John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was willing to call off an assault—even one that was going well—if it would help throw his French opponent out of position.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the major powers in Europe—France, Spain, England and Hapsburg Austria—maintained a delicate balance of power on the edge of a knife. That balance was broken, however, by the insatiable imperial ambitions of Louis XIV, king of France. Encouraged by Louis, King Charles II of Spain, who was on the verge of death and without an heir, named Louis’ grandson, Philippe de Bourbon, duc d’Anjou, successor to the Spanish throne.
The unification of the Spanish and French thrones—and empires—under the house of Bourbon was unacceptable to all the other nations of Europe, especially Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I. Since he and Louis XIV had both married daughters of Spain’s late King Philip IV, Leopold declared that the Spanish throne should go to his son—and King Charles II’s cousin—Archduke Charles of Austria. When negotiations failed, the rulers turned to their generals to find a resolution on the battlefield.
Since the start of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, had assumed a pivotal role in the Grand Alliance against France, especially after he, in outstanding collaboration with Austria’s Prince François-Eugène of Savoy-Carignan, won a stunning victory over a Franco-Bavarian army at Blenheim on August 13, 1704. As captain-general of English forces, his campaign plan for 1706 was to march the allied army south to drive the French out of Spain and northern Italy. Upon arrival at The Hague on April 25, however, his grand plan unraveled.
With the war dragging on, France was economically exhausted. To mask this, King Louis decided to initiate a flurry of military campaigns as a show of strength to secure a “fair peace” from his foes. To that end, Louis’ Marshals Ferdinand, comte de Marsin, and Claude Louis Hector, duc de Villars, launched unseasonably early offensives in Alsace while Marshal LouisJoseph de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, did likewise in northern Italy, crushing allied armies in both places.
Those defeats, coupled with the timidity of Marlborough’s Dutch allies about sending their forces so far from home, forced him to abandon his plans for Spain and Italy. Resigning himself to another campaign in Flanders, Marlborough wrote gloomily, “God knows I go with a heavy heart, for I have no hope of doing anything considerable unless the French do what I am very confident they will not….” Why, he wondered, would the French fight in Flanders? By maintaining their strong defensive lines in the Spanish Netherlands, they would be free to increase their power of attack in Italy and Spain.
Secret informants, however, soon brought Marlborough news of King Louis’ intent to move Marsin’s army into Flanders. There, if Marsin joined with Marshal François de Neufville, duc de Charost et de Villeroi, Marlborough knew it would mean disaster for the allied campaign.
Accordingly, Marlborough took to the field on May 13. When his English and Dutch forces mustered around Tongres on May 17, another of Marlborough’s allies, Karl I Alexander, Duke of Württemburg, and his Danish cavalry were still two days’ march away. To make matters worse, King Friedrich I of Prussia was delaying the deployment of his Hanoverian and Hessian troops until various grievances he had were addressed.
Facing the dilemma with his usual verve, Marlborough resolved to advance immediately on Namur along the general line of the Mehaigne River, without the Danes and Hanoverians. His hope was to provoke the usually cautious Villeroi to action before Marsin’s army arrived.
Villeroi was just as eager to confront Marlborough. He had been under constant pressure from Versailles for a decisive victory, especially after those early triumphs of Marshals Marsin, Villars and Vendôme. Moreover, Villeroi beamed with confidence in his ability to outgeneral the famous English captain-general. That combination of pressure and pride led him to risk all by seeking out Marlborough.
Marlborough was completely surprised when intelligence reports arrived telling how Villeroi, his ally Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, and their combined army of 74 battalions of infantry and 128 squadrons of cavalry was on the march. Villeroi’s forces had left their position near Louvain under orders to recapture Leau while Marsin moved north to Metz, ready to reinforce his advance. Thereafter, if all remained calm on the Moselle River, both armies would take the field in Flanders. Villeroi soon passed the Dyle River on his southward route, moving boldly on Tirlemont (Tienen).
As Marlbourough advanced toward the plateau of Mont St. André on May 19, his leading scouts sighted the enemy. Marlborough instantly sent word for the Duke of Württemburg and his cavalry to join him with all speed, then ordered his own army south. With luck, the Danes would arrive in time and he would be able to assemble 74 battalions and 122 squadrons to meet the French.
