September 11, 1709
In 1708, Marlborough defeated a French army at Oudenarde, then captured the mighty fortress of Lille inside the French border.
The 1709 campaign season started late after a wetter than usual spring,
with Marlborough besieging and capturing Tournai on September 3rd
after a 69 day siege. Looking for a new target, Marlborough
decided against a direct move into France with its system of fortresses
backed by an army behind field works. Marlborough considered Ypres
but ultimated decided on Mons, to the east,
which was not as strongly held. He invested it just two days later
on September 5th.
|Louis XIV sent a message to the army commander in northern
France, Marshal Villars, ordering him to prevent the fall of Mons at all
costs. Villars moved north to relieve the city while Marlborough
moved south from Mons to cover the siege. Marlborough sought
a decisive battle anyway, so a clash was inevitable. A line of three
forests with two gaps between them separated the armies.
Marlborough had to cover both of these gaps, one himself and the other
with a force under Prince Eugene. Marlborough hoped that Villars would move through one of
the gaps and fight in the open ground beyond. He would be
On September 9th, Villars moved into the southern
of the two gaps, the Gap of Aulnois north of Malplaquet, not to strike
at Marlborough's divided army but rather to entrench and defend the
gap. He had around 85,000 men. Ever aggressive, Marlborough
concentrated to attack Villars,
the sooner the better before the French defenses became too strong, but
his artillery was yet to arrive, so it would be September 11th
before he could strike. He also had a detachment under Henry
Withers approaching, scheduled to arrive from Tournai on the 11th.
All told, Marlborough had 105,000 men.
|Here, along slightly higher ground inside the two
wide gap, Villars had built several redans - unconnected
works open at the
rear. This provided protection to the frontline defenders but
allowed troops, especially his cavalry, to move forward between them to
counterattack. Abatis, or felled trees and brush, were just in
front of the defenses and were roped or chained together.
lines were also built along or inside the forests on either side of the
gap. In the Bois de Sars on the left, three defensive lines were
built in depth extending forward from the center of the line.
This created a salient called "The Triangle" that
allowed enfilade fire in the open ground of the gap itself.
the right side of the line, an artillery battery was hidden in lower
ground beyond Le Bleiron Farm to enfilade attackers.
Early on the morning of September 11th, Marlborough sent forward
parties of men to cut the abatis. He assembled artillery
batteries, including one of 40 guns, to bombard the French position,
especially the Triangle, and at around 7am the bombardment began.
Due to the lay of the ground, Allied cannonballs continued into
the French rear areas, doing damage to the cavalry positioned there.
Prince Eugene began the attack in the Bois de Sars. The attack
was halted at the first French line, then the Allied artillery
continued their work. Eugene's second attack took the French
first line in the forest. Marlborough sent in a reinforcing
brigade from his center, and at about 9am, Villars also sent troops
from his center.
Meanwhile, the Prince of Orange was attacking the Bois de Lanieres
starting from here at Aulnois. As the troops advanced beyond the
Bois de Thiery to their right they encountered enfilading fire from the
French battery hidden in lower ground. Some Allied troops reached
the French entrenchments, but the attack was repulsed nonetheless.
A French counterattack was stopped.
The Prince of Orange reformed his men at the Bois de Thiery and
attacked again. Danish troops reached Le Bleiron farm, and the
place changed hands several times. Although the attack reached
French lines, it too was repulsed. Marlborough ordered that there
be no further attacks in this sector until circumstances changed.
For now, the Prince of Orange would simply hold French
troops in place, preventing them from moving elsewhere.
The Prince of Orange had had his horse killed. Prince Eugene was
now wounded in the neck but continued to direct his side of the fight
in Bois de Sars. To reinforce his position in the Bois de Sars,
Villars took more troops from his center. Then Withers arrived on
his left flank, forcing him to take more troops from his center.
It was now, around noon, that Marlborough decided to attack the
French center. Allied troops pushed between the lightly defended
French redans and into the French center. It was somewhere in the
vicinity of the panorama above that Villars was seriously wounded in
the knee. Marshal Boufflers took command, ordering a
counterattack into the Bois de Sars that allowed the French to
disengage there and withdraw from the forest. Boufflers ordered
his cavalry to attack the Allied troops penetrating the French center,
and a massive cavalry battle ensued. The Allied infantry on the
flanks attacked once again, and Boufflers ordered a retreat. It
was now around 4pm.
The battle's cost was a shock to all of Europe. Marlborough lost
21,000 of his 105,000 men. The French had lost most of their
artillery but fewer of their men - 13,000 - enough of a disparity for
the French to claim a tactical victory. Marlborough held the
field, however, and although he had not decisively defeated the French
army as he had hoped, he was able to continue his efforts against Mons,
which eventually surrendered. The war continued to drag on until
1713, far longer than it might have, ending by the Treaty of Utrecht.
The Bourbon monarch was confirmed as King of Spain, but Austria
gained the Spanish Netherlands. French power had been humbled and
was seen to be waning.
Copyright 2012 by John Hamill