Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies

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Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies
Part of the War of the First Coalition
Date24 April 1794
Location Villers-en-Cauchies, Nord, France
Result Anglo-Austrian victory
Belligerents
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg French First Republic Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor (after 1400).svg  Habsburg Austria
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg René-Bernard Chapuy Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor (after 1400).svg Rudolf von Otto
Strength
7,000 300
Casualties and losses
1,200 killed, wounded or captured, 5 cannons 95 killed, wounded or missing

In the Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies, fought on 24 April 1794, a small Anglo-Austrian cavalry force routed a vastly more numerous French division during the Flanders Campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars. Villers-en-Cauchies is 15 km south of Valenciennes.

Flanders Campaign

The Flanders Campaign was conducted from 6 November 1792 to 7 June 1795 during the first years of the French Revolutionary Wars. A Coalition of states representing the Ancien Régime in Western Europe – Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel – mobilised military forces along all the French frontiers, with the intention to invade Revolutionary France and end the French First Republic. The radicalised French revolutionaries, who broke the Catholic Church's power (1790), abolished the monarchy (1792) and even executed the deposed king Louis XVI of France (1793), vied to spread the Revolution beyond France's borders, by violent means if necessary.

French Revolutionary Wars series of conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European monarchies from 1792 to 1802

The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 and resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted the French Republic against Great Britain, Austria and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Villers-en-Cauchies Commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Villers-en-Cauchies is a commune in the Nord department in northern France.

Contents

Background

At the beginning of the Flanders Campaign in 1794, the main Coalition army led by the Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld advanced against the French Army of the North under Charles Pichegru. By mid-April the Coalition began the Siege of Landrecies while the observation army took position in a broad semi-circle to cover the operation.

Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld austrian general

Prince Frederick Josias of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was a general in the Austrian service.

Army of the North (France)

The Army of the North or Armée du Nord is a name given to several historical units of the French Army. The first was one of the French Revolutionary Armies that fought with distinction against the First Coalition from 1792 to 1795. Others existed during the Peninsular War, the Hundred Days and the Franco-Prussian War.

The Siege of Landrecies was a military operation conducted by the veldleger of the Dutch States Army, commanded by the Hereditary Prince, against the fortress of Landrecies, garrisoned by troops of the First French Republic under general Henri Victor Roulland during the Spring 1794 campaign of the Flanders Campaign, as part of the War of the First Coalition. The fortress capitulated on 30 April 1794.

On 23 April a French force was mustered in an attempt to cut off the Allied column of Ludwig von Wurmb from the rest of the observation army which consisted of the corps of François Sébastien de Croix de Clerfayt and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. Wurmb's command lay in a cordon of detachments between Denain and Hellesmes. All the available French troops from Cambrai and Bouchain were assembled under the command of René-Bernard Chapuis, the commandant of Cambrai. These were reinforced by troops that had been dispatched from Caesar's Camp on 21 April by André Drut, comprising 5,000 infantry commanded by Jean Proteau and 1,500 cavalry with four light cannons under Jacques Philippe Bonnaud. The combined command was 15,000 foot and 4,500 horse (Austrian reports estimate them as 30,000). [1] This command crossed the Scheldt River on 23 April and advanced in four columns, the first from Bouchain towards Douchy-les-Mines, the second from Hordain on Noyelles-sur-Selle; the third from Iwuy on Avesnes-le-Sec, and the last from Cambrai against Iwuy. The French debouched onto the heights of Douchy and drove back Wurmb's Austrian outposts before crossing the Écaillon River, then sent detachments towards Le Quesnoy and Valenciennes. This movement had the effect of cutting direct communication between Le Cateau-Cambrésis and Denain, causing Clerfayt to dispatch reinforcements to Wurmb. However the French dared not push further for fear of attacks on their flanks, so they halted their advance and limited themselves to cannonades and skirmishing. [2]

Ludwig von Wurmb Hessian general, fought in American War for Independence (1736-1813)

