Dettingen, Bavaria, 27 June 1743

King George II, who succeeded his father to the british throne and to the electorate of Hanover in 1727, had three passions: the Queen, music, and the army. Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach was probably the most intelligent woman a British king has ever had the fortune to marry. By relentlessly championing Robert Walpole as ‘prime minister’ she played no small part in consolidating both the Hanoverian succession – which in spite of the ghastly Stuart alternatives was by no means universally popular – and constitutional monarchy itself. Nor was she merely a power behind the throne: when the King was away on state business in Germany, as he frequently was, Caroline had vice-regal authority. A contemporary verse ran:

You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,

We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.

They had eight children, and despite – perhaps even because of – his several mistresses, George was devoted to her. When she was dying, in 1737, she urged him to take another wife. ‘Non,’ he replied resolutely: ‘j’aurai des maîtresses!’ And he had a pair of matching coffins made with removable sides, so that when he followed her to the grave (twenty-three years later) they could lie together again.

George inherited his passion for music from his father, whose protégé Handel he continued to champion: he is famously credited with the custom of standing during the ‘Hallelujah chorus’, and Handel composed the anthems for Caroline’s funeral, as he had for the coronation. But like his cousin Frederick William I of Prussia (der Soldaten-König), George believed the army to be the first and noblest occupation of a king. He certainly took little interest in government, which was ably if corruptly (in modern eyes; the eighteenth century was on the whole more tolerant) conducted by Walpole. It all worked rather well.

George was also physically brave. He had fought at Oudenarde, the third of Marlborough’s great ‘quadrilateral’ of battles (alongside Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet), and would sometimes parade in his old battle coat. ‘And the people laughed, but kindly, at the odd old garment, for bravery never goes out of fashion,’ wrote Thackeray a century later.

Whenever George dealt with army business he took off his habitual Court brown to put on more military red. He put on red as much as he possibly could, indeed, loving to interfere in the army’s business, although he scarcely considered it interference, for despite the measures enacted by Parliament after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the limit of the royal prerogative was still unclear. Like his father, George laboured manfully to standardize drill – what Wolfe, the hero of Quebec (1759), complained of as ‘the variety of steps in our infantry and the feebleness and disorderly floating of our lines’ – though it would be many years before there was a truly common system. He championed the Royal Military Academy, which opened at Woolwich in 1741 to teach gunnery and engineering (a permanent corps of artillery had been formed at Marlborough’s urging in 1716, becoming the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1727). He regulated the price of commissions, abolished the trade in the regimental proprietor-colonelcies and sought to advance able officers, keeping a book in which he made notes on their capabilities and appointments. If he had had his way, he might also – like his cousin Frederick William – have introduced compulsory military service. It was not surprising that when in 1743 the army found itself once more in Marlborough’s old stamping ground, Bavaria, George insisted on taking to the field at its head.

Britain had in fact been at war with Spain since October 1739. By the Treaty of Seville ten years earlier, Britain had agreed not to trade with Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America, and to verify the working of the treaty the Spanish were permitted to search British vessels. While boarding the Rebecca in 1731, the Spanish coast guard severed the ear of her captain, Robert Jenkins, or so it was claimed. British merchants, determined to penetrate the Atlantic trade, used the incident as a casus belli against Spain in the Caribbean (though tardily to say the least, hostilities not beginning for a full seven years). Jenkins exhibited his pickled ear to the House of Commons, and the entirely predictable outrage forced a reluctant Walpole to declare war. Thus began an episode of Caribbean skirmishing – the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ – that yielded very mixed results.

The gravest unintended consequence of the skirmishing was the slide into the much greater affair of the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1740 Emperor Charles VI died, leaving the crown to his daughter Maria Theresa. Frederick II – later ‘Frederick the Great’ – had succeeded to the throne of Prussia earlier the same year, and had lost no time in exploiting the questionable legitimacy of female succession by invading Silesia, defeating the Austrians at the battle of Mollwitz. He was joined by Charles Albert of Bavaria, rival claimant to the Habsburg lands, and almost as a matter of course by France. Britain – or rather George, for Walpole was against a continental entanglement – backed the old ally, Austria, fearful that Prussia would not stop at the borders of Hanover. Britain and France came to blows not by declaring war, therefore, but as auxiliaries of their respective German allies. With Spain taking France’s side, the war quickly began to look like a continuance of the War of the Spanish Succession – an affair as old as King George’s Oudenarde coat.

