Siege of Lille

12 July - 9 December 1708

Chapter 2 of the siege of LilleChapter 3: From 15 September till 9 December 1708

Second and third attacks on the counterscarp

In the evening of 21 September Eugen and the prince of Hessen-Kassel personally led a second attack on the counterscarp. It was directed against the sectors of the st. Andreas and st. Magdalena gates. With 15,000 men they at first made good headway, but later lost most of the terrain they had gained, all in all losing about 1,000 men.

With Eugen severely wounded in this assault, Marlborough took over command of the siege. He personally performed a 'thord' attack in the night of 23 September which considerably improved the situation1. On 1 October the allies would finally become masters of all the counterscarp 2.

The French try to cut off allied supplies 17 September - 22 October

The battle of Wijnendale

The French army had meanwhile taken a different approach by marching down the Schelde and occupying and fortifying every passage, making a bend around Oudenaarde. This meant that the allies were now cut off from Brussel (and the United Provinces). Because of the enormous amounts of gun and shot the allied army required for keeping up their bombardment of Lille, they now quickly had to find a way either to reopen the crossings of the Schelde, or to get their supplies from the coast.

Luckily somewhere in the beginning of September it had been decided to send 6,000 English troops that had been waiting in England over to Oostende, this with an eye on retaking Brugge and Plassendale (the fortified sluice, not Passendale). They arrived on the 21st, and soon got to work draining some of the inundated land, and occupying Leffinghe as well as building a bridge there and fortifying it. From Leffinghe there was a road to Torhout that continued to Lille.

It was thus that when the allies had been cut of from the Schelde they redirected their supplies to Oostende. Marlborough sent 12 battalions and 12 squadrons to Leffinghe to reinforce the convoy, sending another 12 battalions on the 25th. The French had sent a small army of 22,000 men to prevent convoys from leaving Oostende. On the 28 September these attacked about 8,000 allies covering the convoy near Wijnendaal. After the well-positioned allied infantry had inflicted a terrible slaughter the French withdrew, and the convoy safely arrived, bringing in 250,000 pounds, or two weeks supplies, of ammunition.

Normally the arrival of this convoy would have sealed the faith of Lille, because the defenders were almost out of gunpowder now. Boufflers had however sent word of this. In the night of the 28th 2,000 French dragoons commanded by le chevalier de Luxembourg, each laden with 60 pounds of gunpowder arrived at the circumvallating walls in disguise. They first gained entrance, and were only unmasked when about half of them had gotten through, most of the rest succeeding in turning back. Thus in this heroic act the French got in 60,000 pounds of powder.

The allies and the French were thus both resupplied. Burgundy and Vendome now prepared another action. On 3 October Vendome marched with 30,000 men to a position near Oudenburgh and succeeded in totally inundating the vicinity of Oostende. Marlborough now marched to Roeselare with 6 battalions and 130 squadrons hoping to do battle with Vendome. Though Vendome was ready to oblige him, Vendome's generals were not, and they compelled their own army to retire to Brugge by opening up some more sluices. Notwithstanding this the allies received some 500 barrels of powder from Oostende somewhere around the tenth.

The alliance now occupied the territory around Diksmuide, and with small boats and high wheeled carts a supply line was opened over the inundations between Diksmuide and Leffinghe. The French attacked these boats with galleys, but were not successful enough to prevent enough supplies from coming through. The key to this supplyline was Leffinghe, and though the French attacked it from the 13rd they were only able to take it on the 24th. By then it was too late for Lille.

Boufflers retires to the citadel

On the 22 October allied troops had positioned themselves for the final assault. After so brilliantly performing his duties Boufflers now wisely decided to give up the city. Negotiators were sent, and during a three day truce Boufflers retired to the citadel with about 4,500 men, while 3,000 troops laid down their arms and 4,000 sick and wounded were transported to Douai. About 3,000 French had died during the siege of the city, while the allies lost about 3,500 killed and 8,000 wounded.

Lille first gate of the citadel The Citadel of Lille

The struggle for the citadel

Taking the city surely made their tasks easier for the besiegers. This because surrounding the citadel required perhaps only half the force that had been needed for the city, and bombarding it required less ammunition. Which in turn meant that their covering force grew much stronger. The loss of Leffinghe on the 24 October brought some their supply problems back, but would not prevent them from battering the citadel to its knees.