On May 22, Villeroi believed the allied army was a full day’s march away when it in fact already had been joined by the Danish cavalry at the small village of Corswarem. As for Marlborough, he thought Villeroi was still approximately 20 miles away in Judoigne when he actually was also approaching the plateau of Mont St. André, with the intention of encamping close to the village of Ramillies.
In the early hours of Whitsunday, May 23, the duke sent an advance guard of 600 horse under Quartermaster General William Cadogan’s command to reconnoiter the high ground between the Mehaigne and the Petite Geete for the next encampment. The allied army followed at 3 a.m. in three great columns of horse, cannons and musket. Heavy fog resulting from days of rain enshrouded the army and would have hindered its advance had not Marlborough, who had campaigned throughout Flanders, known the territory well, fog or no.
Beyond the village of Merdorp, the ground falls into a gradual incline. There, at 8 a.m. in fog-laden daylight, Cadogan crossed paths with a party of French hussars. Cadogan held firm on the rise as the Guards exchanged fire with the French, who swiftly retired. Just then the mist began to dissipate. Before Cadogan’s eyes lay a broad sweep of gently undulating, open country, free of trees and hedges.
With his spyglass, Cadogan could see movement highlighted by the sloping sunshine on high ground some four miles to the west. Through the ever-thinning mist rode Villeroi’s advance guard. Cadogan promptly sent a courier back to Marlborough, warning him of the enemy’s proximity.
By 10 a.m., Marlborough, Count Hendrik Van Nassau, Lord of Ouwerkerk (Overkirk), the Dutch deputies and the allied staff reached Cadogan. The mist was still thick enough to obscure their view, so they could not ascertain whether it was Villeroi’s whole army or only a strong advance contingent of horse. Marlborough ordered his cavalry to the fore just in case as the mists rolled away, revealing the distant village of Ramillies, seething with antlike figures, their equipment flashing in the sunlight. Allied aides raced away to hasten the approach of the allied infantry and artillery, now marching in eight great columns.
With the campaign newly begun, weather and fatigue were yet to dim the high spirits of the French infantry as they stood to with their great artillery batteries and splendid cavalry. France had excelled in producing such a fine body of troops. In the words of French Brig. Gen. Jean Martin de la Colonie, one comrade believed, “If defeated now, we could never hope to withstand them.”
As the French deployed, Marlborough conducted a careful reconnaissance of the area, deciding how best to attack. He could see that the French line ran in a long concave curve of three to four miles from Autre-Église in the north to Ramillies, then to Franquenée in the south. East of the French line and the Petite Geete lay the plateau de Jandrenouille, where he would deploy his army.
Marlborough especially noted how the stream called the Jauce lay just beyond Jandrenouille’s crest, where it could not be seen from Ramillies. His trained eye then quickly sized up the difficulties posed by the marsh-lined Petite Geete to his right and the similar ground bordering the Mehaigne on his left.
Marlborough and his staff decided that the land called for the main clash to occur on the plain before Ramillies. Then they adjourned—it was time to deploy.
By then, it was 11 a.m. Allied troops made their way through the cornfields with bayonets glinting atop shouldered arms, while the French continued their own deployment. On the slopes opposite the Geete far to his right, Marlborough posted his 12 renowned English battalions and squadrons, along with German and Dutch infantry units.
As the English marched, the bright red of their coats traced a line through the green corn, captivating Villeroi and all those who had witnessed or experienced their dauntless ferocity in battle. Just recently Louis had warned Villeroi to “pay particular attention to that part which will bear the brunt of the first shock of the English troops.”
Marlborough’s center, with some 30,000 soldiers, deployed across from Offus and Ramillies as he personally supervised the positioning of his 100 cannons and 20 howitzers. Thirty-four 24-pounder howitzers faced Ramillies, and further batteries overlooked the Petite Geete and the far-left flank facing Franquenée. In the meantime, General Overkirk drew up the 69 squadrons of Danish and Dutch cavalry on the center left, as battalions of Dutch guards took position on the extreme left flank before Franquenée.
Villeroi’s right flank rested in the villages of Taviers and Franquenée by the Mehaigne River. Because of the undulating ground, only the uppermost spires of those villages were visible to the rest of the French line. His center lay secured, slightly forward of his line, on the rise of Ramillies itself, giving him a commanding view of the north and east. To his left lay the village of Offus and beyond that Autre-Église. A shallow valley where the Petite Geete flowed protected both these villages.
