A Famous Victory: Marlborough Laying It All On the Line at The Battle of Blenheim

312 years ago, a great battle was fought on the banks of the Danube River in southern Germany. At stake: the balance of power in Europe, and therefore the likely evolution of the New World. At stake was also the career and prestige primarily of one man, who had taken an enormous risk to even be present at this contest. That man’s name was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. At this battle, which went down in history as the Battle of Blenheim, everything was on the line. Failure meant ruin both for the cause in which he was engaged, and for his career. As Marlborough surveyed the field prior to the engagement, a cannonball shot past his horse, blasting dirt and mud onto his person. Despite the fear of his aides and men, Marlborough continued on as if nothing happened, waiting for confirmation from his esteemed colleague and co-commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy. This cool head for which he was so renowned was to be one of the tipping points from which Marlborough overcame adversity and risk to win his aristeia and take his place in history.

Duke of Marlborough Battle of Blenheim

1704

The War of the Spanish succession had been raging for three years. Up to now, no side could be said to be truly winning. The Duke of Marlborough, commanding the Anglo-Dutch forces in the north, was slowly grinding down French power in Flanders. In the south, Prince Eugene of Savoy was having similar success in slowly grinding down French power in northern Italy. Success in the German theater of the war however, was mixed, and it was here where Louis XIV attempted a master stroke that would break apart the Grand Alliance and end the war decisively in his favor.

The background of the war was, briefly, as follows: a coalition of states known as the Grand Alliance had come together to oppose the increasing power of France under Louis XIV. This alliance consisted of Austria (the seat of the largely fictitious Holy Roman Empire), Prussia, some of the minor German states, the Duchy of Savoy, Portugal, the Dutch Republic, and England and Scotland, later to unify as the Kingdom of Great Britain. Each individual state had its own reasons for opposing Louis XIV, but the central issue of the war was that Louis XIV’s grandson, Phillip, had come to inherit the Spanish throne, and all feared the power of a Franco-Spanish alliance or union. To maintain a proper balance of power, it was essential that the power of France be divided from that of Spain, which included reducing Spain’s possessions and preventing a union at all costs.

Louis XIV made a bold plan for 1704, when he knew that the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian Emanuel, would be joining the war on his side. Louis’ plan was to use the territory of his ally as a point to transit power from France and into Austria. From there, he would be able to attack Vienna directly and knock the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, his strongest Continental enemy (and who was already besieged with an internal rebellion), out of the war. From there, he would conclude a favorable peace with England and the Dutch Republic, his other two principal enemies.

Marlborough’s Dilemma

Louis also had the benefit of knowing that the Duke of Marlborough would be hampered in his ability to oppose his line of march to Vienna, because his command was severely restricted by the Dutch authorities, who Louis knew would not permit him to take their troops so far south. Doing so would make them feel that the security of the Dutch Republic was itself threatened.

Marlborough well knew all of this, but he also knew the dangers of remaining in the Netherlands while Louis XIV intended for the decisive action of the year, if not the war itself, to take place down south. There was only one conclusion that Marlborough could possibly make: he would march to the Danube. But to be victorious, Marlborough would need to possess three qualities in the extreme – patience when dealing with the numerous squabbling Dutch authorities who would try to constrain his actions, the ability to deceive both his enemies and his own allies as to his intentions, and perhaps most importantly of all, the courage and guts to defy his own superiors in making such an audacious gambit. He would need to overcome the fear of failure in the most extreme manner possible, as embarking on such a disobedient campaign without success would probably mean his end. A failure in the campaign would certainly make him the obvious scapegoat and the Dutch would call for his head. Marlborough accepted all of these burdens, and he did so with that characteristic quality that truly defines his character – that calm fortitude which so many other men, especially ones of such high talent, lack.

The March Begins

The strategic situation was as follows:

Marlborough's march to the Danube, 1704

Marlborough was in the Netherlands, facing off against the French Marshal Villeroi, who opposed him with the benefit of fortifications. Villeroi would pose the threat that the Dutch deputies couldn’t ignore, thus keeping Marlborough pinned in the north (or so Louis hoped). Down south, two French armies commanded by Marshal Marsin and Marshal Tallard would move east to join with the Bavarians under the Elector. These armies would then take advantage of the pressure of the Hungarian rebellion in Habsburg lands, mass against Vienna, and crush the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold, knocking him out of the war.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Yet, Marlborough was a winner, and winners spot opportunities to act on instead of dwelling on negatives out of their control (as Louis’ moves were). The silver lining which Marlborough promptly spotted was that he had the advantage of geography. His line of march was actually closer to the Danube and Vienna than the French lines of march were, which would save him crucial time and supplies. The problem, of course, which was well known to his enemies, was that the Dutch would never allow him to move that far. The French marched with that in mind.

