Marlborough’s finest hour (or four)
Marlborough is in this writers opinion England’s greatest general. His diplomatic abilities coupled with a supreme battlefield craft made him a true master of his art. The battle of Ramillies fought on the 23rd May 1706 out-shines (IMHO) even Blenheim as a case study in how to fight a set piece battle in the 18th Century.
The war of the Spanish Succession had been rumbling on for some years. The King of Spain and died without direct issue and there was a dispute between the European powers as to whom should take the throne. Charles II had bequeathed his crown to Phillip his nephew and through his sister’s marriage; the younger son of the Dauphin of France. This meant that the now Phillip V of Spain was an heir to the throne of France and potentially in a position to unify France and Spain under a single Bourban ruler.
The other major European players were obviously not happy with the spectre of a European super state (oh how they would weep now!), controlled by Louis XIV so looked to oppose the succession of Phillip by supporting the claim to the throne of Luipold I, A Habsburg and the current Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (what is now modern Germany).
Up until 1704 the armies of France had been thought invincible. However they were decisively beaten by Marlborough at Blenheim in 1704. Unfortunately Marlborough’s army; an alliance of English, Dutch, Hessians, and Prussians to name but a few had failed to take advantage of this victory despite Marlborough’s best efforts. The political wrangling between the factions would repeatedly diminish or reverse gains made on the battlefield.
By 1706, Louis wanted Peace for France but wanted to negotiate a settlement on his terms. To that end he resolved to launch a major offensive on all fronts in an effort to secure either a collection of local victories or one major victory before calling for peace talks and ending the ruinously expensive war.
After a number of victories for the French in Alsace (Eastern France on the Rhine) they felt that the time was right to go toe-to-toe with Marlborough. If they could send him packing then they would more than likely fracture the Alliance and get favourable peace terms.
Marlborough, convinced that the quickest way to concluding the war was to decisively beat a French army in the field was not coy in marching straight off to confront the French. He mustered at Maastricht and then marched towards the French army that were waiting for him at Ramillies.
John Churchill the 1st Duke of Marlborough is a complex and interesting character and I would urge anyone to read his biographies that I have listed below. With the assistance of his belligerent wife Sarah he was able to use patronage and influence to rise quickly through the ranks of the army. Criticism has been levelled at Marlborough by some (including his contemporaries) for his use of influence. However I do not think he can be blamed given that for promotion in the English Army at the time; merit meant nothing and influence everything.
His reputation for avarice and his abandonment of James II of England during the “Glorious Revolution” certainly has left a stain on his reputation.
What is not in question is his ability as a military commander. His charm and affability was the mortar that held the fragile alliance of England, The Netherlands, Portugal and varying other states together. His organisational skills and those of this staff allowed him to out manoeuvre and wrong foot opponents repeatedly. Time and again he showed an unmatched ability to visualise the whole battlefield while at the same putting the blinkers on his opponent.
Francois de Neuvill, duc de Villeroi.
There are some commanders who though generals of high merit are unfortunate in that due to the vagaries of history do not get the merit they deserve. Villeroi does not fall in to this category. He had attained his position as Marshall of France based pretty much on his close relationship with Louis XIV. He was an excellent courtier and charming individual but most professional soldiers in the French army had very little respect for him as a military commander despite his obvious personal bravery.
He could not command the respect of his officers and simply did not have the skill or; at the age of 62, the drive to be able to take on a man of Marlborough’s calibre. On the day was simply outclassed.
Armies of the Age of Marlborough.
Infantry was now becoming the main weapon of the battlefield during this period. The advent of the bayonet and more specifically the socket bayonet had removed the need for bodies of pike men to protect the musketeers from cavalry. Now the musketeers could protect themselves while at the same time increasing their firepower.
Improvements in firearms and the rate of fire coupled with the use of the bayonet meant that bodies of troops were becoming increasingly linear in nature compared to the large square blocks and deeper formations seen in the previous century.
The English were beginning to use a more thinner wider formation where a Battalion would “fire by platoons”. What this meant was the each platoon would fire in turn. By the time the last platoon had fired then the first had re-loaded. The result was a constant ripple of fire coming from the line.
The French still stood by the tried and tested “Volley Fire”. Their formation would be slightly narrower than the English and deeper. The regiment would close and deliver one devastating volley at the enemy.
Cavalry was still important on the battlefield and continued to be the arm which would deliver the coup-de-grace to a wavering opponent.
The two armies met at the seam between the Plateau of Mont St Andre and the Plateau of Janderenouille. A deep stream known as the Little Geete cuts its way north creating a gully east of the villages of Autre-Eglise and Offus. To the south of these villages running East to West is the Maastricth to Charleroi road and the River Mehaigne. At the head of the Little Geet, south of Autre-Eglise and North of the Mahaigne is the village of Ramillies.
Villeroi had chosen the ground as being a good defensive position in which to draw Marlborough on to him. He anchored his left flank to the village of Autre-Eglise and in long concave crescent round to his right which was secured on the River Mehaigne. There is divided opinion as to whether or not the French actually garrisoned Taviers or in fact deployed behind that village anchoring on the River Visoule which runs in to the Mehaigne and with the marsh ground to their front. My view is that there seem very little benefit from occupying Taviers as on the map it would seem that the difficult marsh land would be to your rear and make any withdrawal of re-enforcement difficult.
