Famous Battles in History Fontenoy and the War of Austrian Succession

About the famous battle at at Fountenoy part of the War of the Austrian Succession with France, history and account of the battle.



In the War of the Austrian Succession, begun in 1740, the hostilities eventually moved to the frontiers of France. Marshal de Saxe, seeking to advance into the Austrian Netherlands, stormed Tournai, an action which provoked the allies to send 65,000 men to its relief. Saxe, placed on the defensive by the strong reaction, fortified his positions along the Scheldt River at Antoing and Fontenoy. Joined by King Louis XV and the dauphin, he awaited the attack.

The marshal, in his preparations for defense, neglected to fortify a half-mile section between Fontenoy and the woods of Barry, believing that the rain-soaked ravine which ran through it offered a natural obstacle for his attackers. He was only partially right.

The French guards placed to defend the ravine were astounded, three hours after the battle began, to see cannons suddenly appear on the opposite side of the ravine. Openmouthed, they stared in disbelief as the first of 15,000 English, Scottish, and Hanoverian soldiers, scrambling through the matted and muddy undergrowth, came up the slopes and massed before them, cutting the French line of defense in two. The Duke of Cumberland, studying the French defenses and the terrain, had discovered the marshal's mistake.

Momentarily seized by gallantry, the opposing officers took off their hats and saluted each other. The English are also said to have offered the French the honor of firing the first shot, an honor they declined. Instead, the French fell back, leaving the duke temporarily in command of the field.

His sortie left both sides in a predicament. Marshal Saxe, facing a deep penetration of his defenses, ordered repetitive cavalry charges against Cumberland but failed completely and suffered heavy losses. Cumberland dared not advance further, for fear of being cut off, and his cavalry could not follow him through the ravine. In desperation, Saxe regrouped his entire army and charged again. This time he drove the duke back into the ravine to win the day for France.

The casualties were nearly even: 8,000 in dead and wounded for the English, 6,000 for the French. Cumberland, however, lost most of his materiel as well. The allied resistance, exhausted, could not oppose Saxe any longer and so opened the way for his advance into the Netherlands.

Cumberland's Dutch allies, 30,000 strong, had remained behind at Antoing when Cumberland entered the ravine. Their added strength might have won the battle, which gave King Louis XV the distinction of being the first French king to defeat a British sovereign.

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