Marlborough, p.45Richard Holmes
Ten of the Dutch squadrons were repulsed, renversed, and put into great disorder. The Duke, seeing this, and seeing that things went pretty well elsewhere, stuck by the weak part to make it up by his presence, and led up still new squadrons to the charge, till at last the victory was obtained. It was here when those squadrons were being reversed and in absolute déroute and the French mixed up with them in the pursuit that the Duke, flying with the crowd, in leaping a ditch fell from his horse and some rode over him. Major General Murray, who had his eye there and was so near he could distinguish the Duke in the flight, seeing him fall, marched up in all haste with two Swiss battalions to save him and stop the enemy who were hewing down all in their way. The Duke when he got to his feet again saw Major General Murray coming up and ran directly to get into his battalions. In the meantime Mr Molesworth quitted his horse and got the Duke mounted again, and the French were so hot in the pursuit that some of them before they could stop their horses ran in upon the Swiss bayonets and were killed, but the majority of them, seeing the two battalions, shore off to the right and retired.116
Death was no respecter of persons that day, and the young Prince Louis of Hesse-Cassel was cut down.
Just north of this swirl of cavalry, Lieutenant General Schultz, with some twelve Allied battalions, including Churchill’s and Mordaunt’s, as well as the Duke of Argyll’s Scots brigade in Dutch pay, attacked the village of Ramillies. The place was tenaciously defended, but the French were already beginning to give ground by the time Marlborough played his master-stroke. He knew that the re-entrant behind his right wing would enable him to move Orkney’s men south without the French seeing them. Indeed, he may very well have been surprised at the progress Orkney had made in attacking the supposedly impregnable French left flank, for it was not his intention for his dogged subordinate to take Autreglise, although Orkney himself had other ideas.
As I was going to take possession [of the village] I had ten aides de camp to tell me to come off, for the horse could not sustain me. We had a good deal of fire at this, both musketry and cannon, and indeed I think I never had more shot about my ears; and I confess it vexed me to retire. However we did it very well and in good order, and whenever the French pressed upon us, with the battalion of Guards and my own, I was able to make them stand and retire. Cadogan came and told me it was impossible I could be sustained by the horse if we went on then, and, since my Lord could not attack everywhere, he would make the grand attack in the centre and try to pierce there.117
Robert Parker says that they fell back
until our rear line had got on the back of the rising ground, out of sight of the enemy. But the front line halted on the summit of the hill, in full view of them … As soon as our rear line had retired out of sight of the enemy, they immediately faced to the left, and both horse and foot, with a good many squadrons, that slunk out of the front line, marched down to the plain, as fast as they could.118
This was not a popular move with men like Tom Kitcher, who could see no reason for it.
We had the order to give ground and make our way back to the river. ‘Pray, what’s this?’ said my Lord Orkney, so his servant told me after. He had no mind to give ground when we were giving no quarter, nor we hadn’t neither, being up to our necks in deadliness and noise. But so it was ordered and we went back and back across the river, and there we stayed awhile, with the cannon peppering us but not getting no success, our cover being good.119
Kitcher’s comment about cover suggests that even the element of Orkney’s wing that remained behind took some advantage of the reverse slope on the western edge of the re-entrant, where colour parties and mounted officers on the crest continued to fix Villeroi’s attention. Although it is almost two miles from Orkney’s original position to Ramillies, his six battalions arrived there, as John Marshall Deane put it, in ‘time enough to beat the enemy quite out of the village & at the same time charged the rest of their foot that was posted behind the Gheet. And my Lord Duke ordered the English horse to sustain them.’120
It was now approaching six in the evening, and the French cavalry, weakened by the casualties of the past two hours’ fighting, were closing up to the north, leaving a growing gap between their right wing and the valley of the Mehaigne. This was first exploited by the Dutch foot guards who had taken Taviers and Franquenée earlier in the day, and who now
pressed home upon the enemy, and made them shrink and give back. And this very instant the Duke of Württemberg came up with the Danish horse and pressing an opening between the village of Franquenay and their main body, fell upon the right flank of their horse, and with such courage and resolution, that he drove them in upon their centre. This put them into great disorder; and our troops taking this advantage, pressed so close upon them, that they could never recover their order.121
Württemberg had in fact taken his squadrons, who had only been in action once that day, right round the southern flank of the French army, brushing aside some of the dragoons who had failed to retake Taviers earlier on, and formed them up in close order near the Tomb of Ottomont. Marlborough and Overkirk both cantered across to join him, and accompanied what was to prove the day’s decisive charge. Although Villeroi and the Elector could now see well enough what was coming, they could not deploy their reserve in time to meet it, and in any case the baggage and some unstruck tents, left near Offus when the French deployed that morning, restricted room for manoeuvre.
