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THE ACTION

At about ten o’clock in the morning of Friday the 16th of May, Clerfayt, in his positions right up north beyond the Lys positions which lay at and in front of the town of Thielt, with outposts well to the south and west of that town, received the orders of the Emperor.

These orders were what we know them to be: he was to march southward and westward and strike the Lys at Wervicq. He was to arrive at that point at or before nightfall, for in the very first hours of the morrow, Saturday, and coincidently with the beginning of the advance of the five columns from their southern posts, he was to cross the Lys and to proceed to join hands with those columns in the following forenoon, when the heads of them would have reached the neighbourhood of Tourcoing and Mouveaux.

Bussche, with the first column, his 4000 Hanoverians, had no task during that day but to proceed the mile and a half which separated Warcoing from the little village of St Leger, and, with the head of his column in that village, prepare to pass the night and be ready to march forward long before dawn the next day.

Field-Marshal Otto, with the second column, was similarly and leisurely occupied marshalling his 10,000 Austrians and his contingent of British cavalry, so that the head of his column was at Bailleul ready also to advance with the early, dark, small hours of the ensuing morning.

The Duke of York, with his third column of similar numbers, or somewhat less, was performing a precisely similar task, and ordering his men so that the head of that column should reach Templeuve by evening and be ready to march at the same moment as the others did, shortly after midnight.

All these three, then, were absolutely ready, fresh from fatigue and in good order, upon that Friday evening at their appointed posts.

It is here necessary, as we are chiefly concerned with the British forces, to detail the composition of this third column which the Duke of York commanded.

It consisted of twelve battalions and ten squadrons, with a further reserve of sixteen British squadrons under General Erskine, which cavalry lay somewhat south of Templeuve, but ready to follow up the advance when it should begin. It was made of two portions, about equal in numbers, British and foreign. The foreign half was composed of four squadrons of Austrian Hussars and seven battalions of infantry, two Hessian and five Austrian. The British half was composed of a Brigade of Guards counting four battalions, with portions of the 14th, 37th, and 53rd Foot, while the British cavalry accompanying it (apart from the squadrons under Erskine) were six squadrons drawn from the 7th, 15th, and 16th Light Dragoons. It is to the credit of the young commander that this third column was the best organised, the most prompt, and, as the event proved, the most successful during the advance and the most tenacious in the subsequent defeat.

The fourth column, under Kinsky, about 11,000 strong, was also ready on that Friday, the 16th of May, concentrated at its point of departure, Froidmont, and ready to move at the same moment as all the others, shortly after midnight. But unlike the other three commanders upon his right, Kinsky was unfortunately handicapped by the position of the fifth column, that great body of 18,000 to 20,000 men, under the Arch-Duke Charles, which lay at St Amand, which was to advance next day parallel with Kinsky and upon his left, and which it was his duty to keep in touch with, and to link up with the Duke of York’s upon the other side. He was handicapped, I say, by the situation of the fifth column, under the Arch-Duke Charles, the heavy strain already imposed upon which, and the accumulating difficulties it was about to encounter, largely determining the unfortunate issue of the battle.

Kinsky got news on that Friday from the Arch-Duke at St Amand that it was hardly possible for his great body of men to reach the appointed post of Pont-a-Marcq at the arranged hour of daybreak the next morning. I have already suggested that this delay cannot only have been due to the very long march which had been imposed upon the Arch-Duke’s command when it had been hurriedly summoned up from the south to St Amand, forty-eight hours before. It must also have been due to the fact that not all its units reached St Amand by the evening of Thursday the 15th. It seemed certain that there must have been stragglers or bad delays on the morning of the 16th, for it was not until long after nightfall indeed not until ten o’clock in the evening of Friday the 16th that the Arch-Duke was able to set out from St Amand and take the Pont-a-Marcq road. This unfortunate body, therefore, the fifth column, which had all the hardest work before it, which had but one road by which to march (although it was double any of the others in size), was compelled, after the terrible fatigue of the preceding days, to push forward sixteen miles through the night in a vain attempt to reach Pont-a-Marcq, not indeed by daybreak, for that was obviously impossible, but as soon after as haste and anxiety could command. Kinsky was tied to Froidmont and unable to move forward until that fifth column upon his left was at least approaching its goal. For he had Bonnaud’s 20,000 Frenchmen at Sainghin right in front of him, and further, if he had moved, his left flank would have been exposed, and, what is more, he would have failed in his purpose, which was to link up the Arch-Duke on one side with the Duke of York upon the other.

This first mishap, then, must be carefully noted as one prime lack of synchrony in the origins of the combined movement, and a first clear cause of the misfortune that was to attend the whole affair. The delay of the fifth column was the chief cause of the disaster.

Meanwhile, another failure to synchronise, and that a most grave one, was taking place miles away in the north with Clerfayt’s command beyond the Lys.

It is self-evident that where one isolated and distant body is being asked to co-operate with comrades who are in touch with the commander-in-chief, and with each other, the exact observation of orders on the part of that isolated body is of supreme importance to the success of the combination. They, all lying in much the same region and able to receive and transmit orders with rapidity, may correct an error before it has developed evil consequences. But the isolated commander co-operating from a distance, and receiving orders from headquarters only after a long delay, is under no such advantage. Thus the tardiness of the fifth column was, as we have seen, communicated to the fourth, and the third, second, and first, all in one line, could or should have easily appreciated the general situation along the Scheldt. But the sixth body, under Clerfayt, which formed the keystone of the whole plan, and without whose exact co-operation that plan must necessarily fail, enjoyed no such advantage, and, if it indulged in the luxuries of delay or misdirection, could not have its errors corrected in useful time. A despatch, to reach Clerfayt from headquarters and from the five columns that were advancing northward from the valley of the Scheldt, must make a circuit round eastward to the back of Courtrai, and it was a matter of nearly half a day to convey information from the Emperor or his neighbouring subordinates in the region of Tournai to this sixth corps which lay north of the Lys.

