The Battle of Ramillies was a major engagement of the War of the Spanish Succession fought on 23 May 1706. The encounter was a resounding success for the allied forces of England, the Dutch Republic, and Denmark; but the battle had followed a year of indecisive campaigning in 1705 where Allied over-confidence after their success at the Battle of Blenheim had resulted in an abortive campaign along the Moselle, forcing the Duke of Marlborough to abandon his plans for a push into France. Yet despite the Allies' inability to achieve a decisive victory, Louis XIV was eager for peace; but he wanted it on reasonable terms. Therefore, rather than standing on the defensive, French armies on all fronts swung over to the offensive.
The year 1706 had begun well for Louis XIV's generals, who had gained early success in Italy and in Alsace, where Marshal Villars had forced the Margrave of Baden to retreat across the Rhine. Louis now pressed Marshal Villeroi to seek out Marlborough and bring the Allies to battle in the Spanish Netherlands. Accordingly, the French Marshal set off from Louvain at the head of 60,000 men, and provocatively marched towards Léau. Marlborough, also determined to fight a major engagement, assembled his forces – some 62,000 men – near Maastricht, before advancing towards the Mehaigne river and the plain of Ramillies. However, the French had anticipated the Allies, and Marlborough's advance party found the location already occupied. Nevertheless, the Duke decided to attack at once.
In less than four hours, Villeroi's army was utterly defeated. Marlborough's subtle moves and changes in emphasis during the battle – something the French and Bavarian commanders failed to realise until it was too late – caught his foe in a tactical vice. The Franco-Bavarian army broke and ran en masse, suffering over 20,000 casualties. With Prince Eugène's subsequent success at Turin in northern Italy, the Allies had imposed the greatest loss of territory and resources that Louis XIV would suffer during the war. Town after town – including Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp – fell to Marlborough's forces and by the end of the campaign, the Franco-Spanish army had been driven from most of the Spanish Netherlands. The year 1706 had indeed proved to be the Allies' annus mirabilis.
The reluctance of his Dutch allies to see their frontiers denuded of troops for another gamble in Germany had denied Marlborough the initiative, but of far greater importance was the Margrave of Baden’s pronouncement that he could not join the Duke in strength for the coming offensive. This was in part due to the sudden switching of troops from the Rhine to reinforce Prince Eugène in Italy, and part due to the deterioration of Baden’s health brought on by the re-opening of a severe foot wound he had received at the storming of the Schellenberg the previous year. Moreover, Marlborough had to cope with the death of Emperor Leopold I in May and the accession of Joseph I, which unavoidably complicated matters for the Grand Alliance.
The resilience of the French King, and the efforts of his generals, also added to Marlborough’s problems. Marshal Villeroi, exerting considerable pressure on the Dutch commander, Count Overkirk, along the Meuse, took Huy on 10 June before pressing on towards Liège. With Marshal Villars sitting strong on the Moselle, the Allied commander – whose supplies had by now become critical – was forced to call off his campaign on 16 June. "What a disgrace for Marlborough," exulted Villeroi, "to have made false movements without any result! With Marlborough’s departure north, the French now transferred troops from the Moselle valley to reinforce Villeroi in Flanders, whilst Villars marched off to the Rhine.
The Allies gained minor compensation for the failed Moselle campaign with the success at Elixheim and the crossing of the Lines of Brabant in the Spanish Netherlands (Huy was also retaken on 11 July), but due to considerable Dutch hesitancy and reluctance, a chance to bring the French to a decisive engagement had eluded Marlborough. The year 1705 proved almost entirely barren for the Duke whose military disappointments were only partly compensated by efforts on the diplomatic front where, at the courts of Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Vienna, Berlin and Hanover, Marlborough sought to bolster support for the Grand Alliance and extract promises of prompt assistance for the following year’s campaign.
