The Battle of Fontenoy 1745

Battle: Fontenoy

War: War of the Austrian Succession or King George’s War

Date: 11th May 1745

Battle of Fontenoy - Lord Charles Hay of 1st Foot Guards
Lord Charles Hay of the First Foot Guards challenges the Gardes Francaises at the Battle of Fontenoy

Place: East of the Scheldt opposite Tournai around the villages of Fontenoy, Vezin and St Anthoine in South West Belgium.

Combatants: British, Hanoverians, Austrian and Dutch against the French.

Generals: The Duke of Cumberland (British), Marshall Konigseck (Austrian), Marshall Saxe (French).

Size of the Armies: 56,000 French against 50,000 British and allies.

Winner: The French.

British Regiments: Fontenoy is not a battle honour for British regiments.

These British regiments were present at the battle: 3rd and 4th Troops of Horse Guards, 2nd Troop of Horse Grenadier Guards, Royal Regiment of Horse, King’s Horse, 7th Horse, Royal Dragoons, Royal Scots Greys, King’s Dragoons, 4th, 6th and 7th Dragoons, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foot Guards, 1st, 3rd, 8th, 11th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 25th, 28th, 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 34th and the Highland Regiment.

Account:
The 1745 campaign season began with the French army commanded by Marshall Saxe laying siege to Tournai, the important Flemish medieval city lying in the south-west of Flanders on the west bank of the Scheldt. The Duke of Cumberland, the favourite second son of King George II, had been appointed to the command of the Pragmatic Army that year, at the age of 24. His Royal Highness set his army in motion to relieve the Dutch garrison in Tournai.

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King Louis XV of France visits the battle field after the Battle of Fontenoy
King Louis XV of France visits the battle field after the Battle of Fontenoy.
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Marshall Saxe doubted whether French troops could stand against English and Austrians in open battle. He prepared a position in the hills to the east of the Scheldt comprising a triangle of fortified points behind which the French army would be shielded. Two of these redoubts were in the villages of St Anthoine and Fontenoy at the top of a sloping incline. The third was on the edge of a wood and called the Redoute D’Eu.


Map of Battle of Fontenoy

Grenadier
Grenadier of the 1st Guards
and soldier of the 25th Foot

The Pragmatic Army approached the base of the incline through Vezin and other villages, that had been set ablaze by French skirmishers. It was apparent that the French were occupying St Anthoine and Fontenoy but the whereabouts of the rest of the French army was uncertain.

English cavalry ventured onto the incline and came under cannon fire. General Campbell, the lieutenant general of the horse, was killed and the cavalry withdrew to take no further part in the battle.

The army camped on the incline and the next morning formed up for the attack. Two columns of English Foot were formed under the command of Lieutenant General Sir John Ligonier. Their task was to advance up the incline and assault whatever lay over the brow.

Fontenoy could be seen on the left and opened fire with its cannon on the foot. Then the hitherto unnoticed Redoute D’Eu was espied on the column’s right, at the edge of the extensive Barry Wood, as it too opened fire.

Brigadier Ingoldby was deputed to take the Redoute D’Eu before the columns attacked, but he prevaricated and called for artillery. Ingoldby was no doubt daunted at the prospect of assaulting the redoubt with foot alone. In spite of increasingly peevish directions from His Royal Highness, Ingoldby failed to move.

Finally Ligonier’s two columns were ordered to advance even though both fortified positions remained intact, one on each flank subjecting the columns to damaging cannon fire.

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Marshal de Saxe celebrates victory over the British
The Marshal de Saxe celebrates the victory over the British and Hanoverian columns after the Battle of Fontenoy.
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The two English columns of foot reached the top of the incline and found the whole French army arrayed before them on the plateau. The English Foot were then attacked by waves of infantry, horse and dragoons. Only when the attack was made by fresh regiments of Irish Foot in the service of France did the columns finally give way and retreat back down the incline, ending the battle.

Battle of Fontenoy
The Battle of Fontenoy
(c) Illustration by John Mackenzie 2008 - available for sale.   Click on the illustration to reach the enlarged version, keep the cursor on the illustration
and then click again on the shield that will appear in the bottom right corner for the full enlargement.

In the meantime the Highland Regiment had committed itself to frenzied but unsuccessful attacks on Fontenoy.

Troopers
Troopers of the Royal Scots Greys
and the Royal Horse Guards

Casualties:
French: Foot: Killed 53 officers and 1,681 soldiers Wounded: 321 officers and 3,282 soldiers Cavalry: 1,800. Total: 7,137.
British: Killed: 1,237 and Wounded: 2,425
In the regiments particularly involved:
1st Guards killed 89 wounded and missing 151
2nd Guards killed 114 wounded and missing 125
3rd Guards killed 109 wounded and missing 138
11th Foot killed 53 wounded and missing 171
12th Foot killed 159 wounded and missing 162
21st Foot killed 5 wounded and missing 281
23rd Foot killed 189 wounded and missing 133
31st Foot killed 133 wounded and missing 153
Hanoverian casualties: killed: 432 and wounded: 978. Total: 1,412

Follow-up:
The Pragmatic Army drew off after the battle and retreated leaving the field to the French. There was no pursuit. During the rest of 1745 Marshall Saxe captured Tournai and other Flemish cities. Later in the year most of the British regiments were called back to Britain following the outbreak of the Jacobite Rising in the Highlands of Scotland.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
The most celebrated anecdote of the battle relates to Sir Charles Hay, a captain in the 1st Foot Guards (illustrated). On reaching the brow of the incline the columns confronted the French line of Foot. Opposite the 1st Foot Guards were the Garde Francaise. This French regiment had given way at Dettingen and in their precipitate retreat had tipped up one of the bridges of boats. Many had drowned.


The three regiments of British Foot Guards
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese

Sir Charles Hay is reputed to have doffed his hat and bowed to the French officers saying: “We are the English Guards. We remember you from Dettingen and intend to make you swim the Scheldt as you swam the Main.”

The alternative story is that Sir Charles Hay said “Messieurs les Gardes Francaises, s’il vous plait tirez le premier.”

Hay was wounded in the battle.


The Battle of Fontenoy King Louis XV points at the victorious Marshal Saxe

Illustration:

  • The Highland Regiment’s officer casualties in the battle were: Killed: Captain John Campbell, Ensign Lachlan Campbell. Wounded: Captains Robert Campbell, Ronald Campbell and James Campbell.
  • Those involved in the battle included: Jeffrey Amherst as Sir John Ligonier’s adc, Lord George Sackville (tried by court martial after Minden 1759 and as Lord Germaine played a leading part in British policy during the American War of Independence).
  • Fontenoy gave the British Foot a reputation for stubborn determination. It caused observers to express surprise at the weak performance of troops at Prestonpans and Falkirk later the same year.

Reference:

Fortescue’s History of the British Army Volume 1 Part II
Fontenoy by Francis Skrine



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