Battle of Rocroi

Battle of Rocroi

With France having entered the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), in May 1643 Spanish general Francesco de Melo led the 27,000-man Spanish Army of Flanders (8,000 cavalry and 19,000 infantry) from the Netherlands through the Ardennes toward Paris. The Spanish hoped to relieve pressure on Catalonia and in FrancheComté. En route Melo laid siege to the French fortified town of Rocroi. The 22-year-old Louis II de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien (later Prince de Condé, known as Le Grand Condé for his military prowess), commanded the French army of 23,000 men (6,000 cavalry and 17,000 infantry). He advanced to meet the Spanish along the Meuse River.

Learning that the Spanish were at Rocroi, Enghien hurried there and arrived on May 18. Receiving intelligence that 6,000 Spanish reinforcements were en route, Enghien decided on an attack against the advice of his older subordinate commanders. He ordered his army forward through the only available approach, a defile between woods and marshes that the Spanish had failed to block. That after noon the French took up position on a ridge overlooking Rocroi. The Spanish army then formed up between the French and Rocroi, and both sides prepared to do battle the next day.

De Melo positioned his infantry in the center. The first ranks consisted of some 8,000 highly trained Spanish troops formed up in the traditional tercios, or squares. Mercenary infantry were behind them, and cavalry protected both flanks. The Spanish had 18 artillery pieces. The French were similarly arranged: infantry in the center, along with some artillery at the front, and cavalry on both flanks. The French had 14 guns.

The battle opened early on the morning of May 19 and took place on open farmland in front of Rocroi. The fighting began with Enghien leading a French cavalry attack on the Spanish left. After defeating the Spanish cavalry Enghien moved against the Spanish infantry, which was besting the French infantry. At the same time, though against Enghien’s orders, the French cavalry on the left attacked the Spanish right and were repulsed. The Spanish mounted a counterattack but were halted by French reserves.

Enghien managed to get in behind the center of the Spanish infantry with his cavalry, smashing through to attack the Spanish right-flank cavalry that had engaged his reserve. When the Spanish cavalry scattered, it isolated the 18,000 Spanish infantry. The mercenaries promptly deserted. Long regarded as the finest in Europe, the veteran Spanish infantry held its formations and repulsed two French cavalry attacks. Enghien massed his artillery with guns captured from the Spanish, however, and systematically hammered the Spanish square formations.

Despite the artillery fire, the Spanish absorbed additional French cavalry attacks without breaking formation. Enghien then offered terms, and the Spanish accepted. When Enghien rode forward to take their surrender, however, some of the Spanish infantry apparently believed that this was the beginning of a French cavalry charge and opened fire on him. Angered by this seeming treachery, the French attacked the Spanish without quarter and with devastating result. The Spanish army was virtually destroyed.

Spanish casualties amounted to more than half their force. The Spanish
lost some 8,000 men killed and another 7,000 taken prisoner. French losses totaled only 4,000. The Battle of Rocroi did not have any immediate impact on the outcome of the Thirty Years’ War. Spain continued in the war, maintained its hold on the southern Netherlands, and had some success  against the French in Catalonia and Italy, but the battle did end all chance of another Spanish invasion of France.

Indeed, with France in control of Alsace, Lorraine, and Trier and the Dutch controlling the English Channel, it was impossible for Spanish king Philip IV’s government to resupply the Netherlands. The Dutch and the French were able to whittle away at the Netherlands. Spain lost Gravelines in 1644, Hulst in 1645, and Dunkirk (Dunkerque) in 1646.

Rocroi also led to the end the tercio formation. More important, though, the battle is usually regarded as marking the end of Spanish military greatness and the beginning of French hegemony in Europe.

References

Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years’ War. New York: Military Heritage Press, 1988.

Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years’ War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1944.