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The Battle of Lens (20 August 1648) was a French victory under Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé against the Spanish army under Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). It was the last major battle of the war and a French victory. The battle cemented the reputation of Condé as one of the greatest generals of his age.

Battle of Lens
Part of the Thirty Years' War and the
Franco-Spanish War (1635–59)
Pierre Franque - Bataille de Lens - 1648.jpg
The Grand Condé at the battle of Lens, 20 August 1648, victory over the Spanish troops commanded by archduke Leopold. Jean-Pierre Franque, 1841, Galerie des Batailles.
Date20 August 1648
Location
50°25′N 2°50′E / 50.417°N 2.833°E / 50.417; 2.833Coordinates: 50°25′N 2°50′E / 50.417°N 2.833°E / 50.417; 2.833
Result Decisive French victory[1]
Belligerents
 France  Spain
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of France Prince de Condé Spain Archduke Leopold Wilhelm
Spain Jean de Beck (DOW)
Strength

16,000


7,000 infantry
9,000 cavalry
18 guns

18,000 (2,000 Spanish)


9,000 infantry
9,000 cavalry
38 guns
Casualties and losses
1,500 killed and wounded

8,000


3,000 killed and wounded
5,000 captured
38 guns
100 flags

Over the four years following the decisive French victory at Rocroi against the Spanish Army of Flanders, the French captured dozens of towns throughout northern France and the Spanish Netherlands. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm was appointed governor of the Spanish Netherlands in 1647 to strengthen Spain's Habsburg alliance with Austria, and began a major counteroffensive the same year. The Spanish army first found success recapturing the fortresses of Armentières, Comines and Landrecies.

The Prince de Condé was recalled from a failed campaign in Catalonia against the Spanish and appointed commander of the 16,000-man French army opposite the Spanish army of the Archduke and General Jean de Beck, the governor of Luxembourg. Condé captured Ypres but then the 18,000-strong Spanish-German force laid siege to Lens. Condé advanced to meet them.

In the battle that ensued, Condé provoked the Spanish into giving up a strong hilltop position for an open plain, where he used the discipline and superior close-combat capabilities of his cavalry to charge and rout the Walloon-Lorrainer cavalry on the Spanish wings. The French infantry and cavalry in the center were attacked by the strong Spanish center, suffering heavy losses but holding their ground. The French cavalry on the wings, freed from any opposition, encircled and charged the Spanish center, who promptly capitulated. The Spanish lost half their army, some 8,000–9,000 men of which 3,000 were killed or wounded and 5,000–6,000 captured, 38 guns, 100 flags along with their pontoons and baggage. French losses were 1,500 killed and wounded. The French victory contributed to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia but the outbreak of the Fronde rebellion prevented the French from exploiting their victory to the hilt against the Spanish.

BackgroundEdit

Lens is a fortified city in the historic region of Flanders, today a major city in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. The city had been captured by the French in 1647. The French lower nobility rebelled against the leadership of Cardinal Mazarin, an event known as the Fronde, leading the Spanish to perceive an opportunity to retake Lens and possibly gain ground.

The Prince de Condé rushed from Catalonia to Flanders, and an army was cobbled together from Champagne, Lorraine, and Paris. The French army consisted of 16,000 men, 7,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry, as well as 18 guns.[2] The Spanish army was larger, comprising 18,000 men of equal halves of infantry and cavalry and 38 guns.[2]

Leopold captured Lens on 17 August.

PreludeEdit

On 20 August the opposing armies drew up west of Lens; the Spanish held a strong defensive position on the high ground. Leopold Wilhelm did not intend to fight a battle, as four of his cavalry regiments were out foraging.[3]

The French ArmyEdit

The French right wing under Condé himself had 17 cavalry squadrons in two echelons. The center under Chatillon comprised 12 infantry battalions and six squadrons of cavalry. Commanded by Marshal Antoine Gramont, the left wing was composed of 16 cavalry squadrons. Six cavalry squadrons made up the reserve under Jean Louis d'Erlach. Formation-wise, the 12 infantry battalions were drawn up in lines eight ranks-deep, with each battalion having a strength of 600–700 men. The cavalry was in 45 squadrons of 200 horsemen, their ranks four or five-deep.[2] The French artillery, 18 guns-strong, was commanded the Comte de Cossé.[4]