Ludwig von Wurmb was a lieutenant general in the army of Hesse-Kassel during the Napoleonic Wars. In the English-speaking world he is probably best known for his service for the British in North America during the War of American Independence, when, as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded the Hessian Jäger corps in campaigns throughout the war. His military service career spanned more than 50 years.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany British prince

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany was the second son of George III, King of the United Kingdom and Hanover, and his consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. A soldier by profession, from 1764 to 1803 he was Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück in the Holy Roman Empire. From the death of his father in 1820 until his own death in 1827 he was the heir presumptive to his elder brother, George IV, in both the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Kingdom of Hanover.

Denain Commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Denain is a commune in the Nord department in northern France. In 1999 Denain had a population of 20,360, on a land area of 11.52 km².

On hearing reports of the combat the Duke of York at Le Cateau sent his deputy, the Austrian Feldmarschall-Leutnant Rudolf Ritter von Otto in the direction of Villers-en-Cauchies to reconnoitre the enemy. Otto took two squadrons of the Austrian 17th Archduke Leopold Hussars and two squadrons of the British 15th Light Dragoons to scout the movement. Realising there was a substantial force before him Otto withdrew and called for reinforcements. During the evening, 10 more squadrons were sent forward, consisting of two squadrons of the Austrian Zeschwitz Cuirassiers, two squadrons of British light dragoons and a British heavy dragoon brigade of six squadrons commanded by John Mansel. As these were not able to join Otto before nightfall, the attack was postponed until the next morning.

Rudolf Ritter von Otto began his military career in the army of the Electorate of Saxony, transferred to the Austrian army and had a distinguished combat record during the Seven Years' War and the French Revolutionary Wars.

15th The Kings Hussars cavalry regiment in the British Army

The 15th The King's Hussars was a cavalry regiment in the British Army. First raised in 1759, it saw service over two centuries, including the First World War, before being amalgamated with the 19th Royal Hussars into the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars in 1922.

Cuirassier type of cavalry first appearing in late 15th-century Europe

Cuirassiers were cavalry equipped with armour and firearms, first appearing in late 15th-century Europe. The first cuirassiers were produced as a result of armoured cavalry, such as the man-at-arms and demi-lancer, discarding their lances and adopting the use of pistols as their primary weapon. In the later 17th century, the cuirassier lost his limb armour and subsequently employed only the cuirass, and sometimes a helmet. By this time, the sword was the primary weapon of the cuirassier, pistols being relegated to a secondary function.

Battle

Contemporary map of the action at Villers-en-Cauchies. See file description for key to numbers Villers en cauchies.jpg
Contemporary map of the action at Villers-en-Cauchies. See file description for key to numbers

On the morning of the 24 April patrols informed Otto that the French were in the same position as the previous evening, and he immediately resolved to attack, deploying the four advanced squadrons with him. The two squadrons of Leopold Hussars (112 men) on the right commanded by Colonel Sigismund Ladislaus Szent-Kereszty; the 15th Light Dragoons (160 men) drew up on the left under Major William Aylett. [3] The Advance Guard was guided by Otto's aide-de-camp Captain Daniel Mécsery, who had an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Behind and in support lay Mansel's British heavy dragoon brigade consisting of two squadrons each of the Royal Horse Guards, 1st Dragoon Guards and 3rd Dragoon Guards. Much further back in reserve lay the Zeschwitz Cuirassiers and British Light Dragoons.

<i>Aide-de-camp</i> personal assistant or secretary to a person of high rank

An aide-de-camp is a personal assistant or secretary to a person of high rank, usually a senior military, police or government officer, or to a member of a royal family or a head of state.