Militarily, however, two things had changed. Prussia astounded everyone by the quality of its army – not so much the cavalry, which bolted at Mollwitz (Frederick’s reforms had yet to touch them), but the infantry, which could fire at the rate of five rounds to the Austrians’ three. The lesson was at once driven home to every prince in Europe: a standing army, albeit one made up of conscripts, would beat an improvised army even twice its size. By contrast, the French, who had remained a considerable power even after the run of defeats at Marlborough’s hands, were uncertain, even ponderous, in the field.

In 1742 the Prussians, having got what they wanted – Silesia – withdrew from the war. But two French armies had managed to reach Prague and Vienna, and a third was keeping watch on Hanover from east of the Rhine. The situation looked bad on the map, until all three French armies were obliged to retreat in the face of a revitalized Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive. To hasten their return to France, a British army assembled in Flanders comprising four troops of Household Cavalry, eight regiments of horse and dragoons, three battalions of Foot Guards and twelve of the line – some 16,000 men under the septuagenarian Field Marshal John Dalrymple, earl of Stair.

Stair was a true Marlburian, his age a measure more of experience than of disability. At nineteen he had fought at Steenkirk, and he had been in each of Marlborough’s four great battles. His campaign plan for the autumn of 1742 could indeed have been designed by Marlborough himself: he proposed to combine with the Austrians in a bold thrust towards Paris along the valley of the Moselle. George now demurred, however, reverting to the pretence that Britain was not at war with France as such. Nothing happened for months as the army watched the seasons change about them and felt the winter’s bite in their Flanders billets. But, unusually for troops confined for so long, they fared well. One of the effects of Walpole’s perpetual retrenchment had been the emergence of a corps of experienced junior officers, for since there were few regiments to command and consequently little promotion, there were a great many captains with long service and substantial know-how. These proved invaluable in the hastily expanded army, which emerged from winter quarters in uncommonly good health and spirits – or, as Stair put it, ‘with great modesty and good discipline’. Marlborough would certainly have approved. Indeed, he had set the standard.

Opposing forces abhor a vacuum. Notwithstanding the delusory state of non-war, as the three French armies resumed their retrograde march towards the Rhine the combined English – Hanoverian – Austrian army in Flanders, now 44,000 men, was drawn east across the Lower Rhine towards Frankfurt. In mid-June King George arrived – with a vast baggage train, including 600 horses (which severely clogged the roads), and his younger son, the 22-year-old Major-General the duke of Cumberland – intending to take personal command.

Though George had the advantage of ten years on the earl of Stair, and had fought in the same battle in his Oudenarde coat thirty-five years earlier, he did not, alas, have the old field marshal’s instinct for campaigning. Against Stair’s advice, he now posted his army on the north bank of the Main at Aschaffenburg, 30 miles upstream from Frankfurt, hemmed in by the Spessart Hills to the north. The French, even without La Gloire, were not ones to miss an opportunity and quickly cut his lines of communication, isolating the allied army from its magazines and depots at Hanau just east of Frankfurt. After a week the army was showing signs of starving, and George decided to withdraw north-west back to Hanau.

The French marshal, the duc de Noailles, was exactly midway between George and Stair in age (the three may well, indeed, hold the record for combined age in command). Withdrawing south around Frankfurt, Noailles was quick to see his chance, and despite enjoying only a 50 per cent numerical superiority he at once split his force, sending some 28,000 men under his nephew, the relatively youthful (54-year-old) marshal the duc de Gramont, to block the allied withdrawal in the bottleneck between the village of Dettingen and the Spessart Hills. Meanwhile, five brigades would hook south to cross the Main at Aschaffenburg and attack the allied rear, enabling the bulk of the French artillery to enfilade the allied main body from south of the river. On 26 June, with some justification, Noailles boasted that he would have the allies ‘dans une souricière’ – in a mousetrap.

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, 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?