Even without the painful recognition that his hold on the queen’s affections had been loosened, Marlborough would have begun the campaign of 1709 at a disadvantage, because he had genuinely believed that the French would accept the Allied peace terms. Yet the early spring was not wasted, and Cadogan was ready to put the army into the field, whether to fight or to occupy territory given up by the French under the terms of the peace. On 22 April he cheerfully reported that he could ‘assemble the army at the time your Grace is pleased to direct it … Fine weather has forwarded everything, and a great deal of the corn which was thought dead begins to spring out again, so that suffering the assembly of the army for eight or ten days is as long as any may require.’ On the following day Marlborough told Major General Palmes, then at Vienna, to meet the Duke of Savoy and ‘press H.R.H. in his preparations to take the field’, for if the French did not make peace, then ‘if we neglect the opportunity of this campaign, while the enemy’s circumstances are reduced to so low an ebb, it is to be doubted whether we may ever have the like again of reducing them to reason’. He was doomed, yet again, to be disappointed in the Duke of Savoy, who took so long to agree arrangements with the Imperialists that French troops were able to redeploy from Spain to Dauphiné to parry his thrust.
By the time the Allied army did actually need to assemble, though, both time and weather had worked in favour of the French. ‘We have rain every day,’ Marlborough told Godolphin, ‘which gives us the spleen, and is of great advantage to Marshal Villars, since it gives him time to finish his lines, which he is working at the head of his army.’ Villars was closer to his soldiers than his illustrious predecessors, and knew just how near to starvation they were. ‘I am humble,’ he told Louis’ wife Madame de Maintenon, ‘when I see the backbreaking labour men perform without food.’
When Marlborough took the field in June, Villars had already been hard at work. He had some 128 battalions and 247 squadrons arrayed in a strong line of field defences between the fortresses of Douai on the Scarpe and St-Venant on the Lys. Much of his infantry was in a strong fortified camp at La Bassée, with most of his cavalry drawn up behind it and a strong detachment thrown out to watch his right flank. ‘He has La Bassée on his front leaving Lens to his rear,’ Marlborough wrote to Godolphin.
His flanks are covered by two little rivers which have marshy grounds to them. By this situation you will see that he has no mind to offer battle but on very advantageous terms … Their people are in great misery, but by what we hear from Paris all the money they have will be employed for the subsisting of their armies. And I think it is plain by the entrenching of Monsieur de Villars’ army that they will be upon the defensive, which they would not do, were they not sure of subsistence. If we should be so fortunate as to have an occasion of beating them, we could not, for want of forage and provisions enter into France, but by the sea coast, and then we should be in want of your assistance.
Godolphin assured him that he could indeed help with supplies. If Marlborough took his army to the coast it could be supplied with bread for 40–50,000 men with little notice, and agreed that a move along the Channel coast offered better prospects than a thrust into Artois, ‘where the enemy has eaten or destroyed the greatest part of it’.
In late June Marlborough had 164 battalions and 271 squadrons in the plain of Lens, outnumbering Villars by 110,000 men to about 90,000, and far better sustained. The general dearth, however, made life uncomfortable even for the Allies. Although the weather had now improved, ‘there is no straw in this country, so that the poor men have been obliged to lie on the wet ground’. On 24 June Marlborough and Eugène looked at the French position, and their conclusions, as he admitted to Sarah, were unsurprising. ‘If it had been reasonable,’ he wrote,
this letter would have brought you the news of a battle, but Prince Eugène, myself and all the generals did not think it advisable to run so great a hazard, considering their camp, as well as their having strengthened it so by their entrenchments, so that we have resolved on the siege of Tournai, and accordingly marched last night, and have invested it when they expected our going to another place, [so] that they have not half the troops in the town that they should have to defend themselves well, which makes us hope it will not cost us dear. I am so sleepy that I can say no more but that [I] am entirely yours.
