Blenheim: The Battle That Created The Marlborough Legend
August 13, 1704, saw the Duke of Marlborough achieve a decisive victory against the French...
When Marshal Tallard awoke on the morning of August 13, 1704, and looked out of the nearest window, the one thing he was definitely not expecting to see was an entire army lined up ready to attack him.
France was the military top dog, and Tallard was part of an army that was meant to be intimidating and finishing off the enemy, not being caught off guard by them.
His king, Louis XIV - known by the humble monikers as ‘Louis le Grand’ and ‘the Sun King’ - had kicked off the latest war by trying to install a descendent on the Spanish throne.
As James Falkner describes it in ‘Blenheim 1704: Marlborough’s Greatest Victory’, when the (inbred) ‘medical curiosity’ that was King Carlos II of Spain died on November 1, 1700, one witness described the reaction of the French king to getting his youngest grandson, Philippe, to wear the Spanish crown:
“Contrary to all precedent, the King caused the double doors of his cabinet [private suite] to be thrown open and ordered all the crowd assembled without to enter. Glancing majestically over the numerous company, ‘Gentlemen’ said he, indicating the Duc d’Anjou (young Phillippe), ‘This is the King of Spain.’”
Adjacent countries had predictably baulked at the prospect of an unstoppable Franco-Spanish merger, and they’d clubbed together to stop it. Hence, this conflict soon being dubbed ‘the War of Spanish Succession’.
On the opposing side, the Grand Alliance was born, membership within which varied throughout the conflict, but at this point it basically consisted of Britain, Holland and Austria, as well as mercenaries from several Germanic states (Hesse, Hanover, Zell and Brandenburg/Prussia).
Tallard commanded the Right Wing of a Franco-Bavarian army that was on the way to attack Vienna, the object of which was to knock Austria out of the war and break up the Grand Alliance.
The Left Wing was commanded by Marshal Marsin - it was common practice for armies at this time to be divided into two halves, roughly equivalents of what would later be called corps - and both wings were under the unified command of the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II.
This portion of southern Germany had formed an alliance with France, while other parts of Germany were aligned with the Grand Alliance.
Bavaria’s elector was one of a small number who theoretically had the power to select the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which was largely centred around Austria and Germany.
The French contributed 69 battalions to the army, and they were supplemented with five Bavarian ones (infantry battalions at this point had about 600 men each).
Beyond infantry, there were a total of 143 cavalry squadrons, 27 of which were Bavarian (British cavalry squadrons consisted of two troops of about 60; French squadrons were slightly smaller).
This amounted to 56,000 troops all told, supported by 90 guns, 45 each on the Left and Right Wings.
At this point, the Franco-Bavarian force was packed securely into a couple of villages next to the Danube river, with Blindheim village (Blenheim in English) as the right flank, and Lutzingen village as the left.
Troops were lined up between these two points, with a stream between them and the enemy - the thinking being that the marshy ground around it would slow any large-scale enemy advance towards them.
In addition, the north of the stream (it was called the Nebel) was heavily forested. These clumps of trees were, Tallard believed, prohibitive obstacles to quick manoeuvre and formation.
In fact, as James Falkner points out, had Tallard, Marsin and Maximilian II chosen to move their troops north of the Nebel and lined them up within and next to the village of Schweningen, they could have held a much tighter line.
Woodland on their left flank and the Danube on their right would have narrowed the Duke’s men down and prevented them from being able to deploy in any great advantage.
But Marlborough had done a most ungentlemanly thing. He’d got up at 2 o’clock in the morning and marched his troops into battle early.
As it was nearing the end of the summer, and therefore the fighting season, Tallard had assumed that he’d evaded the English commander and that ‘the Marshall’ (the drum roll to organise troops) he’d heard was being tapped out so Marlborough’s men could march off the battlefield, not onto it.
So Tallard had rolled over and gone back to sleep, while the English Duke was preparing himself for war.
Taking the fight to the French had been difficult, something that may have motived Marlborough.
