Relation of the battle of Hastembeck
by the Marquis de Valfons, chief of staff of General Chevert.
(translated from the French by Richard Couture)
On July 1, I left Bielfeld to march to the Weser, assisting, as major-general, M. de Chevert who commanded a Corps consisting of the Picardie Regiment (4 battalions), Vaubécourt (2 battalions), Condé (2 battalions), 2 battalions of Grenadiers Royaux, the Carabiniers Corps and 20 guns. This detachment was intended to always form the vanguard.
Meanwhile, 20.000 men had been given to the Duc d'Orléans to go to Cassel. I could have chosen this Corps, but the desire to go where the work would be the most lively decided me to follow Chevert. The enemies had their left at Minden, the right along the Weser.
On July 2, we arrived at Hervorden. (…)
We left (…) on July 8 to march on Horn and to get closer to M. d'Armentières, who during the night, had thrown two bridges on the Weser, between Höxter and Corvey. He had facing him only 200 infantrymen and 30 Hanoverian cavalrymen who did not oppose his action. M. d'Estrées was there personally, having left the main army at Detmold, with M. de Maillebois the chiefs of his staff.
This endeavour was the motive of the cruel annoyance which suspended our success at Hastenbeck and caused a thousand underground manoeuvres, all to the detriment of the glory of our nation, the recall of M. d'Estrées, and finally all the misfortunes of this war.
Relatives and friends of Maréchal d'Estrées were writing him daily that people in Paris publicly said that he was not commanding his army, that M. de Maillebois was doing everything, and that surely, if there was success, he would not received the honour of it. To destroy these false and unfair rumours, he made the crossing of the Weser without M. de Maillebois. He left Cornillon with the main army to pretend that he did not want to exclude uniquely M. de Maillebois from this action.
On July 12, M. d'Estrées ordered a body of troops to cross to cover his headquarter at Corvey abbey. This is an immense palace for a little Prince whose army counted 15 men and whose state included 16 villages. He is very harsh with his subjects, which I avenged as much as I could, by preserving their estates and by marking our camp on the estates of the abbey. The abbey made me a very painful remark in his office, telling me: "I am sorry to see, on the two lieues of land which I own, more than 100.000 French destroying it."
We built new bridges downstream from the first ones, where the army crossed to march on Holzminden on July 16. These are very difficult defiles and a very narrow country. While there, we learned of the capture of Münden, near Cassel, with 300 Hanoverian prisoners. The States of Cassel are neutral, under two quite extraordinary conditions: the first, that they would not withdraw the 12.000 Hessians under British service who should fight against us in a few days, and the second, that they would pay all kind of contributions.
M. de Voyer remained behind with four Grenadiers Royaux battalions and two cavalry regiments, to cover our bridges. M. d'Estrées brought me closer to him because he would soon march to the enemy. On July 20, I left with M. de Chevert, 40 grenadier companies formed the vanguard of the Duc d'Orléans, who had 70 of them. Overall, this amounted to 5.500 grenadiers. I was responsible for this Corps, but this was only after having won my point. Cornillon, major-general, had brought with him, aide-major of the Gardes Françaises, he was assuming the function of aide major-general. I had more seniority than he did, and as brigadier, I was even more senior than Cornillon. The latter, wanting to favour an officer of his own Corps, had recommended him to the Duc d'Orléans for this command. My letters specified that I was first aide major-general, with the promise of the minister and of the general to replace the major-general if anything happened to him. On this ground, I asked for the command of this detachment. Upon arrival there, I found Coupenne quite surprised to see a more senior officer. He wanted to take advantage of the so-called privilege of his regiment and said to the Duc d'Orléans:
"Sir, it is impossible to me to command under another. I plead for the six battalions of Guards that I represent here, for their rank and for their right."
But I answered:
"And me, I plead for the whole French infantry, whom Your Grace has much more reasons to support rights. Your Grace may one day asked to be colonel-general of the infantry, as the Duc d'Orléans, his father, but he will never ask to be colonel of the Gardes Françaises."
