Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sampson Staniforth at the Battle of Fontenoy

A Romantic Imagining of Fontenoy
Sampson Staniforth, a twenty-five year old British soldier fought at the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11th, 1745. This battle was a key French victory in the War of Austrian Succession. AlThough he did not specify his regiment, circumstantial evidence suggests that Staniforth may have served in the 20th Regiment of Foot (Bligh's). He later worked as a Methodist preacher, and his recollections of life in the British army were recorded with his experiences of the War of Austrian Succession. The following is his description of Fontenoy:

"And in the mean time, the French batteries playing upon us, did us much hurt. We wheeled off, in order to get into the plains of Fontenoy. I had not marched far before we met a horse without his rider, and the lower part of his head taken off by a cannon-ball. A little after, I saw one of the guards lie dead ; and soon after, many more. We still advanced, and drew up in line of battle, in the plain of Fontenoy. The French before us were intrenched up to the neck, and many batteries of cannon were playing upon us. I was in the front rank, and the left-hand man joining the Dutch. We stood there, till the Dutch turned their backs and marched away. I was then left exposed to a battery on the left, and the batteries and small arms in the front. Soon after our regiment, with some others, were ordered to advance and attack the French in their trenches. We marched up boldly; but when we came close to the town of Fountenoy, we observed a large battery ready to be opened on us. And the cannon were loaded with small bullets, nails, and pieces of old iron. We had orders to lie down on the ground; but for all that, many were wounded, and some killed. Presently after the discharge we rose up, and -marched to the first trench, still keeping up our fire. They gave way ; but when we entered, batteries in the flanks were opened, which tore our regiment so, that we were obliged to fall back into the rear. Yet we rallied, and renewed the attack. But it was to no purpose. All the day I was in great spirits, and as composed in my mind, as if I had been hearing a sermon. I neither desired life nor death, but was entirely happy in God. Night coming on, the retreat was beaten, and the whole army marched away, leaving our cannon, and sick, and wounded behind us."[1]

Staniforth's recollection is useful in two ways related ways. First, it shows the difference between the drill square and battlefield reality. In order to avoid fire, even here in the 1740s, British soldiers were ordered to lie down. This matches descriptions from Scottish units also at Fontenoy, who would through themselves to the ground to avoid incoming fire. As helpful as understanding drill square evolution and complicated firings are, soldiers' accounts of the battlefield must be our first source for any understanding of what combat was like in the eighteenth century.

Second,  it gives a glimpse into the reality of combat as experienced by private soldiers. In comparison to fanciful accounts of officers yelling invitations for the other side to fire first, Staniforth shows the gritty nature of war in the eighteenth century. While eighteenth-century fighting men may well have worn a good deal of lace, private soldiers' experience of combat was not rarefied or gentlemanly.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1][] Thomas Jackson, Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers,  Vol IV,  125.