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Marlborough's Masterpiece
by Neil Litten
Partizan Press, 2008

Book Review

by Russ Lockwood

You know you've made your mark on history when they name an "age" after you. You never heard of the Age of Villeroi, but I bet the Age of Marlborough rings a bell. On May 23, 1706, the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, gained quite the victory on the battlefield of Ramillies. In the course of an afternoon, his "English" army crushed the opposing "French" forces under Marshal Villeroi. I use quote marks because each army fought with several allied national contingents. The aftereffects of the victory echoed long after the last prisoner was rounded up on the battlefield.

Litten offers a comprehensive examination of the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and most of all, the aftereffects of Marlborough's victory. The prose races along with the action, getting better as the pages turn. You get a nice feel for the developing situation and the various crisis points during the battle. Litten's prose places you right in the middle of the Duke of Marlborough's broken countercharge and subsequent unhorsing, and then takes you along as he recovers to lead his troops to victory.

Better yet is the post-battle analysis of why the Duke won such a victory, pointing out terrain conundrums, faults in initial dispositions, and seized opportunities. And then comes a superb recounting of the Duke's maneuvers through the rest of the year which rendered France impotent, strained alliances, and placed great swaths of territory under Allied control -- not to mention the effects felt in other theaters of war. It is easy to understand why those years became known as the Age of Marlborough.

Of its pages, the book spends up to page 60 in pre-battle maneuvers and organization, pages 61-94 on the battle itself, pages 95-102 on the post-battle rout, and the rest on the continuing campaign for the year. Pages 81-88 contain color uniform plates. Page 49 offers a map of the battlefield with elevations, while page 53 has a map of the battlefield with unit dispositions. Additional maps show various regions and towns.

An outstanding Order of Battle goes down to the regiment (with Brigadiers mentioned by name) and the number of battalions or squadrons contained in each regiment, although not the number of men in each regiment. On page 41, there is a total: Villeroi's army: 74 battalions and 129 squadrons equalling about 62,000; and the Duke's army: 74 battalions and 123 squadrons equalling about 60,000. The map on page 53 shows units grouped into brigades with the number of battalions or squadrons, with gun positions and number of guns. Oddly enough, additional tables show casualties down to individual officers, NCOs, and soldiers.

There aren't a lot of Ramillies books coming along every day, so fans of the War of Spanish Succession should snap Ramillies: Marlborough's Masterpiece up. It's a superb recap of the battle and an excellent analysis of the post-battle maneuvers.

Partizan Press, 2008, £ 25, ISBN: 978-1-85818-498-2, 231 pgs., hardback

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 3
Preface 4
Author's Notes 5
Chapter I Shifts In Strategy 8
Chapter II 'A Fine Jaunt' 18
Chapter III Villeroi Steals A March 30
Chapter IV The Fog Lifts 45
Chapter V The Threat To The Flanks 61
Chapter VI The Crisis Of The Centre 73
Chapter VII Sauve qui peut 92
Chapter VIII 'The Whole Summer Before Us' 103
Chapter IX A Factious Alliance 119
Chapter X Vauban Masterpiece 138 Chapter
XI Dutch Commitment Vacillates 169
Chapter XII Peace No Nearer 188
Chapter XIII The Battlefield Today 197
Appendices 203
Notes on Sources 225
Bibliography 227

Excerpt: Chapter 6
The Crisis of the Centre

Once Marlborough was satisfied that Villeroi had no immediate intention of reinforcing Guiscard's horsemen by transferring drafts from his left wing, he turned his gaze southwards to where the main body of the Allied army was about to come into action. It was around 4 o'clock by this time. Although it is unlikely that the Duke had received definite news concerning Werthmuller's exploits further south by then, the lack of musketry as Ouwerkerk's squadrons drew level with Franquenee and Taviers would have indicated to him that both were in Allied hands.

Ouwerkerk led the two lines of Dutch and German cavalry, comprising of twenty-six and twenty-two squadrons respectively, forward at a steady walk. A further twenty-one squadrons of Danish horse followed as a reserve some distance to the rear of his left flank. Although Guiscard eyed these movements warily, he was still able to muster, even after the dispersal of his dragoon regiments and the withdrawal of the Hussars, sixty-two squadrons.

During the same period troop activity was evident around the centre. A polyglot detachment of twelve battalions, which was seemingly drawn at random from points along both battle lines, had been assembled under Jobst Scholten, a Danish lieutenant-general, for an assault on Ramillies.

The size of this ad hoc corps was restricted by the limited frontage of the approach to the village. The artillery bombardment was intensified as a prelude to its advance, though to little effect. Maffei sheltered his men in undulations that served as parapets against the large calibre pieces, and most of the higher trajectory shells of the howitzers fell harmlessly wide of their target. Likewise, the returning fire of the smaller French guns was poorly aimed and was no more than a minor irritation to Scholten's deployment. As a precautionary measure d'Artaignan ordered the sole central reserve, which had already been whittled down to a mere seven battalions, into the village and it took position to the left of the original garrison.

