Battle of Oudenarde 11th July 1708

In spring 1708 the Duke of Marlborough commanded the Allied armies of 90,000 men in the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) facing the French armies of 100,000 men under General Vendôme. Vendôme was under the nominal command of the Duke of Burgundy, eldest grandson of Louis XIV.

 

Prince Eugene of Savoy, in the Moselle Valley with 40,000 men, faced a French army of 27,000 men under of the Jacobite Duke of Berwick. Marlborough planned on Eugene bringing his army to Flanders to defeat Vendôme before Berwick could support him. Vendôme's plan was to out-manoeuvre Marlborough and threaten Brussels and Antwerp.

Vendôme moved his army on 26 May to threaten Brussels and Louvain so Marlborough moved forward from Brussels to counter the move and then stopped to observe the French as Eugene and Berwick continued their marches to Flanders.

 

The French were determined to exploit the growing dissatisfaction of the Belgians with the Dutch administration. Led by the Flemish Count Bergheyck activists planned on enabling the French to occupy the major fortress towns. In June they suggested that Ghent and Bruges could be seized by the French who accepted this plan and began troop movements on 4th July. Marlborough was aware of Bergheyck’s intentions and responded immediately when he learnt of the French preparations.

 

On 4th July Vendôme sent flying columns which occupied Bruges on 6th July and Ghent two days later so Marlborough was only able to attack the French rearguard. Vendôme’s army was secure west of the River Dender threatening Brussels and Antwerp as well as cutting Marlborough’s logistic links to Holland and the waterways used for links to England via Ostende. Ironically Vendôme was now further from his depots in northern France than Marlborough was from his and he also needed to re-establish his line of communication. This meant seizing Oudenarde on the River Scheldt, which was currently held by the Allies. The investment of Oudenarde began on 9th July as they learnt that the allies were at Herfelingen and concluded that Marlborough was heading for Namur or Charleroi. Vendôme decided to move his army to Lessines on the Dender as a precaution.

 

On 8th July Marlborough was joined at Assche by Eugene ahead of the 15,000 men he brought with him. The need to bring the French to battle before they could gain the security of their border fortresses was urgent so they decided to attack without Eugene’s men but before Berwick’s troops could join Vendôme. Late that day the Allied army moved towards Herfelingen and on 9th July William Cadogan (Marlborough’s Quartermaster General and effectively his Chief of Staff) led the vanguard towards Ghislenghien and the crossings of the Dender at Lessines whilst Marlborough led the main body. Cadogan occupied the town by dawn on 10th July and the pioneers started to reinforce the river bridges.

 

The two opposing armies were marching on converging courses and when the French realised Cadogan’s position they returned to hold the line of the Scheldt and raised the siege of Oudenarde. They were not seeking a battle and did not realise Marlborough’s main body was all at Lessines. This re-deployment now meant Eugene’s forces could join Marlborough before Berwick could reinforce Vendome.

Oudenarde looking northwest from the Lessines approach - the main part of the town to the west is largely obscured by urban development

The citadel has long gone but Cadogan would have picked out the city hall and the cathedral

On 11 July Marlborough’s troops crossed the Dender early in the morning and Cadogan went forward with the vanguard. His aims were to seize crossings across the Scheldt and establish contact with the Oudenarde garrison. Cadogan rode ahead from Lessines and by 0900 hours from high ground above Oudenarde observed Vendôme’s army preparing to cross the Scheldt 6 miles downstream at Gavre. Marlborough was informed by messenger and told that the French could be brought to battle. The vanguard closed up and was at Aename by 1030 hours. Five pontoon bridges were launched across the river which with two stone bridges and two more temporary bridges made nine available for 80,000 men to cross. The cavalry was sent up and trotted across the pontoon bridges by about 1230 hours, linked up with Cadogan and moved on Eyne. The infantry followed and crossed a few hours later. General von Rantzeau, leading the cavalry, then bumped into foraging French troops.

Approximate area where Cadogan launched the pontoon bridges

Vendôme’s troops also bridged the Scheldt by midday and were crossing in a leisurely manner seemingly unaware of the Allied army’s activities. His main army moved slowly along the low Heights of Huyshe towards a suitable campsite with a small division of Swiss troops under the Marquis de Biron on his left flank in Hearne. Biron was aware of the Allies’ activities and after calling for support from Vendôme he advanced towards Eyne and the Allies’ bridgehead.

