Siege of Lille
13 August - 9 December 1708
The siege gets underway
The allied force was now split into a siege army commanded by Eugen and a covering force near Helchin (a few km south of Pottes) commanded by Marlborough. Eugen's army consisted of 53 battalions and 90 squadrons, Marlborough's army of 69 battalions and 140 squadrons. On 13 August Lille was closed in and Eugen started to dig two 15 km long circumvallating walls around the city on the 14th1). Within these two walls that were finished on the 21st the besiegers were posted facing in and outwards.
As point of attack the besiegers chose the sector between the St. Magdalen and St. Andrew gates which were both covered by large protruding fortifications. Ditches were then opened in the night of 22-23 August. On the left the first paralel was made about 400 meters from the covered road, but on the right it was more distant because it was hindered by a French outpost at the farm La Vacquerie. In the evening of the 24th a French outpost at the Magdalen chapel was stormed with a loss of about 30 men and that same night La Vacquerie was evacuated.
In the evening of 26 August the French performed their first sortie. It had a lot of success because it temporarily regained the chapel and destroyed about 120 meters of ditches. That same night most of the batteries were completed. There were three batteries of 24 pounders: one of 43 guns; one of 12 guns and one of 11 guns. As regards indirect fire there were two batteries one of 24 pieces and one of 12 pieces, each battery half mortars half howitzers. On 27 August these siege guns started battering away at the walls of Lille2), but even though they were quite effective this was way too early. Later on the price for this had to be paid when the besiegers had to renew their bombardment but faced an ammunition shortage3).
On the 27th and the following night the second paralel was dug. New batteries were then constructed in a more forward position (Of restpectively 8, 10, 14 and 17 guns and one of 7 mortars and 5 howitzers). In the first days of September the trenches then reached almost up to the glacis. Between 4 and 7 September the besiegers started to dig into the protruding corners of the Glacis and meanwhile the last forward batteries were put in place, meaning that the whole alliance artillery of 120 guns, 40 howitzers and 40 mortars could fire.
Alliance losses up till 1 September were about 400 men and on 3 September the besiegers were not yet ready to storm the covered road. Meanwhile the French army had shown up in an attempt to lift the siege. This was a threat that had to dealt with first, and so 26 battalions and 76 squadrons left the camp in the evening of the 4th to strengthen the covering force.
The French try to lift the siege: 27 August -14 September
If the French wanted to prevent Lille from falling they had to take action. On 14 August Louis ordered the army to march and lift the siege of Lille. On 27 August both Berwick and Burgundy/Vendome marched, leaving De La Motte with some inferior troops in Brugge. On the night of the 27th Burgundy was somewhat east of Gavere, and Berwick was west of Mons with 35 battalions and 98 squadrons4, marching from there to Herne on the 28th. Marlborough was west of Ronse at Amougies5. On 29 August the French armies met at Geraardsbergen/Grammont, at which Berwick gave up his command. The now united French army then marched on Tournai, crossed the Schelde on 2 September and reached Orchies on the 3rd. On 4 September it reached Mons en Pévêle were it picked up its heavy equipment.
That same 4 September they could see Marlborough's covering force before them. It extended from Fretin to Noyelles. If ever there was a moment to prevent the allies from taking Lille it was that afternoon. Though not all French troops had arrived, they outnumbered Marlborough two to one. However, both Berwick and Vendome thought the time of day to late to attack, and so nothing was done on the 4th, except that they occupied Pont a Marq. Eugen arrived that night with 26 battalions and 72 squadrons and Fagel arrived at dawn with 7 battalions, abandoning his task of covering the communications with Brussel.
On the 5th the forces ranged against each other were 102 battalions and 232 squadrons of the alliance against 125 battalions and 243 squdrons for the two crowns, of which the alliance battalions were larger. Vendome wanted to attack immediately, but Berwick did not like the rough terrain across which the army would have to advance. The alliance army was furthermore in a position where one flank was covered by the Marcq and the other by marshes of a brook that was tributary to the Deule. Burgundy therefore decided to improve the approaches first, which of course cost so much time that no attack could be made on the 5th.
