MALPLAQUET, a village of France in the department of the Nord, close to the Belgian frontier and about 10 miles S. by E. of Mons, famous as the scene of the battle, September 1709, between the Allies under the duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène and the French commanded by Marshal Villars, in which the former were victorious. The country to the west and south of Mons is enclosed by a semicircular wall of woods and broken ground, through which there are only two important gaps—that of Jemappes (famous in 1792) to the west, and that of Aulnois, in which stands the village of Malplaquet, to the south. In the latter gap and the woods on either side Villars took up his position facing north-eastwards, on August 29/September 9. The forces in presence, over 90,000 on each side, were exceptionally large, and the French army in particular represented the spirit of its nation to a degree unusual in the armies of that time. Villars was the best general in the service of Louis XIV. and the veteran Marshal Boufflers, though senior to him, had volunteered to serve as his second in command. Marlborough and Eugène lay with their army between Mons and the French camps, which were almost within cannon shot. Marlborough’s own wish was for an immediate battle, but he was opposed by the Dutch deputies at his headquarters, and even by Eugène, so that it was only on August 31/September 11 that the attack actually took place. Villars had made full use of his respite. The French right stood at the fringe of the wood of Lanière, the left was strongly posted in the midst of the wood of Taisnière, and across the two and a half miles of open ground between the woods the position was entrenched with several successive lines of works. The troops were almost equally distributed along the whole line as usual, and the cavalry was massed in rear of the infantry. In the Allied army the mounted troops were also kept back, but for the most part distributed to the various infantry commands.
The intention of Marlborough and Eugène, when on the morning of the battle they examined this formidable position, was to deliver the main attack upon the French left wing, combining the assaults of several columns on its front and flanks. In this quarter the French not only held the interior of the wood but also were thrown forward so as to occupy the edges of its north-eastern salient, and upon the two faces of this salient Count Lottum (1650–1719) with the Prussians, and Count von der Schulenburg (1661–1747) with the Austrian infantry were to deliver a double attack, while farther to the Allied right a column under the English General Withers was detached to make a wide turning movement through the woods. Marlborough took command on the right, Eugène on the left. The centre, which was intended only to observe the enemy until the decision had been forced at the wood of Taisnière, consisted of Lord Orkney’s British corps and the prince of Orange’s Dutch contingent. These extended across the Trouée d’Aulnois as soon as the combined attack of Lottum and Schulenburg opened. The general advance was covered by a heavy cannonade, and the salient of the Taisnière wood was duly attacked on its two faces by the Prussians and Austrians about 9 a.m. They encountered a sterner resistance than in any of the battles and combats of the past seven campaigns, for on this field the defenders were fighting, not as hitherto for the interests of their king, but to defend their country, and the regiments of Picardie and Champagne which held the salient were the oldest and most famous of the French line. Lottum attacked the works on the eastern edge, again and again without success, until three British battalions had to be sent to reinforce him, and Marlborough placed himself with a corps of cavalry in close support. At last the entrenchments were stormed. Schulenburg, with the Austrians, had by this time fought his way through the woods and undergrowth, and the united force pressed back the French farther and farther into the wood. Still, so stubborn was the defence and so dense the wood that the impetus of the assault died away and the troops on both sides broke up into small disconnected bodies, fighting too fiercely to be amenable to superior control.
|After Hon. J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, by permission of Macmillan & Co., Ltd.|
But the French were not reinforced from their right wing as Villars expected. The prince of Orange, far from merely observing the hostile right as he had been ordered to do, committed his corps, very early in the battle, to a serious assault upon it, which Boufflers repulsed with enormous loss. The Dutch infantry never recovered from its casualties on this day, and the memory of Malplaquet was strong even at Fontenoy nearly forty years afterwards. Some Hanoverian troops which took part in this futile attack suffered equally heavily. The only advantage to the Allies—an advantage which, as it happened, counted for much—was that Boufflers did not dare to send reinforcements to the hard-pressed left wing. Thanks to this the Austrians and Prussians, with the English detached to their aid, made steady progress in the wood of Taisnière. Villars launched the “Irish brigade” to check the advance of the Allies, and this famous corps charged into the forest. Villars, Eugène and Marlborough personally led their troops in the encounter which followed. Eugène was wounded, but refused to quit the field. Villars was more seriously hurt, and after trying in vain to direct the fighting from a chair was carried insensible from the field. At this crisis General Withers, who commanded the force that had been ordered to turn the French extreme left, and had fought his way through the forest, appeared on the scene. The British 18th regiment (Royal Irish), encountering the French Royal Irlandais, put it to the rout, and Villars’s counterstroke was at an end. The French maintained themselves on this side only by the aid of troops drawn from the centre and right, and this gave the Allied centre the opportunity which the prince of Orange had so rashly anticipated. The great attack over the open was carried out, in spite of the previous repulse, with the greatest determination. Preceded by forty guns, the corps of the prince of Orange and Lord Orkney swiftly carried the first line of works. The Allied cavalry then pushed out to the front, and horse, foot and artillery were combined in the last advance. Boufflers’s cavalry masses, coming into play for the first time, fought hard, and the struggle fluctuated with the arrival of successive reserves on either side, but in the end, shortly before 3 p.m., Boufflers (who had been in command since Villars’s fall) decided to retreat. The Allies had no troops left intact for the pursuit, and those engaged had expended their last efforts. Moreover Boufflers, experienced soldier as he was, drew off his men before they had lost their order and discipline.
Thus this “very murdering battle” as Marlborough called it—the last and greatest pitched battle of the war—was almost barren of results. The Allies lost not less than twenty thousand men, or nearly a quarter of the whole force, the thirty battalions of the Dutch infantry losing half their numbers. On the French side there were some twelve thousand casualties. If further evidence were necessary to prove that the French fought their hardest, it could be found in the fact that whereas in almost every other battle, from 1660 to 1792, there were deserters and prisoners by the thousand, at Malplaquet only 500 of the French fell into the hands of the victors unwounded.