Immediately, to fix to my own advantage the irresoluteness of this good Prince, I said to Coupenne:
"I shall march with M. de Chevert and 28 grenadier companies at the vanguard. Take the 12 companies which are under the Prince de Chimay to cover our flank."
The Duc d'Orléans said yes, and M. de Chevert, who witnessed the discussion, congratulated me for my attitude. On July 21, we encamped at Oldenburg, on July 23 at Halle. The camp was so badly established that, charged to distribute the terrain among the infantry, I insisted that if the enemies appeared, we should be obliged to abandon the camp.
Meanwhile, M. d'Armentières' Corps, who was placed forward, fired a few guns and took position under arms. What I had predicted happened. We were forced to march forward and to take possession of the very terrain where we should have been and that I had indicated. All corps advanced unguided, in great order, and the army was put in order of battle by itself. An hour later, we came back to our camp. The enemies had just retired. A war council was hold by the Maréchal d'Estrées, composed only of the lieutenants-generals. All, except Chevert, decided not to give battle. Chevert alone insisted and demonstrated to M. d'Estrées that, coming from so far with a good army, it was not taking advantage of its audacity and of its good will to delay it in front of the enemies, which we tried to join since so long and with such trouble; that delays always upset the nation. A few lieutenants-generals rallied to this advice and it was decided to march and to attack.
On July 24, the army was on the move, having 40 grenadier companies and 12 battalions under MM. de Contades and d'Armentières as vanguard. We met an advance corps of the enemies, amounting to some 6.000 men under Zastrow, who stopped our vanguard and manoeuvred very well. As we put to it more caution than energy, it retreated after having been cannonaded for a while and joined its main army which was behind it. On July 25 at 2:00 A.M., I received a message from M. de Chevert who asked me to join him in the command of a big corps with which he was marching upon the enemies. The preference that he was giving me in such a critical moment and his confident friendship made me leave with the greatest pleasure.
We started our march at 5:00 A.M., with 25 grenadier companies, 300 dragoons and the Picardie Regiment. The design was to attack the rearguard of the enemies if the occasion arose. Our march was cautious but audacious. We forced back 2.000 grenadiers who covered the left of their army which we saw all drawn in order of battle. The Navarre Brigade, under M. de Vogué, reinforced us. M. de Chevert asked to examine the position with the utmost attention and then sent me to M. d'Estrées to report on it. I ventured a lot, not to lose a single moment. I was alone and the woods which I was going through were filled with small parties of Hanoverian jägers who were hiding even on trees and who were firing upon you at point-blank range.
I found the Maréchal who, after listening to me, said: "Sir, I don't want any battle. as M. de Chevert to retire with his Corps, by his left, on M. d'Armentières' Corps. Then both of them will join the main army."
I insisted on the advantage lost by abandoning a terrain that the enemies would certainly seized during the night, but all was useless, his answer remained: "Leave!" Finally, relying on his kindness and on the friendship that he had for me, I took him apart and told him:
"Maréchal, my attachment and my gratitude give me the boldness to represent to you that you will deserve yourself towards your army if you suspended an operation that seems so sure. Audacity, as you know, is the privilege of the French, but one must not let his courage cool down."
He kindly listened to me.
"Well! You have snatched my secret from me. It is for you alone. My bread convoy is still at four lieues from here and we have none left. When we fight, we can be beaten, and I don't want the army to disperse itself for want of supplies. See you tomorrow morning, if the convoy is arrived.
- Do you allow me to tell this reason to M. de Chevert ?
- No, to nobody."
M. de Chevert was very upset to join the main army and to abandon such a useful position. He had to obey, but he had, as a good military man, taken great advantages of the time while he was waiting for the answer of his general.
M. de Bussi, brother of the Bussi of India, was detached in the woods, on our right, with 200 volunteers. This officer, as intelligent as he was brave, did not spare anything to be well informed. He gave, from his own money, 20 louis to a hussar and promised him 50 on his return if, by turning the enemies, he would reconnoitre the terrain on their left, and that, supposing that he would be captured, he would pretend to be a deserter and make what would be possible to come back. The hussar succeeded beyond all hope. He went everywhere, saw thoroughly, did not meet anybody and exactly reported everything. This became very useful the next day.
