The War's Twilight
A Map of the Seat of War in Provence
The allies had reasons to be optimistic about their offensive in Provence in the winter of 1746-47. The invasion pitted 50,000 Austro-Sardinian troops against what was at first a mere 6,000 French regulars, and enjoyed both an overland line of supply from Nice and coastal supply courtesy of the port of Genoa and the British fleet. Two of the allies’ most skilled commanders led the invasion - King Carlo Emanuele
himself and General Maximilian Ulysses, Graf von Browne
, whom Carlo Emanuele had specifically requested as his Austrian counterpart. The king considered Browne to be the best of the imperial commanders he had worked with, and the two shared similar views on strategy and the conduct of armies.
Yet the invaders would face serious challenges as well. It was towards the end of November when the invasion began, not a typical time of year to start a major campaign. The British had pressed for this off-season invasion because they wished to take advantage of France as she was still reeling from the loss of her army at Piacenza. This worked well enough at first: as the Austro-Sardinian army surged over the Var the scarce French defenders could only flee, while the remnants of the Spanish army declined to offer any help and retreated northwards into occupied Savoy. Having entered France, however, the allied army was now faced with a march deep into enemy territory in the dead of winter, where forage would be scarce and the common people all against them. Nor would their numerical advantage hold for very long.
In early December King Louis XV
placed his cousin Louis François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti
in command in the south. Before he would accept, however, Conti demanded reinforcements, and received a promise that 60 French battalions - more than 30,000 men - would be immediately dispatched from the Netherlands. At the same time, the French appealed to their Spanish allies, and although King Fernando VI
was eager to end the war he was not so dishonorable as to leave his ally in the lurch when France herself was invaded. 10,000 Spanish regulars were sent overland from Catalonia to join Conti. Until they arrived, however, Conti knew that he stood no chance of stopping the invasion, and after arriving at Aix on the 10th of December he took what measures he could to stiffen resistance. He dispatched most of his regulars on hand to bolster the garrison of Toulon and then retreated northwards, hoping to harass the flanks of the allied advance with his irregular forces. Surprisingly, despite the importance of his campaign and the promises of Versailles, Conti found himself in an even poorer supply situation than the allies; only a fraction of the provisions he had requested had arrived, and he was so short on money that he had to take out a substantial loan in his own name from the merchants of Marseilles just to cover expenses and pay salaries.
Browne and Carlo Emanuele wasted little time in forging a path westward. They bypassed Antibes entirely, leaving behind Wilhelm Moritz, Freiherr von Roth
with a detachment to besiege the city. The speed of their progress was matched only by the brutality of their army, for on one matter the Empress-Queen Maria Theresa and the King of Sardinia were of one mind: The Bourbons had ravaged Savoy and the Milanese, and now it was payback time. The Austro-Sardinian army demanded heavy exactions from every village, requisitioning grain, straw, wagons, animals, and anything else of use to them, and the villages which resisted these demands were razed. The already impoverished peasants were left with nothing just as winter was starting to take hold. Many fled for their lives, filling the roads with starving refugees; others joined Conti’s irregulars or attacked stragglers of the allied army on their own. Browne’s response to such partisan attacks was to unleash his Croats, who cheerfully slaughtered whole villages. The full horror of war had finally come to France.
On the 19th, an Austrian advance corps reached the outskirts of Toulon. Despite Conti’s preparations and assurances to the people, panic gripped the city and many residents fled. As the allies advanced on land the British landed on the Hyéres islands and forced the surrender of a French garrison, capturing a large quantity of naval stores and furnishing themselves with a base for action against Toulon. It was clear the city was in deadly peril. Yet no immediate attempt could be made on the outer works for lack of heavy artillery. Many of the allies’ heavy guns were at Antibes, but even those that were available had to be painstakingly transported and landed by the British, a problem made worse by poor weather at sea which interrupted crucial supply deliveries.
By the end of December, with both Toulon and Antibes still holding out, Conti finally had an army worthy of the name. He counted 38,000 regulars at Aix including the Spanish contingent, along with thousands more militiamen. Meanwhile, as his army continued to grow, the allied army steadily dwindled as a result of disease, desertion, and the nettling attacks of French partisans. To pry the allies away from Toulon, Conti moved east and threatened a grand flank maneuver. If the allies stayed put, Conti could cut off their line of retreat and lift the siege of Antibes; if they withdrew, they would have to lift the siege of Toulon; and if they advanced upon him, he would relish the fight. Aware of their difficult position, the allied commanders chose to pull back from Toulon and march northeast, holding positions at Draguignan and along the south bank of the Argens River. Instead of continuing his flank, however, Conti suddenly struck south, and on the 12th of January hs army forced its way across the Argens at Carcès. The allies fled to the northeast, and only prompt delaying actions by Browne’s cavalry and light troops prevented his losses from being much worse. By the 15th they were back across the Argens and concentrated around Draguignan. Conti managed once more to pry them from their position with a bold river crossing, and the allies retreated still further - all the way to Grasse, less than 20 miles from Nice. Here Browne and Carlo Emanuele arrayed their troops east of the Siagne River, the strongest defensive position west of the Var.
Although his campaign of maneuver had been successful thus far, Conti’s offensive was running out of steam. He was desperate for provisions and fodder, and there was little to be had in a country which the Austro-Sardinian army had already passed through and devastated. Conti determined that it was necessary to bring the enemy to a pitched battle, and quickly, before a dearth of supplies forced him to disperse his forces and withdraw into winter quarters. But the Siagne would be a difficult frontier to breach, and his artillery was days behind him. To force the invaders from their defenses, another flank march was attempted, aimed at penetrating the rugged terrain of the Castellan Prealps to the north and conducted by a Franco-Spanish force bolstered by 2,000 Swiss mercenaries in Spanish pay who had been garrisoned in Savoy. On the 28th, these columns converged on Castellane, where the allies had anchored their northern flank. But the plan miscarried, as the Spanish and Swiss - advancing by a different route than the French - were held up at the narrow gorge of Taulanne by Vaudois militia, Turin’s irregular mountaineers. Waiting for them crucially delayed the attack, and a fierce battle ensued for control of the town which swung back and forth until the arrival of nine Sardinian battalions held in reserve which forced the attackers to withdraw.
Fortune was now turning against the French. With the failure of his flank attempt, Conti attempted to force his way across the Saigne and engaged the Austrian batteries and a roaring artillery duel, forcing the allies to retreat to the heights. Conti got as far as throwing several bridges over the Siagne. Browne, however, had recently been reinforced by 12,000 Austrians marching from Liguria, and on February 3rd the Sardinian grenadiers stormed one of the bastions of Antibes in the middle of a heavy rain, gained a foothold, and forced the garrison to capitulate. This not only opened the port of Antibes for allied supply ships, but allowed the siege guns - as well as guns seized from garrison - to be redeployed. Out of provisions and facing mounting resistance, Conti broke off the artillery barrage and withdrew. The allies got off a parting shot when the Croats seized one of the French pontoon bridges before it could be dismantled, and the Austrians launched a counterattack over this bridge which seized the town of Callian and resulted in the death or capture of around 1,500 French troops. Both armies went into winter quarters thereafter, where they would remain until May.
The Prince of Conti had successfully driven the invaders out of most of Provence, and in Paris they toasted him as the saviour of Toulon. Nevertheless, the allies had some reasons of their own to celebrate. In the first place they had managed to sustain a campaign in enemy territory in the dead of winter for more than two months, to say nothing of a conducting a well-executed withdrawal in the face of dogged enemy pursuit despite terrible weather and supply problems. No less a figure than King Friedrich II
wrote that Browne and Carlo Emanuele had led “a most remarkable countermarch.” Aside from merely making their escape, the allies had taken Antibes and a corner of French territory, which not only provided them with a launching pad for the coming spring campaign but was itself a valuable negotiating chip. Yet perhaps the most far-reaching effect of the campaign - and the strongest argument for deeming it a strategic victory for the allies - was that the presence of a large Austro-Sardinian army in Provence prevented Conti from sending his borrowed troops back to the Netherlands.[A]
At sea and around the world, the Bourbons had suffered a sobering series of setbacks. Louisbourg, the key fortress of French America, had been lost in 1745, and an attempt to regain it in 1746 had failed. An ill-considered attempt by the Young Pretender Charles Edward Stuart to raise the flag of rebellion in Scotland with French aid in 1745-46 had ended in defeat. The Bourbons had been ejected from Italy, and although Conti had saved Toulon the Worms Allies still encamped on French soil, a violation which stung King Louis’ pride and hurt his negotiating position. The only unmitigated bright spot was in the Netherlands, where Marshal Maurice de Saxe
had repeatedly smashed every army and fortress which stood against him. With the kingdom facing a mounting economic crisis, however, it was clear that Versailles could not fund Maurice’s glory indefinitely.
King Louis decided upon one last two-pronged push to end the war on favorable terms, for his advisors doubted whether the struggling kingdom could take more than one further campaign season. In the north, he and Marshal Saxe would take the war to the Dutch.
Thus far the United Provinces had technically been neutral (despite fighting as British auxiliaries) and King Louis had forbidden Maurice to attack Dutch territory, but now Louis reversed course. His advisers - including the Marquis de Puisieulx
, France’s new foreign minister following the long overdue sack of d’Argenson in late 1746 - agreed that the Dutch were the weak link in the Pragmatic Alliance, and that the threat of their collapse would bring Britain to terms. In the south, the Prince of Conti was instructed to drive the Worms Allies from Antibes, occupy Nice, and do as much as was practicable to advance the cause in Italy. Neither of these was beyond the means of France, but to do both at once was questionable.
Even with tens of thousands of men pulled away to the south, the French in the Netherlands still enjoyed the considerable benefits of Maurice de Saxe’s leadership. Maurice preferred to conduct a cautious campaign, for he knew that the allies were low on supplies and could be forced to give ground without undue bloodshed. But King Louis soon lost his taste for this, believing that a decisive strike was necessary, and ordered Maurice to move on the key fortress of Maastricht. The allies obliged him by offering battle. Maurice deftly outmaneuvered and outwitted his opponent, the allied commander Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, and corralled his army in the terrain of his choice. But despite their inferior position and leadership, the allied troops mounted a surprisingly strong resistance, repelling multiple infantry assaults and breaking the French cavalry on Maurice’s right flank.
British infantry at Maastricht
By the end of the day on July 16th, Maurice had technically won another victory - he had driven France’s enemies from the field. But the allies had been able to retreat in good order, which meant that he could not immediately begin the siege of Maastricht, and even this marginal victory had cost France dearly. The French suffered nearly 12,000 casualties compared to scarcely half as many allied casualties. It was the bloodiest single day of the entire war. King Louis, surveying the battlefield after the slaughter, was visibly distraught. “Would it not be better,” he exclaimed with dismay, “to think seriously of peace than to have so many brave men killed?”
Had the French been sweeping the allies out of Provence, the discouraging results in the Netherlands might not have been so dispiriting. Maurice was still Maurice, and he still fielded an army of nearly a hundred thousand men; another campaign might yet put Maastricht and other key Dutch fortresses in his grasp. But the Prince of Conti, savior of Toulon, was back on his heels. In late May, the Austro-Sardinian army surged across the Siagne, quickly taking French outposts. With the sea free of storms and Antibes as a forward base, they had finally solved their supply problems. Conti acted quickly to gather his scattered forces at Draguignan, and despite being initially caught off-balance he had the advantage in numbers. Browne and Carlo Emanuele were nevertheless determined to drive him back, and for the first time since allied forces had entered Provence in November, there was to be a real battle.
Browne and Carlo Emanuele divided their forces into four columns and converged on Draguignan from the north and east. Surprise was attempted, but Conti did not fall for it, and when the allies began forming up he was ready for them. But the allies had actually planned two surprises. A fifth column under the command of General Bärnklau
made its way over the Gorge of Blavet to the east and swept up the Argens, threatening Draguignan from the south and endangering Conti’s escape across the Argens. Once more the allies hoped to force the French to withdraw rather than be flanked, and expected to cause some damage to them as they withdrew in the face of opposition. Rather than engage in a costly retreat, however, Conti chose to attack. The Prince knew he had the larger force; although the numbers overall were close (around 56,000 French and Spanish against 50,000 Austrians and Sardinians), 6,000 allied soldiers were detached with Bärnklau. By doing the opposite of what the allies expected, he could thwart their plans by defeating them in detail.