The Spanish ArmyEdit

The Spanish also had their infantry in the center and the cavalry on the wings, all three commands in two echelons as well. 27 companies of Walloon cavalry composed the right wing under Bucquoy. The center was the strongest part of the battle array, with 16 infantry battalions and 15 cavalry squadrons under the governor of Luxembourg, Major General Jean de Beck. The 13 center squadrons were deployed in 4 groups in the intervals of the infantry battalions. Ligniville on the left had 20 squadrons of Lorrainer cavalry. The course of the battle would reveal Beck's mistake in putting too much cavalry in the center and not enough on the right.[3] The Spanish army used deeper, Imperial-style formations of 10 ranks for its 16 smaller infantry battalions of 500–600 men. The 62 cavalry squadrons were also smaller than those of the French, with a strength of 100–200 men. Their ranks were four or five deep like those of their French counterparts. Unlike the French, the Spanish cavalry did not normally charge enemy cavalry at a gallop sword in hand, preferring to receive enemy charges standing still with carbine salvos at point blank range instead.[2][5] This would prove inferior to the French tactic of all out charges.

BattleEdit

PreliminariesEdit

 
The Battle of Lens. Contemporary illustration, oil on canvas.

Condé saw the strength of the Spanish position and decided not to attack it head-on. His army had been in battle array the entire previous day and had not eaten. There was no food, fodder or water in the place, so he decided to retreat to the village of Neus some two hours march away. There he could obtain supplies from Béthune, where he had left his baggage train, and be in position to intercept the Spanish army's movements.[6][7] At least two officers from Condé's army reported that Condé retreat was a planned feint to draw the Spanish into the open for battle.[8][4][9]

Beck's attackEdit

At 5 a.m. six guns from Cossé's artillery park fired a volley on the Spanish and the French began to retreat while still in battle formation, with the right-wing making up the rearguard.[10][9] General Beck's Lorrainers suddenly attacked the isolated, 10-squadron-strong French rearguard under Villequier and Noirmoutier and routed them. Condé's page was wounded and captured and Condé himself only narrowly escaped being killed or captured.[6] The Picardie infantry regiment came up to support the French rearguard and helped to rally them.[9] At 6:30 a.m., Beck advised the Archduke to attack with all haste and crush the French.[10] The cautious Archduke at first refused and reaffirmed his express order to Beck to take no risks. Beck told him there was no risk on the open plain and the Spanish officers of the army told the archduke that he was giving up an opportunity to avenge the defeat of Rocroi.[9] The Archduke then gave permission to start the battle, armed himself, confessed to his Jesuit priest and fled the field, leaving his army to its fate.[9]

Condé and Gramont ordered the French main body to turn around and form up for battle.[6] By 8 a.m. the armies were ready for action. The nimble and well-handled French guns fired while moving on the advancing Spanish who were easy targets on the forward slope, while the French infantry and cavalry marched forward to the sound of trumpets and the crash of drums.[4] Condé frequently called a halt to the advance to keep the lines in order and maintain spacing to prevent the formations from bunching up. The Spanish artillery had trouble hitting the French.[4] The Spanish were marching down the hill and arraying for combat simultaneously, which was a difficult task.[4]

Cavalry struggle on the wingsEdit

At 8:30 Bucquoy's Walloon cavalry on the Spanish right, situated five paces behind the crest of a small hillock, were approached by Gramont's cavalry squadrons.[8][6] At 20 paces, the Walloons discharged their carbines, killing or wounding almost everyone in the French first lines.[6] The following ranks of the French cavalry nevertheless charged through the Walloons' formation, throwing it into disorder and rapidly causing a rout.[6] The second echelon of Walloons then charged to help their comrades but a violent French cavalry charge sufficed to rout them. Only Gramont's Guards Squadron took heavy losses in this struggle with the second echelon.[6]

Ligniville's Lorrainers advanced at a trot to meet the French right-wing cavalry under Condé, who were advancing at a walk. Both sides halted at pistol-shot, and neither side made a move for a time. Prior to the battle, Condé was impressed by the fire discipline of the German cavalry who never fired first and used their enemy's helplessness while reloading to charge and rout them.[7] He therefore told his cavalry commanders to hold their fire as well to prevent the Germans from gaining an advantage.[7] The Lorrainers eventually opened fire and killed, wounded or threw from their horse everyone in the French first lines. Condé gave the signal for his squadrons to open fire and then led the Gassion squadron on a charge, crushing the Lorrainer squadron opposite him.[4] Six more French squadrons followed their General's lead and beat the rest of the Lorrainer line.[4] The French cavalry reserve under Erlach came up and enveloped the exposed Lorrainer left, shattering them from the flank.[2]

