1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Steenkirk

STEENKIRK (Steenkerke), a village in the Belgian province of Hainaut, on the river Senne, famous for the battle of Steenkirk (Steinkirk, Estinkerke) fought on July 23rd/August 3rd 1692 between the Allies (see Grand Alliance, War of the) under William III. of England and the French commanded by the duke of Luxemburg. Previous to the battle the French army lay facing north-west, with its right on the Senne at Steenkirk and its left towards Enghien, while the army, of William III. was encamped about Hal. In accordance with the strategical methods of the time, the French, not, wishing to fight after having achieved the immediate object, the capture of Namur, took up a strong position, supposing the enemy would not dare to attack it, while the Allies, who would otherwise in all probability have done as the French marshal desired, were by the fortune of war afforded the opportunity of surprising a part of the enemy’s forces. For in the 17th century, when the objects of a war were as far as possible secured without the loss of valuable lives, and general decisive battles were in every way considered undesirable, a brilliant victory over a part, not the whole, of the enemy’s forces was the tactical idea of the best generals, and accordingly William, having completely misled the enemy by forcing a detected spy to give Luxemburg false news, set his army in motion before dawn on July 23rd/ August 3rd to surprise the French right about Steenkirk. The advanced guard of infantry and pioneers, under the duke of Württemberg, deployed close to the French camps ere Luxemburg became aware of the impending blow; at this moment the main body of the army farther back was forming up after the passage of some woods. When the fight opened, Luxemburg was completely surprised, and he could do no more than hurry the nearest foot and dragoons into action as each regiment came on the scene. But the march of the Allies' main body had been mismanaged; while Württemberg methodically cannonaded the enemy, waiting for support and for the order to advance, and the French worked with feverish energy to form a strong and well-covered line of battle at the threatened point, the Allies' main body, which had marched in the usual order, one wing of cavalry leading, the infantry following, and the other wing of cavalry at the tail of the column, was being hastily sorted out into infantry and cavalry, for the ground was only suitable for the former. A few battalions only had come up to support the advanced guard when the real attack opened (12.30). The advanced guard had already been under arms for nine hours, and the march had been over bad ground, but its attack swept the first French line before it. The English and Danes stubbornly advanced, the second and third lines of the French infantry giving ground before them, but Luxemburg was rapidly massing his whole force to crush them, and meanwhile the confusion in the allied main body had reached its height. Count Solms, who commanded it, ordered the cavalry forward, but the mounted men, scarcely able to move over the bad roads and heavy ground, only blocked the way for the infantry. Some of the English foot, with curses upon Solms and the Dutch generals, broke out to the front, and Solms, angry and excited, thereupon refused to listen to all appeals for aid from the front. No attempt was made to engage and hold the centre and left of the French army, which hurried, regiment after regiment, to take part in the fighting at Steenkirk. William’s counter-order that the infantry was to go forward, the cavalry to halt, only made matters worse, and by now the advanced guard had at last been brought to a standstill. At the crisis Luxemburg had not hesitated to throw the whole of the French and Swiss guards, led by the princes of the royal house, into the fight, and as, during and after this supreme effort, more and more French troops appeared from the side of Enghien, the Allies were driven back, contesting every step by weight of numbers. Those troops of the main body, foot and dragoons, which succeeded in reaching the front, served only to cover and to steady the retreat of Württemberg’s force, and, the coup having manifestly failed, William ordered the retreat. The Allies retired as they had come, their rear-guard showing too stubborn a front for the French to attack. The latter were indeed in no state to pursue. Over eight thousand men out of only about fifteen thousand engaged on the side of the Allies were killed and wounded, and the losses of the French out of a much larger force were at least equal. Contemporary soldiers affirmed that Steenkirk was the hardest battle ever fought by infantry, and the battle served not only to illustrate the splendid discipline of the old professional armies, but also to give point to the reluctance of the generals of those days to fight battles in which, once the fighting spirit was unchained, the armies shot each other to pieces before either would give way.