Battle of Hondschoote, 8 September 1793

The battle of Hondschoote (8 September 1793) was a victory for the new mass armies of the French Republic, and forced an Allied army under the Duke of York to abandon the siege of Dunkirk.

The army besieging Dunkirk had been split into two parts. The Duke of York had command of the largest part of the army, which conducted the siege, while the Hanoverian General Heinrich Wilhelm von Freytag commanded 14,500 men in a covering force. By 24 August Freytag had distributed this covering force along a 21 mile front, from Ypres in the east to Bergues in the west, with the final outposts at Coudekerque, just to the south of the town. This cordon protected the Duke of York's main army, but left Dunkirk open from the west, while the lack of a British naval squadron meant that the French were always able to get supplies into the town.

The Allied attack on Dunkirk came just after Lazare Carnot had joined the Committee of Public Safety, effectively as Minister of War. Carnot decided to concentrate his efforts against the Allied army attacking Dunkirk, rather than the Austrians then besieging Le Quesnoy. The new French commander in the north, General Houchard, thus had around 40,000 men, a slightly larger army than was available to the Duke of York and Freytag. Many of Houchard's men were utterly inexperienced, but the Allied army was very widely spread, and the French were able to break the siege without ever coming up against the main body of the army.

Houchard made his first move on 6 September, attacking the Allied posts at Wornhoudt, Herzeel, Houtkerke, Poperinghe, Proven and Rousbrugge with five columns. The Allied troops at the western end of the line held out, despite being very heavily outnumbered, but the French broke through at the eastern end of the line, and soon reached Rexpoëde. Freytag was forced to retreat towards Hondschoote, and ordered General Wallmoden to fall back from his position at Bergues. Freytag was captured on his way back to Hondschoote, before being rescued by Wallmoden's men, but was wounded in the fighting. Wallmoden took command, and formed up his men in a new line to the south of Hondschoote.

The next French attack came on 8 September. Houchard led 20 battalions against the centre of the Allied position, while General Leclerc attacked on the left (west) and Generals Colland and Hédouville attacked around Leisele, at the eastern end of the Allied line. The attack was not well coordinated. Houchard soon lost control of his men, and even called off the attack at one point, but the battle was won by a combination of new French tactics and their superior numbers. The enthusiastic French troops launched repeated attacks en-masse, which frequently resulted in hand-to-hand combat, while the battle also saw one of the first appearances of the swarms of skirmishers who became a feature of later French armies. Taking advantage of the hedges and shrubs that covered the area in front of the Allied lines, they kept the Allied troops under a constant harassing fire, which slowly wore down their resolve.

Finally, after around four hours of fighting, and after the Allied infantry had lost around a third of its original strength, Wallmoden was forced to order the retreat. The remains of the army pulled back to Furnes, to the east. The loss of his covering army forced the Duke of York to abandon the siege of Dunkirk, and by 10 am on 9 September the Allied army had reunited.

Houchard went on to win a second victory, this time over the Dutch at Menin (13 September), but he was then defeated by an Austrian counterattack at from Courtai (15 September). After this setback he was dismissed, arrested and eventually executed.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 January 2009), Battle of Hondschoote, 8 September 1793 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_hondschoote.html

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