Goslinga maintains that Marlborough would have preferred to besiege Ypres, but Eugène and the rest of the council of war preferred Tournai. Jinking swiftly to invest Tournai was certainly a tactical masterstroke, achieved by striking camp at tattoo on the evening of 15 June and marching all night. ‘Nay, he had done it so privately,’ wrote an admiring Private Deane, ‘that the inhabitants of the town nor soldiers in the garrison knew nothing of it till next day at 3 o’clock in the morning – and then was discovered by a convoy of bread wagons coming innocently out of town laden with provisions for their army’. Even Goslinga admitted that it had gone surprisingly well, and that ‘M de Villars was caught head down in the basket’.
The move may, however, have made less strategic sense. Marlborough had recently asserted that the French, at their last gasp, should be pressed as hard as possible, and sieges, no matter how successful, were unlikely to cause their collapse. Although the written record is silent on the subject, we may doubt whether a thrust along the Channel coast, sustained by seaborne logistics, would have appealed to either Eugène or the Dutch. One of Marlborough’s most astute biographers argues that the abandonment of an offensive reflected Eugène’s influence, ‘which consistently worked towards a conservative policy and by which, almost uniquely, Marlborough would allow himself to be guided when it contradicted his own opinion’.
Perhaps there may be more to it than that. Marlborough’s correspondence consistently reflects astonishment at the blighted state of France, and a conviction that the French could not continue the war. Louis was indeed in dire straits: early in July he told Villars that he could spend two or three thousand louis d’or on the fortification of Béthune and St Venant, though it was ‘a sum difficult to assemble in the present state of affairs’. Early in July Marlborough warned Heinsius that he did not expect better terms at the end of the campaign than had been embodied in the rejected preliminaries. He was wholly correct in emphasising that the Spanish clause had proved fatal: ‘Were I in the place of the King of France, I should venture the loss of my country much sooner than be obliged to join my troops for the forcing [of] my grandson.’ Yet he still expected that the French would agree terms close to those suggested that spring, and on 22 July suggested that: ‘The account of the misery and disturbances in France are such, that if it continues they must be ruined.’ Perhaps the whole rotten structure was about to tumble down, and a brisk kick at Tournai might just prove the last straw. He had a well-placed agent at Versailles whose reports told of people struggling to tear fragments from a dead horse on the Pont Neuf, crowds of unemployed workmen seeking jobs, aristocrats preparing to leave the country, and the king’s guards sleeping booted and spurred in case of insurrection. ‘Certainly,’ he told Godolphin, ‘the misery of France increases, which must bring us to a peace.’
There was, alas, to be nothing brisk about the siege of Tournai. It was defended by the marquis de Surville-Hautefort with a garrison of some 7,700 men. Surville lacked the troops to defend the town itself, and on 28 July agreed to give it up after some of his outworks had been taken by storm. Marlborough promptly informed the queen of this success, hoping that it might ‘oblige the enemy to submit to such terms as may conduce to a happy and lasting peace’. Surville retired into Tournai’s citadel, which, as Private Deane reported, ‘is an invincible strong place for mines’. Richard Kane agreed that it was ‘one of the best fortified places by art that is in the world, there being more works a great deal under ground, than above, which made our approach very difficult’. Marlborough took direction of the siege while Eugène commanded the field army, but ‘bloody work at the siege’ meant that some regiments had to be relieved from the trenches and replaced by fresh units. The defenders’ use of mines lent a particular horror to operations, and Sergeant John Wilson thought that
of all the horrid schemes of war, this bringing of mines and sapping to find out the same was the most dreadful, for it was with great reluctance that even the boldest men in the army then on this service have turned their backs and given way. Nay, even those who had seen death in all its shapes above ground was struck with horror to stand (as he supposed) on the top of a mine in danger of being blown up every minute. And those who went under ground into the saps had a co-equal reluctance, if not more, they being in danger every minute either of being suffocated or buried in the rubbish in the like nature.
Villars, meanwhile, extended his lines to the Scheldt above Condé, and swung his army up behind them between Douai and Valenciennes. On 8 August Marlborough assured Godolphin that Villars was too weak to cover the lines at La Bassée and to prevent the Allies from moving against Valenciennes if they wished to do so. He watched from a distance the slow unrolling of Allied plans for the invasion of south-east France, spoiled first by its slow development, and then checked fatally by the defeat of the Elector of Hanover’s advance guard at Rummersheim in late August. Perhaps, by any reasonable standards, France might be dead, but her corpse was still twitching to some purpose. Marlborough was convinced that the French would come to terms if only the Allies would moderate their demands, and Spain was still the sticking point. He assured Heinsius that ‘the French ministers have it not in their powers to recall the Duke of Anjou’, and declared that ‘the insisting on the [surrender of] three towns in Spain’ made it impossible for the French to come to terms. ‘I call to God to witness that I think it is not in the power of the King of France … it is in my opinion declaring the continuation of the war.’
Goslinga thought precisely the same, and warned Marlborough that he could not see how ‘by the terms of this treaty we could enter, without firing a shot, into possession of these fortresses which we could never … take by force of arms in four campaigns’. Marlborough, he complains, could give him no satisfactory answer, and attributes this to the fact that he ‘wished for the war to continue because of resentment at his rejection as Governor of the Low Countries, by ambition and desire for money’. As we can now see from Marlborough’s correspondence, the accusation that he was anxious for the war to continue was patently untrue: he was now heartily sick of it, and longed to live out his days at Blenheim, albeit with the captain generalcy as a souvenir of his great and glorious days. In 1706 the emperor, on behalf of Charles III, had offered to make Marlborough governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Godolphin had assured him that the queen ‘likes the thing very well and leaves it to you to do, as you shall judge best for her service and the common cause’. Marlborough quickly recognised that ‘it would create a great jealousy, which might prejudice the common cause’, and turned it down. It is hard to see how Goslinga could have read Marlborough more incorrectly.
The citadel of Tournai capitulated at last on 3 September, having cost the Allies over 5,000 killed and wounded. Its garrison was allowed to go to France on parole, to await formal exchange with the Allied garrison of Warneton, taken by Le Blanc, the ‘lively, bold and enterprising’ Intendant of Ypres. Marlborough at once darted south-east to besiege Mons, moving his siege train by water to Brussels and then down to Mons by road. On 7 September he told Godolphin that although he could not begin serious battering till the train arrived, probably towards the twentieth of the month, he hoped to take the little fort of St Ghislain with the guns he had with him, and complete his lines of circumvallation around Mons. Villars had just managed to reinforce its garrison before the iron fist closed around Mons, but there could be little doubt that, once the heavy guns started gnawing at its walls, Mons would go the same way as Tournai.
Louis had hitherto been reluctant to allow Villars to risk battle, arguing that a lost battle would leave France open to invasion, while a victory could not be exploited. That summer Villars was given heavily-qualified permission to fight, and on 6 September Marlborough’s agent at Versailles warned him that Villars now planned to give battle as soon as Tournai surrendered. Moreover, claimed the agent, Boufflers, who had been at Versailles, had now departed for the frontier with his cuirass and weapons. The marquis de Cheldon, captured in an outpost action near Mons, was happy to assure his captors that Villars intended to fight, and Lord Orkney told his brother that ‘we had intelligence of Boufflers being come up to their camp with orders to risk all and venture a battle’. On 10 September, in his last letter written before Malplaquet, Marlborough told Sarah that a battle might not be far off.
I have received intelligence that the French were on their march to attack us. We immediately got ourselves ready and marched to a post some distance from our camp. We came in presence between two and three o’clock yesterday in the afternoon, but as there was several defiles between us, we only cannonaded each other. They have last night entrenched their camp, by which they show plainly that they have changed their mind and will not attack us, so we must take our measures in seeing which way we can be most troublesome to them.
