Most regiments of the British Army are able to trace their history in an unbroken line to the date of their creation. Not so the British cavalry regiment which is the subject of this book, because today it has been largely forgotten. The 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers came into being in 1858, yet curiously in precedence it ranked behind the 17th Lancers. This is because in 1798 this regiment—known at the time as the 5th (or Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoons—was disbanded in disgrace following false accusations that Irish rebels had infiltrated its ranks. As a result of this most overviews of the regiment’s history consider it to be a lancer regiment from the mid-19th century. In fact the regiment was formed in 1689 as James Wynn’s Regiment of Dragoons, and had an illustrious career in that role long before lances were introduced into the British Army. It fought at the Battle of the Boyne and at Aughrim during the Irish Campaign, and became the Royal Dragoons of Ireland serving during the War of Spanish Succession and winning battle honours at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. The Leonaur editors believe this is the first time that this regiment has been the subject of a book in its own right and that the time has come to give it the credit it is due. The text has been principally taken from Willcox’s more expansive work, and the book includes additional maps and illustrations which were not included in the original text. This is an essential book for those interested in Irish regiments or the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough.
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At 9 o’clock on the night of July the 17th, the two columns moved off in the strictest silence. Noyelles marched towards the castle of Wanghe before Elixheim, while Scholten marched on the village of Neerhespen. The instructions given to both commanders were to seize the barriers in the openings in the French Lines opposite the points they were marching on, and with as little noise as possible to overpower the guards defending them. If the columns should not succeed in surprising the enemy, and should find the French prepared for them, they were to advance in full force without waiting for orders, and attack with all the vigour they could. Marlborough with the main army marched an hour after the two leading detachments in support of them. The distance to be covered was about ten miles.
It was an extremely dark night, and Noyelles’ guides missed their way, which resulted in a delay of two hours or more, so that his column did not arrive near Wanghe until between three and four o’clock in the morning. He, however, immediately ordered a captain with sixty grenadiers, supported by a colonel with all the other grenadiers of the twelve battalions, to cross the River Geete and capture the barrier. As the grenadiers approached the castle, the garrison of thirty men abandoned it and retreated within the lines. The grenadiers gained the castle and at once pushed on over the river to the barrier at the opening in the lines; but this the enemy also abandoned on the approach of the grenadiers. The infantry, following, forded the river and scrambled over the ramparts into the French lines with such determination and celerity, that three regiments of French dragoons, camped near by, had not time to oppose them, but hastily retired to Leau. Meanwhile, the opening in the lines having been enlarged, bridges were quickly thrown over the Geete, and the cavalry, who had apparently found the banks of the river too steep for fording, crossed with all haste.
Marlborough arrived on the scene during the passage of the cavalry. But meanwhile, the alarm had been given, and the enemy got together a force of forty or fifty squadrons and eight guns, which they drew up in two lines; and some twenty battalions of infantry were coming up quickly to support their horsemen.
Marlborough took in the whole situation at a glance, and having got over nearly the whole of the cavalry of both columns, he formed them in two lines, and with the British cavalry leading in the first line, amongst them being the Irish Dragoons, he led them personally against the enemy, sword in hand. The French fired a feeble volley from their saddles and broke in confusion. But soon after they managed to rally, and rode a counter attack against the flank of the British squadrons and broke them in their turn. Marlborough, who was riding on a flank, was cut off with his trumpeter. A Frenchman, apparently famed for neither good horsemanship nor swordmanship, galloped furiously at the duke, and, striking a blow at his head, missed his mark, lost his balance, and was captured by the duke’s trumpeter. The fighting for a little while was fast and furious, but the allied squadrons rallied, and once more charging the French, rode them down and broke them past all reforming, also overthrowing part of the infantry who were coming up in support, and capturing the guns.
Marlborough at once sent on a detachment of dragoons, the Irish Dragoons being amongst them, to pursue the enemy: and they had the good fortune to overtake and capture a good part of their baggage.
Marlborough with the allied army now followed the enemy in his retreat.
The lines were of a most formidable description, and Marlborough’s capture of them was due firstly to his drawing the main body of the French towards the Mehaigne, whither for that purpose he had sent d’Auverquerque with his army, while with the remainder of the Allies he suddenly, and at night, fell upon the two most unguarded posts; and secondly to the bravery of his cavalry.
The French losses were some two thousand men, amongst the prisoners being two lieutenant-generals, two major-generals, and the entire regiment of Monlve. The Allies also captured eighteen pieces of cannon,—eight of which were triple-barrelled, and were sent to England to be copied.