By smacdowall, Sep 17 2018 09:24PM
With a view to re-fighting Malplaquet next Spring, Dave Allen and I visited the actual battlefield a few weeks back — as close to the actual day of the battle (11 September) as we could manage. We wanted to understand what the ground was like, how the troops deployed and what they could see, in order to represent it accurately for the wargame.
Straddling the French-Belgian border just south of Mons the battlefield is easily accessible. The starting point is a monument standing just in front of the centre of the French lines a few metres south of the Belgian border.
There are some excellent orientation maps around the monument which give good detail of the units involved along with their deployment and movements. The French side of the battlefield benefits from a signed walking tour which can be followed with the aid of a most helpful app. This gives information and maps in English as well as French.
One thing that struck us was the very limited visibility. Although there are no significant hills, the gently rolling terrain generally limits visibility to less than 200 yards. The main French infantry lines were on a slight reverse slope with the result that troops on the opposing sides would have been unlikely to see each other until within less than 100 yards of each other.
The woods which formed the flanks of the gap which the French defended are still there. The Bois de Sars to the west still has the same outline as it did back in 1709. It is hard to imagine just how the tens of thousands of allied troops managed to attack through them to emerge on the other side.
There are no traces of the French redans or entrenchments but their locations are reasonable well marked and by walking along their lines it is possible to get a sense of what it must have been like.
Many accounts of the battle say that Marlborough’s grand battery of 40 guns first fired into the Bois de Sars to support Lottum’s attack. Then they switched their fire to engage the French cavalry that could be seen on a slope behind the French foot, hidden by their reverse slope position. Although we tramped over all the possible locations for this battery there are no good fields of fire to substantiate this. The maps by the monument suggest another battery of 10 guns and 3 howitzers well forward of the allied centre and indicate that is was probably indirect fire from this battery which inflicted casualties on the French horse to the rear.
The small church in Malplaquet has a memorial to the French officers killed (Lieutenant Colonels and above).
The church was there in 1709 and although it has since been re-built it was done so in a way to closely resemble the original.
Blairon farm forward of the French lines forms an obstacle we had not appreciated. It is not so much the farm itself as the deep north-south running stream that runs through it. This, and the now much depleted Bois Thierry to the north, break up the allied line of advance. Once committed beyond this point it would have been pretty well impossible to move troops from the allied left (east) to the centre or visa versa.
Scattered around the battlefield are several monuments as can be seen in the following photos:
Did you make any effort to elevate yourselves to the height of a well mounted office? I'v hear that lift of 5 feet or so can greatly extend visibility in rolling ground.
(The closest I've come to trying this is from the porch of my house. The hill across the road has a dip just before the woods, just deep enough to hide a deer or person if you stand on the driveway but from the 3ft high deck you can sometimes see their head. (The deer here are irregular and don't come with standards or mounted officers))
There were unfortunately few horses available. However the steps of the monument gave some elevation and still the visibility was pretty poor. I imagine the French foot in their trenches would not have been able to see anything much beyond 50 yards even if the officers could
Well its probably as well that the rank and file don't see the enemy until they can shoot. I was thinking in terms of the officers being able to get some idea of what was coming and being ready for it.
Yes that little bit of extra height would make quite a difference
Interesting post, thank you. I'd be keen to know if you manage to put together a good Order of Battle for Malplaquet as this seems to be difficult to pin down.
Thank you Phil. I am working on the orbats. As you say they are a bit tricky to pin down but I am getting there. More or less worked out the French foot now but still work to do on the other bits. Cheers, Simon