Daniel Mecséry de Tsoor commanded the left wing of the Austrian army at the Battle of Raab during the Napoleonic Wars. In the early part of the French Revolutionary Wars, he served as an officer in the 3rd hussar regiment, distinguishing himself at Biberach in 1796 and later rising to command the 10th hussar regiment in 1798. Promoted to general officer in 1800, he led the advance guard at Hohenlinden and the rear guard at Lambach. In 1805 he led his troops at Elchingen. At Eschenau on 20 October 1805 he was seriously injured on his head and bust, his miraculous recovery of the grievous wounds earning him "the Toughest Headed Hungarian" nickname. He was elevated in rank to Feldmarschall-Leutnant in 1809. From 1814 he held the position of Commanding General of Silezia and Moravia. Became a member of the Hofkriegsrat (1815) and the Interior Privy Council. Died at Vienna in 1823.

Blues and Royals cavalry regiment of the British Army, part of the Household Cavalry

The Blues and Royals (RHG/D) is a cavalry regiment of the British Army, part of the Household Cavalry. The Colonel-in-Chief is Queen Elizabeth II and the Colonel of the Regiment is Anne, Princess Royal. It is the second-most senior regiment in the British Army.

At 7.00 am the Advance Guard rode from St. Pithon via the valley of the Selle towards Montrécourt to turn the French right. Near there Mécsery spotted in the underbrush 300 French chasseurs and 400–500 hussars of the former Esterhazy Regiment (the French 3rd Hussars). The Advance Guard was halted and Mécsery climbed a slight hill, from which he could see the bulk of the French cavalry (Bonnaud's command) hidden likewise in the underbrush, with a screen of scouts to their front. The Allied advance guard therefore moved towards their right, followed 600 paces behind by their support, obliging the French to mount the plateau and form up facing Otto at 400 paces. After observing for a moment, the French cavalry then retired and reformed near to and to the east of six battalions of infantry assembled between Viller-en-Cauchies and Avesnes-le-Sec.

Selle river in France

The Selle is a river of Picardy, France. Rising at Catheux, just north of Crèvecœur-le-Grand, Oise, it flows past Conty, Saleux, Salouël and Pont-de-Metz before joining the Somme River at Amiens.

Montrécourt Commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Montrécourt is a commune in the Nord department in northern France.

At this time, the Austrian leader heard that Emperor Francis II was nearby with a small retinue. [4]

Mécsery's Advance Guard, thinking they were supported by Mansel's brigade began to charge the left flank of Bonnaud's cavalry, but when they reached 60 paces the French cavalry made a half turn and galloped off, exposing the six battalions behind. Seeing themselves thus uncovered the French infantry formed square and opened fire on the advancing enemy Advance Guard. The Allied cavalry halted while Szent-Kereszty and Mécsery gave energetic speeches, then they charged straight onto the oblong square formed by the French battalions, rupturing one wall and seizing four cannons. A part of the infantry took to flight, the rest continued to fire, and were joined by flanking artillery support fire from supporting columns on each side, but Mécsery's Advance Guard charged again, the remainder of the infantry broke and ran in the direction of Caesar's Camp. These infantry units, who belonged to Chapuis' command at Cambrai had been defeated some days earlier on the same plains while under Nicolas Declaye, so their discouragement can be understood.

Otto attributed the success to Mécsery, and noted that had they been supported by Mansel's brigade the French would have been utterly destroyed. [5] But for some reason, later explained as a 'mix-up of orders' Mansel's command had halted, the entire attack was made by the vastly outnumbered members of the Advance Guard.

The Allied horse pursued the fleeing Frenchmen for 8 miles (13 km) in the direction of Bouchain. Seeing the defeat, two French flank guards of 5,000 men each on each side of the defeated column hastily retired on Cambrai, covered by cavalry. Otto's men withdrew on Saint-Aubert to reform, but Bonnaud's cavalry had meanwhile recovered and counterattacked. Otto however, was now reinforced with three squadrons of Austrian Hussars, one from the Archduke Ferdinand and two from the Karaczay Regiments. Two pieces of Austrian horse artillery bombarded the French and menaced their flank, forcing them to retreat once more.