During the cavalry's long advance, the second rank of each Allied line closed up on the first to the extent that the intermediate spaces between individuals and squadrons appeared filled.' These serried lines were further compressed by the riders of the right flank crowding towards the centre in order to evade the fire belching forth from Ramillies. On reaching the proper distance Ouwerkerk signalled for his horsemen to break into a trot to gain impetus over the final few hundred yards. Guiscard, who had remained stationary in order to draw the enemy onto the guns of Ramillies, now moved out to meet it. His squadrons quickly gathered speed to avoid receiving the shock of impact at a disadvantage. Although the charge was only delivered at the conventional pace of a fast trot, the collision was nevertheless severe.

Where unopposed the Dutch and German troopers, who were riding knee to knee, were able to surge through the intervals between the conventionally deployed French and German squadrons and envelop them. However, in head-on clashes the French swordsmen disposed in three ranks gained the ascendancy over their twin-ranked adversaries. On the southern half of the spacious cockpit, golden banners bearing the lilies of France signalled the presence of the Maison du Roi. These resplendent units, containing the pride of the French nobility, closed in on their opponents. The Gendarme? and the Mousquetaires from this elite force crashed into their republican equivalent, the Blauwe Gardes under Major Sayer, and in the ferocious melee that ensued reputations on both sides were substantiated. Prince de Soubise was slain leading this attack, after which his brother, Prince de Rohan, pressed home the charge despite being hit by a musket-ball that broke his thigh. Such was the vigour of this onset that these aristocratic warriors broke clean through the two hostile lines and ten Dutch squadrons recoiled in confusion .7 Along the middle sections of the line the Dutch fared better. By lapping around the flanks of the enemy squadrons they were able to menace the Bavarian cuirassiers and the horse of Cologne with encirclement, compelling the Germans to give ground.

With considerable resolve the French horse on the left checked the momentum of the Dutch squadrons and then proceeded to push them back. Profiting from longer lines, since the Allied right flank shied away from running the gauntlet of the Ramillies barrage, the Courillon and Cano regiments on the extreme left crept forward under the covering fire of these guns. This move both threatened to outflank Ouwerkerk, which would have exposed Scholten's left flank, and to drive a wedge between them at a vital junction. The battle now entered its critical phase.

With the cavalry fully engaged, Scholten launched his attack on Ramillies. His twelve battalions, supported by large reserves of foot, marched across rye fields and up the gentle slope towards the village. Advancing against its front and right flank, their presence drew the concentrated fire of the garrison, which in turn brought welcome relief to Ouwerkerk's battered right. In the words of Winsheim, whose Huffel battalion was one of those attacking frontally, 'we marched towards them with shouldered arms, and they shot mostly over our heads and there were very few casualties.' Scot, on the left flank with the four Scots battalions, experienced a similar, albeit more accurately discharged, reception.

Marlborough, who had watched the initial stages of the cavalry engagement from his observation post, was already on the move as the crisis evolved. Staff officers were urgently dispatched with orders to summon the remaining twenty-one squadrons of foreign cavalry from the right," after which he and his retinue descended from their perch to join the eighteen squadrons that had already been diverted from that wing. Placing himself at their head, he arrived on the scene just as the French left was beginning to gain the upper hand. Leaving Prince Wilheim of Hesse-Cassel to organise their deployment from column, he galloped on ahead with a mere handful of English officers and orderlies in attendance. He rallied some broken Dutch squadrons and led them back into the fray. 'Undaunted and serene,' recorded O'Connor, 'he rode forward amidst the cheers of his troops, shouting "Corporal John," the name they had given their hero; he was surrounded by his staff, evidently receiving his commands. The Dutch who were animated by the courageous, though foolhardy, example of the commander-in-chief, counterattacked with renewed zeal. As so often happens in cavalry engagements after the initial collision, the lines quickly fractured into dozens of smaller or individual contests. O'Connor, still a spectator within the transient safety of the second line, was struck by its savagery. 'The shock of the hostile squadrons as they met was terrific; for some moments we could hear nothing but the clash and the din of the melee, the cheers, the groans of the combatants, as the furious conflict eddied to and fro.' The audible fervour of the antagonists was complemented by the thunderous drumming of hooves, the neighing of distressed mounts and the discordant clanking of steel on steel as crazed horsemen hacked and parried blows.