Determined to show the Allies that France was still resolute, Louis XIV prepared to launch a double surprise in Alsace and northern Italy. On the latter front, on 19 April, Marshal Vendôme defeated the Imperial army at Calcinato, pushing the Imperialists back in confusion; French forces were now in a position to prepare for the long-anticipated siege of Turin. In Alsace, Marshal Villars took the Margrave of Baden by surprise and captured Haguenau, driving him back across the Rhine in some disorder, thus creating a threat on Landau. With these reverses, the Dutch now refused to contemplate Marlborough’s ambitious march to Italy, or, indeed, any plan that denuded their borders of the Duke and his army. Therefore, in the interest of coalition harmony, Marlborough prepared to campaign in the Low Countries.
Following the successes in Italy and along the Rhine, Louis XIV was now hopeful of similar results in Flanders. Far from standing on the defensive therefore – and unbeknown to Marlborough – Louis XIV was persistently goading his marshal into action. "[Villeroi] began to imagine," wrote St Simon, "that the King doubted his courage, and resolved to stake all at once in an effort to vindicate himself. Accordingly, on 18 May, Villeroi set off from Louvain at the head of 70 battalions, 132 squadrons and 62 cannon – comprising an overall force of some 60,000 troops – and crossed the river Dyle to seek battle with the enemy. Spurred on by his growing confidence in his ability to out-general his opponent, and by Versailles’ determination to avenge Blenheim, Villeroi and his generals anticipated success.
Neither opponent expected the clash at the exact moment or place where it occurred. The French moved first to Tirlemont, (as if to threaten Léau, abandoned by the French in October 1705), before turning southwards, heading for Judoigne – this line of march took Villeroi’s army towards the narrow aperture of dry ground between the Mehaigne and Petite Gheete rivers close to the small villages of Ramillies and Taviers; but neither commander quite appreciated how far his opponent had travelled. Villeroi still believed (on 22 May) the Allies were a full day’s march away when in fact they had camped near Corswaren waiting for the Danish squadrons to catch up; for his part, Marlborough deemed Villeroi still at Judoigne when in reality he was now approaching the plateau of Mont St. André with the intention of pitching camp near Ramillies (see map at right).
The following day, at 01:00, Marlborough dispatched Cadogan, his Quartermaster-General, with an advanced guard to reconnoitre the same dry ground that Villeroi’s army was now heading, country that was well known to the Duke from previous campaigns. Two hours later the Duke followed with the main body: 74 battalions, 123 squadrons, 90 pieces of artillery and 20 mortars, totalling 62,000 troops. At about 08:00, after Cadogan had just passed Merdorp, his force made brief contact with a party of French hussars gathering forage on the edge of the plateau of Jandrenouille. After a brief exchange of shots the French retired and the Allied dragoons pressed forward. With a short lift in the mist, Cadogan soon discovered the smartly ordered lines of Villeroi’s advance guard some four miles (6 km) off; a galloper hastened back to warn Marlborough. Two hours later the Duke, accompanied by the Dutch field commander Veldt Marshal Overkirk, General Daniel Dopff and the Allied staff, rode up to Cadogan where, on the horizon to the westward he could discern the massed ranks of the French army deploying for battle along the four mile (6.4 km) front.
At 11:00, the Duke ordered the army to take standard battle formation. On the far right, towards Foulz, the British battalions and squadrons took up their posts in a double line near the Jeuche stream. The centre was formed by the mass of Dutch, German, Protestant Swiss and Scottish infantry – perhaps 30,000 men – facing Offus and Ramillies. Also facing Ramillies Marlborough placed a powerful battery of thirty 24-pounders, dragged into position by a team of oxen; further batteries were positioned overlooking the Petite Gheete. On their left, on the broad plain between Taviers and Ramillies – and where Marlborough thought the decisive encounter must take place – Overkirk drew the 69 squadrons of the Dutch and Danish horse, supported by 19 battalions of Dutch infantry and two artillery pieces.
