Battle of Tournai, 22 May 1794

The battle of Tournai (22 May 1794) was an unsuccessful French attempt to take advantage of their victory at Tourcoing on 17-18 May. At the start of the 1794 campaigning season, while the Allies besieged Landrecies, the French invaded Flanders from the west, defeating the Austrian General Clerfayt at Mouscrons (29 April) and capturing Menin on the following day. This threatened the British Army's links to the channel ports, and so reinforcements under the Duke of York were sent west to restore the situation. A French attack on the reformed Allied line was defeated at Willems (10 May 1794), but on the following day Clerfeyt was forced to retreat north (battle of Courtrai, 11 May 1794).

This defeat forced the Emperor Francis II, then commanding the war against France in person, to move his main army west to deal with the increasing French threat. General Mack then came up with an elaborate scheme for an attack in six columns on the Armée-du-Nord (General Pichegru), but on 17-18 May this attack failed (battle of Tourcoing). In the aftermath of this failure the main Allied army withdrew into an armed camp around Tournai. Although Francis was present in Tournai, command of the army was held by the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, the Allied commander-in-chief of 1793.

The defeat at Tourcoing had not yet discouraged the Allies, and they now began to plan for a renewed attack towards Mouscron. The French would pre-empt these plans. General Pichegru, who had been absent on 17-18 May, decided to launch his own attack on the new Allied position at Tournai. Over 60,000 French troops would be involved in the attack. General Souham, with at least 30,000 troops in four brigades, was to attack the northern part of the line from Spierres to Leer, Bonnaud's division was to attack the left of the line and Osten's division was to carry out an outflanking movement to the south.

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

The attack began between six and seven on the morning of 22 May (not 23 May as is sometimes stated. This error may have originated with Sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British army, whose account starts with this incorrect date, but ends with the correct one). The battle lasted all day, and it soon became clear that the village of Pont-à-Chin, on the Scheldt just downstream of Tournai, would be the key to the battle. The village changed hands four times during the battle. By six in the evening the village was held by a French force under General Macdonald. The only force available to counterattack was General Fox's Brigade, consisting of the 14th, 37th and 53rd Foot. This brigade had suffered heavy loses at Tourcoing, and numbered under 600 men, but despite this the brigade managed to recapture the village and secure the Allied position.

Soon after that the battle ended. The French attack had failed, at a cost of 6,000 casualties, while the Allies lost 4,000 men. In the aftermath of the battle General Mack resigned as Allied chief-of-staff, after making it clear that he no longer believed that the French could be expelled from Belgium. On 24 May Francis held a council of war at which it became clear that he shared that opinion, and on 29 May Francis decided to return to Vienna. This did not yet mean that the Austrians were willing to withdraw from the war in the Austrian Netherlands, for his brother the Archduke Charles was left behind, as was Saxe-Coburg, who regained command of the army, but their commitment was clearly being reduced. After the French victory at Fleurus on 26 June the Austrians finally retreated out of the Austrian Netherlands, and prepared to concentrate on the fighting on the Rhine and in Italy, areas much closer to the Imperial heartland.   

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 January 2009), Battle of Tournai, 22 May 1794 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_tournai_1794.html

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