The Allied horse came off worse in the violent struggle and were once again routed. In the pell-mell to the rear the scarlet coats of the Duke and his entourage were most conspicuous among the predominantly grey clad Dutchmen, and some exuberant French horsemen made strenuous efforts to surround him. Marlborough eluded his pursuers through the strength and speed of his charger, but in leaping a ditch it pecked and threw him." While lying dazed on the ground he was ridden over by some fugitives and was in imminent danger of capture. Although shaken, he scrambled to his feet and ran towards the nearby infantry attacking Ramillies as fast as his jackboots would allow. Major-General Robert Murray, who had seen his commander fall, instantly wheeled the two battalions of the Swiss Albemarle regiment, posted on the extreme left of this formation, out of the line, and marched with all haste to his rescue. Captain Molesworth, one of the Duke's aides and the only member of his staff who had not been separated from him during the tumult, promptly dismounted and, with assistance from Captain de Rebecque, helped him on to his own horse. Marlborough's winning margin' in the ensuing chase was so slender that some enemy troopers were unable to rein in their horses and were impaled on the bristling bayonets of the Swiss front rank. One participant later recalled with great regret, 'I fell on his men with my whole regiment; he narrowly escaped being made prisoner -- oh! that Heaven was so unpropitious to France -- but he was extricated, and my troopers were compelled to retreat.'

Only Parker mentions the fate of the gallant Molesworth: 'The Captain being immediately after surrounded by the enemy; from which danger (as well as that of our fire) he was, at last, providentially delivered.'

Marlborough's timely intervention, although undertaken at grave personal risk, had bought valuable breathing-space. Once the reserves had deployed and were fed into the combat, the outcome was sealed. Badly bruised but as phlegmatic as ever, he directed this operation from behind the Swiss battalions. His staff, which had scattered in the confusion, gradually regrouped at this spot. Major Bringfield, his Gentleman of the Horse, presently rode up with his second charger and held its stirrup while the Duke switched horses. As Marlborough swung into the saddle a cannon-ball from one of the batteries in Ramillies whistled by him and decapitated Bringfield.

Ouwerkerk's right, which had now been strengthened by the eighteen squadrons under Hesse-Cassel, returned once more to the fight. Slowly the initiative began to swing back towards the now numerically superior Allied cavalry. There were isolated cases of men firing from the saddle. If spotted by Marlborough the Hanoverian Pentz regiment would have incurred his displeasure 'when the second rank without orders discharged its pistols over the heads of the front ranks against the enemy.' The left of Guiscard's front line, led by Lieutenant-General Liancourt, was overwhelmed even before the appearance of the second draft of twenty-one squadrons from the right wing made victory certain. However, before they could come into action, the issue was decided elsewhere. Away to the south, Wurttemberg had pushed his Danish horse forward between the enemy's right and Taviers under the covering fire of Werthmuller's infantry. By skilful handling he was able to work his squadrons around the flank of the Maison du Roi. This, combined with renewed frontal pressure, caused the outnumbered and outflanked line to finally collapse. Within a short time the rout became general. The Maison du Roi held out longest and was cut to pieces for its endeavours.

In his battle report Guiscard bitterly criticised the conduct of the second line which 'should have charged them and supported us.' Instead, he complained, it 'immediately took to flight and we were swept away in confusion by the enemy until beyond the tomb of Ottemont without seeing any troops that had the means to rally us.' This decisive engagement had lasted some thirty minutes.

The Danes continued their broad sweep until they reached the Tombe d'Ottomond, a peculiar tumulus which dominated the plateau far to the rear of Villeroi's right, where they halted. The majority of Guiscard's force careered round the southern tip of Ramillies and rode off in the direction of Geest a Gerompont. Ouwerkerk suspended the chase at this juncture and used the lull to reform his intermixed squadrons alongside the Danes prior to the final advance. By 5 p.m., with their chargers breathed, the victorious cavalry was ordered to wheel to the right and form a double line facing north which would leave them favourably placed to roll up the French army.

Some troopers of the Maison du Roi on the extreme right flank discovered their escape route barred and fled towards the marshes adjoining the Vistoule. While pondering whether a passage was practicable or not, they were spotted. Without delay several enemy squadrons, including the entire Ablemarle carabinier regiment, were dispatched to confront them. Deciding the marshes to be the lesser evil, they attempted to cross it, but soon found their horses engulfed in the mud. Seeing their plight de la Colonie, whose men still lined the far bank of the Vistoule, at once moved to their aid. He proudly chronicled their role: 'Immediately the enemy's squadrons appeared on the further edge, with the intention of shooting down the fugitives, I ordered a volley to be fired by the whole of my line, which threw them into disorder. A singular feature connected with this volley was the astonishment of the enemy, who were under the impression that my battalions, dressed as they were in blue and red, belonged to their side and that we had fired upon them by mistake. They set to work to signal to us to stop, but as I continued to ply them with bullets, they recognised their error, turned about and took up a position out of range, after losing many men and horses; in fact, those squadrons who believed they had our own people safe in the marsh, found there instead an almost complete defeat as their portion."' Watching from the other side of the marsh, Goslinga was so surprised by the rough treatment melted out to the carabiniers that he noted it: 'Riding close to one of the copses during the pursuit, they were greeted by an enemy volley. Shaken some horses barged into each other causing such confusion, that in a couple of squadrons it was enough to disorder them completely.

