The Lines of Brabant

Map of the Brabant Lines
Crossing the Lines of Brabant
Date:18 July 1705
Outcome:Alliance Victory
Bourbon side:Alliance side:
FranceUnited Provinces
BavariaGerman Empire

1 The second option for 1705

1.1 Loss of Huy, siege of Liège

The alliance had hoped to enter France via the Moselle in spring 1705. This operation led to a defensive stance in the Low Countries. As a consequence Huy was lost after a siege which lasted from 28 May till 11 June. Because Villeroy's army was considerably stronger than Ouwerkerk's he then mached northward to conquer Liège. He arrived in a camp to the north of Liège on 16 June. On 18 June his troops entered the city and started preparations for the siege of the citadel.

On 21 June Villeroy got the news that Marlborough was marching towards the Netherlands. He judged that he was not able to face the united Anglo-Dutch army before Liège. Therefore he broke up the siege in order to prevent the loss of the Siege train. On the 24th the French re-embarked their siege guns, and in the night of 26-27 June the city was evacuated. In Huy some fortifications were demolished so the required garrison became smaller. In the afternoon of the 29 th the French decided to retreat behind the Lines of Brabant. Several detachments joined the army there, the last on 14 July.

1.2 Reconquest of Huy

Because the plans for the Moselle failed Marlborough's army marched to the Meuse, and crossed it on 30 June near Visé. Ouwerkerk's army marched south too. The first goal was to reconquer Huy. On 4 July the alliance army camped on the Mehaigne. On the 6th a detachment under Schultz closed in on Huy. On the 8th Huy was also closed in from the other side of the Meuse. On the 9th a bombardment started and the outer forts Picard and Rouge were taken. On the 10th the bombardment on the castle started. On the 11th the garrison started to capitulate at 15 PM, and surrendered themselves prisoners of war.1

2 Crossing the Lines of Brabant

2.1 The Lines

After the Moselle campaign had failed a campaign in the Low Countries had become the only feasible alternative. Such a campaign would include penetrating the Lines of Brabant. The Lines of Brabant were a line of strong-points, palisades and trenches running from Antwerp to Namur. Such Lines were not manned but could easily be defended by an army that would have the superior terrain in such a case. Later on many have voiced doubts about the effectiveness of such lines, but in 1703 they had been very effective. They had been penetrated later in 1703 and in 1704, but now they had to be broken. This could only be done by establishing a permanent foothold on the lines, that is conquering a fortress.

2.2 Plans and dissention

The plan of how to do this can be found in an anonymous memo of 14 July2. It advocated a feint south of the Mehaigne and a real attack to the north. The plans were discussed in a council of war where Ouwerkerk and the 'Dutch' generals of Marlborough's army (Noyelles, Oxenstiern, Hompesch and Ostfriesland) supported it, and the Dutch generals of Ouwerkerk's army opposed it. In the end the councils of the 15th and the 16th came to the decision that the army should march forward to 'see what the enemy would do'. Ouwerkerk's wing would march south of the Mehaigne, and Marlborough's north, where he would attempt to enter the lines with a small detachment, and in case this succeeded the whole army would follow. The Dutch generals of Ouwerkerk's army opposed this plan, but stated that they would the march on the 17th, the night following and on the 18th in order to enter the lines. They added that they were convinced the plan would lead to a battle3.

3 The opposing armies

3.1 The alliance army

The Allied army under the command of Marlborough consisted of 92 battalions and 160 squadrons, totalling about 70,000 men. It was divided in the army that had been in the Low Countries and the army Marlborough had brought back from the Moselle. These are referred to as the left (Dutch) wing and the right (English) wing, but there were Dutch troops and generals in both wings. This makes it understandable that Noyelles operated under Marlborough, and not under Ouwerkerk.

Furthermore there were in Marlborough's wing as generals: Churchill (brother of Marlborough); the Prince of Hessen-Kassel and Noyelles. In Ouwerkerk's wing were Marshall Ouwerkerk and the Generals Slangenburgh and Salisch. The the Field Deputies of the States General were Van Schagen and Van Heemskerck.

3.2 The French and Spanish Netherlands army

The French army was under the command of Villeroy and had 100 battalions and 147 squadrons, totalling about 73,000 men. This is often named the French, or sometimes the Franco-Bavarian army. In fact it was a combined army. The French were most numerous, then the Spanish Netherlands troops, then the Bavarian and then the Colognese. The number of units tends to overestimate the Bavarian/Colognese part because their units were the smallest.