Although technically in command of the Allied Army, Dutch commanders the Duke worked with had veto power over his plans of attack.
Their homeland was far more open to invasion if things went wrong than his, and so they’d rejected many of his ideas.
So as the French army moved for Vienna, this also presented Marlborough with an opportunity, to have the fight he sought on safer ground.
To be sure, the Dutch still tried to put the reins on him, but it was harder for them to do so the further away he got, what with this being an age in which personally delivered messages were the only form of long-distance communication.
Playing games with his allies, and his adversaries had an impact on the men on the ground.
One, believe it or not, was a certain Captain Blackadder:
“This is likely to be a campaign of great fatigue and trouble. I know not where they are heading us”.
Another soldier, John Deane, also complained:
“It hath rayned thirty-two days together more or less and misserable marches we have had for deep and miry roads and through tedious woods and wildernesses and over vast high rocks and mountaines, that is may be easily judged what our little army endured and what unusuall hardship they went through.”
Despite the gripes of the average foot soldier, the men were well led.
Unlike the French army, the two wings of which operated more or less independently and with less coordination, the two Allied Army commanders were very much in sync.
That’s because Marlborough, who led the Left Wing, had an excellent personal rapport with Eugene of Savoy - which is in north western Italy - who commanded the Right Wing.
He may have held the lofty title of President of Austria’s Imperial War Council, but he was quite happy to submit himself to Marlborough’s command.
His force of 20,000 men was smaller, after all.
Marlborough’s Left Wing contained 32,000 troops; the two wings had 40 cannons each.
Furthermore, both men were naturally aggressive and bonded over their shared frustration at being held back by Dutch commanders, and over their mutual distrust of another ally, Imperial Field Commander the Margrave of Baden.
Falkner’s book sheds light on an intriguing aspect of the story:
“The Prince (Eugene)… had his doubts regarding Baden’s reliability, for he was a close friend of the renegade Elector of Bavaria – they had shared many a campaign against the Turks together in past years. It was suspected that Baden was even now corresponding with his old comrade in an indiscreet way.”
When Baden departed with his component of the Allied Army before the Battle of Blenheim, leaving Eugene and Marlborough’s force numerically less well off, it was welcome news to the French commanders and the Elector of Bavaria.
They hadn’t realised that, in fact, this had made the Allied command more cohesive and ready to fight.
This was especially important in what was, essentially, a Confederate army.
The British contingent of Marlborough’s wing only made up a third of the infantry battalions and a quarter of the cavalry squadrons.
The rest of the units were a mixture of Dutch, Hessian (from Hesse, in what is now central Germany), Danish and Hanoverian troops.
Eugene’s wing had both foot soldiers and horsemen drawn from Austria, Denmark, Prussia and Imperial Germany (i.e. areas of Germany under Austrian control).
And now, as daybreak turned to morning, this multi-national force was fully deployed and ready to fight while the Franco-Bavarian one certainly wasn’t.
While the Allied army got into position, they were spotted by a soldier under the command of Comte de Merode-Westerloo, a Walloon officer (from southern Belgium). Comte recalled later:
“I slept deeply until six in the morning when I was abruptly awakened by one of my old retainers – the head groom in fact – who rushed into the barn (Comte was sleeping in) all out of breath. He had just returned from taking my horses out to grass at four in the morning. This fellow, LeFranc, shook me awake and blurted out that the enemy was there. Thinking to mock him I asked ‘Where? There?’ and he at once replied, ‘Yes – there – there’ – flinging wide as he spoke the door of the barn and drawing my bed-curtains. The door opened straight on to the fine, sunlit plain beyond – and the whole area appeared to be covered by enemy squadrons.”
All hell broke loose as they, in no particular order, called horse squadrons to attention, lined up for battle, shook themselves awake, grabbed hold of equipment, fired guns to form picquets (infantry and cavalry outposts) and commanders dashed past each other, including Tallard, who commended Comte on his quick thinking. They weren’t complacent now.
The one thing going in favour of the French as both sides got ready to fight was that the stream, the Nebel, which meandered across the Hochstadt plain, stood between them and the enemy.
