Battle of Fontenoy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the meantime the Highland Regiment had committed itself to frenzied but
unsuccessful attacks on Fontenoy.
Of the Douglases taking part, a Colonel Douglas of the 3rd Regiment of Guards was killed, and a Captain Douglas of Maj Gen Howard's Regiment wounded.
Robert Douglas, son of George, 13th Earl of Morton, is recorded elsewhere in the Douglas Archives as being killed at Fontenoy, but the dates differ. This could be the Colonel Douglas, above)
Bishop John Douglas was also present.
The Battle of Fontenoy was fought at Fontenoy in the Austrian Netherlands on May 11, 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession. French forces under Hermann Maurice, Count de Saxe (the Maréchal of Saxe, an illegitimate son of King Frederick Augustus I of Poland) were besieging Tournay. An Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army under the Duke of Cumberland, known as "The Pragmatic Army" advanced to the relief of Tournay, with the British forces attacking French positions uphill. The French lost 5,000 (of 56,000 present, including those conducting the siege) men, while the British lost 9,000 (of 50,000), a defeat for Cumberland's forces. His assault, carried out by 15,000 British and Hanoverian troops, repulsed repeated attacks by the finest cavalry regiments in the French Army, including the Maison du Roi, until it was defeated by a counterattack carried out by 5,000 men of The Irish Brigade and the Normandy and Vaisseaux regiments of French infantry. The attack against the French centre, had it been carried out with more skill, could have been decisive. As Frederick the Great later remarked, "A quarter- wheel to the left or the right would have brought victory".
The most celebrated anecdote of the battle relates to Sir Charles Hay, a captain in the 1st Foot Guards. 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 the Battle of Dettingen and in their precipitate retreat had tipped up one of the bridges of boats. Many had drowned. 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 a French officer said "Messieurs les anglais, tirez les premiers." Hay was wounded in the battle.
Fontenoy gave the British Foot a reputation for stubborn determination. It caused observers to express surprise at the weak performance of troops at the Battle of Prestonpans and Falkirk later the same year.
Whilst Cumberland's attack on the superior positions of the French army showed little tactical skill and his forces had to retreat, the Duke showed great personal courage.
The brigade which he commanded in the attack included the Scottish Highland Black Watch regiment. Although they had joined the British forces on the continent in 1743, this was their first battle; their courageous determination to press the attack greatly impressed the Duke of Cumberland, and they introduced the then novel technique of hurling themselves to the ground when a volley was fired at them, then leaping to their feet and firing back. This "Highland way" of fighting may have been learned in their previous role of policing the highlands.
However, whilst they were away the Jacobite Rising started and in the autumn of 1745 the Black Watch was moved to the South of England to help with defence plans against any possible French invasion while the British were preoccupied further north.
(NB. This battle should not be confused with the two battles of Fontenay, which occurred at a different location, in 841 and 1944.)