Villeroi was mindful to avoid the disastrous deployments of troops that had helped Marlborough defeat the French at Blenheim two years before. He stationed five battalions of infantry in Taviers and Franquenée on his far right flank. No order was given to hold the Mehaigne marshes on their right, however. He packed 82 squadrons of cavalry, including the Maison du Roy, the famed French Household cavalry, interlining them with several brigades of infantry, on the plain that was his center right. In and around Ramillies, he stationed 20 battalions and a dozen triple-barreled cannons. More battalions and cannons were posted to Offus and Autre-Église, along with 50 squadrons of horse. In numbers of men, the opposing armies were equal, but Marlborough had half as many more cannons as Villeroi.
French standards and colors now stood proud and erect above well-groomed, disciplined infantry and cavalry formations. To Marlborough’s professional eye, this French army was the best he had ever seen. Even so, he knew that by taking the defensive Villeroi had given him the initiative.
From his position on a swell of land midway between Ramillies and Taviers, Marlborough enjoyed a panoramic view of the field. Villeroi, however, still watching the red-coated English infantry, failed to realize that the undulations of the ground obscured his view of the field to his right almost completely.
By 1 p.m., all the troops were in position, and Marlborough ordered his artillery to open fire. As French guns swiftly answered those of the allies, two allied columns advanced from the extreme left and right. General George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney, commanding the allied right, advanced on Offus and Autre-Église as the Dutch Guards attacked along the Mehaigne.
Muskets crackled, filling the air with acrid smoke and cries as volleys scythed through Orkney’s advance. Despite the onslaught, the Redcoats struggled on through the marshes and stream, scrambling up to firm ground and re-forming their ranks. The English then advanced up the slope, shredding the defenders with disciplined platoon volley fire. Systematically the massed English ranks closed on the defenders through the pall of powder smoke. Their supporting cavalry floundered forward through the stream, but the Geete’s marshes quickly proved problematic for the cavalry to support the surging infantry.
At that point, Villeroi could see that the Petite Geete was not so protective after all. His left flank was quickly falling into peril as the fearsome scarlet-coated English made their way up the slope toward the edges of red-brick Offus and Autre-Église. Before long the battle ran from building to building, with the French garrisons giving ground before the English onslaught.
With growing anxiety, Villeroi sent word to his center right between Ramillies and Taviers for heavy reinforcements of infantry and cavalry. The fighting around Offus continued to grow in intensity. Lord Orkney later said of the fight, “I think I never had more shot about my ears.” While the Redcoats charged over the Geete, the small battery of allied cannons blasted the French positions to splinters as the Dutch Guards fought toward and into Franquenée and Taviers.
Completely isolated from the action on their far left, with their men rapidly retreating before the Dutch onslaught, the French commanders decided that their right flank was where the allies planned to punch through. With a quick order, 14 squadrons of dragoons and two battalions of Swiss mercenary troops with a Bavarian brigade in support rushed out to counterattack. As the dragoons dismounted to traverse the marshes, Danish cavalry swept in, cutting the French to pieces. Not long after, the Swiss and supporting Bavarians were flying before another Danish onslaught, leaving the French right gravely weakened.
In the midst of that action, Hanoverian Maj. Gen. Alexander von der Schulenburg made headway with the infantry toward Ramillies. As Schulenburg advanced, Overkirk’s allied cavalry, supported by Dutch, German and Swiss infantry in Dutch pay, moved forward at the trot like four great chains, reaching from the Mehaigne to embattled Ramillies. The first line of French and Bavarian cavalry crumbled before allied horse and saber.
Once the allies broke through, a battle royale commenced as the infantry Villeroi had interspersed with his cavalry sprayed Overkirk’s cavalry with shot. As the allied cavalry recoiled from French fire, 13 squadrons of the Maison du Roy countercharged. Before the relentless wave of famous French regiments—the Gardes du Corps, the Gens d’armes, the Mousquetaires—all under the protective fire from Ramillies batteries, Overkirk’s charge dissolved into chaos, giving ground to the French and exposing Schulenburg’s left flank. At one point, the Maison du Roy broke through the allied cavalry lines and flew straight into the face of platoon fire from four Dutch battalions, bringing a respite for the beleaguered allied horse.
