The year 1712 started promisingly enough for the armies of the Second Grand Alliance (the Hapsburg Empire, the Dutch Republic, Great Britain and a host of minor powers) operating in the Netherlands during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). After 10 campaigns and three battles, the armies of the French Sun King, Louis XIV, had been driven back toward the outer rim of la vieille France. Only a few key fortresses (Arras, Cambray and Landrecies), the last line of the famous frontiére de fer, or ‘iron curtain,’ designed by the French engineer Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, stood between the victorious Allies and the gardens of Versailles.
If only one of those fortresses fell, Louis XIV would have no other option but to sue for peace under very dark conditions. Politically speaking, however, the situation was much more favorable for the French than for the Allies of the Grand Alliance. The weak link in the Alliance was Great Britain. In August 1710, Lord Treasurer Sidney Godolphin, who together with John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, had dominated English politics in the preceding years, was dismissed an replaced by Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford. Parliament was dissolved, and the elections that were held in October resulted in a Tory victory. In January 1711, the new masters of Britain started secret peace negotiations with France. The situation intensified in April with the death of Emperor Joseph I. Overnight, the once unfortunate Archduke Karl of Austria, pretender to the Spanish throne, became Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. This surprising development made the Tories even more inclined to peace. It was in no one’s interest, with the exception of the new emperor, to replace the threat of a Bourbon hegemony of Europe with that of a Hapsburg one. The Whig slogan ‘No peace without Spain’ was buried forever.
Even so, the military situation was still too favorable for the Allies, and Marlborough was still very much in the picture. He was removed in January 1712, however, on charges of embezzling government funds and was replaced by James Butler, second Duke of Ormonde. That same month, with Britain anxious to see the Dutch accept peace, a general peace conference was opened in the Dutch city of Utrecht. It was at that moment of political uncertainty that the fateful last campaign of the war came about.
Ever since Marlborough’s Pyrrhic victory in the bloody battle of Malplaquet (September 11, 1709), the War of the Spanish Succession had turned more and more into one of attrition. The main goal was no longer the crushing of the enemy on the battlefield; instead, the Allies hoped to force France to seek peace by the employment of superior economic means. The taking of key fortresses and the collection of ‘contributions’ from the conquered local populace had become the most important military aim of the Allies. And a major item in this type of warfare was dry forage (i.e., oats and hay) for horses. Usually, armies could only take the field at the end of May, when the grasses had reached a certain length. The feed for the horses could then be gathered in the fields. After 1709, the French had been able to take very strong defensive positions covering their fortresses, which could only be taken with fearful losses or by surprise. By building up very large stores of dry forage, however, the Allies were in a position to take the field as early as April, while the French were still tied to their winter quarters. In 1710, as one result, the more mobile Allies captured the very important fortress of Douai without much opposition. In 1711, the French developed substantial forage magazines of their own, albeit with difficulty, because they had to transport all their fodder by road, whereas the Allies could use the major waterways (the Scheldt and Lys rivers) as avenues to build up their stores. Because the French now had the forage, the Allies could only conquer one minor fortress that year, Bouchain, although their penetration of the frontier defenses had been a blow to French morale.
The campaigns of 1710-1711 taught the Allies important lessons: first, that it was possible to make gains on the French only by taking the field early; second, that forage magazines alone were no guarantee of success. It was imperative, though, that the Allies try to limit the amount of forage stored by the French because, with adequate supplies of fodder, the French could take strong defensive positions in April and deny the Allies easy victories.
Early in 1712 the French were building their magazines of dry forage in Arras, Cambray and Valenciennes. Arnold Joost van Keppel, Earl of Albemarle, commander of the Allied forces in Flanders during the winter, obtained accurate information about the state of those magazines from his spies. In February he wrote to the Council of State in The Hague that it was of the utmost importance to burn the French magazines because the French were preparing for the recapture of Bouchain.
