May 11, 1745

Under the international agreement called the Pragmatic Sanction, Maria Theresa assumed control of her father's realms, the Austrian Empire, following his death in 1740.  Seeing the opportunity to pounce on his neighbor and enlarge his kingdom, Frederick II of Prussia violated the Pragmatic Sanction and invaded on 16th December 1740 the province of Silesia, sparking the War of Austrian Succession.  Austria, aided by Britain, Hanover, the Netherlands, Sardinia, and Saxony would fight Prussia, France, and Bavaria.  Britain had already been at war with Spain, the War of Jenkin's Ear.  

In May 1744, the French army invaded the Austrian Netherlands and successfully besieged the  Flemish towns of Menen, Ieper, Furnes and the fort La Kenoque.

By 1745, a French army under Maurice de Saxe was poised to invade the Austrian Netherlands, roughly today's Belgium.  De Saxe was a royal bastard, in a literal sense, the illegitimate son of the King of Poland / Elector of Saxony.  De Saxe had fought for several monarchs but was now a high commander for Louis XV of France, who was accompanying his army.  He was also the leading military thinker of his time.  Although French artwork of the battle shows him healthy and vigorous, at the time he was in poor health, having had fluid drained and getting around by curricle, a small two wheeled cart drawn by horse.  Opposing him was an allied army, the "Pragmatic Army" composed of Brits, Hanoverians, Dutch, and 'Austrians' under the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II of England.  De Saxe seized the initiative, feinting toward Mons but besieging Tournai and its 8,000 man garrison on April 26th.  Capture of Tournai would open up the Austrian Netherlands to further advances and threaten British communications with the coast, making the city excellent bait for the Pragmatic Army.  Learning that the enemy was to the southeast, he left 21,000 men to besiege Tournai while taking the remaining 48,000 men to Fontenoy, beyond the Scheldt River, to cover the siege.

Maurice de Saxe

Since 5th May, a part of the French army had taken position on the right bank of the river Scheldt and placed themselves from Mont de la  Trinité in the north (now Mont St-Aubert) to Antoing in the south.

On 8th May, Cumberland lodged at the castle of Moulbaix, not far from the city of Ath. He was informed that the direct road to Tournai crossed a part of the Wood of Barry, east of the village of Barry and north of the village of Fontenoy. Some of Cumberland's infantry and cavalry observed that the French had placed troops with cannons on this road near the village of Barry.  In fact, the French unit at Barry was a weak one with only one or two cannons, but Cumberland did not know this. He and his generals didn't want to attack French positions, likely supported by artillery, placed at the edge of woods - so they decided to turn the French position to the south.  Unfortunately for them, Saxe had already fortified his right flank, from Antoing, to Fontenoy, then to the Wood of Barry.


Although Cumberland was an inexperienced general in his early 20s, he had good generals around him, such as Ligonier and Campbell.  Waldeck is often criticized as a young general having no experience, but this is a mistake, as he was 41 and had gallantly fought against the Turks. Königsegg is also depicted as an old man refusing to attack. This is also a mistake; he was indeed 72, but he was a good officer of Maria Theresa; he was just told to threaten the French lines by constant skirmishes in order to discouraged them and forced them to abandon the siege. During the battle, he gallantly followed the Duke of Cumberland.

De Saxe choose his position well and fortified it.  His left flank was covered by the Wood of Barry, occupied by light troops.  Next he constructed two redoubts (on each side of the Barry wood).  From there to his center, his line faced a crossroad and a sunken road.  Next was the village of Fontenoy, which he made into a strong point.  The line then pivoted back at a 90 degree angle and continued to Antoing on the Scheldt River.  Three redoubts were built in advance of the line, designed to enfilade the attacking enemy and support each other while allowing his own troops to attack beyond them, if he liked.  If his troops were repulsed, the enemy would find it difficult to pursue.  Instead of infantry, de Saxe placed cavalry behind these works.  On the right of the line, Antoing was fortified, and across the Scheldt River, he placed an artillery battery to enfilade the front of his line.  Despite having a river to his back, it was a formidable position indeed, and de Saxe hoped that the enemy would attack him.  He would not be disappointed.

Cumberland had decided on 8th May with the other Pragmatic generals (Count of Königsegg and Prince of Waldeck) to turn the French positions by the south of  Barry woods and to advance  to the relief of Tournai. They didn’t suspect that Marshal of Saxe already had fortified the French positions near Barry woods and the town of Antoing.  On May 10th Cumberland pushed in the French outpost at Vezon and the hamlet of Bourgeon (which was evacuated and burnt by the French) and inspected the French position.  

Lt. General Campbell advised the capture of the Wood of Barry as a preliminary, but Cumberland declined.  French artillery fire would mortally wound Campbell that morning while he was with the British cavalry, which was covering the deployment of the infantry starting at around 6am.  With his death, the cavalry remained in place, suffering needless losses.  British artillery eventually responded, killing the duc de Gramont and dueling the French guns until 9am.  Cumberland's plan was for five battalions under Brigadier Ingoldsby to capture the two French redoubts behind, and on the edge of, the Wood of Barry.  On the left, the Dutch and Austrians would capture Antoing, Fontenoy, and the redoubts in between.  Then the British and Hanoverian infantry would attack the sunken road between Fontenoy and the Wood of Barry.

