Battle of Lauffeld
The Battle of Lauffeld, also known as Lafelt, Laffeld, Lawfeld, Lawfeldt, Maastricht or Val, took place on 2 July 1747, during the War of the Austrian Succession. A French army of 80,000 commanded by Marshal Saxe faced a combined British, Dutch, German and Austrian force of 60,000, led by the Duke of Cumberland.
|Battle of Lauffeld|
|Part of War of the Austrian Succession|
Louis XV with Maurice de Saxe at Lauffeld
|Commanders and leaders|
Duke of Cumberland|
Karl Josef Batthyány
Frederick of Hesse-Kassel
Maurice de Saxe |
|Casualties and losses|
|6,000 dead, wounded and taken prisoner ||9,000 dead and wounded|
Under Saxe, arguably the most talented general of his generation, the French had conquered much of the Austrian Netherlands between 1744 to 1746. Cumberland intended to retake Antwerp in the spring of 1747 but failed to move quickly enough; Saxe then threatened to cut him off from his key supply base at Maastricht and the Allies were forced to defend it.
The French took up position between the Allied army and Maastricht. Saxe exploited a series of mistakes by Cumberland and only counterattacks by the Allied cavalry enabled the bulk of his army to withdraw in good order. Defeat ended Allied hopes of regaining lost ground; Bergen op Zoom was captured in September, followed by Maastricht in May 1748.
However, the French had not managed to achieve a decisive victory; by mid-1747, their financial system was on the verge of collapse, while the British naval blockade was causing severe food shortages. Their position worsened in October, when the British victory at Second Cape Finisterre left them unable to defend their merchant shipping or trade routes. Both sides now wanted peace, leading to the October 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.
When the War of the Austrian Succession began in 1740, Britain was focused on the 1739-1748 War of Jenkins' Ear with Spain, fought mostly in the Caribbean. While British and Dutch troops fought against France in Flanders, they initially did so as part of the army of Hanover. France only declared war on Britain in March 1744, with the Dutch Republic officially remaining neutral until 1747.
Spain joined the conflict in Europe, hoping to regain possessions in Northern Italy lost to Austria and Sardinia in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Austria had little interest in fighting to regain the Austrian Netherlands, which they acquired in 1713 because neither the British or Dutch would allow the other to control it. With the help of British subsidies, Austria ejected Spanish troops and bringing the war in Italy to a close. Having achieved this, Maria Theresa of Austria wanted peace in order to restructure her administration.
One reason France entered the war was to reduce the post-1713 expansion of British commercial strength, viewed as a threat to the European balance of power. By 1747, British trade had recovered from its post 1739 decline and was expanding once again, while the French economy was being strangled by their naval blockade.
Victory at Rocoux in October 1746 confirmed French control of the Austrian Netherlands but failed to achieve a decisive victory that would force Britain to end the war. Declaring war on the Dutch made the immediate situation worse, since their previous neutrality meant they were the main carriers of French imports and exports. By 1747, the French financial system was on the verge of collapse, accompanied by severe food shortages; ending the war had become imperative.
France began bilateral negotiations with Britain at Breda in August 1746 but these proceeded slowly, since the British envoy Lord Sandwich was under instructions to delay, hoping their position in Flanders would improve. The war continued only because the British were prepared to subsidise their Allies; in the January 1747 Hague Convention, Britain agreed to fund Austrian and Sardinian forces in Italy and an Allied army of 140,000 in Flanders, increasing to 192,000 in 1748.
Although the financial burden also impacted the British economy, the government was far better equipped to finance it.  The Duke of Newcastle wanted to continue the war and recover lost ground in the Austrian Netherlands. He also hoped the death of Philip V in July 1746 provided an opportunity for Britain to entice Spain to end their long-standing alliance with France; both proved incorrect.
For the British, the 1747 campaign was a last attempt to improve their position in Continental Europe; the French desperately needed a resounding victory that would force the British to end the war.
By minimising French forces elsewhere, Saxe was able to assemble a field army of 120,000 men for the 1747 campaign. The defeat of the Jacobite Rising allowed Cumberland to transfer troops back to Flanders and prepare for an offensive. The plan was to capture Antwerp in February but bad weather, lack of transport and war weariness meant the Allies were not ready to take the field until early May.
Meanwhile, Saxe sent a detachment under Contades to take Fort Liefkenhock, north of Antwerp, while a second under Count Löwendahl seized Sas van Gent, Ijzenijke and Eekels in the Dutch province of Zeeland. The latter inspired an Orangist Coup in Zeeland, which eventually led to William IV being appointed first hereditary Stadtholder of all seven Dutch provinces.
This meant Antwerp was now too well-defended to attack, while the move into Zeeland threatened Cumberland's supply lines, forcing him to protect the key Dutch city of Maastricht. A detachment under von Daun was instructed to advance towards Tongeren, held by a force under Clermont-Tonnerre. Ligonier and the Allied cavalry were sent to occupy the Tongeren-Maastricht road, which ran along a ridge parallel to the River Meuse, but found the French already in possession. The Allies halted and the infantry camped overnight in the villages of Vlytingen and Lauffeld. As at Rocoux, the Austrians were on the right, holding the villages of Grote and Kleine Spouwen, now part of the Belgian town of Bilzen. A steep ravine immediately in front protected them from a direct assault.
The next day was overcast and it later began raining heavily, making movement slow and difficult. An exchange of artillery fire began at 6:00 am, which continued until 8:30. The British and German infantry left the villages where they had spent the night, having first set them on fire to prevent their use by the French, and formed up on open ground. Based on his experience at Fontenoy, Ligonier urged the villages be used as fortified positions; after some hesitation and conflicting orders, Cumberland finally agreed. Saxe interpreted this confusion as Cumberland ordering a general retreat across the Meuse and around 10:30 sent troops into what he assumed were now empty villages. While true of Vlytingen, Lauffeld had been re-occupied by troops under Frederick of Hesse-Kassel and the next four hours developed into a fierce struggle. The French finally captured Lauffeld around 12:30 pm, after taking heavy casualties in a series of frontal assaults.
Cumberland ordered a counter-attack but as the infantry formed up, a Dutch cavalry unit to their front was routed by the French and fled, throwing those behind them into disorder and exposing the Allied centre. At the same time, 150 squadrons of French cavalry were assembling around Wilre, preparing to attack Cumberland's flank; unaware Lauffeld had fallen and the Allies were falling back on Maastricht, Ligonier and 60 squadrons charged the French, taking them by surprise. One of the best known cavalry charges in British military history, Saxe later claimed only this prevented him destroying the Allied army. The French Irish Brigade suffered more than 1,400 casualties; at one point, the short-sighted Cumberland mistook the red-coated Irish for his own troops and barely escaped.
To cover the retreating infantry, Ligonier obtained permission for another charge, this time with only three regiments. He was taken prisoner, while the Scots Greys, one of the units involved, lost nearly 40% of their strength. However, this gave the Austrian commander Karl Josef Batthyány sufficient time to place his infantry between the French and the retreating Allied formations, allowing an orderly retreat.
Lauffeld was yet another tactical French victory that failed to achieve a decisive result, although it left the Dutch Republic open to invasion. 30,000 troops under Count Lowendahl laid siege to Bergen-op-Zoom, which surrendered in September, followed in May 1748 by the capture of Maastricht.
The French economy was in dire straits, worsened by the British victory over a French convoy at Second Cape Finisterre in October. Most of the merchantmen escaped but only by sacrificing their escort; combined with other losses, it meant the French navy could no longer protect their colonies or trade routes.
Britain was also ready to agree terms, although it has been argued Newcastle failed to appreciate the impact of the naval blockade. French customs receipts fell dramatically, while being cut off from the Newfoundland fisheries deprived them of a key food supply for the poor. Throughout 1747 and 1748, French Finance Minister Machault continually warned Louis XV of the impending collapse of their financial system. In November 1747, Britain and Russia signed a convention for the supply of additional troops and in February 1748, a Russian corps of 37,000 arrived in the Rhineland. While the Russians arrived too late to influence the fighting, the French position could only worsen.
This was reflected by the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which were agreed by Britain and France at Breda, then presented to their allies. Apart from confirming Prussia's possession of Silesia and some territorial adjustments in Italy, it essentially returned the situation to 1740. France withdrew from the Low Countries; returning the territorial gains which had cost so much, in return for so little led to popularisation of the phrase "as stupid as the Peace".
The longer term impacts included confirmation the decline of the Dutch Republic as a major power; Newcastle berated himself for his "ignorance, obstinacy and credulity" in believing otherwise. Another was the breakdown of the Anglo-Austrian Alliance; Maria Theresa was outraged at British acceptance of the Prussian conquest of Silesia without Austrian agreement.
Lauffeld exposed Cumberland's tactical inflexibility; he underestimated the strategic value of fortifying the villages, while lack of co-ordination with his senior commanders meant Ligonier was unaware the infantry had withdrawn. Against this, Saxe was generally considered the leading general of the period, while the Allied high command often suffered from differing objectives. Since the wars of Louis XIV, unified command and strategy gave the French a significant advantage; only William III and Marlborough had sufficient stature to overcome this on a regular basis.
Although he played a prominent role in enacting essential military reforms after 1748, Cumberland's active career ended with the 1757 Convention of Klosterzeven during the Seven Years' War. Hanover was occupied by the French and his father George II never forgave him.
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