Siege of Lille 12 July - 13 August 1708

Siege of Lille
Lille town square
Lille Town Square
Start:12 July 1708
End:10 December 1708
Outcome:Alliance Strategic Victory
Bourbon side:Alliance side:
FranceUnited Provinces
German Empire

1 Strategic Considerations

1.1 The alliance at an advantage

After their big victory at Oudenaarde on 11 July 1708 the alliance had the upper hand in Flanders. The French could perhaps succeed in restoring their numbers, but their shaken morale would probably not allow their army to face the enemy again soon. This is proven by specific references to the fact that the French command did not believe that their troops, once repulsed, could stand battle again.

This did not mean that all of the alliance problems were solved. The loss of Gent still posed a big strategic problem, because it blocked supply over water. While the alliance had the choice of moving its army against any target it liked, it had only two sensible options. The first was to march towards Gent, and to take it after a predictably short siege. The other was to besiege Lille, and thereby to force the French to leave Gent.

The risk of besieging Gent was that the French army would evade, and the campaign would end without any notable result. The risk of Lille was that it was the grandest fortress of Europe. There was a significant risk that a siege would fail. On the other hand, a success would mean a very tangible improvement in the strategic situation.

1.2 French options

The map reflects the situation after the battle of Oudenaarde. The main part of the French army is situated north of the Brugge-Gent canal. After the battle Berwick had arrived in the theater. Because there could be no question of risking another battle, Berwick was able to lay strong garrisons in Ypres, Lille and Tournai. These were augmented even further by about 10,000 French troops that had marched south after Oudenaarde. The French army was able to stay in Gent because France itself was covered by a double line of fortresses: First a line from Nieuwpoort to Mons, secondly a line from Gravelines to Maubeuge.

The reasons often mentioned for not immediately marching back to their frontier lay in the fact that Brugge and Gent were important cities and that their hold on Gent assured that allied logistics were hindered in quickly transporting the siege guns which were necessary for operations against the French frontier. However, the most important consideration for the French command was that as long as the alliance had not started a major siege, any move from their secure position would lead to another battle that it could not hope to win.

1.3 Alliance considerations regarding the siege

The alliance faced the problem that their supply lines were insecure, and that starting a siege could induce the enemy to make a move against Brabant. Their ultimate goal was to get back Gent and Brugge and to break through the two fortress lines which blocked the way to Paris. As long as the French main army was near Gent it would of course not pose too much of a problem to march the allied army through the lines. However, the purpose of these lines was not to prevent this, but to prevent supplies from reaching an army that had crossed. This meant that an army that wanted to enter France and still be supplied had to conquer a corridor through the lines first.

A corridor through the lines means not only capturing one place in the first and one place in the second line, but at least two or three in both, with control of a river inside it. One would also not want a great fortress with a garrison capable of raids next to it, such as Lille, Tournai or Ieper. All this meant that probably two of these three cities had to be captured. It seems to me that conquering Ieper would not have opened up a supply line to France, and though Tournai would, it would probably not induce the French to leave the Gent Brugge canal. Lille was the strongest fortress of Europe, and capturing it would not only force the French to leave Gent, but also give the allies the choice of whether to capture Ieper or Tournai afterwards.

2 The defenses of Lille

Lille was a big city (population estimated at 57,500, 5th of France), and had recently been fortified by Vauban, giving it not only great city fortifications, but also the best citadel of Europe, called 'La Reine des citadelles'. Lille's city walls were modern, massive and in a very good state, meaning that they would stand artillery fire for quite some time before crumbling. There was also an inundation which covered the citadel and part of the city walls. This precluded an attack on the citadel before taking the city itself. The city was also well armed with men and guns. This meant that the allied batteries would face massive counter battery fire, that any ditches approaching the city would come under heavy artillery fire, and that a breech in the walls would be covered by flanking fire.

Lille could host a big garrison. At the time of the battle of Oudenaarde this had only counted 2 battalions and some invalids, but it had gradually been brought up to strength. On 18 July it counted 8 battalions, 2 dragoon regiments and 500 fugitives from the battle. On 11 August it counted 21 battalions 12 companies of invalids, 6 squadrons, 4 dragoon companies and 200 cavalrymen 1). According to Berwick it counted 23 battalions and 3 dragoon regiments 2). All in all the garrison numbered between 9,000 and 10,000 men 3).