But winners find ways to win, and Marlborough was plotting just as much as Louis XIV was. His first order of business was to deceive his Dutch allies as to his intentions. Knowing that they would never consent to his moving into Germany, he instead proposed a march to the Moselle River. He assured the Dutch that Marshal Villeroi would follow him with the bulk of his forces, thus taking pressure off the Netherlands (this assurance proved correct). With this partial permission granted, he began his march at the end of May.

From there, after having deceived his Dutch allies, Marlborough would now deceive his French foes. Encouraging them to believe an attack on Alsace (a region only recently conquered in the previous wars of Louis XIV) was imminent, he constructed pontoon bridges at Phillipsburg at the end of May. Meanwhile, as June opened, the Duke of Marlborough turned east, with enemies in chaos behind him, and only now on to his true intentions. In fact, the march left them completely disoriented. Villeroi, as Creasy says, was “left far behind,” while Tallard would have to move on the double to catch up with Marsin and the Elector in time for any battle.

The Right Allies & The Wrong Ones

While the Franco-Bavarian alliance was now in a state of confusion, Marlborough was carefully networking with his own Grand Alliance co-commanders. It was on June 10th, 1704, in a splendid dinner that Marlborough threw as the perfect host, that he met the man who was destined to be his close friend and formidable tag team partner throughout the war, Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Marlborough knew Prince Eugene’s reputation. Among his great feats of arms was the Battle of Zenta in 1697, where he crushed the Ottoman Turks, suffering only hundreds of casualties to their tens of thousands. In contrast, Marlborough’s own reputation to that point was far spottier, and yet he was in overall command. An insecure man may well have tried to sideline Eugene to consolidate his own position, fearing diminution of his own glory. This has often been the case in military history, and it has often led to disastrous defeat. Marlborough instead established a close relationship with Prince Eugene that was to prove vital, not just in the 1704 campaign, but throughout the war. The power of this alliance was such that it left Louis XIV a broken man in the years he had left to live.

Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.
Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.

Eugene was given a crucial role to delay Tallard and leave the Grand Alliance forces in the best position possible for the coming decisive battle. Meanwhile, Marlborough and the commander of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces, Prince Louis, Margrave of Baden, would prepare to march into Bavaria and devastate the country while the Franco-Bavarian forces were still in disarray.

This is what Marlborough accomplished by choosing to boldly dominate space. Instead of  allowing the initiative to pass into the hands of Louis XIV, Marlborough dominated the space of the map by marching southward, disrupting his opponents’ operational movements, and buying himself crucial time to consolidate power while denying sustenance to his enemies, all the while Eugene acted as a blocking force to retard the movements of the French.

That is what the combination of bold thinking and smart planning accomplishes.

On July 2nd, Marlborough and the Margrave of Baden defeated a Franco-Bavarian force at the Battle of the Schellenberg, securing the critical heights above the town of Donauworth. This allowed for easier passage across the Danube, among other strategic roads, allowing for the domination of Bavaria.

Yet, despite this, Marlborough and Baden didn’t get along very well. Meanwhile, the Elector wasn’t, as the Emperor hoped, prepared to abandon his alliance with Louis XIV given the devastation of Bavaria, not with French reinforcements on the way that Eugene could only delay, but not destroy.

As the summer rolled forward, Tallard united with Marsin and the Elector. Despite this however, Marlborough achieved numerous important objectives – the domination of much of Bavarian space and the positioning of his army between the Franco-Bavarians and Vienna.

In the leadup to the decisive battle, Marlborough and Eugene (who had rejoined the main Grand Alliance force) sent Baden away with about 15,000 men to siege Ingolstadt. Although this would decrease the size of their army and give the Franco-Bavarian force a slight numeric edge, the siege of Ingolstadt would allow for more thorough freedom of movement throughout the theater of warfare and secure another crossing of the Danube. The move also had the side benefit of getting rid of the presence of Baden, allowing Marlborough and Eugene, who worked well together and who were far better soldiers, to fight the battle that they wanted to fight, rather than cave to another man’s reality. The effectiveness of this ploy shouldn’t be underestimated. Marlborough and Eugene certainly understood the benefit of being picky with who they associated, and their association allowed for each to utilize his skills to the fullest extent possible.

