Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

Blenheim and After

It is easy to understand that when it seemed likely that the two great kingdoms of France and Spain would be united in the hands of the same ruler, the other nations of Europe would see danger to themselves. After much trouble an arrangement was made, by which it was provided that France and Spain should not be so united. But Louis XIV., though he had agreed to it, refused to abide by it. Hence began what is called "The War of the Spanish Succession." Some of the European nations joined in a "Grand Alliance" to resist the ambition of the French king. It is not certain that England would have joined it, though King William III. was anxious that it should, but for one thing. When James II. of England was dying, his wife prevailed upon Louis XIV. to promise that he would recognize his son as King of England. Accordingly, no sooner was King James dead (Sept. 6, 1701) than his son was proclaimed King of England under the title of James III. The English people were greatly enraged, and King William had no more difficulty in persuading them to follow his advice. He himself died half-a-year later (March 8, 1702), but his death made no change in English policy. John Churchill, whom William III. had made Earl of Marlborough, was appointed Commander-in-Chief. He had done his best, or worst, to injure William, but he was a great general, and the King, when he was dying, recommended him to the Princess Anne, who was to succeed, as the very best man that she could find to carry on the war.

Duke of Marlborough


It was no easy matter to get together an army. Men who had been put into prison for debt—and in those days, and indeed for long after, debtors were treated with the greatest cruelty—were released if they were willing to serve. Recruits were even taken from the prisons. Vagrants and tramps were compelled to enlist. Even then the proper number of men could not be found. But in Germany there were many who were willing to become soldiers. During the last century there had been so much fighting that the labourers had been obliged to become soldiers. It was useless to cultivate fields which might be ravaged any day. In fact, service in the army was for many the only livelihood that they could follow. Then again, the small German princes were glad to hire out their subjects as soldiers to States that were willing to pay for them.

Marlborough went to Holland in May 1702, and was made Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch army. Various German princes, the Elector of Hanover, afterwards George I. of England, among them, joined him. He had altogether about 60,000 men. But it was difficult to manage an army made up of so many States; and still more difficult to manage their rulers, each of whom had his own interests to look after. That year various towns were taken, of which Liège was the most important. A very great misfortune had very nearly happened to the Allies. As Marlborough was on his way down the river Maas to the Hague, his barge was taken by some French soldiers. An old servant who was with him slipped into his hand a French pass which had been given some time before to his brother. The Frenchmen were deceived and let him go.

It would take long to describe what was done in the course of the next year (1703). Marlborough was continually hindered by the Dutch. A committee of Dutch Councillors went about with him, and he had always to consult them. They were cautious, even, one may say, timid, and unwilling to run any risk. Some of Marlborough's best schemes were spoilt because they were afraid to give their consent. It may be said that, on the whole, the Allies made no great advance. Marlborough resolved that the next year should not be lost in the same way. He marched into South Germany, and at the beginning of July had reached Würtemberg. He had, as I have said, a curiously mixed army; but there were no troops so much admired as the English. "These gentlemen all look as if they were dressed for a ball," said one of the German Princes to an English General. On August 2 Marlborough stormed a strong place called the Schellenberg. He lost 4500 men in doing it, but of the enemy's garrison of 12,000 only 3000 escaped. Many were drowned in attempting to swim the river that stopped their flight; still more were drowned by the breaking of the bridge that had been made across it. Eleven days later came the great battle of Blenheim. That it was to be a great battle every one felt. Marlborough, who had received the Holy Communion before dawn, cried, as he mounted his horse—"This day I conquer or die."

The army of the Allies consisted of 52,000 men; about two-thirds being under the immediate command of Marlborough. The rest were led by Prince Eugène of Savoy. The French, on the other hand, had about 56,000 men; Marshal Tallard was in chief command, and seems to have shown a strange want of skill, and even of common care. In the first place, he did not know that the Allied army was so near him; secondly, he did not know how strong it was, thinking, in particular, that Prince Eugène had indeed joined Marlborough, but had not brought an army with him. Then he had not taken any trouble in protecting his position. His camp had a river in front of it and between him and the Allies. He took it for granted that it was too deep to ford, because it had been so in October, whereas it was now August. There was a bridge over it, but this he neither broke down nor fortified. There were two mills upon it; these he did not take the trouble to occupy. Finally, he left a large space between his camp and the river, in which the enemy, if he got across the river, would find ample space to draw up his army. Of course he ought to have moved his troops right up to the bank, so that the Allies would have to meet them as soon as they should get out of the water.

