Marlborough’s Generalship


The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde (1708)

The campaign season of 1708 proved successful for the allies. They recaptured the fortresses lost at the beginning of May and successfully besieged the most important French fortress city of Lille. Unfortunately, this did not bring about an end to the war any more than had the spectacular successes of 1706. The following year the armies were at it again, with Marlborough winning another victory, though an extremely costly one, at Malplaquet, south of Mons, on 11 September. He also had some success in penetrating the line of fortresses known as the Ne Plus Ultra, but it was not enough to either force a peace or maintain his own military and political position. Growing fatigue over the war in Parliament and the English public worked against his goal of a military-political success. The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, soured as well. The friendship between the two that had taken Marlborough to power eventually led to his demise when Sarah grew too domineering for the queen to handle any longer. “When the Whigs were driven from office in 1711, Marlborough was dismissed from his command,” notes Spencer. “He was accused of having prolonged the war to his own advantage.” The Marlboroughs fell from grace in 1708, and many of the next years were spent on the continent, where they were more appreciated. The crowning of George I in 1714, however, brought Marlborough back into high military command, for the new monarch had fought under Marlborough in the Netherlands and admired his skill as a general and leader.

Most English historians regard Marlborough and Wellington as the two greatest generals of their history, with the two exchanging first and second place depending on the author. I will discuss Wellington later in this book. Marlborough’s strengths as a general include mastery of the principles of objective, offensive, mass, unity of command, and morale.

By holding political and military positions simultaneously, Marlborough had a terrific grasp of what needed to be done militarily in order to achieve political objectives. Unlike most of the Dutch leaders, he saw the enemy army as the center of gravity. Thus, all his battles were fought with the intent of destroying armies. His ultimate failure lay in the fact that there were too many enemy armies, and the defeat and virtual destruction of one—as certainly happened at Blenheim and Ramillies—did not cripple the whole French military system. One of Louis XIV’s advantages lay in the fact that he could keep up the war by personal choice, which none of the allied leaders could do (with the exception of the emperors in Austria). Thus, while Marlborough could maneuver an enemy into a battle that was locally decisive, victory tended to have only a regional effect. Chandler writes, “From first to last he was the proponent of the major battle as the sole means to break an enemies military power and thus his will to resist. In this he was following the advice given by Turenne to Condé in the preceding generation: ‘Make few sieges and fight plenty of battles; when you are master of the countryside the villages will give us the towns.’”

On the battlefield, Marlborough was always quick to read the terrain and locate the enemies weakness. Even at Oudenarde, where time was of the essence and he could not personally reconnoiter, his trusted aides knew his mind and discovered the unoccupied high ground to the west from which to launch the decisive attack. Possibly no general since Alexander was as good at finding or creating weak points in enemy lines. Eventually, however, the tactic of threatening a strong point and drawing in reserves, used at the three battles discussed, became too predictable. At Malplaquet in 1709, French marshal Villars did not rise to the bait as his predecessors had. The result was not an overwhelming victory for the allies but a slugfest that forced the enemy from the field, though in good order and with fewer casualties than the allies.

Marlborough was also master of the offensive. Since he was always looking for a battle, he often wrong-footed his opponents by rapid marches to the battle site. This was best illustrated at Oudenarde, when his men marched twice as fast as the French to occupy Lessines—an advance that a Dutch general described not as a march but as a run. The allies then threw pontoon bridges across the Scheldt while the French were leisurely moving into the area from Gavre. When Vendôme received news of this rapid movement, he reportedly responded with disbelief: “If they are there, then the Devil must have carried them. Such marching is impossible.” Marlborough’s advance to the Schellenberg caught the defenders unprepared, and the allied appearance at dawn at Blenheim was a shock to the French.

While Marlborough’s army for most of the afternoon stood on the tactical defensive at Oudenarde, he was the aggressor at all his battles. At Blenheim and Ramillies, the French generals thought themselves to be in strong defensive positions, so they gladly let him take the initiative. At Oudenarde, the opening fight between the two advance guards virtually determined which side would hold the initiative, and Cadogan gained that for the allies (with some help from faulty terrain reading by French officers). In all three battles, the offense was always controlled, intended to hold the enemy and focus his attention away from the decisive point. In this Marlborough was fortunate to have less-than-able opposing generals at all three battles, although Vendôme certainly would have been a worthy opponent had he not been overruled by the inexperienced Duke of Burgundy. Once battle was joined there was no letup, no time to allow the enemy commander to assess his situation and make any moves other than in reaction.

In all his battles, the factor Marlborough was most intent on employing was mass. He made sure that he had functioning combined arms, with cavalry, infantry, and artillery all trained to work together—a lesson learned from Gustavus. He was able to employ dragoons as extra infantry, a service Gustavus did not develop, and mobile artillery supported all attacks. All of Marlborough’s battles, as illustrated in the discussion above, were designed to isolate enemy forces into as small an area as possible, such as the wall at the Schellenberg; Blindheim and Oberglau in 1704; Ramillies and Autre-Église in 1706; and Hermlingen, Groenwald, and Schaerken in 1708. All these moves drew in enemy reserves and weakened sections of their line. Then, more combined arms in his own reserve would be massed against that weak point: the unrepaired walls at Schellenberg overrun by the elector of Baden’s attack, the marshy center of the lines at Blenheim, the open plain between Ramillies and Taviers, and the west flank at Oudenarde. Although quick assaults won all these actions, the combination of cavalry and infantry in mutual support was instrumental in stopping counterattacks and giving the horsemen time to regroup and maintain cohesion while the enemy horse became tired and disorganized.

In the area of unity of command, one sees perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Marlborough’s character. Although he was an extremely able diplomat, his relationship with Prince Eugene of Savoy had nothing of the negative aspects of political diplomacy. There was no false modesty nor playing to one’s strengths or weaknesses, as we see in his actions with members of government. Here was one of those rare times in history when two men meet and have an instant connection, seeing each other’s value and recognizing how one might work off of the other’s strengths. Although Eugene was certainly a brilliant leader in his own right, he must have seen in Marlborough not only a man senior to himself in age and in numbers under his command, but also an equal in talent and vision on the battlefield. That Marlborough acted as commander in chief when they worked together is not only a tribute to his talent but to a remarkable humility on Eugene’s part. The two had little in common as far as personal bearing or habits were concerned, but it was only battlefield ability and trust that mattered. Count de Biron, who had led the French advanced guard at Oudenarde and was captured afterward, noted the relationship between the two and their subordinates, commenting on “a deep respect on the part of all the general officers for these two chiefs.”

Ultimately, Marlborough was the commander of the British army. He had loyal subordinates such as Cadogan and his own brother, Charles Churchill, on whom he depended greatly, but whether in planning or in execution Marlborough made the calls. He was able to enhance this ability to command by employing extremely effective aides-de-camp who made sure nothing happened on the battlefield that he was not immediately aware of. According to Chandler, “The Duke also took more than usual care in choosing his aides. … They served as Marlborough’s eyes—a truly vital function on days of battle for any one man to keep full control over every sector. Marlborough’s much noticed knack of appearing at points of the greatest crisis and danger were frequently due to information brought back by his aides.” Thus, he was always able to respond to enemy movements and could be on hand to rally his men when they were hard pressed or to launch the final attack when the time came. As battlefields grew larger along with the armies, such intelligence gathering became more and more vital. Jeremy Black comments, “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 skillful and determined generalship in this respect.”

Such was the trust from his subordinates that they responded when needed, as did a hard-pressed Eugene by dispatching a cavalry unit to aid in beating back a French thrust at Oberglau during the battle at Blenheim. Cadogan’s withdrawal from Autre-Église was not done willingly, but in the end he trusted Marlborough to see the big picture even when localized success seemed assured.

