When John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, rode among his ‘men’ in the campaigns that immortalised him as one of Britain’s most accomplished military commanders, particularly in the War of Spanish Succession, little could he have imagined that one of the dragoons riding close to his stirrup was, in fact, not a man but a woman. The wild Irish girl born as Christian Cavanagh operated under several aliases including Welch, Welsh, Jones and Davies until she became known by her most familiar name ‘Mother Ross.’ No ‘shrinking violet,’ she would launch herself into a bar brawl, duel or pitched battle on the field of conflict with equal ferocity. Daniel Defoe, the author of Gulliver’s Travels became her chronicler and that has, perhaps, helped make her the most famous British woman soldier. After the disappearance of her husband this remarkable woman pursued him into the army. She first volunteered as an infantryman under the name of Christopher Welsh and in 1693 fought at the Battle of Laden during the Nine Years War, where she was wounded, captured and exchanged without anyone discovering her gender. Discharged from the army she re-joined as a trooper of the 4th Dragoons—later called the Scots Greys, the 2nd North British Dragoons—serving with them from 1701 to 1706 when she was discovered. Repeatedly in action—and wounded—she fought at Schellenberg, Blenheim, Ramilles and other battles. She eventually found her husband after 12 years serving in the 1st Regiment of Foot and that encounter is a story in itself! Army life suited Mother Ross and she became a sutler, but her adventures by no means ended there! Hers was an incredible life full of action and incident enthrallingly recounted by a master storyteller. Her words have left us vital insights into life in the ranks of Marlborough’s army on campaign. Essential.
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The success attending the arms of the French and the Elector of Bavaria in Germany, alarming England and Holland, they resolved to seek them, even in the heart of Germany. To this end, their forces, about the end of April, 1704, were assembled upon the Maes, between Venlo and Maestricht, where we were joined, in the beginning of May, by the Duke of Marlborough and Field-Marshal Auverquerque. After a council of war had been held, the army was divided into two corps, one of which, strong enough to make head against the French in the Low Countries, was left under the command of Monsieur Auverquerque, and the other, commanded by the Duke of Marlborough, passing the Rhine, the Main, and the Nekre, by long and tiresome marches, which greatly harassed our foot, made for the Danube. I cannot help taking notice in this place, though it breaks in upon my narrative, of the Duke of Marlborough’s great humanity, who seeing some of our foot drop, through the fatigue of the march, took them into his own coach.<br>
The French, following the example of the allies, drew twenty thousand men out of the Low Countries, who began their march the 18th of May, and passed by Luxemburg to re-enforce the Elector of Bavaria in Germany, under the command of Villeroy. But, before he came to the end of his march, the Duke of Marlborough had joined the Prince of Baden at Lutshausen, which obliged the elector to withdraw to Dilling, a very advantageous post, and strongly fortified, leaving eighteen of his regiments, and eight squadrons, with the Count of Arco, who posted himself on the hill of Schellenberg by Donawert, in intrenchments in a manner inaccessible, that he might cover Bavaria. The resolution was, notwithstanding, taken to attack him, and to open a passage, by forcing his post, to the very heart of the electorate.<br>
We decamped the 2nd of July from Onderingen, and advanced to Ubermargen, within a league of Donawert; but our vanguard did not come in sight of the enemy’s intrenchments till the afternoon: however, not to give the Bavarians time to make themselves yet stronger, the duke ordered the Dutch general, Goor, who commanded the right wing, composed of English and Dutch, with some auxiliary troops, to attack, as soon possible: thus we did not stay for the coming up of the imperialists. We began about six o’clock, and were twice repulsed, with very great loss; but this did not abate anything of our courage; our men, rather animated by this resistance, gave a third assault, at the time the Prince of Baden arrived with the German troops of the right wing, who attacked on his side.
The slaughter, which was very great, had lasted above an hour, when the Duke of Wirtemberg had the good fortune, with seven squadrons, to enter the enemy’s trenches, by the covered way of Donawert, and fell upon their rear. The Bavarians were now soon routed, and a cruel slaughter made of them, and the bridge over the Danube breaking down, a great number were drowned, or taken prisoners. In the second attack, I received a ball in my hip, which is so lodged between the bones that it can never be extracted; to this day the wound is open, and has almost deprived me of the use of my leg and thigh.<br>
Captain Young, who, poor gentleman, was soon after killed, desired me to get off; but, upon my refusal, he ordered two of my comrades to take me up, and they set me at the foot of a tree, where I endeavoured to animate my brother soldiers, till I had the pleasure of seeing them get into the trenches and beat down their enemies; though it was a dear-bought victory, as they disputed every inch of ground, and showed an uncommon bravery. We lost, of my acquaintance, Captain Young, Captain Douglass, and Lieutenant Maltary, besides a number of private men.<br>
I was carried to the hospital near Schellenberg, and put under the care of three surgeons, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Laurence, and Mr. Sea, and narrowly escaped being discovered. Here, while I was under cure, I received my share of what plunder was made, which the duke’s justice ordered to be impartially distributed among his brave fellow-soldiers. Beside the arms the fugitives threw away, the allies took sixteen pieces of cannon, thirteen standards and colours, all the tents, the baggage and plate of the Count of Arco. This general, when he found his intrenchments entered by the allies, withdrew to Donawert; but the inhabitants not opening the gates soon enough, he was forced to throw himself into the Danube, and had the good fortune to get safe to Augsburg. When the gates of Donawert were set open, those who kept the intrenchments on the side of the town, crowded into it, and at first made a show of defending it; but that evening, having received orders from the elector to burn the town and provisions, to blow up the ammunition, break down the bridges, and retreat to Augsburg, they clapped straw into the houses, to which they began to set fire; but had not time to perfect their design, for fear of their retreat being cut off, the allies being got into the suburbs, and laying bridges over the river, which compelled them to withdraw at four o’clock in the morning, and gave the burghers an opportunity to save the town.<br>
The allies entered it, and therein found three pieces of cannon, twelve pontons of copper, twenty thousand weight of powder, three thousand sacks of flour, quantities of oats, and other provisions. These were the fruits of our victory, which, however, we purchased by the loss of three thousand brave fellows killed and wounded, and, among several other general officers of distinction, General Goor received a musket-ball in his eye, and instantly expired in the arms of Monsieur Mortaigne, who ran to his assistance. The Duke of Luneburg Bevern was mortally wounded, and died before the fight was over.<br>
The allies having garrisoned Donawert, made themselves masters of Rain, by composition, and carried the little town of Aicha sword in hand, where they put five hundred of the garrison to death, and took the rest prisoners. They had now nothing to prevent their piercing to the centre of Bavaria, where they were so greatly alarmed, that the inhabitants of Lechausen, Strottlingen, and Friedbergen, hearing of the defeat at Schellenberg, quitted their houses, and even the Electress of Bavaria did not think herself in safety at Munich, though she had eight thousand men of regular troops; but desired the Archbishop of Saltzburg to give her shelter. Her fear was not groundless; for, after the taking Rain and Aicha, the allies sent parties on every hand to ravage the country, who pillaged above fifty villages, burnt the houses of peasants and gentlemen, and forced the inhabitants, with what few cattle had escaped the insatiable enemy, to seek refuge in the woods.