Marlborough’s War I


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.


Marlborough’s War II


The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Ramillies, 1706


The year 1706 brought great success. Intent on avenging Blenheim, underestimating British strength, and concerned to push Marlborough back, Louis XIV ordered Villeroi to advance, but the consequences were disastrous for France. On a spread-out battlefield at Ramillies (23 May), Marlborough again obtained a victory by breaking the French centre after it had been weakened in order to support action on the flanks. Attacks on both flanks tied down much of the French army, including the infantry on their right. A cavalry battle on the French centre-right was finally won by the Allies and, as the French right wing retreated, the British, their preparations concealed by dead ground, attacked through the French centre, leading to the flight of their opponents. The French lost all their cannon and suffered about 19,000 casualties (including prisoners), compared to 3,600 Allied casualties. This was the only one of Marlborough’s major battles in which Eugene did not take part.

Thus, in a six-hour battle of roughly equal armies, Marlborough showed the characteristic features of his generalship. Cool and composed under fire, brave to the point of rashness, Marlborough was a master of the shape and the details of conflict. He kept control of his own forces and of the flow of the battle, and was able to move and commit his troops decisively at the most appropriate moment, moving troops from his right flank for the final breakthrough in the centre.

Ramillies indicated the value of destroying the opposing field army, especially early in the campaigning season. It was followed by the rapid fall of a number of positions including Ath, Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Dendermonde, Ghent, Louvain, Menin, Ostend and Oudenaarde: most offered little or no resistance, but it proved necessary to besiege Dendermonde, Ostend, Menin and Ath. The cohesion of Villeroi’s army was largely destroyed by the battle. The regional and municipal authorities and Spanish garrisons in much of the Spanish Netherlands hastened to surrender, and the French were only able to organize resistance in a few fortresses. Ostend fell on 6 July, after a short siege in which an Anglo-Dutch squadron had bombarded the defences, Menin on 22 August, Dendermonde on 5 September, despite the French drowning much of the surrounding countryside, and Ath on 4 October. The new French commander, Vendome, led a larger army, much of it transferred from the Rhine, but he was unwilling to attack Marlborough as he covered the sieges in the Spanish Netherlands. The capture of Ostend improved supply routes between Britain and her army in the Low Countries.

The following year (1707) was less successful, as a result of political differences, both in Britain and among the Allies. Furthermore, both the larger French force, under Vendome, and the Dutch were reluctant to provoke a battle. Vendome cautiously took the initiative and improved the French position in the Low Countries. In 1708, however, the French advanced boldly from their fortified positions, although their larger army suffered from a poorly co-ordinated divided command. The French regained Ghent and Bruges, but Marlborough crushed their attempt to reconquer the Spanish Netherlands when he and Eugene defeated Vendome’s army at Oudenaarde (11 July). After several hours fighting, during which both sides moved units into combat as they arrived on the battlefield and the French pressed the Allied right and right-centre very hard, the French position was nearly enveloped when Marlborough sent the cavalry on his left around the French right flank and into their rear, thus destroying his opponents’ cohesion. However, the French successfully retreated under cover of the approaching night. Vendome had been badly let down by his co-commander, Louis XIV’s eldest grandson, the haughty Duke of Burgundy, and the French lost, not only, like the Allies, about 7,000 killed and wounded, but also about 7,000 prisoners and, more worryingly, their confidence.

Several British leaders would have preferred to exploit the victory by a bold invasion of France, but Eugene and the Dutch favoured a more cautious policy. Oudenaarde was followed by the lengthy and, ultimately, successful siege of Lille, the most important French fortified position near the frontier. It was well fortified, ably defended by a large garrison under Marshal Boufflers, and there was the prospect of Vendome relieving the position. A poorly coordinated attack on too wide a front on 7 September, commanded by Eugene, left nearly 3,000 attackers dead or wounded. The Allies were only successful when they concentrated their artillery fire, making a number of large breaches, beat off French diversionary attacks, and prevented the French from cutting their supply lines, defeating one such attempt at Wijnendale on 28 September. The town surrendered on 23 October, and the siege of the citadel proved less costly. It finally capitulated on 19 December 1708, after a siege of 120 days that cost the besiegers 14,000 casualties.

Far from going into winter quarters, Marlborough then overran western Flanders and recaptured Ghent and Bruges. The French attempt to regain the initiative in a nearby region had thus been defeated, and Marlborough had sustained his reputation, and that of his army, for delivering victory and for successful siegecraft. However, Vendome’s replacement, Villars, plugged the gap in the French defences by constructing the Lines of Cambrin which blocked any advance south from Lille.

Marlborough’s reputation received a serious blow the following year. He first besieged and captured Tournai, another important frontier fortification, but one whose loss did not breach the French defences. Most of the campaigning season was taken up by the siege. Well garrisoned, Tournai did not surrender until forced to do so by a shortage of food on 3 September. Marlborough moved on to besiege Mons, and attacked a French army, under the able Villars, entrenched nearby at Malplaquet, a position chosen so as to threaten the siege and provoke a British attack on terrain suited to the defence. The battle, on 11 September 1709, exemplified Marlborough’s belief in the attack, but it also indicated the heavy casualties that could be caused by the sustained exchange of fire between nearby lines of closely packed troops.

