The seizure of Cremona
Villeroi fell back on Cremona, where events took a picturesque turn. After five months of careful consolidation following his victory at Chiari, Eugene again took the offensive. His army was still well provisioned and disciplined. He had executed forty-eight soldiers for looting houses around Mantua and, continuing his excellent relationship with the local clergy, had been informed by a Father Cossoli, a priest in Cremona, of a secret route into that town via one of the sewerage canals.
While Eugene formed two columns to approach the two main gates of the town before dawn, he detached 400 soldiers under an intrepid Scot, Captain Francis Macdonnell, to enter the town by this clandestine route, await the quiet moment before dawn, then emerge and open the gates from within. The plan was executed the night before the first day of February when temperatures were low enough to prevent the worst of the vermin and stench of the canal from demoralising Macdonnell’s men as they crouched awaiting their moment to strike.
The Austrians achieved complete surprise. One gate was seized and more than a thousand French soldiers were slaughtered in their beds as one of Eugene’s columns entered the town. Villeroi himself was captured and, it is said, was only saved from being bayoneted in his bed by the quick-witted Macdonnell.4 Villeroi promptly offered Macdonnell not only a commission but an entire regiment in the French army if he would return to France with him, but the Scottish officer politely refused.
The news of Villeroi’s capture spread through the town as the morning wore on. But Eugene had not reckoned with the 600 men of two Irish regiments in the French service commanded by Dillon and Burke. One of the Austrian columns approaching from the other side of the river Po had been delayed. The Po Gate and the Citadel roused by the firing in the rest of the town had not been overwhelmed as Eugene had planned. They were held by men of the Dillon regiment and the Irish took up a strong position around the Citadel, giving the Austrians their first check of the day. Even fierce hand-to-hand fighting failed to dislodge them. At first Eugene ordered Villeroi to tell the Irish to lay down their arms but Villeroi merely shrugged and, pointing to his surrendered sword lying on the floor, observed: ‘I should be delighted to oblige but I am no longer in command here.’
Eugene then asked Macdonnell to tell the Irish that they would all be slaughtered if they did not surrender immediately and that greater honour and improved pay and conditions awaited them in the Austrian service where many Irishmen had made splendid careers as officers. To this ultimatum the Irish replied that their pride was insulted by so ‘ungenerous an offer’ which they felt was ‘unworthy of a great prince’ who would ‘surely know the true value of honour and loyalty’. As an added expression of their ‘disappointment’ they felt compelled to keep Macdonnell prisoner.
The Austrians resumed the attack but without much success. After two hours of fierce fighting Eugene gradually realised that without his second column entering the Po Gate he could not dislodge the Irish and that with every minute that passed the town which at dawn had fallen into his hands as a prize would become, with the imminent approach of a large French relief force, a trap. By mid-afternoon Eugene broke off the action. Well might he later report that Cremona had been ‘taken by a miracle; lost by an even greater one’.
Aside from the Irish heroics – Louis XIV would increase their pay and honour them generously on their return to France – it had been a bad day for French arms. Eugene’s withdrawal and the subsequent inconclusive action at Luzzara in no way detracted from the lustre that surrounded his leadership and the quality of his troops. Louis XIV realised that his taunting of the ‘Abbé Eugene’ and his refusal to offer the Prince a commission in the French army all those years ago had been an expensive gesture.
Nevertheless, whatever the vicissitudes of the campaigns in northern Italy, along the Rhine French arms and those of their allies, the Bavarians, were victorious. There, one German town after another trembled at the thought of the almighty French army. If French prestige were to be destroyed it would have to be here.
Marlborough and Eugene cooperate
The presence of the Bavarians – for neither the first nor the last time on the side of the Habsburg’s enemies – implied a threat to the crown lands and even Vienna. Eugene was hastily recalled and though there is some controversy over the exact authorship of the plan that was next devised, it is clear that Eugene immediately saw that the army of the maritime powers under Marlborough would need to travel from the distant Lowlands all the way down the Rhine to the valley of the Upper Danube if the French threat was to be met.
