Cannonade of Helchteren 1702

The Dommel near Eindhoven in September
The DommelPhoto by me
Start:3 August 1702
End:25 August 1702
Outcome:Alliance Victory
Bourbon side:Alliance side:
FranceUnited Provinces
Duke of BurgundyMarlborough
Tallard Obdam

1 Preparations for the Siege of Venlo

1.1 The alliance plans to beisege Venlo

By their march from Bree to Zonhoven the French had lost their communications to Venlo and Upper Gelre and given the alliance the opportunity to besiege Venlo. This the alliance had already decided to do by 2 August, but it was also known that the siege train could not be there before half August. Therefore the States General busied itself with figuring out who was to command and arranging for money, supplies etc. The field army meanwhile moved to Peer and Meeuwen by 5 August, here it occupied itself with dismantling the fortifications of Peer, Bree and Grevenbroek. The objectives of this army were to send a detachment to enable the siege of Venlo and to prevent Boufflers from interfering with this siege.

1.2 Boufflers plans to dislodge them

Boufflers' army had meanwhile relocated itself to a position near Beringen on 4 August. He could of course try to regain his communications to the Meuse by marching in the direction, but this would no doubt lead to a battle. He therefore made a plan to maneuver the allies back to the north. This was to be achieved by marching northwards along the west bank of the Dommel and so cutting the alliance supply lines from Den Bosch1.

2 The French march to Eindhoven

2.1 Boufflers marches to Eindhoven

Boufflers now started his attempt to drive the alliance from the Meuse. On 9 August he moved to Moll and Balen and on the 10th he reached a position between Eersel and Dommelen with T'Serclaes near Duizel and Tallard near Luikgestel. An 800 strong detachment under Rosel meanwhile occupied Eindhoven and bridges were made on the Dommel. Later on Berwick was also sent to Eindhoven with 6 battalions, 600 grenadiers, 13 squadrons and 12 guns (about 4,000 men)2. The alliance army followed the French along the right bank of the Dommel and reached a position between Everbeek and Achel on the 12th.

The immediate effect of the march was that Athlone ordered the governor of 's Hertogenbosch to stall a convoy that was to march to the army3. The allies then took measures to bring in the convoy. On 13 August Albemarle left the army with 20 squadrons to escort the convoy from Dinther onward. Tilly moved to a position near Geldrop behind the Kleine Dommel on the 14th. The convoy from 's Hertogenbosch then left on the 15th.

That same day Berwick and Obdam saw Tilly ranged on the heaths west of Geldrop4. Berwick wanted to attack Tilly and so he moved towards him on 16 August, crossing the Dommel and the Tongelreep5 to arrive on the Leenderheide. Boufflers was also present with the cavalry of the left wing, but did not dare to attack for fear of getting cut off should the allied army advance northwards.

Berwick thought this fear unjustified and so do others. Fact is however that there was at least a rumor that the allied left wing was marching north6. I do not know if it actually happened. The convoy was rerouted and made a large detour on the other side of the Aa through Gemert and Helmond it passed through Gemert on the 18th and arrived in camp on 19 August. So far Boufflers seemed to have achieved at least part of his objective, because Obdam was employed in escorting convoys in stead of marching to Venlo. On the 21st Obdam was in Budel (near Hamont).

2.2 The siege of Weert castle

Kasteel Nijenborgh was a medieval castle with some defensive worth. The house that now occupies the place is built on one of the towers of the castle. The gun emplacement in its base has walls of over three meters thick. This did not mean that it would be capable of a long defense. It did mean that some big guns were needed to conquer it, and that a siege would then take a few days.

Athlone communicated that some big artillery would be taken from Maastricht for a siege (Athlone to Heinsius 7 August 1702). The Danish general Schultz marched to Weert on 14 August. Because the city was not defended he started a bombardment of the castle on the 16th. In an isolated and hopeless position, the garrison was probably not that motivated for a stiff resistance. On the 17th the castle surrendered. This mini-siege had no effect on operations

The castle was severely damaged. Later on all buildings were levelled to a height of about 3 meters. In the 19th century a new house Huis Op de Biest was built on the foundations. Two towers and remnants of the gate are still standing.

