Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Marlborough Country 2: Oudinaarde 1708

The sat nav took me straight to Oudenaarde.  Then it wasn't so easy.  None of the villages on the battle map were big enough to show up on the sat nav, if they still existed, and those that did seemed to have changed names.  I eventually found my way out of the maze that is Oudenaarde and found a road sign to Ooike which I assumed was the Oycke on my map.  From there I got my bearings and a feel for the scale of the battlefield and was able to work it out.

Both sides had divided commands, but the French Ducs du Burgogne and Verdome hated each other's guts and were alway arguing.  Marlborough & Eugene were great mates.  For once the French had outmanouvred Marlborough threatening his LOC.  He responded by forced marching around the south of the French and getting to Oudinaarde before them.  He threw his army over the Schelt east of Oudinaarde using pontoon bridges.  The French were initially deployed on some low hills about 6km north of the river, but they moved down on the plain - perhaps to try and catch the allies before they had sorted themselves out after the river crossing.  Malborough had Eugene make pinning attacks on the French left commanded by Burgogne.  Verdome moved the right forward to attack the allied deployment, but Burgogne did not make a supporting counterattack on Eugene. 

Marlborough was also filtering troops through Oudinaarde itself onto the French left flank.  He drew on Eugene's cavalry reserve to boost his left then attacked Vendome frontally with his horse while the infantry from Oudinaarde wrapped round his flank.  The French army fell back, then broke.  Nightfall mitigated the extent of the disaster this time.  Both sides had about 100,000 men, the French lost about 15,000, the allies 3,000.  It was a big risk for Marlborough to bring on an encounter battle with his back to a big river, but having beat the French twice already in 1704 & 1706, he must have considered it a fair risk. 

Oudinarde has grown out of where its walls were and now covers the area of swamps which the French thought was impassible for cavalry, but through which Marlborough deployed his army.  The Schelt is now canalised, but though it's a big river the allies seemed to have an adequate bridging train.

North of Oudinaarde, the country is a featureless plain.    There are creeks and villages marked on Chandler's map, but in the flesh they are pretty insignificant.  The "Heights" are low hills and are off the actual battlefield. There are some gentle undulations in ground that give random points of minor vantage and would put some troops out of sight from some viewpoints.  The main terrain issues would have been crops.  The battle was on July 11 so they would have been in a similar stage as on my visit.  At present the fields were a mix of pasture, knee high wheat or potatoes and head high corn.  It's anybody's guess what the mix was in 1708.  But the main point is that apart from the river crossing, and the town hiding the flanking force, the terrain was only a factor in that it made a perfect field for Marlborough's horse to reap the benefit of his grand tactics.

Pic taken from a spot about 2km north of Oudinaarde looking north.  It was behind the French right initially, but by evening the French were in a pocket with the allied troops that came through Oudinaarde attacking from left to right.

The "Heights of Husse" are about 3km away.  The forground is all potatoes.

Pic from the same spot but looking east across the battlefield.  All the other pics I took look much the same.

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