Battle of Malplaquet Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The bloodiest battle of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Battle of Malplaquet revealed new military tactics and attitudes whose grim toll shocked Europe.

Summary of Event

The succession to the throne of Spain in the wake of the childless Charles II’s death sparked controversy when none of the claimants to his throne proved acceptable to all of Europe’s other great powers. Antagonized by France’s growing commercial competition and territorial ambitions, England and Holland Holland;and Spanish succession[Spanish succession] opposed the succession of King Louis XIV’s eldest son, fearing a united France and Spain would be a dominating world power. On the other hand, England, Holland, and France opposed Archduke Charles of Habsburg (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI), who would have reunited his family’s Spanish and Austrian branches to form a similarly overwhelming empire encircling France. [kw]Battle of Malplaquet (Sept. 11, 1709) [kw]Malplaquet, Battle of (Sept. 11, 1709) Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714) Malplaquet, Battle of (1709) [g]France;Sept. 11, 1709: Battle of Malplaquet[0290] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 11, 1709: Battle of Malplaquet[0290] Boufflers, duc de Marlborough, first duke of Eugene of Savoy Villars, duc de

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, war had changed profoundly. Maneuver, fortification, and siege craft gained new importance. Drilled intensely, soldiers were more disciplined than the marauding mercenaries of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) a half century earlier. Flintlock muskets tipped with socket bayonets had replaced the obsolete pike. Battalions of six hundred to eight hundred foot soldiers had become the basic units of most armies. The English and Dutch began to use platoon firing, controlled “rolling” volleys along battle lines from right to left. Cavalry was used as shock troops against enemy flanks or disordered infantry. Cumbersome artillery was dragged into battle by civilian teamsters.

In February, 1701, French occupation of fortresses between Holland and the Spanish Netherlands Spanish Netherlands Netherlands;Spanish (present-day Belgium) led to an alliance of England, Holland, and the Holy Roman Empire. Hostilities began in Italy, where imperial general Eugene of Savoy defeated French marshals Nicolas Catinat and the duc de Villeroi. The war expanded in 1702, with England, Holland, and most German states opposing France, Spain, and Bavaria. English general John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, captured Huy, Limburg, and Bonn. However, the successes of the duc de Villars in Alsace enabled the French to menace Vienna in 1703. Marlborough moved his troops from the Netherlands to Bavaria, where he joined Eugene in their great victory at Blenheim on August 13, 1704. Following a year of modest successes, Eugene’s victory at Turin compelled the French to evacuate northern Italy in late 1706. Similarly, Marlborough’s triumph at Ramillies forced a French retreat in the Low Countries. In 1707, Marlborough made little progress in the north, and Eugene’s invasion of Provence resulted in serious losses. By the end of 1708, working together again, the two Allied generals won a resounding victory at Oudenarde, captured Lille, and drove the French inside their own borders. Efforts to negotiate peace failed. Villars’s army in the north was Louis XIV’s last hope of stopping an Allied invasion of France.

The Battle of Malplaquet.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Assembling at Ghent, Marlborough and Eugene advanced in June, 1709. Meanwhile, though his infantry battalions were under-strength, Villars built formidable containment lines between Douai and the Upper Lys. Maneuvering as if to strike Ypres, the Allies bluffed the French marshal into moving troops from Tournai, which capitulated on September 3 after a two-month siege. Intensifying their pressure, the Allies invested Mons three days later. By September 9, Villars had moved his entire force into a defensive position in the Aulnois gap, amid rolling fields and woods ten miles southeast of Mons. Hoping to deliver the final blow of the war, Marlborough engaged Villars near the village of Malplaquet on what is now the Belgian border.

Villars’s army grouped 80,000 to 90,000 French, Bavarian, Swiss, and Irish troops in 121 infantry battalions and 260 cavalry squadrons, supported by 80 cannon. Veteran marshal the duc de Boufflers, though senior to Villars, volunteered to serve as his second in command. Eugene and Marlborough jointly led an Allied army numbering 90,000 to 110,000 Englishmen, Dutch, Austrians, Prussians, Hanoverians, Irish, Swiss, Danes, Scots, Hessians, and Saxons, formed into 128 infantry battalions and 253 cavalry squadrons with 100 cannon. Both exceptionally large for their time, the two armies camped almost within cannon shot of each other.

Eugene and the Dutch opposed Marlborough’s wish for immediate battle, giving the French time to reinforce their lines. The French right stood on the edge of the Wood of Lanières, while their seasoned regiments were posted in the Wood of Taisnières on the left. Between these two wings, across 2.5 miles of open ground, earthworks entrenched the main French force, whose cavalry massed to the rear. Cannon were well placed throughout the entire line, including the two woods.

After examining the strong French position on the morning of September 11, 1709, Marlborough and Eugene decided to attack the French left flank first, using the same tactics that had brought them victory at Blenheim. Attacks on his flanks would lead Villars to draw troops from his center, which could be overwhelmed in a second attack by the Allied infantry reserve followed by a massed cavalry charge. Marlborough took command on the right, facing Boufflers, with Eugene on the left, facing Villars. At 8:30 a.m. Allied cannon fired a single volley to signal the attack. A half hour later, infantry columns led by Prussian count von Lottum and Austrian count von Schulenburg attacked French positions near the Wood of Taisnières. Farther to the Allied right, English general Withers began to move through the woods.

The Allies encountered stiffer resistance than in any of their previous battles. The first French volley mowed down hundreds of Schulenburg’s men. Lottum attacked French emplacements several times without success. Marlborough sent three British battalions to cover his losses. Both Allied columns lost many officers before entering the woods. By 10:00 a.m. the Austrians had fought their way through the trees to join the Prussians, who faced deadly fire from fourteen repositioned French cannon. The well-ordered French pulled back, showing a remarkable understanding of defense in depth, an unusual tactic for the time. Years of intense drill had not solved the problems of fighting in woodlands, where obstructions would lead to disorder. The tight Allied columns deteriorated into small, disconnected mobs, and the impetus of the assault faltered.

In the Allies’ center, Lord Orkney’s British and Hanoverian corps and Dutch, Swiss, and Scottish battalions commanded by the prince of Orange were to wait until a decisive gain had been forced in the Taisnières. Not understanding the battle plan, the young prince of Orange assaulted Boufflers’s lines early in the battle. Though Orange was defeated, his attack prevented Boufflers from going to Villars’s aid. A French bayonet charge was stopped by Hessians, who moved forward to cover the Dutch, whose force was halved by casualties.

To check the Allied advance, Villars sent the Royal Irlandois, the famous Irish “Wild Geese” brigade, into the Taisnières, where, ironically, they were routed by their compatriots, the British 18th Royal Irish Regiment. The commanders on both sides personally led troops in the subsequent encounter. Though wounded, Eugene refused to quit the battle. Withers fought his way through the woods to join the fray. Along with the Irish, Villars drew his Bavarian brigade from the center to bolster his left, giving the Allies an opportunity to attack. Thirty Allied cavalry squadrons were deployed, as forty guns shelled the French center.

The resourceful Schulenburg managed to drag seven more cannon through the woods to fire on the French. Despite previous losses, Orange and Orkney attacked over open ground and captured the first line of French earthworks. Allied cavalry, infantry, and artillery combined in a great assault. Seriously wounded, Villars was carried from the field. Coming into action for the first time, Boufflers’s cavalry fought hard but lacked their opponents’ numbers. Now in command, Boufflers regrouped behind strongly fortified positions, but Marlborough and Eugene attacked again. An experienced old soldier, Boufflers withdrew his forces in order around 3:00 p.m., when the Allies had few intact units to pursue him.

Significance

The partnership of Marlborough and Eugene was arguably the greatest team effort in military history. However, at Malplaquet, their last joint command, they showed little restraint as thousands died for no real gain in the bloodiest battle of their time. In six hours of bitter fighting, the Allies suffered twenty thousand deaths, twice that of the French. An estimated seven thousand men on both sides were killed or wounded in the Wood of Taisnières alone. The toll was to traumatize Europe, much as the horrific losses of the First Battle of the Somme (1916) would two centuries later.

The battle displayed important innovations, including defense in depth and deftly moved artillery. Though forced from the field, the French were not defeated, and a British-Imperial advance on Paris was averted. Later campaigns in Spain accomplished little. Fearing Habsburg power more than France, the English and Dutch initiated negotiations with Louis XIV, resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht Utrecht, Treaty of (1713) in 1713. Financially troubled Holland soon lost its status as a major power. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI fought on another year, before consenting to the Treaties of Rastatt and Baden. Rastatt and Baden, Treaties of (1714) Efforts to balance power had replaced the assertion of dynastic rights.

Though the woods of Taisnières and Lanières have disappeared, the fields around Malplaquet remain largely untouched. A monument marks the site of the French center north of the village, and a museum at nearby Bavay commemorates the engagement.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, David. Marlborough as Military Commander. London: Penguin, 1973. A detailed look at the English commander and warfare in his era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston S. Marlborough: His Life and Times. New York: Scribner, 1968. Written by Marlborough’s famous descendant and World War II prime minister, this work covers all of the English general’s battles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weighley, Russell F. The Age of Battles. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. An excellent analysis of European warfare from 1631 to 1815, including Malplaquet.

War of the Spanish Succession

Battle of Blenheim

Treaty of Utrecht

Treaties of Rastatt and Baden

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Charles VI; Eugene of Savoy; First Duke of Marlborough. Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714) Malplaquet, Battle of (1709)

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