Background to the Battle of Rocroi, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was the most traumatic event to affect Europe prior to the Napoleonic Era and the two world wars of the 20th century. It was centered mainly in the Holy Roman Empire – which encompassed much of modern-day Germany – and its conflicts between Catholic and Protestant rulers. It devolved into a general political conflict. Its several stages are marked by which nation was the chief antagonist to the Catholic/Imperialist forces. Beginning in 1635, France joined the war in opposition to the Spanish-Imperialist side. Though an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, France had been fiscally supporting Protestant Sweden earlier in the war. In addition, France was a longtime rival of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the two main allies opposing the Protestant factions in the war. The “man behind the curtains” of the French kingdom in the early seventeenth century was Armand Jean de Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu. He combined the spiritual power of a cardinal with the temporal power of a political boss, becoming the first modern prime minister. Richelieu advised Louis XIII in all things, but was most responsible for French moves to counterbalance the power of the Spanish-Austrian Hapsburgs, the most powerful dynasty in Europe at that time.
Louis de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien.
Hapsburg lands virtually ringed France on the European continent, and “the Red Eminence” (one of Richelieu’s many sobriquets) strived for years to ensure France did not lose any territory to them. In the beginning, French military plans did not go well, as Spanish and Imperialist forces invaded the country and ravaged Champagne, Burgundy and Picardy in northeastern France. Paris was threatened in 1636, but the invaders were eventually pushed back. French intervention in northern Italy – then under the rule of the Hapsburgs – did not go well. However, by 1641, Spain was experiencing problems of its own. The Portuguese and Catalan populations both revolted against their Spanish overlords, requiring Spanish troops be retained in their own country. In addition, the United Provinces (the Dutch) had won two naval battles against the supposedly invincible Spanish fleets. At the end of 1642, the fortunes of the French received a major blow as Cardinal Richelieu died from a combination of malaria, intestinal tuberculosis and other complications from lung disease and an inflammation of the bones in his arm. He was replaced as prime minister by his protégé, Cardinal Mazarin.
Battle of Rocroi in a classic artwork.
Six months later, Louis XIII died, and was succeeded by his four-year-old son Louis XIV. However, the actual affairs of the state were handled by his mother the queen, Anne of Austria (Of course, young Louis would go on to become “The Sun King”). Meanwhile, almost simultaneously with the death of Louis XIII, a Spanish-Imperialist army invaded northern France from the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium), numbering some 18,000-19,000 infantry with 8000-9000 cavalry and 18 cannon. The Spanish commander, Don Francisco de Melo – who was also the interim Governor-General of the Spanish Netherlands – was an accomplished politician and ambassador. His military bona fides were still pending, despite an impressive victory the previous year at Honnecourt. Blocking the main road to Paris was the French fortress town of Rocroi. Not wanting to leave Rocroi in his rear, de Melo invested the fortress. Frantic couriers were sent to the nearby French Army of Picardy, stating that the fortress could not hold out for long, perhaps two days or less. The Army of Picardy was under the command of Louis de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien, a 21-year-old, untried general who was also a cousin of the new king. He rapidly marched his 16,000-17,000 infantry and 6000-7000 cavalry, along with 12 artillery pieces, to relieve Rocroi and drive off the invading enemy. Further, reports reached Enghien that 6000 reinforcements were on the march to Rocroi. The French commander was determined to relieve Rocroi before those reinforcements could tip the balance. Located in the Ardennes Forest on the border of the Spanish Netherlands, Rocroi was surrounded by dense forests with only one access road, which led through a deep defile in a ridge south of the town.
Amazingly, the French found the road was unguarded. Traversing the terrain, Enghien drew his army up on the ridge facing the rear of the Spanish-Imperialist force. Seeing the French arrayed against him, de Melo reordered his forces on a facing ridge next to the fortress. In between the two armies was a stream with extensive marshy areas. The two armies slept in their positions, preparing for the start of the battle the next day. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the armies of Europe adopted formations incorporating pikemen and arquebusiers or musketeers (called tercios). The Spanish army was considered nearly invincible due to the adoption of the tercio. This formation was a development of Spanish military adventures in Italy in the late fifteenth century. Later refinements allowed it to survive for nearly a century-and-a-quarter. At the time of the battle of Rocroi, the tercio consisted of somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 men, though this number was often reduced through losses and attrition during campaigns. The core of the unit was a block of pikemen, 56 men across and 22 ranks deep. The outer edges of the pike block were lined with about 250 arquebusiers. At each corner of the larger square were four mangas, or sleeves, blocks of about 240 men each, also armed with arquesbuses.
