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The Bulletin at 60: From the archive (2004): The battle for Fontenoy
The tiny village in Hainaut slumbers in the morning sun. Once a great battle was fought in Fontenoy. Thousands of soldiers died here on 11 May 1745. Some of the words they exchanged on the battlefield have lived on through the years, though the war that they fought has largely been forgotten. These days, it’s the forces of industry instead of columns of soldiers that are advancing over the battlefield of Fontenoy. In the 1970s an extension to the Tournai–Lille motorway was built across it. In 1992 a sugar refinery took and held a position, while a high-speed rail link wiped out more of the site. The following year, battalions of stone quarries began to march steadily forward, leaving deep scars in the land. Now a vast public crematorium is to be built over the heart of the battlefield—and the mass graves of more than 1,000 soldiers.
For Alain Tripnaux it’s a tragedy. The soft-spoken history teacher at a school in nearby Dour has devoted his life to studying the Battle of Fontenoy and, along with Le Tricorne, the military history association he helped found, fighting to preserve the place where it was fought. The battle was a key moment in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), when France and Prussia wrangled with Britain and the Netherlands over who would succeed Charles VI of Austria. The French had been steadily pushing into the lowlands and were laying siege to Tournai with 90,000 troops led by the brilliant military commander Marshal Maurice de Saxe, under the watchful eye of the French king, Louis XV. As Tournai was being defended by just a small band of Dutch troops, the allied army (British, Hanoverian, Dutch and Austrian), headed by the 24-year-old duke of Cumberland, was sent to relieve it. Hearing of its advance, de Saxe chose Fontenoy, 8km south-east of Tournai, to meet their charge.
Tripnaux and I visit the battlefields on a gusty August morning. He points out the French positions, hurriedly claimed a few days before the battle, and the redoubts that de Saxe built — one of which can still be made out underneath tufts of grass in a nondescript field. In the early morning of 11 May, the allied forces began attacking the French lines, only to be driven back by musket and cannon fire. After several hours, seeing a weakness in the French position, the duke of Cumberland sent 15,000 troops in a three-sided square formation (known ever since as the ‘Fontenoy column’) into the French front line. In the shadow of the sugar refinery and next to a small cemetery is the patch of weeds and wild flowers where the two armies met face to face. Famously, British officer Lord Hay galloped forward and proposed a toast to the French. A French officer responded, “Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers! ” (Some reports have the British inviting the French to fire first).
As Tripnaux drives me to the armies’ various positions, the battle begins to come alive for me and I can see how much the British troops achieved. The Dutch were sitting ducks on a piece of low ground and couldn’t help at all, while the French had undermined their far superior positions by failing to secure a certain crossroads — which still exists today. Believing that victory was at hand, the British pressed on.
But Marshal de Saxe had a trick up his sleeve. Hiding near the wood of Barri, of which just a few trees flanking the motorway remain, were the Irish Brigade, around 4,000 men in five regiments. These were the Wild Geese, exiled from Ireland after the Treaty of Limerick. The mercenaries fought for the Catholic monarchs of the day, most notably for the French king. With Lord Clare at their helm, and a battlecry of ‘Remember Limerick!’, they attacked the British and turned the tide of battle, bringing victory to the French. The quiet of the summer morning seems to echo the ringing silence that follows deafening noise — shots ringing out, cannon fire, horses galloping, men screaming in agony. At least 5,000 soldiers lost their lives on one day in these small fields.
Gazing at them now, the grass tinged with brown after the hot summer, Tripnaux says: “The battlefield of Fontenoy is a victim of blindness. People don’t understand, they don’t see that in the landscape there are traces of history.” Aerial photographs show the ranks of mass graves in the land—long dark plots where earth was removed and bodies stacked three or four deep. When Louis XV surveyed Fontenoy’s fields, moaning with the weight of the wounded and dying, he said: “See how much blood a triumph costs. The blood of our enemies is still the blood of men. The true glory is to save it.” In 1968, the French army put up a memorial in another church, in the neighbouring town of Vezon, bearing this quotation.