Now it so happened that Clerfayt, though a most able man, and one who had proved himself a prompt and active general, woefully miscalculated the time-table of his march and the difficulties before him.

He got his orders, as I have said, at ten o’clock on the Friday morning. Whether to give his men a meal, or for whatever other reason, he did not break up until between one and two. He then began ploughing forward with his sixteen thousand men and more, in two huge columns, through the sandy country that forms the plain north of the River Lys. He ought to have known the difficulty of rapid advance over such a terrain, but he does not seem to have provided for it with any care, and when night fell, so far from finding himself in possession of Wervicq and master of the crossing of the river there, the heads of his columns had only reached the great highway between Menin and Ypres, nearly three miles short of his goal. Three miles may sound a short distance to the civilian reader, but if he will consider the efforts of a great body of men and vehicles, pushing forward through the late hours of an afternoon by wretched lanes full of loose sand, and finding the darkness upon them with that distance still to do, he would perceive the importance of the gap. If he further considers that it was only the heads of the columns that had reached the high road by dark, and that two great bodies of men were stretched out two miles and more behind, and if he will add to all this the fact that fighting would have to be done before Wervicq, three miles away, could be occupied, let alone the river crossed, he will discover that Clerfayt had missed his appointment not by three miles only in space, but by the equivalent of half a day in time.

Even so he should have pushed on and have found himself at least in contact with the French posts before his advance was halted. He did not do so. He passed the night in bivouac with the heads of his columns no further south than the great high road.

So much for Clerfayt. The Republic would have cut off his head.

While Clerfayt was thus mishandling his distant and all-important department of the combined scheme, the corresponding advance from the valley of the Scheldt northward was proceeding in a manner which is best appreciated by taking the five columns seriatim and in three groups: the first group consisting of the first column (Bussche), the second group of the second and third columns (Otto and York), the third group of the fourth and fifth (Kinsky and the Arch-Duke).

I

THE FIRST COLUMN UNDER BUSSCHE

This column, as we have seen, consisted of only 4000 men, Hanoverians. Its function and general plan was to give the French the impression that they were being attacked by considerable forces at the very extremity of their advanced wedge, and thus to “hold” them there while the great bulk of the allies were really encircling them to the south and cutting them off from Lille.

When we bear this object in view, we shall see that Bussche with his little force did not do so badly. His orders were to advance with two-thirds of his men against Mouscron, a little place about five miles in front of the village of St Leger where he was concentrated; the remaining third going up the high road towards Courtrai. This last decision, namely, to detach a third of his troops, has been severely criticised, especially by English authorities, but the criticism is hardly just if we consider what Bussche had been sent out to do. He was, of course, to take Mouscron if he could and hold it, and if that had been the main object of the orders given him, it would indeed have been folly to weaken his already weak body by the detaching of a whole third of it four miles away upon the high road to the eastward. But the capture of Mouscron was not the main object set before Bussche. The main object was to “hold” the large French forces in the Courtrai district and to give them the impression of a main attack coming in that direction, and with that object in view it was very wise so to separate his force as to give Souham the idea that the French northern extremity was being attacked in several places at once.

With the early morning, then, of Saturday the 17th, Bussche sent rather less than 1500 men up the high road towards Courtrai, and, with rather more than 2500, marched boldly up against Mouscron, where, considering the immensely superior forces that the French could bring against him, it is not surprising that he was badly hammered. Indeed, but for the fact that the French were unprepared (as we saw in the section “The Preliminaries of the Battle"), he could not have done as much as he did, which was, at the first onslaught, to rush Mouscron and to hold it in the forenoon of that day. But the French, thoroughly alarmed by the event (which was precisely what the plan of the allies intended they should be), easily brought up overwhelming reinforcements, and Bussche’s little force was driven out of the town. It was not only driven out of the town, it was pressed hard down the road as far as Dottignies within a mile or two of the place from which it had started; but there it rallied and stood, and for the rest of the day kept the French engaged without further misfortune. A student of the whole action, careful to keep its proportions in mind and not to exaggerate a single instance, will not regard Bussche’s gallant attempt and failure before Mouscron as any part of the general breakdown. On the contrary, the stand which his little force made against far superior numbers, and the active cannonade which he kept up upon this extreme edge of the French front, would have been one of the major conditions determining the success of the allies if their enormously larger forces in other parts of the field had all of them kept their time-table and done what was expected of them.

II

THE SECOND AND THIRD COLUMNS UNDER OTTO AND THE DUKE OF YORK

On turning to the second group (the second column under Otto and the third under York), we discover a record of continuous success throughout the whole of that day, Saturday the 17th of May, which deserved a better fate than befell them upon the morrow.

(A) the second column under Otto

The second column under Otto, consisting of twelve battalions and ten squadrons, certain of the latter being English horse, and the whole command numbering some 10,000 men, advanced with the early morning of that same Saturday the 17th simultaneously with Bussche from Bailleul to Leers. It drove the French outposts in, carried Leers, and advanced further to Wattrelos. It carried Wattrelos.

It continued its successful march another three miles, still pressing in and thrusting off to its right the French soldiers of Compere’s command, until it came to what was then the little market-town of Tourcoing. It carried Tourcoing and held it. This uninterrupted series of successes had brought Otto’s troops forward by some eight miles from their starting-point, and had filled the whole morning, and Otto stood during the afternoon in possession of this advanced point, right on the line between Courtrai and Lille, and having fully accomplished the object which his superiors had set him.

