John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough
The death of the childless Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his will in favour of Philip, Duke of Anjou, brought Louis XIV’s younger grandson to the Spanish throne, but he was challenged by a rival candidate: “Charles III”, the younger son of the Austrian ruler, Leopold I. Conflict between Austrian and French forces broke out in northern Italy in May 1701, and in May 1702 Britain, Austria and the Dutch simultaneously declared war on Louis. William III and Parliament had been provoked by a series of moves by Louis that suggested he would use Philip’s position to advance French interests, including the replacement of the Dutch garrisons in the “Barrier” fortresses in the strategic Spanish Netherlands by French forces in February 1701. The following month French troops were moved towards the Dutch frontier. The French Guinea Company was given the Asiento contract to transport slaves from West Africa to Spanish America for ten years, suggesting that the protected trade of the Spanish empire would be thrown open to France while Britain remained excluded. When James II died in September 1701, Louis recognized his son as “James III”.
These steps led Parliament to reverse the suspicion of William and its hostility to a peacetime army that had produced a substantial post-war demobilization from 1697. Parliament voted the funds for 31,254 “subject troops” (recruited from the British Isles) in 1702, 50,000 by 1706 and 75,000 by 1711. There were also large numbers of foreign troops that were paid, in whole or part, by Britain, so that by 1709 the British had in theory a total of about 150,000 troops available for campaigning.
The war was to mark a significant expansion in the military and international role both of the British state and of the British army. Indeed, in the war, the British took a greater proportional role in the conflict with Louis than they were to take in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and in World War Two after 1941. The naval dimension, in which Britain played the central role in resisting France, but it cannot be completely divorced from the issue of land warfare. Thanks to naval dominance, Britain was able to deploy and support land forces, both in nearby parts of Europe and more distantly. Land capability depended on naval strength.
As in earlier conflicts, Louis rapidly took the initiative, but, on this occasion, thanks to his grandson’s accession as Philip V to the Spanish throne, he already controlled the Spanish Netherlands, Spanish Italy (Naples, Milan, Sicily, Sardinia) and Spain itself. Thus, the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by France was greater than at the outset of the Dutch war in 1672 and of the Nine Years’ War in 1688-9, or at least it was greater on the Continent, for in the British Isles Louis lacked the opportunities created in 1689 by the Jacobite presence in Scotland and Ireland.
In the War of the Spanish Succession, the bulk of the British military commitment was made in the traditional nearby region of military activity, the Low Countries, but there was also important activity in two regions, first the Holy Roman Empire (essentially Germany) and, secondly, Iberia. The first reflected the actions of the British army based in the Low Countries, but the second was an independent sphere of action.
In alliance with Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, Louis invaded southern Germany, and, in 1703-4, a combination of the two with Hungarian rebels appeared about to extinguish Habsburg power, and thus to destroy the basis of Britain’s alliance strategy: the use of Austrian strength to resist French expansion. The British response was organized by John Churchill, then 1st Earl of Marlborough (1650-1722). Churchill was one of the greatest of British generals. He rose under the Stuarts, serving in the English garrison in Tangier (1668-70) and in an English regiment in French service in 1672-5 during the Third Anglo-Dutch war. Churchill played a crucial role in Monmouth’s defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685. His desertion of James II in 1688 led William III initially to use his services, but he regarded Churchill with some uncertainty and in 1692 he was dismissed from his posts: his criticism of William’s Dutch and German officers was unwelcome and he was suspected of Jacobite sympathies. Nevertheless, Churchill, created Earl of Marlborough in 1689, was brought back to the centre of affairs from 1698. In 1701 William appointed him Captain-General of the English forces in the Netherlands, a post he held until dismissed by the pacific Tory ministry in 1711. William had been a warrior king, but his sister-in-law and successor, Anne (1702- 14), could not act thus, and there was no male royal who could fulfil the role: her husband, Prince George, was certainly not up to it. Nevertheless, Marlborough was untried. He had served in only five Continental campaigns and had never commanded a large army or formulated the strategy for a Continental campaign. His sole independent command-in southern Ireland in 1690-had been a force of under 6,000 men.
However, Marlborough was soon successful in gaining the initiative from France. He captured Venlo, Roermond and Liege in 1702 and Rijnberk, Bonn and Huy in 1703, thus driving the French back on the Meuse/Maas and Rhine; although Dutch caution thwarted opportunities for battle with the French, and the failure of the Dutch to provide sufficient cannon and support for sieges was also a problem.
In 1704 the crisis threatening Austria was averted by Marlborough’s bold 350-mile advance-at the head of an Anglo-German army-from Bedburg, between Ruremonde and Cologne, via Koblenz and Mainz, to Launsheim, where he joined the Margrave of Baden’s Austrian army on 22-23 June, and by his subsequent victory, in co-operation with the leading Austrian general, Prince Eugene, at Blenheim. This was the most decisive British military move on the Continent until the twentieth century and, unlike the Waterloo campaign in 1815, was a combination of the strategic and the tactical offensive. Marlborough was skilful in holding the anti-French coalition together, and was expert in conducting mobile warfare.
