Marlborough, p.44Richard Holmes
A key feature of the terrain, certainly visible to Marlborough when he arrived on the plateau late in the morning, was a long, shallow and undramatic valley running south – north on the eastern side of the Geete, more or less parallel with that river, with its head just east of Ramillies, where the village cemetery now stands. This was to enable him to shift troops from his right to his centre, thus changing the balance of the battle without the transfer being apparent to Villeroi. It was never Marlborough’s way to let anyone, except perhaps Cadogan, into his mind, but knowing what we do about his preferences, it is reasonable to assume that he quickly decided on his favourite tactical ploy, persuading his opponent to strengthen one part of his array by drawing troops from another part of the line, thus leaving a weak spot which would then be ripe for attack.
Marlborough turned over the possibilities in his mind when he looked at the French position opposite Ramillies at about eleven o’clock, accompanied only by Overkirk, Daniel Dopff, the Dutch quartermaster general, Cadogan, Goslinga, on his first campaign as field deputy, and a handful of officers. Two of the Dutch officers present had served under the Spaniards in that area, and warned Marlborough that ‘The enemy left could not be attacked with any appearance of success: for the hedges, ditches and marshes were a complete barrier to both sides.’ This, they thought, would induce the French to mass towards their right, where the ground was better. Marlborough listened politely, but then, to Goslinga’s surprise, proceeded to order an equal amount of cavalry to both flanks, giving no hint of his plan. The Dutchman was further dismayed to see how long it took the Allies to get into line, splitting from the four advancing columns into eight for the last phase of the deployment. He thought it ‘a very great fault’ on the part of the French not to have attacked before the Allies were ready, a criticism which overlooks the fact that Villeroi, having taken up a good position and begun to dig in, could scarcely be expected to leave it and risk a battle in the open.100
De la Colonie’s description of the French approach march deserves quoting at length, for it gives an insider’s view of Villeroi’s army and the ground it was to fight on.
The extent of this plain of Ramillies gave us the liberty of marching our army towards the enemy on as broad a front as we desired, and the appearance of our march was as fine a spectacle as one could wish for. The army began to move at about 6 o’clock in the morning. It was composed of two large columns, each marching on the front of a battalion. The artillery formed a third column, marching between the two infantry columns. The cavalry squadrons in battle order occupied an amount of ground equal to the columns, and, on this fine plain, where nothing could hide things, the whole force was seen in such splendid array that one could never hope to view such a striking and brilliant sight as the army made at the beginning of the campaign, before weather and fatigue had dulled its lustre, and nothing inspired as much courage as to see this force in all its splendour. The late M le Marquis de Gondrin, whose company I had the honour to keep during this march, told me that it seemed that France had excelled herself to find such a fine army, and that it was not possible in the coming action for the enemy to break us, and if we were beaten now, we could never dare to present ourselves before them again.
When the heads of the columns had arrived near the marsh which supported our right flank, the first regiments began a quarter-turn to the left, the remaining units in the columns did the same, and in an instant the army was in battle order in two lines facing the enemy, who was now within range of our cannon, and was busy making his dispositions … we saw movements to their right and left without being able to guess their intentions … 101
This was just as Marlborough intended, for an obvious massing would have warned Villeroi of his plans. Robert Parker, in contrast, quickly deduced what Marlborough must do.
We drew up in two lines opposite them, having a rising ground on our right, whereon a great part of our British troops were drawn up. From hence the Duke had a fair view of the enemy, and saw evidently that the stress of the battle must be in the plain, where they were drawn up
in a formidable manner: he saw also, that things must go hard with him, unless he could oblige them to break the disposition they had made on the plain. On this occasion his Grace showed a genius vastly superior to the French generals; for though he knew the ground along the Geet was not passable, yet he ordered our right wing to march down in great order, with pontoons to lay bridges, as if he designed to attack them on their weak part. The Elector and Villeroi perceiving this, immediately ordered off from the plain a complete line, both of horse and foot, to reinforce those on the Geet.102
De la Colonie soon saw that something was amiss on his flank.
I noticed, when passing in front of the Maison du Roi, that there were wide gaps between the squadrons, and that the long sector of front it occupied was not held as strongly as the rest of the line. This made me think that the principal attack was not to be made here; that there was some other more dangerous part that the enemy threatened and which had to be supported by a greater number of troops.103
Mérode-Westerloo, now an Imperialist officer, having changed sides after Blenheim, gives a thin and partial account of Ramillies, but he too agrees that the Maison du Roi was dangerously exposed, arguing that this reflected French overconfidence in its social status, ‘believing this formation to be more valiant than Alexander the Great’s phalanx’.104 Villeroi was following Louis’ orders and strengthening the left of his line, which seemed to be the target of the nineteen English, Irish and Scots battalions of Marlborough’s right under Lord Orkney. It was wholly logical, therefore, for Villeroi to position himself, with Max Emmanuel, who had just galloped in from Brussels, near the village of Offus, to monitor the battle at what seemed certain to be its crucial spot, and to station the powerful four-battalion Régiment du Roi on the left of his line.