Marlborough’s march to the Danube is rightly seen as one of the great feats of his generalship. Eugene had grasped immediately on his return to Vienna as head of the Imperial War Council that the junction of his forces and Marlborough’s in the valley of the Upper Danube was the best way to defend the Habsburg marches. He wrote to Marlborough suggesting he withdraw his forces from the northern to the southern sphere of war and by happy coincidence Marlborough’s judgement ‘exactly coincided’ with his own.
This was the first sign of the strong sympathy between the two men whose relationship was to be so critical for Europe over the next six years. Where Eugene was mercurial in mood, neurotic and highly strung, the more stolid Marlborough enjoyed more earthy pleasures. Despite their different temperaments and attitudes they formed a partnership that is still considered one of the most successful in the history of modern warfare. Their combined talents all but destroyed France as a military power, and their personal differences were sublimated in their respect for each other’s military skill.
Marlborough’s execution of the march to the Danube was faultless, keeping the French guessing that an attack was being prepared against Alsace until it was too late for the French marshal Tallard to stop the British, Danish and Dutch troops reaching the Danube. Eugene performed a no less notable ‘ruse’ in marching his men during the same days, over similar terrain. He also gambled on the French army in Alsace misinterpreting his intentions and left a small screen of troops to engage in much activity along the Rhine while he stole away. At the same time a network of Austrian spies in a campaign of calculated disinformation reported that Eugene’s troops were heading for Rottweil to the west. Eugene’s movements in fact were contrived to give the French every reason to think he was to remain in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine. Raising the Siege of Villingen he ordered the breaches to be repaired. In every order and disposition he appeared determined to remain where he was. His movements were arranged with ‘a masterly penetration of his enemy’s mind’.
Leaving some eight battalions at Rottweil, he headed off towards the valley of the Neckar with about 15,000 troops. These he had chosen for their mobility and nearly one third were cavalry: his best cavalry, including the formidable cuirassiers, then considered among the elite of the Habsburg troops. Suddenly from the moment Eugene reached Tübingen a curious thing happened. All this open and rather unhurried activity ceased. Eugene and his 15,000 men abruptly, and to the consternation of the French spies, simply disappeared. Behind him a fog of rumours and ill-considered reports, contradictory and fantastic, were all that was left. Eugene headed towards Höchstädt on the Danube and would soon be within shouting distance of his ally.
As had been the allies’ intention all along, Marlborough now aimed to disrupt the freedom of movement of the Franco-Bavarian force under Marcin and the Elector of Bavaria, who were centred on Augsburg, threatening the approaches to Vienna. The Franco-Bavarians reacted with predictable hostility and began marching north to threaten Marlborough’s supply line. The Franco-Bavarians would cut this supply line once they reached the northern bank of the Danube and so they obliged Marlborough to march in parallel with them back north. Unwittingly, this only brought Marlborough closer to Eugene.
On 8 August the Franco-Bavarians were approaching the Danube crossing at Dillingen when Tallard was suddenly brought intelligence that Eugene was on the other side at Höchstädt with 39 squadrons and 20 battalions. Eugene’s rapid and secret march had achieved the utmost success. He had been helped by the slowness of communications of those times: a message could barely cover a hundred miles and might take several days to arrive. Movements could be disguised by a combination of disseminating contradictory messages and carefully planted cavalry screens.
In this case the effect on the morale of the Franco-Bavarians was dramatic. With no inkling of his existence Eugene had brought reinforcements the size of a third of Marlbrough’s forces to within striking range. Moreover, as the reports confirmed, Eugene’s leadership had ensured that these were all disciplined and highly trained troops serving under a soldier whose name was already invested with the prestige of countless battle honours. Eugene’s sudden appearance not only transformed the equation of power on the Upper Danube but it allowed Marlborough, who had been finding his ally, ‘Turkish’ Louis of Baden, something of a trial, a perfect opportunity to rid himself of this narrow-minded pedant and dispatch him to the Siege of Ingolstadt.
One serious obstacle remained before these two commanders could effect the junction of their forces: the Danube. On the same day that Tallard was apprised of Eugene’s arrival, the Savoy Prince crossed the Danube to hold a council of war with his English ally. Marlborough agreed that the northern bank of the river was the key to his lines of communications and so dispatching 3,000 of his cavalry to follow Eugene back, he began preparing for the rest of his army to cross the river.
