Siege of Lille, 1708

With the battle of Oudenarde (July 1708) in the War of the Spanish Succession, the allies regained the initiative. In order to maximise the effect of this victory, it was decided that an attempt should be made to take the strongly fortified place of Lille, at that time considered to be the second city of France and therefore of great strategic value. Marlborough'had advocated a drive along the coast to bypass the Pré Carré'and strike towards Paris, but he was shouted down by the other allied commanders, who thought the scheme too risky.

Map of Lille in 1708 showing the town, the lines built by the besiegers and the approach trenches.

All the fortresses around Lille (Ypres, Tournai, Douai, Béthune) were in French hands, so there was a real possibility that the French could raise the siege and force the allies to retreat. These French-held bases also caused supply problems to Marlborough and Eugène.

In preparation for an attack in this sector (though it was not realised that Lille was the target at this stage), the French sent Marshal Boufflers to Lille with 11 battalions of infantry. When they did realise that the allies intended to attack Lille, another 9 battalions of infantry were sent to reinforce Boufflers, arriving on the 11th August. By the 13th August, the city was surrounded and the siege had begun. Prince Eugène was in charge of the siege operations whilst Marlborough covered and prepared to meet any relief attempt the French might make.

The lines of circumvallation were constructed between the 15th and the 21st, and the first parallel was started on the 22nd. The garrison made a sortie on the 26th, but little damage was done to the besiegers. It was decided to attack the northern part of the fortifications, the Magdalen and St. Andrew gates being the targets.

Plan showing the attacks made on the town's defences and the citadel.

The French prepared a relief force of over 110,000 men, but it was slow to concetrate. By the 4th September, the relief force was close to Lille, and Marlborough's 80,000 men began to build field fortifications to repell the French attack. A number of allied infantry was taken away from the siege operations to guard against a French attack, which never came. Boufflers, seeing that the besieging troops were weakened, made a determined sortie but was eventually beaten.

The 7th September saw Eugène assault the counterscarp, capturing the covered way'at the cost of 3,000 men. The high casualties were caused by four large mines that had been laid by the garrison. The French decided that Marlborough's position was too strong to attack, so they contented themselves with a massive artillery bombardment on the 11th (which merely provided ammunition for the siege batteries), and retreated on the 15th. They devised a new strategy in which Lille could be relieved by attacking the allied supply lines.

The demi-lune in front of the Magdalen Gate, seen from the main wall.

On the 21st Eugène was wounded in an assault on a false bray'that was only partially successful and cost 1000 casualties. This meant Marlborough took over the siege works as well as commanding the covering force. The other false bray was taken on the 23rd along with another part of the covered way.

Meanwhile French forces had cut the allied supply lines, so Marlborough was forced to find a new route for supplies. The new route went by sea to Ostend, and although the French were able to flood the area through the sluices they controlled at Nieuport, General Erle was able to secure the road inland. On the 17th an escorted convoy left Ostend for Menin. A French force under Lamotte attacked this convoy at Wynendael but was defeated. This convoy provided enough ammunition to continue the siege for another 2 weeks.

Boufflers, who was also low on powder, had smuggled a message out revealing his desperate condition. The Chevalier de Luxembourg in response to Boufflers message took 2000 horsemen disguised as Dutch cavalry each carrying 50lb of gunpowder and rode for Lille. A large number succesfully reached Lille, but the ruse was discovered before they had all passed the allied lines and about 150 were killed.

The French tried again to cut the allied supply lines in early october by surrounding Ostend, however Marlborough arrived with a large force and forced them to retreat. As they did so they opened all the sluices, flooding the entire area. A battle between French and English gunboats ensued, with the allies using boats to ferry their supplies.

On the 22nd of October, the allies had battered a large breach in the walls of Lille, and Boufflers surrendered the town and retreated into the citadel.

The French wounded were allowed to be evacuated, prisoners were exchanged and it was agreed that the allies would not attack the citadel from the city side. However, the allies did attack from this side, the trenches being opened on the 26th.

Map showing the trenches and batteries of the attack on the citadel.

The supply war continued, but the French made another attempt to force the allies from Lille. The Elector of Bavaria (an ally of France) made an advance on Brussels, hoping that its inhabitants would welcome him (he had been the governor-general of the Netherlands), but the city closed its gates to him. The allies then made a quick movement across the Scheldt against the Lille-Brussels barrier and forced the Elector to retreat before he was cut off.

The attack on the citadel aimed for the eastern bastion, seen here.

After this last failure, the French were unable to save Lille citadel and they went into winter quarters on the 4th December. Boufflers capitulated on the 9th and his garrison marched out with the full honours of war. The siege had cost the allies 15,000 casualties (in part due to sickness) and had taken three months and 16 days.

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