The surprise of Gent 5 July 1708

Surprise of Gent
Old map of Gent
Gent image from: Koninklijke_Bibliotheek
Date:May-July 1708
Outcome:French Victory
Bourbon side:Alliance side:
BavariaUnited Provinces
SpainGerman Empire
Duke of BurgundyEugen

1 Strategic situation

1.1 The Alliance opts for Flanders

In April 1708 a conference between Eugen, Marlborough and Heinsius was held at The Hague. It concluded that the only logical option for the next campaign was to have another try in the Spanish Netherlands1. To this effect an army of 90,000 men under Marlborough was concentrated south of Brussels. Eugen would start the year at the Moselle and suddenly march to Flanders to join these forces. With Eugen's route to Flanders being shorter than Berwick's, the allies would then have the upper hand in Flanders for a few days and force a battle.

1.2 The French opt for Flanders

For France 1707 had been successful: Almansa had secured the situation in Spain, and all attacks on France itself had been rebuffed. This strategic situation enabled Louis XIV to concentrate his rebuilt armies for an offensive in a theatre of his choice. The choice of theatre was however far more limited than it might seem at first sight. Italy was out of the question. Ending the war in Spain would seem logical but would be impossible as long as the allied navy supplied the great fortress of Barcelona from the sea. A successful Upper Rhine campaign would have to include operating out of secure communications with France itself, and thus be risky, as well as opening up opportunities for the allies in the Spanish Netherlands.

With all other options deemed to be risky, Louis XIV opted for Flanders again. Versailles concentrated 110,000 men at Mons in order to campaign in Flanders. These were commanded by Vendome, but were under the nominal command of the Duke of Burgundy (Louis XIV's first grandson).

2 Opening the campaign

2.1 Alliance plans

As regards operations the alliance had decided that having the upper hand in the field was imperative. This meant that in Brabant only Antwerp, Lier and some key fortresses had serious garrisons and large cities without good fortifications had a minimal garrison or none at all. This was a decision which might have been sound from a military point of view, but would have adverse effects regarding the loyalty of the population in the Spanish Netherlands.

2.2 French plans

With their numeric superiority the French could choose between: an attack in the West in order to capture the cities west of the Schelde, an attack at Brussel, or an attack down the Meuse centering on Huy. Before Vendome left for Mons King Louis had decided that he should attack Huy and had even designated De Matignon to lead the siege2. On 20 May the king then wrote a letter to Vendome stating that it would not be sensible to attack Huy with the whole army. Instead Vendome should confer with the Duke of Burgundy to come up with a better plan3. Burgundy and Vendome then came up with a plan to make a move to Brussel. Burgundy conferred about it with Puységur and Vendome with Bergheyck and both applauded it.

The plan was meant to see what the enemy what do and would at least bring in the advantage that the army could be sustained on foreign soil. The fact that it would support an attempt to gain Antwerpen by treason in the beginning of June4 was an important bonus. The most important issue was whether the alliance would concentrate the whole army on Brussel or that it would be split into a corps in Flanders and one in Brabant5. Meanwhile the Alliance army had started to concentrate in camp at Anderlecht on 21 May.

2.3 Vendome marches north

Thus Vendome marched to Soignies on 26 May and many citizens fled Brussel6. On 25 May the alliance had reacted by marching to a position northwest of Halle, with the right wing at Kester, the left wing at Brucom and the headquarters at Bellingen7. Here Marlborough succeeded in joining large parts of the garrisons Menen, Kortrijk and Oudenaarde to his main force8. On 29 May the alliance army then moved a bit more forward to a position centering on Sint Renelde, south west of Halle.

Next Vendome swung to Nivelles on 1 June. The allies then took position west of the Dijle at Terbanck, covering Brussel and Louvain. The French halted between Braine l'Alleud and Genappe. Marlborough was waiting for Eugen, Vendome wanted to besiege Huy. On 5 June Vendome indeed got permission to besiege Huy, but he was twharted by Burgundy, who didn't like the project9.

While the French command was considering whether or not to besiege Huy disturbing messages came in. These stated that Eugen was assembling his army near Kastellaun. Versailles feared that Eugen would either march to the Moselle or to the Meuse and therefore ordered Vendome's superior forces to wait till Eugen's intentions became clear. The effect of this was that the armies in Flanders stayed in position for almost a month.