From the somewhat higher roll of land which his cavalry could reach, and from which they could observe the valley of the Lys four miles beyond, they must have strained their eyes to catch some hint of Clerfayt’s troops, upon whose presence across the river on their side they had so confidently calculated, and which, had Clerfayt kept to his time-table and crossed the Lys at dawn, would now have been in the close neighbourhood of Tourcoing and in junction with this successful second column.

But there was no sign of any such welcome sight. The dull rolling plain, with its occasional low crests falling towards the river, betrayed the presence of troops in more than one position to the north and west. But those troops were not moving: they were holding positions, or, if moving, were obviously doing so with the object of contesting the passage of the river. They were French troops, not Austrian, that thus showed distinctly in rare and insufficient numbers along the southern bank of the Lys, and indeed, as we know, Clerfayt, during the whole of that afternoon of the 17th, was painfully bringing up his delayed pontoons, and was, until it was far advanced, upon the wrong side of the river.

Otto maintained his position, hoped against hope that Clerfayt might yet force his way through before nightfall, and was still master of Tourcoing and the surrounding fields when darkness came.

(B) the third column under York

Meanwhile York, with his 10,000 half British and half Austro-Hessian, had marched with similar success but against greater obstacles parallel with Otto, and to his left, and had successively taken every point in his advance until he also had reached the goal which had been set before him.

Details of that fine piece of work deserve full mention.

Delayed somewhat by a mist in the dark hours before dawn, York’s command had marched north-westward up the road from Templeuve, where now runs the little tramway reaching the Belgian frontier.

The French troops in front of him, as much as those who had met Otto a mile or two off to the right, and Bussche still further off at Mouscron, were taken aback by the suddenness and the strength of the unexpected blow. They stood at Lannoy. York cannonaded that position, sent certain of the British Light Dragoons round to the left to turn it, and attacked it in front with the Brigade of Guards. The enemy did not stand, and the British forces poured through Lannoy and held it just as Otto in those same hours was pouring into and holding Leers and Wattrelos. Beyond Lannoy, a matter of two miles or so, and still on that same road, was the small town, now swollen to a great industrial city, called Roubaix. The Duke of York left a couple of battalions of his allied troops (Hessians) to hold Lannoy, and with the rest of the column pursued his march.

Roubaix offered far more serious resistance than Lannoy had done. The element of surprise was, of course, no longer present. The French forces were concentrating. The peril they were in of being cut off was by this time thoroughly seized at their headquarters, and the roll of land immediately before Roubaix was entrenched and held by a sufficient force well gunned. A strong resistance was offered to the British advance, but once more the Brigade of Guards broke down that resistance and the place was taken with the bayonet.

York’s next objective, and the goal to which his advance had been ordered, was Mouveaux. Mouveaux is a village standing upon a somewhat higher roll of land rather more than two miles from the centre of Roubaix, in continuation of the direction which York’s advance had hitherto pursued. From Mouveaux the eye could overlook the plain reaching to the Lys and to Wervicq, some seven odd miles away, a plain broken by one or two slight hummocks of which the least inconspicuous holds the village of Linselles. Mouveaux was the point to which Clerfayt was expected to advance from his side. It was on a level with Tourcoing, and lay, as Tourcoing did, precisely upon the line between Courtrai and Lille. To reach Mouveaux, therefore, and not to be content with the capture of Roubaix, was consistent with and necessary to the general plan of the allies. Moreover, as Otto with the second column had taken Tourcoing, it was necessary that the third column should proceed to Mouveaux, unless Otto’s left or southern flank was to remain exposed and in peril. One may say, in general, that until Mouveaux was occupied the chance of joining hands with Clerfayt (supposing that General to have kept to his time-table and to be across the Lys and marching up to meet the columns from the Scheldt) was in peril. Therefore, until one has learnt what was happening to the fourth and the fifth columns, it is difficult to understand why the Duke of York, after the difficult capture of Roubaix, desired to make that point the utmost limit of his advance and for the moment to proceed no further. Without anticipating the story of the fourth and fifth columns, it is enough to say that the Duke of York’s desire not to advance beyond Roubaix was sufficiently excused by the aspect of the country to the west and south upon his left.

Roubaix overlooks from a slight elevation the valley of the Marque. Lest the word “valley” be misleading, let me hasten to add that that stream here flows at the bottom of a very slight and very broad depression. But, at any rate, from Roubaix one overlooks that depression for some miles; one sees five miles distant the fortifications of Lille, and the intervening country is open enough to betray the presence of troops. Indeed, once Roubaix was captured, the English commander could see across those fields, a couple of hours’ march away, the tents of the great French camp at Sainghin under the walls of the fortress.

Now, along that river valley and across those fields there should have been apparent in those mid hours of the day, when the Guards had stormed Roubaix, the great host of the fourth and fifth columns coming up in support of the second and third.

If the time-table had been observed, the Arch-Duke and Kinsky, over 25,000 men, should have been across the Marque before dawn, should have pushed back the French forces outside Lille, and should, long before noon, have been covering those fields between Roubaix and Lille with their advancing squadrons and battalions. There was no sign of them. If, or when, the French body near Lille were free to advance and attack the Duke of York’s left flank, there was no one between to prevent their doing so. That great body of the third and fourth columns, more than half of all the men who were advancing from the Scheldt to meet Clerfayt, had failed to come up to time. That was why the Duke of York desired to push no further than Roubaix, and even to leave only an advance guard to hold that place while he withdrew the bulk of his command to Lannoy.

