Ahead of the publication of his latest book, Michael McNally discusses the writing process of Fontenoy 1745 and the lead up to the famous confrontation between Maurice de Saxe and the Duke of Cumberland.

Every year or so I get in contact with my long suffering editor at Osprey, with a list of various 17th or 18th century battles that I think would make cracking additions to the “Campaign” series. Over a course of weeks the email traffic is pretty intense as we discuss options and whittle down the list of hopefuls to a single engagement that will evolve into a formal proposal to go forward to a commissioning meeting. The last such flurry, in 2015, was different in that it saw two contenders from the same conflict, and the final decision was the battle of Fontenoy, which was fought on 11 May 1745 and the book will be published on 18 May 2017.

Like many Anglophile students of the 18th Century, I thought I knew a fair bit on the battle having, over the years read (and re-read) all of the English sources: The French under Saxe occupy the village of Fontenoy, and the British under Cumberland form a massive column and attack the French positions but are defeated. The battle gave rise to two quotes, one of which is more well-known than the other, the former being Lord Charles Hay’s admonition for the French to fire first and the second being the apocryphal question “Why is there no Gare de Waterloo in Paris?” The answer to this naturally being: “For the same reason that there is no Fontenoy Station in London”. Yet both of these quotes have as much truth as falsehood in them for whilst there are several versions of Hay’s speech, there are also several streets named after the battle throughout the British Isles.

And so it was time to start the research, and as it was immediately clear that the likes of Skrine, Fortescue et al would only provide a limited overview of the campaign, I firstly invested in a number of modern works such as Jon Manchip White’s “Marshal of France: The Life and Times of Maurice, Comte de Saxe” and “Fontenoy” by J-P Bois. As I was busily making notes from these titles, I began to search various repositories on the internet and was able to obtain a vast number of titles in pdf format ranging from biographies, to accounts of the battle, to unit histories  and accounts of the war itself, as well as contemporary publications such as “The Gentleman’s Magazine”, “The London Gazette” and “Le Mercure de France”.

Whilst putting the text together, one method I use is to see how the various sources describe the same incident as, with the obvious mixture of perspectives it is clear that different authors would tend to emphasize different facets of each stage of the battle. At various stages during the writing process I would be surrounded by annotated printouts in – at its’ most extreme example – English, French, and German (Roman Script) which I can speak, Dutch and German (Fraktur Script) which I can work through and Polish, for which I thank various online translators. What soon became apparent was that the proposal I had submitted to Osprey only represented a skewed image of the battle. Yes, on one hand Saxe did take up a blocking position around the village of Fontenoy and invite an Allied attack, but his plan was much more skilful and complicated than that. Whilst on the other hand, many view Cumberland purely upon his conduct at Culloden in April 1746 rather than upon any of the battles that he fought before or after. Perhaps most important of all, I became aware of the strategic scope of Saxe’s plan of campaign and was able to view it in its true context.

The Ridgeline, 11 May'Plugging the Gap' - The Ridgeline, Tuesday 11 May 1745

Having defeated the Allied attempt to capture Lille in 1744, Saxe had developed a plan which – he was to assure King Louis XV – would breach the enemy defences in Flanders and bring them to battle on French terms by forcing the Allies into a reactive strategy which would bring their own offensive plans to nought. To that end, he informed the king, a number of columns would make feints against a number of enemy positions around Mons, and when it was confirmed that the enemy had reacted to these, another French Army would move against the fortress of Tournai and invest the city. At this time the main army would have withdrawn northwards to link up with the besiegers, and then when the Allied forces advanced to relieve Tournai, the main body of the French army would move out to fight a defensive battle. At the very least, Tournai would fall to France and thus rupture the line of fortresses that provided the enemy’s primary line of defence, but at best Tournai would fall and the Pragmatic Army (as the Allies were also known) would be shattered and the French would have the military initiative for the remainder of the campaigning season. But Saxe was a very ill man, believed by many to be at death’s door, and he was a member of a military hierarchy many of whose members were actively hostile to him and who would arguably rather see Saxe fail than see the Allies defeated.

Aware of the reports of Saxe’s ill-health and believing that he comfortably outnumbered the enemy, Cumberland initially led his army southwards towards Mons – carefully following the trail laid out by his opponent – where he belatedly found out that the French had withdrawn north towards Tournai. He could have stopped and followed his own plan of campaign, but the belief of the Allied high command was that they held all the advantages and the coming battle would be a victory to eclipse Dettingen (27 June 1743). As the march continued and reports began to come in that King Louis XV and the Dauphin had or were soon to arrive at Tournai, many senior officers saw the end of the war close at hand.

At Tournai, Saxe had divided his forces into two components: the Besieging Army would naturally continue with the siege, whilst the Field Army would cover the siege and then, once the Allies’ route was known, would move to engage. On the 9/10 May, it became clear that the bulk of the Pragmatic Army was approaching from the south east, and Saxe gave orders for the Field Army to take up positions in an arc with its’ extreme right flank resting on the Scheldt at Antoing, then east through the village of Fontenoy and past the Bois de Barry before curving north-northeast to the Mont St Trinité. It was a long line, but it would cover all but one of the approach roads to Tournai.

With the final Allied advance, and the skirmishing of the previous evening, Saxe began the day of battle believing that the bulk of the Pragmatic Army would attack along the Chemin de Mons/Chemin de Condé. He maintained that other enemy forces could and would engage the French left flank, and so he left them in situ, only calling upon them once it became clear that the Allies were fully committed around Antoing and Fontenoy and that the other sectors would remain unthreatened. Indeed what this meant is that whilst – in total – the French forces were superior in terms of manpower and number of cannon, at the point d’appui  around the two villages, the advantage lay with the Allies.

As the book will shortly be on sale, I’m deliberately avoiding spoilers as to what happened during the battle and why, but Fontenoy was a bloody and hard fought engagement in which advantage first went to one side and then to the other; it was a battle in which the attackers almost claimed victory. However, through a combination of the drill and training of their troops and the personal courage and charisma of their commander, but where the laurels were to rest with a man who despite debilitating ill-health displayed a tactical and strategic grasp that were second to none, who led when he needed to lead and, knowing that he couldn’t be everywhere at once, was fully prepared to delegate command when delegation was the best option.   

A friend of mine recently said that while Fontenoy led to the French conquest of the Austrian Netherlands by 1748, it didn’t change world history, but rather deferred Britain’s military superiority until the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). He’s right in this, but – and as I hope I can show the reader, Saxe’s planning and execution of his plan of campaign were second to none, achieving exactly what he had promised Louis XV during the winter of 1744. And knowing more about the man than I did when I began this project, I would jump at the chance if Osprey were ever to resurrect the ‘Command’ series, and give me the opportunity to do justice to the career of – for my money at least – arguably the greatest military commander of the 18th century.

Until that day, I’ll just continue plugging away to try to increase the numbers of 17th and 18th Century titles in the ‘Campaign ‘ series.

Fontenoy 1745 by Michael McNally is now available to pre-order, which you do by clicking here.