Eugene’s position was perilous, as he was barely a day’s march away from a Franco-Bavarian force that was three times the size of his own. An urgent message to Marlborough spurred the Englishman to march his infantry through the night. Before dawn on 11 August Marlborough had crossed the river at Merxheim with twenty battalions while a further column was crossing the river at Donauwörth. By the afternoon of the following day the two allies were together at the head of an army of 52,000 men made up of Danes, Hessians, Austrians, English, Prussians and Dutch. Marlborough’s achievement was all the greater for the fact that his artillery arrived only by the following day.
The French and their Bavarian allies chose to deny Marlborough further progress along the Danube, convinced that rather than risk an indecisive action the allies would retreat northwards along their lines of communication. A strongly fortified position, the lynchpin of whose right flank would be the village of Blindheim five miles away from where Eugene and Marlborough stood, was prepared by Tallard and the Elector. But if the French and Bavarians thought Marlborough would shun battle they were mistaken. At two in the morning of Wednesday 13 August, the allies broke camp and began their march westwards towards Blenheim, as Marlborough’s scouts called the village of Blindheim. Eugene and Marlborough had surveyed the battlefield from the church tower of Tapfheim the day before and, despite the care with which the French were laying out their position, it was clear that it was a battleground made for a bold frontal attack.
By seven o’clock the allied columns began to deploy in line about a mile away from the Franco-Bavarian position still shrouded in the early morning mist. Eugene’s troops took rather longer to arrive on the allies’ right flank because the hills of Schwennenbach and French artillery made their deployment far from painless. The ground was ‘so embarrassed with brambles, hedges and other encumbrances that there was no marching by columns’. By half past twelve the Prince was ready and within an hour the entire line on both sides was engaged.
From the beginning Eugene had subordinated himself to Marlborough and both men had agreed that the key to the French position lay between the villages of Blindheim and Oberglauheim. Eugene’s task was to hold the numerically superior forces of the Elector and Marcin while Marlborough attacked the French line on the allied left flank and centre. The French centre was weak; too many regiments had been crammed into Blindheim but when the first attack went in against the village, Marlborough’s forces were repulsed, with heavy loss.
In contrast to the war of movement and dynamic ebb and thrust familiar to those who had served Eugene in the east, the initial phase of the battle here was a textbook example of that perfection of restraint with which the disciplined armies of the eighteenth century fought in western Europe. When a distance little longer than a cricket pitch separated the advancing English from the French palisades a volley from the defenders crashed out, felling one in three of the attackers. Still the British regiments, obedient to their officers, reserved their fire until their leading officer gave the agreed signal by touching the woodwork of the outer palisade with his sword, whereupon they too volleyed but failed to make any impact on the carefully constructed defences.
Any attempt to turn the French line from here was doomed to failure and Marlborough, who had lost a significant part of his force in the failed attempt to storm the village, renewed his attack against the weaker French centre, this time with more success. His cavalry, though inferior in number and stationary, saw off a violent attack by the French Gens d’Armes elite household cavalry, an event which later analysts of the battle would regard with significance as indicating that the French cavalry were in a less robust form than might have been expected. Despite the tremendous feats of arms performed by the infantry, Blenheim would be decided by cavalry and in particular the cavalry of Prince Eugene, which was comprised, though by no means exclusively, of several regiments of Austrian horsemen (Lobkowitz, Styrum and Fugger’s Dragoons and Cuirassiers).
Eugene’s infantry brigade made up of Prussians and Danes initially carried much before them but soon the Franco-Bavarian numbers began to tell and by about 2.30, Eugene’s position was becoming desperate as the enemy cavalry and artillery began to shatter his lines. The pressure of these attacks mounted and first the Prussians and then the Danes began to withdraw behind the little Nebel stream. Eugene was about to commit his reserves to stem this crumbling edifice of his infantry, which threatened to engulf his entire wing, when a message from Marlborough arrived asking for urgent cavalry reinforcements as his centre came under renewed pressure from repeated French cavalry attacks. All Marlborough’s centre was pressed and shaken. His cavalry had just been caught while still in the disorder of forming on the further bank of the Nebel. Here was the crisis of the battle and had the French commanders comprehended it correctly they would no doubt have deployed their reserves – idle and unused around Blenheim – to roll the English centre back across the river and slaughter it in the marshy land beyond.
