Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies, 24 April 1794

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The battle of Villers-en-Cauchies (24 April 1794) saw a small force of Austrian and British cavalry break up a much larger French force that was moving into a position from where it could threaten the Allied army besieging Landrecies (War of the First Coalition).

On 23 April a French column left Cambrai, and advanced north east towards the Allied posts on the Selle, at the far right of the covering army around Landrecies. The column was reported to be 15,000 strong and the Allies believed that it had been sent out in an attempt to intercept the Emperor Francis II, then returning to the army headquarters from Brussels. The Austrian General Otto, at the head of a small force of 300 cavalry (the British Fifteenth Light Dragoons and Austrian Leopold Hussars, four squadrons in all) investigated these reports, and discovered a French column that he believed to be 10,000 strong at the village of Villers-en-Cauchies, just to the west of the Selle valley. Otto returned to St. Hilaire, and summoned reinforcements. Ten more squadrons of cavalry were allocated to him, made up of the Eleventh Light Dragoons, two squadrons of the Austrian Zeschwitz Cuirassiers and Mansel's brigade, with squadrons from the Blues, Royals and Third Dragoon Guards.

On the morning of 24 April Otto cut across from St. Hilaire to the Selle valley, and advanced north down the river, with his original troops in the advance. At Montrecourt Otto ran into a large force of French light cavalry, and immediately attacked it in its flank. The French fled west for a quarter of a mile, then rallied, and began a controlled retreat back towards the road between Villers-en-Cauchies and Avesnes-le-Sec, where they joined up with a force of 3,000 infantry supported by artillery. The French force formed into a line with its right at Avesnes-le-Sec, its left at Villers-en-Cauchies, and the light cavalry in an advance guard.

General Otto had pursued the retreating French cavalry, and now found himself in front of the French lines with only his original 300 men. Despite being badly outnumbered, Otto decided that his only chance of escaping was to attack the French line. As the British and Austrian cavalry charged, the French cavalry broke away to both sides, to reveal their infantry, described in the account of the Fifteenth Hussars as being in a rectangular formation (Sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British Army, believed this to have been two squares side by side, with the French guns between the squares, a formation that the French had used without success at Avesnes-le-Sec in the previous year). 

The Austrians attacked the French left and the British the French right. Although infantry squares were normally almost impervious to cavalry attack, the French infantry was not yet experienced enough to use the squares properly, and the Allied cavalry broke into the French position. A line of French cavalry behind the infantry was also swept away, and a half-mile long pursuit followed.

The small Allied force then split. The Austrians continued to chase the French infantry back towards Cambrai, while the British turned right and attempted to catch a convoy of fifty guns that was moving north-west towards the French fortifications at Bouchain. Lacking support, Captain Pocklington of the 15th, (in command after the death of his commanding officer), was forced to turn back.

Although the initial Allied charge had broken through the French lines, the French had clearly soon rallied, for when Pocklington reached Villers-en-Cauchies he realised that he was cut off by a force of French infantry and cavalry. To the south of the village was Mansel's brigade, but their own attack on the French had not gone so well. The Third Dragoon Guards lost 38 men killed and nine wounded or missing, and the French position had held. Nevertheless their presence to the south probably explains why Pockington's men were able to break through the French blockade to reach safety.

As often happened when cavalry broke into infantry squares, the French suffered very heavy casualties at Villers-en-Cauchies, given by Fortescue as 800 dead and 400 wounded. The Fifteenth Hussars lost 31 dead and wounded, while the Leopold Hussars lost 10 dead and 10 wounded. The French loses were not significant enough to stop them making a much more serious attempt to break the siege two days later, but this was also repulsed (battle of Landrecies or Beaumont-en-Cambresis). Mansel, who was partly blamed for the performance of his brigade at Villers-en-Cauchies, made a suicidal attack on a French position during the second battle to redeem his reputation.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 January 2009), Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies, 24 April 1794 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_villers_en_cauchies.html

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