|In the aftermath of Marlborough's 1706 victory at Ramillies,
the Spanish Netherlands fell to the Allies. The next year,
however, was one
of inconclusive maneuver. In 1708, the French commander in the
Spanish Netherlands, the Duke of
Vendome, was joined by the Duke of Burgundy, the grandson of Louis XIV
and heir to the throne. Problems within the French command would
result. Although Burgundy was subordinate to Vendome, his status
as the king's grandson made him influential despite his youth and lack
of experience. Disagreements between Vendome and Burgundy were
sometimes referred to the king, creating a slow decision cycle and
eroding Vendome's power. The two men disliked each other and
tried to avoid each other.
The campaign began with Vendome near Mons and Marlborough near Brussels, but after some maneuvering, events transpired to the west in Flanders that attracted both armies. Unhappy with high taxes, Ghent and Bruges rebelled and joined the French. This posed a threat to Marlborough's communications. Oudenarde, south of Ghent and Bruges, interfered with French communication with the two cities. The French army, far from its base but now positioned between Marlborough and the Allied base in the Netherlands, marched west hoping to capture the fortified town. Since Oudenarde was now key to Allies' new line of supply to Ostend, Marlborough would fight to retain it. Fortunately, Prince Eugene had marched a small force from the Rhine and now joined Marlborough, giving the Allied force 80,000 men to counter France's 85-90,000.
On the morning of July 11th, as the two armies moved west, the Allies detected the French army crossing the Scheldt River. The Allies then began construction of a pontoon bridge near Oudenarde south of the French crossing. Around noon the Allies began to cross, then advanced to a small, marshy stream, the Diepenbeck, where they clashed with small parties of French. The French army was drawn forward, hoping to push the Allies back into the river. More Allied troops crossed the river, and the fight grew into a general action.
|The panorama above is is a section of the marshy stream, the Diepenbeek, where the
armies clashed, with the French on left and the Allies on the right.
As the French had started their river crossing earlier, they had
made more progress. Vendome had a good chance of destroying the Allied
bridgehead. It was not to be. As more units arrived in late
afternoon, the battle line moved east along the stream, behind us out of sight in
this panorama. The fighting moved back and forth between the
Diepenbeek and the Marlobeek further north.
Vendome seems to have assumed that the Duke of Burgundy would commit his troops to battle without orders. After being held back far too long, the Duke of Burgundy was ordered to attack the Allied right flank, and he brought forward his men from a ridge a few miles in the rear. He wrongly believed that the ground to his front was too marshy, so he halted. Burgundy's courier was killed before he could inform Vendome of this. (This section of the battlefield is now lost to development.) This part of the Allied line was vulnerable but was reinforced at around 6pm. Later, Prince Eugene would cross the same terrain, smashing the French left flank. Meanwhile, the French right was also in danger.