Old Map - Does Not Reflect Modern Developments Like the N 52, Quarries, or the Sugar Beet Factory

From Interchange of N52 and Rue de Vezon

It didn't take long for Cumberland's plan to unravel.  On his right, the attack on the redoubts behind Barry Woods failed (Brigadier General Ingoldsby halted in front of Barry Woods and asked for an artillery reinforcement; he never attacked the French positions to the great displeasure of the Duke of Cumberland and lost a precious time). On his left, the attacks on Fontenoy (Waldeck) and Antoing (Cronström) were easily repulsed by the French artillery with the loss of around 1,500 men. The Dutch were particularly frightened by the shots of a  strong artillery position of 6 pounders established on the other bank of the Scheldt River. These strong cannons were on their way to join the French troops cannonading Tournai and took the opportunity to repulse the Dutch troops of Cronström.

No allied artillery bombardment was done to prepare the way.

The prominent road in the panorama extends from Antoing off the picture to the left to Fontenoy in the center.  Three French redoubts were spaced from near here to Fontenoy on this side of the road.  French cavalry (dragoons) were behind the redoubts on the opposite side of the road.  Additional French cavalry and French infantry were across the road, but perpendicular to it, facing the sunken road.

The Austrian troops, too weak, were part of the reserve corps and stayed near the edge of Barry Woods, at Vezon.

Redoubt Area

This is the view from near the center of the three redoubts, which was in the back yard of one of these houses.  The row of houses marks the road between Fontenoy and Antoing.  The prominent road here runs nearly diagonally in front of the French line.  The Dutch troops of Prince Waldeck attacked from the light green rise on the right of the panorama.  Two Dutch artillery batteries stood on each side of this rise.


This is the crossroads at Fontenoy.  De Saxe had heavily fortified the village, which was fortified by the French and destroyed during the battle.  We have just seen the area between here and Antoing, which Dutch troops had attacked.  The Dutch under Waldeck attacked along an axis between the road to Vezon and the road on the left of the panorama to Bourgeon - or more simply put from the direction of the camera to the opposite corner.  The Dutch also failed, predictably so.  It was now around 10am.  With failed attacks on his right at the first Redoubt of Barry Woods, and on his left at Antoing and Fontenoy, Cumberland nevertheless ordered the British and Hanoverian infantry in the center to attack.  Their objective was the French line behind the sunken road, an area down the road labeled above as "Road to Wood of Barry".  Before we see that area, we will first go down the "Road to Vezon".


British and Hanoverian Deployment

This is the view from where the Rue du General Leman forks off of the Rue de Vezon.  See map.  This fork is obscured by the car in the panorama.  Further right on the panorama is Fontenoy, then the sugar beet factory.  This area was the destination of the British infantry attack, which formed up in the area the panorama was taken.  The slope to the sunken road is convex - rising then leveling off, so the sunken road is not visible here.  This terrain feature provided the attacking infantry some protection.  The tree line on the right is on the border of the ponds of water on the map, part of the sugar making process.

While two regiments of Ingoldsby (Duroure’s and the Black Watch -43rd)  had been  ordered about 9 o’clock to join the attack against Fontenoy, Pulteney’s and the Hanoverian regiment of Böselager were sent with two other Hanoverian regiments  (Campen and Oberg coming from the attack of Fontenoy)  to attack the first redoubt of Barry Woods but they were blocked by the heavy artillery of the redoubt and the French light troops (Grassins); they finally formed a third line behind the two British lines of Cumberland. The British army, formed in two lines (17 batallions)-10 battalions in front and 7 behind- advanced at about 10:30 am.

We will now proceed toward the sunken road.

This field within the village of Fontenoy is where the British 43rd Regiment attacked.  Later in the century, after re-numbering, this Highland regiment would be the 42nd, also known as the Black Watch.

Sunken Road

The French infantry regiments were standing on the left side of this sunken road; when they saw the first British soldiers, they were ordered by the Comte of Chabannes to cross the sunken road and to form a new line (in front of the red sugar tank of the sugar factory).  The French infantry awaited there the attack in four ranks on the left side of this 360 degree panorama as well as the far right of the panorama.  The sunken road was now behind them.  From here you can see the convex nature of the slope.  The approaching British infantry couldn't be seen by the French infantry here.  The French artillery was another matter.  Guns from Fontenoy on one side and from the first redoubt at the Wood of Barry on the other side raked the two attacking lines.  This caused the British and Hanoverians to bunch up, forming a column with a front of only six battalions.  When the column got within 40 yards of the French line, Lord Hay, Colonel of the 1st Guards, at the front of his men raised his flask for a swig and yelled over to the French, "I hope, gentlemen, that you are going to wait for us today and not now swim the Scheldt as you swam the Main at Dettingen."  A French officer named the Comte d’Anterroches thought that Hay had invited the French to fire first, so he replied: “We never fire first; Fire first yourself”.  As insane as this may seem to modern eyes, the side that fired second would have the advantage as they had the opportunity to advance and fire at closer range.  At any rate, the French did fire first - in disorder and ineffectively.  The British fire that followed was devastating.