The French thus had to do something if they wanted to save the citadel. In their meetings Burgundy, Vendome and Berwick argued a lot and could not reach agreement on what to do. Berwick thus had himself relocated to the Rhine, leaving the campaign. While he was leaving elector Max Emanuel of Bavaria arrived on the scene bringing with him a plan to attack Brussel, because he thought the inhabitants would support him. Burgundy and Vendome agreed and so Max Emanuel was at Halle on 21 November with 14 battalions and 18 squadrons. On the 22nd he reached Brussel with his tiny force. Brussel was however defended by 10 battalions under the competent command of colonel Pascal. Max Emanuel's demand for surrender was negated, and the population kept quite. Forcing Max Emanuel to start a kind of siege for which he lacked the means.

The allies reopen the road to Brussel

By his spies Marlborough was aware of this plan shortly after the French had agreed upon it. The problem he now faced was that in order to save Brussel he had to cross the Schelde whose crossings were in French hands and well fortified, meaning a frontal assault on the crossings could fail and would anyhow be a bloody affair. He therefore left Roulers and made ostentatious preparations to go into winter quarters, thus fooling the French command. Then on 26 November Marlborough and Eugen suddenly jumped on the crossings of Gavere, Oudenaarde, Kerkhoff and Hauterive, and kept them. Max Emanuel had to retire quickly leaving his guns and 800 wounded. The governor of Ath meanwhile took the fortified post at St Ghislain that had been only weakly held in order to get more troops to the 'siege' of Brussel. With the siege of the citadel going well, Boufflers surrendered it on terms on 9 December.

Gent and Brugge

Though the season had already ended, the allies immediately turned their attention to executing their plans against Brugge and Gent. They marched in that direction on the very day they got the citadel. Louis XIV though had other ideas about prolonging the campaign. Trusting on the abilities of the garrisons of Gent and Brugge he ordered his army to winter quarters, despite Vendome's protests.

34 Battalions and 19 squadrons commanded by count de la Motte defended Gent. Marlborough arrived on 11 December and closed in the town on 18 December. From the 16th Eugen had marched too, sending his infantry to the siege, while himself going to Geraardsbergen. Probably due to the frost, trenches were not opened till the 24th, and batteries were only ready to fire on the 29th. The French reaction consisted of their new commander Villars sending troops to Nieuwpoort (M. to H. 20121708).

The alliance retakes Gent and Brugge

De la Motte on the 29th agreed to leave the town on 2 January if not aided. Thus the allies got Gent cheaply and De la Motte was court-martialed. Grimaldi immediately followed his example by apparently needlessly giving up Brugge, Plassendale and Leffinghe. Though Marlborough found De la Motte's behaviour inexcusable there were perhaps reasons for it. The allied army then retired to winter quarters.

Blame and Credit

Marlborough got such a brilliant result in this campaign that Louis XIV seriously started to negotiate peace. On the other hand he can be said to have been aided by the continuous disagreement in the French command. General Webb got a brilliant result in the battle of Wijnendaal. Ouwerkerk died of sickness and or old age in this campaign and probably did not play a very big role anymore. The prince of Orange, stadhouder of Frisia first showed his courage. The prince of Hessen Kassel performed his duties well and also showed much courage.

One can place some questionmarks by Eugen's conduct. His two attacks on the counterscarp in which so many lives were lost for so little gain seem to have been based on wrong assumptions of the strength of defenders. On the other had these attacks might have been necessary to get the siege going. Something that can truly be said not to be good was his management of the siege in terms of logistics. He failed to grasp the true state of the supply situation and seemed not to have been aware of how much powder he had. Though not criticising Eugen Marlborough in his letters often complains about how the siege was going.

The French side was hampered by a dual or even triple command structure, meaning no effective decisions could be taken. In combination with an army that had been badly mauled at Oudenaarde they probably were not in for results anyway. However, the strategy to cut off Marlborough from his supplies, seems to have been very effective. One can wonder what would have happened had the French opted for this strategy straight away.

Sources

The main sources for this description of the siege of Lille are Het Staatse Leger, the correspondence of Heinsius, Berwick's memoirs and Churchill's biography of Marlborough.

Notes

1) Marlborough to Heinsius 24 September 1708
2) Barnett

Chapter 2 of the siege of Lille