The alliance army of course reacted by digging in. On the 6th the armies were again ranged against each other, but again the French did not come forward. This prompted Eugen to return to the siege with all the battalions and half the cavalry he had brought. Still not able to decide Burgundy, Vendome and Berwick all wrote letters to Versailles in the evening of the 6th. Louis XIV answered that they had to attack and sent Chamillart to the camp.
First assault on the counterscarp
Of course all attempts to lift the siege could be ended by taking the city and this probably induced some misplaced optimism in Eugen's mind. The optimism of the besiegers was however indeed misplaced because the trenches were still too far away from the covered road, and this meant that the attackers had to cross a large distance over open terrain. A general assault of the counterscarp with 14,000 men was planned for 4 o'clock in the afternoon of 7 September. At 3 o'clock the artillery indeed opened fire against the city, but the assault had to be postponed till about half pas seven in the evening because men and materials were not ready in time.
The assault immediately suffered big losses when it had to cross the open terrain. When it next entered the covered road chaos reigned because a lot of the engineers were killed and a lot of laborers panicked under the heavy defensive fire6). To top off their misery three mines were exploded with great effect and the darkness contributed to further chaos7). The end result was that the attackers only held the protruding corners of the Horn works and that of the left tenaille. Alliance losses were estimated at about 400 killed and 2,250 injured.
Vendome bombards the covering force
On 8 September Marlborough was in a solidly fortified position ranging from Noyelles to Fretin. Louis XIV still wanted his generals to fight and the next day Chamillart arrived in camp. In a council of war all of course concluded that by now an attack against the covering force was hopeless. Nevertheless something had to be done to satisfy the king and so the army moved forward a bit to a position on the line Ennevelin, Avelin, Seclin, with headquarters in Pont a Marcq.
Next a battery of 20 heavy guns was arranged against the village of Ennetières which slightly protruded from the alliance lines. On the 11th this battery pounded away at the village from about half past three till the evening. This prompted Marlborough to call in Eugen and Johan Willem Friso who arrived with 19 battalions and a cavalry detachment. The generals now expected an attack at dawn on the 12th, but that day the only French action was to double their battery and to continue to fire at the village, which did not cause much damage.
On the 13th the French started to fortify the village of Seclin, which was in front of their positions, but they had retired their artillery. That day Marlborough sent 13 infantry regiments of Eugen's troops back to the siege and the other infantry was ordered back the next day. The French then concluded that nothing useful could be done and after receiving permission from the king they retreated on the 15th8.
The alliance digs into the counterscarp
From 8 till 12 September the besiegers laboured on their postions and improved them. Meanwhile the besieged executed sorties in the evening of the 9th and the morning of the 12th. Both were driven back and did not have much result. On the other hand the numbers of the besiegers were dwindling.
|1) Ouwerkerk to Heinsius 16 August 1708|
|2) Marlborough to Heinsius 27 August 1708|
|3) See Het Staatse Leger VIII/II page 339 for the first actions of the siege and the criticism about firing too early.|
|4) Berwick page 121|
|5) Marlborough to Heinsius 27 August 1708|
|6) Goslinga to Heinsius 8 September: 'De quatre mille on ne put jamais rassembler 1600 pour faire les logement.'|
|7) Van Collern to Heinsius 8 September: 'Doordien deselve so laet in 't doncker eer men gereet heeft konnen sijn is begonnen, dat eenighe desordres en confusie is voorgevallen.'|
|8) Berwick page 127. Also Ouwerkerk to Heinsius on 15 September: 'De vijanden sijn deesen morgen met haer leeger opgebrooken en achterwaerts gemarcheerd.' (This morning the enemies have left camp and marched backwards)|