23 May 1706
War of the Spanish Succession
Pro-Habsburg Forces under The Duke of Marlborough approx. 69,000 with 120 guns
Pro-Bourbon Forces under le Duc de Villeroi & the Elector of Bavaria, approx. 68,000 with 70 guns
Location: 50° 38’ 11” N 4° 54’ 55” E. or search for Ramillies-Offus in modern Belgium on Google Maps.
Weather: Low ground fog in the morning, burning off about 10:30. Otherwise temperate and clear. Because it had been raining hard the few days before, the streams were full and the adjacent low ground muddy.
First Light: 0406 Sunrise: 0448 Sunset: 2044 End of Twilight: 2127
Moonrise: 1858 waxing 84% gibbous All times Central European Time
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from lat/long and date)
Amendement Note: Since I first posted this article over four years ago, I have read further about this battle and the forces involved. So much so that I felt compelled to update the maps, orders of battle,formations, and uniform and flag details. March, 2021
Ramillies is the second of Marlborough's four big victories (oops; spoiler), his first big battlefield victory after Blenheim two years before. And he very nearly got himself killed, the damn fool.
In 1705 the war to determine whose relative was to be the King of Spain was going into its fourth year and no end seemed to be in sight. As decisive as Blenheim had seemed the year before, while it did stop a mortal blow aimed at the heart of the Austrian Empire, it was not so mortal a blow to Louis XIV or his designs on hegemony in Europe. Though the war was proving to be ruinously expensive to Louis' treasury and the French economy, the effect of that would not tell for several years. But it was also ruining the economies of the British, Dutch, and the Habsburg allies. This thing wasn't going to be over for a long time.
|John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough at 56|
by Godfrey Kneller
Do you think somebody had a business of
renting those suits of armor for these paintings?
And then, for some reason, instead of one of those brilliant generals, Louis chose his childhood best friend, Francois de Neufville, le duc deVilleroi to lead his army in the Lowlands.
Villeroi, the 62-year-old veteran of several of Louis' previous wars, was a brave soldier but not a particularly competent army commander. He had already lost two battles in Italy and had been taken prisoner by Prince Eugene in 1702. But Louis' confidence in him was unshaken. Marlborough had probably met him during the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78 when England and France were allied against Holland. And undoubtedly, since he was an astute scientist of character, the young John Churchill (as Marlborough was known then) had taken valuable note of all his future adversaries. Much as Robert E. Lee seemed to know what his own adversaries would do in the Civil War (at least, until Grant took command) because he had been their classmate at West Point, Marlborough, who was quite social all over Europe for decades, knew exactly how to play his own opponents. He had probably noted their strengths and weaknesses at parties and card games.
Narrative continues below the map.
Situation Map at 14:30. As with all of my other maps, the unit markers represent the actual footprint of each battalion or squadron. This map was created referencing a combination of contemporary maps and Google satellite photography. Today, over three hundred years later, if you go to the Google Earth reference site, you'll notice a large wood in the center of the battlefield on the east side of the Petite Gheete (big enough to be tactically significant) which no contemporary accounts mention or maps show. So I have left it out. I have also, speculatively, reduced the size of the villages. Ramillies today stretches much farther up the Petite Gheete, which I don't think it did in 1706
The Disappointing 1705At any rate, in order to demonstrate that Blenheim had no affect on him (a "flesh wound"), Louis started 1705 by reinforcing his armies in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Flanders. At the beginning of the year he had over a quarter of a million men in arms, more than France had ever fielded. This rapid resurgence was intended to utterly demoralize the allies, who thought they had defeated the aging French autocrat, and convince them that their resistance was hopeless.
Marlborough's plans this year were to consummate his victory of 1704 by invading France from the northeast, through its most vulnerable corridor, the lower Moselle Valley into Lorraine, and thereby force Louis to sue for peace on favorable terms. Opposing him was an army of about 40,000 under Marshal Villars and a smaller force under his former adversary at Blenheim, Marshal Marsin, with another 25,000. But Marlborough had on hand only about 30,000 English and Allied troops. He needed the cooperation of the Dutch and of the Imperialists under the Margrave of Baden. But the Dutch, distrustful of their Captain General after his escapade in 1704 by stealing away to fight a battle on the Danube, weren't going to cooperate this time; the upper Meuse was too far from their front yard. And the Margrave, who had been wounded at the Schellenburg the year before, was moving much too slowly to reinforce him (Marlborough's best friend for life, Prince Eugene, had been sent to Italy). One supposes, too, that Baden was still holding a grudge for being excluded from the glory of Blenheim, having been sent on a useless errand just prior to that battle (see my article on Blenheim for more of this).
So the Duke was forced, reluctantly, to give up this scheme. He even sent Villars a gracious letter and a gift basket of fine wines and cheeses, apologizing for not obliging him with better sport that season. Marlborough was nothing if not a charmer. Villars forwarded this letter to his king, who took it as a sign that M. Malbrouck was spent, and not to be taken seriously. Blenheim had been blind luck. Oh, and, of course, Tallard's bad generalship. And Clerambault's cowardice. But it was a fluke.
Marlborough gave up his designs on the Meuse and despondently moved west to Flanders to join up with Marshal Ouwerkerk and the Dutch army. He felt that he could force Villeroi to a battle there, defeat him as he had defeated Tallard, and invade France from the north instead. The French, meanwhile, had been besieging and reinforcing fortified towns in Flanders, building what was supposed to be a bulwark against Marlborough to the east; a seventy mile fortification between Antwerp and the Meuse River known as the Lines of Brabant. Like the Maginot Line built by the French 230 years later, this impressive feat of human engineering was not supposed to so much as stop an invasion, but slow it down enough that Villeroi's spread-out army could mass at the point of rupture and destroy the enemy before he could regroup. It was sound strategic thinking. And it worked just as well in 1705 as it did in 1940.
But getting Villeroi to meet him for a battle was exactly what Marlborough wanted. Employing a series of feints and bluffs, the Duke first got Villeroi to chase Ouwerkerk and all the Dutch troops south toward Namur while Marlborough made an attack on the north at Eliksem with his British and German troops. Discovering an overlooked stone bridge over the Gheete that had not been destroyed by the French, he burst through the Lines of Brabant, even though he had less than a third of his army. Getting the word, Ouwerkerk managed to double back and join him. The whole Allied army now swarmed over the Gheete. Villeroi followed in confusion, realizing he'd been sucker punched. When he got near to the Allied army, now massed on the wrong side of the river, he exasperatedly told everybody to meet him farther west, across the Dyle River.
This little combat at Eliksem had one of many anecdotes of Marlborough's near misses. A Bavarian cavalryman, trotting up to him, took a clumsy sword swipe at the Duke's periwigged head. The Duke ducked and the Bavarian lost his balance, embarrassingly falling off his giant horse. Marlborough's trumpeter leaped down off of his horse and skewered the hapless cuirassier before he could get up. Poor man. As tragi-comic as the incident was, it was another example of how the Duke always led from the front, constantly putting himself in harm's way. It was no wonder his men adored him. And his wife was non-plussed. He never mentioned these incidents to Sarah (who found out anyway), knowing he'd catch hell for putting himself in danger.
Villeroi managed to start assembling his army farther to the west on the far banks of the Dyle River (eight miles north of Wavre, which would play a key part in another battle 110 years later) to await Marlborough in what he considered an advantageous position. Marlborough and Ouwerkerk did come up and start to deploy to attack before the French received their full strength in reinforcements. But before that assault could begin, they needed their artillery which was following in the rear. It was at this point that Dutch obstructionism flared up again as Lord Slangenburg, the chief representative of the States General in the field, blocked the artillery train from crossing a defile so his own personal baggage could go first. This delay postponed the entire battle for a day, by which time Marlborough saw that he had lost the advantage as Villeroi had time to assemble his entire army and dig in on the opposite side of the river. The Duke sent another nice note of courteous regret to the French marshal (did his mother raise him right, or what?) and withdrew. He also sent a scathing and not-so-nice diatribe to the States General that their incompetent and obstructionist representative Slangenburg had again interfered with an opportunity to end the war. Even the Dutch Government, who by now were facing increasing frustration with the cost and length of the war from their own constituents, saw that Slangenburg's action was unconscionable (and, because of his Catholicism, it was suspected he was being bribed by the French). They fired him. With extreme prejudice.
Slangenburg, in his own defense, complained that Marlborough was secretive and wouldn't share his plans with his subordinates or have regular and customary councils of war so all the commanders could sit down to discuss the options. The Dutch general had a point. Marlborough didn't trust his allies (with good reason). He felt that councils of war were nothing more than delaying tactics on the part of obstructionists in his own ranks. And he suspected (rightly) that several Allied officers were blabbing to the enemy. We must remember that most of these aristocrats were old friends with each other across the lines, and had actually even fought on the same side in previous wars. So security was something Marlborough took very seriously. Slangenburg was right; he didn't take his subordinates into his confidence.
So 1705 ended in a stalemate again. The Allies indulged themselves in completing the destruction of most of the rest of the Lines of Brabant, as well as capturing a few fortresses. Villeroi, mistaking the Duke's reasons for avoiding battle, sent a triumphant letter to Louis proclaiming a major victory over the English general (in spite of his kicking in the so-called Lines of Brabant so easily) and Louis gratefully accepted that conclusion. All the overdressed sycophants at Versailles clucked and made duck-faces about the myth of Marlborough's military prowess. As everyone had always said, he had been just lucky at Blenheim. Oh, and at Eliksem. But that was all. His luck had run out.
The war would go on into a fifth year.
1706 starts miraculously, for the French.At the end of the campaigning season in Flanders in 1705, Marlborough left what he considered the pointless sieges to his capable subordinates and went on a tour of the German capitals to drum up more material support for the next year. He has often been described by historians as one of the greatest military geniuses of history. But he was also a diplomatic genius, able to keep a frequently squabbling array of competing, unreliable princes in the fight. He spent the next few months traveling all over Europe cajoling more troops and more support. Everyone really loved him. Even his enemies. He was a phenomenon.
|Louis XIV in 1701 in his lounging-around|
attire, not looking a day over 63.
By Hyacinth Rigaud
As 1706 began, Marlborough had big plans. One was to double-down on his daring expedition of 1704 and march even farther, all the way to down to Italy, teaming up again with his other soul-mate, Prince Eugene, to destroy Vendome's army there and secure Savoy, Lombardy, and the whole of North Italy for the anti-Bourbon cause. Another was to reinforce the Margrave Baden in Bavaria to help him neutralize Villars along the Rhine frontier, exposing France itself to invasion (per his original 1705 plan). A third was to reinforce the recent defection of Portugal to the Allied side to march on Madrid from the west, combined with a simultaneous assault from the recently consolidated east coast of Spain, forcing Philip to flee back across the Pyrenees. And fourth was an amphibious invasion of France proper at Bordeaux with a combined Anglo-Huguenot force of 10,000. Unfortunately, hardly any of these plans were to happen.
In the first place, while the States General agreed to let Marlborough send Eugene 10,000 reinforcements in Italy, it was on the condition that the Duke himself (and his British troops) stay in Flanders to command the "Home Army" in person. Disappointed, his devotion to the anti-Bourbon war effort was unshakeable, so reluctantly agreed. He had so looked forward to his next adventure, the Hannibalic crossing of the Alps, that he had already made logistic arrangements, issuing new hand-mills to the troops, for instance, so they could make their own flour on the way. But now, for the greater good, he agreed to let someone else go, and with much fewer forces.
In the second place, the King of Denmark, the new King in Prussia (Frederick I), and the Elector of Hanover, were dragging their feet on sending Baden troops to launch his campaign against Vendome's 40,000 in the central theater. In what must have been a clerical oversight, it seems that none of them had yet been paid by the Dutch or the British. Also, Britain's ambassador to Berlin, the Earl of Strafford, was a complete jerk and had antagonized the Prussian court by undiplomatically sleeping with the Prussian prime minister's wife. Frederick formally asked the British Government to recall him in April...oh, and to pay what they promised. Marlborough was using all his personal charm to try and reclaim the situation.
|Battle of Calcinato, 19 April 1706, by Jean-Baptiste Martin|
That's the lovely Lake Garda in the background, a
nice place to either fight a battle or honeymoon.
This was a new strategy for the French in Flanders. For the first four years of the war, they were content to sit inside their dense network of Vauban-built fortresses in the Lowlands and just keep the Allies from doing anything rude. This strategy had, up to then, worked, mostly because of the well-known Dutch reluctance to let Marlborough seek battle. But Louis needed to end this expensive war and move on. Also, having the largest and most professional military force in the world, he saw no reason why he should fool around anymore with these lessor mortals. He told Villeroi to attack. And he kept on telling him, sending goading messages almost daily.
The battlefield by mutual consent.
Villeroi resented these pushy reminders from his king, taking them as expressions of lack of confidence. He was moving. And massing. He didn't need the king's nagging. He emptied most of the fortresses of their Spanish garrisons (which were mostly manned by local, Walloon troops in Spanish pay) to swell his infantry to 62 battalions and over 100 squadrons. Knowing that Louis had released Marsin, he sent urgent riders to that marshal to bring up his cavalry on the double, followed as soon after by some 20 battalions of his infantry. And the king had sent Villeroi his own personal bodyguard, the 2,700 strong Maison du Roi, the finest cavalry in Europe, Louis' own "Immortals". This would not only convince Marlborough that he meant to fight, but that he meant to fight to the death; a temptation Louis knew Marlborough could not resist.
|Francois de Neufville, duc de Villeroi at 62 years young|
brandishing his fresh baguette
The French marshal had examined this ground before, many times. It was just west of the destroyed Lines of Brabant, behind the marshy stream of the Petite Gheete. The position was anchored by the villages of Autre-Eglise, Offus, and Ramillies, all composed of strong, stone buildings and high walls, easily turned into forts. To the south of Ramillies was an open plain a little over a mile wide (two kilometers), perfect for cavalry action. This plain was itself bounded on the south by the marshy banks of the Mehaigne River. Villeroi knew this avenue would be too tempting for Marlborough to resist. It was the most logical avenue into western Flanders. So he hurried his army there as fast as possible on the 22nd of May to seize the ground. (See deployment map above).
Marlborough had also been over this ground many times before during the previous four years. He had "put it in his pocket" as Wellington was to have later said of the field at Waterloo. He visited every hamlet, knew every sunken road, every dip in the ground, the condition of the streams and marshes, the concealed places, the fields of fire. The Duke was hoping Villeroi would meet him here, but not counting on it. He imagined that, given Villeroi's cautious nature, the French marshal would chose to wait behind the Dyle, farther west. Nevertheless, the unobstructed plain between Ramillies and Taviers was the ideal avenue to move west. But the Duke's plan was not subtle; it was to hunt Villeroi down, wherever he chose to stand, and annihilate him. Marlborough may have been a gentile, charming diplomat, but he was first a ruthless warrior, a regular Genghis Khan.
So both commanders, almost by telepathic assent, had pre-selected this spot to meet each other.
The Bourbons prepare.Villeroi got there first. Which would turn out to be fine with Marlborough. Arriving in the early morning of the 23rd, the Villeroi's army began to deploy from north to south behind the Petite Gheete. Anticipating that Marlborough would show up at any minute, the French commander had his men drop their packs and let the baggage pile up behind the villages of Ramillies and Offus, without setting up camp first. As a result, there was a mess left in the French rear as hundreds of wagons and mountains of baggage were stacked randomly. The marshal thought they'd have plenty of time to sort things out and set up camp after they had secured the position and defeated the Allies. This failure to clean up their room would later turn out to hinder the French later, as we'll see.
With only 32 heavy guns, Villeroi had his artillery concentrated around the central position at Ramillies . This would allow it to cover both the crossing of the Petite Gheete and the plain to the south of Ramillies. His 38 small 4-pounder pieces (including an unknown number of freakish, three-barrelled curiosities) he had distributed evenly among his infantry battalions to act as close support weapons.
Villeroi was sensitive about his left (his northern flank). This was the closest avenue to his line of communication with Louvain. So he spent most of his attention reinforcing that wing behind the Petite Gheete, establishing his headquarters behind Autre-Eglise to closely supervise the defense. He figured that as the Allies got their boots stuck in the mud of the little stream, his own veteran infantry could decimate them.
Louis had warned Villeroi to mark carefully where Marlborough would station his English Redcoats, as this would indicate where his main attack would come. As the morning wore on and the Allied army marched up, he saw that the English were, indeed, massed on the north, just where he expected them to be. As the enemy deployment developed, he also noticed that Marlborough seemed to be setting up in the conventional manner, with strong cavalry on both flanks and infantry in the center. He thought this was foolish because he judged that the stream and its soggy banks would be uncrossable to cavalry. Nevertheless, he stationed Egmont's cavalry up on this flank too, just to make sure. In the north, where he anticipated the main blow would fall (since that's where the Redcoats were), he felt secure.
1430--Detail of Northern Sector Deployment
In the center Villeroi stationed his strongest infantry division, Surville's 7,200, with the Gardes Francaises and Gardes Suisses, covered in front by his big guns. In Ramillies, he saw that this farm village could act as a salient bastion, enfilading any attacks on the center and the right. The hamlet was ideal for defense, not only because of its stone, walled farms, but also for the natural berm that ran around its eastern and southern approaches, called "le trou aux renards", or "fox hole", by the locals. Into this defilade Villeroi sent d'Artagnan's division of French, Italian, and Irish veterans (the "Wild Geese"), including the Picardie Regiment, the oldest infantry regiment in the French Army. These were supported, in turn by Lede's Division and Maffei's Bavarian Guards.
Detail: Deployment on the Center
Finally, at the very south of Villeroi's line, ran the Mehaigne River and the hamlet of Taviers. This was vital for the Bourbons to anchor their right wing and protect the flank of not just Guiscard's cavalry, but the entire army. You would have thought, as Tallard had done with Blenheim village two years before, that Villeroi would have secured this village and crossing with a substantial infantry force. The geography was almost the same. However, apparently he was more concerned with his left flank, convinced this is where Marlborough would attack since that sector was closer to his line of communications with Louvain. That's where he would have attacked himself, at any rate.
So the marshal turned over command to the competent Guiscard to manage the right flank, confident that his huge advantage in cavalry and his strong force in Ramillies were sufficient to secure it.
Guiscard dispatched only one battalion of infantry (3rd Battalion, Greder Suisse) under La Motte to guard Taviers. He also sent just four squadrons of dismounted dragoons (about 400 men, minus the ones not holding their horses, which had been left in the rear near the prehistoric barrow known as the Tomb of Ottomond). Col. La Motte, the on-scene commander, sent these horseless dragoons forward to stake out in the fortified farm of Franquenée, just east of Taviers. To Taviers itself, he sent just four companies of his Greder infantry, 3rd battalion. To the rest of that battalion he assigned the arduous task, for some reason, of dismantling a stone bridge over a minor rivulet that flowed into the Mehaigne behind Taviers (called the Vissoule). None of these isolated detachments had any artillery with them. Nor were they sure what they were doing there, other than to sound the alarm if any enemies came that way. Can you tell I'm foreshadowing here?
View from the south of Ramillies looking toward Taviers. (image a mosaic from Google Earth "Street View")
1430--Detail of Deployment on the South
The Habsburg Faction shows up.
While Villeroi and his subordinates were getting ready, Marlborough had rousted his army and had been marching westward from Corswaren since 03:00 that morning. He had sent his trusty quartermaster Cadogan ahead to spot out a likely campground for the night of the 23rd. That officer, with a detachment of 600 dragoons, had reached the Jandrenouille Plateau just east of the Petite Gheete a couple of hours after sunrise (about 08:00). In the fog he noticed some shadowy figures on horseback. These exchanged fire with his dragoons and galloped back into the murk. Cadogan pulled up and sent a messenger to his boss that he'd better come up quick and have a look. About 10:00, as the fog began to lift, Marlborough rode up with Marshal Ouwerkerk and they and Cadogan reconnoitered the Ramillies position together, noting all of the Bourbon troops from Autre-Eglise down to the plain below Ramillies. Frankly, the Duke was pleasantly surprised that Villeroi had obliged him by occupying this ground so far east. He had thought he would have to goad him into battle from his habitual position west of the Dyle. But now this meant he could have his battle that much sooner. It was exciting news. He sent messengers back for his army to come up quick, especially to the Danish contingent, who had not as yet joined the main army the day before.
For the rest of the morning, the British, Dutch, and Allied troops filed through the village of Jandrenouille and also along the old Roman Road along the Mehaigne River, shaking out into line and plopping down to fix their lunch. Dragoons came forward with thousands of straw bundles (fascines) which they ran forward to toss into the Petite Gheete for the men to cross. Engineers supervised the throwing of bridges across the stream at Foulx (see map above). Colonel Blood, who had led the entire army with his heavy siege guns, now began to unlimber them into battery. Artillery was the arm that Marlborough had a decisive advantage, particularly in heavy ordnance. He didn't want to make the mistake he had made in the last campaign by having to wait for his guns, blocked on the road behind him. This time, they were in the vanguard.
As this Allied deployment was unfolding, the States General's new representative, Sicco van Goslinga, who, though a civilian, considered himself an expert on all things militaria (don't we all know someone like this?), started to offer his unsolicited advice to Marlborough. He noticed that the Captain General seemed to be committing a fatal blunder by forming his army up in the conventional manner, with the infantry in the center and the two wings covered equally by cavalry. Since, in his expert opinion, the soggy ground banking the Petite Gheete was unsuitable for infantry, much less cavalry, it would be far better to amass all of the Allied cavalry on the left, since that ground was dry and open. Marlborough, ever the diplomat, thanked Sicco for his opinion and let the deployment continue as before. In his reports to the Dutch Government and in his later memoirs, Goslinga criticized the incompetence of Marlborough for doing this. But what he couldn't see was that Marlborough, by making a strong demonstration on the right, opposite Autre-Eglise, was fixing Villeroi there and causing him to start pulling troops away from his center, exactly as Tallard had done at Blenheim. And the scheme worked beautifully.
Also, Marlborough wasn't all that convinced that the Petite Gheete was impassable. His fire-eating infantry commander, Orkney, certainly didn't think it would be. And if he could make headway there, so much the better. Marlborough played chess aggressively. And he was ever open to opportunity.
Goslinga also reportedly expressed alarm that as the army shook itself out in deployment (which was taking a few hours, naturally), that Villeroi, who was already deployed, could a launch an attack across the stream and catch them unorganized. Marlborough replied, smiling, that he thought Mr. Goslinga said the Petite Gheete was impassable. And that if it was impassable for our side, wouldn't it be for the French as well? (Sicco evidently couldn't keep his mouth shut. And couldn't admit he was wrong.) Besides, Marlborough knew his enemy. Villeroi had taken a defensive position, both physically and psychologically, and he was not about to become the attacker. The Duke's biggest fear was that the marshal would lose his nerve and withdraw before the Allies commenced their pinning attack on the north.
The Dutch representative serves as comic relief for this narrative, something like the know-it-all bureaucrat in action movies who tries to get in the hero's way. However, to Marlborough he was more harmless than the more actively obstructionist (and suspected double-agent) Slangenburg. And at least the new Dutch representative was enthusiastic, and brave, and all for going on the offense. This was a refreshing change. Even putting up with Gosslinga's naïve, irritating kibbitzing, Marlborough would at last have his battle.
Meanwhile, on the southern flank, Ouwerkerk's 12,000 cavalry were lining up in a solid wall of horses, arrayed in four lines, each two ranks deep. These Dutch and German horsemen were eager to smash into the French, to show them what real horsemen could do. Rather than being intimidated by the famous red cavalry of the Maison du Roi, their morale was high. Ouwerkerk, who had fought with Marlborough since they served under William III together, understood his commander's intuition as if it were his own. He was not impetuous; he was careful. But he acted when the time was right. He arranged his cavalry in dense, boot-to-boot lines, en muraille, as the French called it, with no gaps between the leading squadrons. This meant that when the time to charge came, the Dutch cavalry would present a solid moving wall. The French cavalry on the opposite side of the field, by contrast, were arranged in a traditional checkerboard formation, with wide gaps between the squadrons to allow for reinforcement and withdrawal.
Ouwerkerk moved his lines up close enough to the enemy so that he could pin him. Marlborough didn't want Villeroi to slip away before he was ready, so by having his cavalry posted within striking distance, any retreat would be disastrous. However, the Allied horse were still far enough from the French batteries around Ramillies that they were out of range until the time came.
Finally Prince Württemberg's Danish cavalry, 21 squadrons, over 4,000 troopers, had finally shown up about 1430 and were making their way down the left flank along the Roman Road on the banks of the Mehaigne. They were ordered to infiltrate along the enemy's flank and support the Dutch infantry in the process of securing Taviers.
1400-- Fighting starts on the south side.
Ouwerkerk and Marlborough agreed that that before they could launch a cavalry charge against the Bourbon left, those villages on the Mehaigne River, Taviers and Franquenée, had to be secured. They weren't sure how strong the defenders were--or if there were any--but Ouwerkerk couldn't risk an enfilade fire from there. So he borrowed Werdmüller's Brigade of four Dutch foot battalions from Holstein-Beck's Division (Salisch, Slangenburg, and Oranje-Friesland regiments, about 2,700 men--though Falkner, in his book, says this was the three battalions of the "Dutch Guards", which he evidently derived from Churchill's slapdash narrative) supported by two 6-pdr guns (called sakers) to sweep them. Marching in column down the Roman Road, Werdmüller's leading elements were met with staccato musketry from the stone farmhouse at Franquenée. This was from the dismounted dragoons of the Rohan and Pignatelli Regiments. The Dutch infantry quickly fanned out into line and brought up their two guns, which commenced to blast point blank at the farm buildings. Believing their mission was to act as a tripwire and not a garrison, the French dragoons scrambled out of the farm and ran back toward Taviers, dutifully spreading the alarm.
Werdmüller's view down the Roman Road toward the walled farm at Franquenee. Note that the Ramillies battlefield, not far from Waterloo, was dotted with walled farms that very much resembled La Haye Sainte and Hugomont a century later
Werdmüller pushed his battalions forward to Taviers, which was only being held by a couple of hundred Swiss of the Greder Regiment and whatever dragoons stopped to rally with them. But these couldn't hold but for about fifteen minutes against the 2,700 Dutch and their two 6 pounders. After a token fight, they too scampered back through the village to join the main battalion under Col. La Motte at the Vissoule Bridge. La Motte managed to form up his men, at most 1,000 Swiss and dragoons. He sent gallopers back to Guiscard for reinforcements and his men did their best to return the overwhelming fire of the four Dutch battalions now coming out of Taviers. However, outnumbered as they were, and using the old fire-by-ranks method against the much more efficient platoon fire of the Dutch, they were fast crumbling (for a description of how this worked, see my post on Blenheim).
And this is the view of Taviers down the same road. The Greder Swiss and the Rohan Dragoons who stuck around would have been ensconced in the stone buildings and behind the walls and hedges. Assaulting the village would have very much resembled World War II house-to-house combat.