Our detachment came back to the main army on July 25 at 6:00 P.M.. M. de Chevert, whom I accompanied, reported to the Maréchal and explained him how disappointed he was of having been ordered to abandon such a favourable position. He described him the terrain that the hussar had reconnoitred and the plateau where Bussi had been, assuring him that we could turn the enemies' left by these places. The enemies would be beaten if we were driving them out of the heights overlooking the centre and the right of their army. The same tacit reason regarding the bread convoy and the shortage of food still subsisted. The Maréchal pretended to disagree with Chevert, who, very upset, returned to his Division, very near from the Maréchal's quarter. The latter learned at 7:00 P.M. that convoy was now only one lieue away. He then determined to ask for M. de Chevert to discuss about his project. Chevert requested 12 battalions because he would be separated from the main army and would have no other assistance than his own forces. M. d'Estrées answered that he could give him only 8 battalions.
Chevert estimated that he could not accept with so few troops and we returned to our Division once more. Finally, at 8:00 P.M., the Maréchal asked for Chevert again, who, rebuked by such uncertainties and difficulties, sent me to tell the Maréchal that, being very tired and a little sick, he would beg him to give me his orders that I would transmit him. The Maréchal told me that he approved the first project and that he would give him 12 battalions, but that we must immediately get on march.
I asked to the Maréchal the permission to go get M. de Chevert, who was only 600 paces away, the situation being worth that he came personally take the last orders. All was settled between them and, at 9:00 P.M., by a dark night, we got on march, guided by Rome, lieutenant-colonel of the Légion de Hainaut, who had reconnoitred the ground.
The 12 grenadier companies formed the head of the column, followed by four guns, the four Picardie battalions, the four Navarre battalions and the four La Marine battalions. We advanced up to the village of Varonberg where we turned right in sunken roads in the woods occupied by the enemies, at musket range from their patrols, who always fired a few shots to inform about our march. Our movement was accomplished as well as one could wish, in spite of the greatest difficulties.
I had a serious concern: having formed the Picardie Regiment, I expected to find Navarre following it; but, this latter regiment had continued straightway at the village of Varonberg. I ran alone on foot in the middle of total darkness, risking to fall on a patrol, and was lucky enough to find the regiment whose head was almost touching the enemies first outposts. I made the regiment walk back and formed next to La Marine to the left of Picardie. At 2:00 A.M., the entire corps was arrived on the plateau reconnoitred the previous day by MM. de Bussi and Vioménil, aides de camp of M. de Chevert.
Beyond M. de Chevert's camp, 400 men of the Légion de Hainaut and Légion de Flandre, under La Morlière, masked the woods occupied by the enemies on our left. Bussi and 200 volunteers guarded the outskirt of the wood, and in front of us, where there was a little plain, there were 200 horses of the two Légions, under M. de Bourgmarie. In this position, we waited for the day to attack. Légion M. de Chevert had assembled around him the colonels, the lieutenants-colonels and the captains of the grenadiers, to explain them his plan and the battlefield. Taking their advice with this friendship that inspired confidence, he rallied them all to his plan and made them even more anxious, if possible, to succeed. The Maréchal, feeling that success would depend entirely on the operation on his right, wanted to reinforce him by sending him the Eu Brigade, consisting of the two battalions of the Eu Regiment and of the two battalions of the Enghien Regiment. His sent Menil-Durand, his aide de camp, to announce us this reinforcement; but the brigade got lost on his way and arrived only at 8:00 A.M.. It had been preceded by an hour by the Comte de Lorge who commanded it. He would have strongly desired that the Duc de Randan, his brother, would be in charge of the attack rather than Chevert.
