Book Review: Fontenoy 1745 by Michael McNally.

Illustrator: Seán Ó’Brógáin
Short code: CAM 307
Publication Date: 18 May 2017
Number of Pages: 96

Some years ago a French mayor suggested changing the Gare du Nord to Fontenoy in a tit for tat response to Waterloo being the EU terminus. Most, even in France would probably frown and say “Fonte-What?” Chances are if you read Osprey Books you won’t be one of those people, and those who appreciate 18th century history will certainly not be ignorant of the most important battle of the War of the Austrian Succession.

Nevertheless public consciousness of what is perhaps the most conclusive French victory over British arms is not good. It is quite possible some know a general outline of the fight, but it really deserves a closer look. There is a sort of terrible grandeur to the simplicity of the fight. The dramatic theatricality that all stand up fights have. Also to commend it to the student of military history and strategy is the brilliance of the French commander’s generalship and his own heroic personality.

Fontenoy was the peak of Marshal de Saxe’s career. The campaign demonstrated his excellent strategic planning, and expert understanding of his enemy. Meanwhile the allies under the Duke of Cumberland showed themselves as dull and gullible puppets that played willingly into the hands of the French. The battle itself is almost like a European Gettysburg, in which one force believing too much in its own superiority flings itself against a determined foe and pays the price.

This, above even the stunning performance of the British infantry, is Saxe’s hour. And when we read the crisis of the fight it is hard not to cheer out-loud when the Marshal’s foresight pays off and he wins the field. Michael McNally should be praised for a crisp and stirring narrative through this title, demonstrating an excellent grasp of both sides strengths and weaknesses. Though the battle should probably be honestly described as a bit of a slogging match, the campaign itself was one that must stand alongside some of the finest feats of arms in terms of Saxe’s use of deception and foresight that forced his enemy to play to his tune.

Personally I had heard of Fontenoy as a boy when I was told that it was the first battle in which the Black Watch (then the 43rd highlanders) were engaged. From an allied point of view there was little to rejoice in, and it highlights the questionable reliability of allowing princes the supreme command of troops. The Duke of Cumberland perhaps might have made a decent tactical, brigade commander, but was lost in the big picture. Hence when it came to the limited field at Culloden the next year he was able to triumph, but Fontenoy shows us that he was a flawed commander when pitted against a soldier who knew his business.

The maps are very helpful in this book, and the full colour spreads are colourful and exciting. The best is the charge of the Irish brigade, and illustrates what the artist is best at, that being up close and personal scenes of combat. In my opinion he is not so suited to more sprawling scenes, the first 2 pager of the French position at Fontenoy quickly loses me, partly due to the impossibility of the flag in the foreground being spread out as if strings were attached to its corners, while all the other flags are hanging limp from their poles. The charge of the French Cavalry I like, at first I was a little sceptical of the composition in that the French are awfully close to the enemy for a cavalry charge. However look closely and you will see the pistol bearing cavaliers turning their mounts, whose reins and forelegs are rigid as they stall before the steady British line.

Fontenoy was a defining battle. One that should rank amongst the toughest fought of the 18th century, McNally has done the tale justice in this fine book.


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