Image from Google Earth "Street View"
Guiscard got the urgent message and ordered his fifth line, the dragoon division under Rohan-Chabot, to dismount and rush to La Motte's aid. In succession he started detaching further infantry from his supports, first Nonan's Brigade (Provence and Bassigny Regiments) and then the three battalions of German infantry under Wolfskehl. Unfortunately, while all of these troops (more than 4,000) might have overwhelmed the 2,700 Dutch had they all arrived in a mass, they took various routes to the sound of the firing and got lost, getting there in separate bunches. Two of the brigade commanders, in fact, (Wolfskehl and Nonan), going forward to find the way over the swamp of the Vissoule, only managed to get themselves captured by Württemberg's Danish cavalry, who had come up to support Werdmüller. Rohan-Chabot himself, was shot down. And as each Bourbon battalion came up separately, it was handily shot to pieces by the efficient Dutch platoon fire. By about 15:00 the Danish cavalry rode into the flank of the two French infantry regiments still in column formation (Provence and Bassigny) who had, in their turn, stepped into the shredder. They who weren't hacked down also fled.
Col. de la Colonie (famous for his colorful memoires in later years), who succeeded the captured Wolfskehl in commanding the Bavarian Guards brigade, later wrote that the enemy had fourteen battalions; such was his belief since the fire was so rapid and intense. (He repeated this number at least a half-dozen times in his narrative, in case somebody should miss the point.) This would also explain, in his eyes, why all of the French, German, and Swiss infantry, as well as the dragoons, started to run away. In fact, his own brigade had not even been fired at yet when the fleeing Swiss and French ran into them and started a general stampede. He managed to rally a few hundred into four ad hoc battalions from various regiments, but he kept them behind the Vissoulle for the rest of the battle, and out of the fight.
So after less than an hour of this firefight, Werdmüller, supported by Württemberg's cavalry, was in firm control of Taviers and he had managed to eliminate some 5,000 of the enemy (killed, wounded, captured, or fled), losing only a handful himself. It was an auspicious opening to the battle. And a phenomenal episode for the Dutch and Danish regimental combat historians.
Orkney jumps the creek.
All while Werdmüller was securing the southern flank, Marlborough was riding up and down the three-and-a-half miles of his line, supervising the deployment. He had established his headquarters at one of those walled farms immediately to the northeast of Ramillies (very much like Hougomont or La Haye Sainte at Waterloo), but his real headquarters were on the hindquarters of his horse. His artillery, particularly his heavy siege guns and howitzers, were already firing an occasional ranging round at Ramillies and Offus, while the French artillery fired back in a desultory manner. The Allied troops were, for the most part, lying low in their thin lines, enjoying their midday meal, and largely untouched by the occasional French cannonballs.
At about 14:30, Lord Orkney, champing at the bit, got the nod from Marlborough to storm across the Petite Gheete near Foulx and begin his attack. His pioneers had been filling the ditch all morning with fascines, and, according to the old-man memoir of one Thomas Kitcher, a soldier in Meredith's Foot, the dead bodies of their comrades. (I have to look with skepticism at this account since I know from personal experience that old men are prone to embellish the stories of their military service. In the military this kind of reminiscence is sarcastically termed a "war story", the veteran's equivalent of a "fish story". One sign that it was a "war story" was that Kitcher says one dead body that was tossed in suddenly woke up and started cursing his fellow soldiers. Makes me think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail again, "I'm not dead! In fact I'm feeling much better!")
Where was I? Oh, yes. Orkney's Division's assault across the Petite Gheete. The creek, contrary to Sicco van Goslinga's assessment, was definitely not uncrossable. The Redcoat foot, and even Lumley's dragoons, crossed it quickly. Granted, they had to get their feet wet, and their shoes muddy, and had to splash across in single lines. And some were picked off by skirmishers sent forward by the French. But they crossed in short order, reformed on the opposite bank and started pushing up the shallow slope toward the main Bourbon positions in Autre-Eglise. So the creek was definitely not the formidable obstacle that Villeroi and his staff assumed it would be. Just as the Nebel Creek was not the obstacle that Tallard believed it would be at Blenheim. This was combat, not a ballroom floor where you'd be afraid to get your patent leather slippers wet. You'd think the French would have figured that out by now.
The Petite Gheete creek between Autre-Eglise and Foulx. Even allowing for modern hydrological management, you can see that this was no Mississippi. The Bourbon forces would have been deployed up on the ridge to the left, but not too steep a ridge (it was no Mount Suribachi). (image from Google Earth "Street View")
A Close up view of the Petite Gheete, showing how narrow and shallow it was. You might not be able to step across it given the steep banks, but it was hardly an obstacle to infantry. Photo courtesy of Louis Kolkman. All rights reserved to him and it may not be used or republished without his permission.
As Orkney's 17 battalions reformed on the far bank (putting their socks and shoes back on) and moved up toward Autre-Eglise and the next "formidable" ditch of the Fagneton. There they started to feel fire from the Bourbonist infantry. At about sixty yards, the British and Danish battalions, halted and started returning a devastating platoon fire, which was far more effective than the slow fire-by-ranks from the Bourbons in their five ranks. The Bourbonists started to waver and fall back. And the Allied infantry moved closer to Autre-Eglise.
Villeroi was close behind this action and intensely distracted by it. His co-commander, the Elector Max II Emanuel, finally arrived on the scene, having traveled all night from Brussels, and took command of the cavalry on the left about midday. Both commanders saw that if Autre-Eglise fell, their whole line of retreat back to Louvain would be threatened. They were so close to it, in fact, that they failed to notice through the smoke and excitement all of the enemy cavalry moving south behind the Allied line.
The main event commences.With the southern flank now secure, Marlborough gave Ouwerkerk the go-ahead to start his main cavalry charge. At the same time, he ordered his younger brother, Charles Churchill, to commence the main infantry attack on Ramillies. All of the Allied guns now opened up and started pummeling the village and the French batteries surrounding them. The French answered in kind, but not with the same weight.
Finally, the Duke started sending messengers to Orkney to pull back from his attack on Autre-Eglise. Orkney, who was actually making progress in that sector, ignored these messengers whom he considered interfering with what he considered his impending victory. But Marlborough was worried that if Orkney's foot were successful in breaking through Autre-Eglise, they would be completely at the mercy of the 45 squadrons of French and Bavarian cavalry stationed on the plain behind. And he didn't want to commit his own cavalry on the northern flank to rescue them. He had other plans for them.
When the messengers kept coming back to tell the Duke that Orkney had refused to pull back, that His Grace didn't understand how close to victory they were, Marlborough sent his own quartermaster, Cadogan, to impress the order upon the Scotsman. Apparently they argued vehemently for several minutes, with bullets whizzing around them, but Cadogan was adamant and impressed upon the Earl that Marlborough's master plan called for him to pull back; he had already done his duty; pinning Villeroi's left. And Orkney reluctantly did (possibly slapping his own forehead).
In the south, Ouwerkerk led his first line of cavalry forward, knee to knee, walking at first, then sequentially shifting into a trot, then a canter, then a gallop toward the line of the Finest Cavalry in Europe. Guiscard saw and felt the earth-shaking of the wall of horses coming toward him. He knew that he needed to start his own counter-charge back or be overthrown. So he led the Maison du Roi forward. It would have only taken the two lines about four minutes to close the mile distance between them. The French, this time, did not stop to deliver pistol fire as was their usual doctrine, but crashed into the Dutch with swords drawn, at full tilt. The collision must have been horrific.
Because of the supporting cannonading by the Allied artillery to their north, as well as the simultaneous attack on Ramilllies by the infantry, Ouwerkerk's cavalry were largely spared the enfilade fire from that bastion. The French were too busy shooting at the Allied batteries and tidal wave of Allied infantry bearing down on them. So the Dutch squadrons crashed into the Maison du Roi squadrons in tight order.
The first clash went on for several minutes. Though the French elite cavalry threw back the Dutch horse in their immediate front, the latter, in their en muraille formation, managed to filter through and swing around to hit the French squadrons, who had charged with gaps between them, from the flanks and rear. Both sides held their own for awhile in this melee. But eventually the French cavalry began to overcome the Dutch first line. The latter disengaged andfell back to its second line.
The second Allied line of cavalry, under Hompesch, now came forward and executed their own charge, which threw the Maison du Roi back, and who were, in turn supported by their succeeding lines of horse under Chimay (the cavalry that Marsin had sent Villeroi days before). The charges went back and forth for over an hour, each side becoming exhausted.
Marlborough nearly gets himself killed, again.Marlborough, not the kind of commander who observed from a hill in the rear, was up close in all of this combat, riding around encouraging his troopers to rally and leading charge after charge with Ouwerkerk. They were both soldiers first. At one point, caught up in one of the latest repulses by one of the French counter-charges, the Duke attempted to leap his horse over a ditch. The animal stopped at the edge suddenly, and Marlborough was thrown over its head. He immediately got up, looked for his hat, and saw a thundering herd of French cavalrymen galloping toward him, shooting at him with their pistols. They knew exactly who he was (probably the only soldier wearing a red coat and blue sash on that side of the enemy field) and meant to kill him. A little ways off, he saw a line of friendly infantry (probably Albermarles's Swiss) and started running toward it. Fortunately, Marlborough had this quirk: He hated to wear stiff, chafing, riding boots and preferred linen walking gaiters and comfortable shoes. This fashion idiom saved his life this time--not to mention altered the course of history--for he ran just fast enough and made a second-base slide under the bayonets of the infantry as the charging enemy horse came up on him. These were mowed down by the friendly volleys which ripped out just in the nick of time.