Biron was surprised when he saw the extent and strength of the Allied deployment. From the windmill at Eyne he saw the bridges under guard and the main body streaming into position across the river. When Vendôme was informed he disbelieved the news at first then was amazed before becoming furious and declaring the speed of the Allies’ march as impossible. An aide was sent back to Biron telling him to attack immediately and he would lead further support. It was reported to Vendôme about 1330 hours by which time Marlborough and Eugene were across the river with the cavalry and positioning a six gun battery behind Schaerken. They deployed 20 squadrons of Prussian cavalry under General Natzmer across the Scheldt to the Allies open left flank and sent officers to reconnoitre Boser Couter, a low rounded hill to the right flank of the deploying French army.

Modern bridge over the River Scheldt at Eine

As Biron considered how he might follow his orders in view of the Allies' build up he was advised that the ground was marshy and unsuitable and he could see that he was outnumbered. When Vendôme arrived with his cavalry he was informed of the situation and withdrew leaving Biron with four battalions in Eyne and seven in Heurne. In the meantime Burgundy was following up slowly and seeing no action he drew up his force along the high ground behind the River Norken and centred on Huysse.

Huysse and a nearby mill, possible site of the original mill where Burgundy's group assembled

Oudenarde from the area of Burgundy's command post - the cathedral can be picked out in the centre

The situation now enabled Marlborough to bring his infantry across the bridges over the Scheldt and commit to battle. This would take some hours and many were to arrive just in the nick of time to contribute to the forthcoming battle. Cadogan had fascines placed in the Diepenbeck stream and at 1500 hours with his left flank guarded by Rantzau’s Hanoverian cavalry he led 16 battalions in an attack on Eyne. Three of the four Swiss battalions soon surrendered and the fourth which tried to withdraw on the Heurne road were cut down by the cavalry. The three battalions in Heurne which had come forward to help saw this and fled back past the Norken.

 

The cavalry swept on to charge down 12 squadrons of enemy cavalry which had been foraging in the area from the French left wing until Rantzau’s men eventually ran up against French artillery at Mullem. There they were charged by 15 French squadrons, thrown back and pursued along the road towards Eyne. The young Electoral Prince (later to become King George II), riding with Rantzau, had his horse shot from under him and the colonel who helped him remount was also shot. They re-formed back along the Diepenbeck stream in line with Cadogan’s infantry.

The Norken at Mullem

At 1600 hours, mainly in revenge, the French advanced from the Norken river to attack and Burgundy sent General Grimaldi with 16 squadrons to examine a possible approach left of Cadogan’s position. He found it difficult with farms, fields, woods and three streams in thickets and boggy ground, particularly the Diepenbeck. Grimaldi saw that Marlborough was feeding in both cavalry and infantry to meet this threat there was infantry protecting Groenewald so he reported back that the ground was unfit for horses and held in strength. He recommended that infantry should be used and withdrew to the mill at Royegem where Burgundy and staff were assembled. The French infantry on their right wing had almost all crossed the Norken and the Royegem – Oycke road and were advancing slowly into the mixed landscape as a significant threat.

 

Six battalions advanced on Groenewald but the Prussians drove them off in fierce fighting. The action attracted Vendôme who rode straight in, rallied the six battalions and reinforcing them with six more from the French centre he plunged into the action. Cadogan now had 16 battalions around Groenewald and along the Diepenbeck towards Schaerken which were able to rebuff Vendôme’s force. Nevertheless the marshal’s belligerent nature drove him on and he now committed more and more troops from his centre until Cadogan was under extreme pressure. His men fought fiercely in the intense combat and held their ground.

At 1700 hours Vendôme sent orders for Burgundy to bring the 30,000 cavalry, infantry and artillery of his left wing into action east of Groenewald. Marlborough had Natzmer’s 20 squadrons and Rantzau’s 8 squadrons here but without infantry support. Fortunately Burgundy disagreed with Vendôme’s order in the belief that the ground was an impassable morass. An aide was sent back to Vendôme to explain this but he was killed en route, the message was not delivered and consequently Burgundy was never told the ground was good enough and Vendôme’s force had already been over it. By the time he realised the left wing was not advancing he was on his feet fighting with a pike like a private soldier.

 

Cadogan was still in trouble as the French right wing was advancing and threatened his flank but at this stage the Duke of Argyll arrived with 20 battalions and tuned into line to face the whole line of attackers from Herlegen to Schaerken. In total 50 battalions of the French right and centre now fought 20 British and 16 German battalions with one battery in support over a mile along the road and the Diepenbeck stream. The musketry fire and hand to hand combat was intense as both sides surged to and fro.

Diepenbeck, much of it is re-routed for drainage and runs underground

The infantry continued to arrive over the Oudenarde bridges and 20 battalions of Count Lottum’s corps were deployed to deal with the French right wing. They recovered the inn taken by the French at Schaerken and by 1745 hours had forced them back over the Diepenbeck. Veldt-Marshal Overkirk and 25,000 men of the Dutch army were now crossing the bridges and Marlborough was ready to give him his orders. Unfortunately the extra bridges failed and there was severe congestion in Oudenarde with Overkirk’s cavalry passing through but with his infantry an hour behind.