Marlborough had swept down from the north-west to beleaguer Mons, crossing the little River Haine not far from the town. Villars, in turn, had crossed the headwaters of the Scheldt and marched north-eastwards, with the Sambre away to his right. The town of Bavay was the hub of the local road-system, with Roman roads spreading out from it like the spokes of a wheel. Between the two armies lay a series of big, broad-leaved woods. The most northerly, jutting up towards the Haine, and today dismally curtailed by the post-industrial sprawl of towns like Frameries, Paturages and Boussu (for this was once mining country), was then called Sars Wood, named for the village of Sars-la-Bruyère. Then came the small round copse of Thiery Wood. Finally, Lanière Wood, astride the Roman road from Bavay to Givry, closed the southern front of the battlefield, with a bosky finger poking down towards the Sambre near Hautmont. The woods have changed their size and shape somewhat with the passage of two centuries, and, confusingly, the nomenclature of modern maps bears limited relation to that in contemporary accounts. To any traveller making his way from Mons to Malplaquet, and passing the deserted checkpoint that marks the Franco-Belgian border and the stone obelisk that commemorates the battle, the message is clear. This is close country, made for defence, that denies even the most capable general any room for manoeuvre.
There were three militarily-practicable gaps between the woods: the trouée de Boussu north of Sars Wood, then the trouée de la Louvière north of Thiery Wood, and the Aulnois gap to its south. The ground was generally flat and often marshy, but there was enough microterrain to make a difference to those who must live and die by it. The road from Mons to Bavay forks just north of Sars, and its eastern extension climbs the gentlest of gradients as it traverses the Aulnois gap towards the village of Malplaquet, then as now a few houses strewn along both sides of the road. The solidly-built farm complex of Bléron stood beside a brook just west of Thiery Wood, and, with it, separated the Louvière from the Aulnois gap as the cutwater of a bridge divides the current.
Neither army could get at the other without passing through one of the gaps, and with alert cavalry on both sides it was impossible to ‘steal a march’ and pass a gap without the enemy being able to react. On 8 September, after jockeying around the Boussu gap, the two armies moved up to either end of the Louvière and Aulnois gaps. Marlborough had to leave forces to invest St Ghislain and Mons, and Lieutenant General Henry Withers, with nineteen battalions and ten squadrons, was still on his way down from Tournai. On the eighth Villars told Louis:
I have the honour to inform your Majesty of the resolution taken to assemble the army and give battle to the enemy … I have the honour to tell your Majesty that I am delighted that M le Maréchal Boufflers is here; if we attack, he will bear witness that it is with good reason; if we do nothing, I will be pleased that such a brave man will bear witness that we could not have done better.
Early on the ninth Marlborough rode forward to reconnoitre, and saw Villars’ army coming up in four large columns. For a moment it seemed as if he might simply push on through one of the gaps beside Thiery Wood, which would have caused some consternation as Eugène was away covering the Boussu gap, but by midday it was evident that he was entrenching a position including Sars Wood on its left and Lanière Wood on its right.
Marlborough was in no position to attack on the ninth. His army was spread out watching the gaps, and what Orkney called ‘a prodigious dusty rain’ caused much confusion. It was only towards mid-afternoon that he had enough guns available to bombard the French, by which time they had ‘began and cannonaded us pretty briskly, particularly where our English foot were, and killed us a good many men’. Surprisingly, the Allied commanders decided not to attack on the tenth either. Neither Withers’ men, who would be freed by the fall of St Ghislain on the tenth, nor four German battalions ordered down from Mons, had yet arrived, but Marlborough and Eugène were already stronger than Villars, and the French position grew more formidable by the minute. Failure to attack on the tenth was indeed a serious mistake. ‘Either the battle should have taken place on the 10th or not at all,’ declares Ivor Burton. Marlborough, however, was anxious not to miss the chance of what he hoped would be a decisive contest, and trusted to his own skill and his army’s courage to win it.
