Campaign of 1747
by Monsieur the Count de Mailly
(translation John Boadle)
In accordance with these general dispositions, all the columns set off, it being four and a quarter o'clock in the afternoon. That of the centre under the orders of Messieurs the Chevalier de Belle-Isle and d'Arnaud wished at first to confine itself to a fire of musketry upon the redoubt (from the shelter of a mound upon which had been set up four poor cannon of the sort known as mule's cock and which were of no effect). But troubled by the fire under which they stood, M. (Monsieur) d'Arnaud decided to bring his grenadiers to the foot of the entrenchment, to which the far side of the mound formed a sort of ditch, and he was killed on leaving cover.
Part of the grenadiers fell back at this moment onto M. the Chevalier de Belle-Isle, who was in the middle of the column, and having rallied them he brought them to the foot of the redoubt, but their efforts to climb it were useless, its height of over sixteen feet not permitting it, and the greater part of those who had arrived their were rendered unconscious either by the stones or by the fire of weapons which the enemy pointed down on them from all along the revetment of the redoubt. And this was the point at which M. the Chevalier de Belle-Isle was killed.
One cannot on this occasion but speak of the actions of one grenadier, who having climbed onto the shoulders of one of his comrades and grasping onto the fascines of the redoubt, clambered to the top and seized hold of a flag which had been planted there. Sabre in hand, he fought until riddled by blows; just as others were about to follow him he was knocked down.
The left column, commanded by M. de Mailly advanced into the re-entrant angle of where it was to attack, but scarcely had the advanced guard marched a hundred paces when they suffered a general discharge which wholly wiped them out.
M. de Mailly, who was on horseback at the head of this column, moved there to rally what remained, but not being able to he moved forward the first battalion of the Bourbonnais regiment by way of an advanced guard, which having arrived at the same point of aim were subjected to the same fire from the entrenchments and gave way. On should add that the head of this unit suffered great loss and the colonel, M. de Goas, and men as far back as the twelfth rank were all wiped out.
During this time, M. de Bourdenave had marched on the left of the column with his twelve pickets to the lower line of the entrenchments, and having endured without firing two enemy volleys, attacked them with fixed bayonets and jumping into the entrenchment chased them away without the loss of a single man.
This moment, which was followed by cries of 'vive le Roi', brought forward part of the first battalion of Bourbonnais which had given way, and M. de Mailly who had straightaway moved forward the second was pained to see that after a third enemy volley on the same spot this battalion gave way like the first.
Finally he moved up the third which marched with unparalleled firmness; one called Dubourdet commanded it; it was followed in the same tone by the fourth battalion of the la Reine brigade, seeing which the first and second battalions, which had given way, rallied and returned, pushing before the third to take back their place at the head of the column from whence they moved with shouts of fury to the foot of the entrenchment, where what remained of the column was destroyed by the final fire of the enemy.
At last, there remaining of these two brigades scarce three or four hundred men, M. De Mailly had the retreat sounded and returned to take up the same position from whence he had advanced. And since he had occasion to fear the enemy leaving their entrenchment and marching upon him, he changed from his column formation and had the three hundred and fifty men formed into a line two deep. This movement was prompt and done in such a way that the enemy, seeing a much extended front believed that reserves must have arrived to reinforce M. de Mailly.
It was now half past 6 which meant the attack had lasted two and a quarter hours.
As regards the attack of the right hand column under M. de Villemur it no doubt occupied the attention of the troops at Fenestrelles and those in the entrenchments, but did not risk compromising itself, although, perhaps there were no more than two battalions facing it.
Only the grenadier detachment, commanded by M. de Larnage, and some battalions close by, lost a few men there.
The three columns having thus retired and night drawing on, the question arose of what course of action ought now to be taken.
M. de Mailly, to whom an officer from the Chevalier de Belle-Isle's column had announced the death of the latter, took himself to the centre column, as did M. de Villemur from his side, and in accordance with the opinion of the general officers there assembled it was determined they would retire during the night.
M. De Mailly was charged with command of the rearguard and with bringing away the wounded; he was given all the remaining grenadiers of the three columns and it was agreed he would contain the enemy by remaining in line facing the entrenchments until midnight, after which he would withdraw. But since getting the wounded away was of the greatest concern, and it had not been possible to transport them during the night to Sault-d'0ulx where the field hospital was situated, M. de Mailly remained in his position till ten in the morning, then retired on the village of Sault-d'0ulx a league away from the entrenchments, and having ordered the carrying away of all the wounded who might possibly be transported, and having remained there until mid-day, he sent an officer and a military commissioner with a drummer to M. de Briqueras the Piedmontese general, requesting him to send a detachment to keep and guard the wounded who were in no state to be transported; which was carried out in accordance with a convention agreed in writing by that general: that the equipment of the hospital, its funds, everything which belonged to the King and the personnel attached thereto would not be considered as taken or as prisoners.
This last objective having been achieved, M. de Mailly joined the army at the village of Oulx where the body of the Chevalier de Belle-Isle had been carried and where the final honours were paid to him.
Since that time he has been transported to Embrun.
Finally all the troops retired on Mount Genèvre, where M. the Marshal de Belle-Isle sent lieutenant general M. d'Argouges with orders for the destinations of both troops and generals.
M. d'Argouges moved to Guillestre.
And M. de Villemur returned to command in the valley of Barcelonnette.
