The Battle of Rocroi

Enghien the Angelic gallops into the center of this painting of Rocroi. In the future he would become the indespensible Grande Conde of France. But at Rocroi he was an untested 22 year old. Photo Credit: Francoise Joseph Heim.

While the long term future was bright for France, its ability to command anything bigger than a corgi in 1643 must have seemed doubtful. Their military reputation was a mix of the odd success seasoned with some truly awkward failures. The good news for Mazarin was that he finally had two French Commanders he would come to rely on, Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Viscomte de Turenne and the Duc d’Enghien, the Prince of Conde. d’Enghien’s appointment was political, as his father was a potential rival claimant to the throne of France. Mazarin had mollified him by giving his son a job on one of the secondary fronts of the war. Which must have made the news out of Flanders all the more nerve wracking.

Spain’s situation in 1643 was grim. Olivares had gotten the boot, but unlike relatively Mazarin’s comfortable succession to the role of statesman and chief foreign policy chessmaster, there was really no one to replace Olivares in Spain. Phillip IV was no genius, and after trying to go it alone for a bit, he began to rely more heavily on Olivares’ own nephew and many of the same staff the Count-Duke had appointed over the years. Richelieu’s death had brought a new pair of steady hands to the helm. The Spanish were on impulse power.

For the campaign of 1643 Spain decided that a portion of the Flanders army would need to invade France to shift focus away from the still seething Catalonia. Spanish General and temporary governor Francisco de Melo had some experience at what this entailed. The year before at Harcourt he had destroyed two French garrisons and reclaimed some of the losses in southern Wallonia. To this end, a force of some 27,000 Spanish, German, and Flemish troops peeled south and laid siege to the fortified town of Rocroi, just over the modern border of France.[1]

The modern town of Rocroi, with its fortifications still plainly visible. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The young Prince of Conde moved to respond, against the warnings of essentially all his advisers. For one, Conde’s army numbered about 23,000 with fewer cannon than de Melo, and for another it was not actually clear just how important Rocroi fortress really was.  What was much more important symbolically was that Louis XIII had died the day before, and Conde was eager to leave the laurels of victory on his king’s grave. To Mazarin the impression was of a boy racing off to win his spurs, or perhaps a car crash in slow motion.

It certainly seemed to start that way as well. On May 19th, 1643 the French army struck out at the Spanish early in the morning. Though French skirmishers got the drop on their enemies, d’Enghien’s personally led cavalry attack was stalled by the veteran Spaniards, and his other flank crumbled under a Spanish assault. But the infantry line held its nerve. As with Breitenfeld, the French at Rocroi showed the hard value of discipline and organization over individual zeal.  As the Spanish cavalry raced off to ransack the French baggage train, d’Enghien regrouped all of his available cavalry, and brought it crashing down on his side of the Spanish line.

Viggo Mortensen in the 2006 film Alatriste, based on the series of books about the titular character. Alatriste goes on a number of adventures before dying heroically at Rocroi. English readers should think of Sharpe’s Rifles or Hornblower for a similar vein and contrast. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox (? They’ve recently acquired the remake rights).

One by one the German and Wallonian Tercios cracked under the enveloping force of infantry from the front and cavalry on their flanks and rear. Soon, only Spain’s hardened core of Castilians held the line. Even under countless charges from a foe that outnumbered them two to one they held. Even as the French trained the Spaniard’s own guns on the infantry blocks, two units totaling almost 4,000 men would hold firm against all comers. Exhausted and likely confused by the Spanish resilience, the French permitted the final Tercio to quit the field and march back to Spain with full honors. Technicalities aside, d’Enghien and the French had smashed the Spanish army. In French histories, Rocroi was the day when the Spanish Tercios lost their dominance, and the French era really began. In actuality, while Rocroi was a crucial battle, the war was far from over.[2] De Melo escaped the field and quickly reorganized the Army of Flanders to hold the line in the Spanish Netherlands.

France’s inconsistent performance elsewhere also did them no favors. After making steady progress through Swabia, the now Francophied army of the late Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar[3] captured the city of Rottweil in October 1643. Unfortunately its commander died of his wounds, and his less qualified successor was immediately ambushed by an Imperial coalition led by the Bavarian prodigy Franz von Mercy.[4] At the Battle of Tuttlingen on November 24th, 1634, the Bernardines were overwhelmed and routed in an overnight ambush. Back in Paris Mazarin was left wondering just how five years of campaigns along the Rhine had earned them essentially nothing. Though if Mazarin ever got tired of wondering what was wrong with his armies, he could also wonder just where the hell his allies were that year.

[1] Rocroi guarded one of the better roads through the forest of Ardennes, which enjoyed a reputation as being nearly impenetrable until the German army crashed through it not once, not twice, but three times with tanks and infantry in the 20th Century.

[2] Conde was keen to hype the battle up as much as possible in later years, which might have something to do with its prominence in history. Just as romantic has been the image of that final Tercio to the Spanish, holding the line against all comers for a decaying cause.

[3] We’ll be calling them the Bernadines, which sounds a little like a version of the Rockettes or a political faction, but that can’t be helped. Their leadership dies a little too frequently for the author to bother with it.

[4] We’ve never really gotten around to him, but also present at the battle was Charles IV of Lorraine, effectively the scheming Iago of France around this time. Charles was behind or associated with several plots to put Louis’ brother Gaston on the throne. And while no one schemes like Gaston, fights like Gaston, bites like Gaston, or Retreats like Gaston, betting on Gaston was always a bad choice. Expactorating skills unknown.


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