Dettingen, Bavaria, 27 June 1743 Part II


King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743. Artist John Wootton (1682–1764).

King George II at the battle of Dettingen

The decisive charge came when the king led his own foot regiments forward and shattered the French front line. George II died on 25th October, 1760, having seen British power increased in Europe, America, Africa and India.

George got the army in motion by daybreak the following morning, leading with his own cavalry, followed by that of the Austrians, and then the British and the Austrian infantry, with his best troops – the Guards and Hanoverians – as rearguard, followed by the artillery and baggage. By seven o’clock the advance guard had reached Klein Ostheim, 4 miles west of Aschaffenburg and halfway to Dettingen. Beyond the village the cavalry halted to let the infantry catch up, but the French batteries south of the Main opened a raking fire from which there was little shelter. Sam Davies, a major’s servant in the 3rd Dragoons, recounts in a letter to a tapster friend at the White Hart in Colchester how he was sent to the rear with the other servants and led horses:

We stayed there till the balls came flying all round us. We see first a horse with baggage fall close to us. Then seven horses fell apace, then I began to stare about me, the balls came whistling about my ears. Then I saw the Oysterenns [Austrians] dip and look about them for they dodge the balls as a cock does a stick, they are so used to them. Then we servants began to get off into a wood for safety, which was about four hundred yards from where we stood. When we got into the wood we placed ourselves against the largest trees, just as I had placed myself, a 12-pounder came, puts a large bough of the tree upon my head, the ball came within two yards of me, indeed it was the size of one of your light puddings, but a great deal heavier.

By now the souricière was discovered, and the earl of Stair, stung by George’s assumption of command and dismayed by his tactical ineptitude, decided that, in his words, ‘it was time to meddle’. He began deploying the army in three lines: the front line with British and Austrian troops, the support line British and Hanoverian, and the Guards in the reserve line on higher ground to the rear. But it took all of three hours – as long as it had taken the Royalist infantry to form up at Edgehill. Marlborough’s regiments would probably have managed it in a quarter of the time.

At midday Marshal Gramont, thinking the allied main body must have eluded him and that he was facing instead the rearguard, advanced across the Beck stream and likewise drew up in two lines and a reserve. George, brave as ever, if lacking an eye for the tactical situation, began urging his men forward, waving his sword and shouting encouragement in his thick German accent, doubtless to mystifying effect all round. With the enfilading fire of the French artillery south of the river, and no proper order, the advance was uneven. And then when the infantry opened fire on the Maison du Roi (the French Household brigade) it was dangerously premature, ragged and wholly ineffectual – except, it seems, for the effect on some of the allies’ horses: George’s in particular, which suddenly took hold of its bit and bolted rearwards, its rider only managing to pull up in a grove of oak trees where a company of the 22nd Foot (later the Cheshire Regiment) was sheltering. Evidently the unexpected royal visit went well, for regimental legend has it that George rewarded them for their warm reception with a sprig of oak leaves, which in time became their cap badge.

The infantry of the Maison du Roi now advanced, Marshal Gramont believing he had the advantage. By this time, however, the allied regimental officers had got their battalions in hand, and the front line was soon volleying by platoons in the old Marlburian drill. The Garde Française staggered to a halt, and then hastily withdrew behind the cavalry of the Maison, who in turn charged the allied left. However, they had the misfortune of falling on the 23rd Foot (later the Royal Welch Fusiliers), one of the regiments kept in being after Utrecht, and better drilled than most. The cavalry of the Maison du Roi were seen off rudely by a volley and a hedge of bayonets.

Our men were eager to come into action,’ one of the 23rd’s officers wrote afterwards:

We attacked the Regiment of Navarre, one of their prime regiments. Our people imitated their predecessors in the last war gloriously [an early example of consciousness of regimental heritage], marching in close order, as firm as a wall, and did not fire until we came within sixty paces, and still kept advancing; for, when the smoak blew off a little, instead of being amongst their living we found the dead in heaps by us.

During the following charge of the 3rd (King’s Own) Dragoons against a great mass of French horse, the duke of Cumberland was severely wounded in the leg. Some said that his mount, like his father’s, bolted, though towards the French not away, but this seems unfair: few riders in a cavalry charge, then as later, would have been wholly in control. A typical charge would start calmly enough at the walk, the riders knee-to-knee. The trumpeter would sound ‘Trot’ once the line had cleared its own side’s guns and pickets, and then ‘Gallop’, when the line would buckle and bow as riders struggled to keep the ‘dressing’. Finally the commanding officer would point his sword and cry ‘Charge!’, from which point all semblance of control would be lost for the final 50 yards, the noise of pounding hooves so great as to drown all shouted commands, trumpet calls and even the sound of firing.

