The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde (John Wootton).
The perfect illustration of the difficulties of double command. In 1708, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, wanted to raise the morale of his Dutch allies by winning a battle in Flanders. His main objective was to retake all the territories lost the two previous years. On the French side, the king had sent his grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, to command the field army with the Marechal de Vendôme on a secondary front. Eugene of Savoy’s army was far away, and Marlborough’s troops were deployed all over northern Flanders, with Brussels as headquarters. On 16 May, the French army advanced toward Brussels, its superior number pushing away Marlborough’s troops. Then Bourgogne stopped waiting for orders from Versailles, 200 miles away. A very religious man, Bourgogne was also very cautious and was always at variance with Vendôme’s orders. On the other side, Marlborough asked Prince Eugene to join his army as soon as possible to coordinate an aggressive defense.
At the beginning of July, a sycophantic noble follower of Bourgogne suggested an attack toward Bruges and Ghent. The two towns were easily taken, and the royal army decided to encircle Oudenaarde on the River Scheldt. But Marlborough had discerned this move and sent his army to cross the river before the French arrived.
On 11 July, the French general Biron discovered the waiting allied troops and asked for orders. Vendôme refused to believe Biron and left his army without deployment orders until it was too late. Marlborough, urging his troops on, arrived at noon and deployed on a line of low hills north of Oudenaarde. His lines were protected by meadows and hedges. By 3 P.M., Bourgogne gave the order to the marching French to assault the waiting English lines. The attack began on the French right, soon supported by the center. All this uncoordinated movement gave predictable results, as all the columns were repulsed. The French left, under Vendôme, remained useless.
Eventually, with Eugene’s army facing Vendôme, Marlborough took the initiative. Following the retiring French right, he managed to encircle them, forcing thousands to surrender. The French rout sent them back to Bruges. Marlborough’s victory restored allied morale. The French had lost more than 15,000 soldiers and were no longer able to protect their northern border. France lay open to an invasion.
References and further reading: Belloc,H. The Tactics and Strategy of the Great Duke of Marlborough. London: Arrowsmith, 1933. Bluche, François. Dictionnaire du Grand Siècle. Paris: Fayard, 1990.
Vendôme, Louis Joseph, duc de (1654–1712). Maréchal de France.
Vendôme was one of Louis XIV’s late appointments to high command, a role in which he proved less able than he had previously shown himself to be as a subordinate to Luxembourg. Vendôme fought throughout the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), including service under Luxembourg at Steenkerke (July 24/August 3, 1692). He next went to Spain, where he campaigned in Catalonia from 1695. He took Barcelona in 1697, after a two-year Allied occupation. Vendôme was the main French commander in northern Italy during the opening years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). He replaced the captured Villeroi in northern Italy and was immediately defeated at Luzzara (August 4/15, 1702) by an Imperial army led by Prince Eugene. Vendôme faced Eugene again at Cassano (August 16, 1705), this time beating him. That allowed Vendôme to add additional Italian territory to Louis’ conquests.
Vendôme was recalled to Flanders to repair the damage done to French defenses when Marlborough partially broke the Lines of Brabant. He managed to slow Marlborough down over the rest of 1707. The next year, Vendôme bested Marlborough in a campaign of maneuver that allowed him to retake Bruges and Ghent. However, Marlborough and Eugene linked, caught up with Vendôme, and defeated him soundly at Oudenarde (June 30/July 11, 1708). Worse lay ahead: Vendôme lost the siege of Lille (1708) and with it, Louis’ confidence. He was removed from command, and was not restored until 1710. Thereafter, he fought with more success against the British and other Allied forces in Spain, winning at Brihuega (December 8–9/19–20, 1710) and again at Villa Viciosa(December 10/21, 1710). He died two years later. By that time, the succession in Spain was essentially won for Louis’ grandson, Philip V, in part due to Vendôme’s efforts.
Duc de Bourgogne, Louis, Duke of Burgundy
Louis de France, Duke of Burgundy, and later Dauphin of France 1682 –1712 was the eldest son of Louis, Dauphin of France. He became the official Dauphin of France upon his father’s death in 1711 but he died himself a year later.
In 1708, during the Spanish War of Succession, Louis, Duke of Burgundy, was given command of an army in Flanders, advised by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme. Confusion arose over who was in command of the army, which led to delays in giving orders. For a time, all military decisions had to be referred to King Louis XIV. This caused further confusion as messages had to travel between the battle front and Versailles. The Grand Alliance, which opposed France in the war, took advantage of the indecisiveness and advanced its forces. The culminating Battle of Oudenarde was a significant defeat for the French due to Louis’ poor choices and reluctance to support Vendôme. In the aftermath, France lost the city of Lille and Grand Alliance forces made their way into France for a brief time.