As later with Frederick the Great and his Austrian opponents, Marlborough’s tactics had become stereotyped, allowing the French to prepare an effective response. They held his attacks on their flanks and retained a substantial reserve to meet his final central push by nearly 30,000 cavalry. The French finally retreated in the face of eventually successful pressure on their left and centre, but their army had not been routed and they were able to retreat in good order. The casualties were very heavy on both sides, including 24,000 (8,000 of them British) of the 110,000 strong Anglo-Dutch-German force, although only about 12,000 of their opponents; indeed, the battle was the bloodiest in Europe prior to that of Borodino during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. As before, Marlborough’s tactics were based on the acceptance of the likelihood of heavy casualties, but at Malplaquet these casualties did not serve to obtain mastery of the battlefield. The heavy casualties affected Marlborough, not only by increasing political criticism, but also by making him less ready to risk battle.

As with the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, it was the momentum of result that was crucial. Marlborough went on to capture Mons (20 October) and Ghent (30 December 1709), but hopes of breaching the French frontier defences and marching on Paris were misplaced. In particular, heavy casualties among their soldiers lessened Dutch support for the war.

In 1710 Marlborough showed his mastery of manoeuvre, penetrated the Lines of Cambrin, south of Lille, early in the campaigning season and then sought to enlarge the new gap in the French defensive system. He besieged and captured Douai (29 June), but then, instead of pressing south towards Paris, moved west along the French lines, besieging and capturing Béthune (29 August), Saint-Venant (30 September) and Aire (9 November). The siege of Douai, however, had taken longer than expected, and Villars then blocked Marlborough’s route towards Arras in a strong position.

The following year, Marlborough decided to press south, but Villars had strengthened the French defences with the 160 mile long Lines of Ne Plus Ultra (no further) which stretched from Etaples via Arras and Mauberge to Namur. Marlborough succeeded in misleading the defenders, crossed the lines without casualties near Arleux (5 August), and, in a well-conducted siege, besieged and captured Bouchain (12 September), a strongly-garrisoned fortress protected by marshes as well as fortifications.

Such achievements among the French frontier positions were no longer sufficient. Marlborough could no longer deliver a major victory, and Bouchain was too little to show for a year’s campaigning. In addition, support for a continuation of the costly war had eroded in Britain and the Tory government that came to power in 1710 both dismissed Marlborough (31 December 1711) and, in 1713, abandoned Austria in order to negotiate, by the Treaty of Utrecht, a unilateral peace with France. The previous year, Marlborough’s successor, the Tory Duke of Ormonde, under “restraining orders” that forbade him from taking part in a battle or siege, had failed to provide Eugene with support, and Eugene was defeated by Villars at Denain. Villars went on to recapture Douai and Bouchain.

By 1713 British military expenditure had fallen to a point where there were only about 23,500 subject troops. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, Louis regained Aire, Béthune, Lille and Saint-Venant. His fortification system, which had served him so well in the war, was largely restored, although he had to accept a number of permanent losses, including Tournai. Philip V was left in control of Spain, but “Charles III”, now the Emperor Charles VI, gained Lombardy, Sardinia and the Austrian Netherlands. Thus, the Bourbons had been kept out of the Low Countries.

Under Marlborough, the British army reached a peak of success that it was not to repeat in Europe for another century. The combat effectiveness of British units, especially the fire discipline and bayonet skill of the infantry, and the ability of the cavalry to mount successful charges relying on cold steel, owed much to their extensive experience of campaigning and battles in the 1690s and 1700s. These also played a vital role in training the officers and in accustoming the troops to immediate manoeuvre and execution. This was the most battle-experienced British army since those of the Civil War, and the latter did not take place in battles that were as extensive or sieges of positions that were as well fortified as those that faced Marlborough’s forces.

The cavalry composed about a quarter of the army. Like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), Marlborough made his cavalry act like a shock force, charging fast, rather than as mounted infantry relying on pistol firepower. He used a massed cavalry charge at the climax of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet. The infantry, drawn up in three ranks, were organized into three firings, ensuring that continuous fire was maintained. British infantry fire was more effective than French fire, so that the pressure of battlefield conflict with the British was high. The inaccuracy of muskets was countered by the proximity of the opposing lines, and their close-packed nature. The artillery were handled in a capable fashion: they were both well positioned on the field of battle, and were resited and moved forward to affect its development. As Marlborough was Master-General of the Ordnance as well as Captain-General of the Army, he was able to direct the artillery. His view of the need for co-operation led him to be instrumental in the creation of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1722; the first two artillery companies had been created at Gibraltar in 1716. However, the British lacked sufficient expertise to mount major sieges on their own and had to turn to Dutch engineers; they were not noted for their celerity.

Marlborough’s battles were fought on a more extended front than those of the 1690s, let alone the 1650s, and thus placed a premium on mobility, planning and the ability of commanders to respond rapidly to developments over a wide front and to integrate and influence what might otherwise have been in practice a number of separate conflicts. Marlborough was particularly good at this and anticipated Napoleon’s skilful and determined generalship in this respect. Marlborough was also successful in co-ordinating the deployment and use of infantry, cavalry and cannon on the battlefield. In strategy, he was more successful than other contemporary generals in surmounting the constraints created by the need to protect or capture fortresses: Marlborough turned an army and a system of operations developed for position warfare into a means to make war mobile.