Battle of Oudenaarde

1 French plans to besiege Oudenaarde in July 1708

Town Hall of Oudenaarde
Overview
Date:11 July 1708
Outcome:Alliance Victory
Belligerents:
Bourbon side:Alliance side:
FranceUnited Provinces
SpainEngland
German Empire
Commanders:
Duke of BurgundyMarlborough
VendomeEugen
Ouwerkerk

The battle of Oudenaarde was brought about by the French conquest of Brugge and Gent. Since 7 July 1708 the whole French army was in a position west of the Dender near Aalst. Its strategic goal was to conquer the whole of Flanders. This should be achieved by preventing the alliance from crossing the Dender. The French could then besiege Oudenaarde and Menin, and so complete the conquest of Flanders. They had already blockaded Oudenaarde in expectance of a siege.

The alliance army therefore had two objectives. The first was crossing the Dender, the second preventing the expected siege of Oudenaarde. At 02:00 AM on the July 9, the allied army marched to Herfelingen (west of Halle). This started a race to Lessines. A force led by Cadogan wun this race by arriving at midnight. By 04:00 AM on the 10th he had brought in 8 batallions and 8 squadrons, and was busy reinforcing the position and bridging the Dender. Marlborough then arrived with the rest at 11:00 AM.

The failure to capture Lessines forced the French to choose between lifting the siege of Oudenaarde or attacking the allied army at Lessines. They decided to lift the siege and retreat across the Scheldt by bridging at Gavere, north of Oudenaarde.

A side-effect of the capture of Gent and Brugge became visible. Forces under Berwick and Eugen were moving to the Spanish Netherlands. In their new positions Eugen's cavalry was now far closer to Marlborough's forces, then Berwick was to Burgundy's. Eugen arrived in Marlborough's army in advance of his troops and together they decided to strike at Vendome's communications with Lille.

2 The Battle of Oudenaarde

The allied plan involved crossing the Scheldt near Oudenaarde and positioning themselves between Vendome and Lille. This would force the French either to do battle, or to give up Gent and Brugge. At 01:00 AM on the 11th Cadogan left Lessines and marched to Oudenaarde. Marlborough followed him at 7:00 AM with the rest of the army. At 10:30 Cadogan's troops were building bridges north of Oudenaarde, and inside the city itself. In the mean time Biron, who commanded the French advance-guard of 7 Swiss batallions and 20 squadrons, was bridging the Scheldt at Gavere. During the morning he moved his infantry south, 3 batallions occupying Heurne and 4 batallions occupying Eine, just north of Oudenaarde.

2.1 The opening moves

Around noon Cadogan crossed the Scheldt with 12 batallions and 8 Hannoverian squadrons under Rantzau. Near Heurne these clashed with French foraging parties. Biron reacted by attacking with 12 squadrons, at which Rantzau retired to Cadogan's infantry that was marching on Eyne. Cadogan then occupied Schaerken and prepared to attack Eine.

The French army was still far to the north when Vendome heard about the situation and understood it (about 13:30 PM). He sent orders to Biron to attack immediately, and himself started to hurry south with a strong detachment of the French army. Upon the receipt of these orders, Biron was warned by Puységur of a swamp near the road, and Biron was forbidden by Matignon to carry out Vendome's orders. When Vendome himself arrived near the Gent road somewhat later he too believed Puysegur's statement about the swamp, and moved to the west of the Gent road. The duke of Burgundy seeing how affairs evolved, then decided not to cross the Molenbeek, but to take up a strong position centring on Huise. Effectively refusing to contest the crossing of the Scheldt. At it was the obvious intention of the French to await the allies in a strong position, their Swiss troops should have received orders to retreat, but nobody in the French army seems to have thought about that.

