|Battle of Rocroi|
|Part of the Thirty Years' War |
Franco-Spanish War (1635–1659)
Rocroi, el último tercio, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau (2011)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Duke of Enghien|| Francisco de Melo |
Paul-Bernard de Fontaines †
|Casualties and losses|
|4,000 dead or wounded|| 15,000 |
The Battle of Rocroi, fought on 19 May 1643, was a major engagement of the Thirty Years' War. It was fought between a French army led by the 21-year-old Duke of Enghien and Spanish forces under General Francisco de Melo only five days after the accession of Louis XIV to the throne of France following his father's death. Rocroi is regarded as the graveyard of the myth of invincibility of the Spanish Tercios, the terrifying infantry units that had dominated European battlefields for 120 years up to that point. The battle is therefore often considered to mark the end of Spanish military greatness and the beginning of French hegemony in Europe.After Rocroi, the Spanish abandoned the Tercio system and adopted the Line infantry doctrine like the French.
From 1618 on, the Thirty Years' War had been raging in Germany between the Catholic Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs and Protestant states. Fearing a peace which would favor the House of Habsburg and leave them in too much of a strong position following a string of Protestant defeats, France decided to get directly involved in the conflict in 1635 and had declared war on the Empire and Spain despite being a Catholic power and having suppressed the Huguenot rebellions at home. An initial invasion of the Spanish Netherlands had ended in failure, and the French had retreated back to their borders.
On 4 December 1642, the Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII of France, died while the king himself was confronted with severe health complications the following spring. After the king's death on 14 May 1643, his four year-old son Louis XIV inherited the throne. Despite receiving overtures of peace, the French, now under the governance of the Cardinal Mazarin, did not wish to end the war, and French military pressure on Franche-Comté, Catalonia, and the Spanish Netherlands persisted despite their precarious domestic situation.
Following up on their success at the Battle of Honnecourt the year prior, which opened the way towards Paris, the renowned Spanish Army of Flanders advanced through the Ardennes and into northern France with 27,000 men, hoping to relieve pressure on Catalonia and in Franche-Comté.
En route, the Spanish troops under Francisco de Melo laid siege to the fortified town of Rocroi.The Duc d'Enghien, commander of a French army in Amiens, was appointed to stop the Spanish incursion. Although just 21 years old, Enghien had already proven himself to be a bold and cunning commander and could also benefit from the experience of worthy subordinates, among them Marshal Jean de Gassion. French forces in the area numbered 23,000. Enghien advanced to meet de Melo's numerically superior army along the Meuse river. On 17 May, he learned the king had died, but kept the news secret from his army.
Word reached Enghien that 6,000 Spanish reinforcements were on their way to Rocroi, and the young duke hurried there and arrived on 18 May.He decided on an attack before de Melo's forces could be reinforced, against the advice of his older subordinate commanders. He ordered his army forward through the only available approach, a defile between woods and marshes the Spanish had failed to block. That afternoon, the French took up position on a ridge overlooking Rocroi.
Learning of the French advance, de Melo decided to engage the oncoming forces rather than invest in the siege, as he deemed his army stronger. Accordingly, the Spanish army formed up between the French and Rocroi, and both sides prepared to do battle the next day.The Spanish also viewed the battle as an opportunity to win a decisive victory, which would prompt the French to negotiate peace.
The French army was arranged in two lines of infantry in the center, squadrons of cavalry on each wing, and with a thin line of artillery at the front. The Spanish army was similarly positioned, but with the infantry in the center deployed in their traditional "tercio" squares; its first ranks consisted of some 8,000 highly trained Spanish and mercenary infantry behind them.The two armies exchanged some fire in the afternoon of 18 May, but the full battle did not occur until the following day.
The battle began early in the morning on 19 May, taking place on open farmland in front of Rocroi.The fighting began with a French cavalry attack on the Spanish left. The French horsemen on the right under the command of Jean de Gassion pushed back the Spanish cavalry opposite and Enghien followed this up by swiftly charging the exposed Spanish left flank. The Spanish horsemen were routed, and Enghien moved against the elite Spanish infantrymen, which had engaged their French counterparts and were besting them. At the same time, the French cavalry on the left, against Enghien's orders, attacked the Spanish right and were repulsed. The Spanish mounted a counter-attack, which was initially very successful, but their advance was eventually halted by French reserves. At this point, the French left and center were in distress.
The battle was still inconclusive, as both armies have had so far successes on their right and shortcomings on their left.
