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 disappointed.

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.

French Center

Here, along slightly higher ground inside the two mile wide gap, Villars had built several redans - unconnected works open at the rear.  This provided protection to the frontline defenders but also 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.  Defensive 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.  On 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.

French Rear

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

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