In all, Marlborough had achieved remarkable success thus far into the campaign. He’d successfully deceived friend and foe alike to get his army exactly where it needed to be through a remarkably efficient logistics program, had succeeded in disrupting the operational plans of Louis XIV, had taken key positions through the hard-fought Battle of the Schellenberg to secure his lines of march, had severely weakened Bavaria’s ability to wage war for the long term, and made a close new friend in Prince Eugene of Savoy, whose partnership would time and time again help to bring him to the heights of success and glory.

But all of this would be meaningless if the Duke of Marlborough were to suffer a defeat in the decisive moment to come. Having so strong-armed his Dutch allies, who would never have consented to this operation up front, a defeat (in a battle in which Dutch troops were employed) would mean a catastrophic end to his career. Eugene himself remarked: “if he has to go home without having achieved his objective, he will certainly be ruined. (Wikipedia)”

Marlborough put it all on the line in this battle – the war and his own career, which he had so painstakingly built up over decades of slow rise, sharp decline, and clawing back from the gutter. Still, he carried on calmly and coolly, with seemingly not a hair out of place. His “cool head,” which Voltaire remarked was so notable, was legendary, but Marlborough had also prepared himself thoroughly for this moment, and he was confident of victory. He remarked: “I know the danger, yet a battle is absolutely necessary, and I rely on the bravery and discipline of the troops, which will make amends for our disadvantages” (see William Coxe’s Memoirs of the Duke of Marlborough).

That would now be put to the test, because the ensuing battle wouldn’t be easy.

The Battle of Blenheim

The Franco-Bavarian forces commanded by Tallard, Marsin, and the Elector, were in a strong defensive position. It was formidable enough that some wondered whether it was a good idea to attack (especially with a reduced force). Across most of the Franco-Bavarian front ran a stream called the Nebel which joined to the Danube, which in turn covered the Franco-Bavarian right flank. Also covering the right flank was the village of Blenheim itself, which had been fortified overnight.

Across the Nebel toward the Franco-Bavarian center was the village of Oberglau, which had also been fortified. On the Franco-Bavarian left stood the village of Lutzingen, which had been fortified and stood behind a rugged woody area that presented an additional obstacle to attack.

The overall position was very strong, but it posed one significant flaw – the ground between Blenheim and Oberglau in the center was too wide for an effective and coordinated crossfire between the two strong points (Coxe and Wade). Marlborough and Eugene spotted this, and it would be the focus of their main attack.

Battle of Blenheim positioning
The battlefield at Blenheim

They also conducted an enterprising move the night before the battle to ensure that they would have an advantage. Sending several brigades forward, Marlborough and Eugene set off an alarm that they would be attacking then and there, when in fact, some among the French and Bavarians had expected them to retreat due to the strong Franco-Bavarian position. This caused the army to form up prematurely, being conjoined by cavalry between Blenheim and Oberglau rather than a front of infantry, as was proper. In effect, the armies of Tallard and the joint force of Marsin and the Elector remained as separate units rather than a cohesive whole. This was to prove a second major advantage for Marlborough and Eugene.

An artillery exchange thundered overhead as Marlborough waited for Eugene to get in position. By mid-afternoon, this had been accomplished. At that point, a simultaneous attack on Blenheim on the Grand Alliance left and Lutzingen on their right commenced. Neither attack succeeded in actually taking the two villages, and each came at the cost of many casualties. Eugene’s attacks on Lutzingen proved particularly difficult and costly. However, the repeated attacks succeeded in their primary objective of drawing troops to those points of attack, preventing their being used elsewhere and weakening the Franco-Bavarian center while Marlborough shuttled more and more of the troops he intended to use for his main attack across the Nebel.

Battle of Blenheim 1704

And yet, it was at this point that a crisis which could have shifted the momentum of the battle – and thus the entire campaign (and the war, as well as Marlborough’s career), arose. An attack on the village of Oberglau in the Franco-Bavarian center (a major obstacle to crossing the Nebel) began to steer out of control, as one of the Imperial Princes commanding the attack was mortally wounded, and his forces were in severe disarray, all the while a strong Irish force punched right into the disordered mass. This was followed up by a cavalry charge from Marsin’s forces. This was threatening to break through Eugene and Marlborough’s center.