On March 1, Allied forces totaling about 16,000 men, taking with them 20 pieces of artillery and mortars, marched swiftly toward Arras. They halted opposite the French and dug their trenches in less than three hours. The French attempted a sortie with all their grenadiers, but they were quickly beaten back. ‘The cannon,’ wrote the Dutch official Philip Frederik Vegilin van Claerbergen, ‘were put on the batteries towards the evening, and at midnight they started firing in such a way with red-hot cannonballs, fireballs and bombs that the [forage] magazine started to burn at two o’clock, which [the fire] spread itself so violently that everything was burned to the ground before dawn, without any house, as far as we know, in the city being damaged, because it was forbidden to throw in that direction.’
At 10 o’clock the next morning the Allied force’s units marched back to their respective garrisons without the loss of a single man. The operation had been a tremendous success — more than a million rations of fodder had been burned.
Although the French had suffered a considerable setback, they were still determined to take the field early with strong forces in defense of Arras and Cambray. Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was to command the forces of the Dutch States-General, was anxious to establish control of the Censee River. Otherwise, any siege of Arras or Cambray would be unfeasible.
Fortune turned her face away from the Allies at this crucial moment. Albemarle marched with about 50 battalions and 100 squadrons to the Censee on April 12, only to discover that the French infantry had already occupied all the posts alongside it. The entire Allied strategy fell to pieces. The bridgehead at Bouchain could not be used for an attack on Cambray because it was too small. After initial success for the Allies, the second action of 1712 clearly favored the French.
Even so, the months of campaigning time had to be used to advantage — the Allies could not afford to sit still. On April 26, the Allied army concentrated near Douai; it comprised 119 battalions and 225 squadrons. But now the Allies had to wait for the arrival of the Imperial troops — 16 more battalions and 67 squadrons. They arrived one month late, on May 18! The delay represented another serious setback for the Allied campaign.
Nonetheless, it was decided that the Allies would cross the Scheldt and venture into battle — and if that was not feasible, they would besiege Quesnoy. On the 26th the armies marched and crossed the river below Bouchain. On the same day Albemarle was detached with 12 battalions and 30 squadrons to defend the supply line between Denain and Marchiennes. To ensure its safety, in fact, the Allies developed a new line of supply parallel to an abandoned French one of 1711 so that all the necessary supplies for the army could easily be transported from Marchiennes to Denain. An exception was made for bread, which was baked in Bouchain.
On May 28, the Allied quartermasters-general, Britain’s William, first Earl of Cadogan, and the Dutchman Daniel Wolff van Dopff, reconnoitered the upper Scheldt to see if it would be possible to enter the plain of Cambray and force the French to fight. The day after, a council of war was held with Ormonde, Eugene and the Dutch field deputies to decide between offering battle or undertaking sieges of Quesnoy and Landrecies. During that dramatic meeting, the Duke of Ormonde suddenly revealed that he had received special orders from England ordering him to ‘avoid engaging in any siege, or hazarding a battle, till you have further orders.’ He was further instructed to keep his orders a secret from the Allies and to communicate them to the French commander, Maréchal Claude Louis Hector, duc de Villars. These orders became infamous as the war’s ‘restraining orders.’ On June 4, the Allies held another council of war with Ormonde in which they asked him if he was willing to cover the siege of Quesnoy, to which, strangely enough, he consented. On the 19th, the trenches were opened, and on July 4 the fortress capitulated.
On June 17, meanwhile, the conditions under which Great Britain was willing to make peace with France had been proclaimed in the British Parliament by Queen Anne, and on the 25th Ormonde declared that the British and all the troops in British pay were to leave the Allied army and march to Dunkirk. The leaders of the’subsidy-troops’ replied, however, that they had no intention of quitting the Allied army. The Duke told them that in that case he had no other option but to stop their pay and supply of bread. The bread suppliers of the Dutch army, the brothers Juda and Salomon Pereira, then took it upon themselves to supply bread for the 30,000 to 40,000 British subsidy-troops.