Emboldened by this success, de la Colonie sent Captain de Quemin and a hundred grenadiers across the marsh to cover the horsemen and encourage the enemy cavalry to keep its distance. Shielded by this fire screen the encumbered members of the Maison du Roi extricated themselves while other grenadiers dragged out their chargers.

Whilst the cavalry battle had persisted in the plain, the infantry encounter around Ramillies had grown in severity. The rank fire of the defenders failed to deter the approach of Scholten's cosmopolitan force and, on receiving its opening volley, first one and then another of the Swiss battalions turned and fled. Maffei threatened several fugitives with his epee, but all to no avail. The Allied infantry, having gained the outskirts, then enfiladed the grenadier battalion of the Gardes von Bayern standing to the right of the Swiss. These grenadiers shamefully abandoned their posts without firing a shot and the other two Guard battalions, which were badly affected by their comrades' flight, ran after them. The two battalions of the Gardes von Koln, despite being left in a vulnerable position, displayed greater steadiness and held firm until Maffei withdrew them in tolerable order under the threat of encirclement.

Their colonel, Baron de Claist, fell back with his regiment across a sunken road and posted it behind some hedgerows and the enclosed gardens of La Haute cense.u Scholten's men swarmed into the village in close pursuit. The Duke of Argyll, at the forefront of the Scots brigade with sword in hand, was hit by three spent musket-balls all lacking the velocity to pierce his coat. Pressing on,

This success, in the opinion of John Campbell, a captain in Borthwick's, came at a 'criticall time for our horse was beat for the second time." The storming of the cense proved hotter work for the single battalion of the Gardes to Voet, and stiff resistance was also encountered in the nearby churchyard. Colour ensign James Gardiner, an officer in one of the Scots battalions that broke in, raced towards the cemetery with the colours to encourage his men forward. As he shouted at them to follow him he was shot in the mouth by a musket-ball. He slumped against the churchyard wall convinced he must have swallowed the lead ball. However, it had miraculously exited through the side of his neck without even breaking a tooth.

After two attacks against the farm enclosure were repulsed, the remaining two battalions of the Guards regiment came up in support and the defenders were finally dislodged. With its capture and the clearing of the hedgerows Maffei's position became untenable. He nevertheless conducted a fighting retreat along a sunken lane and emerged on to the open plain behind the village. Believing the cavalrymen milling around close by to be French, he rounded up as many men as he could with a view to rally them in the intervals between these squadrons. Failing to notice the small green cockades that identified them as Allied troops, he approached the nearest squadron to relay his instructions to an officer and was immediately surrounded and offered quarter. With a sense of ignominy he later noted that, 'I was so amazed that I did not say a word, and I was still not able to convince myself that this was the enemy.' After he surrendered at knife-point to Captain Faber from one of the Holstein-Gottorp dragoon regiments, his men quickly dispersed.

Further north, Villeroi's composure was shattered by the sight of several of Scholten's battalions approaching Grimaldi's weak brigade stationed at the other end of Ramillies. He immediately summoned d'Artaignan and ordered him to march to its assistance with the remainder of the first line. The Italian regiments of Nice and SaintSecond were virtually annihilated during the time this assembly was organised and made ready to move. D'Artaignan then launched a ferocious counter-attack at the head of thirteen battalions. Villeroi, a veteran of many battles, was moved to exclaim that, 'I do not believe that since going to war, I have ever heard such heavy firing from both sides.'

Sheer weight of numbers gradually forced the Allies back and the French regained mastery of this part of the village. However, this success proved to be short-lived as the supports of the first assault wave were closing up, and LieutenantGeneral Spar directed some of these battalions against the unprotected French left flank. 'I understood,' said d'Artaignan, 'that if I allowed this infantry line to progress another 200 paces I would no longer be capable of withdrawing the battalions from the village.' Realising that this advance must be checked to buy the time to extricate his men, he dashed off in search of fresh troops. He found the still uncommitted Guards brigade under de Guiche and invoked his assistance. As the two generals led these nine battalions forward,

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Item: 1-86680
Litten, Neil
Ramillies: Marlborough's Masterpiece
Major new study, color illust, maps. 1 vol, 230 pgs 2007 UK, Partizan Press
OMM NEW-dust jacket $50.00

© Copyright 2008 by Russ Lockwood and On Military Matters.
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