From these events sprung discussions very harmful to the infallible result of this action. I saw twenty times public good sacrificed this way to petty personal interests. Chevert discussed with Comte de Lorge and wanted to explain him the terrain and the plan. M. de Lorge, upset to be under his command, did not listen much.
The Eu Brigade arrived, we started our advance. Hardly had we started to debouche than Chevert was told that Bussi had been killed. Hiding his fears to those around him, Chevert told me: "This was our only guide, this cannot be. Valfons, go get him."
I had not made a hundred paces into the wood that I found him on foot. It is true that his horse had been shot into the mouth, had reared up and had tumbled him but he was not wounded. I led him to M. de Chevert, who, feigning to have some orders to give him, was very pleased to show him to our troops. He then sent him back to his post, where, a few moments later, he was killed, by eight musket balls, in the first volley.
Hardly had we entered into the wood that the enemies appeared to us, numbering 2.000 Hessian grenadiers, supported by 8 Hanoverian battalions, in a unique post, their right was anchored on a steep rock more than 40 feet high. This obstacle just inside the wood was securing their right and rear. Big oak trees stood in front of them and between these trees other fallen oak trees formed formidable abatis. A very dense wood completed their position. We could only occupy a clearing where we were totally exposed.
M. de Chevert, with whom I was, marched at the head of the grenadiers, guiding them. At the first volley, M. du Châtelet received a shot in the belly. I was so near that I gave him my flask. Gaslain was killed. Of the 11 captains of the grenadiers, four were killed during this action, as well as d'Ablancourt from the Navarre Regiment, De Camps of La Marine an d'Ortan of Eu. The wounded were: the Chevalier d'Urre, d'Hallesmes of Picardie; Coupenne of Navarre; d'Harnam, Vignacourt of La Marine; Gressian of Eu. Lamerville alone of the Enghien Regiment, although full of valour, was not touched.
The death of Bussi embarrassed us terribly and we had to hide this fact. He was our guide and the only one who knew the terrain. Indeed, the hussar sent the previous day had also been killed. What gave me more confidence was the firmness of the infantry who, despite the lively fire, advanced audaciously to support the grenadiers.
Chevert's skill and his experience had planned and prepared such a salutary movement. While forming the infantry in column, he had told me to let some distance between battalions. At the first volley, everybody easily advanced. The soldiers thought, gaining so much ground, that the enemy was running away. This idea made them double their ardour while in fact, we were just filling the gaps between the battalions and forming full columns. They all marched in a woody and unknown terrain where the desire to win made them enter. We had to fall on our right but every time that we left the cover, we had to re-enter into the clearing were the enemy was crushing us. I dismounted from my horse and gave my cuirass to two grenadiers of the Eu Regiment who were killed soon after. I then advanced on foot to see, by climbing on a fallen tree, if the abatis had some depth. I saw that this was not the case and showed the way to our grenadiers.
Repulsed, the enemies retired on a second height, having a ravine in front of them. I moved slightly on our right with Chevert, at the head of the Navarre Regiment. He was despaired to see that the three columns on the left, which had been placed on the slope of the mountain to support our attack by theirs, were not moving at all, to the exception of the nearest one, under M. d'Armentières and consisting of the Belzunce and Alsace regiments, who, rather than marching parallely to us, had mistakenly moved to the right and were now arriving behind us. I advised M. d'Armentières. He promptly walked back to take his assigned position. Chevert, who had told me at 5:00 A.M.:
"We will succeed but our success will have no consequence, there is too much jealousy", then told me:
"Well! had I not guessed right?"
I interrupted these cruel but too just reflections, by telling him:
"The Navarre Regiment awaits your order to break everything."
A general officer, that I will not name, represented that this would be losing Navarre, that the enemies were there.
"Good then, Sir, answered I briskly, that M. d'Estrées turn them by the plain, they will be prisoners."
Immediately, by M. de Chevert order, I formed Navarre in several columns and the attack began. The brave regiment crossed the ravine, gained the height and, at the point of the bayonet, it broke and routed the enemies. At the summit of the plateau, I got an admirable sight: the two armies were cannonading each other, our more lively fire, was putting the opposed line under a strong pressure, it was shaken and disordered. M. de Chevert ordered to leave the guns with piquets at the tail of the column, not to embarrass him, to advance down into the plain while keeping the woods and the height and to crush the centre of the enemy army taken in flank.