Marlborough had seventy-three battalions and 123 squadrons, with a hundred guns and twenty shell-throwing howitzers, in all perhaps 62,000 men. Orkney commanded the bulk of the British foot on the right, with Lumley’s horse behind him. In the centre were most of the Allied infantry under Churchill and Schultz, while Overkirk commanded on the left, where most of the Allied cavalry faced the French on a plain that might have been made for charging horsemen. The Allies filled the plateau of Jandrenouille, their straight front, in contrast to their opponents’ shallow curve, making them look, to friend and foe alike, more numerous than their enemy. De la Colonie thought that the Allies were in ‘four great lines, closed up like walls: while ours were only in three, of which the third was composed of a few squadrons of dragoons’. George Orkney thought that the French had taken up
a very good post at the head of the Geet, and possessed themselves of several villages on their front, with a marsh ground and a little ruisseau [stream] before them, so that, when we came to attack, it was impossible for us to extend our line, so were drawn up in several lines, one behind another, and indeed even in confusion enough, which I own gave me at first a very ill prospect of things.105
While his horse and foot were deploying, Marlborough personally sited his main battery opposite Ramillies. This included some twenty-four-pounders, very heavy guns for use on the battlefield, hauled laboriously into position by teams of oxen. The first shots of the battle proper came as these guns took on the French battery above the village. De la Colonie knew, from long experience, that it was as well to keep his men’s minds off what was to come:
I got the woodwind that followed at the rear of the regiment to strike up some martial flourishes, to divert my people and keep them in a good frame of mind. But the cannon-shots which began to roll out across the battlefield surprised them so much that they disappeared like lightning, without anyone noticing, and went off to raise melodious sounds from their instruments in places where they would not be competing with cannon.106
The battle began at about 2.30, with Allied attacks on both Villeroi’s flanks. Orkney tells us that his approach was
a morass and a ruisseau before us, which they said was impossible to pass over. But however we tried, and, after some difficulty, got over with ten or twelve battalions; and Mr Lumley brought over some squadrons of horse with very great difficulty; and I endeavoured to possess myself of a village [Autreglise] which the French brought down a good part of their line to take possession of, and they were on one side of the village, and I on the other; but they always retired as we advanced.107
Thomas Kitcher, a Hampshire farm labourer serving in Meredith’s Regiment, part of Orkney’s first wave, told his village curate exactly what a general’s ‘some difficulty’ actually meant for a private soldier. The French commander in Offus, the comte de Guiche, had posted some Walloon infantry on his side of the marsh to make the British pay dearly for their crossing. The front rank of Meredith’s was mangled by fire from across the Geete, and Kitcher was tripped by a comrade’s entrails.
They were then commanded to cross the marsh by means of fascines and many were shot and maimed, or killed, which they carried and laid down their foundations. He told me that limbs and bodies, of which it was impossible to ascertain whether or not they were dead, were used to pass the quagmire at some points, and that one redcoat that he knew of raised himself from the supposed dead at the indignity of the treatment and turned upon the pioneers who had thought him one of their bundles of faggots and flayed him with his tongue.108
Once the British were across, the Walloons scampered back up the slope towards Offus, with the redcoats close behind them. ‘The Frenchies seemed surprised,’ recalled Kitcher, ‘and showed no mind to fight much. Some of them I saw turned tail and I spiked one of their officers through the throat and another in the arse.’109
The fighting here was inconclusive, partly because the ground prevented Orkney from bringing his whole force to bear. John Blackader of the Cameronians had been promoted the previous winter. The death of his colonel seemed likely to trigger a general advancement from which he, as the regiment’s senior captain, hoped to profit. He spoke to Marlborough about it, ‘got a good answer (for none ever get ill words from him)’, and was duly promoted on 15 December. At Ramillies, his first action as a major, his regiment was in the second line, and he found the battle
not general, but it was hot to those that were engaged. Our regiment was no further engaged but that we were cannonaded for some hours, and had several men killed and wounded. I was not near the Duke, but upon our wing we had a great want of generals and distinct orders.110
Robert Parker, too, found that his regiment, at the extreme right of Orkney’s first line, had little to do, but ‘stood looking on without firing a shot; and as we were posted on an eminence, we had a fair view of the whole battle on the plain’.111 This is no bad description of what was, had Parker and Blackader but known it, a diversionary attack, where uncommitted troops helped fix French attention on the indecisive flank.
