The Devil Must have Carried Them: Oudenarde Part II

The Duke of Marlborough owed his success in part to his superb staff who saw to all aspects associated with conducting long marches. Marlborough’s forced march to Oudenarde left the French generals stunned.

Marlborough and Eugène had ridden forward from Cadogan’s crossing site to what seemed the point of main danger, between Groenewald and the Ghent road, early in the afternoon. Now Marlborough sensed that the balance of the battle had changed. At about six o’clock he placed Eugène in command of the whole of his right flank, and galloped across to the centre of Lottum’s line, where eighteen Hanoverian and Hessian battalions, forming a second line there, at last gave him an uncommitted reserve. He did not want to commit Overkirk and Tilly, with their twenty-four battalions and twelve squadrons, to a defensive battle on his right or centre if he could avoid it. Marlborough had early on posted Lumley’s cavalry to cover his left flank, and Lumley reported that the Boser Couter was still unoccupied by the French. Marlborough accordingly ordered Overkirk and Tilly to make for the Boser Couter in the hope of turning the French right.

Eugène, meanwhile, was under frightful pressure – the French at last carried both Herlegem and Groenewald at about 6.15 – but, typically, did not ask for help. Marlborough, however, sensed that his right was close to collapse, and so ordered Lottum to fall back through the fresh Hanoverian and Hessian battalions and march to Eugène’s assistance. Overkirk and Tilly had now made good progress towards Oycke, and Marlborough ordered them ‘to press the French as much as they could on that side’.

In the hour that followed Marlborough, who had begun the battle looking worn-out after a dreadful week, rose to the very height of his powers. He was now shuffling brigades as a seasoned gambler riffles through a pack of cards, his gallopers and runners forming the central nervous system of an army which responded quickly to his touch. Eugène thought that the Allies now attained this battle-winning tempo, just as the French failed to, because of the personalities of their commanders. He and Marlborough ‘loved and esteemed one another. Even the Dutch marshal Overkirk, remarkable for his age and services, my old friend and Marlborough’s, obeyed us, and fought to admiration.’ Grumbkow told his royal master that Marlborough had certainly shaken off his gloom.

My Lord Duke shone in this battle, giving his orders with the greatest sangfroid, and exposing his person to danger like the commonest soldier. Prince Eugène showed much spirit under the heaviest fire, and was with the Prussians, whom he had specially sought out.

It was Overkirk’s last battle, for he was mortally ill, and commanded from his coach. Marlborough had diverted Overkirk’s two leading infantry brigades as they marched up, and they nudged into the right flank of the French infantry fighting on the Diepenbeek, turning the battle there. Lottum’s men reached Eugène in the very nick of time (‘without [them] I should scarcely have been able to keep my ground’, confessed the prince), and Herlegem and Groenewald were regained, though the battle continued to be desperate on Eugène’s flank.

D’Artaignan reckoned that the firepower of the Allied infantry gave it a decided advantage in the battle of the hedgerows. He thought there had never been a firefight like it, and wrote grimly of ‘the terrible fire that the enemy made whenever we appeared’. Even Eugène thought the fighting exceptionally heavy: ‘It was one sheet of flame.’ With the Dutch and Danish horse in the field Marlborough saw that there was now no need to keep Lumley’s troopers on the left, and so he was ordered round to the right, his squadrons trotting behind the battle line to take station behind Natzmer, facing due north against the uncommitted masses of the French left wing.

Lumley’s timely arrival enabled Eugène to take some of the pressure off his sorely-tried infantry by ordering Natzmer’s Prussian cavalry, intact and drawn up in very good order, to move through a gap made by shifting two battalions, and charge. Natzmer broke the leading French squadrons, crashed into two infantry battalions and broke them too, but then, weary and over-extended, was counterattacked by the Maison du Roi. Natzmer himself, cut about the head, jumped a wide ditch to safety, and his survivors rallied behind Eugène’s infantry. The presence of Lumley’s squadrons deterred the French from exploiting the Prussian repulse. The Allied account paid special tribute to ‘the Prussian Gens d’Armes, [who] distinguished themselves very much, and lost nearly half their numbers in this action’.

