The Battle of Minden Picture
The Battle of Minden, fought on 1 August 1759, was The Suffolk Regiment’s premier Battle Honour, when the Regiment helped to rout the French Cavalry. It is still commemorated every year on the Sunday closest to 1 August.
The Battle of Minden
The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was part of a long struggle for control of central Europe between Austria and the rising power of Prussia, under Frederick the Great. In this war Prussia and England were allies while England’s long-standing rival France supported Austria.
Frederick’s efforts to destroy the Austrian army in Silesia failed. They then advanced into Prussia, reinforced by 100,000 French soldiers and 60,000 Russian troops. The French thrust into the German states in 1757 and occupied Hanover, Hesse and Brunswick, greatly alarming George II. If Prussia were defeated there was a risk of a French invasion of England, with Ostend and other ports under French control.
In August 1758 therefore England sent 12 squadrons of cavalry and 6,000 men (including six regiments of infantry, one of which was the 12th Regiment) to Germany to join Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick’s army. Ferdinand command totalled 53,000, with which he faced two French armies – Marquis of Contades (80,000) on the Rhine and Duc de Broglie (20,000) in Hesse.
In 1759 the French set out to drive a wedge between Ferdinand and the River Weser and both armies raced to secure the town of Minden on the river. Broglie won and took the town. He was joined there by Contades, who took command of the joint army. Ferdinand deployed his force on the West bank of the Weser, to the North of Minden. The French believed their position, between the river and the marshes, to be impregnable.
By scattering is forces, Ferdinand deliberately lured Contades to advance from his secure position. At 0300 hours on 1st August, Contades’ army crossed the Weser on bridges of boats and deployed into the Mindener Heide. Because his front was narrow, Contades, unusually, placed his cavalry in the centre and infantry on the flanks and hoped to catch the Allies by surprise.
A 3-mile gap opened between Ferdinand’s main army and his left, centered on Todtenhausen under General Wangenheim. Contades sent Broglie to drive through this gap, while his own force attacked the Allied right and centre.
The French advance was led by 55 squadrons of cavalry, followed by the infantry and 34 guns. Fire was opened at 0500 hours.
Broglie’s advance on Todtenhausen caught Wangenheim by surprise but he reacted quickly and halted the French. Contades meanwhile saw that his cavalry was seriously threatened. The Allied army had been ready since 0700 hours, its right based on the villages of Hartum and Hahlen: the two British Brigades stood on the right flank, with the 12th Regiment on the right of the leading Brigade. The British and Hanoverian infantry now emerged from the woods behind Hahlen. They were met by 16 French battalions followed by 15 more and 30 guns; ahead came the French cavalry.
The soldiers came on and charged the French cavalry – 7,000 horsemen; having only swords, they had to charge or be shot down. The infantry deployed into three lines. Each soldier would only have time to fire one round before the cavalry were upon him – after that it would be bayonets against swords and the momentum of the charge would take effect. They held their fire until the French were within ten paces; their volleys forced the French back.
The infantry closed ranks, re-loaded and marched on; 22 squadrons bore down on them, received the same fire from the same range and with the same result.
Contades now sent his elite horsemen – 2,000 of them – against the advancing infantry: it was 0900 hours and the crisis-point of the battle. For the third time the cavalry were routed. The defeat of cavalry by infantry in line was an unprecedented feat at the time – for it to happen three times in succession was astonishing.
The Allied infantry had now reached the French infantry main line, attacked them and scattered them in disarray it only needed the Allied cavalry to turn panic into a rout, but the cavalry commander, Lord George Sackville, in spite of repeated orders, failed to act until it was too late.
The French lost between 7,000 and 11,000 men and 43 guns. Allied losses totalled 2,600 killed and wounded, of whom 19 officers and 283 men belonged to the 12th Regiment.. The battle had only lasted four hours.