His sole aide at the time, a Capt. Molesworth, who had miraculously survived not only a mauling by the French cavalry, but a volley of friendly fire by the Swiss who killed his assailants, lent the Duke his own horse.
|A grisly playing card commemorating the craniectomy |
of poor Col. Bringfield
It also illustrates in what excellent physical shape this 56-year-old man was. Here he had been up since o-dark-thirty, constantly in the saddle, in the middle of a cavalry battle, keeping track of everything on the four-mile-wide battlefield, surviving a fall from a horse, narrowly cheating death by sprinting a hundred yards and making a second base slide under the bayonets of friendly infantry, and cheating death again under murderous artillery bombardment. And he was only half done for the day. And he was suffering from one of his frequent migraine attacks. How many twenty-year-old hipsters today could keep up with that old man? (Don't get me started on ageism.)
The Duke makes his move.
In spite of all of these personal calamities, Marlborough kept his head and retained control of the battle. He saw that the furious cavalry battle that had been see-sawing back and forth during the afternoon was almost decided, but not quite. Guiscard, who had committed his last line of cavalry, was getting really close to the edge. Both Ouwerkerk and Marlborough could feel it. Now was the time to pull draw from the right flank and keep the pressure on. Marlborough sent to Tilly to bring down his two cavalry brigades (Dompre and Oyen, 6,600 troopers) on the double.
These two brigades, Dutch and Hanoverian, 39 fresh squadrons, used the rolling landscape on the Jandrenouille Plain to conceal their movement as their columns galloped behind the Allied infantry. If anyone on the Bourbon side noticed this, there was no record of it from them. Realistically, given the distance, the smoke, and all the other combat going on around the Petite Gheete, it would have been hard for anyone to have detected it, rolling hills or no. Chandler mentions a "re-entrant" corridor, a kind of shallow gully, that the Allied cavalry used to sneak by. But an examination of the topography doesn't reveal any such feature. However, it seems that none would have been needed.
While Tilly was bringing his extra cavalry down from the north, Württemberg realigned his Danish cavalry in Taviers and ambushed another French charge in the flank and rear, causing them to retreat. It was just a matter of time before the Bourbon cavalry caved completely. Though both sides fought ferociously, it was going to be the side with the last, fresh reserves that won this fight.
None of the narrative I have read report Guiscard as sending for reinforcements from the Elector and Villeroi. As I pointed out, they were unaware of the grand-tactical shift of enemy cavalry from the right to the left wing. And to them, though Orkney had withdrawn back across the Petite Gheete, he still presented an immediate danger to the Bourbon left. Moreover, the British artillery in this sector was still vigorously pounding Autre-Eglise and Offus. So it doesn't seem as though Villeroi was concerned enough about his right to dispatch any of his left-hand 51 squadrons to help Guiscard out.
Guiscard himself, by this point, did not wait around for complete tactical collapse. Many of his squadrons, including the Maison, were exhausted but still intact, though much depleted. They had not been routed yet. But as he saw the fresh enemy cavalry miraculously appearing on the field, he took the prudent step of swinging back his line to face south, anchoring its left on the hinge of Ramillies but its right pointing due west and in the air. Unfortunately the ground on which he attempted this was the same ground that was cluttered with all the baggage and wagons mentioned earlier. Nobody had taken charge of this mess; presumably somebody would get around to cleaning that up later, after they'd won the battle. So the area was cluttered, not exactly great for maneuvering squadrons.
Meanwhile, the action in the center of the battle was even hotter. As at Blenheim, Marlborough saw that the most vulnerable sector of the enemy's position was the center, between Ramillies and Offus. He had pinned and so neutralized Villeroi's two wings, now was the time to administer the coup de grace and launch an all-out infantry assault on the hinge of the Bourbon army.
Detail: Defense of Ramillies Village
View from the Allied infantry's approach from the northeast towards Ramillies.about 500 yards out.
(image mage from Google Earth "Street View")
Earlier in the afternoon, when the cavalry battle got underway in the south, Marlborough's younger brother, Charles Churchill, commander of the infantry, began a series of assaults with 62 battalions. As Marlborough had drawn off the cavalry from his right wing to reinforce his left, he advised Churchill to help himself to the third lines of infantry (McCartney, Ingoldsby, Spaar, Donop) that had been supporting Orkney's "feint". All of these troops now went in to assault Ramillies village, one wave after another. As one line faltered under the devastating fire from the defenders and their artillery, it would fall back and a fresh line would charge in, crouching in the sunken roads to approach under cover. They weren't going in in serried, steady lines, but in columns, rushing down the sunken approach roads and suddenly leaping out to drive at the defenders with bayonets and close fire. It was very much like World War II street combat. In the lulls between each successive charge, the Allied artillery renewed its bombardment with intensity, its heavier siege guns and howitzers turning the village to dust. This was a battle of attrition. And as with the cavalry battle, the side with the last reserves would win.
Ramillies Church, looking northeast toward the direction of the Allied attacks. Site of the last stand of the Picardie and Clare Regiments. During the battle the Allied artillery smashed its steeple almost from the beginning and pretty much turned the whole place to rubble by the end. Image made from GoogleMaps "Street View"
The Allied infantry was attacking this way from three sides of Ramillies simultaneously (north, east, south). And each assault would be beaten back by the heroic defenders. The brigadier, Charles O'Brian, Viscount Clare, and his "Wild Geese" of Irish expats, were particularly ferocious. They were still seething for revenge on this same Anglo-Dutch army for the massacre of the Boyne, thirteen years before. It must have been very confusing in one sector of the street fighting because both sides (the Clare Regiment and the Scots Borthwick Regiment) were wearing red with yellow facings. One side had white Bourbon cockades in their hats and the other, supposedly, sprigs of green leaves (for the Habsburg cause), but it is doubtful these subtle distinctions could have been made out in the smoke and chaos. I imagine there was quite a lot of friendly fire on both sides.
The End Comes Suddenly
Eventually, at about 1900, the Allies seemed to call a halt to the onslaught. The guns stopped to cool down. The Bourbon forces breathed a sign of relief and reordered themselves, hoping that they'd fought the battle to a draw. Guiscard used the time to dress his squadrons' new south-facing lines as best he could in front of the traffic jam of wagons. He commandeered five battalions of Swiss (Greder and Villars Regiments) standing behind Ramillies in support of d'Artagnan, to face south and provide an anchor of infantry support for his cavalry.
But Villeroi, almost tharn*, did hardly anything to redeploy troops himself. Though he had plenty of uncommitted infantry and cavalry with him behind Autre-Eglise and Offus, he did nothing to feed them into reinforcing Ramillies. That garrison, like the garrison at Blenheim two years before, was forgotten and orphaned. No help came. But they didn't surrender.
*I love that word., "tharn." Comes from Richard
Adams's Watership Down. Means an animal paralyzed by terror. Another phrase
we use in the U.S. is "A deer in the headlights."
Toward the end of the day, seeking to help the beleaguered infantry in Ramilllies, Villeroi did send forward his finest infantry, Surville's Division of the Gardes Francaises and the Guards Suisses (9 battalions), supported by the three battalions of the elite Castellas Swiss regiment. These advanced and drove back the Scots (Argyll's Brigade) attacking Ramillies from the north. They then broke ranks themselves to chase those Scots across the Petite Gheete. Fortunately for them, when they found themselves confronted by the main Allied batteries and more brigades of fresh enemy troops, they had the discipline to pull back and reform on the eastern bank of the brook. This was the only effort Villeroi seemed to make to relieve his trapped troops in Ramillies.
At one point, the Bavarian Guards Brigade under Maffei began a fighting withdrawal, wall-by-wall from the village, the brigadier noticed some grey-coated cavalry coming up from the south. Maffei, thinking the were friendlies since they were coming from the direction he knew Guiscard's cavalry were positioned, rode over to direct their officers in support of his brigade. When got among them and started speaking in German and French, they replied in Dutch and he was promptly surrounded and captured. With the armies on both sides wearing predominantly grey or white coats, it was difficult to tell friend from foe. The Allied troops supposedly stuck leaves in their hats to distinguish them, but these could hardly be seen from more than a few yards. And they frequently fell out. Imagine Maffei's embarrassment. This same case of mistaken identify was probably why the brigadiers Nonant and Wolfskehl had been captured by the Dutch at Taviers earlier when they went in search of the defenders of Taviers.
At about 19:00, after about a half-hour lull in the fighting, the Allies, having moved in fresh brigades in the center, and reorganized their cavalry on the left, started again. There was an even more furious attack all along the line. This was to be the final push. Even Orkney slipped his leash and charged back across the "impassable" Petite Gheete, supported by Lumley's cavalry.
The result was just carnage. The heroic French, Irish, Italian and German troops holding onto Ramillies gave their lives dearly, but they eventually caved and started saving themselves out the back door as the fresh British, Dutch, Hanoverian and Danish infantry charged in with bayonets. Once that trickle of men who'd had enough started to run, it quickly became a rout. Those that didn't surrender or were shot down or bayonetted streamed out of Ramillies in spite of their officers yelling and smacking them with swords. The Cologne Kurfust Regiment (part of the luckless Maffei's brigade) did manage to get back into the walled farm at the south side of Ramillies (the Grande Cense), but with the whole command disintegrating around them, they eventually surrendered this strongpoint as well.
The Grande Cense farm on the south side of Ramillies where the Kurfurst Regiment holed up. You can see how similar this looked to La Haye Sainte, typical of the fortified farms all over Flanders.
