Picture the scene 222 years ago this month: a contingent of many thousands of men, led by the second son of his illustrious majesty King George III, look out across the flat landscape of Flanders near the village of Tourcoing. Lille was a few miles away. It is May 1794 and the British forces have combined with forces led by Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg to make up an army 72,000 strong. The Austrians are the dominant partner in the alliance, and they decide to split their forces into six columns, and to divide and surround the French.
The British force consisted of eight battalions, six squadrons, and presumably they had all turned up for work that day thinking it was going to be the usual thing – fire a few cannon, defeat the French, and come home to a heroes welcome a la Marlborough.
Only it didn’t quite turn out like that. The outnumbered French forces, led by Joseph Southam in the absence of the usual commander Pichegru, outflanked the coalition armies. Well, we were not very good at speaking to each other, no-one seemed to know what they should be doing, half the troops were kept in reserve and weren’t used, and the result was that the French were victorious, we lost rather a lot of soldiers – and the Duke of York narrowly escaped capture by fleeing across a river. Allied losses amounted to 4000 killed or seriously wounded, with 1500 taken prisoner, while the French lost 3000. As many as 50 of our guns were captured…. so we all came home to lick our wounds.
As minor battles go it was nothing very special – although it did mark the beginning of the withdrawal of the allied forces from Flanders, and led to French supremacy throughout continental Europe. Oh, and Hilaire Belloc wrote a book about it. We remember the occasion, if not the actual battle which was spread out over many square miles of territory, because of a nursery rhyme. The event may or may not have been true – there is apparently a “hill” of sorts near Tourcoing, where the town of Cassel is situated, all of 570 feet above sea level. but in all likelihood the song had been in circulation for many years, and the name of the “Duke of York” was substituted for some earlier poor general.
This is borne out by the fact that a song appeared in print back in 1642 under the title of “Old Tarlton’s Song. Tarlton was a well known clown in the second half of the sixteenth century, and his version ran:
“The King of France with forty thousand men,
Came up a hill and so came downe againe”
Other versions give the leader as Napoleon – or some attribute the vacillating and humiliating action to James II (a former Duke of York) who marched his troops across Salisbury Plain in 1688 and then retreated in the face of the invasion by William of Orange. Whatever – it is a form of ridicule which has stuck, and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, (1763–1827) will just have to live with it! So, boys and girls, take it away!
Oh, the Grand Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only half way up
They were neither up nor down.