2.4 Eugen marches north

On 29 June Eugen started his march from Coblenz to Flanders with 18 battalions and 43 squadrons, totaling 15,000 men. Berwick immediately reacted by marching to Flanders with 34 battalions and 55 squadrons or 27,000 men. Berwick had reason to believe that he would arrive on the scene only a few days after Eugen. Up to this point in the campaign everything went along predictable lines, but affairs would soon be complicated.

3 Plots against Antwerpen, Brugge and Gent

3.1 The plot against Antwerpen fails

During 1708 the Flemish Count Bergheyck came up with plans to deliver Antwerpen, Brugge and Gent into French hands by revolt. As regards Antwerpen the alliance was on its guard. The abovementioned conspiracy to surprise it in the first days of June had been discovered in May10. It was particularly wary of the bridgehead 'Het Vlaamse Hoofd', the fortress Margriet and the citadel. For political reasons the last was guarded only by the Spanish regiment of Laspiur, which was mainly composed of deserters11. On the other hand the magistrate was considered to be on the alliance side. After some political maneuvering the Dutch took measures. They sent two companies from of Willemstad and two from Steenbergen to beef up the garrison12. The plots against Brugge and Gent were not discovered and their execution was planned for the morning of 5 July.

3.2 Brugge

Brugge did not have any garrison. When the alliance noted that Count de la Motte was at Comines they formed a detachment under Murray. It consisted of three English battalions which had recently landed and the Spanish Audegnies dragoon regiment which numbered 4 squadrons. From 13 June it had sent one battalion to the main force and was in camp at Mariakerke13, somewhat west of Gent14. Guarding against an attack on that city was its main task. The column of De la Motte consisted of 10 battalions, 6 squadrons and 7 field pieces. It left the lines near Comines on the 3rd or 4th and arrived before Brugge on 5 July. The citizens of Brugge would open the gates when they heard of the conquest of Gent in the morning of the 6th.

3.3 Gent

The French could try to enter Gent by treason, but in order to secure Gent a march by the main force was needed. Its task would be to block the advance of the alliance army while a detachment conquered the citadel of Gent. In the evening of 3 July the generals Chemerault and Ruffey left the main force. Their detachment consisted of 2,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, half of them grenadiers. On the 4th this detachment crossed the Dender at Ninove and in the morning of 5 July it appeared before Gent. Murray was not completely ignorant of French plans and offered assistance to the magistrate, but this had been refused on the grounds that that it had everything under control.

Seven men of this detachment claimed to be deserters and were admitted at the St. Lievens gate in the early morning. Immediately afterwards these were followed by 60 cavalrymen and together they occupied the gate. These cavalrymen were under the command of De la Faile, the former Grand Bailiff of Gent, who quickly succeeded in occupying all the other gates. Soon these troops were followed by Chemerault with the cavalry and a few hours later the infantry entered the city.

When Murray heard of the French troops entering the city he appeared at the Brugge gate at the western end of the city at about 8 o'clock. At this moment the French infantry had not yet arrived and there was only a minimal number of troops at the gate, but even so the citizens refused him entry. Murray did not succeed in convincing the citizens to let him enter with his 400 dragoons and so he retreated to Sas van Gent in order not to be cut off. He then had to take care for preserving States Flanders and could not do much more15.

The citadel of Gent was rather antique, but had a garrison of 300 Englishmen and could not be taken so easily. In order to reach it Murray would however have had to cross the channel to Sas van Gent and it seems that this was already barred by the French. In order to keep the French at some distance the commander of Sas van Gent sent some troops to Rodenhuize, on the channel between Gent and Sas van Gent. Meanwhile the French had immediately started to besiege the citadel. The Count of Bergheyck had also entered the city and he succeeded in convincing the governor of the dangers of a long resistance. The governor then declared that he would hand over the citadel on 8 July if not aided before that date16.

4 Maneuvers by the main forces

4.1 The French march on Gent

The above meant that the French could only finalize the conquest of Gent if they could prevent interference by the alliance army. In order to achieve this they had to make preparations even before the detachment was sent. This was noticed by Ouwerkerk who wrote to Heinsius that at 5 o'clock in the morning of 2 July he got a message that the French were preparing to march. Later that day, i.e. before sending his letter he got the message that the French had sent their supply train to Charleroy17. The French command then succeeded in making the allied command careless. It stalled its march till 19:00 PM on the 4th and then set off in the pouring rain. The alliance followed at 1 o'clock in the morning of the 5th.