Because only the British national troops (20 battalions and 20 squadrons) were to leave the Allied army, the French refused to ratify a cessation of arms. Secretary of State Henry St. John, the Viscount Bolingbroke, was determined, however, to make peace and decided to make Louis XIV a better offer. In exchange for Dunkirk, Great Britain was prepared to make a separate peace. Meanwhile, on July 10, a council of war was held among Eugene, the field-deputies and the foreign generals, and it was decided to lay siege to Landrecies. On the 15th, Ormonde declared that this time he would not participate in the siege and that his orders were to leave the army and march with the British troops to Dunkirk.
Landrecies was invested on July 17 by an Allied force of 34 battalions and 30 squadrons under the command of the Prussian General Anhalt-Dessau. The army of occupation under Eugene still comprised 67 battalions and 220 squadrons, and the supply line between Denain and Marchiennes still was guarded by 10 battalions and 23 squadrons under Albemarle. Marchiennes held a garrison of six battalions and two or three squadrons under Brig. Gen. Charles Berckhoffer.
By undertaking the siege of Landrecies, the Allies took the risk of compromising their supply lines. Everything, from siege guns and munitions to bread, had to travel from Marchiennes to Denain and from there to Landrecies, a total distance of about 40 kilometers and all along the front of the French army. The French, therefore, were in a position to choose a suitable point for attack, whereas the Allies were obliged to scatter their army along the entire line to defend it.
The sector most likely to be attacked was Denain-Marchiennes. If Villars was able to capture Denain and sever the communication between Marchiennes and the Allies, the enemy would be in trouble. Eugene was aware of this danger but hoped that he would be able to march with the bulk of his army in time to relieve the garrison at Denain if it came under attack.
The French generals, for their part, were wondering how to prevent Landrecies from being captured — but not for long. Louis XIV had given positive orders that Villars should risk battle if the Allies besieged Landrecies. Accordingly, on July 19, the French marched toward the Selle River. Eugene quickly countered by moving the Allied army closer to Landrecies, thereby increasing the distance between it and Denain. After a reconnaissance, Villars then concluded that it would be impossible to fight a battle on either side of the Sambre River. After appropriate consultation with Versailles, the French marshal decided that the only option left to relieve Landrecies was to attack Denain.
This would be a bold maneuver. The French would have to march about 30 kilometers (19 miles), cross the Scheldt and attack an entrenched position. Success would depend on secrecy — and luck. At 6 p.m on the 23rd, the French marched.
In his memoirs, J.M. de la Colonie, a veteran soldier and participant in the action of Denain, described the measures Villars took to disguise the true intentions of his march. ‘Twelve hundred workmen were mustered and set to work to make roads along the banks of the Sambre in the direction of Guise, although this was not the route our general had in his mind to take us. To deceive the enemy still more, he sent some dragoons…, who at fall of night took this road along the Sambre with measured tread, and so as to lead our opponents to believe that the whole of our army was on the march, they were accompanied by reliable men, extended at intervals, who shouted out in the darkness the names of our regiments, and drummers were posted here and there along the line who every now and then gave a few taps with their sticks as if to recall scattered soldiery.’
In the early morning of July 24, the French advance guard of 22 battalions, 40 squadrons, pontoon-men, and an artillery brigade, followed by 22 battalions and 40 squadrons, reached the Scheldt. The main force arrived at noon. It was half an hour after the French had reached the Scheldt that Albemarle was informed. He marched 16 squadrons to the crossing over the Scheldt but arrived too late to turn the tide. Denain was already under attack.
Albemarle and his force of 13 battalions and 30 squadrons had been busy since May 26, building up Denain’s defenses. Immediately after his arrival, he had given orders to develop entrenchments to guard against the enemy garrison at Valenciennes, which was only 7 1/2 kilometers (4 1/2 miles) distant. While not meant to withstand the assault of an army, the fieldworks became more extended than was usually necessary in order to accommodate an artillery train — providing the horses and breadwagons that would be coming and going constantly from Marchiennes with a place to stay during the night. As a result, Albemarle only had enough soldiers — three ranks — to properly man one-third of the entire length of the new defensive works. Another disadvantage was that the ground was so rocky that it proved impossible to make a strong entrenchment or to dig a second ditch about 30 meters (100 feet) in front. That was a serious omission — now the enemy would be able to advance very quickly toward the entrenchment before the defenders could pour volleys of deadly musketry into the attacking formations. A palisade was also lacking — if the French reached the entrenchment, they would be able to climb into it.
