John Churchill and Turenne

Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne.

John Churchill.

Early in 1673 King Charles II had to summon his Parliament to ask it for money to fight the Dutch War. He found it in a predictably curmudgeonly frame of mind. The war and the French alliance were unpopular, and the Declaration of Indulgence, which Charles had issued by virtue of his royal prerogative, was seen (perfectly rightly, in view of what we now know of the Treaty of Dover) to be giving encouragement to Roman Catholics. Although Parliament was prepared to grant him funds for the war, it did so at the price of his withdrawal of the Declaration of Indulgence and, even worse from the royal standpoint, passed the Test Act. The Corporation Act of 1671 had already prescribed that all members of corporations, besides taking the Oath of Supremacy, were to take communion according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act compelled all office-holders, military or civil, to ‘declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’, and to take Anglican communion within three months. In 1678 the Act was extended, compelling all peers and MPs to make a declaration against transubstantiation and invocation of saints.

The Duke of York was an early casualty, and resigned all his offices. Prince Rupert headed the commission which took on his work as lord high admiral, and was already at sea with the fleet. He had failed to defeat the Dutch in two clashes in the Schoonevelt, and on 11 August his Allied fleet had the worst of a two-day battle against de Ruyter off Texel. Rupert had never much liked the French alliance, and lost little time in telling his countrymen what they already believed: that the French were useless at sea. Admiral d’Estrées had let him down, and the spectacle of d’Estrées blaming failure on his own second in command (who, in the great tradition of punishing the poorly-connected guiltless, was promptly clapped into the Bastille) made matters worse. The alliance was dead on its feet, but it was not until early 1674 that peace was made, although its terms allowed British troops who were serving as French-paid auxiliaries to remain on the Continent.

While all this was in progress the cabal fragmented, and by the end of the year Charles’s new chief minister was his lord treasurer, Sir Thomas Osborne, known to posterity, by the title he soon acquired, as the Earl of Danby. Parliament, irritated by James’s marriage to Mary of Modena, a Roman Catholic princess, and by the news of his conversion to Catholicism, debated a Bill for securing the Protestant religion by preventing any royal prince from marrying a Catholic without its consent. That summer Charles prorogued it, declaring that he would rather be a poor king than no king, and relying on the attentive Danby to improve his finances.

Charles had sent 6,000 men to France after the outbreak of the Dutch War, and after the conclusion of peace in 1674 much of this force remained in France, now under French pay and command, and connected with Britain only through recruiting. Its plight was made even more bizarre by the fact that the old Anglo-Dutch brigade in Dutch service, its members formally summoned back by Charles in 1672, was still soldiering on, with many of its British-born officers and men having become naturalised Dutchmen. There were awkward scenes in Brussels in 1679 when officers of the Anglo-Dutch brigade tried to find recruits amongst the British battalions that were then leaving for home after their stint in French service.

The British brigade sent to France in 1672 was commanded by the Duke of Monmouth, commissioned as a French lieutenant general, but, much as he enjoyed diverting scrambles like the siege of Maastricht, he exercised no overall command, for the regiments of his brigade were spread out across the Flanders and Rhine fronts. His colonels were, in consequence, very powerful men, and Robert Scott of the Royal English Regiment held his own courts-martial, appointed officers as he pleased, and happily swindled officers and men of their pay. Amalgamations and reductions were frequent, and in early 1674 Bevil Skelton’s Regiment was merged with the Earl of Peterborough’s Regiment to emerge as the 1st Battalion of the Royal English Regiment. On 19 March 1674 a newsletter from Paris announced:

Lord Peterborough’s Regiment, now in France, is to be broken up and some companies of it joined to the companies that went out of the Guards last summer, and to be incorporated into one regiment, and to remain there for the present under the command of Captain Churchill, son of Sir Winston.

His colonelcy, of course, was French, and his English rank did not begin to catch up for almost another year, when he became lieutenant colonel of the Duke of York’s Regiment.

Much of the British brigade was destined to serve on France’s eastern borders against the German coalition forces of the Emperor Leopold I and the Elector of Brandenburg, whose entry into what had begun as a Dutch war reflected the way in which it was tilting out of Louis’ control. The French army on this front was commanded by Marshal Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne. Turenne was arguably the greatest captain of his age, and might have done even better during this war had it not been for his long-standing quarrel with the marquis de Louvois, Louis’ formidable war minister.

When Field Marshal Lord Wolseley wrote his biography of Marlborough more than a century ago, he concluded that Turenne had been ‘tutor in war’ to the young Jack Churchill. We know that Turenne called him ‘the handsome Englishman’. There is also a story, widely repeated though without a reliable primary source to back it up, that, when a French colonel was forced back from a position, Turenne bet that Churchill, with fewer men under his command, would retake it: he won his money.