Overkirk's route through Oudenarde

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

Note: The colours on this map are the opposite to those used on Churchill's map above

Marlborough put Eugene in command on the right for the main battle at 1815 hours as Vendôme regained Herlegem and Groenewald in his third attack. He then placed 18 Hessian and Hanoverian battalions directly from their march behind Lottum’s position and withdrew Lottum’s troops through these fresher ranks to go to the right and support Eugene. Their immaculate drill brought this manoeuvre off and 20 minutes later the 20 battalions were a mile away with Eugene. He now had 56 battalions in combat whilst Marlborough held just 18 as he waited for Overkirk.

The line of General Week's attack with two infantry brigades reinforcing the Allies' left wing

Marlborough came under more pressure as he had to attack with the first troops that became available. He gave Overkirk his orders at 1845 hours who sent General Week with two infantry brigades to strengthen the left wing. The French were then pushed back to Diepenbeck village as Eugene on the right drove them out of Groenewald and Herlegen with more fierce musketry fire. The French still had a third of their troops in reserve and large numbers were seen moving to their right wing whilst their main cavalry threat remained on their left facing Eugene. 17 squadrons of British cavalry under General Lumley were now at Bevere and Marlborough sent them to reinforce Eugene. Just before 1900 hours Eugene attacked with Natzmer’s cavalry on his right. They broke the French squadrons but as they rode on they met infantry battalions and although they broke two the remaining horsemen were charged by the Maison du Roi cavalry who dispersed them. Natzmer’s survivors withdrew behind the infantry but 75% had been lost and they could not rally again. The French cavalry could now see Lumley’s squadrons ahead of them and declined to attack. These squadrons then remained to guard Eugene’s right flank.

 

The centre under Marlborough was now fully engaged in holding the line of the Diepenbeck. This was about as much as could be done there as the key manoeuvre developed on his left wing. Overkirk now held Boser Couter, 16 battalions under Count Oxenstiern occupied Oycke and Week’s brigades were fighting the French right wing. Marlborough now gave Overkirk orders to advance towards Royegem and led by the 19 year old Prince of Orange four brigades of Dutch infantry and 12 squadrons of Danish cavalry under Count Tilly attacked above and to the rear of the French right wing. The infantry in his path gave way and the Maison du Roi could not stop them. On Marlborough’s right wing Cadogan attacked from Groenewald and the Allied line began to form a large horseshoe containing more than 50,000 French troops.

Overkirk's line (from right to left) attacking the French right wing and forming the horseshoe

It was now 2030 hours and the French command group around the mill at Royegem, still without their Marshal Vendôme, were distinctly nervous as they watched the bitter fighting going on below them. Now they could see Overkirk’s men advancing relentlessly towards them with nothing stopping them. They fled to their left where they found their troops retreating before Cadogan’s attack. The ends of the Allied horseshoe closed and as darkness fell and friends found themselves firing on friends Marlborough called a ceasefire at 2130 hours and ordered all units to stand fast until dawn.

 

Two thirds of the French army were contained but the other third had not been committed. Vendôme met the French command group at Huysse about 2200 hours and recriminations began. His words to Burgundy were bitter and he sought to fight on but the consensus was against him. He gave the order to withdraw to Ghent after which those who could fled leaving those still in contact to their own devices to escape. Many struck out for France or surrendered. Marlborough made preparations for a general attack at dawn but only prisoners, the wounded and the dead remained.

 

Afterword

 

Although Berwick’s forces were now near they went to cover Namur and Mons rather than join Vendôme. Marlborough’s army was reinforced with the balance of Eugene’s troops and moved toward the French frontier. Lillie was besieged but did not fall until December; Ghent and Bruges were recaptured by the New Year. During the coldest winter in memory Louis XIV sought peace but his generous overtures were rejected and the war continued.

 

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

 

The photographs were taken in August 2014.

 

The ground has changed much since 1708, especially in the south-eastern half of the battlefield, and places are difficult to determine. This includes some of the places quoted by Churchill e.g. agricultural roads from Ooike lead to Huysse rather than Royegem which is on lower ground. Churchill mentions an inn at Schaerken which changed hands several times during the battle but the village seems to have disappeared under the commercial developments along the modern Oudenarde-Ghent highway. The village of Bevere (Bruwaan) is an example.

Bevere (Bruwaan) and much of the south-eastern area of the battlefield is now a large commercial complex

This inn still stands beside the old road to Ghent at Mullem and is over 400 years old so no doubt some of the combatants may well have visited it. The building is typical of others of the era.

Hotel Mariaanshoofd, Mullem