On the French right the first line was made up of the Maison du Roi, arguably the best cavalry in Europe at the time. They were supported behind by Bavarian Cuirassiers and Dragoons. The centre including Ramillies and Offus had Walloon and Bavarian infantry with support behind from Walloon and Bavarian Cavarly. The Villages of Offus and Autre-Eglise were garrisoned for defence with barricades and loop holes cut in to buildings and walls for musketry.
The French also deployed some hefty artillery batteries in front of Ramillies and the two northern villages all of which were well positioned with good fields of fire.
The Allies lined up with Orkney on the left opposite Offus and Autre-Eglise with his English and Dutch Infantry supported by Lumley’s Cavarly. On the right were the massed Squadrons of Dutch and Danish Cavalry under Overkirk, supported by detachments of infantry.
Marlborough recognised two things as he looked over the battlefield with the French arrayed in front of him. First that the French deployment had formed a concave crescent formation, this meant that his lines of communication were longer than his own and the shape of this line would make it more difficult to move units around the formation. Also: Villeroi had over extended slightly in order to reach the banks of the Mehaigne leaving his troops spread thinner than Marlborough’s. Secondly was the terrain itself but we will come to that later.
The battle opened with skirmishing on the Allied left and an attack against the French left. Orkney led the first line of English Infantry across the Little Geete on the Allied right, towards the villages of Offus and Autre-Eglise. At this time the English were starting to create a reputation for themselves as determined, disciplined troops and their advance caused Villeroi concern.
Marlborough realised that Orkney probably could break through on the right but getting cavalry in sufficient numbers over the stream to support him was going to be difficult. The was probably a French Cavarly reserve to the rear which would cut the English apart once they broke in to the open. As such, and much to the annoyance of Orkney, Marlborough ordered him to withdraw to his start line. The attack on the left whether a planned feint or probe certainly had the desired affect on Villeroi who focused on this part of the battlefield and started to pull troops from his centre to re-enforce his left.
Meanwhile, Overkirk, in command of the Anglo-Dutch troops had launched an assault on Ramillies itself and to support this, unleashed his cavalry squadrons across the plain to the south of Ramillies. The Dutch and Danish cavalry smashed in to their French opponents and though initially having the best of it, the Maison-du Roi, the kings of the Europeaon Cavalry rallied and counter attacked with skill and aggression.
Marlborough immediately recognised this as a threat. When he deployed he had noted that the terrain on his right was such that he could mask his troop movements and could start bringing troops from his right over to the centre without the French noticing. He began moving his supporting cavalry on the right along to his centre to add weight to Overkirk. Villeroi was oblivious to this and continued to move his troops to the left to re-enforce Offus and Autre-Eglise.
Marlborough threw himself in to the Melee on the Allied right while his re-enforcements were manoeuvring and nearly came to grief. In one story after being unseated from his horse, he was being assisted in mounting another by a Colonel Bingfield when a stray cannonball flew between the Dukes legs decapitating Bingfield!
The additional squadrons being fed in to the Allied line now started to pay dividends,
De Guisgard, the French Cavaly commander had been doing good work but the disparity of numbers now started to tell. He was pinned to his front just trying to contain the onslaught of the Dutch and when a gap opened in his lines on the right, 21 Danish Squadrons burst through, re-formed to the rear of the French, and charged.
The French were now massively outnumbered on the right and only at this point did Villeroi realise that he had been focusing on the wrong part of the battlefield. He desperately tried to bring his Cavarly reserve to bear but it was too little, too late.
The Maison de Roi broke and the whole French line started to collapse from right to left.
Orkney now re-crossed the Little Gheet and burst in to Offus, the remaining Allied Cavalry on the Left, The Scots-Greys Regiment picked their way across the stream and attacked in to Autre-Eglise where they inflicted heavy casualties on the now panicking garrison.
Before long the entire French army was in complete disarray and in full route to the North and west.
It was during this rout that the French suffered their worse casualties. The French and Bavarian commanders only just escaped capture.
The Allied cavalry were now unchained and pursued the retreating French mercilessly. It had gone midnight before Marlborough ordered an end to the pursuit.
By dawn the next day the extent of the defeat became obvious. In a little over 4 hours the Allied had broken the French army and in the pursuit that followed inflicted between 8000 and 12000 casualties (dead and wounded) and 7000 to 10000 captured.
Marlborough had managed the battle wonderfully. He identified crisis areas quickly and acted decisively he probed and felt his way along the French line to find their weaknesses and was able to deliver the maximum of weight behind he chosen axis of attack while at the same time keeping the French entirely in the dark as to where the blow would fall.
Unfortunately once the cannons went silent the same old rivalries and in-fighting began amongst the Allies and as the cracks in the alliance widened Louis was able to avoid Ramillies becoming the decisive battle of the war that it should have been.
Please bear in mind I do not unfortunately have access to primary sources and so this piece has relied on my reading of secondary sources in books and the internet. I would be happy to receive any suggestions of amendments or points of discussion.
Marlborough: Britain’s Greatest General - Richard Holmes
Marlborough: His Life and Times - Winston Churchill
Blenheim: Battle for Europe - Charles Spencer.
I am also going to add some further content to this article on my website including maps and orders of battle, it is a working progress so please keep checking for updates.