Finally, there were two groups of about 90 men each in open order, armed with the longer-ranged muskets, that were arranged in front and to the sides of the arquebusiers. The Spanish tercio had a rough ratio of 1:1 pikemen to shooters. In most armies, three tercios were usually arrayed together, with one unit to the front with the other two to the side and behind the other. In addition, the men of the tercio were highly trained, professional soldiers that fought all across Europe and had few equals. When properly trained and led, the Spanish tercio was a tough nut to crack. However, the incessant wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries forced the Spanish to recruit in their other European possessions, mainly northern Italy, the Spanish Netherlands and Germany. Many of the tercios composed of these subject troops were often only 1-2000 men strong, and their level of training was not comparable to their Spanish counterparts. The Army Dispositions Both sides lined up in remarkably similar formations. Their cavalry forces were on the flanks, the infantry in the center was arranged in two lines, and their artillery drawn up in front of the infantry. Each side also had a reserve force, but they differed in size and composition. The Spanish-Imperialist reserve consisted of two squadrons of cavalry, while the French reserve was composed of two squadrons of cavalry, six companies of gendarmes – who by this time had evolved into lightly armored, pistol-and sword armed troops – and three battalions of infantry. In addition, the Spanish-Imperialist army was a melting pot of various nationalities. The front line of the infantry consisted of five Spanish tercios, with five more hailing from Italy and the county of Franche-Comte (a Spanish possession in what is today eastern France bordering Switzerland). The second line of the Spanish infantry was comprised of nine battalions of German, Italian and Walloon (Belgian) troops. The left cavalry wing numbered 15 squadrons of Flemish cavalry, while the right cavalry wing totaled 14 squadrons of German and Croatian horsemen.
Both army commanders – the Duc d’Enghien and Don Francisco de Melo – were stationed in their respective right cavalry wings. At about dawn on May 19, 1643 (6:00 a.m. local time) Enghien ordered the first moves: his infantry attacked the Spanish center, the right cavalry wing attacked the Imperialist left cavalry wing, and the French left cavalry unit was ordered to stand pat. The French infantry was repulsed, but the French right wing after hard fighting drove off the Flemish horsemen, exposing the left flank of the enemy center to the French horse. The Spanish center managed to hold its positions. Then, against orders, the French left wing launched itself at the Imperialist right wing. This unauthorized assault was hampered by the marshy ground to their left. The Germans and Croats counterattacked, driving the French left wing from the field. Following up their success, the Germans and Croats moved to attack the left flank of the French center. However, the French reserve moved up from the rear and blocked the advance of the Imperialist cavalry. At this point, the battle was less than two hours old. Enghien then ordered his right wing to strike the right flank and rear of the Imperialist infantry. Personally leading the cavalry in a ride around the rear of the enemy, the plan succeeded brilliantly. Falling prey to the French cavalry attack, the German, Italian and Walloon infantry collapsed and routed from the field. At the same time, the French infantry reserve managed to break the assault of the German cavalry on the French left, chasing the Germans from the battlefield. It was now about 8:00 a.m., and the Imperialist force was reduced to the Spanish tercios. Returning to his own lines, Enghien ordered his cavalry to attack the Spanish line, despite the obvious fatigue of his men and horses. Two separate assaults by the French horse achieved nothing. Desperate for a resolution, Enghien ordered his artillery – in addition to some captured Spanish cannon – to bombard the unyielding tercios. He ordered another cavalry charge, hoping to break the Spanish.
Battle of Rocroi.
At this point, the remaining Spanish artillery fell silent, out of ammunition. Realizing the perilous situation he was in, de Melo surrendered in order to save his Spanish from being destroyed. It was about 10:00 a.m. The battle of Rocroi had ended. De Melo, though defeated, requested the same terms that were generally made by the defenders of a fortress – to leave the field with flags flying and retaining their weapons. Perhaps feeling in a generous mood, Enghien approved. The Spanish left the field and returned across the border to the Netherlands. Casualties for this battle were fairly heavy: the Spanish lost 7000 dead and wounded, as well as 8000 captured, while the French suffered some 4000 dead and wounded. It was the first victory in the military career of the Duc d’Enghien. It also signaled the first major defeat for the Spanish tercio system in over a century.
Source: http://www.legion.org (The Burn Pit)