Battle of Lauffeld
|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|
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.
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.
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 and the French captured Bergen op Zoom in September, then Maastricht in May 1748.
However, the cost of the war meant France's financial system was on the verge of collapse, while the British naval blockade caused severe food shortages. Their position worsened in October 1747, when the British naval victory of 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. British and Dutch troops in Flanders initially did so as part of the army of Hanover; France only declared war on Britain in March 1744, the Dutch Republic remained neutral until 1747.
Supported by British financial subsidies, by the end of 1746 Austria had defeated Spanish efforts to regain possessions in Northern Italy lost in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Austria acquired the Austrian Netherlands in 1713 only because neither the British or Dutch would allow the other to control it and retaining it was not a strategic priority. Maria Theresa now 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 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 British economy was also impacted by the cost of the war, 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.
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 another French tactical victory that failed to achieve a decisive result, despite the capture of Bergen-op-Zoom in September and Maastricht in May 1748. Between 1746 to 1747, French customs receipts fell dramatically due to the British naval blockade, which also cut them off from the Newfoundland cod fisheries, a key food supply for the poor. Throughout 1747 and 1748, French Finance Minister Machault repeatedly warned Louis XV of the impending collapse of their financial system.
Despite success in Flanders, the French strategic position continued to weaken in 1747 and became critical after the Royal Navy attacked a large convoy at Cape Finisterre in October. Most of the merchantmen escaped but at the cost of sacrificing their escort; combined with other losses, the French navy could no longer protect their colonies or trade routes. In November, 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.
By now, Britain was also ready to agree terms, although it has been argued Newcastle failed to appreciate the impact of the naval blockade. The terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle were first agreed by Britain and France at Breda, then presented to their allies. These confirmed Prussian possession of Silesia and minor territorial adjustments in Italy, but essentially returned the situation to 1740, with France withdrawing from the Low Countries. Returning the territorial gains which had cost so much, in exchange for so little, led to the phrase "as stupid as the Peace".
In the longer term, the war confirmed 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; Britain's acceptance of the Prussian conquest of Silesia meant Maria Theresa sought an alliance with France instead, leading to the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756.
Lauffeld exposed Cumberland's weaknesses as a general, also factors in the May 1745 defeat at Fontenoy. They included inadequate reconnaissance, lack of strategic awareness and poor co-ordination with his senior commanders; Ligonier was unaware the infantry had withdrawn. Although he played a prominent role in enacting essential military reforms after 1748, his career ended with the 1757 Convention of Klosterzeven during the Seven Years' War. This resulted in Hanover being occupied by the French and his father George II never forgave him.
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