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1747 - The Battle of Lafelt

By Kor

In the wake of British historiography, which was primarily based on English language source, this battle has often been referred to as the battle of Lauffeld. However, those who have actually looked at the map or been to the site will know the much simpler spelling of Lafelt is the correct one. The battle was one of the larger confrontations of the Austrian Succession War, at least in the Western European theatre of the war, and the French victory - although at a high cost - paved the way to the successful siege of the Dutch fortress of Bergen-op-Zoom. So what was this battle about, how was it fought, and what were the consequences? I will analyse this in this brief overview.

The War of the Austrian Succession

The conflict we now call the War of the Austrian Succession was, in fact, a whole series of conflicts, loosely related to the succession of Maria Theresa as Holy Roman Emperor and duke of Austria. She was the first woman to hold that title, and she had to fight to keep it. From the north, Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Silesia in a sideshow of the war, known as the first two Silesian Wars, while France and Bavaria declared war on Austria in an alliance. The United Kingdom and the Dutch Republic, meanwhile, supported Austria. To weaken these Austrian allies, the French king Louis XV was pressing hard against the Austrian Low Countries in the hope of overrunning the Dutch Republic and forcing them out of the war. The battle of Lafelt must be seen in this theatre.

By 1747 the war in the Austrian Low Countries (modern day Belgium minus the modern day provinces of Liège and Namur) had been raging since 1744, the year France had declared war on Austria. Battles had been fought at Fontenoy (1745) and Rocourt (1746 - sometimes incorrectly called Rocoux), both of which were victories for the Marshal Maurice de Saxe, an illegitimate son of a Polish King in command of the French armies in the north. His battlefield successes had enabled him and his second-in-command, Marshal Löwenthal, to engage in a whole series of successful city sieges. By 1747, therefore, they had captured all fortresses in the Austrian Low Countries and were looking to bring their gun batteries to bear on Dutch forts. In the early campaign season, Maurice de Saxe moved his army of some 80 000 men to the south-eastern city of Maastricht. The allied forces, totalling some 60 000 and including Dutch, Austrian and British forces (in order of prominence), had already dug in to the west of the city in a bid to prevent the siege.

The Opposing Forces

All armies involved in the battle consisted primarily of mercenary companies, at least by today's standards. A commander would sign a contract with a government to supply a certain amount of troops and pay and lead them. In return, he would be paid out the wages for all his men in advance. It may be imagined that this invited fraud: by supplying fewer troops than he was contracted for, a commander would receive more money than he needed to pay the troops, and he could pocket the bonus. He might also benefit by not supplying new uniforms or equipment in time, as he was also responsible for buying these. The military shortcomings caused by such fraudulent practices were avoided by hosting regular musters and parades, where generals would inspect all forces and try and discover understrength regiments and poorly equipped soldiers. These events therefore had a much more direct use to early modern armies than they have in today's, government-supplied armed forces.

Most armies could draw enough recruits from their own country, so while French, British and Austrian armies contained many foreigners, the majority of troops came from the home front. The Dutch Republic did not have a large population, but they did have enough money to bring in regiments from abroad, in this period mostly from German principalities. German princes closely connected to the Republic also supplied commanders, such as Karel August von Waldeck-Pyrmont. His family had, for over a century, served as commanders and marshals in Dutch service. Karel August continued that tradition and was in charge of the Dutch army at Lafelt. The British were under the command of their prince, William, duke of Cumberland. His position was based primarily on his ancestry, and he suffered only defeats in his continental wars, although he had defeated an outnumbered and outmatched rebel army at Culloden (1746). He did, however, maintain a strict discipline, and this played a part in the battle. The Austrian contingent was under the command of the Hungarian Karl Josef Batthyany, the most accomplished of the three allied commanders. He had previously won a decisive victory at Pfaffenhofen (1745), against a Franco-Bavarian army in Bavaria.

The French army, under the command of Maurice de Saxe, had seen many victories already and had the highest morale. It was supplemented by a number of Irish regiments, jointly called the Irish Brigade, which consisted of Irish men displeased with British rule in Ireland. Part of them had lived in France for a generation or more, and the regiments had been partly supplemented with men from other countries, including France.

