Battle of Wattignies, 15-16 October 1793

The battle of Wattignies (15-16 October 1793) was a French victory that forced the Allies to lift the siege of Maubeuge, and removed the threat of an immediate Allied invasion of France. Throughout the summer of 1793 the Allies (Austria, Holland, Britain and an increasingly unenthusiastic Prussia, supported by German troops in British pay) had attacked and captured the French fortresses at Condé, Valenciennes and Quesnoy. Defeats at Hondschoote (8 September) and Menin (13 September) had been followed by a victory, again at Menin (15 September) which had restored the situation, and the Allied commander (the Prince of Saxe-Coburg) decided to besiege Maubeuge.

The French saw this as a direct threat to Paris, for Maubeuge was a key post in their line of border fortifications, and protected a good road to Paris. Its fall would have opened up a sizable gap in the defended frontier. Command of the Armée-du-Nord was given to General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, while Lazare Carnot, the 'Organizer of Victory', and minister of war on the Committee of Public Safety, accompanied the army. At first Jourdan had 45,000 men in his mobile army, with another 45,000 spread out in a line to the sea, but by the time of the battle he may have had as many as 60,000 men available at Wattignies (although this figure may include the garrison of Maubeuge, who failed to support the fighting at Wattignies).

Sources differ on the size of the Allied army at Maubeuge, with figures for the besieging force ranging from 14,000 to 26,000 and for the covering force from 26,000 to 37,000. The Allied force involved in the battle only included part of the covering force, probably around 21,000 men. This covering force was posted to the south of Maubeuge, on the southern side of the Sambre.

The Austrian line ran from Wattignies at the left (eastern end), through Dourlers in the centre, to Saint-Remy-Chaussée and Monceau-Saint-Waast at the right (western end), a distance of about eight miles. The French approached this line up the road through Avesnes, which passed through the centre of the Austrian line and on to Maubeuge.

Jourdan claimed to have been solely responsible for the French strategy at Wattignies. This seems unlikely when Carnot was present with the army, and at least on the first day of the battle was not an overly impressive claim. On 15 October the French attacked along the entire Allied line. The battle started with an attack on both flanks, General Fromentin attacking on the left and General Duquesnoy on the right. At first these flank attacks both made good progress, and Jourdan sent General Balland to attack the centre of the Allied line. This was where Clairfayt had posted his reserves, and the attack failed. On the right Dusquesnoy's attack became bogged down, while on the left Fromentin moved too far to the west, heading towards Berlaimont, leaving his flanks vulnerable to a cavalry attack.

On the second day of the battle the French decided to concentrate their efforts against Wattignies, at the left of the Allied line. Sources differ on whether Saxe-Coburg strengthened this flank, but even if he did the French were able to concentrate around 20,000 men for this flank attack, almost as many men as were present in the entire Allied covering force.

The new French infantry showed a great deal of resolve at Wattignies. A number of attacks were repulsed by the Austrians, and at one stage a cavalry charge hit the side of Gratien's brigade, causing a brief panic, but the situation was restored by Carnot and Dusquesnoy. Jourdan then led a final coordinated attack on the Austrian left, which forced them out of Wattignies. The French left and centre were then able to move onto the attack, and the Allies were forced out of their entire lines.

Estimates of the numbers of casualties suffered on both sides vary widely, from an estimate of 3,000 killed and wounded on both sides, rising to 5,000 Allied and 8,000 French casualties. Given that the inexperienced French infantry won the day through repeated assaults, described by Saxe-Coburg as fighting like madmen it seems likely that the French losses were indeed higher than those of the Allies.

The repeated assaults left the French army too exhausted to pursue the defeated Allies, and the garrison of Maubeuge missed the chance to prevent them from crossing the Sambre. The siege was raised, and the victory was hailed as a second Valmy (the village is now called Wattignies-la-Victoirie). The Allies had been prevented from creating a sizable gap in the line of French border fortifications, but Saxe-Coburg only pulled back as far as Bavay, five miles to the west. The period of French success was short-lived, ending with the failed siege of Nieuport (22-29 October). Both armies then went into winter quarters, a decision that cost Jourdan his command. Wattignies was a great morale boost for the French, and is normally portrayed as having saved France from an invasion, although given Saxe-Coburg's careful record it is unlikely that the fall of Maubeuge would have been followed by a winter march on Paris. Perhaps the most significant feature of the battle is that it marked the first occasion on which the new Revolutionary conscript armies of France showed that they could manoeuvre with any skill.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 January 2009), Battle of Wattignies, 15-16 October 1793 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_wattignies.html

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