Between Denain and Marchiennes, Albemarle had constructed a double line of about 12 1/2 kilometers (8 miles). On May 31, General Berckhoffer had been detached with a small force to Marchiennes, the communications between the army and Denain ensured by two pontoon bridges across the Scheldt. On the other side, a small entrenchment had been made in which Eugene had posted six Imperial and Palatinate battalions. On July 12, Albemarle had received an order to send one of his two pontoon bridges to Landrecies to be used for the supply line between the besieging force on the east bank of the Sambre and the army of occupation on the west bank. He had refused three times because it would be impossible to send all the munitions and breadwagons across just one bridge. On the 14th he had been informed by Quartermaster-General Dopff that there were only 40 pontoons for the entire army (the British had taken the remainder with them) and that at least 30 were needed for the siege and two for Bouchain. Albemarle had given orders to start constructing a wooden bridge across the Scheldt that would be finished on July 24.
On the afternoon of July 24, seeing it was impossible to throw the French back across the Scheldt, Albemarle retreated to Denain and sent word to Eugene to give the alarm. Because the cavalry could be of no use in the defense of Denain, he sent his mounted troops across the Scheldt — and just in time, since only a short while later all the roads to the bridge were congested with baggage supply wagons.
At 10 o’clock in the morning, Eugene himself arrived in Denain. It was decided that all the wagons were to be sent to the other side of the river and that the six Imperial and Palatinate battalions were to cross the river and reinforce the garrison. The entire army would march as quickly as possible to the relief of the garrison. It was doubtful they would reach it in time, however, because the nearest units were still 15 kilometers (9 1/2 miles) away. Denain was therefore defended by 17 battalions, of which four were Dutch, eight Imperial or Palatinate and the rest subsidy troops. Eugene returned to the other side of the Scheldt.
In the meantime, the French army was crossing more slowly than Villars had expected, and he started to lose faith that the expedition would succeed. The French marshal, Joseph de Montesquiou, Comte d’Artagnan, managed, however, to convince Villars at this critical moment that the attack must go on — thus, the appropriate dispositions were made. The French decided to attack not in lines — with seven brigades (40 battalions) in the first line and two brigades (six battalions) in the second line, as was usually done — but in columns.
The attack would take place between the communication lines connecting Denain with Marchiennes. Each brigade would form two columns of one battalion in width and three in depth. Eighty companies of grenadiers would form the vanguard. Defending that sector were the Van Welderen, Fechenbach, Douglas, Isselbach and Efferen battalions. As French veteran de la Colonie recalled the action: ‘In the orders for the assault, the front ranks of our troops were directed to sling their muskets and use their swords, so as to have greater freedom in scaling the parapets. Those in rear followed with bayonets fixed and took no fascines. We doubled rapidly forward to the ditch and scrambled in, with each other’s aid, without meeting with much resistance or anything in the nature of a repulse, and although this was not effected without some loss, one does not wait to count the cost when one’s attention is taken up with what is going on in front.’
The fight was short, although it seemed in the beginning that the French attack would be repulsed as a result of the fire of six Allied cannons. But then quite suddenly, at 1 o’clock, the French advanced so furiously while shouting ‘Vive le Roi‘ that the defending battalions, after firing several volleys, turned about and fled toward the Abbey of Denain. The French followed close on their heels. After the French had penetrated the entrenchments, all the Allied battalions were thrown into confusion and tried to flee across the bridge. Unfortunately for the retreating Allies, the pontoons were broken by the baggage wagons. The only way left to escape the French was to swim across the Scheldt; in the confusion and chaos many soldiers were drowned. The Earl of Albemarle was taken prisoner, together with four other generals. Two Dutch generals, Count Dohna and Cornelis van Nassau-Woudenberg, were killed or drowned.