But his decision was overruled. The Emperor and his staff, who, following up the march of this third column, were now at Templeuve, thought it imperative that Mouveaux should be held. Only thus, in their judgment, could the junction with Clerfayt (who, though late, must surely be now near at hand) be accomplished. And certainly, unless Mouveaux were held, Otto could not hold his advanced position at Tourcoing. The order was therefore sent to York to take Mouveaux. In the disastrous issue that order has naturally come in for sharp blame; but it must be remembered that much of the plan was already successfully accomplished, that Clerfayt was thought to be across the Lys, and that if the French around Courtrai, and hitherward from Courtrai to Tourcoing, were to be cut off, it was imperative to effect the junction with Clerfayt without delay. Had Clerfayt been, as he should have been at that hour in the afternoon of Saturday the 17th, between the Lys and the line Mouveaux-Tourcoing, the order given by the Austrian staff to the Duke of York would not only have been approved by the military opinion of posterity, but any other order would have been thought a proof of indecision and bad judgment.

Upon receiving this order to take Mouveaux, York obeyed. The afternoon was now far advanced, very heavy work had been done, a forward march of nearly six miles had been undertaken, accompanied by continual fighting latterly, outside Roubaix, of a heavy sort. But if Mouveaux was to be held before nightfall, an immediate attack must be made, and York ordered his men forward.

Mouveaux stands upon one of those very slight crests which barely diversify the flat country in which Roubaix and Tourcoing stand. The summit of that crest is but little more than fifty feet higher than the bottom of the low, broad depression between it and the centre of Roubaix, of which swollen town it is to-day a western suburb. Slight as is the elevation, it does, as I have said, command a view towards the Lys and Wervicq; and the evenness and length of the very gentle slope upon the Roubaix side make it an excellent defensive position.

I have pointed out how the columns of attack as they advanced could not fail to find an increasing resistance. Roubaix had held out more strongly than Lannoy, Mouveaux was to hold out more strongly than Roubaix. The position was palisaded and entrenched. Redoubts had even been hastily thrown up by the French at either end of it, but the weight of the attacking column told. It was again the Guards who were given the task of carrying the trenches at the bayonet, and after a sharp struggle they were successful. The French, as they retired, set fire to the village (which stands upon the very summit of that roll of land), and were charged in their retirement by Abercromby with the English Dragoons. They left three hundred upon the field, and three field-pieces as well. Despite the great superiority of numbers which York’s columns still commanded over the enemy immediately before him, it was a brilliant feat, especially when one considers that it came at the very end of a day that was hot for the season, that had begun before one o’clock in the morning, and that had involved the carrying of three positions, each more stoutly defended than the last, within an advance of over seven miles.

Mouveaux thus carried, the head of York’s column was on a line with the head of Otto’s, which held Tourcoing just two miles away. The heads of either column now occupied the main road between Lille and Courtrai (which passes through Mouveaux and Tourcoing), and the heads of either column also held the slight crests from which the belated advance of Clerfayt from the Lys could be watched and awaited.

But though there was evidence of heavy fighting down in the river valley five miles to the north and west, and though it seemed probable from the sound of the firing that Clerfayt with the sixth body had crossed the Lys at Wervicq and was now on the right side of it, upon the southern bank, there was no sign of his advancing columns in those empty fields towards Linselles and the river over which the setting sun glared.

Neither, as his troops prepared to bivouac for the night upon the slopes of Mouveaux, could York, looking southward, find any indication of the fourth and fifth columns under Kinsky and the Arch-Duke which should have come up to this same position at Mouveaux by noon seven hours before. The flat and marshy fields upon either bank of the Marque were anxiously scanned in vain as the twilight deepened. Down there, far off, the cannon had been heard all that afternoon round the French camp at Sainghin, but nothing had come through.

It was therefore under a sense of isolation and of confusion, with the knowledge that their left flank was open, that Clerfayt in front of them was not yet in reach, that the second and third columns, which had so thoroughly accomplished their task, established their posts under the early summer night to await the chances of the morning.

III

THE FOURTH AND FIFTH COLUMNS UNDER KINSKY AND THE ARCH-DUKE CHARLES

Now what had happened to the fourth and fifth columns under Kinsky and the Arch-Duke? I must describe their fortunes, show why they had failed to come up, and thus complete the picture of the general advance from the Scheldt, before I turn to conclude the explanation of the disaster by detailing the further adventures of Clerfayt after he had crossed the Lys.

(A) the fourth column under Kinsky

Kinsky with his 11,000 men had been delayed, as we have seen, at Froidmont by the message which the Arch-Duke had sent him from St Amand, to the effect that the fifth column could not hope to be at Pont-a-Marcq before dawn upon the 17th.

At the moment, therefore, when in the small hours of Saturday the 17th Otto and the Duke of York started out simultaneously from Bailleul and Templeuve, Kinsky was still pinned to Froidmont. But he knew that the Arch-Duke had started with his great column some time after dark in the Friday night from St Amand, and when he estimated that they had proceeded far enough along the road to Pont-a-Marcq to be up level with him upon his left, Kinsky set his men in march and made for the Bridge of Bouvines, which was the crossing of the Marque immediately in front of him.

The Bridge of Bouvines lay right in front of the great French camp. It was strongly held, and the hither side of the river, as Kinsky approached it, was found to be entrenched. His men drove the French from those entrenchments, they retired over the bridge, and as they retired they broke it down. Upon the far side of the river in front of their camp the French further established a battery of heavy guns upon that slight slope which is now crowned by the Fort of Sainghin, and Kinsky could not force the passage until the fifth column, or at any rate the head of it, should begin to appear upon his left.

