Saturday, January 29, 2011

Swiss on Both Sides: The Battle of Malplaquet 1709

 September 11, 1709: the Battle of Malplaquet

The Swiss have a long tradition of peace through strength and no one should doubt their martial abilities.

While I have been working up a different article I saw a thread on the TMP Forum (The Miniatures Page) in which the OP was wondering about a situation in which Swiss troops, in regiments hired out to many different armies, might run into each other on a battlefield somewhere, and whether that would be  rather awkward.

Here's the TMP thread:

TMP Link on the Swiss

Many armies did have Swiss regiments and they were among the most formidable, professional and reliable troops in each of those armies.That's why they were worth the money the Kings and other leaders paid for them.

In the 18th Century they were in the French, Spanish, Dutch and several Italian countries' armies and often at the same time. Sometimes they are called by the name mercenaries. They were hired under contracts and many Swiss men joined up, and this went on for a long time.

In the TMP thread the question came up whether they would tend to avoid shooting at one another. Yes, that was in the contract, that a condition of their use was that they should not be employed against other Swiss. There were some occasions when it did happen. So although this is a bad example of them not shooting at each other, it is the exception that made the rule very necessary.

Malplaquet was The Big One

In all the 18th Century there was no bigger European battle than the Battle of Malplaquet on September 11, 1709, in terms of heavy casualties. This was the bloodiest battle all the way up to Borodino in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia and got too close to Moscow for there not to be a big fight.

 A correct and accepted Order of Battle, and a well-accepted casualty list for Malplaquet can not be found because they do not exist in a satisfactory form. In the 18th Century and before things are not so well documented as we would like, and the data we would like to see is much more scarce and contradictory than the later Napoleonic or American Civil War time and forward. Not that they are exact either.

Some months ago I used figures something like 25,000 Allied casualties and maybe 11,000 French, although the sources differ wildly about narrowing down the numbers accurately. Here is an Austrian/German source that puts the numbers much closer together, but still very large numbers. It is in German and would need to be translated in the translate machine above, but the numbers would be the same and are found toward the bottom of the page.

Harald Skala, Die Schlacht bei Malplaquet am 11. September 1709

The Numbers are Not Certain, But They Are Big Numbers
Looking across a range of wikipedia articles in English, German, French, Dutch, etc, one finds different numbers used everywhere, and no one really knows. It is just a matter of educated guesswork, although Inherent Military Probability does help with that. We do know there were an awful lot of casualties and even in an era of bloody battles this one made a deep impression in most places.

Not as well-known to English-speaking readers is the deep impression it made in Switzerland.

 Now in these next links note that the normal ratio of killed men to wounded is often given as a rule of thumb as around three to one, more wounded than killed in any given battle, normally. It could as well be four or five to one, but medical services were rudimentary. Then further note that the authors are going by a figure of not less than 8,000 Swiss dead at Malplaquet. That is way above their fair share, among nationalities present.

The first link is to the German version of wikipedia where a section is appended some ways down the page under the subtitle Schweizer Truppen auf Beiden Seiten, Politische Folgen, or Swiss Troops on Both Sides, Political Consequences or aftereffects. The first article puts it in the context of the battle.

 German wiki on Malplaquet

This brings out the basic story, that when the Dutch attacked on the Allied left wing, part of the attacking force were the Swiss in Dutch service. The troops they attacked were part French, but also part Swiss in French service, and neither group was easy to drive back. One result of neither side giving ground easily is heavier casualties, as they continue to obstinately stand and throw more punishment at each other.

The numbers they give by the days' end are 8,000 dead Swiss, which alone would be an extraordinarily large number killed at any one battle, but even worse when one considers the Swiss were not the only ones getting killed. Still, it's a huge number, and there was controversy afterward among the Swiss about brothers fighting brothers, in a fight whose merits are not actually that important either way, to them.

Then this link goes into more detail about the Swiss episode, including data towards a good Order of Battle by naming the regiments and giving some numbers. This is from the Swiss Historical Lexicon, and can be read in either French, German or Italian. As usual, it can be rendered into passable English by using the translation machine above at the header of the blog, probably best used by clicking the blue 'translate homepage' link to copy and paste chunks of text in a new window. The article is only one page and would translate quickly.

Herve de Weck article in Swiss Historical Dictionary

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  1. Very good post, the swiss were feared and respected as fighters throughout europe and was there eventually a treaty that kept the swiss in their own country.

  2. I think I was thinking about this one the day I started the blog way back, but only the TMP thread jogged me into putting it up now.

  3. Malpaquet is described in dutch literature as a victorious but 'bloody' battle. The failure to get any poltical gain from the battle, like from most battles 'Marlborough won', had great repercussions for dutch politics.

    Swiss were hired by the dutch up to the Batavian Republic.

  4. The late Arthur Barbera pubilished a very good account of the Swiss at Malplaquet.
    I knew Arthur for many years and I hope his family will re-publish this work:
    "The Affair of the Swiss at Malplaquet"