The Battle of Lens - 20th August 1648


Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, directs the French army at Lens

The battle of Lens was the last major battle of the Thirty Years War, a conflict that had at some point involved most European nations and had devastated the continent with bloodshed, famine and social displacement.


After the decisive French victory at Rocroi in 1643, they had gone on to capture a string of towns and fortifications along the French - Spanish Netherlands border (Flanders). In an attempt to gain Austrian support in their conflict with France, Spain appointed Archduke Leopold Wilhelm to command the Spanish Army of the Netherlands. With a major offensive in 1647, Wilhelm captured three important towns in the disputed area and looked set to overturn the gains made by France in the previous years.


The King of France, Louis XIV, or rather the advisers to the 10 year old king, recalled Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Conde from his struggling campaign against the Spanish in Catalonia and appointed the talented and dashing 27 year old as Commander in Flanders with the mission of defeating the Spanish on France's northern border. Conde wasted no time at all and with his 16,000 strong army captured the Town of Ypres; but celebrations were short lived when news came that Wilhelm was laying siege to the town of Lens with 18,000 men. Conde immediately regrouped his army and set off to face the Spanish army.


Suggested initial set up for the Battle of Lens 1648

ORDERS OF BATTLE

We are adopting a looser style of suggestions for setting up battles in view of the multitude of rules available on the market and commonly used now for most periods, we therefore suggest the number of units as opposed to the number of figures so gamers can adapt to their preferred scale and unit size

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SPANISH ARMY

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm - Commander in Chief - Experienced, nervous, cautious

Right Wing

Prince de Ligne - sub-commander - Experienced, rash, unsteady

6 units of Walloon Cavalry - heavy cavalry, trained, unpredictable, pistols and sword

Centre

Baron de Beck - sub-commander - Experienced, veteran, reliable, inspiring

1st line

5 units of infantry mixed pike and shot formations (40/60 ratio) - Trained, veteran, steady morale

1 unit of Caballos Cavalry - heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, elite, pistol and sword

3 batteries of cannon - heavy field guns, trained, steady, reliable

2nd line

4 units of infantry mixed pike and shot formations (40/60 ratio) - Trained, veteran, steady morale

2 units of Dragoon Cavalry - open order, trained, unreliable, pistol and sword

Left Flank

Prince Charles de Salm - sub commander - Experienced, rash, unsteady

5 units of Walloon Cavalry - heavy cavalry, trained, unpredictable, pistols and swords


FRENCH ARMY

Louis II de Bourbon Prince of Conde - Commander in Chief - Experienced, Veteran, Inspiring, Tactician

Right Wing

Aumont - sub-commander - Experienced, veteran, cautious

5 units of Chevaux-Legers Cavalry - Heavy cavalry, trained, experienced, unpredictable

Centre

Chatillon - sub-commander - Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

1st line

5 units of infantry mixed pike and shot formation (30/70 ratio) - 4 units - Trained, veteran, reliable and the remaining unit (the Picardie infantry)- Veteran, elite, stubborn fighters

2 batteries of cannon - heavy field guns, trained, steady, reliable

2nd line

3 units of infantry mixed pike and shot formation (30/70 ratio) - Trained, veteran, reliable

2 units of Gendarmes Cavalry - Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, elite, pistols and swords

Left Wing

Gramont - sub-commander - Experienced, veteran, steady, reliable

4 units of Chevaux-Legers Cavalry - Heavy cavalry, trained, experienced, unpredictable


THE BATTLE AS IT HAPPENED

As dawn broke on the 20th, Conde, seeing the strength of the Spanish army and its disposition decided to withdraw. His army had been deployed all the previous day and was now low on food rations, It was decided to retreat back to a village called Neus where his supply train could meet up with them, and an order was given to fall back in full battle order.

To cover the withdrawal, the French artillery gave volleys of covering fire, while the right wing of cavalry formed up to make a rearguard. Baron de Beck's cavalry, without orders, saw their chance to win the field and charged the French cavalry rear guard, routing them. For a moment the French position was doubtful as Conde's page was captured and almost the Conde himself. The elite Picardie infantry rallied the routing cavalry by dashing to support them and halt their pursuers.

It was now 6:30am and Beck was pleading with Wilhelm to let the Spanish army launch a full attack while the French were in disarray. Ever cautious, Wilhelm refused, maybe suspecting a trap, until eventually after more than a hour of dithering, he agreed. He then summoned his personal priest, said prayers and then galloped off the battlefield leaving his army to its own future. However by now, having recovered from the initial cavalry assault, Conde ordered his army to about turn and face up in battle formation again to take on the Spanish. His army began a general advance towards the Spanish with his artillery pounding the Spaniards as their sub-commanders attempted to bring together an orderly response. Conde personally led the infantry and frequently stopped their advance to ensure they didn't lose formation, which had the bonus that the Spanish artillery found it hard to hit their targets being unable to predict their advance speed.

As the two armies closed, the French left wing cavalry led by Gramont came to the Spanish Walloons who at 20 paces discharged their pistols which killed, wounded or unhorsed the entire French front line, however, undeterred the French second line of cavalry charged in and routed the Walloons off the field. A similar event took place on the opposite flank, with the French receiving the Spaniards fire first before then charging in while they hurriedly tried to reload and routing them off the field.

In the centre of the field things were different, the Spanish led by the inspiring Beck were pushing back the French and some units were at breaking point, including the French Guards and Scottish Guards regiments. Once again it was the Picardie regiment that saved the day, standing firm against the Spanish and acting as a rallying point for other units. After bitter fighting for some time, the French cavalry returned, satisfied that they had scattered and destroyed their Spanish counterparts as a fighting force. On their return they supported their infantry and with weight of numbers began to successfully surround the Spanish infantry.

Unlike at Rocroi, where the Spaniards made an heroic last stand, at Lens they simply surrendered and 6,000 prisoners were captured. So many in fact it took several days of relay marches to escort them back to Arras for internment.

Although the battle brought an end to the Thirty Years War, France and Spain would remain at war another 11 years, with France also suffering from a civil war during this period too. Events that taught the boy king Louis XIV the importance of taking initiative in political issues and through his tendency to assert power, kept France at war with someone almost his entire 72 year reign.


French infantry training with muskets

The Thirty Year War saw a massive change in weapons and tactics. The primitive arquebus, commonplace in the 1620's was replaced almost entirely by the more accurate and powerful musket by the 1640's. The Spanish tercio formation (pike block with extended corners of firearms troops) became replaced by the Dutch formation (a block of pikes with firearms troops in line either side). Cavalry became lighter armoured and more mobile, the old fashioned gendarme knights disappearing, replaced by faster moving cavalry with modest or no body armour.

In the UK, the English Civil War always seems a far more popular period, for obvious reasons, but the Thirty Years War and the overlapping 80 Years War (Dutch Independence) offer even more troop variations and interesting engagements to play. Well worth reading up on and playing a few games.



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