M. de Mailly was given command of the Briançonnais area. He had orders to remain in the face of the enemy, in concert with the Spanish who were occupying Savoy, and he was ordered to establish entrenchments from Briançon, the right flank of which were based on a mountain called the Infernet, above the fort of Anjou. The slope of this mountain was made steeper and a kind of fort established on top of it, which is still there today, its left overlooking the valley of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne so as to communicate with Savoy; the full extent of this entrenchment could be as far as twenty five or thirty leagues allowing for its twists and turns.
M. de Mailly sent the plan of these entrenchments to M. the marshal de Belle-Isle along with those of the entrenchments of the Assiette, those of the pass of Vars, the valley of Barcelonnette and of Tourons.
These works being completed and the enemy, after different manoeuvres nearby which led to no more than a few minor engagements in which they were successively repulsed, deciding to march off to their left, M. de Mailly had orders to leave three battalions below Briançon and move parallel with the enemy; he thus moved into the county of Nice where he rejoined the army and where happened the affair of la Roya which ended this campaign.
Such is pretty nearly the summary of the campaign of 1747 in relation to the affair of the Assiette, whose unfortunate lack of success it would be very difficult to justify from the account given of the overall plan of attack.
And in fact, without guns, without fascines, without armour and in particular without ladders, the attack on these entrenchments appeared demonstrably impracticable.
The very hour at which it was commenced and, most of all, the time granted to the enemy in which to discern the plan, increased the obstacles therein.
And in fact the heads of the columns neared the entrenchments at 10 in the morning and yet the attack did not start until four hours and a quarter after mid-day, throughout which time the enemy was seen to establish and successively change his dispositions, based upon those which we were presenting to him, and it was even easy for them to calculate the number of our troops, whereas their position made us quite unable to know theirs.
Nevertheless we may venture confidently to say that if a little more thought had been put into this attack we might have hoped for every success from it; and it was a question merely of changing the outlines of the overall disposition, which by and large was a good one.
The column of M. le chevalier de Belle-Isle should have been no more than a feint.
That on the point intended for M. de Mailly ought to have been of the same kind.
The two decisive columns ought to have been those of M. de Villemur on the right against the enemy's left around Fenestrelles, and that of M. de Mailly on their right against the point of attack entrusted to M. de Bourdenave.
But it would also have needed at the same time for all these dispositions to have been made only on the eve of the attack, and for the enemy to have been disturbed by detachments sent against his whole front during the night, and for the decisive attacks then to have been formed up an hour before daylight.
It would have been easy at the same time to prepare the equipment so necessary for this kind of action, viz. fascines, ladders, etc , both our right and left being positioned next to woods.
These were the kind of thoughts put forward at the time, yet stupidly they were no more noted than those which had been put before M. le chevalier de Belle-Isle around Cézane, when according to news then arriving he was warned of the enemy's move, in strength, into these very entrenchments.
Upon this news M. de Belle-Isle was reminded of the diversionary intent of his march on Exilles.
This was solely to oblige the enemy to raise the siege of Genoa, and consequently one might judge that the enemy could not have moved into the entrenchments other than at the price of raising the siege, whence one might infer that if they carried this out then the object of the diversion must necessarily have been achieved.
It was also pointed out that a double advantage could be drawn from the position in which we found ourselves, by keeping the enemy in the entrenchments where they had moved to cover Exilles, and by establishing a corps of twenty battalions on the heights of Cézane to threaten them, so as to set up during this time the investment and siege of Demont, for which the Cézane corps would act as an army of observation, the enemy not being able to move on Demont without offering up his flank to this position.
Finally, the artillery train intended for Exilles and assembled at Briançon was equally within range of Demont, and all seemed at last to have united, such that the first aim having been achieved another was offered which one might venture to say would have crowned this campaign.
But all was fatal at that moment, both in consequences and particularly in the enormous losses relative to the ground fought over, which were suffered on this unhappy day.
The troops did in this everything that we have any right to expect, and so received innumerable rewards in terms of commissions, crosses of Saint-Louis and monetary gifts. Several brigadiers were created and the King graciously created for M. de Mailly the governorship of Abbeville, the reason for which favour was announced in the commission.
The return of the killed and wounded was above 4625 men and around 400 officers.
M. de Mailly's column alone lost 1160 men and 268 officers.
The officers of note killed were:
M. the chevalier de Belle-Isle, lieutenant general; d'Arnaud, maréchal de camp ; the comte de Douges, colonel of Soissonnais; the comte de Goas, brigadier and colonel of Bourbonnais; Dimécourt, colonel of Périgord; count de Brienne, colonel of Artois; de Morilles, lieutenant-colonel of Boulonnais; la Taille, aide-major général.
Those wounded were:
Messieurs the comte de Mailly, maréchal de camp ; count de Gouy, colonel of la Reine; De Marcieu, colonel of Deslandes; baron de Corsac, assistant quarter-master; de Beauregard, brigadier and lieutenant-colonel of Guise; Civrac, colonel of Aunis; marquis de Montcalm, colonel of Auxerrois ; Ruffé, colonel of Boulonnais; Briannet, lieutenant-colonel of Santerre ; Bourdarien, lieutenant-colonel of Royal-Roussillon; de Danguy, lieutenant-colonel of Périgord ; marquis de Besons, colonel of Beaujolais; de Séguy, lieutenant-colonel of Beaujolais ; La Granville, colonel of Saintonge; chevalier de Bazin, lieutenant-colonel of Saintonge; Dagieu, major général; chevalier de Modène, colonel of the grenadiers royaux ; M. de Mailly colonel of Mailly.