Battle of Minden 1759
During the Seven Years War British troops under the command of Lord Sackville fought in only one pitched battle on the continent. These were the six squadrons of cavalry and nine companies of infantry sent to Germany in August 1758.
Ferdinand of Brunswick, after his successes of 1758, maneuvered to hold two French armies. The Marquis de Contades with eighty-thousand men on the Rhine, and the Duc de Broglie with twenty thousand in Hesse. The French Marshals, set out to drive a wedge between Ferdinand’s army and the Weser river protecting Hanover.
The French and Ferdinand raced to secure the town of Minden, which controlled the passage of the Weser. De Broglie's army arrived on July 9th, reaching Minden first. He sent a summons to the garrison to surrender, which was refused. The French then forced entrance, and by evening they were in possession of the town, with an open road to Hanover. Broglie was soon joined by de Contades who, as senior Marshal, assumed command. Ferdinand took up position on the west bank of the Weser, north of Minden. The French position was very strong; the Weser protected their front, their left was covered by marshes. They could not be attacked with any prospect of success. De Contades had but one problem, supply. Ferdinand had placed six thousand men across his lines of communication. De Contades decided to attack. He commanded a numerically superior army, and Ferdinand's men were exhausted from long marches, thinly spread out on the plain to the north.
By his scattered positions Ferdinand tempted de Contades to leave his secure position. He knew that Marquis de Contades would attack. The French Marshal asked the mayor of Minden to recommend a reliable messenger to carry an order to the Duc de Brissac who protected the French rear at Herford, 25 miles to the west. The message sent by De Contades was first shown to Prince Ferdinand, by the messenger before it was delivered to the Duc de Brissae. The message implied that De Contades intended to cross the Weser River and attack Ferdinand.
During the night of 31 July, French deserters reported that the French were moving. Ferdinand ordered his army to be ready. De Contades began his advance at dawn August 1, with his cavalry in the center and infantry on the flanks. He fully expected to catch Ferdinand by surprise, and it seemed that he had done so. A three mile gap had opened between Ferdinand’s main army and his left, the detachment at the village of Todtenhausen commanded by General Wangenheim. Ferdinand planned to seize the initiative, rather than await attack; he sought to fall on the French while they were in the act of deployment.
De Contades sent de Broglie to drive a wedge through Ferdinand’s lines, thus exposing his left flank, while his own army assaulted the allied right and center. The last thing he expected was to be attacked himself. The French advanced, de Broglie on the right, de Contades on the center, his army led by fifty-five squadrons of cavalry, and followed by the infantry with thirty-four guns. The artillery opened fire at 5:00a.m.
De Broglies advance on Todtenhausen was obscured by a heavy rain, and took Wangenheim by surprise. He began getting his guns into action and they soon brought the French advance to a halt. The Hanoverian and British infantry assaulted de Contade's cavalry from the woods on the left behind the village of Hahlen. The allied army was ready for action by 7:00 a.m., its right resting on the villages of Hartum and Hahlen, its left touching the village of Stemmer. On the right of the line stood two British infantry brigades, behind the protection of the woods. Ahead and to the right were Prince Anhalt’s Hanoverian brigades. Sixteen French battalions were advancing on Hahlen. They were followed by fifteen more and by thirty guns. Ahead trotted the French cavalry. About this time, several houses in the village of Hahlen caught fire. The heat and smoke drifted towards the French, blinding them and holding them back. The British infantry was soon advanced far enough to be in range of the French artillery. Captain William Phillips, commanding the artillery, saw the danger. He brought up his heavy guns at the gallop, an unheard of feat in warfare. They quickly unlimbered and began lobbing shells into the French artillery, quenching its fire.
The red-coated soldiers then emerged from the fir-woods and charged the French cavalry, seven thousand horsemen trotting forward in two lines. The cavalry carrying only swords, could either charge or be shot down. The Marquis de Castries led eleven squadrons forward at the gallop. The British and Hanovernian infantry, commanded by the Earl of Waldegrave, advanced in three lines. Each man would have time to fire one round before the cavalry were upon them, then it would be bayonet against sword and momentum. They held their fire, waiting until the French were within ten paces. The volley smashed de Castrie’s cavalry squadrons, who reeled back. The infantry closed their ranks, reloaded and marched on, ready for the next shock. It came quickly. Twenty-two squadrons thundered down upon them. They were met by a second salvo, fired at point plank range. Horses and men alike fell in a hail of musket ball. The line of infantry had broken three squadrons of cavalry.
De Contades then sent his crack cavalry regiments, two-thousand elite horsemen, to envelope the advancing infantry. It was 9:00 a. m. and the crisis of the battle. For the third time the infantry met the charge in an unwavering line, again delivering carnage. The cavalry reeled back, pounded by the allied artillery. The French center disintegrated, their guns fell silent. All that was needed was an allied cavalry charge.
Ferdinand sent an order to Sakville to bring up the cavalry on the right and complete the destruction of the French. Sackville sent an officer forward to move the Saxe-Gotha regiment of foot that obstructed his way, and a second officer to advance and ascertain where was located the infantry he was to support. A second order was brought by Colonel Sir John Ligonier instructing Sackville to advance in order to profit from the disorder which appeared to in the enemy's cavalry. Sackville put his cavalry in motion, advancing strait ahead. Colonel Fitzroy met him, telling him he was to advance to the left, through the woods. Sackville now held his cavalry, and refused to remove them from behind the village of Hatrum.
A three-mile gap opened between Fredinand's main army and his left, the detachment commanded by General Wangenheim, at the village of Todtenhausen. Ferdinand then maneuvered his army and completed the junction, and succeeded in closing the three-mile gap, forcing the French to retreat back to the shelter of the guns of Minden.
The French had lost between seven and eleven thousand men, forty-three guns and seventeen standards. The Allies lost 2600 killed and wounded of whom, 81 officers and 1,311 men belonged to the British infantry. The beaten French streamed through Minden and dispersed over the countryside without order or discipline. By the end of the year, Ferdinand had driven the French back to the Rhine River.
Author: Martin Steffen (Bielefeld)/Hans-Juergen Amtage