Battle of Ramillies 23rd May 1706

Marlborough’s early plan for 1706 was to march a large force to Italy to assist Prince Eugene deal with French forces threatening Austria and Savoy. This was thwarted by early deployments by France with operations which denied the Rhine route, defeated Imperial forces at Calcinato and recovered much of their losses after Blenheim. All the fronts in Europe were threatened so after authorising 10,000 men for deployment to support Eugene the States General gave Marlborough command of the Dutch armies in Flanders. Apart from leaving him without military superiority over the French this left Marlborough depressed with the prospect of small operations in the Brabant when he needed a victory. He re-joined his Headquarters on 9th May and waited for English reinforcements before advancing towards Louvain

Map by Rebel Redcoat

Allied opinion was that France would go on the offensive in Italy and Spain whilst remaining on the defensive in Flanders and Germany, but King Louis XIV decided on the opposite. After firing up his marshals an army of 40,000 under Villars would operate against the Margrave of Baden on the Upper Rhine and another army of 60,000 under Villeroy would challenge Marlborough in Brabant. More forces under Marsin, including the Maison du Roi household troops would be in reserve ready to support either army with priority for Villeroi.

 

The Lines of Brabant were engineered to form a crescent from Namur, east of Louvain, to Antwerp. They provided a chain of obstacles which were patrolled and reinforced with troops as threats arose. Villeroi positioned his troops accordingly and ready for the Allies' offensive. There was a weak point in these lines and Marlborough was aware of it, it lay in the area of Ramillies.

 

By 19th May Marlborough’s intelligence reports confirmed French deployments in strength towards Tirlemont which indicated that they sought battle. He ordered all allied forces to concentrate at his location as his spirits rose. Marlborough knew the ground of this region well having previously conducted operations against the Lines of Brabant in this area. It was also known to the French from constructing these lines. It was well mapped and he was confident of a victory if the French came to battle in this area around Ramillies. An army of about 62,000 assembled comprising 74 battalions, 123 squadrons, 100 guns and 20 howitzers plus pontoons for river crossings.

Looking east towards Ramillies and Plateau of Sainte-André from Marlborough's initial command position

From the concentration at Corswaren General Cadogan was sent ahead at 0300 hours on 22nd May to establish a camp 12 miles forward. About 0800 hours in thick mist on high ground west of Merdorp his cavalry escort of 600 men encountered French hussars and a skirmish followed. As the mist partially lifted he could see enemy activity on Mount Sainte-André plateau. Word was sent to Marlborough who, riding ahead of the main body, joined him at 1000 hours as the mist cleared. The French forces were clearly visible in strength and they might have been just a rearguard but if they stood to defend Ramillies a major battle would be fought. The wide plain at Ramillies enabled them to march on a broad front and provided a magnificent spectacle. In smart order and disciplined formations they presented a confident foe which Marlborough decided to attack.

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

As the allied army advanced at speed in eight columns Marlborough with Generals Overkirk, Dopff, Cadogan, two Belgian (ex-Spanish) officers and his new Dutch Deputy Sicco van Goslinga started his reconnaissance. The eight columns arrived at Jandrenouille, deployed into line and ate their lunch’. Just after 1300 hours French artillery opened fire and the Allies countered with heavier fire having more guns of larger calibre. Goslinga was deceived by Marlborough’s deployment of half his cavalry on the right facing impossible going for horses but which lulled Villeroy into deploying 50 squadrons to face them.

Looking north from Marlborough's position across low lying marshy land of the River Geet

At 1430 hours the Marlborough’s army stepped off across a four-mile front but with groups of infantry on the wings moving about 30 minutes ahead of the main body. On the allied left four battalions of Dutch infantry advanced towards Taviers along the line of the River Mehaigne followed by Dutch and Danish cavalry. Taviers was a key position for the defence of Ramillies so they were to face 82 French squadrons including the Maison du Roi troopers. The main front of 40,000 infantrymen in two lines advanced slowly between Ramillies and Autre-Église and two columns of English troops on its right moved forward from the slopes of Foix-les-Caves through the wet marshy land of the River Geet, marking and improving routes for cavalry to follow.

Early morning mist on the approach to Taviers

The River Mehaigne on the Allies' left wing

The River Geet on the Allies' right wing - now under control

Villeroy saw that the main attack would start in the centre between Ramillies and Autre-Église so he reinforced this section in strength with troops from his right, centre-right and rear positions. His cavalry on his left wing, about 50 squadrons, was held ready for the moment the attackers were approximately half way across the soft open meadows. As he looked he could see the marshy obstacle was not as great as anticipated and a strong threat was moving towards the Offus and Autre-Église so he rode across to this section of his line together with the recently arrived Elector of Bavaria.

 

Whilst he did so developments were happening on his right wing as the Dutch infantry advanced towards Taviers with Danish cavalry following them on their right presented a threat to the stretch of excellent cavalry ground between Taviers and Ramillies. Villeroy had sited five battalions in Franquenay and Taviers to guard his right wing but put no artillery with them. In a pioneering tactic the Dutch had brought two cannons forward with them and using these they swiftly smashed their way through the two villages and their defenders. Both villages were overwhelmed by 1515 hours just as the French command was occupied on their opposite wing with the English attack on Offus. Two battalions and 14 squadrons of dragoons were swiftly ordered to recover Taviers and a recently arrived Bavarian brigade was put in support. The dragoons dismounted between Taviers and the Tomb of Ottomond and advanced on foot to counter-attack the Dutch. This failed and as the French fell back the Danish cavalry swept through between Taviers and the French right and destroyed them. The Bavarian brigade were still coming up when the fleeing dragoons and infantry met them and they too joined in the flight. Eventually four weak battalions were re-assembled with the French cavalry on the plain reduced from 82 to 68 squadrons.