Here is the position of the armies at 15:00 hours. Burgundy has stalled behind the Molenbeek. Vendome has marched to a position west of the Gent way. Biron's cavalry is still guarding the road, but his infantry is exposed. At this moment Cadogan started his attack on Eine and Heurne. It started with sixteen batallions storming Eine. Three Swiss batallions surrendered immediately, while the fourth that tried to retreat to Heurne was cut down by Rantzau's cavalry. This induced the 3 batallions in Heurne to flee north. Rantzau then charged the Biron's 12 Squadrons that guarded the Gent road and routed them. Not satisfied with this Rantzau's 8 sqdrs. then charged the left wing cavalry of the French main force, an action that could not possibly succeed, but could have been meant as an insult to French arms. At least this was the way it was received, and though Rantzau retreated in time, the French were now eager to avenge this charge by attacking.

2.2 The French attack

Now here is the situation from about 4:00 PM. Burgundy had sent Grimaldi with 16 Sqdrs. to reconnoitre on the right flank. Grimaldi concluded that the terrain was unsuitable for cavalry and retired to the mill of Rooigem. With the French army in a strong position Vendome was now against attacking, but Burgundy overruled him (Barnett) and gave orders to attack. This first attack was performed by 6 batallions and directed against two of Cadogan's Prussian Batallions that held the vicinity of Groenewoud. Vendome after seeing this attack repulsed brought in 6 more and personally led the renewed the attack, only to find out that Cadogan's 16 batallions had meanwhile also occupied Herligem. Vendome was repulsed for the second time, and now brought in more troops to attack on a wider front.

The Marollebeek ot he south The Marollebeek to the north The Marollebeek to the northeast

2.3 The French left wing stays put

At 5:00 PM Vendome then ordered/advised Burgundy to let the left wing of the French army attack along the Gent road, that the allies had only covered with the 28 Sqdrs. led by Natzmer and Rantzau. Now luck was on the allied side because Burgundy still believed there was a swamp in the area, and therefore choose not to do so, sending an ADC to inform Vendome. Vendome knew there was no swamp in the area, but the ADC was killed en route to him, and so Vendome was not informed that his order would not be carried out.

The momentum was however still with the French as the French right wing moved in, shortly followed by Argyll on the allied side. The French infantry did well by crossing the Diepenbeek and capturing Schaerken at 17:30. This was however as far as they got in the south. After a heavy engagement with Lottum at about 17:45 they had to leave Schaerken and retreated across the Diepenbeek at 18:00.

To the north they were however more succesful, taking Groenewoud and Herlegem at 18:15. Marlborough reacted by sending Lottum north to support Eugen, who had taken command of the right flank, and replacing Lottum's troops with 18 freshly arrived batallions of Hessians and Hannoverians. Lottum's arrival stopped Vendome's attack, and would lead to the reconquest of Groenewoud and Herlegem. At 19:00 the English cavalry of 17 Sqdrs was also sent north, but still the pressure on Eugen was unbearable. The 20 sqdrs. of Prussian Gendarmes then made a legendary attack, which cost them a lot of casualties, but stabilised the situation.

2.4 Counter-attack and encirclement

Marlborough now only commanded these 18 batallions and the rest of the left flank under Ouwerkerk that was just arriving by way of the city. Ouwerkerk force had been delayed by the collapse of two pontoon bridges inside the city, and got his orders to attack at 18:45. His first attack was performed by general Week and broke through at Marlborough's left. Ouwerkerk's attack was then directed at Rooigem, personally headed by the prince of Orange. It swept away the Maison du Roi and threatened to encircle the whole French centre. In the mean time Cadogan finally broke thorugh the French lines at Groenewoud and was marching to meet Orange. Near the mill of Rooigem the two forces met. At dusk about 50,000 French troops were encircled.

At 22:00 the French generals then met at Huise, where the famous scene recorded by Saint Simon took place: The duke of Burgundy trying to speak was interrupted by Vendome who said: 'Your Royal Highness must not forget that you came to this army on condition that you would obey me!' Vendome with this alluded to Burgundy negating his orders, but nonetheless the insult was improbable for the time. Vendome now stated that they had to pick up battle the next day, (a ludicrous idea) but when all senior staff opposed this, he said: 'Very well gentlemen, I see you all wish to retire' and turning to Burgundy: 'I know that you, monsigneur, have long wished to do so!' Thus the French army retreated on Gent in utter confusion. A confusion best illustrated by the fact that 10,000 French troops retired to France in stead of Gent.

3 The Results

According to Churchill the allies had lost about 3,000 men. The French had lost 6,000 casualties, 9,000 prisoners, and about 15,000 stragglers who mostly rejoined the army later. The biggest loss for the French army lay of course in moral and organisation, it would be improbable to restore these in a way that would enable it to face the allies again soon. This would give the allies the opportunity to confidently lay siege to some of the great fortresses of the Spanish Netherlands.

4 The French Command

It is often said that the duke of Burgundy was the nominal commander of the French army, while Vendome was the de facto (actual) commander. Such an arrangement with a royal figure-head is not unusual since royals have discovered that it is better to let professionals wage their wars while taking the laurels for themselves. It was also a very effective way to boost morale and zeal of the troops. There is a however a big danger contained in this contruction: it can only work when this 'nominal commander' indeed plays only this role. As soon as the nominal commander steps out of his role and effectively begins to decide matters, his sovereignty, or direct relation with the sovereign, will make (most of) the staff answer to him, making him the actual commander. This section is meant to shed some light on how this command construction fared in this campaign.

When Burgundy came to the front in 1708 in order to at least nominally command the army of Flandres he joined the army that had in the previous year been commanded by Vendome. After the major defeats suffered by other generals in previous years the hopes of Versailles were clearly settled on Vendome, the only commander standing his ground, even against Eugen in Italy. There is therefore no doubt in my mind that Louis XIV intended for Vendome to keep the actual command of the troops, and for Burgundy to serve as a royal figure-head. We then have to look at what Louis XIV and Burgundy left of these good intentions. By the time the French got to Oudenaarde Burgundy seems to have been commanding and Vendome seems to have been nothing more than a senior commander, able to give orders, but subject to Burgundy, who thought that he himself had the supreme command of the army.

Let's see what some writers have to say about this: Churchill starts by stating that 'the duke of Burgundy wanted to participate, and was therefore nominally placed in command of the army' and that 'Vendome thought the prince would hinder him less than elector Max Emanuel' some chapters further on Churchill then states: 'The duke of Burgundy himself took the decision to perform a dangerous flank march across the Dender towards Gent' 'Vendome was opposed to this and advised a longer detour southward, but the young prince took the risk' (in line with Saint Simon) and somewhat further on 'Burgundy's move against Brugge and Gent was a tangible and sensational succes' Churchill thus seems to say that Burgundy was in command, only to reverse these words when stating that during the battle: 'Vendome sent an order to Burgundy to bring up the left flank' Churchill finally admits to the command being unclear when while referring to the nominal/factual command structure he states: If (sic) this was the relation between Vendome and Burgundy as decreed by the king there is nothing to save Vendome's reputation as a commander' Though at first glance a wise remark Churchill is just a little bit off point here. Clearly this initially was the decreed relation, the question however is if Louis XIV kept up his initial decision.

Other writers have comparable views Barnett stating 'Louis XIV had sent his grandson the duke of Burgundy to take titular command of the army.' Further on however he states: 'Vendome had wanted to fight for Lessines, but he had been overruled.' and when describing the opening of the battle: 'Vendome judged - correctly - that at the moment they were only facing an advance guard, which they should fall upon without delay and march straight to Oudenaarde. But Burgundy again overruled him, ordering the French army to form into line of battle along an irregular east-west ridge to the north of a stream, the Norken.' Further on he states that Vendome was later on overruled again when he did not want to attack because he thought the situation not favourable anymore. Voltaire clearly marks the discrepancy between the initial decision and what came of it: On opposa ce prince philosophe (Burgundy) au duc de Marlborough: on lui donna pour l'aider le duc de Vendôme. Il arriva ce qu'on ne voit que trop souvent: le grand capitaine ne fut pas assez écouté, et le conseil du prince balança souvent les raisons du général. Il se forma deux partis; et dans l'armée des alliés il n'y en avait qu'un, celui de la cause commune.

In the battle there are also some things that did not happen, and therefore give us some indications as to what had happened. Churchill states that Vendome gave an order to bring up the left flank, he however does not state whether Burgundy perceived it as an order or an advice, the facts point to Burgundy appreciating it as an advice. I have also not seen any mention about ADC's looking for Vendome and his orders. It rather seems that the whole staff of the French army remained with Burgundy near the mill of Rooigem. If the experienced staff officers like Puységur thought Vendome was in command would they not have gone looking for Vendome? All in all from what little detail I have read about the battle it seems to me that the senior officers regarded Burgundy as being the commander, and Vendome as being subject to Burgundy's orders. (In describing the affairs following the battle of Oudenaarde Churchill decribes the French command as functioning like this, with Vendome being only an advisor to Burgundy.)

To sum it up: Already before the battle the command had in fact been taken over by Burgundy, though Vendome was still a senior commander. Vendome could still give orders on account of him being a marshall, but Burgundy was able to overrule him at any moment, and the staff obeyed to them in this way.

5 Blame and Credit

At Oudenaarde we again see Marlborough in complete control of his army. On the other hand we see him taking big risks in this battle: What if Burgundy had attacked his right flank? Now this did not happen, and we can also ask: what if the bridges at Oudenaarde had not collapsed? One what-if would probably have resulted in defeat, the other probably to the end of the war in the same year. Cadogan can also be said to have played a memorable part in this battle.

On the French side the appraisal of the facts is more difficult for me:

The first mistake Burgundy made is not attacking the allies as soon as possible. When Burgundy later on decided to attack he did this in far less favourable circumstances, but he still had a very good chance to win. The really big mistake on the French side however was not engaging the left wing. Who is to blame for this? Vendome had attacked on Burgundy's orders, and asked/advised Burgundy to engage the rest of the army. Burgundy as supreme commander felt free to ignore this advise, and sent Vendome a message that would never reach him, allegedly thinking there was a marsh in font of the left wing that could not be crossed by cavalry. During the battle Vendome then adhered to his orders to attack. Burgundy and the army staff on the hill then performed some actions, but the left-wing of the French army was left where it was.

Given the fact that there were enough experienced staff officers with Burgundy, this inactivity is strange. Had the French staff truely believed there was a marsh in front of the left wing that could not be crossed by cavalry, it would have been logical to bring up the infantry and direct the cavalry to march to the right, a course of action that would have led it to confront Ouwerkerk, or to outflank the allies. Believing troops cannot be attacked, and then not directing them elsewhere is a rather unique decision in a battle. It points to either gross incompetence or malicious intent. With the French staff posessing enough experience it might be usefull to have a quick glance at the malicious intent option:

It is important to note that Vendome and Burgundy were not only rivals in the battlefield command, but also in Versailles. Vendome was also the leader of a party at court, and being both grandson of Henry IV and descending from a bastard very eligible for royal support. With Vendome's party getting more and more influence at court it could possibly have been advantageous for Burgundy to let Vendome's wing be destroyed. (read Saint Simon and imagine what a victory would have done for Vendome). I therefore think Burgundy is to blame on the French side, whether for malice or incompetence. Ultimately however the blame rests with Versailles, because it placed the army under an unclear and or inexperienced leadership.

Vendome's sentence: 'Your Royal Highness must not forget that you came to this army on condition that you would obey me!' is interpreted by Churchill as referring to the actual command of the battle. In my opinion however, Vendome could also have referred to a situation whereby Burgundy had undermined his authority after coming to the army up to the point that Burgundy was in factual command at the time of the battle. I think this is the case and Burgundy has to take the blame for the disaster.

In the aftermath of the battle a strong debate about who was to blame flared up in France. The fact that the command structure had been unclear gave ample opportunity for this, Vendome's party of course blaming Burgundy, and Burgundy blaming Vendome. I have not found at what the prevailing opinion at the time was, but it may not have been that relevant in the subsequent decision by Louis XIV. Dynastic policy dictated Vendome's disfavour, publicly blaming him in stead of Burgundy, but also making it impossible to employ him again. Perhaps this policy has succeeded in clouding the issue for some, others however were not fooled by the accusations against Vendome. Chief among these was the Spanish court, that consistently begged Louis to send him over. In the dire straits he was in in 1710, Louis then decided the Spanish could have him, and in 1710 Vendome vindicated himself by his decisive victory at Brihuega.