Battle of Menin, 15 September 1793

The battle of Menin of 15 September 1793 was an Austrian victory over the French army of General Houchard that helped to restore the Allied position in Belgium after the French victories at Hondschoote (6-8 September 1793) and two days earlier over the same ground at Menin (13 September 1793).

After defeating the Dutch at Menin, Houchard decided not to risk attacking the Austrians, and instead wanted to pull back as far as Arras, where he could protect the garrisons of Cambrai and Bouchain, and possibly outflank the main Allied army under the Prince of Saxe-Coburg if the Austrians advanced towards Arras.

Generals Hédouville and Dumesny, at Menin, were ordered to retreat south to Lille, while a rear-guard under brigadier-general Demars was to move towards Courtrai to distract the Allies from that movement. On 14 September Demars captured the village of Wevelgem, between Menin and Courtrai. Hédouville attacked Demars for his slowness and ordered him to either capture of shell Courtrai, unaware that a sizable Austrian army, under the command of General Beaulieu, had been present in the town for the last two days.

Demars advanced towards Courtrai in a single large column, confident that he would not be opposed. This was not the case. Beaulieu was well aware of the French advance, and sent a force of infantry with half a squadron of cavalry to attack the rear of the French column. Demars ordered his men to retreat to Wevelgem, where he met up with General Hédouville and a number of reinforcements. For a moment the French line held, but when Beaulieu outflanked this position, the entire French force fled towards Menin.

Hédouville was able to restore some order, and at this stage the retreat remained orderly. As the column approached Menin, Hédouville, believing the fighting to be over, left the column and rejoined the main force on the road to Lille. Demars' brigade was posted outside the Courtrai Gate at Menin, with orders not to retreat until nightfall.

Hédouville had misjudged the situation. Beaulieu's cavalry, four squadrons from the Esterhazy regiment, had followed the French. They were now joined by two squadrons of cavalry from the advance guard of the second Allied army, under the command of the Duke of York. This army had moved east after being defeated at Hondschoote on 8 September, and was now in place to help turn the French defeat into a rout.

The appearance of the Allied cavalry caused a panic in Demars' brigade, which broke and attempted to retreat into Menin. The garrison was commanded by a Dutch revolutionary, Daendels, who would serve Napoleon as a general. He realised that the Austrians would probably enter the town at the same time as the fleeing French troops, and decided to evacuate the garrison across the Lys. As the last troops were ready to leave, Demars appeared on the scene, and ordered Daendels to form a rearguard to delay the Austrians. This order came too late, for Austrian Hussars had already broken into the town. Daendels was nearly killed in the fighting around the Coutrai gate, and was only just able to escape to safety across the Lys.

Two representatives of the Paris Government, Levasseur and Bentabole, almost caused a further disaster when their exhortations convinced a number of troops to make a fresh stand. They were rescued from their embarrassing situation by the arrival of General Béru, who brought some order to the retreat, directing the garrison to Tourcoing and Linselles. As a reward for his efforts, Béru was quickly promoted to Major General.

Hédouville suffered the opposite fate. He was judged to have been 'brave, but never a general', and on 23 September Levasseur and Bentabole suspended him from all military functions. The disaster at Menin also helped bring about the fall of General Houchard. As so often happened during the Revolutionary Wars, a cry of treason was soon raised against him, although his only real crime was to have been promoted above his ability. He was executed on 17 November 1793.

The French were saved from further disaster by the slow pace of Allied operations. Rather than taking advantage of their victory at Menin, Saxe-Coburg turned east to besiege Maubeuge. Yet another new French commander, Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, was appointed to command the Armée du Nord, winning a crucial victory at Wattignies on 15-16 October. The siege of Maubeuge was lifted, and at the end of the year the French held a slight advantage.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 January 2009), Battle of Menin, 15 September 1793 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_menin_15_9_1793.html

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