Battle of Dettingen - RDG Museum

RDG Museum

Battle of Dettingen - RDG Museum



On the 27th of June 1743 at, Dettingen (now Karlstein-am-Main), Germany, the combined Allied Armies, known as the Pragmatic Army and under the command of King George II, encountered a strong French force under the Duc de Noiailles.

Since the Pragmatic Army was, at the time, in retreat, it found itself in an unenviable position. On the Army's right flank, to the North, lay the hilly, forested mounds of the Spessart Heights; on its left, to the South, the broad River Main. In the centre stood the bulk of Noialles' army: 23,000 thousand French troops under Noailles' nephew, the Duc de Grammont, with artillery support, waiting behind the Forbach, a marshy stream which spilled into the Main to the South of the main French position. This position was thus protected from being outflanked on either side, allowing Noailles to concentrate the majority of his force in the centre, forcing the Pragmatic Army to engage him there, and offsetting the numerical superiority of his opponents. Finally, Noailles also sent a force to take the town of Ashaffenburg, lying in the Pragmatic rear. This deployment later acquired the sardonic nickname, "the mousetrap".

The Pragmatic Army thus could not return the way it had come - which, in any case, was not the way it wished to go. It must instead pierce Grammont's line and pass through Dettingen, in order to resume its retreat to Hanau, and thence, Flanders.

Noialles' force consisted of approximately 45,000 men in total, with 27 squadrons of cavalry and 56 pieces of artillery. As mentioned, he drew up the core of his force, comprising 23,000 infantry and the entirety of his cavalry, with a small number of guns in support, behind the natural rampart of the swampy Forbach. Meanwhile, more than fifty French guns were positioned on the South bank of the Main, where they were safe from attack and able to deliver enfilading fire at their leisure into the left flank of the Pragmatic Army, a fact which doubtless brought a smile to the French gunners. Noailles' intentions were, as can be seen, couched in grand terms: he would trap the Pragmatic Army between the Spessart Heights and the Main, block its retreat to the West, and then encircle it from the East. This would present the opportunity to capture the majority, or the whole, of the Pragmatic Army - and perhaps, to sweeten the victory still further, King George II himself.

However, Noailles' tantalising vision was not to be. The Duc de Grammont, or his subordinates, disobeyed orders and advanced to the attack. In doing so, they both abandoned the safe position provided by the Forbach and the Spessart Heights and passed across the line of fire of their own artillery on the South Bank. Nevertheless, the initial results looked promising; the British infantry in the centre were driven back by the ferocious assaults of their French counterparts, while the British cavalry were forced backwards into their own infantry by the impact of the French horsemen.

However, by that time, the attack was spent. The Pragmatic Army counter-attacked, Austrian units hurrying into the gap opened by the reeling British and pushing the tired French back toward Dettingen, joined by those of the cavalry who had managed to fight their way out of the wavering mass of French horse. The French army began streaming Westwards, over the Forbach and eventually over the Main, where many were to drown as a pontoon bridge collapsed. In due course, the Pragmatic Army resumed its stolid march toward Hanau, though it did not pursue the broken French.

Ligonier's Horse, or the Black Horse (as it was sometimes known on account of the Regimental facing colour), later to be known as the 7th Dragoon Guards, was one of the 10 cavalry regiments engaged during the battle. When attacked by the mass of the French cavalry, including the elite Maison du Roi, or Royal Household cavalry, Ligonier's Horse was surrounded and overpowered, and forced to fight their way back through the French as the only means of preventing their being totally cut off. Somewhere in the middle of this unco-ordinated and furious melée was Cornet Henry Richardson of Ligonier's Horse, carrying with him the "First", or Colonel's, Standard of the Regiment.

The standard, the point around which the Regiment rallied and to which it looked for cohesion, the means by which the commanders of the Army might know where the Regiment was, and the symbolic representation of the Regiment's honour, was naturally a prime target for enemy attention. The bearer, with one hand grasping the staff and the other controlling his horse, was virtually defenceless. The Standard bearer thus was given an escort, then as today, of two Warrant Officers or Senior Non-Commissioned Officerss, who flanked him wherever he went. However, it was Richardson who was to earn the fame and renown for that day; his escort were probably just as valorous as he himself, but it is his name that has ever since been revered in the Regiment. In defending the Standard, he was to suffer some thirty-seven wounds, from sword cuts and thrusts and flying bullets.

Ligonier's Horse, and Richardson, were eventually able to fight their way out of the encircling body of French cavalry, and to take the fight back to their opponents. The standard rescued, Ligonier's Horse regained their cohesion, reformed, and took part in the charge against the French that drove them into the river and opened the Pragmatic Army's path once more.

The winter after the battle the Regiment, having received new Standards, presented the Dettingen Standard to Cornet Richardson. It remained in the care of his family for the next two centuries, but is now displayed, having been painstakingly conserved and appropriately mounted in a specially-built case, in the Museum. In one of the strange coincidences with which history abounds, the Standard was purchased at auction on June 27th, 2012 - 259 years to the day after Richardson risked his life with such gallantry in the maelstrom at Dettingen.

The Dettingen Standard remains, to this day, the oldest British cavalry Standard in existence, a colourful and silent testament to the valour and determination of Cornet Henry Richardson and Ligonier's Horse.

Housed in the Museum, opposite the Standard, and taken from the battlefield of Dettingen on that same day, stands one of the pair of Dettingen Drums; two kettledrums, taken from the French cavalry, during the battle, and kept ever since.

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