The battle in the centerEdit

Attacking at 9 a.m., the Spanish infantry in the center enjoyed strong success with its assault and broke 4 of the 12 French infantry battalions.[8] Condé's order for his cavalry to hold their fire was taken as a point of honor by the musketeers who refused to fire first as well and before the enemy was at point-blank range.[4] The French Guards fired first, while the Picardie and Erlach battalions were more patient.[9] The French Guards and Scots Guard regiments were subsequently surrounded and the French Guards overwhelmed by the Bonifaz and Bentivoglio infantry battalions.[2] This achievement meant little as both of the Spanish cavalry wings were fleeing from the field. The French center rallied around the Picardie regiment and the Spanish infantry was soon encircled and attacked from all sides by the French cavalry and infantry, much like at Rocroi.[2][9] There was no replay of the Spanish last stand at Rocroi, the surrounded Spanish battalions choosing not to fight to the last extremity but to capitulate instead.[2]

AftermathEdit

Condé sent two cavalry regiments and an infantry regiment under Villequier to escort the 5,000–6,000 enemy prisoners to Arras and La Bassée, which required several round trips and caused the French to remain near the battlefield for the next eight days to await the return of the escorts. Once the prisoners were secure, Condé's army joined Josias von Rantzau's force in the siege of Furnes.[11][5]

CasualtiesEdit

3,000 of the Archduke's men lay dead or wounded and 5,000–6,000 were captured, along with all 38 guns, 100 flags, the pontoon bridges and the baggage train.[3][12] Beck was captured and Condé lent him a carriage to take him to Arras, where he died of his wounds ten days later. The French lost 1,500 killed or wounded.[3]

Political consequencesEdit

The year 1648 saw two political developments that were both directly tied to the Battle of Lens, but with opposite results.[13] First, it caused a hardening of the Monarchy's attitude toward the parlements, leading to an initial confrontation in Paris and a protracted struggle that followed.[13] The French victory ended the Thirty Years' War, though not the conflict between France and Spain. The armies of Turenne, Wrangel and Königsmark were threatening Vienna and Prague; Emperor Ferdinand's ally, Maximilian of Bavaria, fervently wanted peace; and Philip IV had lost his main army. Ferdinand had no choice other than to make peace. He approved the propositions for peace from France and Sweden in Münster and Osnabrück. (Since 1641, talks had taken place between France and the Empire in Münster, and between Sweden and the Empire in Osnabrück.) The definitive peace treaty, called the Peace of Westphalia, was signed on 24 October 1648, ending the Thirty Years' War. The war between France and Spain, would not end until the Treaty of the Pyrenees on 7 November 1659).[11] The latter made Lens—and the whole Artois province—part of France.

In the end, the French victory was made irrelevant by subsequent events elsewhere, during the failure to secure Anne of Austria's regency of France while Louis XIV was too young to rule. A civil war in France, Fronde, broke out shortly afterwards, giving Spain the chance of recovery.[14] The Te Deum at Notre-Dame de Paris in honour of the battle ended in a riot, which caused a serious confrontation that led to the revolt. In January 1649, Louis XIV and his ministers had to flee Paris.[15]

ForcesEdit

French order of battleEdit

Spanish order of battleEdit

ReferencesEdit

CitationsEdit

  1. ^ Mark Traugott (2010). The Insurgent Barricade. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26632-2. Retrieved 31 January 2015. On August 22, Paris learned that French armies under the command of Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé (known to history as the Grand Condé), had decisively defeated the Spanish army near the town of Lens, in the Pas de Calais
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Guthrie 2003, p. 192.
  3. ^ a b c d Guthrie 2003, p. 193.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Thion 2008, p. 163.
  5. ^ a b Thion 2008, p. 162.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Thion 2008, p. 161.
  7. ^ a b c Thion 2008, p. 164.
  8. ^ a b c Guthrie 2003, pp. 192–193.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Thion 2008, p. 165.
  10. ^ a b Guthrie 2003, pp. 191–193.
  11. ^ a b Thion 2008, p. 33.
  12. ^ Thion 2008, p. 162–165.
  13. ^ a b Mark Traugott (2010). The Insurgent Barricade. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26632-2. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  14. ^ Guthrie 2003, p. 181.
  15. ^ Parker, Geoffrey: The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries' Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780521543927, p. 222.

BibliographyEdit