By now, though, Overkirk was making his presence felt. He had moved up the road, through Bevere and onto the Boser Couter, in column, and when he reached Oycke he swung eastwards and shook out into line, heading for Royegem. Amongst Overkirk’s subordinates was the young Prince of Orange and Nassau-Dietz, seeing his first battle at the age of nineteen, but leading the attack with the courage that had always been the hallmark of his house. There was little enough the French, preoccupied with the battle to their front, could now do to stop him. D’Artaignan reported ‘our infantry much in disorder … without ammunition against an enemy who had plenty of it’. The Maison du Roi closed right up behind his foot soldiers ‘with a courage and firmness worthy of them’, but the infantry itself was played out. As the Dutch began to push eastwards the Maison du Roi, again trying to take the weight of the infantry at the close of this awful day, attempted to charge them. Goslinga had earlier galloped across to the Dutch with orders. As the Maison du Roi formed up he could see what was coming, and dismounted to fall in with Sturler’s Swiss regiment: ‘after a little compliment I made them of wishing to fight with such brave fellows … Our Swiss were resolved to wait for them with fixed bayonets and not to fire until they were at point-blank range, keeping such a profound silence that I was astonished.’ When the volley rolled out, the Maison du Roi was stopped in its tracks: Goslinga saw a drum-horse shot down and the kettledrums it bore, scarcely less of a trophy than cavalry standards or infantry colours, taken. The Swiss then advanced against the French infantry, but now it would not stand.

They made only one general discharge ten paces from us, killing four or five soldiers, and made off like worthless creatures. These fell on the others on the right, who we had just cut off from the remainder of their army, and became the prey of our cavalry almost without firing a shot … Whole regiments gave up to our men: Béarn, Ruphié and others were of this number.

The Allied account tells how the collapse of the French right wing now fatally unbalanced the centre, already exhausted by the battle amongst the hedges north of the Diepenbeek. The French,

beaten from right to left, were forced back again into the enclosures in great disorder, so that at last, when it was growing dark, many battalions, and more squadrons, flung themselves out in a desperate manner, some of them piercing through others, were cut to pieces, some were forced back, some passed through unperceived, and others asked to capitulate for their whole regiments.

As it grew dark Marlborough ordered his men to cease fire: it was better to let some of the enemy escape than lose soldiers to ‘friendly’ musketry. Major Blackader, whose regiment had not reached the field till 5 p.m., thought that the advent of darkness ‘saved them [the French], in all probability, from as great a defeat as ever they got’. He might have been surprised to hear that Vendôme agreed with him: ‘Had it not been for the onset of the night, which enabled us to retire, our troops would have been encircled.’ The wily Eugène was determined not to lose any opportunity to capture more Frenchmen:

I sent out drummers in different directions, with orders to beat the retreat after the French manner, and posted my French refugee officers, with directions to shout on all sides – Here Picardy! Here Champagne! Here Piedmont! The French soldiers flocked in, and I made a good harvest of them: we took in all about seven thousand.

In total, Burgundy and Vendôme lost about 5,000 men killed and wounded in the battle and 9,000 unwounded prisoners, including nearly eight hundred officers, with over a hundred standards and colours and ten pairs of kettledrums. Marlborough, in contrast, lost just under 3,000 killed and wounded. As was usual with the battles of the age, the sheer number of wounded imposed a burden that the medical services could not bear. The Allied army spent the night in the field, ‘where the bed of honour was both hard and cold’, recalled Blackader, ‘but we passed the night as well as the groans of dying men would allow us, being thankful for our own preservation’. ‘The battle being over and the field our own,’ wrote Private Deane,

the next morning … our two battalions [of 1st Foot Guards] by the Duke’s order marched back again to Oudenarde, marching over the same ground where the hottest of the action happened; which was a heart piercing sight for to see. The dead lie in every hole and corner, [and] to hear the cries of the maimed was saddening yet nothing to what was to be expected considering the heat of the service and what vast quantities of ammunition was spent by the enemy in their fierce and continual firing and the extraordinary advantage they had in the ground, that it was as well that we came off as well as we did.

Matthew Bishop, an ex-sailor who had joined Webb’s Regiment not long before, had found the victory extraordinary, ‘as they had the advantage of the ground, and likewise were superior in numbers, which are two great articles’. However, even the ever-sanguine Bishop thought that ‘we were not in a capacity to follow them, but continued there in order to bury our dead on the morrow’.