Meanwhile Villeroi deployed his forces. In Taviers on his right, he placed two battalions of the Greder Suisse Régiment, with a smaller force forward in Franquenée; the whole position was protected by the boggy ground of the Mehaigne river, thus preventing an Allied flanking movement. Between the open country of Taviers and Ramillies, he placed 82 squadrons under General de Guiscard supported by several interleaved brigades of French, Swiss and Bavarian infantry. Along the Ramillies–Offus–Autre Eglise ridge-line, Villeroi positioned Walloon and Bavarian infantry, supported by the Elector of Bavaria's 50 squadrons of Bavarian and Walloon cavalry placed behind on the plateau of Mont St. André. Ramillies, Offus and Autre-Eglise were all packed with troops and put in a state of defence, with alleys barricaded and walls loop-holed for muskets. Villeroi also positioned powerful batteries near Ramillies. These guns (some of which were of the three barrelled kind first seen at Elixheim the previous year) enjoyed good arcs of fire, able to fully cover the approaches of the plateau of Jandrenouille over which the Allied infantry would have to pass.
Marlborough, however, noticed several important weaknesses in the French dispositions. Tactically, it was imperative for Villeroi to occupy Taviers on his right and Autre-Eglise on his left, but by adopting this posture he had been forced to over-extend his forces. Moreover, this disposition – concave in relation to the Allied army – gave Marlborough the opportunity to form a more compact line, drawn up in a shorter front between the ‘horns’ of the French crescent; thus when the Allied blow came, it would be more concentrated and carry more weight. Additionally, the Duke’s disposition facilitated the transfer of troops across his front far more easily than his foe, a tactical advantage that would grow in importance as the events of the afternoon unfolded. Although Villeroi had the option of enveloping the flanks of the Allies as they deployed on the plateau of Jandrenouille – threatening to encircle the Allies – the Duke correctly gauged that the characteristically cautious French commander was intent on a defensive battle along the ridge-line.
Villeroi’s right flank fell into chaos and was now open and vulnerable. Alerted to the situation de Guiscard ordered an immediate attack with 14 squadrons of French dragoons currently stationed in the rear. Two other battalions of the Greder Suisse Régiment were also sent, but the attack was poorly co-ordinated and consequently went in piecemeal. The Allied commanders now sent dismounted Dutch dragoons into Taviers, which, together with the Guards and their field guns, poured concentrated musketry- and canister-fire into the advancing French troops – Colonel d’Aubigni leading his regiment fell mortally wounded.
As the French ranks wavered, the leading squadrons of Württemberg’s Danish horse – now unhampered by enemy fire from either village – were also sent into the attack and fell upon the exposed flank of the Franco-Swiss infantry and dragoons. De la Colonie, with his Grenadiers Rouge regiment, together with the Cologne Guards who were brigaded with them, was now ordered forward from his post south of Ramillies to support the faltering counter-attack on the village. But on his arrival, all was chaos – "Scarcely had my troops got over when the dragoons and Swiss who had preceded us, came tumbling down upon my battalions in full flight … My own fellows turned about and fled along with them." De La Colonie managed to rally some of his grenadiers, together with the remnants of the French dragoons and Greder Suisse battalions, but it was an entirely peripheral operation, offering only fragile support for Villeroi’s right flank.
Whilst the attack on Taviers went in, the Earl of Orkney launched his first line of English across the Petite Gheete in a determined attack against the barricaded villages of Offus and Autre-Eglise on the Allied right. Villeroi, posting himself near Offus, watched anxiously the redcoats' advance, minded of the counsel he had received on 6 May from Louis XIV – "Have particular care to that part of the line which will endure the first shock of the English troops." Heeding this advice the French commander began to transfer battalions from his centre to reinforce the left, drawing more foot from the already weakened right to replace them.
As the English battalions descended the gentle slope of the Petite Gheete valley, struggling through the boggy stream, they were met by Major General de la Guiche’s disciplined Walloon infantry sent forward from around Offus. After concentrated volleys – extracting heavy casualties on the redcoats – the Walloons fell back to the ridge-line in good order. Nevertheless, the English were able to form their ranks on the dry ground beyond the stream and press on up the slope towards the cottages and barricades on the ridge. The vigour of the English assault, however, was such that they threatened to break through the line of the villages and out onto the open plateau of Mont St André beyond. This was potentially dangerous for the Allied infantry who would then be at the mercy of the Elector’s Bavarian and Walloon squadrons patiently waiting on the plateau for the order to move.