The trust exhibited by his immediate subordinates was reflected as well by the rank and file, a tribute to Marlborough’s mastery of the principle of morale. Although Marlborough was one of the first modern commanders to run up high casualty counts, his men loved him anyway. Primarily this was because he paid particular attention to logistics. The French had in Louis XIV’s time begun to implement the arsenal system of storing all manner of supplies for an entire army. Marlborough did one better by having consistent supplies on campaign. In the rapid march to the Danube in 1704, he showed this to its greatest benefit. The marches started at 3:00 a.m. but were always completed before noon brought the heat of the day. Every third or fourth day the column would stop to gather another few days’ worth of rations, so they were never without food and did not have to forage. New shoes for the entire army awaited them during their stop in the Heidelberg-Frankfurt area. This had an amazing effect not just on morale but on character. Black observes that Marlborough “secured the affection of his soldiers by his good nature, care for their provisions and vigilance not to expose them to unnecessary dangers, and gained [that] of his officers by his affability. … The poor soldiers who were (too many of them) the refuse and dregs of the nation, became tractable, civil, orderly, and clean, and had an air and spirit above the vulgar.”

Marlborough also differed from almost all the generals of his time by not traveling in style. He ate at junior officers’ mess and oftentimes slept on the ground. He also walked the battlefield and endangered himself, and few things are as important to a common soldier as seeing such action. By sharing fully in the experiences and dangers facing his troops, Marlborough motivated the soldiers to do their best. Black again observes, “The trust he engendered enabled him to make calls on their endurance that few others would dare contemplate. … Marlborough’s characteristics as both man and soldier provided him with the charisma that caused him to never forfeit the confidence, loyalty or affection of his rank and file. … Above all, as Wellington noted, ‘He was remarkable for his clear, cool, steady understanding.’” He was one of the first to maintain a medical corps on campaign. The care of the sick and wounded tended to be very basic, but soldiering was always a rough pastime. Regiments had surgeons and surgeon’s mates, and Marlborough had the army camp followers deputed to act as nurses after major battles. Starting in 1705 a commissioner for sick and sounded was an established post at Marlborough’s headquarters. Again, attention to the common soldier’s welfare paid overwhelming returns in the field.

One rarely sees this type of devotion from the troops. Alexander and Caesar received it, as would Napoleon and Lee in the future. It contrasts with Wellington’s virtual disdain for his soldiers and their lack of devotion in return. Marlborough’s soldiers, however, affectionately referred to him as “Corporal John,” and their devotion to him was based on more than basic material concern. Philip Haythornthwaite notes, “As one of his officers, Robert Parker, remarked, it was impossible to appreciate the joy with which a glimpse of Marlborough was greeted unless one was actually part of the army, every man of which realized that no lives would be risked unless he was confident of success.”

In comparing Marlborough and Napoleon, J. F. C. Fuller writes, “The one was the forerunner of the other, as well as heir of Gustavus Adolphus; for by breaking down the formalities of late seventeenth-century warfare and returning to the ways of the great Swede, Marlborough opened the road for Frederick and Napoleon. Marlborough broke away from this type of [siege] warfare and returned to the offensive strategy of Gustavus and the attack tactics of Conde and Cromwell. He did so because he was imaginative enough to see into the military changes of his day and appreciate their meaning.” Marlborough, perhaps even more so than Gustavus, was the first modern general in that he had not only a national army with which to fight but national armies to fight against, making his task more difficult than that which Gustavus faced. He had the same disappointments as the Swedish king as well, in that he could never make his battlefield triumphs translate into long-term political gains. As Russell Weigley observes, “Marlborough, ably seconded by Prince Eugene of Savoy, restored decisiveness to the battlefield. At Blenheim and Oudenarde he well-nigh attained the goal that over the centuries has been a will-o’-the-wisp pursued by all resolute commanders, the practical destruction of the enemy army that confronted him on the field. … Nevertheless, a brilliant generalship’s restoration of decisiveness to battle proved insufficient to restore decisiveness to war.” Frederick and Napoleon would restore, and be the last gasp of, the warrior kings who controlled battle, war, and peace.


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