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When all was ready, Marlborough sat down to supper.
His secret had been well kept, and he was not a httle

I. 19


astonished to find that the field-deputies had obtained
some inkhng of it.-^ He persuaded them, however, that
he intended nothing more than a reconnaissance in

Twihght was fading into night, when Noyelles and his
men set off, taking with them 600 labourers, besides timber
and tools. Colonel Chanclos, an officer who was thoroughly
acquainted with the country, led the way with five
squadrons.^ Competent guides had been furnished by a
local gentleman of property, who disliked the French troops
as neighbours. Fascines, which would have revealed too
much, were not provided; but every trooper carried on his
horse a small truss of hay, as if for a considerable journey.
An hour later, Marlborough himself with the remainder of
the army of the Moselle, took the same road. Villeroi and
the Elector were speedily in possession of the news. Report
after report announced that the enemy was marching to
St. Trond. It was almost certain now that Overkirk's
advance was only a feint, intended to cover a retirement
or to facilitate an attack at some other point. But
the movements which Overkirk's cavalry had made that
evening, and the fact that the Dutch army had not yet
decamped, created a doubt as to the real intentions of the
allies. A new rumour, to the effect that Marlborough was
sending off a detachment of 15,000 men towards the Rhine,
suggested that no attack of any sort was in contempla-
tion. Even when Ovcrkirk himself began to withdraw, the
advance of his dragoons along the Namur road was dis-
tinctly perplexing. Villeroi and the Elector redoubled
their precautions. Repeatedly that night they sent word
along the lines that the enemy was moving, that he was
supposed to be making for St. Trond, but that the utmost
vigilance must be exercised until the truth was known.
In particular, they warned the officers commanding the left
wing, Biron, d'Alegre, and Roquelaure, that the country
on their front must be thoroughly patrolled, and that the
dragoons at Orsmael must be exceptionally alert.

All through the summer night the silent columns of the

1 Hare MSS.: Letter of July i8, 1705 (Hist. MSS. Comm., I4tli Report,
Appendix, part ix., p. 202).

2 Lediard, vol. i., p. 493.


allies filed on towards the north. So intense was the
darkness that the guides themselves became confused.
Some disorder resulted, and considerable delay; and at
certain points the leading horsemen let fall their trusses
of forage on the road to serve as signposts to the troops
behind. Three o'clock had sounded from the village
steeples, when Noyelles' detachment drew near to the
famous battle-ground of Landen. Hitherto, the French
patrols, who dogged with straining ears the direction of
this unseen march, had correctly reported that the enemy
was following the route to St. Trond. But at Landen,
where the traveller to St. Trond turns off towards the right,
Noyelles bore swiftly to his left, which was the way to
Tirlemont. It was also the way to the Chateau of Wanghe
and the bridge across the Little Geete. And now there
was no dearth of competent guides, for many a man in the
English regiments had stood up to Luxembourg at Landen,
and even the youngest recruit had been taught in the tales
of bivouac and barrack-room the topography of the bloodiest
field which the preceding century had ever known. Very
grey and ghosthke in the waning darkness, they stole
across the haunted earth where 20,000 warriors lay sleeping.
From time to time men and horses started uneasily, as
hoof or heel struck sharply on the bleaching bones of the
still unburied dead. Right in the centre of Wilham's old
encampment they halted, less than two-thirds of a mile
from the enemy's lines. Before them the ground sloped
downwards to the Little Geete, that steep-banked stream
which, twelve years before, had been choked with corpses,
when the tameless King and his handful of English cavalry
turned furiously at bay. At last the purpose of their
march was plain to all. As the crowding memories of the
place rose round them, they realised with grim delight that
the wheel had turned full circle, and that their wondrous
commander had planned for them and for England a
startling revenge.

But they were nearly two hours late, and behind them
the day was already breaking. Happily a thick, white,
morning mist crept upwards from the river, and hid them
as they made their final dispositions. The Duke's orders


had been simple. Noyelles was to surprise the French if
he could; but if he found them prepared, he was to storm
the lines. He therefore split his detachment into three
columns. General Schultz, with ten battalions and twelve
squadrons was to march to the right, and attempt to effect
a crossing at the villages of Overhespen and Neerhespen,
half-way between Wanghe and Orsmael. Three battalions
were directed to the left, where, at Elixem, a quarter of a
mile above Wanghe, the existence of a stone bridge invited
an attack. Both these posts, if the stories of the peasants
could be credited, were no more strongly held than Wanghe
itself. Noyelles, with the residue of his forces, remained
in the centre, immediately in front of the chateau. It was
broad daylight when he gave the word, and the column
stepped briskly down towards the river. Before it went
sixty chosen grenadiers. Looming gigantic through the mist,
they dashed upon the bridge and scaled the barrier. The
Frenchmen there were instantly cut down. The Frenchmen
in the chateau fled back into the Hnes, with the grenadiers
close at their heels. A few volleys were fired; but the
resistance offered was of the feeblest. The casualties of
the allies did not exceed half a dozen. An advance-guard,
also of grenadiers, pressed hard after their comrades. The
bridge, the chateau, and the entrance to the lines, were
swiftly seized. The signal was given to lay pontoons.
But the soldiers refused to wait. They broke their ranks.
With ringing cheers they plunged into the river, and
scrambled up the steep bank beyond. They waded through
a belt of ooze. They tore open the hedges. They leapt
down into the slimy fosse. They scaled the massive
mounds, showed for a moment exultant on the parapets,
and then dropped within the works. As fast as they
arrived, their officers formed them at right angles to the
lines with their faces to the south-west. Meantime the
pontoons were laid. The cavalry came pouring on. And
grenadiers and labourers ahke fell to enlarging the entrance
and creating new apertures to facilitate the passage of the

The shots fired by the defenders of Wanghe alarmed the
posts at Elixem and Overhespen, The tumult of cheering


and the spectacle of scarlet coats upon the summit of the
rampart struck them with panic. They did not wait to
be attacked. The three battalions on the left immediately
occupied Elixem, while Schultz's men, pressing forward to
the rising ground which intervenes between Wanghe and
Tirlemont, formed fast upon the right of those that had
already crossed at the chateau. Schultz had no trouble
with the three dragoon regiments at Orsmael. They neither
fired a shot, nor attempted to give the alarm to the French
left at Gossoncourt. They simply bolted to Lean. The
completeness of the surprise was in the highest degree
discreditable to the work of Roquelaure's patrols.

No mounted fugitive could have carried the tidings to
Gossoncourt, for it was 6 o'clock before they reached
Roquelaure, the general officer commanding on the ex-
tremity of Villeroi's left. Roquelaure sped it back to
Merdorp, and then with d'Alegre and Horn got instantly
to horse. The trumpets pealed; and the Life Guards of
Bavaria mounted, and the Life Guards of Cologne; and the
Spaniards mounted, the Black Troop, the White, and the
Bay, and the Walloons, and the French, and they all rode
on at the gallop, five and thirty squadrons of them, and
their steel cuirasses shone like silver in the rising sun. And
after them came Caraman with two brigades of foot, and
after them two more. And a battery of triple-barrelled
cannon of marvellous design, that fired three balls at once,
rushed without orders to the front, the gunners burning to
display the prowess of their new machine. Four squadrons
that drew first into the field perceived with amazement that
within those vaunted works, which they had grown accus-
tomed to regard as inexpugnable, a hostile army was rapidly
deploying. Low down beside the Geete, the village of
EHxem was swarming with the alHed foot, and all the
hedges to Wanghe were ahve with marksmen. Across the
water-meadows, and up the long rise that stretched away
to where, above the horizon, grew the towers of Tirlemont,
the allied cavalry sat motionless in double ranks, which
like some magical serpent continually lengthened as troop
after troop cantered up from the riverside, and wheeled into
the line. Behind them, the infantry, two deep, were


forming fast. All Noyelle's men were there. And Marl-
borough's were close at hand.

The first rank of the aUied horse was entirely British.
Their officers marked the sparkle of Roquelaure's breast-
plates in the south-west, and counted his squadrons as they
galloped up. The word was passed back to Wanghe that
the enemy's cuirassiers were at hand. Marlborough's
advance-guard had already reached the Geete, and
the news was immediately brought to the Duke. Press-
ing on to the head of the column, he passed the river
with his leading squadrons, and dashed forward to the

The enemy were forming rapidly. They had thirty-five
squadrons; but those of Bavaria, which numbered three-
fourths of the total, had been poorly recruited, and had
fallen in some cases to only sixty men. It was obvious to
Roquelaure that, unless he extended them in a single line,
his left would be outflanked. It would probably be out-
flanked in any event, for Marlborough's horse were pouring
fast across the Geete. His strongest chance was to impose
upon the allies, and to hold them till his infantry arrived.
The head of Caraman's column was already visible. Roque-
laure decided to play for time.

Though the countr}^ as a whole was open and undulating,
the ground which intervened between the hostile forces was
by no means favourable to cavalry, because it was traversed
by the hollow road running up from Elixem to Tirlemont.
This hollow road was a deep, steep-sided cutting; indeed, for
the first half-mile of its course, it was a veritable chasm.
Judging that with so serious an obstacle before them, his
guns would be secure against a sudden dash, Roquelaure
posted them between his squadrons and opened fire at very
close range upon the English horse. Marlborough, who
had quickly taken in the situation, determined to attack
at once. He immediately occupied the hollow road with
five battalions, whose first volley compelled the enemy to
recede. Then he ordered his cavalry to pass the precipitous
ravine. Protected by the fire of the foot, they executed
this difficult movement with a degree of success that bespoke
a high standard of horsemanship. On the extreme right,


where the passage was simpler, they were no sooner over
than the Scots Greys were seen to be outflanking the enemy.
The trumpets sounded, and in close array the long line of
British men and British horses swung in upon the foe.
Roquelaure's cavalry, it would seem, did not spring forward
to meet shock with shock; or if they moved at all, they
moved too late. All who waited for the impact went down
before it. But the great majority fled without striking
a blow. The Duke himself rode in the charge. He instantly
rallied his men, re-formed them, and, supported by his
second line and by the infantry, again advanced.

Galloping headlong over another hollow road, much
shallower than the first, the mob of fugitives drew rein
before Caraman's two brigades of foot, which had already
deployed across the plain, resting their right upon the river
at the village of Esemael. Marlborough came on at a
smart pace, and overtaking the guns and ammunition
waggons, which had narrowly escaped in the first charge,
captured them all. They had not fired more than thirty
rounds, and had scarcely justified that pathetic confidence
which the French soldier is too apt to repose in mechanical
inventions. But now the English on the left began to
suffer from the fire of some of Caraman's infantry who had
occupied the hedges of Esemael. Marlborough halted,
ordered his squadrons to take ground to the right, and
brought up six battalions to clear the village. This
manceuvre, while it threatened to deprive the right of the
enemy's cavalry of the support which they had obtained
from the troops in Esemael, tended still more to outflank
their left. Nevertheless, reinforced by five squadrons, and
encouraged by their officers as well as by the proximity of
Caraman's two brigades, they seem to have attempted a
charge. But the British line, which was already once more
in motion, struck them with a weight and an impetuosity
superior to their own. In the brief struggle that ensued,
a squadron which Marlborough himself was leading gave
back a little. A Bavarian officer dashed forward to cut
him down, but overbalancing in the very act, tumbled from
his saddle, and was secured by the Duke's trumpeter. " I
asked my Lord if it was so," says Orkney; "he said it


was absolutely so. See what a happy man he is."^ The
British drove their opponents through the intervals of
Caraman's foot, and again rallied. Caraman's own position
was now becoming critical. No other infantry had yet
joined him. From the cavalry he could expect nothing.
The handful of Spaniards had done their duty, and two
French squadrons are said to have behaved well. But the
great mass of Bavarian horsemen displayed conspicuous
cowardice. Caraman's left was therefore wholly in the air.
He very properly decided to retire.

Ordering his two brigades to form into a hollow square,
he summoned the defenders of Esemael, which seemed to
be threatened with the fate of Blindheim, to rejoin at once.
They obeyed, but they were severely punished in the
process. Then Caraman commenced to retreat towards
Noduwez. His two brigades amounted to eleven battalions
in all; but they were confronted in an open plain by an equal
number of exultant horsemen. The circumstances were
highly discouraging. Before them they saw the lost
artillery, and behind them the wreckage of those brilliant
squadrons whose double disgrace they had just witnessed.
In this emergency Caraman kept his head. Contemporary
tacticians held that no cavalry on earth could get the better
of a hollow square which had sufficient discipline and nerve
to retain its formation. Inspired by the coolness of their
general, the Alsatians and Spaniards, who composed the
bulk of the two brigades, presented Marlborough with an
excellent opportunity of testing the correctness of this
opinion. Firing by platoons as they steadily drew off,
they held their pursuers at a respectful distance with rolling
volleys. The British, both officers and men, were eager
to charge home. Their blood was up. The passage of the
lines, the capture of the guns, and the two defeats which
they had inflicted on the enemy's horse, had given them
entire confidence in themselves and their commander.
They were precisely in that mood which has always begotten
the greatest exploits of cavalry. But Marlborough would
take no risks. He continued to follow the retreating enem3^

* English Historical Review. April. 1004: Letters of the first Lord Orkney
during Marlborough's Campaigns. Letter ii.: An Account of the Forcing
the French Lines.


but he kept his impatient squadrons well in hand, and
absolutely refused to bring on a close engagement. Though
he was subsequently censured in certain quarters for excess
of prudence, there can be Uttle doubt that he was right.
No general ever believed more firmly than he in the capa-
bilities of cavalry, and of British cavalry in particular.
But he knew, by the firm demeanour of Caraman's men,
that he might easily incur a sanguinary repulse, which
would only tarnish the laurels he had already won. Had
his own infantry been available, the position would have
been different. But weary with their long night's march,
the allied foot could not hope to overtake the rapidly
retreating square. The dominant consideration, however,
was the Duke's ignorance of the whereabouts of the rest
of the French army. The lines had been entered at 4 o'clock .
It was now past 7. Marlborough's view was obstructed
by rising ground. He did not, and he could not, know
what was passing " behind the hill." But he was amply
justified in assuming that, after the lapse of more than three
hours, Villeroi and the Elector must be rapidly approaching.
Overkirk, on the other hand, had not yet reached the
Geete. Having no desire to be involved in a battle against
superior numbers, Marlborough refused to sanction a charge
upon the square; and he ought rather to be commended
than criticised for his restraint.

In reaUty the danger was less than he supposed. Roque-
laure's message had only just arrived at Merdorp.
Snatching up all the cavalry at hand, Villeroi and the
Elector sent orders to the rest of the army to follow, and
set off at the gallop. Beyond Noduwez they overtook two
brigades of foot, which had started somewhat later than
Caraman's and from quarters more remote. Soon they
beheld the fields covered with a beaten rabble that had once
been forty squadrons. Behind these demoralised fugitives
they saw the great square, firing and retiring with a beautiful
precision which excited the enthusiastic admiration of
friend and foe alike. -^ They saw the fifty squadrons of

^ See Kane's Campaigns, p. 63. General Kane, who was an eyewitness,
observes: " This shows what resolution and keeping good order can do."
And in his manual of Discipline for a Regiment of Foot upon Action he cites
the exploit of Caraman as an example of the perfect use of the hollow
square (p. 123).


Marlborough, dogging and enveloping its line of march.
And in the far distance they saw an army in position,
stretching like a ribbon of blue and scarlet from the Little
Geete well-nigh to Tirlemont.

They did not hesitate. Not wishing to be beaten in
detail, they fell back on Noduwez, whence they directed an
immediate retreat of the whole army on Lou vain. This
movement was executed with such precipitation that it
resembled a flight. But speed was essential, if Brussels
and Antwerp were to be saved. " God forgive those,"
wrote the Elector, " who suffered themselves to be sur-
prised."^ Roquelaure was protected by the friendship of
Villeroi; but his military career was ruined. Caraman
received an unprecedented honour. The King created him
a Knight of St. Louis, although no vacancy existed in the

Marlborough remained in possession of the field. His
casualties did not exceed 200. According to Villeroi, the
French dead amounted to no more than 80; but according
to EngHsh accounts, their killed and wounded numbered
1,000. According to English accounts also, nearly 1,000
prisoners were captured, whereas Villeroi fixes the total at
200.^ But certain trophies, neither equivocal nor dis-
putable, remained in Marlborough's hands. The British
cavalry had taken no fewer than 79 officers of various
grades, including the Marquis d'Alcgre and the Comte de
Horn, both lieutenant-generals, i major-general, 2 brigadier-
generals, 4 colonels, and 5 lieutenant-colonels. They had
taken 10 pieces of cannon,^ 8 of them being triple-bored.
They had taken also " nine standards of blue satin, richly
embroidered with the Bavarian arms," and adorned with
vainglorious devices,"* besides a colour which had been

1 Lediard. vol. i., ch. x., p. 501 : The Elector to Baron de Malknecht.

2 See Millner's Journal, July 6, 1705. Maffei says that Villeroi lost in
killed, wounded, and prisoners, 1,000 {Mhnoires de Maffei, t. ii., p. 133).
— Coxe, vol. i., p. 295: Marlborough to Godolphin, July 7/18, 1705:
" The French made such haste to get over this river yesterday that I took
above 1,000 prisoners."