The advance was a formidable logistical challenge: depots of supplies were established along the route, providing the troops with fresh boots as well as food. Such depots enabled the army to maintain cohesion and discipline instead of having to disperse to obtain supplies. The latter would have been politically unwelcome also, because the advance was largely through allied territory. The presence of supplies en route reflected excellent organization and also the gold supplied to the contractors from Britain.
It was not only hunger that was overcome. The French were kept unsure of Marlborough’s march towards the Danube by feints. The campaign was a great triumph for mobility and planning, both in strategy and on the battlefield. Once arrived in Bavaria, the British stormed the Schellenberg Heights north of Donauwörth, defeating the 14,000 strong Franco-Bavarian force holding the position and winning a bridgehead over the Danube. The Elector of Bavaria, however, was joined by the French under Tallard on 6 August. Although the Franco-Bavarian army was larger, Marlborough, now joined by the Austrians under Prince Eugene, forced a battle at Blenheim on the north bank of the Danube, where Tallard had a strong defensive position covered by the Nebel stream.
The battle of Blenheim (13 August 1704) was hard fought, with over 30,000 casualties out of 108,000 combatants: about 13,000 dead and wounded in the Allied army, and 18,000 in that of their opponents, who also lost about 13,000 prisoners. Victory was largely due to Marlborough’s tactical flexibility; in particular, to his ability to retain control and manoeuvrability, an ability that contrasted with the failure of the opposing generals both to co-ordinate operations and to respond to particular crises. The decisive factors were mastery of the terrain, the retention and management of reserves, and the timing of the heavy strike. Having pinned down much of the French infantry in defensive engagements in and around the villages of Blenheim and Oberglau, into which the French fed their reserves, Marlborough launched the substantial force he had kept unengaged in the centre. He was able to achieve a local superiority in what he made a crucial part of the battlefield. The initial British cavalry attack there was checked by the French, who had assumed they would be able to drive back any British advance in the centre, but British infantry and artillery support blocked the advance of the French cavalry and it was then unable to resist the second British cavalry attack. This led to the rout of the French cavalry, to the retreat of the Franco- Bavarian left, and to the surrender of 10,000 French infantry in the village of Blenheim, their retreat cut off by British infantry who had exploited the victory in the centre. Marlborough was more successful than his opponents in integrating cavalry and infantry, his cavalry were better trained for charging, and the artillery, under Colonel Holcroft Blood, manoeuvred rapidly on the battlefield and was brought forward to help support the breakthrough in the centre.
Blenheim was followed by the conquest of southern Germany as Bavaria was “taken out”. After both the battle and the subsequent retreat to the Rhine, most of the Franco-Bavarian army was no longer effective. French forces were not to campaign so far east again until 1741. The major fortresses of Ulm, Ingolstadt and Landau fell before the end of 1704, although Landau put up a long resistance that cost many casualties, while in the Moselle valley, an invasion route between France and Germany, Marlborough captured the key positions of Trier and Traben-Tarbach after forced marches across the difficult terrain of the Hunsrück mountains. Marlborough had destroyed the image of French military superiority, achieving far more than William III had managed. He also helped for a while to make land warfare popular in British opinion and, in the long term, made it less unpopular. With the exception of 1702 and 1711, expenditure on land forces during the War of the Spanish Succession was greater than that on the navy, and this reflected political commitment to war on the Continent. The short term was of particular benefit to Marlborough, for Parliament provided the funds with which in Oxfordshire he built a major palace named after his great victory, a reward not granted to previous generals.
Marlborough won other battles, but none had the dramatic impact of Blenheim, in part because that victory had ended the danger of the anti- French alliance collapsing. Marlborough also found that victory did not end the difficulty of obtaining co-operation among the Allied forces, and this, combined with differences in military and diplomatic strategy among the political leaders, especially Dutch caution, made his task very difficult. Marlborough’s plan to invade France up the Moselle in 1705, and capture Thionville and Metz, had to be abandoned due to lack of German support and because Villars took up a strong blocking position at Sierck. Instead, Marlborough transferred his forces, to campaign skilfully, but without any great victory, in the Spanish Netherlands. Tricking and out-manoeuvring his opponents, he passed through the Lines of Brabant, the strong French system of field fortifications, near Tirlemont. Although he then won a cavalry engagement, in which he was nearly killed, at Elixheim (18 July), Marlborough was prevented from exploiting his success by Dutch caution, and on 18 August the Dutch refusal to fight prevented a major battle with Villeroi on the Yssche. This was one of the might-have-been battles that are so easily overlooked. Villeroi had been out-manoeuvred and was in a poor position. Had Marlborough been successful, he might have been able to start pressing on the French frontier defences the following year. The limitations of coalition warfare were clearly displayed.
Nevertheless, already in July 1705, Marlborough had regained Huy, lost the previous month. By gaining control of the Meuse below Namur, and, in 1702-3, the major fortified positions in the pivot between the Spanish Netherlands and Germany, Marlborough had won the Grand Alliance an important strategic advantage. The French would not be able to threaten the United Provinces from Germany, as they had done in 1672. From 1705, the Spanish Netherlands and the French borderlands were the centre of British military activity north of Spain. This move of emphasis from Germany also reflected the greater ease of obtaining supplies in the Low Countries, both from Britain and locally, although in 1706 Marlborough initially planned to march to Italy in order to support Eugene, a daring and, in some respects, foolhardy scheme.