Battle of Malplaquet
The Battle of Malplaquet, one of the bloodiest of modern times, was fought near the border of France on 11 September 1709 by the forces of Louis XIV of France, commanded by Marshal Villars, against a Dutch-British army, led by the Duke of Marlborough. After a string of defeats, failure of the harvest and the prospect of invasion, Louis XIV had appealed to French patriotism, recruited fresh soldiers and instructed Villars to use the country's last army to give battle against Marlborough's formidable force. After a series of manoeuvres, Villars settled on a position in which both of his flanks were anchored in woods. Even though the French were outnumbered, Marlborough's familiar tactics of flank attacks to draw off troops from the centre incurred serious attrition by massed French musketry and skilful use of artillery. When Marlborough's assault on the denuded enemy centre came, his Allied army had been so badly weakened that the Allies made no attempt at pursuit when the French retreated in good order. The Allies lost 20,000 men, twice as many as the French, which was regarded by contemporaries as a shocking number of casualties. That caused Britain to question the sacrifices that might be required for Marlborough's campaign to continue. The Battle of Malplaquet is often regarded as a Grand Alliance pyrrhic victory victory because its main effect was to prevent the nominal winners from invading France.
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After a late start to the campaigning season because it was preceded by an unusually-harsh winter, the Allied campaign of 1709 began in mid-June. Unable to bring the French army, under Marshal Villars, battle because of the strong French defensive lines and his orders from Versailles not to risk battle, the Duke of Marlborough concentrated instead on taking the fortresses of Tournai and Ypres. Tournai fell after an unusually-long siege of almost 70 days. Since it was by now early September, rather than run the risk of disease spreading in his army in the poorly-draining land around Ypres, Marlborough moved eastwards towards the lesser fortress of Mons. He hoped to take it and to outflank the French defensive lines in the west.
Villars moved after him, under new orders from Louis XIV to prevent the fall of Mons at all costs, which was effectively an order for the aggressive Marshal to give battle. After several complicated manoeuvres, the two armies faced each other across the gap of Malplaquet, southwest of Mons.
The Allied army, with mainly Dutch and Austrian troops but also considerable British and Prussian contingents, was led by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy. The French were commanded by Villars and Marshal Boufflers. Boufflers was officially Villars' superior but voluntarily served under him. The allies had about 110,000 troops and 100 guns, and the French had about 80,000 and 80 guns. They were encamped within cannon range of each other near what is now the French-Belgian border, but the area was then still part of the Spanish Netherlands.
At 9:00 a.m., on 11 September, the Austrians attacked with the support of Prussian and Danish troops, under the command of Count Albrecht Konrad Finck von Finckenstein, pushing the French left wing back into the forest behind them. Prince Eugene was wounded twice in the fighting. The Dutch, under the command of John William Friso, Prince of Orange, on the Allied left wing, attacked the French right flank half an hour later and succeeded with heavy casualties in distracting Boufflers enough that he could not come to Villars' aid.
Villars was able to regroup his forces, but Marlborough and Savoy attacked again, assisted by the advance of a detachment under General Henry Withers. They advanced on the French left flank, which forced Villars to divert forces from his centre to confront them. At around 1:00 p.m., Villars was badly wounded by a musket ball that smashed his knee, and command passed to Boufflers. The decisive final attack was made on the now-weakened French centre by British infantry, under the command of the Earl of Orkney, which managed to occupy the French line of redans. That enabled the Allied cavalry to advance through the line and confront the French cavalry behind it.
In the fierce cavalry battle, Boufflers personally led the elite troops of the Maison du Roi. He managed six times to drive the Allied cavalry back upon the redans, but every time, the French cavalry was driven back by British infantry fire.
Finally, by 3:00 p.m., Boufflers, realising that the battle could not be won, ordered a retreat, which was made in good order. The Allies had suffered so many casualties in their attack that they could not pursue him. By now, they had lost over 24,000 men, including 6,500 killed, almost twice as many as the French.
A firsthand account of the Battle of Malplaquet is given in the book Amiable Renegade: The Memoirs of Peter Drake (1671–1753) on pages 163 to 170. Captain Drake, an Irishman who served as a mercenary in various European armies, served the French cause in the battle and was wounded several times. Drake wrote his memoirs at an advanced age (another Irish émigré, Féilim Ó Néill, died in the battle).
By the norms of warfare of the era, the battle was an Allied victory since the French withdrew at the end of the day's fighting and left Marlborough's army in possession of the battlefield. Unlike in his previous victories, however, the French army was able to withdraw in good order and relatively intact, and remained a potent threat to further allied operations. As Winston Churchill noted in Marlborough: His Life and Times, "The enemy had been beaten.... But they had not been routed; they had not been destroyed. They retreated, but they cheered. They were beaten, but they boasted." Indeed, Villars wrote to Louis XIV that another such French defeat would destroy the allied armies, and historian John A. Lynn in The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714 terms the battle a Pyrrhic victory. However, the attempt to save Mons failed and the fortress fell on 20 October.
News of Malplaquet, the bloodiest battle of the 18th century, stunned Europe. The rumour that even Marlborough had died possibly inspired the popular French folk song, "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre".
For the last of his four great battlefield victories, Marlborough received no personal letter of thanks from Queen Anne. Richard Blackmore's Instructions to Vander Beck was virtually alone among English poems in attempting to celebrate the "victory" of Marlborough at Malplaquet, and it moved the English Tories to begin agitating for a withdrawal from the alliance once they formed a government the next year.
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714, p. 332
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714, p. 331
- Clodfelter 2017, p. 72.
- Lynn: The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714, p. 334
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Villars, Claude Louis Hector de". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 76–77.
- Weir, p. 95
- In a letter to Louis XIV, Villars wrote: "Si Dieu nous fait la grâce de perdre encore une pareille bataille, Votre Majesté peut compter que tous ses ennemis seront détruits." ["If God lets us have the grace of losing such a battle again, Your Majesty can count on all of his enemies being destroyed."]; Anquetil, Louis-Pierre, Histoire de France depuis les Gaulois jusqu'à la mort de Louis XVI (1819), Paris: Chez Janet et Cotelle, p. 241.
- Lynn, 1999, p. 334: "Marlborough's triumph proved to be a Pyrrhic victory".
- Delbrück, History of the Art of War, p. 370: "Malplaquet was what has been termed with the age-old expression a "Pyrrhic victory...."
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- Clodfelter, M. (2017). Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015 (4th ed.). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0786474707.
- Delbrück, Hans (1985). History of the Art of War, Volume IV: The Dawn of Modern Warfare. Translated by Renfroe, Walter J. Eastport, Conn.: Praeger. ISBN 0-8032-6586-7.
- Drake, Peter (1960). Amiable Renegade: The Memoirs of Captain Peter Drake (1671–1753). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804700222.
- Lynn, John A. (1999). The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667–1714. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-05629-2.
- Weir, William (2006) . Fatal Victories. New York: Pegasus. ISBN 1933648120.