Quiévrain, Bavai and Maubeuge. As Bouffler’s cavalry headed towards Bavai the reserve cavalry under General Luxembourg appeared and these fresh troops prevented the Allied cavalry from any serious pursuit. The rest of the Allied forces were too exhausted to do anything but let them withdraw and consequently the French safely withdrew into their lines of defence.

In Malplaquet village a simple stone with a nearby summary of the war acknowledges this significant battle

Afterword

 

Marlborough's next success was capturing Mons shortly afterwards but recriminations soon followed this battle due to the high casualty rate. The French lost about 13,000 men whilst the Allies lost 22,000 of which 8,000 were Dutch. The figures were used to weaken Marlborough’s position in London where his influence with the Queen and Parliament was already diminishing.

 

The French have always considered Malplaquet a victory in that it saved Mons, albeit in the short term, as ordered by the king, and their army left the field in good order. However they were driven back with great losses, the Allies took the ground and moreover, were ready to continue the battle at first light. The French did not return and went back to their fortified lines. It was in fact a defeat for Villars and a victory for Marlborough.

An old and sadly shabby memorial listing the British regiments whose antecedents fought here can be found near Bleiron Farm. The main monument was erected by France and only shows Boufflers and Villars but it and the site has recently been enhanced to provide a more fitting memorial to all those who fought here, see the top photograph.

Reference: Churchill, S Winston (1947 reprint 1966) Marlborough, His Life and Times, Book Two, George G Harrap & Co. Ltd

 

The photographs were taken in April 2007 and August 2014.