The Raid on Cremona and the Stand of the Irish Brigade. When the Spanish King Charles II died childless in 1701, he left his kingdom to Phillip V, the Duke of Anjou, and grandnephew of Louis XIV. This opened the possibility of a future Western European French/Spanish superstate marrying a powerful Continental France with Spanish New World gold. England, the Dutch Republic, and Hapsburg Austria declared war.
In the early days of the War of Spanish Succession (known as Queen Anne’s War in N. America) Austria invaded French possessions in Italy with a small force under the young and hungry, up-and-coming Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Prince Eugene was a former ward of Louis XIV and grew up in Paris. Louis warned his commanders about the cunning and enterprising young commander, but they still underestimated him and lost several battles in 1701. The only reason Eugene didn’t seize the all-important strategic town of Milan was lack of supplies from Vienna. Before the stingy Hapsburgs could reinforce Prince Eugene, Louis sent massive reinforcements to his good friend and sycophant, but not very competent commander, the Duke of Villeroi. The French massed at the small town of Cremona.
Prince Eugene didn’t wait to be crushed. His second would frontally attack the town with his main force, while he struck directly at Villeroi. On the night of 31 January/1 February 1702, Prince Eugene infiltrated Cremona through a large sewer pipe with a picked force and quietly stormed several buildings deep inside the town. They captured Villeroi and most of the important French commanders, and killed more than a thousand soldiers, most in their sleep. The next morning’ battle looked to be a great victory.
But that was not to be the case. In the chaos, the unflappable and practically unconcerned Irish Brigade (Irish Jacobite dissidents that fought for France) conducted a near suicidal stand at the Po River gate. Attacked from both sides, they bought just enough time for French troops to seal the Cremona citadel and blow the only access bridge. The Irish and the roused French turned on Prince Eugene, who withdrew, lest he be caught inside the town. For Eugene, Cremona was “Taken by a miracle, and lost by a greater one”
Though a loss, the daring Raid on Cremona established Prince Eugene as one of the most unconventional and celebrated commanders of his age, and a thorn in Frances side for the next three decades. However, it had one unintended and immediate consequence for the War of Spanish Succession: with the capture of the politically connected Villeroi, Louis was not constrained by palace intrigue and could finally send his best commander to Italy. The nearly unknown Louis Joseph, Duke of Vendome, was the only man in France who was of Prince Eugene’s martial caliber. The war would drag on for another 12 years.