The Battle of Oudenarde (or Oudenaarde) was a key battle in the War of the Spanish Succession fought on 11 July 1708 between the forces of Great Britain, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire on the one side and those of France on the other. It took place at Oudenaarde (now in Belgium) and was a decisive victory for the allies.
Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire were horrified at the thought of a union between Spain and France which caused them to ally against France, beginning the War of the Spanish Succession. The commander of the allied armies was John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, whose chief deputy was the commander of the Empire's army Prince Eugène of Savoy, who was his close friend.
Meanwhile, the two French army commanders were very quarrelsome. Louis Joseph, duc de Vendôme was a seasoned, experienced soldier. The Duke of Burgundy had considerably less experience and owed his position to the fact he was the grandson of the King, Louis XIV of France.
Marlborough's army consisted of about 90,000 men (112 infantry battalions and 197 cavalry squadrons) just south of Brussels. Eugène's forces were assembled at Coblenz, in modern Germany. These two areas were somewhat far apart, while the French army's 100,000 soldiers (130 battalions and 216 squadrons) were concentrated near Mons, in modern Belgium.
At this time, the French commanders began quarrelling. Vendôme wanted to attack the city of Huy, which could draw Marlborough in pursuit. The eventual plan adopted, however, (under orders from Louis XIV) was to attack Flanders. The army moved eastward, until they reached the city of Braine-l'Alleud, which was about 25 km south of Brussels, and also threatened the nearby city of Leuven. Marlborough placed his forces a few miles south of Leuven, in order to cover both threatened cities.
The French army then remained inactive for more than a month. This apparently allowed the extremely behind schedule Eugène to bring his army from the Rhine River. On 5 July, however, the French unexpectedly moved west, taking the cities of Bruges and Ghent (although about 300 British soldiers held out in Ghent for a few days). This extremely demoralized Marlborough and his army, and he did not recover until Eugène was at his side.
The French army had the entire length of the Scheldt River from the French border to the newly taken city of Ghent. Only one British fortress remained: Oudenaarde. If they took that city, Marlborough's army would be cut off from the coast, causing them to lose communications with England.
Marlborough detected this objective, and also correctly guessed the method by which the French troops would attempt to take it. They would march down the east bank of the Scheldt (closer to Marlborough's troops), while leaving a large covering force between the two opposing armies. The French army marched on 8 July, toward the city of Lessines. However, Marlborough made one of the most inspired forced marches in history, taking the city on 10 July. This forced the French commanders to attempt simply to march across the Scheldt and thereby take the city of Oudenaarde.
Again Marlborough ordered a forced march. This time, though, he ordered 11,000 troops to hold the main crossing point across the Scheldt, under the command of his Quartermaster General, William Cadogan. Cadogan's force built 5 additional pontoon bridges to allow Marlborough to get his 100,000-strong army across the river, until French foragers discovered the allied presence around 09:00 AM.
Cadogan, a superb Irish cavalry commander, ordered some dragoons, under Danish General Jørgen Rantzau, to take prisoners from the French advance guard. Many of those troops escaped and alerted Lieutenant General Charles-Armand de Gontaut, duc de Biron, who commanded the vanguard, of the presence of Allied troops on the west bank.
When de Biron advanced, he was disagreeably surprised by the large number of Allied cavalry already across the river, along with the approaching Allied infantry. Although he was ordered to attack by Vendôme, he hesitated upon seeing the reinforced line of 20 battalions (including the four that had been left to guard the pontoon bridges). Biron's own forces comprised only 7 battalions and 20 squadrons. He had been given reliable advice that cavalry could not negotiate the marshy terrain in the area, and therefore decided not to attempt a crossing. At this time, Eugène, along with 20 squadrons of Prussian cavalry, moved across the river, and occupied crucial positions.
