Fontenoy, Battle of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Fontenoy, Battle of

FONTENOY, BATTLE OF. 11 May 1745. Fontenoy was a small village on a narrow plain two miles southeast of the fortress of Tournai on the banks of the Scheldt in Flanders. It gave its name to a decisive action in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), when a French army under Maurice de Saxe, marshal of France, defeated an Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army under the duke of Cumberland, son of George II. Although funneled into a restricted battleground, Cumberland sent forward a compact mass of some 15,000 infantry to break the French center. The column, eventually one huge square, was built around six battalions of superbly disciplined British infantry that advanced at a deliberate cadence to ensure their battle lines remained properly aligned. As the British moved through the French crossfire and came within musket range (thirty paces) of the enemy's lines, Lord Charles Hay, captain of the First Company of the First Battalion of the First Foot Guards, stepped forward and, it is reported, in effect invited the French to fire first. Hay was not being excessively gallant or merely quixotic. In the world of linear tactics, the side that fired first exposed itself to an enemy riposte while it desperately tried to reload. The surviving soldiers on the side that received the fire had a few precious seconds to launch a bayonet charge against their temporarily defenseless foe, or to advance closer and deliver their own volley fire. According to all the British accounts, the less-well-disciplined French did fire first, and the famously well-disciplined British struck back with a series of volleys by companies, a rain of fire that brought down between 600 and 800 Frenchmen. Although the episode is one of the most famous and dramatic in this period (equaled, perhaps, only by a similar display of British discipline under fire at Minden fourteen years later), the allied infantry was later forced to retreat under intense pressure, leaving Saxe victorious and in possession of Flanders. Among those who saw action at Fontenoy were Thomas Gage, George Sackville (later George Germain, who distinguished himself as a regimental commander), James Grant, Robert Monckton, and Philip Skene, all of whom figured in the American Revolution.

SEE ALSO Austrian Succession, War of the; Gage, Thomas; Germain, George Sackville;Grant, James; Minden, Battle of; Monckton, Robert; Muskets and Musketry; Skene, Philip.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Browning, Reed. The War of the Austrian Succession. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Weigley, Russell F. The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky