Famous Battles in History The French and Spanish at Rocroi

About the famous battle at Rocroi between the French and the Spanish, history and account of the fight.


ROCROI, 1643

The Duc d'Enghien, later to become famous as the Prince de Conde, was only 21 when he took command at Rocroi. The leadership of 23,000 men had been given to him primarily because he was the king's cousin; D'Enghien had never before commanded troops. His opponent, Don Francisco de Melo, led six Spanish infantry regiments, supported by seasoned Italian, Flemish, and Dutch mercenaries, an army totaling 20,000 men.

On May 12, Melo, joined by the Flemish Comte d'Isembourg, appeared on the plateau outside the fortress walls of Rocroi and laid siege to the town. Coming to its relief, D'Enghien elected to take the offensive, although the decision meant he would be bringing his men into a potential trap. The plateau, some 4 mi. wide, was bordered by impenetrable thickets, marshy ground, and a lake, and it had very few paths through which a retreat might be made if the Spanish were to gain the advantage. Nevertheless, the duke could not wait, for a French deserter had brought news of the impending arrival of strong Spanish forces led by the German commander Beck.

The duke attacked at 3:00 A.M. on May 18. As the battle began, the French columns, commanded by the foolhardy La Ferte, were recklessly sent forward into a vulnerable position. La Ferte and his men were cut off by D'Isembourg's cavalry and killed or captured. With him, the Spanish acquired 30 artillery pieces, which they set up to fire on the French center. Taking a calculated risk, D'Enghien, with 2,000 of his cavalry following, skirted the Spanish left flank completely, wheeled left, and charged behind the entire Spanish army to attack their right flank from the rear. His unexpected appearance from behind routed the Spanish foot soldiers. The duke then continued back to his own lines, his men and horses exhausted from the extended charge.

Realizing that Beck's arrival was imminent, D'Enghien ignored the general fatigue. His next two attacks failed, as his crippled opponent, Fontaine, commanding from a chair, raised his cane to signal Spanish volleys that decimated the onrushing horsemen. In the third, however, D'Enghien succeeded, as the Spanish artillery, out of cannonballs, fell silent. Melo promptly surrendered to avoid the massacre of his infantry.

The battle, won by D'Enghien's unconventional generalship, struck a heavy blow against Spain, even greater than the Armada defeat inflicted by England. It also signaled the rise of French military might.

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