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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Battle of Minden: the Great British Art of Bumbling Through


1759 was the Annus Mirablis ("Miracle Year") of the British Empire, with impressive military victories in all theatres of war—India, North America, Europe, and the open seas—against the power of France. The events of that year decided the course of the Seven Years War, as well as the history of the next 300 years, ensuring that the World would be dominated by Anglophone powers.

On August 1st, one of the key battles of that year took place in Northern Germany. An Anglo-German army (British, Hanoverians, Hessians, and a few Prussians) defeated a Franco-Saxon army, with the key part being played by six British regiments. Because of their remarkable exploits on that day, these regiments (or their successors) are still known as the "The Minden Regiments."

Given the shape that Anglo World power took, the battles for control of the sea (Quiberon Bay in November) and the colonies (India and North America) would appear to have been much more important. But the Seven Years War not only involved Britain but also its ally Prussia in a conflict with a formidable alliance made up of France, the Hapsburg Empire, and Russia. Motivated by the the passions of their female rulers (France was dominated by Madame de Pompadour, the King's mistress), these three powers had all agreed to crush Prussia. If they had achieved this, Britain's naval and colonial gains would have been insecure, not to mention its Hanoverian territory. Keeping Prussia in the game was a vital part of the war, and the Battle of Minden was a key event in this endeavour.

Duke of Brunswick
With the Prussians under Frederick the Great bearing the brunt of the enemy's attacks, the British had sent 9,000 men to join the army of the Duke of Brunswick, Frederick the Great's brother-in-law, in North-West Germany. Compared to the well-drilled and experienced Prussians, the British regiments were relatively unschooled in the ways of Continental warfare, something that proved to be both their undoing and their salvation.

After an advance by the French army, the two forces faced off against each other near the town of Minden, 44,000 men on the Franco-Saxon side against 37,000 men under the Duke of Brunswick. The French army, led by Louis Georges Érasme de Contades, adopted a rather defensive formation, massing the cavalry in the centre of their concave line.

The British regiments—the Suffolks, Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Welch Fusiliers, King's Own Scottish Borderers, Royal Hampshires, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry—were together with a couple of Hanoverian regiments in a division under the Hanoverian general Friedrich von Spörcken on the right side.

The key event of the battle was the unsupported advance of the British, which is said to have been caused by the misunderstanding of a preposition in the order "Advance on the beating of drums" which was misunderstood as "Advance to the beating of drums," which caused an immediate advance with drums beating. There is an obvious parallel here with the equally glorious but less effective Charge of the Light Brigade almost a hundred years later in the Crimean War.

Click to enlarge
Von Spörcken's division advanced on its own towards the enemy, exposing it to attack from the massed French cavalry, both from the front and the flank, a situation that should have ensured its destruction. Troops more schooled in the ways of Continental warfare would probably have realised how dire their situation was, and suffered a collapse in morale, but the British troops instead showed their characteristic phlegm and stubbornness. Maintaining a steady musket fire, the infantry regiments broke wave after wave of French cavalry. The French commander was gobsmacked. "I have seen what I never thought to be possible," he reportedly said, "a single line of infantry break through three lines of cavalry, ranked in order of battle, and tumble them to ruin!"

After the slaughter of the French cavalry, the rest of the Anglo-German army advanced and forced the French to retreat, leaving 7,000 dead on the field of battle, most of them cavalrymen. The Anglo-German army by comparison lost less than 3,000 men, dead and missing.

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