SHAT - A4 29, pièce
Translated from French by Richard Couture
Letter sent to the Marquise de Pompadour by M. de Maillebois the day after the battle of Hastembeck.
July 27 1757
It has not been possible to me to write you yesterday from the battlefield, as you had ordered me. The detailed description that will be made of the action yesterday will greatly vary; but at least, they will concord on a singular point: that we were preparing to retire while the enemies were really retiring on Hameln and Hanover. To understand the details of this battle correctly, it is necessary to look at the whole context: it was during our long stay in Bielefeld that the Maréchal took his dispositions to cross the Weser; some proposed to cross it at Rinteln, between Minden and Hameln, where we should immediately be in an open country; the safest course of action was to cross it at Höxter and this course of action was preferred, but the consequences were not foreseen; the apertures were so bad that the Maréchal did not believe that they were passable, and wrote it to the Court. However the shame to retrace his own steps, and the uncertainty that the other roads would be better, made him advance straight ahead. The first mach was made without difficulty, the second brought us to Halle where we found a corps of 4 to 5.000 men that we did not dare to chase and who retreated in front of us in the best order. The following day, upon arrival at our third camp, we saw the same corps as the previous day; once more we did not attack it and we let it retire calmly beyond the wood and the defiles that we had in front of our camp. They looked so important and so difficult to force that after a war-council, it was considered impossible to advance any further and the result of the war-council was that we should retire a few marches and that we should try to cross it at Cinbeck to advance on the Leine, towards Hanover while moving away from the Weser. This course of action was unfortunate to take, very long and difficult for the supplies, however one was resolute to take it when we were informed that the enemies were not guarding the woods nor the defiles and were retiring to the plain of Hameln; thus we marched once more and went through them the following day; it was after luring us during five marches through the most awful roads, after having let us leave the defiles and woods behind us that the enemies waited for us in the best position possible: they were in order of battle on a height, their right towards Hameln; covered by a brook and a marsh. Their centre was thus inaccessible, their left was anchored to wooded heights, full of ravines, in which they had thrown much infantry, built redoubts, and placed four batteries in part defending the wood and in part overlooking the surrounding country. In front of their right; they had a village and a ravine. Thus, they were accessible only through a front at most 500 toises wide, protected again by their redoubts and batteries; number in such a disposition was not an adavantage any more; therefore there were only five brigades who could charge, the enemy position must have looked very well thought-of, but one could not back up any more; one was engaged as much as one could, retreat through woods and defiles would have been very difficult; our rearguards would have been constantly charged, attacked and often beaten. An army of 70.000 men would have fled in front of 45.000 men at most and Europe had his eyes fixed on this army; these considerations have doubtless determined to attack despite the strength of the enemies positions. The Austrian Brigade, the La Marine, Belsunce, Picardie and Enghien brigades, the Swiss Brigade under M. de Chevert attacked the woods, gained the heigths, forced the ravines, and finally took two batteries in rear who overlooked the plain. We owed this advantage to the weakness of our enemies because our troops did not behave well as soon as they came under a lively fire. The army was then able to march between the village and the woods without fearing to be crushed by the enemy guns; in fact it marched on a very narrow front due to the good dispositions of the enemies. Then it was reported that, through the defiles behind the woods that we had just forced on our right and rear, the enemies were marching and appearing in two columns of infantry and cavalry; meanwhile the redoubt was attacked and taken back. The Maréchal then thought that all was lost, he thought that he was cut from the rear, having also the enemies in front of him; the entire cavalry was sent against the defiles as well as many brigades who were supposed to move forward, artillery was retired, the equipages were ordered to leave. By these new dispositions, hustles and bustles, worries, the enemies were in fact retiring, these so-called columns did not arrive nor appear; it was then discovered that they had no other base than the fright of some of our troops and valets who had been pushed back by 5 or 600 light troops; the redoubt and the battery occupied by Eu Regiment and abandoned was attacked and taken by our own troops, by the Swiss Brigade from M. de Randan's Corps, and who, coming from a different road, were identified as Hanoverians; fire was very lively and we reciprocally killed ourselves many peoples; this morning one wants to make this fact doubtful and one says that the attack of the redoubt was effectively made by 800 Hanoverians lost in the woods, who were seeking retreat, but it seems constant that our own troops who misjudged their identities; this accident, adding to our losses, make them much more considerable than that of the enemies who do not exceed 1.500 men, while we estimate our own to more than 3.000; we have no standards nor flags, only a few guns which indicates that our advantage was not very considerable. But there has never been a battle without the most important consequences, it is enough to be master of the battlefield. It then always results the greatest advantages; the enemies has retired very calmly since we were taking our dispositions to retire when we realised that they were in full retreat, it was too late to pursue them, and we contented ourselves with the occupation of the battlefield. Hameln will fall and we march upon Hanover. M. de Leaurno is wounded, M. de Belsunce slightly, M. de Laval, Le Menin killed; overall there were only about 50 officers wounded. To fill my page, I just have to remark that:
1° my letter was written at 9:00 A.M., that it is now 6:00 P.M. and that doubt still persists on the identity of the troops who attacked the redoubt. Those who led them want to excuse themselves of such a capital mistake; but this does not prove that they did not commit it.
2° our troops commit all possible horrors, plunder churches, and are better at looting than at fighting.
3° we owe mostly to artillery the success of the battle of Hastenbeck.
4° the enemies are retiring on Minden where one say that they are waiting for us.
5° Cumberland, the night who followed the battle of July 26, had proposed to attack us at dawn; if a beaten army dared to show up again this way, it would often surprise the victorious army. This is through deserters that we heard of this project of Cumberland which is all to his honour. We have bivouacked for three nights, the days have been excessively warm, many persons are endangered by the sunburns that they have received.