^ Maffei says seven. Lamberty, and Overkirk's report, say eighteen.
Possibly this figure includes artillery found in Tirlemont (Lamberty,
Mimoires pour servir d I'histoire du XVIII. sidcle, t. iii., p. 473).

* E.g., " Per ardua laurus," " Obstantia firmant," " Ex duris gloria,"
etc. Pelet, t. v., p. 586: Lettre de M. D'Overkirke aux fitats-Generaux,
14 juillet 1705.


wrested from Caraman's foot. Of these nine standards,
four were captured by a single regiment, Cadogan's (now
the 5th Dragoon Guards), which particularly distinguished
itself. The Scots Greys did not lose a man in either charge.
Yet their colonel took d'Alegre with his own hand. Ross's
regiment had broken the squadrons with which d'Alegre
was riding, and had killed his charger. Several pistols
were fired at him as he lay on the ground, and a dozen
dragoons were "using him very ruffly,"^ when the Greys
came in upon the flank, and Lord John Hay promptly
rescued the Marquis from his tormentors.

This action, which has been somewhat inadequately
termed " a skirmish," formed a brilliant sequel to the passage
of the lines. For several reasons it is deserving of close
attention. While it exhibits Marlborough in the character
of an accomplished cavalry tactician, it also illustrates the
precise stage of efficiency to which he had developed his
favourite arm. Although there is no exphcit evidence that
the British dehvered their two charges at the utmost speed
of their horses, the almost instantaneous collapse of the
mail-clad enemy could hardly have been produced without
a high degree of cohesion and of pace. Another essential
of a good cavalry, the faculty of rapid rallying, these
squadrons obviously possessed. That fact, as well as the
ease with which they crossed the hollow road, maintaining
their formation under the fire of the cannon, would seem
to presuppose in them an admirable discipline as well as
a perfect mastery of their mounts. Of their spirit there
was never any question. Eugene had correctly gauged it
at Gross Heppach, On the plain of Tirlemont, as a century
later on the plain of Waterloo, these historic regiments
cared nothing for the advantage which the possession of
armour conferred upon their foes. The behaviour of their
antagonists is also worthy of remark. It is true that
Marlborough, as usual, had secured for his men the moral
superiority which attaches to surprise. It is also true that
his chargers were fresher than Roquelaure's, which had
galloped a distance of from three to five miles. But these
circumstances alone do not explain misconduct. The real

^ English Historical Review, April, 1904.


cause lay deeper. Most of the enemy's cavalry, and all the
most pusillanimous, belonged to the Elector. They had
fought bravely at Blenheim; but at Blenheim they had not
been confronted by the scarlet coats. Now, for the first
time since the battle of the Schellenberg, Bavarians and
English met. That the Bavarians were not only beaten,
but disgraced, is a signal proof of the value of prestige in
war. Conspicuous in the British ranks were those tall
dragoons on the grey horses, of whom every survivor of
d'Arco's army had had something to tell. Marlborough was
reaping now one of the fruits of that victory which the
wiseacres had most fatuously disparaged. He was also
preparing for a greater triumph. The Dutch troopers had
done so well at Blenheim that they had already lost that
old sense of inferiority, which dated from the days of Leuze
and of Fleurus. By this example of their British comrades
their growing confidence was strengthened and confirmed.
In the next campaign they furnished convincing proofs of
their regeneration.

The French affected to regard the loss of the lines, which
they had been at such pains to construct and to maintain,
as a trivial episode of no strategical importance whatsoever.
But they deceived nobody, not even themselves. It is true
that that excellent critic, Feuquieres, utterly ridicules and
condemns the use of fortifications of this description, and
emphasises the fact that Conde, Turenne, and Luxembourg

Online LibraryFrank TaylorThe wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) → online text (page 28 of 44)