I remember many years ago seeing this picture for the first time on the covers of Charles Grant’s 1975 book The Battle of Fontenoy in the Background Books for Wargamers and Modellers series. To me the painting instantly reflected the feel of 18th century warfare, with its glorious colour and pageantry, its mannered politeness, and also its timeless horror. Click on the above picture (and the others in this posting) to see a much enlarged version.
Since then I’ve remained fascinated with Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux’s 1873 painting entitled The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745: The French and the Allies Confronting Each Other. In fact, the first historical wargames troops I painted were the Gardes Françaises as shown in the painting [an embarrassed shrug at the quality of these early efforts at painting 25mm miniatures!].
But recently Philippoteaux’s painting came to my attention again when I stumbled across a second-hand copy of that same Charles Grant book that had started it all off for me way back when.
According to trusty old WikiPedia, the Battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, was a major engagement of the War of the Austrian Succession, fought between the forces of the Pragmatic Allies – comprising mainly Dutch, British, and Hanoverian troops under the nominal command of the Duke of Cumberland – and a French army under Maurice de Saxe, commander of King Louis XV’s forces in the Low Countries.
The battle was one of the most important of the war, and is notable on several accounts: for the French it is a famous victory and the masterpiece of Marshal Saxe; for the British it is remembered for the stout-hardiness of their foot, and as one of the great infantry advances of the 18th century.
[above] Philippoteaux’s painting depicts a famous incident that took place during the battle. A large Allied column had clambered up to the crest of a rise and found itself facing the first line of French infantry. The Gardes Françaises, along with several other French regiments, rose and advanced towards the crest, whereupon the two forces confronted each other at a distance of 30 paces.
Voltaire’s version of what happened next has become proverbial. He wrote that the English officers saluted the French by doffing their hats. The French returned the greeting. Then Lord Charles Hay, captain in the British Guards, cried, ‘Gentlemen of the French Guards, fire!’ The Comte d’Auteroche, lieutenant of grenadiers, shouted back, ‘Gentlemen, we never fire first; fire yourselves!’
In the end, the French fired first, but the volley was somewhat ineffective, although it threw the Third Guards into some confusion and wounded George Churchill, the commander of the Guards brigade.
Captain Lord Panmure then led the unbroken companies of the Third Guards to the flank of the First Guards, and the Allied infantry fired a devastating discharge into the French. The volley of musketry, along with the battalion guns delivering numerous rounds of grape-shot, swept away the French front rank, killing and wounding between 700–800 men, reducing the rest to a shambles which were driven back by the British advance.
[above] These officers graciously take up the salute to their enemies. I think the blue coats with ornate rococo trim and the red breeches and stockings worn by the officers of the Gardes Françaises reflect the epitome of the resplendent uniforms of the 18th century.
[above] The tall drum major stands steadfastly in front of his corps of drummers, some looking decidedly nervous. Philippoteaux has carefully depicted the royal livery worn by the drummers – picking out that intricate lace pattern must have been a painstaking job for him. Those drums look pretty big, too, compared with the drums in most wargames figure ranges. Note also how the drummers are standing as a group massed behind the lines, rather than dotted in the lines as we wargamers so often have a tendency to do.
[above] One of my favourite characters in the painting is this sergeant using his spontoon held horizontally to keep the men in his company from shuffling back nervously under fire.
[above] Here’s another (but somewhat less energetic) NCO, standing behind his men. You can also clearly see the flag of the Gardes Françaises fluttering above the line.
[above] The British line can be seen in the background of the painting. Standing in front is Lord Hay, doffing his hat. In actual fact, Lord Hay allowing his enemy to fire early was not as silly as it sounds, as it then left the French unloaded so that the British could at their leisure make ready and fire a much more telling volley.
Despite their diminutive size in the painting, the British redcoats are quite clearly wearing the distinctive blue breeches of the Guards. And if you look carefully, you can also see one of the battalion guns on the left.
[above] Notwithstanding its colour and pageantry, on an individual level war in the 18th century was just as nasty a business as at any other period in history. Despite the eventual French victory, this guardsman will never return to his homeland, having met his end bloodily from a shot to the head.
The day my favourite maker of 18th century figurines, Minden Miniatures, ever produces the Gardes Françaises (hopefully including that NCO shoving his men into line, and the gaudy officers in their stockings and breeches), I’ll be ordering myself a 60-man regiment! Sadly I’ll probably be waiting a while for that to happen, as Minden are now planning to concentrate on the Prussian and Austrian theatre of the wars.
Attribution for photo of painting: Valerie McGlinchey.