The French lost 880 men killed and 1,186 wounded, but the losses of the Allies were about twice that number. In the beginning the Allied force had totaled about 8,500 men (i.e., about 500 men per battalion). Now, 2,000 of them had been killed, half by drowning; 2,330 were taken prisoner and 4,080 made their escape and returned to the army. Although the Allied force lost about half its strength, some of its battalions had suffered much greater attrition than others. The hardest hit regiment, that of Van Welderen, was virtually massacred.
The loss of Denain was a serious military setback for the Allies, but politically it was a virtual disaster. The Dutch Republic lost all faith in continuation of the war. The Allied army was almost immediately without bread because the French had captured the last convoy in Denain. Dutch Field Deputy Vegilin van Claerbergen was therefore sent to Mons to make preparations for the baking of bread. It would be very difficult to supply the army from Mons, however, because not only would the bread wagons have to travel about 30 kilometers (19 miles) to Quesnoy, but the supplies for Mons would have to be carried in turn from Tournay or Brussels. On July 29 the first bread left Mons for the army. Sixty-five squadrons were needed to protect it from French raiders.
After the victory at Denain, Villars detached a force to capture Mortaigne, St. Amand and Anchin on the Scarpe, and on July 25 the French laid siege to the main prize: Marchiennes. After a stubborn defense of five days, the garrison there surrendered, and the main depot of the Allied army was lost to the French. ‘All these magazines,’ wrote de la Colonie, ‘were of the greatest use in the sieges undertaken by us later on. A hundred and twenty-five beautiful pieces of cannon, quite new, were found therein over and above the munitions of war and food.’
The loss of Marchiennes, coupled with that of Denain, put the Allies on the defensive and the French in a position to do what they pleased. Eugene still wanted to continue the siege of Landrecies, but it would take at least 14 days to obtain a new siege train, and in the meantime the French could lay siege to Douai. And obtaining the food supply from Mons still would be very difficult.
On August 2, it was therefore decided to march to Mons, although it would be impossible to prevent Douai from being besieged. Indeed, on the 7th the French surrounded Douai with 40 battalions and 34 squadrons, backed up by Villars with 124 battalions and 222 squadrons. The Allies had 100 battalions and 250 squadrons. On September 8 the fortress fell. After Douai, the French reconquered Quesnoy (between September 19 and October 4) and Bouchain (between October 1 and 19). On October 24, the Allied army went to winter quarters, and the French did the same the next day.
Since January 1712, meanwhile, the peace conference had been meeting in Utrecht. On April 11 and 12, 1713, the peace accords were signed between France, Great Britain, Savoy, Portugal, Prussia and the Dutch Republic. The first two got the best of the bargain. The Republic, which had exhausted itself in 40 years of conflict with France, was left with a diminished barrier to any future French ambitions in the north. Only Emperor Charles VI refused to end the war, but it was impossible for him to fight France alone. There were to be no more significant battles, and in 1714, the Hapsburg Empire and France signed the peace of Rastatt, which would mark the official end of the War of the Spanish Succession.
Although Louis XIV accomplished his original objective of seeing Philip V recognized as King of Spain, the French and Spanish Bourbons were never to be united. In that respect, the main goal of the Second Grand Alliance, namely preventing France from becoming the dominant power in Europe, had been achieved. Nevertheless, France’s recovery from its defeats in the highly publicized battles of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet represented a remarkable reversal of fortune. In material terms, or in tactical brilliance, Villars’ success at Denain was hardly comparable to Marlborough’s at Blenheim. But its long-term strategic consequences show that a small victory in the right place and under the right circumstances can produce disproportionate results.
This article was written by Olaf van Nimwegen and originally appeared in the February 1995 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!