Lille was commanded by Boufflers, who was courageous and more then competent to defend a large town. He had not commanded for some time and it's often stated that he probably hoped to rehabilitate himself in the coming siege. This 'rehabilitation' or 'second chance' argument might be true but according to me the prime reason for him having the command has to be sought in the fact that Boufflers was governor of Lille and French Flanders since 1694. What is beyond doubt is that Boufflers proposed for three others to have a chance to restore their career. The artillery Lieutenant General De la Fréselière had to make up for insubordination, and was brought out of the Bastille. The engineer Lalande had recently been fired as commander of the citadel of Metz and Lieutenant-general De Surville also had to make up for something. Chief engineer was Du Puy Vauban, a cousin of the more famous Vauban. Lieutenant-general De Lée was the local commander.

3 The alliance moves to Lille

3.1 The alliance army gets closer

When on 13 July the allied command received word that the French were not making preparations to leave Gent it decided to besiege Lille and to transport the siege train over land. It also decided to march to Helchin on 14 July and to surround Lille the day after in order to prevent further supplies from entering 4). A large detachment under Lottum was sent to destroy the lines between Ypres and Comines and the army did indeed reach Helchin on the 14th. In stead of marching to Lille it then marched to Wervik on the 15th where it made a camp between Menin and Comines.

3.2 Logistical requirements

Besieging Lille would mean having a large besieging force, a good covering force, supplies, an enormous artillery park of siege guns and mortars, and the powder and shot to keep up a continuous bombardment. A siege train thus would have to be composed in the United Provinces and be brought over to Lille. Had it been possible to do the transport by water it could have arrived fast and smoothly, but the waterways were not available due to Burgundy and Vendome still holding on to Gent.

3.3 Moving convoys to Menin

With their army camped near Lille at Wervik the allies had a strongpoint in the well fortified town of Menin, as well as in Warneton and the fortified bridgehead near Pottes. What seems illogical is that the alliance did not close in on Lille on 16 July. The consequence was that more supplies and troops would reach Lille before the siege started. A possible explanation is that the alliance still hoped that Vendome would leave Gent or could be induced to do so by bringing northern France under contribution. Another explanation is that the alliance deemed itself incapable of closing in on Lille and guarding the overland convoys at the same time.

Anyway: the alliance decided it had to bring in the army's supplies before openly marching on one of the three cities they could attack. The most important parts of these were the heavy equipment that had been left behind marching to Oudenaarde and the normal provisions. This first large convoy marched from Brussel escorted by Eugen on 22 July, met Marlborough's army near Pottes, and arrived in Menin on the 25 july. Burgundy/Vendome did not try to intercept it, and Berwick was not allowed.

This first convoy having arrived rather smoothly it now became time to transport the siege train. This was a wholly different matter. It consisted of 80 Heavy siege guns, 20 heavy mortars and 3,000 ammo wagons. Each heavy siege gun was towed by 20 horses, each siege mortar by 16, and each ammunition wagon by 4, these alone used 13,920 horses, of which there were 16,000 total. Together these formed two 25 km long trains marching parallel. The covering force consisted of 53 battalions and 102 squadrons, of which Eugen covered against Mons with 40,000 men, and the prince of Hessen-Kassel marched along north of the convoy with 35 squadrons.

This grand convoy left Brussel on 6 August and arrived in Halle in the evening. On the same day Eugen marched on Soignies, a march which made Berwick move to protect Mons from a possible siege. The convoy marched on and linked up with Eugen near Soignies in the afternoon of the 7th. It then marched on Ath on the 8th, crossed the Dender on the 9th, and the Schelde on the 10th near Pottes. It arrived in Menin on the 12th, unmolested by the French armies. To the French side it became clear on that day that Lille or Ypres would be the target. The very next day the allies closed in on Lille.

3.4 Plunder & contributions

Apart from bringing in supplies from their own bases the alliance also busied itself with gathering contributions from the French. The unscratched countrysides of Artois, French Flanders, Hainaut and parts of Picardie lay in its grasp because the French army was in the north. Part of this 'job' considered of plundering for what it could lay its hands on, part of it consisted of blackmailing the communities into paying large sums in order to avoid plunder. No doubt the allies took great pleasure in for once being able to retaliate.

4 Notes

1) Numbers from Het Staatse Leger VIII/II page 334
2) Memoirs of Berwick page 118
3) Numbers from Het Staatse Leger VIII/II page 335, but compare page 357 where it says 12,000 men not counting the officers.
4) Goslinga page 65
Chapter 2 of the siege of Lille