As Vendome had stated the maneuver by the French army was risky, but succeeded very well. On the 5th the Zenne was passed at daybreak at Lembeek and Tubize. Two columns then marched to the Dender while most of the artillery and the small luggage marched on a more southern trail. The first troops then crossed the Dender at Ninove in the evening of the 5th. On the 6th the main force passed Aalst and made camp between Oordegem and Schellebelle. The luggage and artillery marched a lot slower and in the morning of the 6th a part of it was caught by alliance troops when it still had to pass the Dender. The French did not suffer more losses because the allies were ill-prepared and badly led.

4.2 The alliance not prepared

As stated the alliance army was badly led and ill-prepared. In spite of the fact that since the 2nd they were aware that the French had sent away their luggage, the alliance had failed to do the same. When the alliance then started to march in the direction of Brussel at 1 o'clock in the morning of the 5th the supply train was mixed up with the troops and caused a lot of delay18. This in turn caused that the first troops crossed the Zenne (actually the Willebroek Channel) only at about 08:30 AM. During the rest of the day the rest of the army crossed and came to camp between Anderlecht and Lennik. The fact that on the evening of that same day the French crossed the Dender and the alliance came no further than Lennik meant that the alliance had been outmaneuvered.

4.3 Mistakes in alliance maneuvering

The mistake in actual alliance maneuvering was made in the afternoon and evening of the 5th. At that time the alliance army should have disturbed the French maneuver and beaten part of the French army. It failed to do so, and these are the reasons19: Primarily the alliance army could not see the French army and did not imagine that the French were aiming to cross the Dender at Ninove. This is proven by a letter from Ouwerkerk written in the evening of the 5th20. Furthermore Marlborough was rather ill and stopped at the bridge of Laaken to dine. The deputies were not present either. Geldermalsen had an appointment in Brussel with Pesters in order to welcome Goslinga and Renswoude who were arriving from the United Provinces. These three and Tilly21 therefore dined with Pesters and arrived in camp at about 18:00 PM.

At their arrival in camp they found the Duke of Marlborough. He was so ill that he had been forced to sleep a couple of hours and was mounting his horse. The deputies then rode with him to their camp, but this was at the left while the action was on the right. Ignorant of the French intentions Marlborough then ordered his senior officers to act on their own. At 11:00 PM 25 battalions and 35 squadrons were ordered to the right wing in order to prevent a supposed French attack. At about 01:30 AM on the 6th Marlborough and Goslinga went to have a look, but saw nothing special. At daybreak on the 6th little was seen of the enemy. In order to cover Dendermonde the alliance then marched to a camp which had its left wing at Asse and its right wing pointing to the Dendermonde.

5 Results

On 6 July the alliance held a conference about what to do next and this decided to march to Asse. Measures to reinforce Dendermonde and Oudenaarde were also taken, but Brugge and Gent were lost. In an appraisal of the situation it became quite clear that the French had outwitted the allies. They had taken Gent and Brugge, and maneuvered their whole army to a position west of the Dender.

The surprise of Brugge and Gent was a strategic success of the first order. It the French could follow it up with taking Oudenaarde and Menin they would regain control of the whole of Flanders. It was therefore imperative for them to deny the alliance the use of their bridgehead at Oudenaarde. If the French succeeded in this they would easily conquer the whole County of Flanders.

6 Blame and Credit

The alliance committed its main mistakes in the late afternoon and evening of 5 July 1708. At that moment the alliance army lost control. Marlborough, Tilly, Cadogan and the deputies were all absent or ill and the whole command lay with Ouwerkerk, who had already been already been deemed too fragile to command much longer. Combined with failing reconnaissance and an apparent failure to guess the French intentions, the result was a strategic defeat for the alliance.

On the French side one should not applaud the bravado of their maneuvers, even though they were very well executed. At any other time Marlborough was the man to profit from such opportunities, and then the maneuver could have resulted in a thorough defeat. One can conclude that it bordered on the reckless22.

7 Sources

The foundation for this page is the description in 'Het Staatse Leger'. Most of the details come from the Heinsius correspondence. Other worthwhile sources are Murray's correspondence of Marlborough and 'Memoires militaires relatifs a la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV by De Vault tome VIII. It's cited as 'Vault' and is not scientific, but does contain a lot of letters.

