The Austrian Army
The French Army
The French Plan
The battle of Jemappes, 6 November 1792, was the first major offensive battlefield victory for the armies of the infant French Republic, and saw the French Armée du Nord, containing a large number of new volunteer soldiers, defeat a regular Austrian army and capture Brussels.
In the summer of 1792 Charles Dumouriez, the French foreign minister and soon commander of the Armée du Nord, had believed that the best way to prevent an Austrian and Prussian invasion of France was to invade the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), but the Allies had launched their invasion before Dumouriez was ready to move, and he had been forced to move south to face them. The Allied invasion had been defeated at Valmy on 20 September, where the French army had stood up to an artillery bombardment, and proved that it would not flee at the first sign of opposition. The Allied commander, the Duke of Brunswick, had been unwilling to risk a full scale attack on the French line, and after spending ten days facing the French retreated out of France.
This left Dumouriez free to move north, first to raise the siege of Lille (25 September-7 October 1792), and then to launch his long planned invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. His original plan, for a three pronged invasion, had to be altered when the promised resources failed to reach him, and instead at the end of October he concentrated most of his men in front of Valenciennes, and marched towards Mons, and the road to Brussels.
The Austrian Army
The Austrian army was commanded by Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, the governor of the Austrian Netherlands. Although he had well over 20,000 soldiers available to him, they were scattered along a long defensive line, and so at Jemappes he fought with 11,600 infantry, 2,170 cavalry and 56 guns. With this force he attempted to defend the five mile long Cuesmes ridge, running from Mons on the Austrian left to Jemappes on the right.
The Austrian right was commandeered by Franz Freiherr von Lilien, the centre by the able general Franz Sebastian de Croix Graf Clerfayt and the left by Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu. Lilien had seven companies in Jemappes and four infantry battalions and three cavalry squadrons to their left. Clerfayt had three battalions of infantry and four squadrons of cavalry in front of the village of Cuesmes, and Beaulieu had three battalions of infantry on the hills south of Bertaimont, with five companies of infantry and a squadron of cavalry guarding his left. Two more companies were further left, at Mont Palisel, and an infantry battalion was at Mons.
The Austrian position backed onto the marshland around the Trouille and Haine rivers, an area that was crossed by two causeways. The only other route available for a retreat was via Mons.
The French Army
Dumouriez had twice as many men as the Austrians. His own Armée du Nord contained 32,000 infantry, 3,800 cavalry and 100 guns, and was supported at Jemappes by another 4,000 men and 15 guns under General François Harville. Dumouriez's infantry included thirteen battalions of Volunteers of 1792, while most of Harville's men were also volunteers, but most of the senior commanders were either experienced soldiers or aristocrats.
The most obvious example of this was the commander of the French centre, then going by the name of General Egalité, but actually the duc de Chartres, and the future King Louis-Philippe of France. The right wing was commanded by General Pierre de Riel, marquis de Beurnonville and the left by General Marie Louis Ferrand de la Caussade. Harville was to reinforce the right.
The French Plan
Dumouriex planned to use his numbers to outflank the Austrian position. Harville and Beurnonville were to attack first, and surround the weak Austrian left. Ferrand would then capture Quaregnon, in front of Jemmapes. Beurnonville would then move left to attack the Austrian centre, while Harville captured Mont Palisel in order to cut off the Austrian retreat.
The French attack began with an artillery bombardment, just after dawn on 6 November. This was followed by the attacks on the flanks, neither of which made as much progress as expected. On the French right Harville failed to capture the village of Ciply, and the Austrians held their position at Bertaimont. On the left Ferrand's men captured Quaregnon, but didn't immediately attack Jemappes. The Austrians still held most of their original position, but Clerfayt had been forced to reinforce their right wing, weakening the centre of the line.
At noon Dumouriez launched a general attack along most of the line. Ferrand was ordered to attack Jemappes, while the French right and centre both attacked the centre of the Austrian line. At this point the French were still attempting to fight in a conventional manner, advancing in column before deploying into lines to carry out the actual attack. Eight battalions from Beurnonville's wing attacked the Austrian line in this manner, and captured a number of guns before they were put to flight by an Austrian cavalry attack.
The retreating French troops were rallied by their commanders (Dumouriez claimed to have been personally responsible for this, although after his desertion to the Austrians in the following year his role was downplayed in France). At the same time General Egalité formed his infantry into a massive column, and launched an attack with captured the central part of the Cuesmes ridge.
The French also met with success around Jemappes, where some of their troops had managed to cross the Haine to attack the Austrian position from the rear. The entire Austrian right was soon forced to retreat across the Trouille towards Mons, followed by the troops in the centre, who had been unable to dislodge the French from the Cuesmes ridge. The only part of the Austrian line which held was their left, which remained in place for long enough to cover the retreat, and then withdrew. The French left and centre were by now too tired to mount a proper pursuit, while Harville on the right remained inactive, allowing the Austrian army to escape.
On the face of it Jemappes was not an impressive French victory. The Austrians had suffered 828 casualties, and had lost another 413 men taken captive, while the French had lost 2,000 men, and had been unable to prevent the escape of a much smaller army defending a dangerous position. However, in the context of 1792, with much of the French army in chaos, with many of the officers in exile and most of the rest not trusted by their men, it was a major achievement. At Valmy the French army had avoided defeat, and by doing so forced the Allies to evacuate France, but at Jemappes the increasingly revolutionary French army had actually beaten an army of Austrian regulars and forced them from the field. The victory at Jemappes greatly increased the confidence of the Revolutionary government in Paris, and encouraged its tendency towards aggressive warfare.
In the short term Jemappes gave the French control of the Austrian Netherlands. Mons opened its gates to Dumouriez, who remained there until 12 November. He then advanced towards Brussels, fighting a rearguard action at Anderlecht on 13 November, and entering the city on 14 November. This first French occupation of Belgium would be short-lived, but even in the few months available to them the revolutionaries managed to alienate the population, imposing their new ideas of liberty on a conservative population. In 1793 Dumouriez was unable to defend both Belgium and his own political position, and was forced to flee into exile, but his victory at Jemappes was an important step towards the military triumphs of the French Republic. It also ensured that much of the fighting of 1793 would happen outside the borders of France.
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