The Battle of Dettingen 1743
War: War of the Austrian Succession or King George’s War.
Date: 27th June 1743.
Place: Dettingen was fought in South West Germany on the North bank of the Main river some 70 miles East of Frankfurt and 3 miles West of Aschaffenburg.
Combatants: The Pragmatic Army comprising British, Hanoverians and Austrians against a French Army.
King George II at the Battle of Dettingen
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Generals: George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover, Earl of Stair, Marshall Konigseck, Duc D’Ahremburg, General Ilton (Hanover). The French were commanded by the Duc de Noailles and the force that crossed the Main was commanded by the Comte de Grammont.
Size of the Armies: 70,000 French and 50,000 British and allied troops.
Winner: Pragmatic Army
King George II at the Battle of Dettingen
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British Regiments: The following British Regiments hold Dettingen as a battle honour:
The Life Guards, the Blues and Royals, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Royal Dragoon Guards, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, the King’s Regiment, the Devon and Dorset Regiment, the Royal Anglian Regiment, the Light Infantry, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.
The following British regiments fought at the battle: 3rd and 4th Troops of Horse Guards, 2nd Troop of Horse Grenadier Guards, Royal Regiment of Horse, King’s Horse, 7th Horse, Royal Dragoons, Royal Scots Greys, King’s Dragoons, 4th, 6th and 7th Dragoons, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foot Guards, 3rd, 4th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 31st, 32nd, 33rd and 37th Foot.
The Battle of Dettingen is a highly significant victory for the British Army, being the only time in modern history that a British Force has been led into battle by a reigning monarch: King George II.
Although ostensibly fighting to preserve Flanders from the predations of Louis XV’s French armies, the British army’s presence on the Continent from 1742 was as much to preserve the independence of Hanover; King George II being Elector of Hanover. The British force constituted part of what was known as the “Pragmatic Army”; comprising British, Austrian and Hanoverian troops.
In early 1743 the Pragmatic Allies were at a loss how to use their army against the French. Finally, late in the campaigning season and at George II’s insistence, the Pragmatic Army march south to Frankfurt am Main and occupied the area to the West of Mainz on the Main River. The King intended that the army’s presence should influence the election of the new Archbishop of Mainz, an elector in the Holy Roman Empire and therefore of importance in the affairs of Hanover.
The Pragmatic Army marched from Flanders during May 1743 and encamped at Aschaffenburg, around the village of Klein Ostheim. A large French Army under the Duc de Noailles occupied the South bank of the Main to the West.
The generals were; the Earl of Stair, in nominal overall command, the Duke D’Ahrenburg and Marshall Neipperg commanding the Austrians and General Ilton commanding the Hanoverian contingent.
On 19th June 1743 King George II, the King of England, joined the army, amid a flurry of celebrations and salutes. He brought with him a considerable retinue, conveyed by an enormous column of carriages and some 600 horses that paralysed the local roads for days, and his younger and favourite son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, a major general in the army. Over the next few days George attended church services and functions in Mainz in anticipation of the election of the new archbishop.
The situation of the Pragmatic Army deteriorated dramatically when the French cut the route by the Rhine and Main Rivers by which the army received supplies from its Flanders base. There had been no proper supply of bread for a week, when finally on 27th June 1743 King George ordered the retreat to begin; West along the road to Hanau and Frankfurt and then North to Flanders.
The road lay along the north bank of the Main River. Within 3 miles, King George II’s army would pass through the village of Dettingen, where several marshy brooks flowed into the Main.
As the Pragmatic Army marched towards Dettingen, advanced parties reported that the French occupied the village, blocking its path. During the night the French, commanded by the Duc de Grammont, had crossed the river, using bridges of boats across the Main, and held the village and the marshy ground between Dettingen and the hills in strength.
Trooper Thomas Brown of Bland's King's Own Dragoons rescues the Guidon at the Battle of Dettingen
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The presence of the French took the Pragmatic Army entirely by surprise. How could such a large force have been in complete ignorance of the presence of the enemy on its own side of the river within 10 miles of its camp?
Preparing to give battle, the British, Austrian and Hanoverian troops formed line; the Main River on the left and the wooded Spessart Hills on the right. The regiments took from 9am to midday to form up. This extraordinary length of time must have been due to the inexperience of the regiments and the difficulty of moving from a column of march into battle line.
No doubt there was considerable anxiety at the predicament in which they found themselves. The Duc de Noailles’ plan was, while the Duc de Grammont held the line of Dettingen and the streams preventing the Pragmatic allies from continuing their march, to hurry a section of his army along the south bank of the Main and cross at Aschaffenburg in their rear. They would be caught between the two forces and perhaps forced to surrender; King George becoming a French prisoner.
The French batteries on the south bank began the battle, opening fire across the river as the marching French troops cleared their front. The bombardment was directed at the British cavalry moving along the North bank
It is said that de Grammont’s clear orders were to stay in Dettingen and force the Pragmatic Army to attack him. If this is so he disobeyed. As the British, Hanoverian and Austrian completed their line the French advanced out of Dettingen to the attack.
