The Battle of Fontenoy: a literary afterlife

The Battle of Fontenoy took place 275 years ago today, on 11 May 1745, near the city of Tournai, then in the Austrian Netherlands. The Maréchal de Saxe led French forces to victory against an allied Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who had been sent to relieve Tournai from French siege. The French were in a strong defensive position; initial frontal attacks by Cumberland’s troops proved unsuccessful, and the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry were eventually driven back by the French cavalry, artillery, and the Irish Brigade, who were serving under French command. According to Voltaire, the battle saw the death of 5339 Frenchmen, although his Scottish contemporary Tobias Smollett puts the number closer to 12,000 dead on either side.

the Battle of Fontenoy

Vue de la Bataille de Fontenoy gagnée par le Roi Louis XV sur l’armée des alliés le XI mai 1745. Engraving by S. Guélard, drawing by J.B. Brouard. (BnF/Gallica)

Following the French victory at Fontenoy, Saxe and his forces continued their advance through the Austrian Netherlands, pushing back British, Dutch, and Austrian troops over the course of the following few months. Although the Austrian Netherlands were soon returned to the Habsburgs in 1748, following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Battle of Fontenoy nonetheless represented a great victory on the part of France and of Louis XV.

Like all great battles, Fontenoy saw a significant literary afterlife, both in the years immediately following the battle, and well after it had passed from living memory. It boasts a number of fictional heroes among its veterans. Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste is perhaps the most memorable example: ‘Un régiment passait pour aller au Camp devant Fontenoy; de dépit je m’enrôle. Nous arrivons; la bataille se donne.’ A century later, in Treasure Island, we learn that Dr Livesey was among the British soldiers Jacques faced: ‘I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and got a wound myself at Fontenoy.’

The battle lingered and lingers on in Irish literary memory, too; the late nineteenth-century poet Emily Lawless wrote Fontenoy, 1745 from the perspective of the Irish soldiers who fought and died alongside the French. It begins:

Oh, bad the march, the weary march, beneath these alien skies,
But good the night, the friendly night, that soothes our tired eyes.
And bad the war, the tedious war, that keeps us sweltering here,
But good the hour, the friendly hour, that brings the battle near.
That brings us on to battle, that summons to their share
The homeless troops, the banished men, the exiled sons of Clare.

Voltaire, who was at the time of the battle historiographe de France, produced two literary accounts of the French victory: the Poème de Fontenoy (OCV, vol.28B, p.255-402), and two dedicated chapters in the second volume of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCVvol.29B, now published). Although ultimately a detailed and well-researched account, the chapters dedicated to Fontenoy in the Précis are not without dramatic embroidery and flourish, as we might expect from Voltaire. While Saxe is given the praise he is due, Voltaire opens by centering Louis XV as the hero of the narrative, raising morale – ‘Toute l’armée en voyant le roi et le dauphin, fit entendre des acclamations de joie’ – and showing valour and bravery in entering the fray: ‘Le roi ne voulut avoir pour sa garde qu’un escadron de cent vingt hommes de la compagnie de Charost, un seul gendarme, un chevau léger, un mousquetaire.’

Similarly, Voltaire’s use of direct speech produces a more dramatic and engaging narrative, although sometimes at the cost of the impression of total historical faithfulness; he writes, for example: ‘les Irlandais leur crièrent “Vive France”; mais dans le tumulte on n’entendait rien.’ Although effective in bringing home a striking image of the passion of the Irish soldiers in battle and the overwhelming clamour of war, it does beg the question as to how any source might have heard this battle-cry if it were indeed completely obscured by the surrounding noise.

the Battle of Fontenoy

A nineteenth-century depiction of Voltaire’s anecdote by French military painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.

Perhaps the most famous moment of dramatic flair in Voltaire’s account, however, is an anecdote in which the British Lord Charles Hay, turning with his infantrymen to face the French troops, invites them to fire first; there ensues a brief, polite exchange of ‘after you’, ‘no, no, I insist, after you’:

Le comte de Chabannes, le duc de Biron qui s’étaient avancés et tous les officiers des gardes francaises leur rendirent le salut. Milord Charles Hay capitaine aux gardes anglaises cria: ‘Messieurs des gardes françaises, tirez.’ Le comte d’Auteroche, alors lieutenant des grenadiers et depuis capitaine, leur dit à voix haute: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes.’ Alors le capitaine anglais dit aux siens, ‘Give fire, gentlemen. Faites feu, Messieurs.’

