The War of Three Kingdoms famous to most as a bloody series of revolutions and civil wars fought across Britain and Ireland in between 1638 and 1651 where dozens of factions all fought, allied, betrayed and re-allied against one another, where religious fanaticism married political radicalism and blatant opportunism, and a million people lost their lives. It all ended at the battle of Worcester in the west of England in 1651 when Oliver Cromwell defeated the invading Scottish Army of Charles II…………..Or so we’re told.
With Britain exhausted from over a decade of strife Cromwell’s regime was faced with the daunting prospect of re-igniting the economy. At that time the wealthiest place in the world was the West Indies and it was to the New World where Cromwell envisioned the restoration of Britain’s fortunes. Of course there was a problem, the West indies were mostly under the control of Spain, still the main enemy, not France since the days of Elizabeth. But now at last Britain finally possessed a land army to rival Spain: the New Model Army Europe’s finest fighting machine and the first modern army in the world since Roman times made up entirely of grizzled veteran soldiers and officers worked up through the ranks entirely on merit.
In 1654 Cromwell fired the first shot against Spain by occupying Santo Dominigo and then taking Jamaica soon after that and thus the Anglo-Spanish War of 1652-60 began at Cromwell’s instigation. Britain wasn’t alone in fighting Spain, as France was already at war with her, so quickly to two countries formed an alliance with 7000 New Model Army (or Ironsides as they had become known) troops were to France to bolster French armies fighting the Spanish, 3000 of these were included in the army of Vicomte de Turenne giving perhaps the finest general of the age the finest soldiers.
In 1658 Turenne was given the task of invading Flanders and seizing it from the Spanish, taking with him taking 15,000 troops including 3000 Ironsides he laid siege to the city of Dunkirk. The Spanish response was swift and within a few weeks an army under Don Juan of Austria with the Prince de Conde another great French commander as his military chief arrived to break the siege. Conde’s force also numbered 15,000 men and included a British contingent of 2000 Royalists in exile led by Charles II’s younger brothers, the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester consisting of three regiments, two of English royalist and one Irish, though there were a good many Scots in all three.
Turenne seeing his siege about to be lifted decided to attack despite having only equal numbers. Conde caught somewhat by surprise by the haste in which Turenne marched on him elected to defend and sought out a viable defensive position, eventually settling upon almost flat area of beach. The position was sound with his right flank anchored by the sea and his left to a canal on the shore, only one notable terrain feature sat upon this otherwise completely flat battlefield. This was a large 150 foot tall sand dune, he saw this would give him some advantage over the enemy and deployed his line across it. He deployed his best Spanish infantry on top of it and considered it would be too costly for Turenne to attack as both armies were even in infantry and cavalry. Conde was confident in his position, with no way to flank the army and the right a strongly defensible position, Turenne would have to assault his centre and left where he could mass his troops in depth. Or so he thought.
Any ordinary commander would have been perturbed by the seemingly superior position of the Spanish, but Turenne was no ordinary commander and came up with one of the most cunning battle plans in history to defeat them. He knew the tide would go out in a few hours and he could charge his cavalry around the right flank of the Spanish through the retreating waves. But he also knew a great commander like Conde would quickly see this and expand his line to accommodate, so he had to prevent this. He elected to this with madness by doing the one thing Conde couldn’t have thought he was stupid enough to do, assault the dune. He would launch an attack across the centre and impenetrable right leaving his left weak against Conde’s strong left. This would look not only look incompetent to the Spanish tie up all his troops but it would tie up all their troops on their right and centre too so they could not fill the gap on their flank from the retreating tide. Then at the right moment he could strike. It was a hell of a gamble, but that’s maybe the only way one great commander can break an almost perfect defensive position of another.
Turenne began his assault tasking the Ironsides with the job of mounting the slope and assaulting the Spanish troops on the dune. Comde had deployed the British Royalist troops just to the left of the Dune, it seemed the two British contingents would be within sight of each other but not actually engage. Half the Ironsides began firing vollies into the Spanish at the top of the hill while the other half began to make their way up the Dune coming under withering fire from the Spanish defenders as they did, the casualties were horrendous but the Ironsides didn’t buckle and after upon reaching the summit both pike and musket launched a ferocious charge at the Spanish. For several minutes brutal hand to hand combat took place between the Spanish defender and Ironside attackers. Seeing this the Duke of York personally commanding the Royalists lead reinforcements up the hill to aid the Spanish and once again 7 years after the Battle of Worcester Roundhead fought Cavalier. However even with Royalist reinforcements it wasn’t enough and Ironsides fighting like tigers smashed through the Spanish and Royalist lines sending them fleeing down the dune in confusion. Ironside commander Morgan then rallied the Ironsides and managed to stop them pursuing, instead reforming them on top of the dune.
As the dune fell Turenne judged the sea was shallow enough launching his horse around the Conde’s right and to the rear of the bemused Spanish and Wallons. Almost instantly the right and some of the centre of the Spanish army facing infantry to the front and cavalry to the rear broke or surrendered without a fight with three notable exceptions, the three Royalist regiments who continued fighting, the reason being they were engaging the Ironsides that hadn’t assaulted the hill, for the second time that day Roundhead was meeting Cavalier, old scores were being settled and a ferocious musket and pike duel was ensuing, and aprivate battle taking place oblivious to events around them.
Meanwhile in an attempt the save the day Conde counter attacked on the left with everything he had and very nearly broke though, personally leading three cavalry charges and having his horse shot beneath him he broke through the French right and almost looked like doing the same the Turenne’s right as had been done to his, but for one stubborn regiment of French guards who held ground in porcupine formation firing vollies into his cavalry foiled him.
Conde knew when he was beaten and set about saving what remained of his army and personally organised the retreat saving half his army. Meanwhile the only remaining formed units of his force on the field, the Royalists, were locked in bloody battle with the Ironsides, finally realising the situation they were now surrounded, alone and facing the entire French army they agreed to surrender, but not to the Ironsides, instead to the French regiments that had now moved up on them and that they become French not Ironside prisoners.
Two of the great generals of French history had met, Conde and Turenne, in an almost even battle where one of the great tactical manoeuvres in history was executed to perfection, both these forces with a small contingent of British troops fighting old grievances that spanned two decades and were still boiling strong. How strong this was and how much more ferociously the British troops engaged one another than the French and Spanish can be illustrated by the battle figures. Of the 1000 Spanish casualties over half came from the 2000 Royalists, two of the three regiments were completely destroyed. Of the 400 French casualties most of them came from the Ironsides. For the French and Spanish it was almost a delicate eighteenth century battle of manoeuvre where one army outwitted by another and seeing the position futile gracefully retreated or surrendered. For the British it a was a blood curdling enraged slaughter session where two hated foes tore shreds out of one another as part of a 20 years long vendetta.
After the battle Dunkirk fell to Turenne, who was criticised later by Napoleon for not using this victory as momentum to march on and capture Brussels. Some of the Ironsides stayed to garrison Dunkirk while the rest campaigned on in Belgium for another year, though never to meet another Royalist. Dunkirk and Mardyke became part of Cromwell’s Commonwealth until sold to France in 1662. The Anglo-Spanish War along with the Franco-Spanish War were the conflicts that finally broke the Spanish Empires back, never again would Spain be a force. Britain annexed Jamaica and used it as springboard to control of the Caribbean, the richest prize in the world for the British Empire before India.