On the right of the French position was the village of Blenheim. By some blunder, a great body of French troops was shut up in this place. A great part of it was protected by the two rivers, the Danube and the Nebel, which flows into it; the rest was strongly fortified. Four thousand men would have been quite sufficient to guard it, but there were more than three times as many, so closely packed together that many of them could hardly use their guns.

Marlborough kept his army waiting till Prince Eugène on the right could reach his proper position (he had to make his way by a long circuit). This was not done till one o'clock (you will remember that the troops began to move at dawn). When this was signalled, the advance was ordered. On the left, General Cutts, nicknamed the "Salamander," attacked the village of Blenheim. But this place was held too strongly to be taken. The Allies suffered considerable loss in the attack, and Marlborough sent word to General Cutts that he must be content to keep the garrison of the village occupied without exposing his own men more than could be helped. On the right, Prince Eugène's troops, who were greatly fatigued by their long march,—much longer than that of any other part of the army,—could make no impression on the enemy. The Danes, Dutch, and Hanoverians, who were between the Prince and Marlborough, did not fare any better. They were opposed to an Irish brigade in the service of the French king, and suffered great loss. Marlborough himself had to go to their help. When he had done this he prepared to make the great effort of the day. He had drawn up his cavalry, 8000 in number, on the slope of ground which went down from the French camp to the river. The river, it should be said, he had been allowed to cross without meeting with any opposition. He now gave the signal to charge. He was met with a heavy fire, which for a time threw his lines into disorder. If the French cavalry had taken advantage of the opportunity, the result of the day might have been different. But they did not move, though they were actually more numerous than the Allies. Marlborough, always calm, however great the danger, formed his lines again, and led them once more to the charge. As they came near the French squadrons, the latter broke and fled. The infantry; finding themselves deserted, followed their example, and in a very short time the centre of the French army had ceased to exist. The left, that portion which Prince Eugène had in vain attacked, withdrew in good order, without suffering much loss. But the right, the 14,000 men who were crowded into the village of Blenheim, were not so fortunate. They had made their position more difficult by setting fire to the village. When they attempted to escape, they were driven back. On the other hand, the Allies were not able to carry the barricades. The general in command of the French saw that it was useless to resist any longer. He sent a messenger to ask for terms. The answer was that, by Marlborough's orders, they must surrender without conditions. It was hard for brave men to submit to such a disgrace, but there seemed no other course. The 14,000 men gave themselves up as prisoners. All that they could do was to burn or destroy their flags.

The loss of the French was very great, amounting in killed, wounded, and prisoners, to 40,000, or more than two-thirds of their army. The Allies had about 4500 killed, and 7500 wounded. The English numbered only about 9000 men, but it will have been seen that they had more than their full share in the fighting and in the victory.

In the next year (1705) little was done; Marlborough could not get the Dutch to move, and he could not move without them. But in 1706, another great victory, greater in some respects than Blenheim itself, was won. The French general, Marshal Villeroi, made the mistake of supposing that Marlborough had not yet got his army together, and put himself in the way of a battle which he ought to have done his best to avoid. He made another mistake in the position which he took up. His line of battle was curved like a bow, one may say, while Marlborough's army was like the string. The string is shorter than the bow, and so Marlborough could bring more men, and more quickly to bear on any one point, than could Villeroi. Another thing that put the French commander at a disadvantage was this. He was made to believe that Marlborough intended to attack his left wing, and so strengthened it with troops which he had to take away from places where they were more wanted. The chief fighting of the day took place on the right wing. The English drove the French out of the little village of Tavière, and then charged the famous corps of Musketeers, which was posted behind it. They broke the first line, but were driven back by the second. Marlborough came to their aid with his cavalry—he always made a great use of cavalry—and compelled the Musketeers to retreat. Meanwhile a mound, called the Tomb of Ottomond, had been occupied with cannon, which swept the whole of the French line. The next thing was that the French left was attacked in the rear. This completed the rout. It was a great victory, and, to compare it with other battles, did not cost the conquerors very much, a few more than 3000 in killed and wounded. The French lost 8000 in killed and wounded. Nearly as many more, natives of the country, deserted, some going home, others joining the Allies. All the baggage fell into the hands of the English. Nearly all the Spanish Netherlands was lost to France by this battle of Ramillies. "We have done in four days," Marlborough wrote to his wife at home, "what we should have thought ourselves happy if we could be sure of in four years."

A third great victory was won in 1708 at Oudenarde, and a fourth in 1709 at Malplaquet; but this last was a victory only in name; for though Marlborough drove the French from the field of battle, he lost 20,000 in killed and wounded, to 12,000 of the enemy.