Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

The Battle of Blenheim

" 'But everybody said,' quoth he,

'That 'twas a famous victory.' "


Away in the heart of the German Black Forest rises the river Danube, one of the largest rivers in Europe. It is more than double the length of the Rhine; it is swifter than the Seine. After leaving Germany it waters the plains of Hungary, supplies Vienna, the capital of Austria, and flows into the Black Sea. But to-day we are only concerned with a little village on the banks of this great river—the village of Blenheim, where the fate of Europe was to be decided by the Duke of Marlborough.

He had left Harwich in the April of 1704 and reached The Hague two days later. Heart-broken at the death from smallpox of her only son, the Duchess of Marlborough wanted to go with him. But "I am going into Germany," the Duke wrote to her from Holland, "where it would be impossible for you to follow me; but love me as you do now and no hurt can come to me."

Marlborough had no easy task before him. Louis XIV. had been victorious in Germany, and the French boundaries seemed growing larger and larger. He now had designs on Vienna, where he thought to decide the fate of the empire. This master-stroke of Louis roused Marlborough to a master-stroke in return, but he kept his plans a secret. Having completed his preparations at The Hague, he sailed round to Utrecht. All Europe was now watching his progress with the greatest interest and anxiety. With a huge army of English and Dutch soldiers he now marched southwards, his plans yet a secret from the world.

"I am in a house that has a view over the finest country that is possible to be seen," he wrote to his wife. "I see out of my chamber window the Rhine and the Neckar. I hope in eight days to meet with Prince Eugene."

Now, Prince Eugene of Savoy ruled over a little State bordering on France, and he had promised to help England against the growing power of Louis. The two generals now met for the first time, and Marlborough reviewed his troops in the presence of the Prince, who was much surprised at their smartness after the long march.

"I have heard much of the English cavalry," he said, "and find it indeed to be the best appointed and finest I have ever seen. Money, of which you have no want in England, can buy clothes and arms, but nothing can purchase the spirit which I see in the looks of your men."

"My troops," answered Marlborough, "are now inspirited by your presence. To you we owe that spirit which awakens your admiration."

It was only now after the Neckar had been crossed, and Marlborough had struck through the heart of Germany towards the Danube, that his plans unfolded themselves before the eyes of the world. He would defeat the French before they reached Vienna. He now joined the Imperial German army under the Prince of Baden.

"I am come to meet the deliverer of the Empire," said the Prince.

"I am come to learn of your Highness how to save the Empire," answered Marlborough, though he wrote to his wife a few days later, "You know I am not good at compliments."

They had now reached the Danube. Behind a little stream which ran through the swampy ground to the Danube lay the huge army of French and Bavarians. They were strongly entrenched, for in front lay a swamp, to the right the Danube, to the left some hill country. It was near the little village of Blenheim, which has given its name to one of the most memorable battles in the history of the world. Fifty thousand soldiers in this position feared no foe.

"I know the danger," said Marlborough, when the officers ventured to suggest the hopelessness of fighting such an army; "but a battle is absolutely necessary."

He gave orders for a general engagement on the following day. That anxious night, on the banks of the fast-flowing Danube, was spent by Marlborough in prayer. He felt a nation's fate hung in the balance; but "I have great reason to hope that everything will go well," he wrote calmly home.

The morning of August 13 broke, and the troops were soon astir; but it was not till midday that the actual action began. Marlborough himself chose the centre for his attack. He made an artificial road across the swamp and threw his 8000 horsemen across. Two of these desperate charges, led by the Duke himself, decided the day. The French were flung back on the Danube and at last forced to surrender. Hundreds were drowned while trying to swim across the swift river, 12,000 were slain, 14,000 taken prisoners.

The battle was hardly won when Marlborough took from his pocket-book a slip of paper.

"I have not time to say more," he scribbled to his wife, "but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know that her army has had a glorious victory."

This little time-worn note may still be seen at the palace at Blenheim, near Oxford, which was afterwards built at the country's expense for Marlborough, as a memorial of his famous victory.

Not only England, but the whole of Europe, was amazed at the victory at Blenheim. The invincible power of France had at last been checked. The finest French regiments had been destroyed in a single battle. Marlborough had fought with the fate of Europe in his hand and had won. In England his name was on every lip, his praises were sung by poets and statesmen; but in France Louis loved not the name of Marlborough, and the little French children trembled with fear at the sound.