While the cavalry were battling on the flanks, a hard infantry fighting match had developed along the whole length of the line. Here and there the sudden shout ‘Cavalry!’ would throw up a tight square of bayonets until the danger was past and the volleying could resume. Riderless horses on both sides barged through the ranks to add to the picture of chaos. And all the while the French guns south of the Main kept up their raking fire, answered hardly at all by the allied artillery, who found it extraordinarily difficult to come into action in the growing confusion of ‘the mousetrap’, and even harder to get up close to the infantry.

It had been thirty years and more since the British had fought in formed lines against regular troops, and if the general officers were rusty the infantry, as at the desperate fight at Steenkirk, were relearning what the bayonet and resolution could do. But although it was the cavalry that kept the French horse busy, and the bayonet that almost literally steeled the infantry’s resolve, the day was won by dogged volleying, which grew steadier with the practice. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, commanding the 1st Foot Guards,

excepting three or four of our generals, the rest of ’em were of little service … our men and their regimental officers gained the day; not in the manner of Hide Park discipline, but our Foot almost kneeled down by whole ranks, and fired upon ’em a constant running fire, making almost every ball take place; but for ten or twelve minutes ’twas doubtful which would succeed, as they overpowered [outnumbered] us so much, and the bravery of their maison du roy coming upon us eight or nine ranks deep.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, seeing they could make no progress, the French began to quit the field, leaving behind 5,000 dead and wounded. Pressed by the allied cavalry, their retreat soon turned into flight, and many mousquetaires drowned in the press to get back across the bridge of boats west of Dettingen, especially among the Garde Française, who had attacked first and taken the most casualties, but who by all accounts tried to cross the bridge with indecent haste. It is ever the fate of Guards regiments to incur the scorn of those more workaday regiments of the line if they appear not to live up to their advance billing: so many of the Garde fell into the river that the line dubbed them ‘Les Canards du Main’.

But the allies, who had been under arms since the early hours and were exhausted by the best part of a day’s fighting, failed to follow up and turn defeat into rout. Besides, though Edgehill was a century behind them, the fear of loosing the cavalry and regretting it was still strong. And the French in their Gallic obstinacy might even now turn on them with renewed vigour, for their artillery was still in place and protected by the waters of the Main. Only the most seasoned battlefield commander could have judged it aright – a Marlborough, or later a Wellington. Indeed, at the culmination of Waterloo the ‘Iron Duke’ would throw all caution to the wind and urge the line forward: ‘Go on, go on! They won’t stand!’ But King George, for all his bravery, was no such judge. He flatly refused to pursue at all, even in the days that followed. And so, while the allied army restocked its canteens and cartridge cases at Hanau, Noailles limped back to France unmolested.

Dettingen, though a worthy feat of arms, was ultimately therefore of no strategic significance. It blooded a good many green men and subalterns, however, and reminded the field officers – if they had ever forgotten it – that in a bruising fight they could prevail by superior musketry. It showed George and his general officers that their military system was lacking; and it would be the last time a British monarch commanded in the field. But Dettingen, for all its insignificance in the strategy of the War of the Austrian Succession, was seen increasingly as a model of British fighting spirit, above all in the infantry. When at the end of the battle the King playfully chided the commanding officer of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, for letting French cavalry break into his regiment’s square, Agnew replied drily: ‘An it please Your Majesty, but they didna’ gang oot again!’

‘Dettingen’ is a name habitually given to recruit platoons in the Army still; and for as long as anyone can remember there has been a Dettingen Company at Sandhurst, so prized is the occasion as an example to officers. And the battle was something of a watershed in the making of the army, for it had been a close-run thing – perhaps only a matter of ten or twelve minutes, as Colonel Russell of the Foot Guards had reckoned: it would not do in future to pit too many scratch troops against veteran Frenchmen, even Frenchmen without the élan of Marlborough’s day. In London the battle was celebrated as a famous victory, Handel promptly writing a Te Deum to mark it. But the red-coated regiments had been lucky: the French had not been on form. How long would it be before they regained it?

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