‘The Allies could not attack the day we arrived,’ recalled de la Colonie, who was to command a Bavarian brigade in the French centre, ‘nor the day afterwards.’ He watched the Allies preparing a great battery of about thirty heavy guns, facing his position, but at the same time the soldiers of his own army were working with passionate energy on their own position. Five arrowhead-shaped redoubts, their parapets thick enough to be cannon-proof, were thrown up on the open ground between Sars Wood and Bléron Farm, with a gentle slope between them and the Allies. A battery of thirty guns was tucked carefully into a re-entrant near Thiery Wood, while the trees on the forward edges of the French-held woods were felled with their tips facing the expected direction of assault. Where possible leaves were stripped and branches sharpened, but even without these refinements an abatis of felled timber presented a cruel obstacle to attacking infantry. Entrenchments for infantry and guns alike creased the landscape, dug by famished men who now rose supremely to their task. Not long before they had grumbled when Villars had come to speak to them, intoning, with mock piety, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Now they roared ‘Vive le Roi’ and ‘Vive le Maréchal Villars’ as he rode amongst them. Old Boufflers, born in 1644, was senior to Villars as a marshal of France, but freely agreed to serve under his command, and the sight of this stubby warrior reminded men that he was a doughty defensive fighter, and there were cheers for him too.
Villars gave Boufflers command of his right wing, with forty-six battalions in Lanière Wood under d’Artaignan and de Guiche. The twenty-gun battery swept the ground to their left front, and eighteen battalions, including the Swiss and French Guard, were entrenched opposite Bléron Farm. A nearby memorial now makes the tragic point that there were Swiss in both armies, and that they met in battle here. There were thirteen battalions, some of them Bavarian and Irish, manning the redoubts, with four in close support, and the bulk of the French artillery, some sixty guns, was sited to beat the open ground in front of them. Lieutenant General Albergotti commanded twenty-one battalions securing the angle where the line of the redoubts swung north to the edge of Sars Wood, and Lieutenant General de Goësbriand, in overall command of the left, had seventeen battalions near La Folie Farm. Most of the cavalry was drawn up just behind the redoubts, close enough to support the infantry if required, and to take advantage of any disorder produced by the repulse of an Allied attack, but not so close as to get caught up in the infantry battle. The gentle rise of the ground meant, though, that British cannonballs that skimmed above the low
crest defended by the redoubts went on to hit the cavalry behind. Villars’ units were under-strength, but he had some 85,000 men and eighty guns, posted to take best advantage of the ground.
Marlborough proposed to attack the French army in much the same way that he had at Blenheim and Ramillies, first unbalancing it, and then administering the knockout blow. In this case he would attack the French flanks, thereby inducing Villars to reinforce them from his centre, which would then be broken by direct assault. He had about 110,000 men and a hundred cannon. Though Withers’ men were not to arrive in time to form part of the attack on the left, as was first intended, he decided to commit them to his right, the closest part of the line to their direction of arrival, hoping that they might be able to crash their way through the ungarrisoned portion of Sars Wood and hook round the French left flank. Prince Eugène, in overall command on the right, recorded this as ‘a special attack’.
On the Allied right, Schulenberg was to assault Sars Wood with forty battalions, with d’Auvergne’s forty squadrons of Dutch cavalry close behind. Count Lottum would attack at the angle of Sars Wood and the line of the redoubts with twenty-two battalions, among them the Duke of Argyll’s British infantry. In the centre Orkney commanded fifteen battalions, eleven of them British, with 179 squadrons of cavalry to their rear – a sure sign that Marlborough intended to pass his cavalry through a French centre weakened by making detachments to the flanks. The young Prince of Orange, who had done so well at Oudenarde, commanded the left flank. Although he was not reinforced, as had been expected, by Withers, he nonetheless had thirty Dutch battalions, among them the Blue Guards and the Scots brigade, troops of the highest quality. The attack would begin at daybreak, signalled by a salvo from the entire British artillery, immediately taken up by the Dutch cannon.