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The Battle of Fontenoy: a literary afterlife

Monday, 11 May, 2020

The Battle of Fontenoy took place 275 years ago today, on 11 May 1745, near the city of Tournai, then in the Austrian Netherlands. The Maréchal de Saxe led French forces to victory against an allied Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who had been sent to relieve Tournai from French siege. The French were in a strong defensive position; initial frontal attacks by Cumberland’s troops proved unsuccessful, and the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry were eventually driven back by the French cavalry, artillery, and the Irish Brigade, who were serving under French command. According to Voltaire, the battle saw the death of 5339 Frenchmen, although his Scottish contemporary Tobias Smollett puts the number closer to 12,000 dead on either side.

Battle of Fontenoy

‘Vue de la Bataille de Fontenoy gagnée par le Roi Louis XV sur l’armée des alliés le XI mai 1745’. Engraving by S. Guélard, drawing by J.B. Brouard. (BnF/Gallica)

Following the French victory at Fontenoy, Saxe and his forces continued their advance through the Austrian Netherlands, pushing back British, Dutch, and Austrian troops over the course of the following few months. Although the Austrian Netherlands were soon returned to the Habsburgs in 1748, following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Battle of Fontenoy nonetheless represented a great victory on the part of France and of Louis XV.

Like all great battles, Fontenoy saw a significant literary afterlife, both in the years immediately following the battle, and well after it had passed from living memory. It boasts a number of fictional heroes among its veterans. Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste is perhaps the most memorable example: ‘Un régiment passait pour aller au Camp devant Fontenoy; de dépit je m'enrôle. Nous arrivons; la bataille se donne.’ A century later, in Treasure Island, we learn that Dr Livesey was among the British soldiers Jacques faced: ‘I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and got a wound myself at Fontenoy.’

The battle lingered and lingers on in Irish literary memory, too; the late nineteenth-century poet Emily Lawless wrote Fontenoy, 1745 from the perspective of the Irish soldiers who fought and died alongside the French. It begins:

Oh, bad the march, the weary march, beneath these alien skies,
But good the night, the friendly night, that soothes our tired eyes.
And bad the war, the tedious war, that keeps us sweltering here,
But good the hour, the friendly hour, that brings the battle near.
That brings us on to battle, that summons to their share
The homeless troops, the banished men, the exiled sons of Clare.

Voltaire, who was at the time of the battle historiographe de France, produced two literary accounts of the French victory: the Poème de Fontenoy (OCV, vol.28B, p.255-402), and two dedicated chapters in the second volume of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCVvol.29B, now published). Although ultimately a detailed and well-researched account, the chapters dedicated to Fontenoy in the Précis are not without dramatic embroidery and flourish, as we might expect from Voltaire. While Saxe is given the praise he is due, Voltaire opens by centering Louis XV as the hero of the narrative, raising morale – ‘Toute l’armée en voyant le roi et le dauphin, fit entendre des acclamations de joie’ – and showing valour and bravery in entering the fray: ‘Le roi ne voulut avoir pour sa garde qu’un escadron de cent vingt hommes de la compagnie de Charost, un seul gendarme, un chevau léger, un mousquetaire.’

Similarly, Voltaire’s use of direct speech produces a more dramatic and engaging narrative, although sometimes at the cost of the impression of total historical faithfulness; he writes, for example: ‘les Irlandais leur crièrent “Vive France”; mais dans le tumulte on n’entendait rien.’ Although effective in bringing home a striking image of the passion of the Irish soldiers in battle and the overwhelming clamour of war, it does beg the question as to how any source might have heard this battle-cry if it were indeed completely obscured by the surrounding noise.

Battle of Fontenoy

A nineteenth-century depiction of Voltaire’s anecdote by French military painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.

Perhaps the most famous moment of dramatic flair in Voltaire’s account, however, is an anecdote in which the British Lord Charles Hay, turning with his infantrymen to face the French troops, invites them to fire first; there ensues a brief, polite exchange of ‘after you’, ‘no, no, I insist, after you’:

Le comte de Chabannes, le duc de Biron qui s’étaient avancés et tous les officiers des gardes francaises leur rendirent le salut. Milord Charles Hay capitaine aux gardes anglaises cria: ‘Messieurs des gardes françaises, tirez.’ Le comte d’Auteroche, alors lieutenant des grenadiers et depuis capitaine, leur dit à voix haute: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes.’ Alors le capitaine anglais dit aux siens, ‘Give fire, gentlemen. Faites feu, Messieurs.’

The truth of this moment of etiquette in the heat of battle is hard to verify. Voltaire seems to be the first to publish this anecdote, which means either that he heard it from an oral source, or that it is the product of a dramatic embellishment. Regardless, it makes for an interesting and engaging story, which probably accounts for its widespread presence in subsequent literature on the battle.

Voltaire’s presentation of Fontenoy as a personal victory for Louis XV, and his dramatic, detailed account of the French victory, are no doubt in part motivated by the patriotic demands of the role of historiographe de France and a personal desire to win favour at court. The French victory at Fontenoy, and the celebratory literature produced around it, cemented it as an important moment in the history of the country, and indeed of Europe.

– Josie Dyster

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