Bonnaud blamed Chapuis' infantry in his report, "...we were attacked on all sides and they threw a lot of cavalry on our right which, supported by nothing, was at first forced back. The infantry were placed in route, the cavalry, especially the Carabiniers, the 13th Dragoons, the 5th and 6th Hussars, did their duty well and had to repair the lack of energy displayed by the infantry". [6]

Results

That afternoon, as Otto re-established communications between the Duke of York and Denain, Clerfayt did the same thing on the side of Valenciennes. The Hanoverian General Maydel had been reinforced, giving him a total of 7 battalions, 2 companies and 13 squadrons. Leaving part of these at Douchy, with the rest he drove the French from Haspres, supported on the opposite side by Mansel's brigade which Otto had detached. This double movement against the French advanced on Douchy threatened to cut their retreat on Bouchain, causing them to hastily withdraw. The retreat became a rout when the French artillery drivers panicked and cut their traces, the whole column then took to flight. [7]

Pichegru made light of the French losses and exaggerated the bravery of the French troops, claiming among other things that "a single squadron of the 6th Hussars had sabred 600 Hungarian Hussars and made 60 prisoners" [8]

Chandler says the French admitted 1,200 killed, wounded and captured [9] out of a force of 7,000 men. These figures are not backed up by other sources and may be totals for the whole operation.

York's report states that at Villers-en-Cauchies the French lost 900 killed, 400 wounded and only 10 unwounded prisoners. They also lost 5 cannons. [10]

The Austrians lost 10 killed and wounded and 10 missing. British casualties were 58 killed and 17 wounded. [11]

Emperor Francis II awarded 8 British officers involved in this action with a special gold medal [12] since at that time it wasn't possible to award the Military Order of Maria Theresia upon foreigners; later, in 1801, after a change in the order's statutes, these same officers were appointed Knights of the Military Order of Maria Theresia. [13] The recipients were Major William Aylett; Captain Robert Pocklington; Captain Edward Michael Ryan; Lieutenant Thomas Granby Calcraft; Lieutenant William Keir; Lieutenant Charles Burrell Blount; Cornet Edward Gerald Butler and Cornet Robert Thomas Wilson. Of this medal only 9 pieces have been struck: 8 awarded and one preserved at the "Münzkabinett" in Vienna. Besides the mentioned piece preserved in Vienna, two original groups of medal and Maria Theresia's Cross appeared on the collecting market resp. in 1966 (belonged to Cornet E. Butler) and in 1967 (Capt. R. Pocklington), both sold by Spink & Son, London; the second, auctioned by Sotheby's in 1903, later in the Whitaker collection, this dissolved from 1959 onwards.

Commentary

During the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars, the French cavalry was particularly weak compared to the cavalry of their enemies. Historians blame this weakness on the loss of many aristocratic cavalry officers who fled France during the Revolution. [14] In addition, the French infantry was filled with raw conscripts who were still learning their trade. Soon, the quality of the French cavalry and infantry would greatly improve as the officers and soldiers absorbed hard lessons at the hands of their enemies.

Chapuis would suffer a further and even greater humiliation at Beaumont-en-Cambresis (Troisvilles) on the 26th. The next major engagement would be the Battle of Tourcoing on 17–18 May.

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References

Footnotes

  1. Coutanceau p.370
  2. Coutanceau p.372
  3. Wylly p.95
  4. Chandler Dictionary, p 465
  5. York's report, mentioned in Coutanceau p.379
  6. Bonnaud's report in Journal de la 5e Division, quoted in Coutanceau p.378 and roughly translated
  7. Coutanceau p.381
  8. Coutanceau p.382
  9. Chandler Dictionary, p 465. Chandler gives 66 total Allied casualties.
  10. Coutanceau p.379
  11. Smith, p 74. Smith also gives 800 killed, 400 wounded and 150 captured.
  12. London Gazette nr. 15025
  13. London Gazette nr. 15370
  14. Chandler Campaigns, p 69