The battle was notable for a change in French strategy. In 1706 Louis XIV demanded his generals go on the offensive to gain an initiative over the Grand Alliance and put him in a stronger position for peace negotiations.
This was a welcome surprise to Marlborough, who had started the year's campaign by laying siege to the French fortress at Namur, writing to his friend the Earl of Godolphin that, “I have no hope of doing anything considerable, unless the French do what I am very confident they will not, namely, come out and fight.”
With Louis' new demand for action, the French left their base at Namur and set out to engage Marlborough, marking one of the very few occasion in the Wars of Succession that two forces sought each other out for battle.
Marlborough knew the region well and sent his chief of staff, Earl William Cadogan, to occupy the high ground around Ramillies, where the French forces were headed.
Cadogan and his advance guard reached the plain before their objective in an early-morning mist. As the fog lifted they could see Ramillies in the distance, with the full French Army preparing for battle ahead of them. Marlborough arrived a few hours later and said that this French force was “the best of any he had ever seen.”
Villeroi, the French comander, had deployed his force in a four-mile arc stretching from village to village, with Ramillies in the centre and his left flank protected by a river and marshland.
Marlborough recognised the strength of the French set up, but understood that the General would find it difficult to shift troops quickly along the arced front line.
He matched the French set up but kept his own front line in a shape that would allow him to move troops quickly from flank to flank. Marlborough also had the benefit of a clear view of the entire battlefield, unlike Villeroi whose sight of his flanks was restricted.
Marlborough planned a deception, aiming to throw the French off balance. He started with a feint attack on the right, sending British troops across swamp land and over a river to attack the lightly guarded left flank of the French.
His troops drove the French fighters back to the protection of the nearest village, convincing Villeroi to send reinforcements from his centre.
On the other flank, Marlborough's force of mostly Dutch troops also attacked across marshy land that the French had thought would deter any advance. The allied force progressed and captured the village of Taviers. Villeroi could not see the fighting on his right and underestimated the advances Marlborough's troops had made. He drew troops from there to protect his left flank as it was threatened by the Dutch.
Marlborough, with a clearer sight of the unfolding battle, ordered his troops on the French left to halt their progress, understanding that he could not reinforce them and that they would be better utilised in an attack on the French centre.
At the same time, more Dutch troops had battled their way into Ramillies, causing the French to take defensive action. As the French fought back, Marlborough led his battalions into battle to shore up the line.
France's finest troops crashed into Marlborough's forces, with squadrons flowing back and forth.
In one retreat Marlborough was thrown from his horse. Recognising the Duke from his clothing the French tried to run him down, but two Swiss battalions came to his aid and a captain gave Marlborough his horse to continue the fight.
As the two forces battled over inches, Marlborough used the rolling hills to shift troops from his right flank to the centre without Villeroi seeing what he was doing.
Having tricked Villeroi into moving troops away from the centre, Marlborough was now able to bring his own men into the fight.
By late afternoon Marlborough had built up a superior number of soldiers in the centre and was ready to make his final attack.
As Marlborough's cavalry thundered towards the French, Villeroi decided to meet them head on, but the allies bigger numbers meant they bent and then broke the French line, draining away the morale of the French army who responded with cries of ‘sauve qui peut’.
Panic spread and the French flew into retreat. Seeing his opportunity, Marlborough launched his troops at the fleeing French, taking prisoners in their thousands and capturing their heavy artillery.
Marlborough's victory was complete and Villeroi's Army, considered to be the best in France, had been routed in just a few short hours. The French had lost up to 15,000 soldiers, with Marlborough suffering fewer than 5,000 casualties.
The Duke followed Ramillies by capturing more major French fortresses and towns, achieving a victory that politicians in England celebrated as “so glorious and great in its consequences, and attended with such continued success … that no age can equal.”
WANT TO FIND OUT MORE?If you would like to follow in the footsteps of Marlborough and his troops in Flanders, you can join our small-group tour with James Falkner.
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