Everything announced a prompt and complete success. But M. de Lorge did not obey the order and remained on the plateau with the Eu Brigade. The soldiers, tired and sunburned, went out of their ranks. Many of them even went seeking for water. M. de Belmont, colonel of La Marine, remained behind his regiment to tighten its ranks. He shouted to M. de Lorge, already warned, that red coated troops were marching on him:
"Watch out, here are the enemies!"
M. de Lorge did not believe it. He thought that this was a Swiss regiment from the Duc de Randan's Corps who was coming from Imbeck. His incredulity was punished: these were three Hanoverian battalions, each of 900 men, under Ardenberg, who had turned the mountain by their left and who, having seen our disordered troops, marched upon them and enveloped them. The Eu Brigade, surprised and counting less than 1.000 men, formed hastily. M. de Lorge wanted to make a move to the right but the enemies did not let him the time to do so, and repulsed Eu and Enghien on the slope of the mountain. This brigade suffered heavy losses. Almost all the dead had musket balls in the head, so plunging was the enemy fire.
Ardenberg, now master of the plateau, used abandoned guns to fire on our right in the plain. About a hundred cavalrymen that he had with him put the valets of the army to flight and suspended the operations of M. d'Estrées who, supporting our success on the enemies left, would have left them no resources. Unfortunately, the event on the plateau, so easy to repair, added to the news that he was turned by a very large corps, threw a deadly uncertainty in his manoeuvres.
Malicious or, I hope, badly informed people told M. de Contades, who had just crossed the ravine with 12 battalions of the centre, to cross it back, what he immediately did. The same order, that M. d'Estrées had not given, was sent to M. de Saint-Pierre, leading the Grenadiers de France, and to M. de Guerchy, at the head of the Du Roy Regiment, supporting the left at the village of Hastenbeck. They did not want to obey, saying that it was impossible that M. d'Estrées had given such an order, and that one did not retire in front of a fleeing enemy.
A general officer personally carried the fatal order to the Royal-Pologne Cavalry Brigade, who was closing the left in the plain and who was just debouching to take advantage of the routing enemy army. This same officer stopped the brigade despite what he saw.
This uncertainty made us lose two very precious hours. The enemy took advantage of it to re-cross the Hameln river behind him, on small and bad bridges. He was lost, without resources, and forced to deposit arms, without the abominable mischief done to M. d'Estrées. I did not believe that such a crime could be in the nation, but what had preceded proved it.
One had changed the battle order of the Maréchal without his knowing, by moving the Carabiniers from our left in the plain, where they were able to act, to the right, behind a ravine where they became useless. One had feigned an order to increase the guard of our camp by 1.500 horses. Fortunately, Chabot, maréchal des logis of the cavalry, found the ordnance who carried this order and arrested him. Upon verification, M. d'Estrées denied having given this order.
The castle of the Baronne d'Hastenbeck was used as his headquarter by M. d'Estrées. It had been plundered during the battle and the archive chests had been thrown open in the court. The chests were picked up and put back in place. During this operation, we found on a table in M. d'Estrées' room, that the Duke of Cumberland had occupied the previous day, a large sheet of paper: this was the order of battle of our army, dictated two days ago to only five persons. Let's throw a veil on so many horrors, and that never one had the misfortune to believe them, even less to imitate them. The losses of our four brigades amounted to 20 officers killed and 75 wounded and to 594 soldiers killed and 601 wounded.
I don't want to forget to cite the harangue of the chaplain of the Grenadiers de France. It is short and military:
"Children of the war, despite the audacity that is in your souls, humiliate yourself in front of the Lord, he alone gives victory."
It would be desirable that his colleagues would adopt this style. Generally, these gentlemen are always too long in moments where one must not give to the soldier the time to think.