While the inclines and hollows of the land tell the tale of the battle, they also hold the stories of the men who fought and died in it. Tripnaux shows me teeth that have been found in the fields — from which it is possible to detect the exact state of malnutrition the soldiers were in. Handfuls of round, heavy bullets have been picked up from the fields. And small pieces of leather, cloth and buckles were found in a recently discovered grave of 12 British soldiers. The bodies were stripped before being buried; the material we are holding had been pushed into their bodies by the force of the artillery fire that killed them.
Tripnaux also shows me a button from the uniform of a musketeer. Only slightly rusted, you can see the cross and flames engraved on it. More than 250 years ago, a musketeer dropped this or had it torn off while defending the king of France. Suddenly the breeze seems full of voices whispering to us from the past. “I think this is a very emotional place, the centre of the battle,” says Tripnaux. “The Irish Brigade spent the night here. You can imagine the bodies strewn all around.”
His attempts to have the site listed having failed, and the building of the crematorium starting soon, he would like at least to have a memorial to the battle put up here. “Memorials are anchors of time,” he says, “even if the landscape is changing.” This quiet spot is not Waterloo. There are no annual re-enactments, no museums. Hordes of tourists have never descended on this tiny town. Just 30 or 40 people turn up to mark the anniversary of the battle each year. “Napoleon inspires more devotion,” explains Tripnaux, “and though it was a great victory for them, the French are more interested in what happened after the Revolution.”
The defeat of the British and Dutch troops makes it perhaps unlikely that they would want to preserve these green fields. So the place may mean most to the Irish. Fontenoy was a potent symbol of Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century. It is celebrated in poems and songs. In Thomas Davis’s Fontenoy are the lines:
“On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun,
With bloody plumes the Irish stand, the field is fought and won.”
There’s even a Fontenoy Street in Dublin—where James Joyce once lived at no. 44. In the centre of the Belgian village, a Celtic cross remembers the Wild Geese’s contribution to the French victory. In 1995 the Irish and Belgian post offices issued a joint stamp featuring the Celtic cross and soldiers of the Irish Brigade to commemorate the battle’s 250th anniversary.
Another plaque, hanging on the cemetery walls and donated by an Irish-American from San Francisco, is also dedicated to the Irish Brigade. But local people too are well aware of their town’s history. “It is kind of an honour for them,” says Tripnaux. At almost every turn in the village there is a porthole to the past: the trough where the local parish priest collected water for the wounded; the narrow street that Britain’s Black Watch regiment sneaked up to attack the French; a farm that was there at the time of the battle, brick built over the original stone. In the church a French officer is buried in front of the altar, and legend has it that the church’s statues of Mary and Jesus were given to the villagers by the king of France in gratitude. In 2000, Tripnaux brought the heart of Marshal de Saxe to the church from Strasbourg for a brief visit. “It was the only time he ever came back to Fontenoy,” he says proudly.
The local watering hole is called the Café des Irlandais. When we pop in for a drink, the fact that I’m Irish causes a stir among the hefty men throwing back a few mid-morning beers. Despite all this, though, the heart of the battlefield is about to disappear. Guy Demeulemeester, director-general of the local authority that administers Tournai and its surrounds, confirms that it will go. ‘The Fontenoy site has been chosen for the crematorium, and it will be built in 2004, taking up a hectare of ground’, he says. ‘We need this project for the entire region.’ Before any work begins, he says, archaeologists will be brought in to excavate the mass graves.
Small comfort for Tripnaux: “Perhaps there will be a great discovery here,” he says, “and there is talk of putting all the remains together in a mausoleum.” His plans to mark the battle’s 260th anniversary in 2005 will go ahead, and he has contacted British regiments to discuss putting up a plaque to their soldiers in the town. In ways, Tripnaux knew this was a battle he could never win. There is no Irish Brigade to save the day now. The more pressing concerns of industry and the recent dead must come before the sleeping ranks of the fallen soldiers of Fontenoy.
This article was first published in The Bulletin in 2004.
Photos: Battle of Fontenoy 1745, Wikipedia Commons