The Battlefield

The extreme eastern part of the battlefield is now located in the south-west of the Dutch city of Maastricht, while the extreme west, near the old Teutonic Order commandery Alden Biesen, is still rural. The battlefield itself is more or less traced when driving from Maastricht to Tongeren, as the old road dating back to Roman times or beyond is now a highway. The battlefield is probably best described as two long but not terribly high plateaus running opposite each other. The southern plateau, called the Herderen height after the village at its peak, was where the French deployed. The northern one was prepared in advance by the allies, who dug in, especially at the village of Lafelt. This village was surrounded by hedges on the southern slopes and thus easily defensible, but because the approach from the south was less steep than at the western side of the front, where the French would be attacking uphill. British and Hanoverian troops took up their position in Lafelt, with British, Dutch and Bavarian troops in reserve. On the other side of the valley, the French prepared their assault.

The Battle

Image
Irish Cross commemorating the Irish Brigade's participation in the battle of Lafelt. Author's photograph, 2004.

The buildup to the battle had been relatively slow. The allies had concentrated their forces around Maastricht, but had been relatively idle in advance and were genuinely surprised to find the French were already nearby with their entire army. The French sought to take the city and therefore had to take the initiative and defeat the allies. This Maurice de Saxe did on 2 July. Awkwardly enough, allied high command expected no attack to be forthcoming and enjoyed a comfortable breakfast at Alden Biesen. Meanwhile, the French had reinforced their own left flank - opposite the best allied positions, and near Louis XIV's observation post at Herderen, and sent hussars out for reconnaissance. Early morning mist obscured the battlefield for a while, but at 9:30 the French batteries opened fire and allied command hurried back to their posts. The battle had begun.

The opening assault came by the infantry regiment d'Estrées, which took the village of Montenaken, clearing the way to Lafelt. A very weak defence convinced the French only light resistance would be offered, but the first two attacks on Lafelt were bloodily repulsed. More regiments were now sent, including marines and the Irish brigade, in addition to the troops who had already been repulsed. Ten artillery pieces were given to them as well. This time, the attack crossed the slope, broke past the hedges and penetrated deep into the village. But a counter attack led by Cumberland in person drove the regiments out of the village, where they maintained their position near the hedge. But by now the additional artillery had arrived and started pounding the allied artillery supporting the village. At the fourth charge, the village was finally captured in full, although no breakthrough to the north was achieved. Because the French had by now mostly run out of ammunition, they were once again thrown out.

Maurice de Saxe realised that every moment the British and Hanoverians clung on to the village would strengthen their position, so he hurriedly sent three extra regiments to the village. Their commander, general Guerchy, sent some of his men to in stead attack a battery that had been supporting the village's defence. With no backup, the artillerists quickly ran and the French obtained a very beneficial height advantage, which they used to drive back allied reinforcements on the lower terrain. Hessian infantry and Dutch cavalry were also driven back, and French cavalry chased them down, in the process driving back British and Austrian troops as well, before returning to their own lines. The allied army was in serious disarray, with parts of it already withdrawing. This withdrawal was prevented from turning into a rout by general Ligonier, commander of the British cavalry, who charged directly at the French lines in the first serious allied attack on the already established French position. This caused confusion in their ranks and won the allied army time to withdraw in reasonably good order. Ligonier's charge was, however, defeated, and the man himself was captured.

Aftermath and Consequences

The battle had lasted until about 4 pm, by which time the allied army withdrew to Lanaken, north of Maastricht. The battle had been bloody, even moreso for the French (who suffered some 9000 casualties) than for the allies (who suffered 8000). Frederick the Great of Prussia reportedly remarked that the French had won nothing but the right to pitch their tent on the field. This may have been true, but we do not know for sure. In any case, the French did not besiege Maastricht until the following year, in part because the garrison was too large and in part because a French army had been defeated by a combined Piedmontese-Austrian army in Italy. More troops were needed to reinforce that front, and so Maurice de Saxe's army was stripped down. He was forced to change his approach and in stead - successfully - besieged Bergen-op-Zoom, another Dutch fortress. This was yet another blow to allied morale.

Sources

J. S. M. Daenen e.a., De Slag van Lafelt om Maastricht
Olaf van Nimwegen, De Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden als grote mogendheid. Buitenlandse politiek en oorlogvoering in de eerste helft van de achttiende eeuw en in het bijzonder tijdens de Oostenrijkse Successieoorlog (1740-1748)


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