Enghien, aware that his left and center were bending under pressure, decided that the best way to effectively rescue them was not to fall back, but to exploit his momentum on the right flank. He ordered a cavalry encirclement, which was achieved via a sweeping strike and got behind the Spanish lines. He then smashed through the back of the Spanish infantry in the center and went on to crash into the rear of the Spanish right-flank cavalry that had engaged his reserves.The move was a complete success, and when the Spanish cavalry scattered, it left the infantry isolated, prompting the Spanish artillery crew to flee the battlefield. Regarded as the finest in Europe for over a century, the Spanish infantry, now enveloped on all sides, held its formations and repulsed two French cavalry attacks. Enghien massed his artillery alongside the captured Spanish guns, however, and the French systematically hammered the Spanish square formations. The Germans and Walloons, overwhelmed and broken, deserted, but the veteran Spanish Tercios remained on the field with their commander.
Despite heavy artillery fire and the death of their commander, de Fontaines, the Spanish absorbed additional French cavalry attacks without breaking formation.Impressed with their gallantry in combat, Enghien offered surrender terms similar to those obtained by a besieged garrison in a fortress, and the Spanish accepted. When Enghien personally rode forward to take their surrender, however, some of the Spanish apparently believed that this was the beginning of a French cavalry charge and opened fire on him. Angered by this seeming treachery, the French attacked the Spanish without quarter this time and with devastating result. The Spanish army was virtually destroyed. But, some Spanish sources state, that only three of the five Spanish infantry battalions were destroyed by the French, while the remaining two were allowed to leave the field with deployed flags and weapons.
French losses were about 4,000. Melo stated his losses as 6,000 casualties and 4,000 captured in his report to Madrid written two days after the battle.The estimates for the Spanish army's dead range from 4,000–8,000. Of the 7,000 Spanish infantry only 390 officers and 1,386 enlisted men were able to escape back to the Spanish Netherlands. Guthrie lists 3,400 killed and 2,000 captured for the five Spanish infantry battalions alone, while 1,600 escaped. Most of the casualties of the battle were suffered by the Spanish infantry, while the cavalry and artillerymen were able to withdraw, albeit with the loss of all the cannons.
The French lifted the siege of Rocroi, but were not strong enough to move the fight into Spanish Flanders. The Spanish were able to regroup rapidly and stabilize their positions.The year 1643 ended in a veritable stalemate, which was enough of a success for France.
Despite this, the battle was of great symbolic importance because of the high reputation of the Army of Flanders.Melo in his report to the king called it "the most considerable defeat there has ever been in these provinces".
The successful show of strength was important for France. At home, it was seen as a good omen for the new king's reign, and secured the power of the regent queen Anne of Austria and newly-appointed Cardinal Mazarin. While both Richelieu and Louis XIII had distrusted Anne (she was a sister of Philip IV of Spain), when she became regent for the four-year-old Louis XIV, she confirmed Mazarin, Richelieu's protégé and political heir, as prime minister, and no change in French policy occurred regarding the war.
It established the reputation of the 21-year-old Enghien, who later would be called "Grand Condé" ("grand" meaning "great") for his numerous victories.
Abroad, it showed that France remained as strong as before, despite its 4-year-old king. Supremacy in Europe was to move slowly from Habsburg Spain to Bourbon France in the decades to come. It was the new nature and weight of absolute monarchy in France which was now to encompass the decline of Habsburg Spanish imperial power in Europe.Cardinal Mazarin was able to cope with the Fronde, then slowly to turn the tide against the Spanish in France and in the Low Countries. Mazarin's alliance with England resulted in the defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of the Dunes and consequently the taking of Dunkirk in 1658, prior to the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. Although Spain looked to be all-powerful in 1652, the peace settlement reflected the demise of Spain's mastery of Europe in the late 1650s.
It has been noted that Melo's German, Walloon, and Italian troops actually surrendered first, while the Spanish infantry surrendered only after standing hours of infantry and cavalry charges and a vicious shelling by the French guns. They were given the treatment usually given to a fortress garrison and retired from the field with their arms, flags and honors.
A 2006 Spanish movie, Alatriste , directed by Agustín Díaz Yanes, portrays this battle in its final scene. The soundtrack features in this scene a funeral march, La Madrugá , composed by Colonel Abel Moreno for the Holy Week of Seville, played by the band of the Infantry Regiment "Soria" No. 9, heir of that which participated in the battle, the oldest unit in the Spanish Army, and since nicknamed "the bloody Tercio".[ citation needed ]
The sedan chair belonging to the elderly Spanish infantry general Paul-Bernard de Fontaines, who was suffering from goutand was carried to battle in the chair, was taken as a trophy by the French and may be seen in the museum of Les Invalides in Paris. Fontaines (originally from the Spanish Netherlands - now Belgium - and known to the Spanish as de Fuentes) was killed in the battle. Enghien is reported to have said, "Had I not won the day, I wish I had died like him".
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