To the southwest, Guiscard's cavalry, though reformed, didn't even try to counter-charge this time as Ouwerkerk's horse thundered down on them, seemingly fresher and more numerous than ever. They'd had enough. They broke suddenly and scattered in all directions, some fleeing southwest to try and cross the Mehaigne and Namur, some filtering back through the jumbled baggage dump, many just surrendering. Württemberg's Danish troopers weren't taking prisoners, though. They were hacking down men right and left like Viking berzerkers. Apparently, they were infuriated by a rumor that French troops under Vendome had murdered Danish troops after they had surrendered at the battle of Calcinato in Italy the month before.
Meanwhile, the Bourbon cavalry in this sector, sitting on their horses without orders, had done nothing to help up up to now. Whether Max Emanuel or Villeroi got any messages for help I don't know. But these fifty-odd squadrons sat inert on their horses for the whole battle, until the end.
As other horsemen and foot soldiers began to flee in greater numbers from the south, past his intact troops, Villeroi sensed that he had lost the battle elsewhere he could not see. He ordered a general retreat to save what was left of his army. And so the still-intact squadrons and battalions on the left began to withdraw in the direction of Louvain. But many of them broke ranks and joined the general rout running past them from the right and center. Panic was, as always, contagious. Many dropped their weapons and bolted out of their formations. This was particularly the case with the Spanish-Walloon regiments, who must have been wondering why they had been rousted out of their comfortable garrison duty to fight a stupid field battle in the first place--for a foreign monarch they weren't too keen on anyway.
Marlborough's victory was spectacular. Though it had been in the saddle for fifteen hours, his cavalry kept up the pursuit until after midnight, hacking down any Frenchmen or Bourbonists they caught, not letting the enemy regroup. The Duke himself and Ouwerkerk kept up with this pursuit until after midnight, when, after nearly twenty-four hours awake, and depleted of adrenalin, the exhausted commander got off his horse and spread his cloak under a tree in a field, which he graciously shared with the Dutch representative, van Goslinga, who had (in spite of his annoying advice) kept up with him all day.
The battle itself was bloody for both sides. From the actual combat itself, the Allies' roll call recorded 1,066 deaths (and auspicious number for English history) and 2,597 wounded. No captured. Or 5% casualties. The Bourbons, with more or less equal forces going into the fight and putting up a stiff fight all day, probably suffered an equivalent in actual combat casualites. As with all decisive battles in which one side completely collapses, the bulk of the loser's casualties happen in the massacre afterwards. Since they were being cut down and killed all over the countryside in the dark after the battle, there is no defnitive body-count for the Bourbon forces. But estimates were reported that they lost around 12,000 killed and wounded in and after the battle, and that between 9,000 and 10,000 unwounded were taken prisoner. This meant that Villeroi had lost about one-third of his army for good. By the time he and the Elector were able to muster what were left the next day, though, his army only had 15,000 under command. The rest had just gone AWOL, gone over to the Habsburgs, or would not show up for a few weeks. In addition, Villeroi lost 52 of his 70 guns (though all were abandoned on the field, an enterprising Bourbon loyalist from Namur organized some teams and managed to haul 18 of the bigger guns off the field the next day). Marlborough's men also captured eighty regimental flags and almost all of the ammunition and stores the Bourbonists had left on the field behind them
The Miraculous Year, for the AlliesRamillies was every bit as complete a tactical victory as Blenheim had been, proving Marlborough's genius was real and not a fluke. But unlike Blenheim, which in its aftermath had really done nothing to change the strategic balance of the war, Ramillies reaped a cornucopia of prizes. Since it was fought at the beginning of the campaigning season (unlike Blenheim), it gave Marlborough the whole summer and fall to capitalize on it. And this time, his Dutch partners were completely enthusiastic in helping him.
Many towns in the Spanish Netherlands--Louvain, Brussels, Wavre, Oudenarde, Ghente, Bruge, and the strategic Channel port of Ostend--outright opened their gates to the Allies. One consequence of Villeroi's stripping the garrisons of those towns to strengthen his field army was that when he lost that army in the field, there was hardly anyone left to defend those places. So what would have taken Marlborough months or years to lay seige and capture, fell into his hands within days and weeks. And those in the Spanish Netherlands who had been luke warm in their support of Philip, the Bourbon claimant to the Spanish Crown, now switched sides to support Charles, the Habsburg candidate. They had been, let's face it, intimidated into supporting Louis in the first place because he was the bully next door. And Marlborough gave assurances that the Habsburgs would reward them and treat them generously, respecting all of their ancient rights. That the Habsburgs didn't isn't Marlborough's fault and falls into one of those innumerable instances of missed opportunities thoughout history.
Villeroi, with a tiny fraction of his army left, was forced to completely evacuate the country and regroup in the line of Vauban forts that lined the French border. He sent a letter to Louis expressing optimism in his ability to reclaim the situation, and in thanking him for his continuing confidence in his command. In his mind, he had done everything right, obeying his sovereign in seeking out battle as soon as possible, in taking Louis' advice in paying attention to where Marlborough would commit his English troops, in laying out his position prudently. All true. But don't criticize your boss when he tells you to do something and it fails. Even though Villeroi, in his letter, expressed his confidence that Louis would retain him in command, the king "accepted" it as a letter of resignation. He didn't have to fire his old friend. He gave him a face-saving out by pretending he resigned on his own. The he sent for the victorious Vendome in Italy to come up and take command in Flanders.
To his credit, Louis was not vindictive with Villeroi. A more modern dictator would have executed him with extreme prejudice. But the king embraced his old childhood friend when he returned to Versailles and said, "At our age, Marshal, we must no longer expect good fortune." A very gracious thing to say. And while Villeroi never again held military command, he did live on holding several lucrative ministerial titles, surviving his old friend Louis by fifteen years and dying in a comfortable state at 86.
The Allies, however, took the gift of Ramillies and the "miraculous year" of 1706 and tossed it onto the pile with the others. Several times their golden boys, Marlborough and Eugene, had given them incredible victories and decisive campaigns, and each time they dug their negotiating heels in for something better. They never appreciated the stubborness of Louis. Used to winning his entire life, he wasn't about to give in. He wasn't the Sun King for nothing. He'd be willing to exchange a duchy or two, but unconditional surrender was not on the table. But the Allies, particularly the ones who had held back from the sacrifices at Ramillies, like Prussian, Austrian and other German princes, now wanted it all. They played their hand like greedy fools. And it backfired. As a consequence, like Blenheim, the miraculous victories of 1706 were thrown away at the bargaining table and the war went on and on, finally petering out eight years later with the Treaty of Utrecht, which accepted Louis' grandson, Philip Bourbon, as the rightful King of Spain. Except for Britain getting Gilbralter, Minorca, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Louis got practically everything else he wanted. And died happy the next year.
Marlborough, for his part, went on to serve faithfully until 1711, serving up victory after victory and many opportunities for the Allies to end the war on favorable terms. But in 1711 he became the victim of domsetic political backstabbing by the Tories and his former, loyal friend, Queen Anne, and was curtly dismissed on some trumped-up charges (apparently somebody found out he had used a private e-mail server--no actually, it was because it had been "discovered" that he had been paid by the government for his service). The war went on for three more years, with the Allies constantly losing the last three years.
This diplomatic fiasco so reminds me of how another set of Allies, two centuries later in 1918, also threw away a hope for a lasting peace in Europe by being vindictive and greedy, fueling the rise of Fascism and an even more destructive war two decades later.
The Myth of the Interior PositionNearly all of the accounts I read in researching this article stressed the grand tactical advantage that Marlborough had in his shorter line. It has been pointed out that, because Villeroi's line described a concave arc from Taviers to Autre-Eglise, and the Allied side was on the inside of this curve, they had the advantage of the interior chord, being able to cut directly across the curve instead of around the outside of it. This was supposed to mean that Marlborough could shift troops from one flank to the other more quickly. This kind of military analysis was almost axiomatic in the Age of Reason.
But one of the useful things in taking the time to create a detailed map, in which the actual footprints of the units are taken into account, is to test this assumption. A casual glance at the main map at the beginning of the article will show that both sides' lines were essentially the same width. Marlborough's troops didn't have less distance to cover in shifting from right to left. It wasn't a matter of geometry, it was a matter of psychology; Villeroi was too fixed on his northern flank to do anything about the south until it was too late. And unlike Marlborough, he was not the sort of commander who would gallop all over, personally putting his life in danger to assess the battle and lend direct leadership where needed. He stayed put.
Of course, interior lines can be decisive on the strategic scale, as we saw at Arcola in 1796, or even in the grand tactical context as at Gettysburg. But at Ramillies the distances involved were practically the same. True, Villeroi's line did bend a little eastward at Autre-Eglise, but measure the distance from this point to Taviers and do it for Marlborough's line and you'll see it was a difference of about 500 yards, a couple of minutes in terms of cavalry trotting speed. And for the French cavalry under Max Emanuel, they would have had even less distance than the Allied right flank cavalry to reinforce Guiscard had they been dispatched (1,300 yds vs 3,300 yds).