The 1st Troop of Horse Guards
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
There is little reliable information on the form of the battle or on the formation adopted by the Pragmatic troops. It would appear that British regiments were in the front line, but in what order is not clear. At an early stage French cavalry, the Maison du Roi, attacked the British cavalry by the river. The French were driven back, apparently with significant loss.
The French assault had all the hallmarks of extreme confusion, possibly a spontaneous and undisciplined advance that De Grammont did not order. The cavalry charge was followed by a French infantry attack on the Pragmatic line of foot, the French appearing to come out of Dettingen pell mell and in some confusion.
The French foot were repelled and, panic stricken, hurried back through Dettingen, recrossing the Main by the bridges of boats,. One of the bridges collapsed and many French troops are reputed to have been drowned.
No attempt seems to have been made to follow up the repulse of De Grammont’s force. In due course the march was resumed and the Pragmatic Army continued its way to Hanau, passing within a half mile or so of the confusion at the French bridges of boats.
One of the principal French regiments of foot in the attack from Dettingen was the Garde Francaise. This regiment is reputed to have been particularly quick to recross the Main; many of its soldiers being thrown into the river by the bridge collapse; so that the regiment acquired the nickname of “Les Canards du Main”. Hence the French word “canard” meaning an insult. (see the comments of Sir Charles Hay at Fontenoy).
In every battle there is a process of working out what happened and in many instances awkward features are glossed over or rewritten. Dettingen is a particularly difficult battle to fathom. The British Army had not been in a major continental war for 25 years. There were few officers or soldiers with significant fighting experience. Contemporary authorities show how amateurish were the training systems, such as they were, particularly for the mounted regiments. There are clear references in the authorities to British cavalry regiments (particularly the King’s Horse and the Blues) bolting through the British infantry line during the battle, due to inadequate horsemanship.
The lack of any pursuit may well be due to the confusion created by the French attack and the inadequate training of the time.
It is hard to reconcile the low British casualties with the bombardment by 50 French guns across the river into the British flank, a couple of hundred metres away at most. It may be that the guns were masked for longer by the passing French troops than the descriptions of the battle indicate.
British: 15 officers killed, 250 soldiers killed, 327 horses killed. 38 officers wounded, 520 soldiers wounded, 155 horses wounded.
Hanover: 177 killed, 376 wounded.
Austria: 315 killed, 663 wounded.
French casualties: 8,000 (not a reliable figure but the best available)
Follow-up: Once the battle was over the Pragmatic Army continued its retreat to Hanau and in due course returned to its bases in Flanders. The British casualties were left on the battlefield for the French to look after if they felt inclined.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- At the beginning of the battle it seemed that the French threat was to Aschaffenburg. The Hanoverian General Ilton dispatched the Hanoverian and British Foot Guard to the rear of the army. To their indignation these regiments took no part in the battle, for which they blamed Ilton. There was no love lost between the British and the Hanoverians. General Ilton protested that his action in sending them to the rear had ‘preserved’ them. The officers of the Foot Guards labeled Ilton the “Confectioner”.
- Coronet Richardson of Ligonier’s Horse (7th Dragoon Guards) rescued the regiment’s standard.
- Dragoon Thomas Brown rescued the guidon of Bland’s Dragoons (3rd Hussars) and was knighted by George II.
- Lieutenant Colonel Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochaw warned his Royal Scottish Fusiliers not to fire until they could “see the white’s of their e’en.”
- George II is said to have called the 31st Foot the “Buffs” during the battle. It was pointed out to him that they were not in fact the “Buffs”, although they wore buff facings like the 3rd Foot, but were a newly raised regiment. The King is reputed to have called out, “Well done the Young Buffs then.”
- The Horse Guards are said to have played “Britons strike home” as they charged.
- The Duke of Cumberland was wounded by a bullet in the leg during the battle. He was troubled by this injury for the rest of his life.
- George II’s horse bolted during the battle. He is said to have sheltered under an oak and to have presented an oak leaf to the soldiers who looked after him. The Cheshire Regiment claims this honour. However they were in garrison in Gibraltar at the time.
- The King was not the only one who had trouble controlling his horse. The Blues and the King’s Horse are reputed to have bolted through the Royal Scots Fusliiers.
- Among those who took part were:
- George August Elliott, the defender of Gibraltar during the 7 year siege in the Bourbon War of 1777, becoming Lord Heathfield,
- Lieutenant James Wolfe, appointed in 1759 Major General in Canada and capturer of Quebec
- Lieutenant Jeffrey Amherst, appointed in 1759 to command in America and capture French Canada.
- Dettingen is of considerable importance in British history almost solely because of the presence of the Sovereign. Handel wrote a Te Deum and an anthem in celebration of the victory.
- The contemporary plan of the Battle of Dettingen (see below) from the archives of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a most important document in establishing the circumstances and chain of events in the battle. It shows for example that the French camp was immediately across the Main River from the camp of the Pragmatic army.
Map of the Battle of Dettingen: by Andreas Reinhard (II) of Frankfurt am Main item the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
Contemporary German map of the Battle of Dettingen. The map is far from accurate, showing the battle as taking place to the West of Dettingen instead of East of the village, which is where the authorities show it to have taken place.
- Fortescue’s History of the British Army Volume 1 Part II
- Dettingen 1743 by Michael Orr