The truth of this moment of etiquette in the heat of battle is hard to verify. Voltaire seems to be the first to publish this anecdote, which means either that he heard it from an oral source, or that it is the product of a dramatic embellishment. Regardless, it makes for an interesting and engaging story, which probably accounts for its widespread presence in subsequent literature on the battle.

Voltaire’s presentation of Fontenoy as a personal victory for Louis XV, and his dramatic, detailed account of the French victory, are no doubt in part motivated by the patriotic demands of the role of historiographe de France and a personal desire to win favour at court. The French victory at Fontenoy, and the celebratory literature produced around it, cemented it as an important moment in the history of the country, and indeed of Europe.

– Josie Dyster

Voltaire’s Louis XV, from bien-aimé to mal-aimé

The French victory at Fontenoy in 1745 provided Voltaire, newly appointed historiographe de France, with a welcome opportunity. Present with the French army on 11 May had been Louis XV himself, at his best on campaign and already nicknamed le bien-aimé. Voltaire had a distinct turn for flattery when it suited him. What could be more fitting than the composition of an account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’?

This is the context for the first half of what became Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29A). After Fontenoy Voltaire looked with the rest of France for a favourable and honourable peace, with French glory personified in the figure of the king. But the war dragged on until 1748, by which point Voltaire’s enthusiasm for reporting it had dwindled: ‘les détails en sont si ennuyeux’, as he said to Frederick II. It was not ideal subject matter for Europe’s most renowned poet and dramatist.

The second volume of the Précis, now published (OCV, vol.29B), completes the text, showing how what began as a celebration of the king’s campaigns transforms itself into a history of Voltaire’s time.

Accordingly, the succession of endless marches and manoeuvres, the clash and clang of victory and defeat, give way to a series of chapters featuring men whose deeds provide heroic highlights beyond the battlefield. What do Admiral George Anson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the naval adventurer Mahé de la Bourdonnais have in common? Not much, except that Voltaire bunches them together to fill out his account of the final years of a war in which he had lost interest. These characters – their literary function is as relevant as the historical examples they provide – are all instances of personal heroism and perseverance in the face of long odds.

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, 1757. (British Museum)

After the war Voltaire may have felt that he had finished with writing about conflict, but although he regarded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) as a truce rather than a lasting peace, he did not anticipate the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, over which he passes with comparative brevity. While the earlier war is spread across twenty-five chapters in the Précis, its sequel is compressed into just five (ch.31-35). The first of these centres on the execution of the British Admiral Byng, ‘pour encourager les autres’, followed by that of the Franco-Irish general Lally, condemned for his military failures in India. The struggle for Canada is reduced to a dispute over a few acres of snow. The struggle in Europe is reduced to a personal contest between Frederick II and the duc de Richelieu. War is no longer a realm of heroism, and it is painted in a harshly negative light. Louis XV is nowhere to be seen. Voltaire, settled into life as seigneur of Ferney, no longer had to try to flatter his king.

Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d'avoir la tête tranchée

‘Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d’avoir la tête tranchée en place de grève le 8 mai 1766’. (BnF/Gallica)

The later chapters – mostly written in the 1760s, soon after the events they describe – allow Voltaire to move beyond war. They reflect the preoccupations of the philosophe engagé that he was soon to become. Religious questions are ever-present: the problems surrounding the papal bull Unigenitus and the refusal of sacraments; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bourbon Europe. The dangers of religious fanaticism are highlighted through chapters on Damiens’s attack on Louis XV, or the attempt on the life of the king of Portugal. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and tolerance comes to the fore in his strongly argued advocacy of judicial reform.

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

‘Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens, infâme parricide de Louis XV, le bien-aimé’. (BnF/Gallica)

These later chapters demonstrate the melding of Voltaire’s historical and philosophical concerns. The final chapter reviews the progress of l’esprit humain in Voltaire’s own time. His findings are mixed: despite some advances in certain areas, notably science, literature is in decline and can do no more than distract the reader, who would otherwise be ‘trop accablé de la contemplation des misères humaines’. As for the king, Voltaire almost blames him for bringing about his own death by sanctioning France’s failure to adopt the practice of smallpox inoculation. Louis le bien-aimé has by now become le mal-aimé.

Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV tracks its author’s development as a philosophe, but also as a historian, analyst and commentator on his own time, making it both a summary account of the age of Louis XV and a reflection of Voltaire’s concerns over the last thirty-three years of his own career.

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan