The Battle of Marsaglia

After the Ottoman threat to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire diminished in the late 1680s, the Holy League turned its attention to Louis XIV’s France, who seized territory at the expense of the Christian nations of Europe fighting the Turks. They wanted to curb and roll back France’s expansion into the Low Countries and territories beyond the east bank of the Rhine, and solidify William of Orange’s victory in the Glorious Revolution to prevent Louis XIV from restoring James II to England’s thrown. To this end they formed the League of Augsburg, better known as the “Grand Alliance” in 1688 of the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and eventually Spain and the Italian state of Savoy. The War of the League of Augsburg, better known in North America as “King William’s War”, was fought over the next nine years and involved fighting on five continents and on the seas in between

Though Louis XIV’s massively expanded army won magnificent sieges and glorious battles, his marshals failed to reap any decisive reward. (Tis the problem with offensive operations by a force operating with interior lines of communication. See the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg, spoiler: Lee escaped.) The Dauphin’s operations in Swabia in the spring of 1693 sputtered, and Louis’ advisors convinced the king to support newly promoted Marshal Catinat across the Alps in Italy. Catinat was then organizing an army to relieve the operationally vital city of Pinerolo in the Piedmont then invested by Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, who was himself reinforced by Imperial troops. Louis agreed and sent his elite Gendarme galloping south.

On the morning of 4 October 1693, the Duke of Savoy lined up his polyglot army against the French relief force outside the village of Marsaglia. Savoy’s pan-European army included Milanese cavalry and Hungarian hussars (the first hussars in Western Europe, and soon adopted by all nations), Bavarian and German infantry, Savoyard, Spanish, Lombard and Neapolitan troops, Waldensian and Huguenot refugees, and Swiss, English and Flemish mercenaries. However, the language difficulties and uneven quality of Savoy’s troops allowed Catinat the time to organize his army so it could target specific points in Savoy’s line. Prior to the battle, Catinat meticulously arranged his line so there was overmatch by professional French units against lesser Allied formations. That morning, Savoy assaulted the French line, and was handily repulsed by the new regimental efficiency of the reformed French army.

Soon thereafter, the French counterattack broke Savoy’s army.

On the left, the heavy cavalry of the Gendarme under the Duke de Vendôme in a legendary countercharge scattered the Allies to their front in the midst of their own charge and then, without breaking stride, fell upon the Allied center in the flank. In the center, the Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish soldiers under French command by treaty (for an equal number of French soldiers fighting the English in Ireland), smashed through the Allied line. Concurrently, the entire French line surged forward in the first massed bayonet charge with socketed bayonets in history. Savoy’s army was destroyed in detail.

Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy lost 11,000 men compared to less than two thousand under Marshal Catinat. The Battle of Marsaglia was the single most lopsided victory of the War of the League of Augsburg and salvaged French martial prestige after a year of disappointment for Louis XIV. However, like most battles of the war, the French were unable to capitalize on the victory. The siege of Pinerolo was lifted, but since the battle happened so late in the fighting season, Catinat had to withdraw back across the Alps to winter in France. The Battle of Marsaglia did induce the young 29 year old Eugene of Savoy to seek reform of the Imperial armies, and he would become the Holy Roman Emperor’s greatest leader of men in the early 18th century.

However in 1693, the Battle of Marsaglia changed little – The War of the League of Augsburg/the Nine Years’ War/the War of the Grand Alliance/King William’s War dragged on inconclusively for another four years.

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