At 3:30 p.m. the French were finally driven out of Franquenée and Taviers, while far to the north Orkney was on the verge of completely forcing the French from Offus. Marlborough then made a number of important decisions. Soon afterward an aide-de-camp galloped up to Lord Orkney and relayed the duke’s surprising order to call off his attack and retire across the Geete. Knowing the righteous anger it would raise in Orkney, Marlborough ordered no fewer than nine other aides-de-camp, including his quartermaster general, Cadogan, to enforce the order.
Marlborough’s primary tenet in warcraft was to position infantry, cavalry and artillery together for mutual support in both attack and defense. Cadogan explained to the greatly vexed Orkney that the cavalry could not support his advance if he went on just then. Since Marlborough had realized he could not attack effectively to the north, he had decided to make his grand attack between Ramillies and Taviers.
More French strength poured into Offus and Autre-Église even as Orkney’s troops disengaged and swiftly retired down the slope, then back across the Geete. Villeroi congratulated himself on turning their thrust, but those scarlet lines now stood ready. Might they attack again? If they did, then his left flank would still be in danger. That logic led Villeroi to keep the infantry and cavalry he had taken from his center south of Ramillies in Offus and Autre-Église.
With the lines now re-formed on his side of the Geete, Marlborough enacted his second key decision. He ordered 39 of Orkney’s squadrons down the hidden stream to strengthen his center. Soon after that, he ordered the first of Orkney’s two lines of infantry to march over the crest, as the cavalry had done, while the second line stood to just before it. Six aides-de-camp then ordered the six concealed battalions’ color parties to remain behind the crest to maintain the appearance of a second line, while the rest of the troops marched south to form a reserve behind Marlborough’s main force.
The terrain and smoke hid from Villeroi the massive danger now developing beyond Ramillies. His entire center left and left flank, perhaps 30 percent of his army, stood mesmerized by Orkney’s one thin red line and the regimental colors fluttering above the crest beyond it.
There is still debate whether Orkney’s withdrawal was a planned feint or a serious probe to the sector that, once proved unfruitful, was recrafted for quick gain. Either way, Orkney had attacked that day with weight and power, causing Villeroi to order 50 squadrons away from his center to counter Orkney’s assault. Marlborough had now obtained his previously secret objective: to unbalance Villeroi’s strength.
As Orkney’s troops and horse changed position, Overkirk’s charge continued to disintegrate. Seeing the danger, Marlborough flung himself into the fray at the head of 17 squadrons, including the Danes, who had quickly regrouped after their action against the Swiss and Bavarians, to shore up the allied left. The French dragoons recognized the duke, resplendent in his bright red coat and blue sash of the Order of the Garter, and with a cry they charged in to cut him down. At precisely the wrong moment, Marlborough’s horse stumbled in a ditch and threw him from the saddle. With the French bearing down, he managed to regain his footing while an aide-decamp rushed to give him a fresh horse.
General Robert Murray quickly brought up two Swiss battalions to cover the captain-general’s retreat. So hot was the French pursuit that when Marlborough finally rode through the staunch lines of Murray’s Swiss infantry, the pursuing dragoons could not rein in and ran onto eager Swiss bayonets.
Moments later, Colonel James Bringfield, the duke’s equerry, brought him another fresh horse. As the colonel held the stirrup to help Marlborough mount, a cannon ball whistled by, shearing Bringfield’s head from his shoulders. According to one eyewitness account, the ball actually passed under Marlborough’s right leg as he swung it over the saddle. It is no surprise, then, that an eyewitness wrote about the incident that the duke “fulfilled that day all the parts of a great captain, except that he exposed his person as the meanest soldier.” Such willingness to lead from the front and fight as the rank and file earned him the affectionate nickname “Corporal John.”
Orkney’s squadrons had now started to flood onto the field, forming a line on the right, giving numerical superiority to the allies and pause to the French. Before the fresh squadrons could reach the French line from the front, the Danes under Württemburg wheeled into the Maison du Roy from the left. Simultaneously, Landgrave Ludwig of Hesse-Cassel and the Dutch Guards burst into the French line. General de la Colonie, a witness to the spectacle, recalled that the allies, “profiting by their superior numbers, surged through the gaps between our squadrons, and fell upon their rear, while their four lines attacked in front.”