The Danish charge swept forward at about 6.30, supported from the east by another valiant effort by the sorely tried Dutch horse, now reinforced by fresher cavalry from the right flank. Their combined impact was too much for the bulk of Villeroi’s army. ‘They indeed behaved themselves shamefully,’ complained Peter Drake, probably thinking more of his English-speaking audience than his French-speaking comrades,
and fled with great precipitation, like frightened sheep … I saw one of their best, called the King’s Regiment, composed of four battalions, lay down their arms like poltroons and surrender themselves prisoners of war. In short they all left the field with infinite disorder, except Lord Clare’s which was engaged with a Scotch regiment in Dutch service, between whom there was a great slaughter.
His own regiment, part of Villeroi’s reserve, had so far not been engaged, but when it was ordered to turn about and retire,
we had not got fifty yards in our retreat, when, by some means I know not, the usual (sauve qui peut) fly that can went through the great part, if not the whole army, and put all in confusion. There might be seen whole brigades running in disorder, the enemy pursuing almost close at our heels, and with regularity.122
Not all Villeroi’s army disintegrated. Count Maffei, whom we last met on the Schellenberg, did his best to keep two steady German battalions together in the road leading out from Ramillies to the plateau of Mont St André, recognising that the village was now the hinge between the static French left wing and the new position of the right, bent back by the impact of the Danish attack. His men were holding up well when he rode over to order some nearby cavalry to join him, but he had failed to spot that they were wearing green sprigs rather than white cockades in their hats. He was duly captured by the Dutch, and his men joined the general flight. Maffei was lucky that his captors were not Danish, for the Danes, infuriated by hearing that their countrymen had been butchered by the French after the Allied defeat at Calcinato in Italy, were not inclined to give quarter. Some of Villeroi’s men, indeed, were in no mood to ask for it. Charles O’Brien, Viscount Clare, was mortally wounded at the head of his Wild Geese in Ramillies, and the Régiment de Picardie, proudly the oldest in the French line, fought to a finish in the streets and gardens of the village.123
Orkney took his men back across the Geete without Marlborough’s orders, for he could read the battle well enough. They were charged by the Bavarian Electoral Guards and the Walloon Horse Grenadiers, but checked them with measured volleys before British cavalry swept the enemy horse from the field. Ross’s Irish Drag
The pursuit was hampered by exhaustion and the onset of darkness, with the added difficulty, for Allied officers unfamiliar with the area, of picking their way over a strange landscape in the dark, through the debris of a broken army. Marlborough was forced to stop for the night near Meldert, over twelve miles beyond the battlefield, having been nineteen hours in the saddle, and then only when his guide admitted that they were lost. Although, as he reported to Sarah the following morning, ‘My head aches to that degree that it is very uneasy to me to write,’ he was still courtier enough to invite Goslinga to share his cloak, spread out on the ground.
Most first reports underestimated the damage done to Villeroi’s army: Orkney, indeed, warned his correspondent that it was not like Blenheim. ‘I own it vexed me to see a great body of ’em going off,’ he lamented, ‘and not many horse with them; but, for my heart, I could not get up our foot in time; and they dispersed and got into strong ground where it was impossible to follow them.’124 In fact perhaps as many as 18,000 of Villeroi’s men were killed in the battle or captured after it, with 120 colours and standards and fifty-four cannon. Not only were there many desertions in the weeks that followed, but the States-General of Brabant immediately acknowledged the Hapsburg Charles III as king of Spain, which persuaded many Walloon soldiers to change their allegiance. Marlborough had lost 3,600 officers and men killed and wounded, making the balance of casualties even more favourable to the Allies than Blenheim had been.
Amongst the casualties of Ramillies was Mrs Davies, who had sustained a fractured skull near Autreglise.
Though I suffered great torture by this wound, yet the discovery it caused of my sex, in the fixing of my dressing, by which the surgeons saw my breasts, and by the largeness of my nipples, concluded that I had given suck, was a greater grief to me … my Lord [Colonel] John Hay called … for my comrade, who had long been my bedfellow, and examined him closely. The fellow protested, as it was the truth, that he never knew I was a woman, or even suspected it … My lord seemed very well entertained with my history, and ordered that I should want for nothing, and that my pay should continue while under care.125
Ramillies signalled the wholesale collapse of French fortunes across the whole of Brabant, for Villeroi had bled his garrisons white to raise such a large field army, and many fortress governors felt unable to offer more than a token resistance. As G.M. Trevelyan was to put it, ‘The next fortnight witnesses the revolution that secured the sovereignty of Belgium to the House of Austria for three generations.’ Charles Churchill entered Brussels unopposed on 28 May, and welcomed his brother into the city the following day. Villars abandoned the Dyle at once, destroying a mountain of stores at Louvain as he did so, and then scrabbled to clutch the line of the Scheldt, but Marlborough was too quick for him and lunged towards Oudenarde and Gavre, threatening his communications with France and forcing him to fall back yet again.
