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  • James Houser

May 11, 1745 - The Battle of Fontenoy & Enlightenment Warfare

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 11, 1745. A long red line of British troops approach a French position in the heat of a spring battle. Their officers step forward and begin to argue over who shoots first. Welcome to the Battle of Fontenoy and war in the Age of the Enlightenment, where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.


This is the part where I usually give background to the battle, but today the background will be minimal. Today I’m gonna talk about that prickly beast *culture.*

War is a cultural activity. When societies form armies, concoct ways of fighting, and go to war, they bring their cultural biases with them. This is as true in modern times as it was in the past; one only has to look at the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to see two different cultures of war colliding, with each misunderstanding the other. Culture is an inherently squishy subject of discussion, and so it’s often less popular with military buffs, soldiers, and STEM-minded historians than “harder” subjects like tactics, technology, equipment or “rules” of war.


Culture is so dominant in all fields of war, though, that it cannot be separated from military history. Societies do not just conduct war in the most efficient, most logical or most rational method. Humans are not robots. Generally, what actually happens is that societies form a concept of ideal war – a “frame” - and struggle to make reality fit it. For example, the United States’ “frame” of war is basically an idealized concept of World War II: a platoon of misfit soldiers, overwhelming firepower and air power, good guys on a mission to liberate a clear and evil enemy. Ever since 1945, we have struggled to make that frame fit whatever conflict we were fighting, often with mixed or outright damaging results.


The United States’ modern “frame” of war doesn’t just spring from our experiences, it springs from our beliefs. We are a society that believes in individualism, the economic greatness and might of American industrial power, and the ultimate righteousness of our ideas of democracy and liberalism. This, combined with the blatant World War II mythmaking, has resulted in our society constructing a cultural frame of war that is often dissonant with reality.


With that in mind, let’s rewind. The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745. The war is the War of the Austrian Succession, another of the seemingly unending series of European wars from 1660 to 1763 fought over dynastic rights, inheritance, figuring out which inbred monster gets to sit on the shiny chair of some random slice of land, you know the drill.


The important thing is that the British and their allies marched to Fontenoy, in modern Belgium, led by William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland – the same Cumberland that would smash Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders at Culloden the next year. The French, led by Maurice de Saxe, had dug in and prepared for the British assault. On May 11, 1745, these armies collided.


What did these armies look like, 275 years ago, in the age before the American Revolution? You may be able to see it in your head: men with tricorn hats, bright and fancy uniforms, carrying long muskets with sharp bayonets. They march across the field in long lines, three or four deep, with iron discipline as cannonballs and musket fire claw away great chunks of their formation. Their officer stands in front of them, probably in a powdered wig, waving a sword. As they stop, he withdraws into the ranks, and at a series of commands, they level their muskets and fire.


What may not be as familiar are the sieges. Frontier cities were built into great fortresses, with geometrically complex spires and bastions arranged like an old Windows screensaver around the hills, rivers, and valleys of whatever poor city has become the newest valuable piece of real estate. These sieges had an order and ceremony almost their own; like a slow game of living chess, the men surrounding the fort would dig their way forward until a certain amount of time had passed or they got too close. Then a white flag would go up, and usually the fortress’s garrison would be allowed to leave with all hands, including its weapons.


These armies were made up of the two extremities of European social class. Their officers were almost all nobility, even the lowest ensigns and lieutenants; their enlisted men were almost all commoners. This was by design. The long ages of mercenary warfare had left Europe profoundly mistrustful of professional soldiers, while the Middle Ages had shown the dangers of unrestrained nobility with too much time on their hands. The culture of Europe had assembled a ready-made solution: bind the nobility to the army. This kept them out of trouble, and kept the soldiers under control.


The 1680s and 1690s saw the real flowering of this ideal, along with the Age of the Enlightenment. Bacon’s and Newton’s ideas helped kick-start the Scientific Revolution, while the growth of both literature and music created a new kind of nobility. While they were still expected to fight, the European upper class was now also expected to be enlightened. In the Age of the Enlightenment, intelligence, rationality and order were in vogue, and men of the era sought to classify, organize and rationalize all aspects of life. This cultural change was reflected in the way they fought wars.


Warfare had become a gentleman’s pastime, something that the nobility of any country were expected to participate in en masse. Advances in technology prevented the nobility from donning armor and riding around like knights of old, but their new Enlightened outlook found expression in the manner they fought. The perfect geometric lines of the fortress were not merely utilitarian, and often they didn’t make sense as part of a defensive position, but they were definitely appealing to the mathematician or the rational viewer. It made less military sense, but more cultural sense, for a perfect octagon to surround a city that sat on a river.


In the same way, the famous line formations of the era reflected both cultural and social bias. Subsequent wars of the 1700s would demonstrate that properly trained and motivated light infantry in a loose formation were superior to the perfectly straight lines of the Enlightenment army. This didn’t happen for four reasons – two good, one questionable and one bad. The good reasons were that the shock effect of the massed infantry volley was devastating as both a physical and psychological weapon, and that infantry had to stay massed up for a cavalry charge.