While Biron's troops were manoeuvring, the leading British infantry brigade had arrived, under the inexperienced but gifted John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll. Cadogan, with authority from Marlborough, attacked Biron's 7 battalions (of Swiss mercenaries) with his soldiers (mainly cavalry). The isolated Swiss mercenaries were immediately pushed back, and the Allied force destroyed Biron's squadrons, until they reached a large mass of French cavalry, at which point they were forced to retire, outnumbered. The force which performed this action was Rantzau's cavalry, with the future King George II of England among them.
Burgundy, making another critical mistake, decided to attack (over protests by Vendôme). The French right wing began to attack the Allied positions near Eine, while the left wing (for an unknown reason) remained stationary near Huise. Meanwhile, a very strong position was held by the Allied left wing. 28 cavalry squadrons protected the right flank of Cadogan's infantry, which would receive the attack (which proceeded at about 4 pm).
Burgundy ordered the assault, which landed on Prussian cavalry squadrons under Dubislav Gneomar von Natzmer. Although hard fighting ensued, the attack was dispersed. Then, Vendôme made a dubious decision. He personally led an attack of twelve regiments, fighting hand-to-hand with a half-pike. This meant that while one commander (Burgundy) was in his headquarters, with no view of the battle, the other was fighting personally, with no possibility of control.
Most historians agree that the weakened Allied right flank would have been destroyed, had the French left wing attacked. Vendôme realized this, asking Burgundy for permission to attack with the left wing. Burgundy sent a messenger with a negative reply; however, this messenger failed to deliver the message. Therefore, the situation worsened with Vendôme believing that an attack would support his hard-fighting troops. His troops were lengthening their line, threatening to envelop the Allied left flank. As Argyll's regiments approached, they lengthened the Allied line; however, this was not done quickly enough, nor to a great enough extent, to prevent the French from threatening such an envelopment.
Allied flanking manoeuvreEdit
Marlborough moved his headquarters to the left flank, giving Eugène command of the right flank (which still checked the left wing of the French army). While the right was under pressure, Marlborough made a brilliant command decision: he placed 18 newly arrived Hessian and Hanoverian battalions in the left flank, while replacing 20 of Prussian General Carl von Lottum's battalions, moving them to Eugène's support. This moved fresh troops to the critical left, while reinforcing the right flank (and resting Lottum's troops).
Marlborough then began formulating a new plan of double encirclement. He had the entire Dutch Army, under Field Marshal Count Hendrik Overkirk, an experienced military officer. His force was unable to cross the collapsed pontoon bridges near Oudenaarde, forcing him to use the stone bridges in the city, delaying him for an hour. Marlborough went ahead with his plan, having Eugène's cavalry charge. It made for Burgundy's headquarters. The French Household Cavalry, the Maison du Roi, were able to turn them back, and Marlborough, with only the 18 Hessian and Hanoverian battalions, was unable to do much other than keep the French right in check.
At about 20:30, Overkirk's troops, who had finally arrived, flanked the French right wing. This was in conjunction with a dual attack by Marlborough and Eugène. Overkirk's manoeuvre was completely successful, with much of the French army being routed and/or captured. However, there was not enough daylight to complete the manoeuvre.
The French army retired to Ghent, with its commanders furiously quarreling. It can be said that only darkness and a few broken pontoon bridges saved the army from total destruction.
For unknown reasons, about half of the French army was kept in reserve, without participating at all. There was a great mass of French cavalry and infantry in some raised ground north of the Norken River, and many of Burgundy's troops remained inactive. There were many bad decisions in the French army. The cavalry had remained in reserve, mainly because of the advice that the ground was impassable. The entire left wing (the troops under Burgundy and the large mass north of the Norken) was kept in reserve. They could easily have destroyed the rather weak right wing of the Allied army. Had a concerted attack been carried out, with Vendôme attacking with his main body to envelop the Allied right, while Burgundy attacked with the left (before Overkirk and the rest of Argyll's troops arrived), the French army could have easily won.
The French army lost about 15,000 soldiers (about 8,000 of whom were prisoners) and 25 guns, while the Allies lost fewer than 3,000.