On 16 June 1674 Turenne fought the emperor’s army at Sinsheim, roughly midway between Philippsburg on the Rhine and Heilbronn on the Neckar. Both sides were roughly equal in numbers, and the Imperialists were strongly posted behind the River Breusch, on a slab of high ground. Turenne managed to turn both enemy flanks by making good use of unpromising terrain, getting his men onto the plateau by ‘a narrow defile on one side and a steep climb on the other’. Even French sources suggest that it was the disciplined fire of the British infantry that checked the counterattacks of Imperialist cuirassiers. The careful historian C.T. Atkinson noted that Churchill’s regiment was not present at the battle, but it is clear that both Churchill and his fellow colonel, George Hamilton of the Irish Regiment, accompanied Lord George Douglas, who had been sent off to reconnoitre with 1,500 musketeers and six light guns.

Serving as a volunteer, with no formal command responsibility, Churchill would have had the opportunity to see just how Turenne went about his business, and the French army, at around 25,000 men, was small enough for a well-mounted observer to follow its movements closely. The essence of Turenne’s success at Sinsheim was his swift reading of the ground to see what chance it gave him to get at the enemy, and the routes he selected had not been identified by the Imperialists as likely avenues of approach. The French commemorative medal for the battle bore the words Vis et Celeritas (vigour and speed), which might so easily have been Churchill’s own watchwords.

By the time that Turenne had moved south to fight the battle of Ensheim, on 4 October 1674, in weather which worsened from drizzle to a downpour, Churchill’s regiment was indeed present with the main French army. The fight hinged on possession of a little wood on the Imperialist left, eventually carried by the French, though with great bloodshed. Churchill’s men fought their way through it, overran a battery, and cleared the Imperialist infantry from ‘a very good ditch’ which they then occupied, obeying the orders of ‘M. de Vaubrun, one of our lieutenant generals’ to hold that ground and advance no further. ‘I durst not brag too much of our victory,’ wrote our young colonel, ‘but it is certain that they left the field as soon as we. We have three of their cannon, several of their colours and some prisoners.’ Louis de Duras (later Earl of Feversham) commanded a troop of Life Guards at that battle, and was eventually to assume command of the British brigade. He declared that ‘No one in the world could have done better than Mr Churchill could have done and M de Turenne is indeed very well pleased with all our nation,’ and Turenne’s official dispatch paid handsome tribute to Churchill and his men. In his report to Monmouth, Churchill recorded the loss of eleven of his twenty-two officers, but added that Monmouth’s own regiment of horse had fared far worse, losing its lieutenant colonel and almost all its officers killed or wounded, as well as half the troopers and several standards. He was anything but an uncritical admirer of Turenne’s, though, and admitted that ‘half our foot was posted so that they did not fight at all’.

On 5 January 1675 Turenne won the battle that decided the campaign. He pulled back from the Rhine near Haguenau, and allowed many of his officers (including Louis de Duras) to take leave in Paris, giving the impression that he had ended the campaign, for armies usually slunk into winter quarters in October and emerged from their hibernation in April. But in fact he swung in a long fish-hook march round the Vosges, through Epinal and the Belfort gap, to find his opponents relaxed in their winter quarters near Colmar – and what better place to relax, with so much of the golden bitter-sweet Gewürztraminer conveniently to hand? Although the Imperialists managed to rally and face him at Turckheim, he kept them pinned to their position by frontal pressure before sending an outflanking force through the rough country on their left. Turenne took the village of Turckheim after a stiff tussle in which British musketry proved decisive, and went on to drive his opponents from Alsace. In July that year Turenne was killed by a cannonball, a loss that France could ill afford.

The campaign certainly showed Churchill the crueller side of war. In the summer of 1674 Turenne’s men ravaged the Palatinate as they marched through it. This was done partly to obtain supplies and partly to prevent the Imperialists from obtaining them, but also, as Turenne told the Elector Palatine, who complained about the sufferings of his people, because the local populace attacked stragglers and isolated groups, murdering soldiers with the most appalling cruelty. Turenne’s harsh treatment of the Palatinate was not on the same scale as the deliberate destruction of the whole area seven years later, on the specific orders of Louis XIV, but even so the damage was frightful. Archdeacon Coxe quotes a letter written to Churchill from Metz in 1711 in which the widow Saint-Just thanks him because ‘The troops who came and burnt everything around my land at Mezeray in the plain spared my estate, saying that they were so ordered by high authority.’

If there had been any doubts about where John Churchill stood in royal favour, his campaigning under Turenne resolved them. His English lieutenant colonelcy had materialised in early 1675, and three years later he was appointed colonel of one of the regiments of foot to be raised, not this time to support the French, but to help defend the Dutch: the realignment of English foreign policy was now complete. There is, though, no evidence that Churchill’s new regiment was ever actually formed. His colonelcy (carefully dated a day after that of George Legge, who was to be Pepys’s master on the Tangier mission) was simply a device to ensure that John Churchill had ‘precedence and pay equivalent to the very important work he was now called upon to discharge’. He had reached a key break in his career, and was striding out to bridge the narrow gap between soldiering and diplomacy: the young cavalier had come of age.

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