Back in 1704, without any kind of modern drainage, it would have been boggy on either side and, while fordable, treacherous to do so.
Tallard had wanted to dam it in order to widen the marsh, but the Elector had forbidden him.
The reason for this is that a portion of the Franco-Bavarian army had had a run-in with the Allied Army at Schellenberg, a fortress located on hills above the town of Donauworth, not long before Blenheim.
At first, they’d repulsed the attack, but the Allied soldiers had then breached the line at a weak point and poured in, sending the French into retreat.
Many drowned as they crossed a pontoon bridge while fleeing the battlefield. All told, the units involved had sustained, overall, an incredible 75 percent casualties (9,000 men), while the Allied Army had only suffered 5,400.
After the battle, the French fled “through the tangled passes of the Black Forest” while the Allied Army, frustrated and trying to force the Elector of Bavaria to quit the war, started plundering the local settlements. Falkner, using a historical source, says that:
“For miles Bavarian hamlets and villages were put to the torch, after cattle and crops were seized… ‘With fire and sword the country round was wasted far and wide, and many a nursing mother then and suckling baby died.’”
The objectives of this campaign probably seemed quite clinical: To pressure Maximilian II Emanuel, the Elector of Bavaria, to make peace, and to obliterate the local agricultural base in order to prevent French and Bavarian forces using it as a base from which to attack Vienna.
But, of course, the consequences of this were not just military.
Someone who was there was Christian Davies, a woman who’d disguised herself as a man in order to enlist and stay with her soldier husband.
She described the ‘collateral damage’ of Marlborough’s scorched earth campaign thus:
“The allies sent parties on every hand to ravage the country, who pillaged above fifty villages, burnt the houses of peasants and gentlemen, and forced the inhabitants, with what few cattle had escaped the insatiable enemy, to seek refuge in the woods. We miserably plundered the poor inhabitants of this electorate. I had left the hospital time enough to contribute to their misery and to have a share in the plunder. We spared nothing, killing, burning or otherwise destroying whatever we could not carry off.”
So when Maximilian barred Tallard from damming up the Nebel, he was doing so because he didn’t want to risk any further damage to local agriculture.
No matter. Tallard placed great faith in his cavalry’s ability to drive off the attackers.
He had more horseman (he would have 64 squadrons available to him in this area), and quite apart from anything else, they possessed the reputation of being the most fearsome in Europe.
He was so confident, in fact, that in the end, he chose to let the enemy cross the Nebel, in order to have more of them available to kill when he finally unleashed his squadrons.
The Elector of Bavaria, referring to the defeat they’d suffered at Schellenberg, said simply:
“Beware of these troops [the British], they are very dangerous.”
Tallard’s confidence aside, the French took every precaution with their flanks, packing the villages of both Lutzingen and Blindheim with plenty of infantry.
They, in turn, were given every possible defensive advantage – “carts, furniture, barn doors, logs and debris were piled up as barricades in the entrances to the narrow alleyways” and loop-holes (gaps for firing) were created on the sides of cottages and other buildings.
Gun batteries were also positioned in various locales, ready to fire upon the attackers.
Of course, they had to do all this while the Allied Army began to deploy and advance.
Their preparations had been conducted the night before and consisted of assembling fascines (bundles of sticks) into rudimentary makeshift bridges.
As they moved into the marsh, getting ready to lay them down, French musket balls zipped through the air at them, and a cannon ball thundered towards the Duke.
As with William III at the Battle of the Boyne, it was a near miss for Marlborough as the round bounced into the ground near his horse, and showered him with dust.
To his right, Eugene was rushing to get his men into position, being hampered as they were by having to march rapidly across the marshy Hochstadt plain. Falkner relates what happened next:
“Reassured that the Prince was getting into place, albeit slowly, the Duke ordered the bands of the army to strike up, both to cheer the soldiers as they patiently waited under the French fire, and to intimidate their opponents. The French bands responded and a musical duel began across the plain of Hochstadt as the musicians of each army sought to outshine the other.”