The greater allied numbers from the front, the right and behind gradually forced the French to yield ground, their line bending back like an overstrained longbow. The grand attack had become a fearsome slogging match. Marlborough’s action had bought the time needed to feed the cavalry troopers he had taken from Lord Orkney into the melee, their movement completely concealed from Villeroi by the rising ground along the Jauce.
All the while, smoke billowed around Ramillies as the battle roar rose to new heights. The 12 battalions under General Schulenburg, including Scottish regiments in Dutch service, drew up in four great lines along the front and left of the village. As Schulenburg intended, French fire was drawn from Marlborough’s cavalry and was soon outclassed by allied musketry. Before long, the French garrison was locked in its own defensive position, subsequently unable to threaten Marlborough’s left flank.
Suddenly the French line crumbled. The French squadrons desperately struggled to re-form their line at right angles to their original eastward front. As they did, however, the unrelenting Danes paced them, re-forming their line to face north, then sweeping forward carrying the tumulus known as the Tomb of Ormond (d’Hottomont). Following the attack, hostilities on the plain ceased as the allied ranks hurried to reorder themselves.
The guns still blazed in Ramillies, which now formed the hinge in the bowed French line. Schulenburg’s battalions stormed the outer defenses, pushing the Swiss battalions out from their positions, gaining the outskirts of the village. Seizing the advantage, Schulenburg’s troops quickly took the Bavarian Grenadiers from the right flank, driving them and their foot guards through the village center. Two battalions of Cologne Guards stood firm, though, and Alessandro, marquis de Maffei, ordered his Bavarians to occupy the road out of Ramillies in the hope the Franco-Bavarian cavalry still held the high ground. His maneuver regained him some of the village, but not for long.
Reinforced by 20 battalions from the allied center, Schulenburg redoubled his push against Maffei until the Bavarians broke. In the panicked flight that followed, Maffei mistook allied for French horse and was taken prisoner, while his fleeing infantrymen were intercepted and cut to pieces.
At about 5 p.m., a pause came in the fighting. Unknown to Villeroi, however, Orkney’s battalions were pouring into the allied center. An hour later, Marlborough gave yet another decisive order. Bugles blared, alerting every man on the field between Ramillies and Taviers of what was to come: the general attack.
Within a half-hour, the French line buckled and broke before the weight of allied numbers—and with it, French morale. The French had not retreated more than 40 yards before all fell to confusion and whole brigades fled in disorder.
Now, too late, Villeroi decided to call on his 50 squadrons of virtually unused cavalry along the Geete. He ordered them into line at right angles to the old line (facing south) as a measure to cover the army’s retreat, but they floundered into the French camp. Fear quickly spread, and it was not long before all 50 squadrons were fleeing through the slower French infantry.
Surrenders began as regiments of foot commanded by Marlborough’s brother, General Charles Churchill, and Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, drove three French battalions into the Geete marshes. The Régiment de Picardie fell victim to the Scottish Brigade as Lt. Gen. Henry Lumley’s cavalry, the Scots Greys and King’s Dragoon Guards crossed the Geete to round up the Maison du Roy.
The bulk of Villeroi’s army fled to Judoigne, pursued throughout the night by the English cavalry, who were freshest for the hunt. Villeroi and the Elector of Bavaria were nearly captured by Lt. Gen. Cornelius Wood, who failed to recognize them but made prisoners of two Bavarian lieutenant generals.
So ended the glorious day of Ramillies. The allies had lost 1,066 killed, including Ludwig of Hesse-Cassel, and some 3,633 wounded, which was far less than at their previous triumph at Blenheim. The French had lost 8,000 men killed or wounded, with 7,000 taken as prisoners. Marlborough’s crown of triumph was soon adorned by 50 of Villeroi’s cannons, along with 80 standards and colors.
Marlborough’s victory at Ramillies saved the Low Countries from further French dominion. With Villeroi disgraced and his army obliterated so early in the campaigning season, Marlborough and his allies went on to a string of major conquests. By early October, nearly all of the Spanish Netherlands had fallen to the allies. The war was far from over, but with the Netherlands behind him, Marlborough could now brandish his triumphant sword that much closer to Louis XIV’s own French soil.
Law librarian Peter Edwards writes from Australia. Further reading: The First Churchill: The Life of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, by George Malcolm Thomson; and Marlborough as Military Commander, by David Chandler.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.