It will be seen upon the frontispiece map that when the Arch-Duke’s men reached Pont-a-Marcq and crossed the river there, they would take the French camp and the main French forces there in reserve, weaken the power of the French resistance at the Bridge of Bouvines, afford Kinsky the opportunity of crossing at that point, and that, immediately after that crossing, Kinsky and the Arch-Duke, having joined hands, would be in sufficient strength to push back the French from Sainghin and to march up north together towards Mouveaux. The appearance of their combined force at Mouveaux by noon would fulfil the time-table, and at mid-day of Saturday, if the time-table were thus fulfilled, the whole combined force of the second, third, fourth, and fifth columns would have been astraddle of the Lille-Courtrai Road, would have cut off Souham’s corps from Lille, and could await Clerfayt if he had not yet arrived. When, therefore, the Arch-Duke and the fifth column should have crossed the Marque at Pont-a-Marcq, the fortunes of the fourth column would have blended with it, and the story of the two would have been one. We may therefore leave Kinsky still waiting anxiously in front of the broken bridge at Bouvines for news of the Arch-Duke, and conclude the picture of the whole advance from the Scheldt by describing what had happened and was happening to that Commander and his great force of 17,000 to 18,000 men.

(B) the fifth column under the Arch-duke Charles

When the Arch-Duke Charles had let Kinsky know upon the day before, the Friday, that he could not be at the appointed post of Pont-a-Marcq by the next daybreak, he had implied that somewhere in the early morning of that Saturday, at least, he would be there. Exactly how early neither he nor Kinsky could tell. His troops had sixteen full miles to march; they had but one road by which to advance, and they were fatigued with the enormous exertion of that hurried march northward to St Amand, which has already been set down.

Such were the delays at St Amand in preparing that advance, that the night was far gone before the fifth column took the road to Pont-a-Marcq, and the effort that was to be demanded of it was more than should have been justly demanded of any troops. Indeed, the idea that a body of this great size, tied to one road, could suffer the severe effort of the rush from the south to St Amand, followed by a night-march, that march to be followed by heavy fighting during the ensuing morning and a further advance of eight or nine miles during the forenoon, was one of the weakest points in the plan of the allies. No such weakness would have been apparent if the main body of the Austrians under the Arch-Duke had been called up on the 12th instead of the 14th, and had been given two more days in which to cover the great distance. But, as it was, the delay of the Emperor and his staff in calling up that main body had gravely weakened its effective power.

The league-long column thrust up the road through the darkness hour upon hour, with its confusion of vehicles and that difficulty in marshalling all units which is the necessary handicap of an advance in the darkness. Long before their task was so much as half accomplished, it was apparent not only that Pont-a-Marcq would not be reached at dawn, but that the mass of the infantry would not be at that river-crossing until the morning was far spent.

When day broke, though cavalry had been set forward at greater speed, the heads of the infantry column were but under the Hill of Beuvry. It was long after six before the force had passed through Orchies, and though Kinsky learnt, in the neighbourhood of eight o’clock, that the cavalry of the fifth column were up on a level with him and had reached the river, the main force of the fifth column was not available for crossing Pont-a-Marcq until noon, and past noon.

Kinsky, thus tied to the broken Bridge of Bouvines until Pont-a-Marcq should be forced, saw mid-day come and pass, and still his force and that of the Arch-Duke upon his left were upon the wrong side of the stream.

Yet another hour went by. His fourth column and the fifth should already have been nine miles up north, by Mouveaux, and they were not yet even across the Marque!

It was not until two o’clock that the passage of the river at Pont-a-Marcq was forced by the Arch-Duke Charles, and that, as the consequence of that passage of the stream, the French were taken in reverse in their camp at Sainghin and were compelled to fall back northward, leaving the passage at Bouvines free. Kinsky repaired the bridge, and was free to bring his 11,000 over, and the two extreme columns, the fourth and the fifth, would then have joined forces in the mid-afternoon of the Saturday, having accomplished their object of forcing the Marque and uniting for the common advance northward in support of Otto and the Duke of York.

Now, had the Arch-Duke Charles’ men been machines, this section of the general plan would yet have failed by half a day to keep its time-table: and by more than half a day: by all the useful part of a working day. By the scheme of time upon which the plan was based, the fifth column should have been across the Marque at dawn; by six, or at latest by seven o’clock the French should have been compelled to fall back from Sainghin, and the combined fourth and fifth columns should have been upon their northward march for Mouveaux. It was not seven o’clock, it was between three and four o’clock by the time the Arch-Duke was well across the Marque and the French retired; but still, if the men of this fifth column had been machines, Kinsky was now free to effect his junction across the Bridge of Bouvines, and the combined force would have reached the neighbourhood of Mouveaux and Tourcoing by nightfall, or shortly after dark.

But the men of the fifth column were not machines, and at that hour of the mid-afternoon of Saturday they had come to the limits of physical endurance. It was impossible to ask further efforts of them, or, if those efforts were demanded, to hope for success. In the Arch-Duke’s column by far the greater part of the 17,000 or 18,000 men had been awake and working for thirty-six hours. All had been on foot for at least twenty-four; they had been actually marching for seventeen, and had been fighting hard at the end of the effort and after sixteen miles of road. There could be no question of further movement that day: they bivouacked just north of the river, near where the French had been before their retirement, and Kinsky, seeing no combined movement could be made that day, kept his men also bivouacked near the Bridge of Bouvines.

Thus it was that when night fell upon that Saturday the left wing of the advance from the Scheldt had failed. And that is why those watching from the head of the successful third column at Mouveaux and Roubaix, under the sunset of that evening, saw no reinforcement coming up the valley of the Marque, caught no sign of their thirty thousand comrades advancing from the south, and despaired of the morrow.

SUMMARY OF SITUATION ON THE SOUTH BY THE EVENING OF SATURDAY, MAY 17th.

If we take stock of the whole situation, so far as the advance of the five columns from the Scheldt was concerned, when darkness fell upon that Saturday we can appreciate the peril in which the second and third column under Otto and York lay.