Although Henry Lumley’s British cavalry had managed to cross the marshy ground around the Petite Gheete, it was soon evident to Marlborough that sufficient cavalry support would not be practicable and that the battle could not be won on the Allied right. The Duke, therefore, called off the attack against Offus and Autre-Eglise. To make sure that Orkney obeyed his order to withdraw, Marlborough sent his Quartermaster-General in person with the command. Despite Orkney’s protestations, Cadogan insisted on compliance and, reluctantly, Orkney gave the word for his troops to fall back to their original positions on the edge of the plateau of Jandrenouille.
Seeing that Schultz and Spaar were faltering, Marlborough now ordered Orkney’s second-line British and Danish battalions (who had not been used in the assault on Offus and Autre-Eglise) to move south towards Ramillies. Shielded as they were from observation by a slight fold in the land, their commander, Brigadier-General van Pallandt, ordered the regimental colours to be left in place on the edge of the plateau to convince their opponents they were still in their initial position. Therefore, unbeknown to the French who remained oblivious to the Allies’ real strength and intentions on the opposite side of the Petite Gheete, Marlborough was throwing his full weight against Ramillies and the open plain to the south. Villeroi meanwhile, was still moving more reserves of infantry in the opposite direction towards his left flank; crucially, it would be some time before the French commander noticed the subtle change in emphasis of the Allied dispositions.
At around 15:30, Overkirk advanced his massed squadrons on the open plain in support of the infantry attack on Ramillies. The disciplined Allied squadrons – 48 Dutch, supported on their left by 21 Danish – steadily advanced towards the enemy (taking care not to prematurely tire the horses), before breaking into a trot to gain the impetus for their charge. The Marquis de Feuquières writing after the battle described the scene – "They advanced in four lines … As they approached they advanced their second and fourth lines into the intervals of their first and third lines; so that when they made their advance upon us, they formed only one front, without any intermediate spaces.
The initial clash favoured the Dutch and Danish squadrons. The disparity of numbers – exacerbated by Villeroi stripping their ranks of infantry to reinforce his left flank – enabled the Allies to throw the first line of French horse back in some disorder towards their second-line squadrons. This line also came under severe pressure and, in turn, was forced back to their third-line of cavalry and the few battalions still remaining on the plain. But these French horsemen were amongst the best in Louis XIV’s army – the Maison du Roi, supported by four elite squadrons of Bavarian Cuirassiers. Ably led by de Guiscard, the French cavalry rallied, thrusting back the Allied squadrons in successful local counterattacks. On Overkirk’s right flank, close to Ramillies, ten of his squadrons suddenly broke ranks and were scattered, riding headlong to the rear to recover their order, leaving the left flank of the Allied assault on Ramillies dangerously exposed. Notwithstanding the lack of infantry support, de Guiscard threw his cavalry forward in an attempt to split the Allied army in two.
A crisis threatened the centre, but from his vantage point Marlborough was at once aware of the situation. The Allied commander now summoned the cavalry on the right wing to reinforce his centre, leaving only the English squadrons in support of Orkney. Thanks to a combination of battle-smoke and favourable terrain, his redeployment went unnoticed by Villeroi who made no attempt to transfer any of his own 50 unused squadrons. While he waited for the fresh reinforcements to arrive, Marlborough flung himself into the mêlée, rallying some of the Dutch cavalry who were recoiling in confusion. But his personal involvement nearly led to his undoing. A number of French horsemen, recognising the Duke, came surging towards his party. Marlborough’s horse tumbled and the Duke was thrown – "Milord Marlborough was rid over," wrote Orkney some time later. It was a critical moment of the battle. "Major-General Murray," recalled one eye witness, " … seeing him fall, marched up in all haste with two Swiss battalions to save him and stop the enemy who were hewing all down in their way." One of Marlborough’s aides provided him with his own horse in order to speed him to safety before Murray’s disciplined ranks threw back the pursuing French troopers.