The less good reason was that European nobility believed that the poor, uneducated country peasant, criminal or beggar who found himself in the army was unable to think for himself and needed the strong hand of the officer – along with truly brutal discipline, including the lash, torture or the firing squad – to keep him in line. Light infantry tactics were considered beyond the unenlightened peasant; he had to be kept in line and turned into something like a robot to be an effective fighting instrument. While it is true that the Enlightenment commoner was uneducated and liable to run away if he had a chance, that didn’t mean he was stupid or couldn’t fight. As the Europeans would learn to their surprise in the French Revolution, the lower classes could be a juggernaut if properly motivated.


The bad reason…or, to put it better, the cultural reason…was that long, straight lines suited the Enlightenment aesthetic. They restored order and rationality to an inherently disordered and irrational activity – war. The European gentleman of the Enlightenment era saw war, like he saw everything else, as a scientific construction, something that could be controlled, measured, synchronized, balanced, and weighted. Military professionals considered war something like a geometric activity, with carefully parsed maxims and rules to be followed. The carefully ordered infantry line was far superior to the silly mess of a pack of riflemen, the straight lines of a fortress triumphed over the loathsome of chaos of mere terrain and lines of elevation, and the genteel nobles obviously could not cede control of a battle to the gutter rats of London or Vienna.


The idea of war as a duty of nobles, along with the need to place their frame on combat, even found its expression outside of war in the development of duelling. War was the commonly accepted way for a European nobleman to demonstrate his masculinity; when that male nature was threatened by some slight or insult, the duel was the result. As nobles were expected to risk their lives in war as a means of showing their devotion to honor and duty, so too were they expected to restore their honor (if challenged) in a duel. Most duels never even came to blood, as both sides typically fired into the air or exchanged showy flurries of sword-batting as a means of gaining “satisfaction” – satisfying their honor by demonstrating a willingness to face mortality. This was a sort of “diet war” for the nobles – when there wasn’t a battle around, this was the next best thing.


The noble officer, if he commanded a regiment, sought to make it as uniform and showy as possible as a way of demonstrating his martial vigor. Ever wonder why all those old armies wore those crazy, useless uniforms? This is why. The spectacle, for European noblemen, was almost more important than the actual outcome of the battle. What did it matter to them who won or lost, how the soldiers felt, what actually came of a campaign as long as their honor and prestige were satisfied? (I exaggerate. It mattered to some, of course, but this was a prevailing feeling.)


Which brings us to Fontenoy.


The Grenadier Guards of the British Army climbed the slope towards Marshal Saxe’s French position, pausing every now and then under heavy fire to dress their lines back into the perfectly ordered ranks dictated by current military practice. At their head was Lord Charles Hay, grandson of a Scottish Duke and a sitting Member of Parliament. The Guards were one of the King’s regiments, full of noble officers of exceptional peerage and grooming.

As Hay’s Guards ascended the hill, they found themselves facing down the Gardes Francaises, an infantry regiment of the King’s Military Household, the Maison du Roi. The two regiments, among the best and most showy of their nation, stared one another down for a second.


Hay stepped out of the ranks and marched towards the French lines, even as the battle raged around the two silent regiments. A French officer emerged and marched out as well. Hay offered the French the opportunity to fire first, whereupon the French officer replied that the Maison never fired first. Hay shrugged and, by his own account, offered a toast to the health of the French. Even as their regiments sat perfectly still behind them, the two officers drank. Then Hay let slip a taunt about the Maison’s previous behavior at Dettingen, two years before. The French officer replied coolly that, on that note, he would fire first.


Both sides knew that firing first was actually a detriment. The first volley was always wild, and as they reloaded their muskets for a second shot, the other side would approach closer and fire a much more devastating volley. But the French officer had been called out. Honor had to be satisfied. What mattered less than the outcome of the fight was the personal satisfaction of a well-ordered, “rational,” and honorable engagement. The British and French threw away common sense to make the fight fit their frame of war.


So the French fired first. Their volley went wild. Then Hay led his Grenadier Guards forward, as the French tried desperately to reload, and at about twenty paces the Guards loosed a volley that shattered the French lines. Hay himself was severely wounded in the fight, since he was standing right in front of the line, drinking his canteen of whiskey.


The French won the Battle of Fontenoy, the battle of the Guards notwithstanding. To many men on either side, though, who won or lost was less important than *how* the battle was fought. It seems strange and foolish to us, because we are not them. But we have our own cultural biases, our own blinkered beliefs, that shape the way we see the world. We have our own preconceptions that we don’t even notice. We have no word for the way we see things, just as fish have no word for water. To us, these people may seem foolish. I would urge you to stop and ponder: what do we do now that people will find bizarre and appalling, 300 years down the road?


Don’t judge the past too harshly; we’ll all be part of it someday.


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