When Orkney and his Redcoats started the battle by attacking in force in this sector, this merely confirmed Villeroi in his conviction that the northern sector was Marlborough's object. Even after Orkney reluctantly started withdrawing back across the Petite Gheete later in the afternoon (under blue-accented protest), Villeroi and his staff congratulated themselves on having "won" the battle. Of course, he wasn't aware that most of the Allied right flank cavalry and infantry had been shifted south in the meantime. And he wasn't aware of the disaster that happened to his right flank until he started to see thousands of cavalry and infantry fleeing past him from the south.
So, rather than math, it was psychology that defeated Villeroi. Marlborough was just a better poker player.
Comparative LeadershipRamillies is a beautiful illustration of a perfect battle, inasmuch as there can be such a thing. But it was made perfect for only one side because of the relative talents of the two contending commanders. In analysis, both contemporary commenters and historians have agreed that Villeroi did "everything right" in setting up his defense. But to say that is to cheat his professional and heroic soldiers from the credit of doing everything they could do. They fought extremely hard, and expertly. The fact is, he ran his side of the battle like an amateur. He failed to manage all of his assets. He failed to secure his right flank at Taviers. He was content to stay put behind what he mistakenly believed to be his most vulnerable flank at Autre-Eglise and so cut himself off from events happening elsewhere. He failed to shift reinforcements to where they were needed. He was incompetent.
By contrast, Marlborough, was active in the saddle all day. He galloped all over the field, wearing out several horses, rallying troops, personally leading charges, shifting forces, inspiring, leading, and never losing the big pictrure. He was superhuman, going non-stop for over 21 hours, until after midnight when he was persuaded to lay down and sleep a little. And, as if that weren't enough, all that day he had been suffering from one of his chronic migraine attacks. And while Louis sympathetically gave Villeroi a pass for his age (he was 62), Marlborough was nearly his same age (56) and it didn't seem to slow him down. Marlborough seemed to be in better shape, both physically and mentally, than he ever had been in his life.
Both armies were roughly of the same size and roughly of the same level of professionalism. Both sides gave as good as they got. While Marlborough had more cannon, at this period artillery was not the decisive arm it would become during the Napoleonic wars. And it was not artillery that decided the key points of the battle. It was, as Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest was apocryphally to have said, he who "gets there the firstest with the mostest."
Another quality that distinguished Marlborough from Villeroi was that the former, as has been pointed out, did not have "councils of war". He despised them. And while he heard unsolicited advice out politely, he always thanked the advice-giver and went on with his own plan. This is not to say that he didn't confide in trusted subordinates when he needed to, sometimes to solicit genuinely sought advice, or to get them onboard with his plan. He did. And combined with his natural charisma, he built of team of competent people who respected and anticipated him.
Not so Villeroi. When in doubt--which was aways--he called a council of war to listen to everybody's opinion. He had the personality of a throw pillow; bearing the impression of the last person who sat on him (a description a copywriter, S Colombatto, I used to work with coined to describe our mutual boss at the time). Consequently, everybody, from the King and his ministers all the way down, gave him their opinions. And he tried to please all of them. The telling thing after the battle was that his self-defense revolved around having done everything that his King, his ministers, and the people around him had advised him to do.
The most decisive factor of Ramillies, then, was that one side had a leader who led, and the other a leader who followed.
Staff WorkI write this section as a former staff officer myself. But my impression was that another key difference in the effectiveness of both sides was the efficiency and diligence of the two staffs. Marlborough was served by some truly remarkable and heroic staff officers. He was hard enough to keep up with, rushing all over the field and into the hottest parts of the fight. But his staff did it. Losing their heads doing it. Literally. Wherever he was, he was able to quickly dispatch officers with messages. Orkney claims that he had a dozen messages from Marlborough telling him to break off before Cadogen himself (who was, in modern terms, Marlborough's Chief of Staff) came to him. What is remarkable is not that Orkney ignored the first twelve messengers, it was that Marlborough sent him twelve in the first place. That's staff work!
We also see it in how he was able to get his staff to understand his intentions and convey exactly what he was thinking to his subordinates, a couple of miles away. And that his subordinates were so attuned to his wishes (except for Orkney) that they could act instantly was also a mark of good staffwork.
By contrast, though Villeroi obviously had a large staff, one wonders what they were doing. Villeroi pretty much sat in one place throughout the battle, like Xerxes observing Salamis from a hill. Was his staff feeding him information? Were they carrying messages to his subordinates? Was he getting messages from his far right flank? The fact that he seemed pretty surprised by the catastrophe on the south side until he saw physical evidence streaming past him is evidence that his staff wasn't doing its job. I don't know what they thought their jobs were. To get him iced drinks?
Of course, who's fault is this? It's the commander's fault. In an age before a professional staff school (invented by the Prussians in the early 19th century), it was up to each commander to train his own staff. In that regard both Marlborough and Villeroi got the staffs they deserved.
Fire Doctrine: Platoon vs Rank Firing
At Ramillies, as at Blenheim, the two armies still employed contrasting fire systems. In open, linear combat, the Allies, for the most part, fought in thinner lines (3 vs 5 ranks) and used the platoon fire method that had been doctrine in British and Dutch armies for decades. The Bourbons were still employing the system of fire-by-ranks that had brought them such success from the time of the Thirty Years War. For a detailed description of how these fire systems worked, go to my article on Blenheim.
I have read a lot of argument among wargamers about why one side (pick one) should be more effective than the other. And, indeed, there were arguments for years back when it was a fact of combat. The fact that it took so long for the French and their allies to evolve toward platoon firing speaks to the contemporary belief that fire-by-ranks was superior.
On the surface, this would make sense. Each entire rank in a battalion firing in succession would seem to deliver more lead across the front of that battalion than one third of the platoons firing. However, this fails to take into account the actual math. With thinner formations, each platoon of a British, Dutch, etc. battalion would be firing three ranks at a time, which meant that, compared to a five-rank deep battalion, it would actually have put out 165% more lead per firing.
Also, with the method then employed to manage fire-by-ranks, after each successive rank had fired, it would have to lie down and wait for all the ranks to fire over it. Then after all the ranks had fired, everybody would have to stand up and reload before the sequence could start over again because the smoothbore flintlocks could not be loaded in a horizontal position. Add to this the time it took for the whole battalion to lie down and then get on their feet agin.
With the platoon fire method, the 2/3 of platoons not firing were all standing and reloading simultaneously, so the rhythm of fire would be much faster.
Finally, each platoon officer, has far more discretion about the direction and timing of his own platoon's fire (about 30 men) than a battalion commander has over his entire line of 500 men. So the platoon fire method allows for aimed fire.
There are several anecdotes of the relative effectiveness of the two methods. In all of them, it is stressed that more people get hit by platoon fire than the older method. This is perhaps based on the localized control that the platoon officers have in pointing and timing their volleys. It has also been pointed out that while the staccato ripple of an entire battalion firing may sound dramatic, the more continuous beat of platoon firing has a much greater psychological impact on the recipients. It just sounds like the enemy can fire a lot faster. And that's demoralizing when you're fumbling with your ramrod.
What about those three-barrelled guns?Well, yes, the French seemed to have these weird, triple-barrelled guns. They were pretty small, probably each no bigger than a falconet (1 pdr) or minion (4 pdr). Leonardo da Vinci had designed a similar multi-barrelled piece centuries before and gun makers had been experimenting with them ever since. An amateur Venetian monk who dabbled in military technology seems to have invented them and Louis ordered only fifty to try out. He didn't repeat the order, so evidently there was no great clamor in the army for more.
|How are you supposed to fire this thing?|
But my biggest puzzle with these freaks was, what was supposed to be their advantage? If they had to be loaded and fired separately, they must have taken three times as long to load. They must have been hell to aim. And probably as dangerous to operate as to be on the receiving end. The photograph shows a carriage (original?) that seems way too small for the mass of the metal it had to carry. So I don't understand why they were used. Perhaps they were simply one of countless experiments in every war (the Shuvalov howitzer, the Hunley submarine, the German Windkanone, the Flying Wing, the F-35) that were just too advanced.for their time. Or just too stupid.
If anything, I would have supposed that this weapon played no part one way or the other in the battle. I'll bet that the troops were not sorry to have lost them.
Even though one side won so overwhelmingly, a wargame of Ramillies could be instructive. It could be a much closer contest than history delivered. The purpose of this section, then, is to propose rules and scenarios that could make it more fun for the Boubonist side.
1. Taviers Variant
The biggest thing that historians have criticized Villeroi for was his failure to secure his right flank at Taviers. So this scenario would see what happened if he actually garrisoned Taviers and Franquenée adequately (and with artillery, thank you) to prevent them from falling into Allied hands. One could either let the Bourbon player make this deployment decision on his own, or have more troops stationed in those places in the first place. Then you could play to see if it would have made a difference in the outcome of the huge cavalry battle between Ramillies and the Mehaigne.
Occupying Taviers in force, and with guns, would give the Bourbon player an enfilading advantage over any cavalry attack through that gap. Of course, as they did with the guns at Ramillies, the Allies could mask this advantage by an even larger combined arms assault on Taviers, like they did at Blenheim village. But it would make the game a closer contest.
2. How Much of an Obstacle was the Petite Gheete?The creek, probably the most dominant feature on the battlefield, was assumed to be impassable by Villeroi and his people, and, indeed by van Goslinga at Marlborough's side. It had been raining in the days before and the ditch was still pretty full, and the banks were soggy. But as Orkney proved early on, it was hardly an obstacle; at least to foot and horse crossing by thrown pontoons and over fascines. And at least to those real soldiers not worried about getting their feet a little muddy.