After a brief pause, Marlborough’s equerry, Colonel Bringfield (or Bingfield), led up another of the Duke’s spare horses; but whilst assisting him onto his mount, the unfortunate Bringfield was hit by an errant cannonball that sheered off his head. One account has it that the cannonball flew between the Captain-General’s legs before hitting the unfortunate colonel, whose torso fell at Marlborough’s feet – a moment subsequently depicted in a lurid set of contemporary playing cards. Nevertheless the danger passed, enabling the Duke to attend to the positioning of the cavalry reinforcements feeding down from his right flank – a change of which Villeroi remained blissfully unaware.
The time was about 16:30, and the two armies were in close contact across the whole four-mile (6 km) front, from the skirmishing in the marshes in the south, through the vast cavalry battle on the open plain; to the fierce struggle for Ramillies at the centre, and to the north, where, around the cottages of Offus and Autre-Eglise, Orkney and de la Guiche faced each other across the Petite Gheete ready to renew hostilities.
The arrival of the transferring squadrons now began to tip the balance in favour of the Allies. Tired, and suffering a growing list of casualties, the numerical inferiority of Guiscard’s squadrons battling on the plain at last began to tell. After earlier failing to hold or retake Franquenée and Taviers, Guiscard’s right flank had become dangerously exposed and a fatal gap had opened on the right of their line. Taking advantage of this breach, Württemberg’s Danish cavalry now swept forward, wheeling to penetrate the flank of the Maison du Roi whose attention was almost entirely fixed on holding back the Dutch. Sweeping forwards, virtually without resistance, the 21 Danish squadrons reformed behind the French around the area of the Tomb of Ottomond, facing north across the plateau of Mont St André towards the exposed flank of Villeroi’s army.
The final Allied reinforcements for the cavalry contest to the south were at last in position; Marlborough’s superiority on the left could no longer be denied, and his fast-moving plan took hold of the battlefield. Now, far too late, Villeroi tried to redeploy his 50 unused squadrons, but a desperate attempt to form line behind Ramillies floundered amongst the baggage and tents of the French camp carelessly left there after the initial deployment. The Allied commander ordered his cavalry forward against the now heavily outnumbered French and Bavarian horsemen. De Guiscard’s right flank, without proper infantry support, could no longer resist the onslaught and, turning their horses northwards, they broke and fled in complete disorder. Even the squadrons currently being scrambled together by Villeroi behind Ramillies could not withstand the onslaught. "The cry went up," remembered Peter Drake, the Irish mercenary serving with the French – "Save yourselves!
In Ramillies, the Allied infantry, now reinforced by the English troops brought down from the north, at last broke through. The Régiment de Picardie stood their ground but were caught between Colonel Borthwick’s Scots-Dutch regiment and the English reinforcements. Borthwick was killed, as was Charles O’Brien, the Irish Viscount Clare in French service, fighting at the head of his regiment. The Marquis de Maffei attempted one last stand with his Bavarian and Cologne Guards, but it proved in vain. Noticing a rush of horsemen fast approaching from the south, he later recalled – " … I went towards the nearest of these squadrons to instruct their officer, but instead of being listened to [I] was immediately surrounded and called upon to ask for quarter.
The roads leading north and west were choked with fugitives. Orkney now sent his English troops back across the Petite Gheete stream to once again storm Offus where de la Guiche’s infantry had begun to drift away in the confusion. To the right of the infantry, Hay’s and Ross’s regiments of dragoons also picked their way across the stream and charged the Régment du Roi within Autre-Eglise. "Our dragoons," wrote John Deane, "pushing into the village … made terrible slaughter of the enemy." The Bavarian Horse Grenadiers and the Electoral Guards withdrew and formed a shield about Villeroi and the Elector but were scattered by Lumley’s cavalry. Stuck in the mass of fugitives fleeing the battlefield, the French and Bavarian commanders narrowly escaped capture by General Cornelius Wood, who, unaware of their identity, had to content himself with the seizure of two Bavarian Lieutenant-Generals. Far to the south, the remnants of de la Colonie’s brigade headed in the opposite direction towards the French held fortress of Namur.