Marlborough rode up to oversee the situation, but it was still a desperate struggle. Urgently, he requested reinforcements from Prince Eugene. It was here that the relationship that Marlborough carefully cultivated blossomed into its truest fruition. Eugene himself was in an extremely hot fight, but nevertheless cooperated without question or complaint (Wikipedia). The reinforcement from Eugene did its job splendidly, forcing Marsin’s cavalry back and shoring up the Grand Alliance center. The knife’s edge between victory and defeat, the critical moment, had been passed. Now, with the French and Bavarians pinned down in their strong points (albeit at great cost in Grand Alliance casualties), Marlborough would accede to the decisive moment and seize the initiative, just as he had done throughout the entire campaign.

With his troops massed across the Nebel, Marlborough threw his knockout punch. After heated resistance, Marlborough’s charge in the center eventually managed to break through. The lack of reserves and infantry support, which had been holed up in Blenheim and Oberglau, fell to the combined arms attacks of Marlborough.  Routed, the French now began to retreat. Many were driven into the Danube to drown. More still surrendered and few made it out safely. Eugene, meanwhile, continued to pin down the Elector and Marsin on the right, preventing them from reinforcing Tallard’s troops. They too, had no choice but to retreat, fortunately for them in a more orderly form.

Battle of Blenheim Marlborough

Blenheim was now surrounded, and after repeated assaults and bombardments, and with no hope of retreat (the Danube which had defended Blenheim now acted as a way to contain its oversized, confused garrison), the French therein surrendered.

Like Thutmose III before him, Marlborough was generous and cool-headed in victory, offering Tallard the use of his own coach, remarking: “I am very sorry that such a cruel misfortune should have fallen upon a soldier for whom I have the highest regard.” (Wikipedia)

Perhaps more famously, Marlborough scribbled down a simple message to his wife on the back of a tavern bill: “I have no time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.”

Marlborough A Famous Victory

Meeting once more with Eugene, the two great generals, whose partnership was forged on the fire of the field at Blenheim, lavishly feted one another on a job well done.

A Famous Victory

Over 30,000 casualties were suffered by the Franco-Bavarian forces. The army which was so spectacularly to end the war in 1704 was shattered, never truly able to become a formidable offensive force again. Vienna had been saved and Bavaria was knocked out of the war. Louis XIV was now permanently on the defensive. As Creasy remarks: “Blenheim had shattered forever his once grand hopes of universal conquest.”

But while one man’s glory died on that field, another’s was born. Marlborough’s bold gambits throughout the 1704 campaign had brought him to the pinnacle of glory at last, after emerging from destitution and being blacklisted so many times. A long career of painstakingly, frustratingly slow progress had at last brought him his aristeia, his great moment of glory which would assure his kleos.

By daring to defy the stodgy, unimaginative Dutch deputies, by carefully cultivating a powerful friendship with the talented Prince Eugene of Savoy, by expertly preparing his army through brilliant feats of logistical skill, by boldly and rapidly dominating space on the field, by seizing the initiative wherever possible, and by having the supreme courage to risk everything at the decisive moment while having great confidence in his own plans and abilities, Marlborough capped his long roller coaster of a career.

And Queen and country rewarded him, voting him a grand estate which would serve as a monument to Marlborough’s aristeia for all time. It was to become, appropriately, the Palace of Blenheim, and would serve as the seat of the Dukedom which would in 1706 be made hereditary in honor of his grand achievements in the war.

Blenheim Palace Marlborough

Master the combination of masculine courage, wisely picking your associates, careful preparation, bold and imaginative planning, a grand vision, and full use of the tools available to you, and there’s not much that can stop you in the long run. You can begin to use these tools by reading Stumped.

Further Information/Sources Cited

  1. Wikipedia: The Battle of Blenheim
  2. Memoirs of the Duke of Marlborough by John Wade and William Coxe
  3. 20 Decisive Battles of the World by Edward Creasy and Joseph B. Mitchell
  4. Blenheim: Battle for Europe by Charles Spencer
  5. Marlborough: His Life and Times by Winston Curchill
  6. The First Churchills, BBC