The column continued across the sunken road and into the French rear - about
300 yards.  
Louis XV and the Dauphin were both with the army, and they prudently went further to the rear.  While many encouraged them to flee the battlefield, Marshal de Saxe urged them to remain for the sake of the army's morale.  That they did, to the relief of de Saxe, who had never been happy that they were with the army anyway, on account of the danger.  Meanwhile, de Saxe was trying to respond to the threat, which was immense, especially considering the army had a river to its back.


These zoomed in views from the sunken road show how the slope is convex.  The attacking British were first hidden from view for part of their advance.

Sunken Road at Modern Day Cemetery

De Saxe had already sent more infantry to the area.  Now, Lowendahl, who had been posted at Rumignies (now Rumillies), got permission to bring up the Normandy Regiment and a dozen guns.  The French infantry line was looking shaky, so the cavalry was ordered to the front.  Ordered not to charge, they did so anyway.  By now, the British formation was a rectangle six battalions in front, six in rear, four in the middle in two lines, with three facing out on each side.  This allowed them to repulse the French cavalry without much difficulty.  Finally, Lowendahl arrived about 1 pm, and along with the 6 Irish Regiments and the other French infantry units in the area, they counterattacked.  With the village of Fontenoy still in French hands, and pressed on three sides, the rectangle of British and Hanoverian regiments withdrew.

The French cavalry had suffered heavy losses and was disorganized while the British still had fresh cavalry and even some fresh infantry left.  This truly epic battle was over - De Saxe did not pursue.  Losses had been heavy, with the French losing 7,300 men to losses of 7,500 in Cumberland's army.  Tournai would fall, and eventually most of the Austrian Netherlands would share its fate.  

Cumberland would continue his military career, putting down the Jacobite rebellion the next year.  In the Seven Years War, however, his loss of the battle of Hastenbeck would end his military adventures.  De Saxe continued in command of the army.  By 1747, due to his generalship and the distraction of the Jacobite rebellion, the fighting had moved all the way to Lafeldt near the Dutch city of Maastricht.  In appreciation of the victory at Fontenoy, Louis XV gave him the 'hunting lodge' Chambord.  There on 30th November 1750, de Saxe died of pneumonia.  


Like most battlefields, there are human remains still lie in the ground in places yet to be discovered.  Farmers inevitably find these remains and relics of the battle.  The jawbone above is from a 20 year old of unknown nationality.  The upper right photo is of a hand bone.  These remains will be interred with the other remains which have been found.  The stone at right marking the burial is next to the modern cemetery.  (See panorama below.)  During construction of the factory, the graves of several men were unearthed.



These are artillery projectiles recovered from the battlefield. 


 Bullets are still being recovered.


Also recovered are an iron pistol ramrod, a lead bullet transformed by an unknown soldier to play knuckle bone, along with coins, pendants, and buckles.   A wax print of the personal seal of Marshall of Saxe (the seal is now in Strasbourg).


The Irish Memorial (Celtic cross) is prominent in the village of Fontenoy and was erected in 1907 by a subscription from Dublin, London and New York.  The Fontenoy church (St-Michel) was destroyed during the battle and rebuilt in the last part of the 18th century.  The monument next to it is for the World Wars.


The modern cemetery at the sunken road has plaques to the Normandy Regiment (offered in 1967) and to the Irish (offered in 1902 by Frank J. Sullivan from San Francisco).

The nearby soldiers' burial ground features this 2010s sculpture (offered by the town of Antoing). 


The church at Vezon existed during the battle and was the last position held by British troops at the end of the battle.

 Nearby is a plaque to the British regiments (offered in 2005 by a British regimental subscription with the kind help of Alain Tripnaux and his association “Le Tricorne”).


Also in Vezon is a tree planted and a commemorative plaque in honor of Maurice de Saxe (offered by the city of Tournai and the Belgian association Le Tricorne in 2000).


The palace at Versailles includes Fontenoy among the great French victories celebrated.  Of course the art is propaganda.  In reality, for example, only one British regimental flag (Second battalion of the Guards – Coldstream) was captured, and de Saxe was ailing during the battle. The French also lost a standard from Noailles’s cavalry regiment.

Acknowledgment:  Alain Tripnaux of the organization 'Tricorne' guided me around the battlefield, showed me relics of the battle, and helped with this web page.  He is trying to spread the story of the battle and help preserve the land.  The land is under significant threat of development despite the obvious importance of the battle.  In addition to the sugar factory, quarries and urban sprawl are moving onto the field. Despite all the worthy efforts of Alain Tripnaux and the Belgian History association Le Tricorne, the last remains of the battlefield (last part of the rising ground – part of the site of the Cumberland’s column) will probably disappear in a very close future by an extension of the Sugar factory.

Copyright 2010-11 by John Hamill

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