May 23, 1706

The War of Spanish Succession pitted France allied with Bavaria and Spain with its new Bourbon monarch against a coalition assembled to prevent the Spain from becoming a Bourbon possession closely tied with France.  This coalition included Britain, the Netherlands, Savoy, Austria, and the Holy Roman Empire - all hoping to prevent French domination of Europe.  In 1704 an Allied army under the the English Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene commanding an Austrian force smashed a French and Bavarian army at Blenheim on the banks of the Danube in Bavaria.  The next year Marlborough to the Moselle valley hoping to advance into a less well defended area of France.  Frustrated in his attempts, Marlborough moved north to the Spanish Netherlands, roughly modern day Belgium.  There he penetrated the Lines of Brabant, but friction with his Dutch allies prevented a decisive exploitation.  The following campaign season, 1706, Marlborough intended to seek a decisive battle in the Spanish Netherlands.  The French army under Marshal Villeroi with their Bavarian and Spanish allies, hereafter simply called "the French" were also seeking battle as Louis XIV wanted a victory in order to negotiate a more favorable peace.

Marching from near Maastricht toward Namur, Marlborough threatened to gain a position in which he could either march on Brussels or cut off the French army.  Villeroi marched south from Louvain to intercept.  A choke point along the Allied line of advance was at Ramillies where a plain one and a half miles wide stretched from the Mehaigne River to the town of Ramillies with a marshy creek, the Little Geete, beyond.  Marlborough hoped to march beyond this choke point and reach Mont St Andre - then do battle with the French before they could withdraw behind the safety of the River Dyle.  Delayed by waiting for the Danish contingent, which had not been paid properly, Marlborough got to Ramillies after the French, who positioned their cavalry in the plain south of town and their infantry behind the marshy creek north of it.  At Ramillies Villeroi could block an Allied advance straight ahead - or he could threaten the Allied flank if Marlborough advanced from there to south to Namur.  So Villeroi assumed the defensive.

Marlborough immediately deployed his cavalry in front of the French cavalry, pinning the French in position while the rest of his army arrived.  Pinning the French cavalry also made a battle likely.  At 2pm on May 23rd an artillery duel began.  Villeroi's line was a long one - four miles for around 60,000 men - but it included several villages to aid the defense.  With rough terrain to the north, the French left was anchored on Autre-Eglise.  South of there was the village of Offus then Ramillies - and the marshy Little Gheete provided a significant barrier to an Allied attack in this sector.  Ramillies sat on higher ground between  the two watersheds.  Plains extended south to the River Mehaigne where the French right flank was anchored at the town of Taviers.  This was the area defended by cavalry.  Perhaps Villeroi had not originally envisioning a fight here, so he neglected to clear out a jumble of wagons this portion of his line.  Villeroi's line was shaped so that both flanks were in front of his center.  Marlborough's line was the opposite shape, with his flanks bent back.  As a result Marlborough could more shift troops from on flank to the other more quickly and easily than Villeroi could.  

Marlborough opened the battle with an attack on Franquenee and Taviers.  The Dutch Guard succeeded in capturing the villages, and clumsy French counterattacks siphoned away the dragoons behind the French right as well as infantry supporting the French cavalry.

View From Ramillies

This is the approximate view of the French defenders of Ramillies looking toward the Allied attack.  Marlborough ordered Orkney to attack north of here, but at Ramillies he had his brother, Charles Churchill, attack.  The first attack by four brigades was repulsed, in part due to French artillery.  In response Marlborough sent in a brigade from Orkney's second line, which had shifted south.

Town of Ramillies

It was only as the battle was ending that the Allies captured Ramillies.  By that point more important things were going on other parts of the field.

This is the view from just north of Ramillies from the Allied side across the valley of the headwaters of Little Gheete.  French infantry defended the opposite ridge.  Marlborough's plan included Allied infantry under Orkney, the northern wing of the army, crossing the Little Gheete and advancing on the French.

Ferme Seny in Offus

Further north is the town of Offus.  The farm building complex on the left of the panorama existed during the battle.  Like further south, here at Offus Orkney's Allied infantry crossed the Little Gheete and advanced on the French position.  This advance was on the right side of the panorama.  This section of the Little Gheete at the time was quite marshy and a serious barrier.  A failed Allied effort might be pushed back into the marshy ground and smashed. 


The Allied infantry attack extended to Autre-Eglise on the northern flank.  The panorama above is the view looking north from the church's burial ground.  Although the area shown is largely beyond the area of fighting, it shows the terrain well, and Allied infantry may have crossed the Little Gheete on the right side of the panorama and attacked into town. 

You can see the steeple of Autre-Eglise on the right side of the panorama.  The road here is climbing the from the Little Gheete up the ridge on the left side where the Allied infantry began their attack.  Next we will continue up this road to the top.

We have driven up the road from the left - coming from Autre-Eglise and the Little Gheete to an intersection.  The Allied infantry attack, once it had reached the enemy held ridge, and once the supporting Allied cavalry under Lumley was across the Little Gheete, was withdrawn by order of Marlborough himself.  The local commander protested but followed his orders.  Marlborough had intended the attack merely as a diversion, and in this it succeeded.  Villeroi believed that this was Marlborough's main effort.  British troops had been used in the effort after all.  Marlborough's main attack, however, was to be in the south against the French cavalry.  The cobblestone road to the right of the corn leads to the Allied rear, and it was along this axis that Orkney's second line went to the rear then moved south.

Now we will drive down the cobblestone road.

We have driven down the road from the left side, and we will continue down this road on the right side of the photo into the Allied rear.  In front you can see the low ground that Marlborough used to hide his troop movement.  This is a watershed that drains into the Little Gheete toward the left side of the panorama.

We have continued on these treacherous roads behind Marlborough's line toward the southern sector of the battlefield, in the process becoming confused.  The terrain, however, looks much like this - flat to rolling plains with few if any obstacles.  It was ideal cavalry country, and it was where Marlborough made his main effort.  Although the standard cavalry formation resembled a checkerboard, for his attack Marlborough massed his cavalry in a single unbroken line, knee to knee, or en muraille - and without the customary pistol and carbine fire.  This shock attack filled the intervals in the French formation and placed the finest of France's cavalry into confusion.  The French did recover and made a fight of it, even riding over Marlborough himself, who had been thrown from his horse.  Then Marlborough's aide was decapitated by a French cannonball.  In the end, though, with Allied reinforcing troops from the north entering the battle, the French cavalry began to tire.  Meanwhile the Allies shifted the cavalry around the vulnerable French flank at Taviers.      

Ottomond Tomb

The cavalry that had moved around the French line assembled here at an ancient tomb, which was once thought to hold the remains of General Otto.  Forming a line parallel to this road, the Allied cavalry attacked north, the direction beyond the tomb.  The wagons behind the French cavalry created confusion, and panic set in.  Ramillies was captured, and to the north Orkney renewed the attack.  The French fled the field with the Allies in pursuit.  

It was a disaster for the French.  At the cost of  around 3,700 Allied killed and wounded, Marlborough had inflicted an estimated 12,000 French killed and wounded and a further 10,000 men captured along with 52 of 60 French guns.  Vileroi himself was nearly captured.  He would never command an army again.  Such was the despair that city after city in the Spanish Netherlands surrendered or changed sides.  By the end of the campaign season, the Allies controlled the Spanish Netherlands.  the complexion of the war had now changed, and although Louis was amenable to peace, the Allies now sought to continue the war and permanently reduce the threat that France posed to them.  As a result the war would continue for many more years, finally petering out in 1713 with a Bourbon on the Spanish throne and France still a world power.

Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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