3 Cannonade at Helchteren

3.1 The alliance retakes the initiative

Though Boufflers' march had stalled Obdam's move to Venlo, the arrival of the convoy on 19 August seems to have caused the failure of the expedition. On 21 August Marlborough and Athlone would write that they intended to march to Diest the next day and the day thereafter7. On 22 August the alliance army did indeed march south to Grote Brogel and Ellicom. The French immediately reacted by marching to Eksel. On the 23rd the allies marched to Helchteren and camped just north of this village. Boufflers however also pressed his march to Hasselt, but had to pass the defile between the Nete and the Dommel.

3.2 The fields of Helchteren

The fact that the French had to pass the defile meant that they were only ranged for battle by 16:00 hours. Meanwhile the last of the allied troops had also arrived and ranged themselves in battle. As regards the allies their position was north of the Sonnisbeek and Mangelbeek on a line from Sonnis to a point somewhere between Lillo and Heusden8. The French left wing was centered on Hoef (just south of Hechtel), their left extending to Peer south of Wijchmaal.

At about two o'clock a cannonade started at the allied left wing and it would continue till darkness. After a few hours Marlborough then ordered Obdam to attack, but he failed to do so claiming terrain problems and the commencing darkness. A lot of rumor has later been made about this failure to attack. As some point out such a march by Obdam could however only have an effect when it initiated a move by the whole army, and there are no clues for such orders having been given9. It is also completely out of line with the Marlborough we know from other battles as always being in control of his army.

3.3 The French retreat

On 24 August the Duke of Burgundy (who had been with the army all along) held a council of war in order to confer about whether or not they should attack the allies. Due to the position of the allies the council decided not to attack. On the allied side the generals also decided to hold their positions10. So nothing happened and the French army retreated in the morning of the 25th. That same day it was decided to let Obdam start for Venlo on 26 August11.

4 Blame and Credit

Boufflers came close to reaching his objective of cutting off the alliance army from its base. At the decisive moment he should therefore have executed the attack planned by Berwick. Apart from this his march was relatively successful because it hindered the alliance from sending a detachment to start the siege of Venlo. Marlborough can also be said to have profited from the affair: most of the time lost in it would anyway have been needed to prepare the siege. If one considers his objectives to be the start of the siege of Venlo and keeping Boufflers away, he was however only partly successful.

5 Sources

This page is mainly based on Het Staatse Leger VIII/1. Furthermore on the correspondence of Heinsius in 1702, the Marlborough - Heinsius correspondence and Berwick's memoirs. In the DIGAM Marburg there are three hand drawn maps of the cannonade at Helchteren. I have used these in my description of the positions on the battlefield.

6 Notes

1) Berwick: Notre unique intention étoit donc d'empêcher les ennemis de tirer des convois de Bois-le-Duc, et par lá les obliger de se rapprocher de leur pays, faute de vivres, parce que nous ne comptions pas qu'ils pussent en tirer suffisamment de Maëstricht.
2) Het Staatse Leger mentions Rosel with 500 grenadiers and 300 carabineers, Berwick himself mentions his troops, so they are probably subsequent detachments.
3) The supply convoys from Maastricht to the army however continued to arrive.
4) Obdam to Heinsius 16, 18 August 1702 RGP 158
5) Berwick: 'ce que je fis aussitôt en passant La Domel et le ruisseau de Tongrelope'
6) Het Staatse Leger says that the fact the allied army was ignorant of any threat to Tilly makes one think that Boufflers was to careful. On the other hand Obdam's letter from 16 / 18 August says that on the evening of the 15th: 'mais un adiudant de M.r le conte d'Athlone nous estant venue dire que l'aisle droitte de la ditte armée, s'estant avancée avec mylords Malbouroug et Athlone iusques sur la bruyère de Hees et Leen y camperoit cette nuyt et que l'aisle gauche se remettroit en la place de la droitte.
7) Marlborough to Heinsius from Everbeek and Athlone to Heinsius from Achel both on 21 August RGP 158
8) These happen to be hamlets that have the same name as the fortresses.
9) Het Staatse Leger VIII/I page 137
10) Churchill claims that on the 24th the deputies hindered Marlboough from attacking. Het Staatse Leger points out that there were none present that day.
11) Athlone to Heinsius 25 August 1702 RGP 158