It is the most remarkable testament to the powerful bond Eugene and Marlborough had formed during their very brief acquaintance that at the moment when Eugene’s own forces appeared to be facing their greatest peril of the day, he, without hesitating, ordered Fugger’s brigade of heavy cavalry to ride immediately to Marlborough’s aid. Eugene knew the battle would be decided on Marlborough’s front and with his swiftness of thought lost not a second in ordering support to his embattled ally.
Fugger, scion of a wealthy family from Augsburg which though situated in Bavaria was a ‘Reichstadt’ and therefore no friend of the Elector of Bavaria, was not a man to be trifled with. He had earlier rejected a plea from the Dutch infantry for help on the ground, that he answered only to Prince Eugene. Now he needed no further prompting and made haste to correct his earlier reserve towards his allies. The three squadrons of his own cuirassiers plus three further squadrons of the Lobkowitz Cuirassiers reinforced by some of Styrum’s Dragoons came thundering across the battlefield and crashed into the French cavalry in flank, permitting Marlborough’s demoralised Dutch infantry – who were about to be swept away – to reform.
As in so many battles, the line between utter defeat and outright victory was extremely thin. In less than twenty minutes the great threat to the allies’ centre had been resolutely met, thanks to the discipline of a few hundred fresh Austrian cavalry engaged with the rapidity of perception that was their commander’s hallmark. The French cavalry were literally ridden off the battlefield first by the Austrians and then by a counter-charge of Marlborough’s united cavalry. It was as if the tables had been turned in a few minutes. The pressure was now on the French with their line crumbling and their powerful right wing still holding Blenheim but bottled up and isolated, unable to affect the outcome of the battle.
As Tallard would later poignantly write: ‘I saw one instant in which the battle was won; if the cavalry had not turned and abandoned the line.’ The French centre was exposed by the rout of the French cavalry. Further weakened, it severed into two disconnected parts. Tallard and the Elector of Bavaria lacked the empathy of their opponents and they made little attempt to coordinate. Blenheim itself surrendered as darkness fell, adding 10,000 prisoners to the 12,000 casualties on the Franco-Bavarian side.
The political consequences of this day were even more significant than the character of the military success. It was the first great defeat Louis XIV had suffered and utterly destroyed all the stratagems with which he had dreamt of menacing Vienna and advancing a Franco-Bavarian force along the valley of the Danube. It sealed in blood the bond between Catholic Vienna and Protestant London and between Marlborough and Eugene. At the same time it put paid to any chance of a Hungarian insurrection and threw the Bourbons on to the defensive. For five years the myth of French invincibility would remain shattered until on the great palisades of Malplaquet the French defence recovered its stubbornness.
After Blenheim the two victors went their own ways. While Marlborough, after due adulation in London, defeated the French in another great though more modest victory at Ramillies, Eugene returned to Vienna to be feted by a grateful court. Both men were lavishly rewarded. In Vienna in addition to a fine Palais near the cathedral along the Weihburggasse, the Prince was given ground to construct the magnificent Schloss Belvedere under the design of Lukas von Hildebrandt. Further east on the Marchfeld, the hauntingly beautiful Schloss Hof, immortalised by Canaletto, was another gem to be added to the victor’s laurels. Eugene, the unlikely warrior whose fearless courage bordered on hysteria on the battlefield, became a great patron of the arts and the Belvedere remains to this day one of the great triumphs of Austrian baroque.
Turin: The attack of Prince Leopold of Anhalt Dessau.
The Siege of Turin: Oudenarde and Malplaquet
It was not to be long before the sound of the guns would take Eugene on the road to war again. He was determined not to allow the year of 1706 to pass without some great action. It was time to deal with Louis XIV’s ambitions on the Italian peninsula again. Checked on the Danube and in the Lowlands after his defeat at Ramillies, Louis wanted to undermine the Habsburgs’ allies around Turin. The French invested the city and occupied the surrounding land and Alpine foothills.