One wargame rule could make the creek's passability a question. As in other games which allow for ford reconnaissance, you could throw a dice to determine how passable a particular point on a stream was. This would mean testing it at various points.
Also, the fact that the Bourbon forces were back from the Petite Gheete itself (up on the ridge) suggests another variant: Would Orkney have been able to get over so easily and reform on the opposite side if the stream itself were defended up close? Of course some picquets were sent down to harass the crossing Redcoats, but what if the thing was defended by massed infantry?
3. Platoon Fire SimulationIf you want to give an advantage to the Allied side for using platoon fire, there are two rules you could employ to simulate this. One is to, obviously, make the platoon fire 165% effective (or, for comparison and rounding, 3 dice vs 2). For those fire-by-ranks partisans, you could still give the Bourbon side equivalent firepower, but, because of the perceived continuous firing of the Allied side, give that side a greater impact on the morale of the target unit. That is, if you keep track of morale effects in your game.
4. Dismounted DragoonsDragoons during this period were still considered mostly to be mounted infantry. In battle they were frequently dismounted to act as foot. However, in a wargame, it is simply not a matter of taking them off their horses to form them up as infantry. You have to do something with the horses. In practice, a dragoon troop would tell off every fourth man to stay back and hold the horses--you know, to keep them from wandering off to graze as they pleased. This means that the actual combat strength of the dismounted dragoon unit would be 75% of its mounted strength. It also means that the two separate units (those dismounted and the held horses) need to be physically close for the men to remount. So if you've dismounted near the Tomb of Ottomond and then walked over (at foot pace) to Taviers, leaving your horse back, when you need to remount you either need to send to bring them up or walk back to the Tomb. So the one unit becomes split (dismounted and horse-holders) and treated separately in a wargame.
But you knew that.
5. Leadership and the Fog of WarI hate games that assume each player acts as God and can see everything on the board. The fog of war is as an important part of any well-designed game as its rules for fire and movement. I equally hate games that force the player of the historic loser to fight as though he had a tire-boot clamped on his brain. So, in making a game of Ramillies both entertaining and useful, I would recommend that you give the Villeroi player the option of being as smart as you can be. But, to simulate the fog of war, I would recommend that information about what is happening on various parts of the board cannot be acted on until a messenger counter (or figure) is dispatched, and you can roll dice or draw a card or consult tea leaves or whatever to see whether or not you get the information to act on it.
I'm sure that there are many game systems that simulate this. And my wargaming readers are all much more versed on the options than I am.
Orders of Battle
Before you get all excited at these "detailed" orders of battle, a huge caveat: They are based primarily on McNally's lists from his Osprey book (see References below). He does not cite where these came from. Some of the units I could not find in any other sources I have access to, so I don't know where he got those. I did find some other sources for corroboration (e.g. Nafziger and the Spanish Succession site), but there was not much that was helpful, or any more definitive.
Unlike later wars, in which the record keeping by nation states was more meticulous, the WSS was a murkier period. Also, since various regiments were known at the time by their inhabers ("owners"), colonels, or regions (particularly in France) it is sometimes difficult to identify a particular unit. I also found that regiments would change their names over time. So this order of battle is the best that I could find. Always, if any of my readers have other accessible sources, I would be most appreciative.
As with my other OOBs, I have color-coded the primary coat color for each unit (1st column color) as well as its facing (cuffs and lining, 2nd column). Where I couldn't find a reliable color source or any other reference to any particular regiment that McNally has listed, I have made a SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess) and marked that unit with an asterisk (*). I'm sure those of you who are military miniature devotees of the WSS have far greater resources than I have in my Fortress of Solitude in this extinct volcano. Rene Chartrand's thin Osprey Book, Louis XIV's Army, unhelpfully suggests we visit the Chateau de Vincennes and peruse les Archives de la Guerre, which--shame on me--I haven't had the time to pop over from Oregon and do for this blog. But Robert Hall's and company's excellent sources have been invaluable for filling in some of the more obscure uniform and flag details.
One thing to keep in mind: During this period most of the uniform coats on each side were made of undyed wool, which was the cheapest and made most of the men clad in off-white or grey. Of course it would have been difficult to tell one side from the other, and during the battle there were anecdotes of mistaking each other for friendlies or enemies. But this is really no different from modern warfare, where most armies are clad in more-or-less similar camouflage. Flags would have helped. As well as the practice of the Habsburgian allies of sticking sprigs of leaves in their hats, a small detail that might not help at 100 yards through smoke.
Also, while McNally gives precise strength numbers for brigades and divisions, he doesn't break these down by regiment (nor does he cite where these strength returns came from). I have made an average for each brigade so the sum leads to his reported total strengths. I have also assumed, since the battle took place pretty early in the 1706 campaign that all of the units were deployed at near their authorized compliments, there not yet being time for casualties or normal attrition. But, as with the uniform colors, don't use this list as anything more than an estimate.
As to artillery, I have only listed the overall ordnance numbers and their calibers. I did not have access to exact battery assignments or detailed organization for this battle. For the lighter pieces (called "minions" at the time, three and four pounders), these would have been assigned individually to various foot battalions as close-support weapons. However, I will leave it to wargamers to do the apportioning.
The French also had a peculiar type of small artillery piece with three barrels. I could not find how many of these weird weapons were at Ramillies (though Falkner says there were 12 in Ramillies village), though some were captured. Nor could I find what their range, performance, and caliber were. So just assume that some of the small "battalion guns" (minions) of the Bourbon forces were these three-barreled freaks.
So my apologies for all the lacunae in my OOB. These should be close enough for amateur wargaming, but don't rely on them for any academic research.
Barthorp, Michael & Mcbride, Angus, Marlborough's Army 1702-11, Men-at-Arms #97, 1980, Osprey Press, London, ISBN: 0-85045-346-1
Chandler, David, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, 1994, Sarpedon, New York, ISBN: 1-885119-14-13
Chandler, David, Marlborough as Military Commander, 1984, Spellmont, Staplehurst, Kent, UK, ISBN: 0-946771-12-X
Chartrand, Rene, Louis XIV's Army, Men-at-Arms #203, 1988, Osprey Press, London, ISBN: 0-85045-850-1
Churchill, Sir Winston S., Marlborough, His Life and Times, Vol 3., 1933, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226106357
Falkner, James, Marlborough's Battlefields, 2008, Pen & Sword Books ISBN: 978-1-84415-632-0
Grant, Charles Stewart, From Pike to Shot, 1685-1720, 1986, Wargames Research Group, ISBN 0904417395
Greiss, Thomas E., et. al., The Dawn of Modern Warfare, The West Point Military History Series, 1984, Avery Publishing, ISBN: 0-89529-263-7
Hall, Robert and Iain Stanford and Yves Roumegoux, Uniforms and Flags of the Dutch Army and the Army of Liege, 1685-1715, 2013, Pike & Shot Society, ISBN 1902768523, CD-ROM from On Military Matters.
Jorgensen, Christer, et.al., Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World, AD 155- AD 1763. 2005, St Martin's Press, New York, ISBN: 0-312-34819-3
McNally, Michael, Ramillies 1706, 2014, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1-78200-822-4
Nosworthy, Brent, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics 1689-1763, 1990, Hippocrene Books, New York, ISBN: 0-87052-785-1
Wagner, Eduard, European Weapons & Warfare 1618-1648, 1979, Octopus Books, London, ISBN 0-7064-1072-6 While this book covers a generation or two before Ramillies, it has a very informative section on the types and use of artillery throughout the 17th century, which our characters would have still employed in 1706. Military technology was not moving as fast in the early modern period as it would in the late modern.
de la Colonie's Memiors, The Battle of Ramillies
http://www.spanishsuccession.nl/ramillies.html for OOB for Bourbon forces at Ramillies
http://www.cgsc.edu/CARL/nafziger/706EAN.pdf George Nafziger's OOB for the Anglo-Dutch forces at Ramillies.
http://www.thewaroffice.co.uk/Blenheim/Blenheim.htm for uniform research
http://royalfig.free.fr/index.php?/category/42 for regimental flag references for the French Army
http://royalfig.free.fr/index.php?/category/31 for uniform references, French Army
https://www.baccus6mm.com/index.php?content=howto/gnw_wss&detail=paintguide_gnw Bacchus painting guide for uniform references
http://www.thewaroffice.co.uk/Blenheim/DanishUniforms1699-1720.pdf for detailed information about the Danish forces during the WSS
https://www.tacitus.nu/gnw/armies/denmark/infantry.htm more detailed information on Danish regiments during the WSS from Orjan Martinsson
http://www.wfgamers.org.uk/resources/C18/prusorg.htm for information about the Prussian forces during the WSS
http://www.miniatures.de/colour-18th-century-artillery.html for artillery carriage colors during the 18th century
http://www.warflag.com/flags/wss/wssselect.shtml for details on regimental flags during the WSS
http://www.johnsmilitaryhistory.com/Ramillies.html John's Military History site has some truly excellent panoramic photography of this battlefield.
Snorrason, Tortstein, Danish Uniforms, 1699-1712, 2008, downloadable PDF
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