The position which the plan had assigned to the four columns, second, third, fourth, and fifth, by noon of that Saturday (let alone by nightfall), is that marked upon the map by the middle four of the six oblongs in dotted lines marked B. Of these, the two positions on the right were filled, for the second and third columns had amply accomplished their mission. But the two on the left, so far from being filled, were missed by miles of space and hours of time. At mid-day, or a little after, when Kinsky and the Arch-Duke should have been occupying the second and third dotted oblong respectively, neither of them was as yet even across the Marque. Both were far away back at E, E: and these hopeless positions, E, E, right away behind the line of positions across the Courtrai-Lille road which the plan expected them to occupy by Saturday noon, Kinsky and the Arch-Duke pacifically maintained up to and including the night between Saturday and Sunday!

It is evident, therefore, that instead of all four columns of nearly sixty thousand men barring the road between Souham and Lille and effecting the isolation of the French “wedge” round Courtrai, a bare, unsupported twenty thousand found themselves that night alone: holding Roubaix, Tourcoing, Lannoy, Mouveaux, and thrust forward isolated in the midst of overwhelmingly superior and rapidly gathering numbers.

In such an isolation nothing could save Otto and York but the abandonment during the night of their advanced positions and a retreat upon the points near the Scheldt from which they had started twenty hours before.

The French forces round Lille were upon one side of them to the south and west, in number perhaps 20,000. On the other side of them, towards Courtrai, was the mass of Souham’s force which they had hoped to cut off, nearly 40,000 strong. Between these two great bodies of men, the 20,000 of Otto and York were in peril of destruction if the French awoke to the position before the retirement of the second and third columns was decided on.

It is here worthy of remark that the only real cause of peril was the absence of Kinsky and the Arch-Duke.

Certain historians have committed the strange error of blaming Bussche for what followed. Bussche, it will be remembered, had been driven out of Mouscron early in the day, and was holding on stubbornly enough, keeping up an engagement principally by cannonade with the French upon the line of Dottignies. It is obvious that from such a position he could be of no use to the isolated Otto and York five miles away. But on the other hand, he was not expected to be of any use. What could his 4000 have done to shield the 20,000 of Otto and York from those 40,000 French under Souham’s command? His business was to keep as many of the French as possible occupied away on the far north-east of the field, and that object he was fulfilling.

Finally, it may be asked why, in a posture so patently perilous, Otto and York clung to their advanced positions throughout the night? The answer is simple enough. If, even during the night, the fourth and fifth columns should appear, the battle was half won. If Clerfayt, of whom they had no news, but whom they rightly judged to be by this time across the Lys, were to arrive before the French began to close in, the battle would be not half won, but all won. Between 55,000 and 60,000 men would then be lying united across the line which joined the 40,000 of the enemy to the north with the 20,000 to the south. If such a junction were effected even at the eleventh hour, so long as it took place before the 20,000 French outside Lille and the 40,000 to the north moved upon them, the allies would have won a decisive action, and the surrender of all Souham’s command would have been the matter of a few hours. For a force cut in two is a force destroyed.

But the night passed without Clerfayt’s appearing, and before closing the story of that Saturday I must briefly tell why, though he had crossed the Lys in the afternoon, he failed to advance southward through the intervening five or six miles to Mouveaux.

CLERFAYT’S COLUMN.

Clerfayt had, in that extraordinary slow march of his, advanced by the Friday night, as I have said, no further than the great high road between Menin and Ypres. I further pointed out that though only three miles separated that point from Wervicq, yet those three miles meant, under the military circumstances of the moment, a loss of time equivalent to at least half a day.

We therefore left Clerfayt at Saturday’s dawn, as we left the Arch-Duke at the same time, far short of the starting-point which had been assigned to him.

Whereas the Arch-Duke, miles away over there to the south, had at least pushed on to the best of his ability through the night towards Pont-a-Marcq, Clerfayt did not push on by night to Wervicq as he should have done. He bivouacked with the heads of his columns no further than the Ypres road.

Nor did he even break up and proceed over the remaining three miles during the very earliest hours. For one reason or another (the point has never been cleared up) the morning was fairly well advanced when he set forth possibly because his units had got out of touch and straggling in the sandy country, or blocked by vehicles stuck fast. Whatever the cause may have been, he did not exchange shots with the French outposts at Wervicq until well after noon upon that Saturday the 17th of May.

When at last he had forced his way into the town (the great bulk of which lies north of the river), he found the bridge so well defended that he could not cross it, or, at any rate, that the carrying of it the chances of its being broken after the French should have retired and the business of bringing his great force across, with the narrow streets of the town to negotiate and the one narrow bridge, even if intact to use would put him upon the further bank at a hopelessly late hour. Therefore did he call for his pontoons in order to solve the difficulty by bridging the river somewhat lower down. The Lys is here but a narrow stream, and it would be easy, with the pontoons at his disposal, to pass his troops over rapidly upon a broader front, making, if necessary, two wide bridges. I say “with the pontoons at his disposal.” But by the time Clerfayt had taken this decision and had sent for the pontoons, he found that they were not there!

His section of pontoons had not kept abreast with the rest of the army, and their delay had not been notified to him. It was not until quite late in the day that they arrived; it was not until evening that the laying of the pontoons began, nor till midnight that he was passing the first of his troops over.

He did not get nor attempt to get the mass of his sixteen or seventeen thousand across in the darkness. He bivouacked the remainder upon the wrong side of the river and waited for the morrow.

So that Saturday ended, with Otto and York isolated at the central meeting-place round Tourcoing-Mouveaux, which they alone had reached; with the Arch-Duke Charles and Kinsky bivouacked miles away to the south on either side of the Bridge of Bouvines; and with Clerfayt still, as to the bulk of his force, on the wrong side of the Lys.

It was no wonder that the next day, Sunday, was to see the beginning of disaster.

SUNDAY, MAY THE 18TH, 1794.