The attack indeed caught the allied commanders off guard, but not for long. In preparation for a pursuit of the French, Browne had already sent his Croats and several advance battalions forward into Draguignan and the surrounding villages. Some of these posts were quickly overrun, but in some places they resisted the French assault for a time and set buildings and barns on fire as they pulled back, delaying the advance. The French pushed through and reformed their lines, but by now the allied artillery had unlimbered and subjected the French to a withering bombardment. There was heavy fighting as the Bourbon forces repeatedly attempted to break through. The French left (held by the Spanish), however, bogged down as the troops engaged with Austrian forces hunkered in the burned-out ruins of the town, and this opened a gap which was exploited by General Násdady
and the Austrian heavy cavalry. The French center fell back, and soon the army was in full retreat.
It was a bloody day for the approximately 700 Corsicans who were part of the allied army at Draguignan. They had been one of the elements tentatively sent forward to harass the French, who were presumed to be making plans to retreat, and were advancing through the wooded hills on the allied left. They found themselves out of position when the French attacked, but were not immediately noticed thanks to the woods. Rather than withdrawing to the main line, Major Battaglini
hunkered his men down on a low wooded hill where they laid down long-range enfilading fire on the French infantry. This was not devastating, but proved annoying enough to the French commander to send two squadrons of dragoons to sweep the hill of “skirmishers.” Instead they rode into an entire infantry battalion, and although they sent the foremost Corsicans running, Battaglini rallied his men - shouting “Ponte Novu
!” - and fought desperately with the dragoons amidst the trees, ultimately driving them back down the hill in tatters. Their position was then assaulted by French infantry. The Corsicans threw back the first lines sent against them with murderous musket-fire, but the major was shot in the chest and killed, and when the French came up the hill again the Corsicans fell back through the woods in disarray. The battalion reported 53 dead, 90 wounded, and 22 captured, amounting to nearly a quarter of the force. But the defense of the hill against the fearsome French cavalry, the “martyr’s death” of Battaglini, and a prized war trophy - the colors of the Orléans
regiment of dragoons - would give the engagement a heroic luster among the Corsicans when the soldiers eventually returned home to tell the tale. That the engagement had, on reflection, all been rather unnecessary was beside the point; it served King Theodore's
purpose of emphasizing Corsica's commitment to its "allies," whom he hoped would feel some measure of indebtedness and finally accept the Kingdom of Corsica as independent.
Regimental Guidon of the Orléans Dragoons captured at Draguignan
Overall the French suffered 5,800 dead, wounded, or captured at Draguignan compared to 4,500 allied casualties, but the gap was significantly widened that afternoon and in the days to come by the Austrian hussars who harassed the retreating enemy and cut down stragglers. Bärnklau failed to completely cut off the French retreat, but by seizing the bridge at Vidauban he forced the French to retreat west instead of south, ruining Conti’s plans to use the Argens as a defensive line and opening the allied path to Toulon. All parties considered Conti to have skillfully extricated his army from a difficult situation, but that was not much comfort after a defeat.
The battles of Maastricht and Draguignan in the summer of 1747 laid the foundation for the peace. France was not yet beaten; Saxe remained undefeated and Conti was not yet out of the fight. Yet the combined military and economic pressures on the kingdom were enormous, and Louis had lost his taste for military glory. To unleash such torrents of blood, endure such devastation, and risk the capture of Toulon for the establishment of a Spanish princeling even now living as a hostage in Vienna was no longer altogether palatable. Later that year, when the French diplomat Count Saint-Séverin
departed for negotiations at Aix-la-Chapelle, the king’s influential mistress Madame de Pompadour
left no doubt as to the monarch’s mind. “Do not return without peace,” she instructed him; “the king no longer wants war.”
 The king was personally present with his army in the Netherlands and in theory had supreme command. Yet while Louis XV was not a very wise king he was at least conscious enough of Maurice’s genius and his own mediocrity to leave matters of strategy to his Saxon prodigy - at least most of the time.
[A] IOTL, the complete collapse of Browne’s invasion - caused directly by the Genoese Revolution - forced him to retreat over the Var and left him in no state to continue the campaign that spring. As a consequence, the troops which had been “borrowed” from the Netherlands that winter were back in the Netherlands in time for Maurice’s campaign in the summer. ITTL they are forced to remain in the south, robbing Maurice of the large numerical advantage which he enjoyed IOTL in the 1747 campaign.