There had been an ill-tempered interview between Burgundy and a grubby and furious Vendôme on the Ghent road at about ten o’clock on the night of the battle. Vendôme first accused Burgundy of doing nothing to help, and then suggested that the intact left wing of the army should hold its ground around Huysse and give battle the following day. Burgundy replied that it was too scattered and was now short of ammunition, which, given the intensity of the battle on the Diepenbeek, may indeed have been true. Pausing only for a last insult, Vendôme rode off through the drizzle to Ghent, where he gave vent to his feelings by easing his belly in the road outside his quarters, coarse behaviour even for the age. Matignon was left to bring the army off as well as he could, and was well served by some of his subordinates: Lieutenant General St-Hilaire, commanding the artillery (much of it stuck up near Gavre all day), got most of his guns away, and the marquis de Nangis found the cavalry of the left wing calmly awaiting orders that never came and led it off to safety. However, some of the survivors of Oudenarde, making for the nearest French garrison, were pursued by peasantry who had now come to look upon all soldiers as enemies. Others simply deserted.

Marlborough spent the night on the field with his soldiers, and rode into a rainy Oudenarde the following morning, politely doffing his hat to acknowledge the salutes of shoals of captured French officers, who pressed in to see the great man. He immediately wrote to Sarah and Godolphin. ‘I have neither spirits nor time to answer your last three letters,’ he told Sarah,

this being to bring the good news of a battle we had yesterday; in which it pleased God to give us at last the advantage. Our foot on both sides having been all engaged has occasioned much blood … I do, and you must, give thanks to God for his goodness in protecting and making me the instrument of so much happiness to the Queen and the nation, if she will please to make use of it. Farewell my dear soul.

Godolphin’s letter was entrusted to Lord Stair, whose personal knowledge would amplify its single paragraph. Stair, a Scots nobleman, craved a British peerage, and Marlborough hoped (unavailingly, as it happened) that the queen ‘might be pleased to distinguish him at this time’. Marlborough said that he had risked battle because he needed a victory, and ‘nothing else could make the Queen’s business go on well’, although he knew that ‘If I had miscarried I should have been blamed.’ His head ached so badly that he could add no more, and even on the sixteenth complained, ‘My head is so very hot that I am obliged to leave off writing.’

At four o’clock on the afternoon of 12 July there was a council of war in the citadel, attended by Marlborough, Eugène, Overkirk, Goslinga and his colleague Gueldermalsen, with the two quartermaster generals, Dopff and Cadogan. Captured standards, colours and kettledrums were brought in as they were talking, and Goslinga remembered ‘that good man M. Overkirk, almost moribund, was sitting down fully dressed, in a big armchair at the end of a room surrounded with all these glorious trophies’.86 The generals were for pressing in against the main fortress line on the French frontier, but Goslinga, with the support of Gueldermalsen, favoured blockading the French army in Bruges and Ghent. It was pointed out to him that such long lines of investment would be vulnerable, and that in an area containing so many civilians, French soldiers would be the last to starve. Eugène was decidedly blunt. ‘I proposed the siege of Lille,’ he wrote. ‘The deputies of the Estates-General thought fit to be of a different opinion. Marlborough was with me, and they were obliged to hold their tongues.’ In his memoirs, however, Goslinga attributed being voted down to the fact that Marlborough ‘did not wish to see an end to the war, in which his two favourite passions, ambition and avarice, were satisfied and nourished’.

It is, however, clear from Marlborough’s letter to Sarah that he saw Oudenarde as a victory which might help obtain a negotiated peace. He gave special parole to the captured Lieutenant General Biron, specifying that he was to return to France without first visiting the French army, hoping that Louis would be told just how much damage had been done to it before evasive reports arrived. Marlborough gave Biron dinner at Oudenarde before he left, and asked for news of ‘the Prince of Wales’, James II’s son, known to the French as the chevalier de St George, who had been with Burgundy during the battle. The company seemed delighted to hear of the young man’s character and behaviour, proof, suggests Winston S. Churchill, ‘of the latent streak of sentimental Jacobitism that Marlborough and the English army cherished and, oddly enough, felt able to indulge more particularly in their hours of triumph over French supporters of the Jacobite cause’.89 Biron told Saint-Simon that:

He was struck by an almost royal magnificence at Prince Eugène’s quarters and a shameful parsimony at those of the Duke of Marlborough, who ate the more often at the tables of others; a perfect agreement between the two captains for the conduct of affairs, of which the details fell much more on Eugène; the profound respect of all the generals for the two chiefs, but a tacit preference on the whole for Prince Eugène, without the Duke of Marlborough being at all jealous.

The day after the battle Eugène ‘was sure that Marlborough would make no arrangements but what were excellent’, and went off to see his mother in Brussels. ‘She was glad to see the King humbled who had left her for another woman in her youth, and exiled her in her old age,’ wrote Eugène, who had certainly played his own implacable part in the humbling.