I have said that, considering the isolated position in which York and Otto found themselves, with no more than perhaps 18,000 in the six positions of Leers, Wattrelos, and Tourcoing, Lannoy, Roubaix, and Mouveaux, the French had only to wake up to the situation, and Otto and York would be overwhelmed.

The French did wake up. How thoroughly taken by surprise they had been by the prompt and exact advance of Otto and York the day before, the reader has already been told. Throughout Saturday they remained in some confusion as to the intention of the enemy; and indeed it was not easy to grasp a movement which was at once of such great size, and whose very miscarriage rendered it the more baffling of comprehension. But by the evening of the day, Souham, calling a council of his generals at Menin, came to a decision as rapid as it was wise. Reynier, Moreau, and Macdonald, the generals of divisions that were under his orders, all took part in the brief discussion and the united resolve to which it led. “It was,” in the words of a contemporary, “one of those rare occasions in which the decision of several men in council has proved as effective as the decision of a single will.”

Of the troops which were, it will be remembered, dispersed to the north of the Lys, only one brigade was left upon the wrong side of the river to keep an eye on Clerfayt; all the rest were recalled across the stream and sent forward to take up positions north of Otto’s and Kinsky’s columns. Meanwhile the bulk of the French troops lying between Courtrai and Tourcoing were disposed in such fashion as to attack from the north and east, south and westward. Some 40,000 men all told were ready to close in with the first light from both sides upon the two isolated bodies of the allies. To complete their discomfiture, word was sent to Bonnaud and Osten, the generals of divisions who commanded the 20,000 about Lille, ordering them to march north and east, and to attack simultaneously with their comrades upon that third exposed side where York would receive the shock. In other words, the 18,000 or so distributed on the six points under Otto and York occupied an oblong the two long sides of which and the top were about to be attacked by close upon 60,000 men. The hour from which this general combined advance inwards upon the doomed commands of the allies was to begin was given identically to all the French generals. They were to break up at three in the morning. With such an early start, the sun would not have been long risen before the pressure upon Otto and York would begin.

When the sun rose, the head of Otto’s column upon the little height of Tourcoing saw to the north, to the north-east, and to the east, distant moving bodies, which were the columns of the French attack advancing from those quarters. As they came nearer, their numbers could be distinguished. A brigade was approaching them from the north and the Lys valley, descending the slopes of the hillock called Mont Halhuin. It was Macdonald’s. Another was on the march from Mouscron and the east. It was Compere’s. The General who was commanding for Otto in Tourcoing itself was Montfrault. He perceived the extremity of the danger and sent over to York for reinforcement. York spared him two Austrian battalions, but with reluctance, for he knew that the attack must soon develop upon his side also. In spite of the peril, in the vain hope that Clerfayt might yet appear, Mouveaux and Tourcoing were still held, and upon the latter position, between five and six o’clock in the morning, fell the first shots of the French advance. The resistance at Tourcoing could not last long against such odds, and Montfrault, after a gallant attempt to hold the town, yielded to a violent artillery attack and prepared to retreat. Slowly gathering his command into a great square, he began to move south-eastward along the road to Wattrelos. It was half-past eight when that beginning of defeat was acknowledged.

Meanwhile York, on his side, had begun to feel the pressure. Mouveaux was attacked from the north somewhat before seven o’clock in the morning, and, simultaneously with that attack, a portion of Bonnaud’s troops which had come up from the neighbourhood of Lille, was driving in York’s outposts to the west of Roubaix.

How, it may be asked, did the French, in order thus to advance from Lille, negotiate the passage of that little River Marque, which obstacle had proved so formidable a feature in the miscarriage of the great allied plan the day before? The answer is, unfortunately, easily forthcoming. York had left the bridges over the Marque unguarded. Why, we do not know. Whether from sheer inadvertence, or because he hoped that Kinsky had detached men for the purpose, for one reason or another he had left those passages free, and, by the bridge of Hempempont against Lannoy, by that of Breuck against Roubaix, Bonnaud’s and Osten’s men poured over.

As at Tourcoing, so at Mouveaux, a desperate attempt was made to hold the position. Indeed it was clung to far too late, but the straits to which Mouveaux was reduced at least afforded an opportunity for something of which the British service should not be unmindful. Immediately between Roubaix and the River Marque, Fox, with the English battalions of the line, was desperately trying to hold the flank and to withstand the pressure of the French, who were coming across the river more than twice his superiors in number. He was supported by a couple of Austrian battalions, and the two services dispute as to which half of this defending force was first broken. But the dispute is idle. No troops could have stood the pressure, and at any rate the defence broke down with this result: that the British troops holding Mouveaux, Abercrombie’s Dragoons, and the Brigade of Guards, were cut off from their comrades in Roubaix. Meanwhile, Tourcoing having been carried and the Austrians driven out from thence, the eastern and western forces of the French had come into touch in the depression between Mouveaux and Roubaix, and it seemed as though the surrender or destruction of that force was imminent. Abercrombie saved it. A narrow gap appeared between certain forces of the French, eastward of the position at Mouveaux, and leaving a way open round to Roubaix. He took advantage of it and won through: the Guards keeping a perfect order, the rear defended by the mobility and daring of the Dragoons. The village of Roubaix, in those days, consisted in the main of one long straight street, though what is now the great town had already then so far increased in size as to have suburbs upon the north and south. The skirmishers of the French were in these suburbs. (Fox’s flank command had long ago retired, keeping its order, however, and making across country as best it could for Lannoy.) It was about half-past nine when Abercrombie’s force, which had been saved by so astonishing a mixture of chance, skill, coolness, and daring, filed into the long street of Roubaix. The Guards and the guns went through the passage in perfect formation in spite of the shots dropping from the suburbs, which were already beginning to harass the cavalry behind them. Immediately to their rear was the Austrian horse, while, last of all, defending the retreat, the English Dragoons were just entering the village. In the centre of this long street a market-place opened out. The Austrian cavalry, arrived at it, took advantage of the room afforded them; they doubled and quadrupled their files until they formed a fairly compact body, almost filling the square. It was precisely at this moment that the French advance upon the eastern side of the village brought a gun to bear down the long straight street and road, which led from the market square to Wattrelos. The moment it opened fire, the Austrians, after a vain attempt to find cover, pressed into the side streets down the market-place, fell into confusion. There is no question here of praise or blame: a great body of horsemen, huddled in a narrow space, suddenly pounded by artillery, necessarily became in a moment a mass of hopeless confusion. The body galloped in panic out of the village, swerved round the sharp corner into the narrower road (where the French had closed in so nearly that there was some bayonet work), and then came full tilt against the British guns, which lay blocking the way because the drivers had dismounted or cut the traces and fled. In the midst of this intolerable confusion a second gun was brought to bear by the French, and the whole mob of ridden and riderless horses, some dragging limbers, some pack-horses charged, many more the dispersed and maddened fragments of the cavalry, broke into the Guards, who had still kept their formation and were leading what had been but a few moments before an orderly retreat.

