The legacy of Neerwinden

Your honour remembers with concern, said the corporal, the total rout and confusion of our camp and army at the affair of LandenWyndham, Lumley, and Galway, which covered the retreat over the bridge Neerspeeken, the king himself could scarce have gained it—he was press'd hard, as your honour knows, on every side of him—

So Corporal Trim begins one of the many rambling episodes of Tristram Shandy, which is framed by how he fell in love and diverts into whether groin or knee injuries are worse. But the Battle of Landen was no laughing matter; when the French defeated William III's army on 29 July 1693, and cam close to killing King Billy himself, around 27,000 soldiers were killed, which made it the bloodiest battle of the entire War of the League of Augsburg – which on a moderately generous reading includes both the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the fall of Barcelona in 1714.

In fact the battle happened not in Landen but at the nearby village of Neerwinden, which happens to be very close to where my daughter B lives, so I took her there this afternoon to have a look at it. And in a classic two-for-the-price-of-one deal, at Neerwinden you can inspect not only the site of the Battle of Neerwinden in 1693, but also the site of the Battle of Neerwinden on 18 March 1793, where the Austrians crushed a demoralised French force with the result that the defeated French commander unsuccessfully attempted a coup in Paris, and then (along with the future King Louis Philippe) defected to the Austrians who he had just been fighting. It was a smaller affair, though, with 7-8,000 casualties, less than a third of the death toll of a century earlier.

I found it really very difficult to translate the available maps of the two battles onto today's geography. These are my attempts to do so, maps found from the internet on the left, my attempts to interpret them on the right, French in blue and their opponents in red in both my maps, and in the orignal 1693 map (confusingly, the French are red and the Austrians yellow in the 1793 map):

Neerwinden 1693a Neerwinden 1693
Schlacht_von_Neerwinden_1793 Neerwinden 1793

The shaded contours on the older maps bear very little relevance to what's on the ground. What does become clear is that the triangular plateau to the north of Neerwinden, with the town at its apex, is the strategically important target; it was the territory that William III and his allies were defending in 1693, and was the contested ground between the French and Austrians a century later. At the same time it's interesting to see how the tides of history wash in different directions at different times – from south to north in 1693, from east to west in 1793.

It is a typically flat Flemish landscape ("mijn vlakke land") with a very few gentle rises. The only thing really worth photographing is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, on the eastern edge of the plateau.It has an explanatory noticeboard hinting at the enormity of what happened here.

noticeboard chapel

There is a sheltered grove around the chapel demarcated by the Stations of the Cross, with a park bench in which B (who likes to wear her hood up in all weathers) sat happily, refusing to move.
B on the bench

Within the chapel (which I'm sorry to say has been repeatedly vandalised), worshippers have left votive offerings and intentions.
chapel interior

In the summer of 1694, Lord Perth travelled across the scene of the battle, and in a letter to his sister – later quoted by Macaulay – was the first person that I know of to use a simile that has become very familiar, 220 years before John McCrae:

Lord Perth

In Neerwinden itself, an ancient standing stone has been moved to the front of the modern 1950s church, and although there is also an official somewhat brutal war memorial, it is the older obelisk that the locals have chosen to place their poppies at; perhaps because, here of all places, it was not only the wars of the twentieth century that marked the people and the land, and a monument without a date, which was erected by people long forgotten except in their attempt to express the inexpressible, is more appropriate to commemorate the trauma of past conflict than one whose initial reference point is 1914.
moved memorial menhir

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The legacy of Neerwinden

  1. nwhyte says:

    One question in response: how?

Comments are closed.