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The French Position
The Allied Plan
The battle of Fleurus (26 June 1794) was the decisive battle in the two year long campaign in the Austrian Netherlands between the forces of revolutionary France and the powers of the First Coalition. The French plan for 1794 was to carry out offensives at both ends of the front line on the southern border of the Austrian Netherlands, with one army attacking in western Flanders and another towards Charleroi on the Sambre.
The first French successes of the year came in the west. In mid April the Armée du Nord, under General Pichegru, attacked into Flanders, won a victory over the Austrian General Clerfayt at Mouscron (29 April) and captured Menin on the following day. The Allies moved a large force under the Duke of York west to deal with the new threat, and on 10 May at Willems the Duke fought off a French attack on his lines. However, on the following day Clerfayt was defeated at Courtrai (11 May 1794) and the Allied army was split in two. This forced the Emperor Francis II and the Prince of Saxe-Coburg to move west in an attempt to restore the situation. A complex Allied attack on 17-18 May failed (battle of Tourcoing), as did a French attack on the Allied lines at Tournai (22 May). After these two battles the French and Allies were still in roughly the same positions as at the start, but the Austrians were beginning to loose interest in the campaign in the western Austrian Netherlands. The Emperor returned to Vienna. One more French victory and the Austrians would probably abandon the war in Belgium and concentrate on the Rhine and Italian fronts.
At first the French had less success on the Sambre. Generals Charbonnier and Desjardins, with 'assistance' from representatives of the Committee of Public Safety, made three attempts to cross the Sambre (12-13 May, 20-24 May and 26 May-3 June). On the third attempt they were even able to briefly besiege Charleroi, but each time the Austrians and Dutch attacked in strength and threw them back across the river.
On 4 June General Jourdan arrived with part of the Army of the Moselle. On 12 June he crossed the Sambre for the first time, and besieged Charleroi. On 16 June the Austrians and Dutch, now under the command of the Prince of Orange, attacked again, and once again forced the French back across the river. In the aftermath of this success, the Prince of Saxe-Coburg decided to move some of his troops from the Sambre front into Flanders, believing that the French were now too demoralised to attack across the Sambre for a fifth time.
On 18 June Jourdan proved them wrong, crossing the Sambre again, and besieging Charleroi for the third time. This time the Austrians were unable to react in time, and on 25 June the tiny 2,800 strong garrison of the city surrendered. On the very next day the Prince of Saxe-Coburg arrived on the scene, with the main Allied army.
The French Position
Jourdan positioned his army in a semi-circle centred on Charleroi, with its back to the Sambre. By the time the Allies attacked the French had had time to fortify this position with earthworks and redoubts.
General Daurier was on the extreme left of the French position, with his left flank on the river. Next was General Montague, who was posted at Trazegnies, four miles north-west of Charleroi. To his right was General Antoine Morlot, at Gosselies, three miles north of the city.
Next was General Jean-Etienne Championnet at Heppignies, three miles to the east, then General François Joseph Lefebre. His main position was at Lambusart, just over two miles to the south east. His advance guard was posted at Fleurus, two miles east of Heppignies and two miles north of Lambusart. Finally the French right was held by General François-Séverin Marceau, who was posted in front of the wood of Copieaux.
Two divisions were kept in reserve. General Jean-Baptiste Kléber was at Jumet, two miles north of Charleroi, from where he could support either the left or centre. Hatry's division, which had been conducting the siege, was posted to Ransart, two miles north east of Charleroi, to support the right.
The Allied Plan
The biggest weakness in the French position was that their only route back across the Sambre was on their left flank, over the bridge at Marchiennes. If the Allied intention was to destroy the French army, then their best hope was to attack here and trap Jourdan's army north of the river, but Austrian commanders at this stage in the war were unwilling to concentrate their efforts against a single point, preferring to attack in multiple columns. At Fleurus Saxe-Coburg decided to use five of these columns.
The five columns were to attack all around the French lines. On the Allied right William, Prince of Orange-Nassau, at the head of 40,000 Dutch troops, was to attack towards Anderlues and Fontain-l'Evêgue, where he would clash with Daurier and Montague. To his left was Vitius von Quosdanovich, who would attack Morlot, then Prince Wenzel Anton Fürst von Kaunitz, who was facing Championnet. To his left was the Archduke Charles, whose target was Lefebre, and finally on the extreme left of the Allied line was Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu, who was facing Marceau.
The Allied attack began early on 26 June, and fighting lasted all day. Fighting was spread out along the entire eighteen mile front line, but the divided Allied attack meant that Jourdan was able to move his reserves to deal with each crisis as it developed.
The main crises came on the left and right flanks of the French lines. On the left the Prince of Orange was able to push Daurier and Montague back towards the Sambre. Jourdan responded by sending in Kléber, who restored the situation. At some point during this fighting Allied scouts reached the walls of Charleroi and discovered that the city had already surrendered.
On the French right Marceau's divisions from the Army of the Ardennes were driven from their positions by General Beaulieu and began to flee towards the Sambre. Lefebre managed to restore the situation by sending reinforcements to his right, but this allowed the Austrians to capture Lambusart. Jourdan then fed in his second reserve division (Hatry), and the village was recaptured.
In the centre Morlot was able to hold off von Quosdanovich all day, but at one point Championnet was on the verge of losing Heppignies. Once again French reserves were available, and the position was restored.
The Allies had not yet managed to break through the French lines, but they had also not suffered any major setbacks, but once it became clear that Charleroi had fallen the Prince of Orange ordered a retreat (although Saxe-Coburg was the overall Allied commander, the Prince of Orange had conducted the defence of the Sambre). Slowly the two sides disengaged, before the Allies pulled back towards Brussels. On the day after the battle the Allied army took up a position between Soignies and Gembloux, ten miles north of the city.
Considering the size of the armies involved (around 80,000 on each size) and the length of the battle Fleurus was not a particularly costly battle. Both sides suffered around 2,000 casualties, and the French took 3,000 prisoners. Its real significance was that it marked the point at which the Austrians finally lost interest in defending the Austrian Netherlands. Over the next few months the Allied armies retreated north and east, until late in July they separated, with the Austrians retreating east to defend Luxembourg and the line of the Rhine while the British and Dutch retreated north to defend the Netherlands.
The demoralized Allied armies were only able to escape from a potential trap in the Austrian Netherlands because the Committee of Public Safety ordered Pichegru and Jourdan to enter Brussels (9 July) and then concentrate on recapturing the French border fortresses at Condé and Valenciennes. By the end of the year the French had conquered most of the Netherlands, and were threatening the Austrian position on the Rhine. The defensive phase of the Revolutionary Wars was over.
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