On the Allied left, however, the attack progressed far more swiftly. Here Villars, like many a general before and since, had been drawn forward by the lure of a useful feature to his front. The five Swiss battalions responsible for the small village of Taviers, which marked the right of his line, were ordered to push on and also to hold the tiny Franquenée, another five hundred yards to their front. De la Colonie thought that the villages were embedded in ground so marshy as to be impracticable to cavalry, but their garrisons would be able to fire, from these bastions, on cavalry operating on the southern flank, so they were certainly worth securing. By trying to retain both villages with an inadequate force Villars left himself open to defeat in detail. On Overkirk’s orders, Colonel Wertmüller’s four battalions of Dutch foot guards, supported by two field guns, manhandled forward by their detachments to breach garden walls and houses, attacked Franquenée first. The Dutch then bundled the Swiss back into Taviers, and took that too after fighting which, so de la Colonie maintained, cost as many lives as the rest of the battle.
The marquis de Guiscard-Magny, commanding Villeroi’s right wing, immediately took what should have been textbook steps to recover the lost ground. He ordered three more Swiss battalions to move southwards against Taviers, while fourteen squadrons of dragoons were to dismount near the tumulus called the Tomb of Ottomont, well behind the French right, and attack on foot. De la Colonie’s brigade, on the right of the first line of infantry, was then ordered south to support the counterattack. As the Red Grenadiers marched in front of the Maison du Roi they were applauded by the horsemen – partly, thought de la Colonie, because of the reputation his men had earned at the Schellenberg, but also because the gentlemen troopers hoped that the brigade was moving to shield the cavalry’s right flank from interference from Allied foot soldiers firing from the marsh.
It was a misplaced hope. The French dragoons dismounted, their strength immediately reduced by the need to detail one man in four to hold horses, and then clumped forward on foot, booted and spurred. They were stoutly received by the Dutch foot and guns in Taviers and then unexpectedly charged by six squadrons of Danish horse which had skirted the two villages, and come on quickly across the southern edge of the plain, first breaking the dragoons and then cutting up the advancing Swiss. De la Colonie’s brigade commander, commendably eager to assist, cantered forward but got stuck in the little Vesoul stream which flowed into the Mehaigne. He would never have got out, thought de la Colonie, had the helpful Dutch not rescued him.
Worse was to follow. As the Red Grenadiers neared the marsh they were swamped by a tidal wave of fugitives, Swiss and dragoons alike. Within seconds de la Colonie found himself left with only his regiment’s colours and a few officers: ‘I yelled in German and French like a madman, I gave all sorts of names to my people, I took the colonel’s colour, planted it a certain distance away, and, making many shouts and wild gestures, I attracted the looks and the attentions of many.’ He was eventually able to rally the equivalent of four small battalions, but his men were now badly shaken, and one grenadier behind him opined noisily that they were being led to butchery.112 Although de la Colonie maintained that by holding a crest-line on his army’s right, thus giving the impression that there were more infantry behind him, he helped prop up the flank of the Maison du Roi, there was no denying the fact that the French right had now been kicked off its hinges.
In the centre, though, the fighting was far more evenly balanced, with squadrons charging, wheeling back and then charging again as French and Allied horsemen, perhaps 25,000 in all, hacked at one another across the green wheatfields south of Ramillies in the biggest cavalry battle of the war. Robert Parker thought that:
In this engagement there was great variety of action; sometimes their squadrons and sometimes ours giving way in different places; and as the fate of the day depended entirely on the behaviour of the troops on the plain, so both sides exerted themselves with the utmost vigour for a long time. The Duke was in all places where his presence was requisite; and in the hurry of the action happened to get unhorsed, and in great danger of his life; but was remounted by Captain Molesworth, one of his aides de camp, the only person of his retinue then near him; who seeing him in manifest danger of falling into the hands of the pursuing enemy, suddenly threw himself from his horse, and helped the Duke to mount him. His Grace, by this means, got off between our lines; the captain being immediately surrounded by the enemy; from which danger (as well as that of our fire) he was, at last, providentially delivered. His Grace, about an hour after, had another narrow escape; when in shifting back from Captain Molesworth’s horse to his own, Colonel Bringfield … holding the stirrup, was killed by a cannon shot from the village of Ramillies. Notwithstanding which, the Duke immediately rode up to the head of his troops; and his presence animated them to that degree, that they pressed home upon the enemy, and made them shrink and give back.113
The Bringfield incident became one of the most commonly recounted aspects of the battle. Lord Orkney tells how ‘My Lord Marlborough was rid over, but got other s
Marlborough had also been very lucky to escape from the earlier mêlée. Conspicuous in his red coat and garter star he had led blue-and-grey-coated Dutch squadrons against the Maison du Roi. Lieutenant Colonel Cranstoun of the Cameronians, not generally one of Marlborough’s admirers, wrote that:
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