 

The second stage of the battle started now with Overkirk leading the cavalry attack of 48 Dutch squadrons and 21 Danish squadrons against the main French position, fronted by the Maison du Roi, between Taviers and Ramillies. As they attacked so the infantry in the centre pressed home their contact against Ramillies.

 

At this stage Marlborough was likely to have been on the high ground opposite Offus and Ramillies watching development on his left as Villeroy and the Elector just further north watched developments on their left. Marlborough now ordered Orkney to break off his attack on Offus and Autre-Église and move southwards to the rear of the central fighting to support Overkirk’s battle. He brought first 18 squadrons and then 21 squadrons into this fighting to outnumber the French cavalry by 5 to 3.

 

Marlborough himself led the Dutch squadrons into this great battle between nearly 25,000 cavalry troops fighting in close order knee to knee in charge and counter charge in the 1½ miles between Taviers and Ramillies. Somehow as he led a second charge Marlborough was unhorsed and ridden over. Fortunately Major General Murray saw this and led two battalions of Swiss troops to the rescue as Marlborough ran towards them. His aide, Captain Molesworth, gave Marlborough his horse and got him remounted as French troops rode in and impaled themselves on the Swiss bayonets. He remained with the Swiss for about an hour seeing the end of the cavalry battle as the infantry assaulted Ramillies. His staff re-assembled and Colonel Bingfield brought up Marlborough’s second charger. As Bingfield held the stirrup and Marlborough swung his leg over a round shot passed under his leg and took off Bingfield’s head.

The area alleged to be where Marlborough was unhorsed

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

On the right Orkney’s attack on Autre-Église was going very well as nearly a dozen battalions had crossed the marshy ground and were attacking the edges of the village. The French advanced but withdrew repeatedly as they tried to draw the infantry into the open for their cavalry to destroy them. At this stage Orkney’s men were in great heart and confident of victory but he received a message which caused confusion and a grievance which persisted among some of the troops for years. Marlborough had deliberately not told Orkney his action was a feint so when he was ordered to retire Orkney thought the order came because Marlborough believed the marsh was impassable. It took several more messages and Cadogan who arrived to tell him of the redeployment of the cavalry from the right wing which meant there was no support for Orkney’s infantry. They slowly withdrew back through the marshes and assembled on higher ground behind the Geet.

Walled farm at Offus

As the two English columns returned to their start line they faced about and formed a reserve for the main attack on the line between Ramillies and Offus with the second column, which had not been engaged, marching forward. In fact the battle had moved so fast that all the troops in the north, on both sides, missed the main action where the cavalry had defeated the Maison du Roi and turned Villeroy’s right flank as the infantry in the centre pressed their attack on Ramillies. This attack was now reinforced with Orkney’s columns from the right and most of the allied artillery. As Villeroy and the Elector rode back they were caught in the retreating troops. They attempted to form a new defence line at right angles from Ramillies and ordered a retreat to Judoigne.

 

It was now 1800 hours as the third phase of this battle began. Overkirk and Marlborough had wheeled more than 100 squadrons of their cavalry, all except Lumley’s in the north, into a line between the Tomb of Ottomond and Ramillies facing the French cavalry, rallied by Villeroy and the Elector, to protect their retreating troops. It comprised 50 squadrons from their left wing and was anchored on their brigade under Count Maffei behind Ramillies so that their defensive line now formed a reversed letter L with infantry between Offus and Ramillies facing east and cavalry at right angles from Ramillies facing south. As the allied cavalry advanced so the French cavalry refused to face them, turned about and withdrew. When Maffei saw cavalry approaching his position he initially thought it was French but suddenly found himself captured at sword and pistol point.

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

Tomb of Ottomond - a tumulus built beside a Roman road and said to house the remains of a General Otto

The allied infantry now struck the French between Ramillies and Offus and to the north of this village. Lumley’s British cavalry had crossed the Geet and ridden ahead of the infantry to attack the retreating French army. They charged at the gallop, a rare technique in this era, and decimated their prey including the elite Régiment du Roi. The retreating troops headed towards Judoigne and Wavre, mostly in disorder as the ruthless pursuit continued with thousands of men being cut down. All their baggage, cannons and 5,000 unwounded prisoners were taken by the allies.

 

Despite marching 25 miles to the battle, deploying into battle from the march, fighting for four hours and winning a great battle, the pressure was kept on into the night. Eventually they halted for the night albeit in some confusion. The victorious commander found himself 12 miles from the battlefield near Meldert at midnight where he stopped. After 19 hours in the saddle he wrapped himself in his cloak and snatched some sleep.

 

Afterword

 

The photographs were taken in March 2012.

 

Reference:

Churchill, S Winston (1933 reprint 1966) Marlborough, His Life and Times, Book Two, George G Harrap & Co. Ltd