For the French Order of Battle at the Brabant Lines there are two important documents. The first is the: 'Etat des quartiers de l'Armée depuis Gebressée jusqu'à Heylissem, y compris les détachements venant de la Moselle; 3 Juillet 1705'4. In print it has the mark that on the 17th 16 dragoon squdrons were moved. This makes it likely that this document remained in the French headquaters till that time. The second is an Order of Battle of 14 July 17055. It kind of contradicts the 'etat des quartiers'.

Other important accounts are the lists of prisoners taken by the alliance in the battle. They show prisoners from Bavarian, Colognese, Spanish and only one French regiment. So they confirm the accounts by many that there were very little or no French troops in the battle. The question is whether this was due to the faint attack.

4 The opening of the campaign:

4.1 Feint attack

Forcing the Lines of Brabant was of course not a simple matter of approaching the lines and then attacking them. Such a strategy would lead to heavy casualties, because the defending army would almost certainly defend in about equal numbers and thus have a big advantage in position. Any sensible strategy would thus be directed on outmaneuvering the defenders and crossing on a point and time where the lines were undefended. This schematic map shows how this was achieved.

Map of the Brabant Lines

Marlborough opened the campaign by marching the allied armies to the sector of the lines between Mehaigne river and the Meuse near Namur. In this sector the Mehaigne river from the point where it crossed the lines ran some ten kilometres to the east and then turned south towards the Meuse. Attacking in this sector therefore meant crossing this river.

In the early morning the Dutch army commanded by Ouwerkerk crossed the Mehaigne and marched south, even spreading his advanced units to the beginning of the Lines were of course many French troops were present. The French command concluded that the 'English' army would cross the Mehaigne during the night and that the whole allied army would attack on the 18th, and therefore concentrated 40,000 men on the lines running through Merdorp.

4.2 The Counter-march

But the allied armies took a different course. Already at 19:00 PM Count Noyelles had started a counter-march towards St. Trond with 27 Battalions and 38 Squadrons accompanied by Engineers. Marlborough joined this march at 22:00 PM, and Ouwerkerk after nightfall.

5 The Battle of Eliksem (Heylissem)

5.1 The crossing

From 4:00 AM onwards the troops of Noyelles crossed the lines on three points: at Orsmael, Wangé and Eliksem, surprising the French outposts and turning them to flight, some of them fleeing into the fortress of Léau just north of the crossing. The Allied cavalry then formed a line between the Lines of Brabant they had just crossed and Tienen. The French reacted rather slowly. Lt-General viscount D'Alègre was not informed promptly of the crossing, but ordered 33 squadrons of Bavarians, Spaniards, Colognes and French as well as 11 battalions commanded by Caraman to prepare a counterattack. The little map shows the crossing and the deployment on the other side in Orange. The subsequent attack on the French is shown in black arrows.

Map of Eliksem

5.2 The battle of Eliksem

Accounts of the battle generally refer to the battle of Heylissem. Nowadays there is an Opheylissem and a Neerheylissem. The battle was however fought at Eliksem, somewhat north of Heylissem.

At about 7:00 AM the French forces were deployed in two lines of cavalry with Caraman's infantry about two kilometres behind it. Marlborough, who had just arrived on the scene personally led a charge by the first line of English cavalry that turned the enemy cavalry back to the southernmost of the two hollow roads that crossed the battlefield.

Now the second line of Allied cavalry arrived, and a second, combined charge was made against the enemy cavalry which made it flee the battlefield. Caraman with his infantry then had no choice but tot retreat and this he accomplished in good order.

At about 10:00 AM Ouwerkerk's forces had also crossed the lines, but these were tired by prolonged marches and just had to bivouac. Perhaps the allies could have exploited their success by marching on Louvain, but this was not done, probably due to the lack of intelligence on Villeroy's movements.

6 The Consequences of breaking the Lines

The French evacuated Aerschot and Diest and the garrison of Tienen surrendered unconditionally. In addition to this the French lost a few thousand men, and the lt-Generals count D'Alègre and count Horn were captured. Alliance attempts to exploit this success by penetrating further into Brabant did not lead to results.

After the lack of success further in the campaign the alliance besieged and captured the fortress of Zoutleeuw / Léau. On the other hand the French recaptured Diest, where 4 battalions and 1 dragoon regiment were taken prisoner. This made that for the alliance the 1705 campaign still ended in a big disappointment. The capture of Zoutleeuw did however lead to the Brabant Lines staying broken. The next campaign would not start with the alliance facing the lines.

7 Notes

1) Staatse Leger deel VIII Band I page 584-586, for this general description of events on the Meuse up till the re-conquest of Huy.
2) Ditto p. 587
3) Letter by deputy Schagen to Heinsius on 16 July 1706, printed Heinsius Archief 1705 nr 701.
4) Pelet for 1705, page 569 for the état des quartiers/
5) Pelet for 1705, page 574 for the Order of Battle on 14 July 1705.