8 Notes

1) Vault, tome VIII page 7.
2) Letter by Vendome to Louis XIV on 21 May 1708: 'Il me semble, si je ne me trompe, que, lorsque je suis parti, votre majesté était résolue au siège de Huy, et qu'elle avait même choisi le maréchal de Matignon pour y commander etc. etc.' published by Vault, tome VIII page 10.
3) Letter by Louis XIV to Vendome on 20 May 1708, published by Vault, tome VIII page 9.
4) The same letter by Vendome to Louis XIV on 21 May 1708: '(Bergheyck).. m'a même dit que cette marche cadrait fort avec notre entreprise sur Anvers, qui se doit mettre en exécution dans les premiers jours du mois prochain.' published by Vault, tome VIII page 10.
5) Letter by Puységur to Chamillart on 22 May 1708: 'Le Parti (decision) que monseigneur le duc de Bourgogne et M. de Vendome prennent de marcher de Hal fera connaître si les ennemis ont effectivement le dessein d'abandonner le Brabant pour se porter en Flandre..' published by Vault, tome VIII page 12.
6) Letter by Van den Bergh to Heinsius on 31 May 1708: 'Sedert een weeck of twee sijn seer veel menschen met haare familie en meubelen van hier naa Antwerpen gevlugt.'
7) Letter by Ouwerkerk to Heinsius on 28 May 1708. Kester is on the map, Brucom is somewhat north of Halle and Bellingen is in between. Ouwerkerk mentions the abbey of Bellingen.
8) Letter by Marlborough to Sunderland on 24 May 1708: 'I shall march to-morrow with the troops that are encamped here to Bellinghen`, where lieutenant-general Lumley, with H.M.'s forces and the other garrisons of Flanders, will join me the same evening.
9) Vault, tome VIII page 21.
10) Murray 1708 page 29 has a footnote which cites a letter from Cardonnel to Dayrolle from Brussel on 24 May 1708: 'It is a very happy thing that we discovered the enemy's designs upon the castle of Antwerp, for I verily believe their measures for the campaign depended very much upon it.'.
11) Letter by Van Collen to Heinsius on 11 June 1708. For the political reasons see the letter by Heinsius to Van Collen on 16 June 1708.
12) Letter by Van Collen to Heinsius on 25 June 1708.
13) Reading Vault it became clear to me that it was the thread 'Het Staatse Leger' uses to describe events. At page 26 Vault becomes a bit cryptical, stating that Murray was then camped at Wondelghem, where he had taken the four battalions and four squadrons he had taken to Mariakerke. What Vault probably should have said is that Murray was camped at Mariakerke, tried to enter the Brugge Gate in the west of Gent and next tried to cross the Sas van Gent channel at Wondelghem. It's now only a matter of finding out how Vault came to mention Wondelghem.
14) Letter by Murray to Heinsius on 8 July 1708. Also see Murray 1708, which has an extract of a letter by Murray to Marlborough on 7 July 1708. It says that he tried to enter the Brugge Gate at 8 o'clock.
15) See the same rather detailed Letter by Murray to Heinsius on 8 July 1708
16) Vault page 27 states that the governor capitulated in the evening of 6 June, but this does not have to be at odds with a statement to surrender the citadel if not aided before the 8th.
17) Letter by Ouwerkerk to Heinsius on 2 July 1708. The reference to the supply train is a Post Scriptum which proves that the first message was indeed received in the morning.
18) Letter by Geldermalsen to Heinsius 6/7 July 1708. Goslinga states in a letter dated 8 July that the first cavalry line of the right wing was delayed more than four hours.
19) Letter by Geldermalsen to Heinsius 6/7 July 1708: 'Je me trouve très embarassé á vous donner de bonnes raisons pourquoi nous n'avons pas profité du passage des ennemis, je vous en marqueray cependant les principales etc.'
20) Letter from Anderlecht by Ouwerkerk to Heinsius in the evening of 5 July 1708, where he only writes about the French making a feint against Ath.
21) 'Het Staatse Leger VIII/II page page 286 claims that Tilly was also present.
22) Vault, tome VIII page 26 states: 'Notre marche, qui avait duré quarante-huit heures á la vue d'un ennemi entreprennant et dans des chemins très-difficiles, fut une des plus hardies qu'on eut vues depuis longtemps.'