Another army would have to make its way from the Alpine fastnesses of the Tyrol down to the Piedmontese foothills. Eugene marched with only 24,000 mostly Austrian and German troops across the Alps, ascending mountains and crossing rivers through country occupied by his enemies. To everyone’s astonishment he arrived in time to relieve the besieged garrison, venturing an attack on the French at four o’clock in the morning on 7 September 1706 notwithstanding his inferiority in equipment and numbers. The French were prepared and their artillery decimated Eugene’s front ranks until the Prussians on Eugene’s left wing under Prince Leopold of Dessau broke through the French entrenchments on their third attempt and put their obstinate opponents to the bayonet. This encouraged Eugene’s right wing, made up of Palatinate and Gotha troops, leavened with some Württemberg regiments, to push forward. At the same time Count Daun who commanded the garrison erupted from the citadel with several thousand troops, further disordering the French lines that were now pressed upon two fronts.
The Prussians mounted the ramparts first and in a letter to Zinzensdorf, Eugene generously acknowledged the Prussians’ valour noting: ‘The Prince of Anhalt has once more done wonders with his troops at Turin. I met him twice in the thickest fire and in the very front of it, and, I cannot conceal it, that in bravery, and especially in discipline his troops have far surpassed mine’.
The raising of the Siege of Turin added further laurels to Eugene’s reputation, and although the Prussian infantry under his command had distinguished itself, the Austrian garrison had also fought with great vigour and courage. The confusion of the French had greatly increased as a result of their rear line being attacked by Daun, whose troops wounded the senior French commander, Marcin and the Duke of Orleans. Marcin, who was captured, died the following day. His troops left more than 5,000 dead on the battlefield and twice as many wounded. Barely 16,000 survivors fled over the Alps into France, all that remained of an army which had at one point been reckoned at nearly 60,000 strong. The abandoned supplies were stupendous. More than 200 cannon and 80,000 barrels of powder as well as standards and treasure fell into Eugene’s hands.
The strategic effects were even more spectacular as the French rapidly lost one place after another in Italy and were forced to conclude a general capitulation according to the terms of which they evacuated Italy entirely. On hearing the news of Turin, Marlborough wrote: ‘It is impossible to express the joy it has given me but I really love this Prince [Eugene]. This glorious act must bring France so low that … with the blessing of God we have such peace as will give us quiet for all our days.’ By 1707 France had lost a third of the Spanish inheritance she claimed and the Habsburg Emperor had secured Lombardy and the Netherlands by the two great battles of the previous year.
On 11 June 1708 at Oudenarde, the two allied commanders again formed an invincible duo, Marlborough’s mood visibly lifting when he was joined by Eugene after a string of British losses in Flanders. Their opponents, the Dukes of Burgoyne and Vendôme could not abide each other. Once again at a critical moment in the battle, Eugene’s cavalry rode against their old opponents, the French Household dragoons, though with less effect this time. Nevertheless, the left wing of the allies under Eugene never let Marlborough down and this great battle was won, as at Blenheim, because of the cohesion of command.
Oudenarde opened the way for Eugene to attack and take by storm the citadel of Ryssel, hitherto regarded as impregnable. France was now utterly humbled north as well as south of the Alps and the dreadful winter of 1708 forced her into further concessions though not as many as Eugene and Marlborough desired. Both men agreed not only that no single possession of the House of Austria should be in French hands but that Louis XIV should assist in expelling his own grandson Philip from Spain. Not even defeated France could bear such extreme humiliation, and war began again. In the Netherlands the great armies limbered up for another sanguinary struggle.
At the outset of the great Battle of Malplaquet, Eugene received a graze to the head from a passing shot. It was almost an omen, because this victory was more bitterly contested than any other in the campaigns to date. The French retired from the field exhausted but in good order. They had given a good account of themselves and had shown resilience when pushed. Their defensive position, the bloc, was formidable and this battle cost Marlborough many of his finest regiments. The French were not pursued by Eugene’s horse which in one final melee had fought their opponents to a standstill but were themselves so exhausted that they were incapable of harassing the French further.
It was to be the last of the great duo’s victories but they could look back on an undefeated partnership that had restored the balance of power to the Continent. Nonetheless, Malplaquet marked the point at which France would be pushed no more. France sued for terms and one by one her network of fortresses was surrendered but the complete destruction of France was no longer deemed possible and any plans for a march on Paris to fulfil the promise of total revenge were abandoned after the Tories took over in London and Marlborough was recalled and dismissed. With the death of the Emperor Joseph I on 17 April 1711 all enthusiasm on the part of England to support Austria began to wane.