The great cities of Brabant – Louvain, Ghent and Bruges – all opened their gates. Fortresses like Antwerp, Ath, Dendemonde and Ostend, which might normally have delayed Marlborough for months, were swallowed in weeks. John Marshall Deane shared the air of general disbelief. At Antwerp the city fathers formally presented Marlborough with the ‘the keys of the town and withall telling him that they had never been delivered to any person since the great Duke of Parma and it was then after a siege of six months’. The siege of Ostend was pressed with such vigour ‘that the town surrendered in 3 days time and some odd hours after our batteries began to play upon them; which seems almost incredible if we look back into former relations concerning the siege of the same town having held out and continued many months before it was reduced by a greater army than ours’.126
Marlborough was genuinely delighted. On 27 May he complained to Sarah that ‘I can’t get rid of my headache,’ but nonetheless declared that ‘we have done in four days, what we should have thought ourselves happy, if we could have been sure of it, in four years’. He foresaw that ‘the consequence of this battle is likely to be of greater consequence than that of Blenheim, for I have now the whole summer before me’.127 At the end of the month he told her: ‘So many towns have submitted since the battle, that it really looks more like a dream than truth.’ He thought they were likely to achieve more in a single campaign than in the whole of the previous war, ‘which is a great pleasure, since it is the likeliest way to bring me to my happiness of ending my days with my dearest soul’.128 In early October, looking forward to his imminent return to England, he told Godolphin that if only the Dutch could be persuaded ‘to go on with the war this next year, we have reason to expect an honourable, safe and lasting peace’.129
It is easy to see why he was confident, for the effects of Ramillies were seismic. Louis XIV was so concerned by the direct threat to northern France that his armies on the Rhine and in Italy were immediately hamstrung by being ordered to send men north to help shore up the Flanders frontier. Villeroi wrote a dignified letter to his king, rebutting many of the charges against him but observing glumly that good reasons for being defeated were still no excuse, and concluding that he only expected one more happy day in his life – that of his death. ‘I might impute it as a crime, with regard to Your Majesty,’ he wrote sadly, ‘to be as unlucky as I am.’130 He was replaced by Vendôme, snatched back from what might have been a winning position in Italy. His successors first botched their siege of Turin, and were roundly beaten by Eugène’s relieving army: Marsin was mortally wounded. Eventually the French concluded a convention with the emperor which allowed them to withdraw their garrisons from Lombardy and Milan: Italy was lost to Louis.
In the Peninsula things looked at first no less promising for the Allies. Galway advanced from Portugal to capture Madrid at the end of June 1706, Peterborough reduced Valencia, and Charles III himself was successful in Aragon. Marlborough, watching from afar with other things on his mind, was probably over-sanguine when he regretted that Charles had not formally entered Madrid as soon as it was taken, for ‘His timely appearance there would in all probability put a happy end to the war on that side.’131 The Allies failed to convert the numerous Iberian successes of 1706 into a wholesale victory which would have secured Spain for Charles III. Matters were not helped by bitter quarrels, for which Peterborough was most culpable, and as winter came on the Allies found themselves, in a manner which foreshadowed French misfortunes in Spain a century later, trying to extract food and fodder from an increasingly hostile population. Although Galway was to take overall command after Peterborough’s departure, by the year’s close the balance of power in the Peninsula now favoured his opponent, Marlborough’s nephew the Duke of Berwick.
With hindsight we can now see that if 1706 was the year that secured Brabant for the Allies, it was also the year that the war in Spain slid quietly from their grasp. Nor was there much comfort from the amphibious ‘descent’ on the French coast in which Marlborough invested so much confidence. After Ramillies he was busy arranging for the dispatch of British troops, and in June he successfully negotiated with the Dutch for ‘three battalions and ten troops of dragoons mounted’. However, in August a first attempt was driven back into Torbay by severe storms, and a second attempt, after as severe a battering, refitted in Lisbon, whence its commander, Lord Rivers, beset by contradictory instructions, was eventually persuaded to join Galway in Seville. Thus a descent which was meant to complicate French decision-making and probably compel the withdrawal of troops from Flanders became the simple reinforcement of what was beginning to look like Allied failure.
The arrival of Lord Rivers complicated the question of command in the Penin
As the campaigning year wound to its breathless close, Marlborough looked forward to returning home. Godolphin told him that the work at Woodstock was coming along well.
The garden is already very fine and in perfect shape, the turf all laid, and the first coat of the gravel, the greens high and thriving, and all the hedges pretty well grown.
The building is so advanced, as that one may see perfectly how it will be when it is done. The side where you intend to live is the most forward part. My Lady Marlborough is most prying into it, and has really not only found a great many errors, but very well mended such of them, as could not stay for your decision. I am apt to think she has made Mr Vanbrugh a little annoyed.134
However, it soon transpired that Godolphin had been at Woodstock with Sarah because the duchess had withdrawn there in a huff after a row with Anne over the queen’s determination to govern with an all-party ministry and Sarah’s equally strong convictions that Tories were a menace to the public safety and that her son-in-law Sunderland should be appointed to a high office of state. With an unusual flash of diplomacy Sarah begged leave ‘to revive the names of Mrs Morley and your faithful Freeman’, but the old spells no longer wove their charm.
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