The retreat became a rout. Individual Allied commanders drove their troops forward in pursuit, allowing their beaten enemy no chance to recover. Soon the Allied infantry could no longer keep up, but their cavalry were off the leash, heading through the gathering night for the crossings on the Dyle river. At last, however, Marlborough called a halt to the pursuit shortly after midnight near Meldert, from the field.
Town after town now succumbed to the Allies. Louvain fell on 25 May 1706; three days later, the Allies entered Brussels, the capital of the Spanish Netherlands. Marlborough realised the great opportunity created by the early victory of Ramillies, – "We now have the whole summer before us," wrote the Duke from Brussels to Robert Harley, "and with the blessing of God I shall make the best use of it. Malines, Lierre, Ghent, Alost, Damme, Oudenaarde, Bruges, and on 6 June Antwerp, all subsequently fell to Marlborough’s victorious army. Villeroi was helpless to arrest the process of collapse. When Louis learnt of the disaster, he recalled Marshal Vendôme from northern Italy to take command in Flanders; but it would be weeks before the command changed hands.
As news spread of the Allies’ triumph, the Prussians, Hessians and Hanoverian contingents, long delayed by their respective rulers, eagerly joined the pursuit of the broken French and Bavarian forces. "This," wrote Marlborough wearily, "I take to be owing to our late success. Meanwhile, Overkirk took the port of Ostend on 4 July thus opening a direct route to the English Channel for communication and supply, but the Allies were making scant progress against Dendermonde whose governor, the Marquis de Valée, was stubbornly resisting. Only later when Cadogan and Churchill went to take charge did the town’s defences begin to fail.
Vendôme formally took over command in Flanders on 4 August; Villeroi, his defeated predecessor, would never again receive a major command, bemoaning – "I cannot foresee a happy day in my life save only that of my death." Louis XIV however, was more forgiving, greeting his old friend with the kind words – "At our age, Marshal, we must no longer expect good fortune. In the mean time, Marlborough invested the elaborate fortress of Menin which, after a costly siege, capitulated on 22 August. Dendermonde finally succumbed on 6 September followed by Ath – the last conquest of 1706 – on 2 October. By the time Marlborough had closed down the Ramillies campaign he had denied the French most of the Spanish Netherlands west of the Meuse and north of the Sambre – it was an unsurpassed operational triumph for the English Duke.
Meanwhile, on the Upper Rhine, Villars had been forced onto the defensive as battalion after battalion had been sent north to bolster collapsing French forces in Flanders; there was now no possibility of his undertaking the re-capture of Landau. Further good news for the Allies arrived from northern Italy where, on 7 September, Prince Eugène had routed a French army before the Piedmontese capital, Turin, driving the Franco-Spanish forces from northern Italy. Only from Spain did Louis XIV receive any good news where Lord Galway had been forced to retreat from Madrid towards Valencia, allowing Philip V to re-enter his capital on 4 October.
All in all though, the situation had changed considerably and Louis XIV began to look for ways to end what was fast becoming a ruinous war for France. For Queen Anne also, the Ramillies campaign had one overriding significance – "Now we have God be thanked so hopeful a prospect of peace. But the Grand Alliance, emboldened by victory, had neither the wit nor the will to conclude peace terms. With the utter defeat of France seemingly within their grasp, the war would continue through to the following year. Instead of continuing the momentum of victory, however, cracks in Allied unity would enable Louis to reverse some of the major setbacks suffered at Turin and Ramillies.
La Colonie omits a casualty figure in his Chronicles of an old Campaigner; but the duc de Saint-Simon in his Memoirs states 4,000 killed, adding 'many others were wounded and many important persons were taken prisoner'. Voltaire, however, in Histoire du siecle du Louis XIV records, 'the French lost there twenty thousand men'.