It is at this point, I think, that the merit of this famous brigade and its right to regard the disaster not with humiliation but with pride, is best established. For that upon which soldiers chiefly look is the power of a regiment to reform. The Guards, thus broken up under conditions which made formation for the moment impossible, and would have excused the destruction of any other force, cleared themselves of the welter, recovered their formation, held the road, permitted the British cavalry to collect itself and once more form a rearguard, and the retreat upon Lannoy was resumed by this fragment of York’s command in good order: in good order, although it was subjected to heavy and increasing fire upon either side.

It was a great feat of arms.

As for the Duke of York, he was not present with his men. He had ridden off with a small escort of cavalry to see whether it might not be possible to obtain some reinforcement from Otto, but the French were everywhere in those fields. He found himself with a squadron, with a handful, and at last alone, until, a conspicuous figure with the Star of the Garter still pinned to his coat, he was chivied hither and thither across country, followed and flanked by the sniping shots of the French skirmishers in thicket and hedge; after that brief but exceedingly troubled ride, Providence discovered him a brook and a bridge still held by some of Otto’s Hessians. He crossed it, and was in safety.

His retreating men those of them that remained, and notably the remnant of the Dragoons and the Guards were still in order as they approached Lannoy. They believed, or hoped, that that village was still in possession of the Hessians whom York had left there. But the French attack had been ubiquitous that morning. It had struck simultaneously upon all the flanks. At Roubaix as at Mouveaux, at Lannoy as at Roubaix, and the Guards and the Dragoons within musket shot of Lannoy discovered it, in the most convincing fashion, to be in the hands of the enemy. After that check order and formation were lost, and the remaining fragment of the Austrian and British who had marched out from Templeuve the day before 10,000 strong, hurried, dispersed over the open field, crossed what is now the Belgian border, and made their way back to camp.

Thus was destroyed the third column, which, of all portions of the allied army, had fought hardest, had most faithfully executed its orders, had longest preserved discipline during a terrible retreat and against overwhelming numbers: it was to that discipline that the Guards in particular owed the saving from the wreck of so considerable a portion of their body. Of their whole brigade just under 200 were lost, killed, wounded or taken prisoners. The total loss of the British was not quite five times this just under 1000, but of their guns, twenty-eight in number, nineteen were left in the hands of the enemy.

There is no need to recount in detail the fate of Otto’s column. As it had advanced parallel in direction and success to the Duke of York’s, it suffered a similar and parallel misfortune. As the English had found Lannoy occupied upon their line of retreat, so Otto’s column had found Wattrelos. As the English column had broken at Lannoy, so the Austrian at Leers. And the second column came drifting back dispersed to camp, precisely as the third had done. When the fragments were mustered and the defeat acknowledged, it was about three o’clock in the afternoon.

For the rest of the allied army there is no tale to tell, save with regard to Clerfayt’s command; the fourth and the fifth columns, miles away behind the scene of the disaster, did not come into action. Long before they could have broken up after the breakdown through exhaustion of the day before, the French were over the Marque and between them and York. When a move was made at noon, it was not to relieve the second and third columns, for that was impossible, though, perhaps, if they had marched earlier, the pressure they would have brought to bear upon Bonnaud’s men might have done something to lessen the disaster. It is doubtful, for the Marque stood in between and the French did not leave it unguarded.

Bussche, true to his conduct of the day before, held his positions all day and maintained his cannonade with the enemy. It is true that there was no severe pressure upon him, but still he held his own even when the rout upon his left might have tempted him to withdraw his little force.

As for Clerfayt, he had not all his men across the Lys until that very hour of seven in the morning when York at Mouveaux was beginning to suffer the intolerable pressure of the French, and Otto’s men at Tourcoing were in a similar plight.

By the time he had got all his men over, he found Vandamme holding positions, hastily prepared but sufficiently well chosen, and blocking his way to the south. With a defensive thus organised, though only half as strong as the attack, Vandamme was capable of a prolonged resistance; and while it was in progress, reinforcements, summoned from the northern parts of the French line beyond Lille, had had time to appear towards the west. He must have heard from eight o’clock till noon the fire of his retreating comrades falling back in their disastrous retreat, and, rightly judging that he would have after mid-day the whole French army to face, he withdrew to the river, and had the luck to cross it the next day without loss: a thing that the French now free from the enemy to the south should never have permitted.

So ended the Battle of Tourcoing, an action which, for the interest of its scheme, for the weight of its results, and, above all, for the fine display of courage and endurance which British troops showed under conditions that should normally have meant annihilation, deserves a much wider fame in this country than it has obtained.