There was another psychological game going on as well, between commanders on both sides.
It was a game the Marlborough was already winning, though it wouldn’t have seemed that way to any outside observer.
At 1:00 pm, the Duke ordered his infantry to advance on Blindheim.
They followed a man known as ‘the Salamander’ into battle (Lord John Cutts) because he was known to love being in the heat of battle.
Cutts would certainly get his wish as the village was a formidable objective, as recalled by John Deane, who was there:
“About 3 a clock in the afternoon our English on the left was ordered by My Lord Duke to attacque a village on the left full of French called Blenheim which village they had fortified and made so vastly strong and barrackaded so fast with trees, planks, coffers, chests, wagons, carts and palisades (wooden defensive fences) that it was almost an impossibility to think which way to get into it.”
Because of these barricades, the attacking infantry had been ordered not to fire until they were right up against them. Many were therefore shot down as they approached.
The first wave was blasted back, the ranks savaged. They reformed and advanced on the village a second time but the French again poured fire into them.
However, the attack did have a positive effect, spooking the adjacent French commander into thinking that the village might collapse, something that would have led to a larger collapse of the entire Right Wing.
So all available troops were rushed in to bolster the defence. Falkner says that 27 infantry battalions were packed in along with 12 squadrons of dismounted dragoons (horse-borne infantry).
These units must have started the battle understrength, because, as mentioned, a battalion should have had about 600 men and a cavalry squadron around 120.
But only 12,000 ended up being packed “into the narrow streets and walled churchyard of Blindheim”.
Whatever the number, the village had still become too formidable an obstacle for the Allied Army to get into. That, however, was not the point.
After the two previous abortive attacks, Marlborough had ridden over and prevented Cutts from making a third assault.
Instead, he instructed ‘the Salamander’ to simply keep the French troops cooped up in the village (and indeed, the huge number of French soldiers were kept pinned down there by only 5,000 Allied troops).
On the other side of the battlefield, a similar story would unfold, although a bit more slowly.
Eugene’s Danish and Prussian troops were headed for the village of Lutzingen and had got over the stream easily enough (it wasn’t too boggy here).
But they were hit hard by fire as soon as they got to the far bank, with lethal musket volleys and salvoes of canister shot (essentially tin cans packed with balls flung out of cannons) tearing into them.
Next, as they tried to form up, the cavalry contingent of Marsin’s Left Wing came for them.
John Deane described what happened next:
“Prince Eujeane commanded the right wing that day and made a bold attacque upon the enemy and the enemy did as bravely stand itt and so stoutly behave themselves that Prince Eujeane was forced to give way.”
More specifically, what happened was that although Eugene’s own cavalry was at first able to drive off Marsin’s, the second attack broke them and saw them galloping back for safety across the other side of the stream.
Once this had happened, still without time to properly form up, the Prussians were outflanked and driven back, and then so too were the Danes. Another attack was similarly driven back by an artillery crossfire.
But Eugene didn’t give up. His Prussian and Danish infantry again attacked Lutzingen, fighting “the French and Bavarians in desperate stabbing, clubbing (and) hand-to-hand combat”.
Just like at Blindheim, this sucked reserves into the village, which was the whole point of the exercise. Marlborough’s gambit was to scare the enemy into propping up these villages to such an extent that his centre would be neglected.
This would deprive the forces there, particularly the ‘elite’ French cavalry, of support, allowing the Allied Army to then go in and crush them. The Duke was using the formidable reputation of the French cavalry against them.
Who would be crazy enough to attack the fearsome French horse, after all?
Marlborough, that’s who.
The Allied Army also had another trick up their sleeves.
Despite their ‘elite’ status, the French horsemen used inefficient tactics, slowing down to fire their pistols and carbines before charging home.
This made intuitive sense, but firearms in those days were so inaccurate, and cavalry so fast moving, that it was actually more effective to simply keep going and charge en masse with sabres drawn than to slow down to use guns.
When the French applied their usual tactic, two portions of Marlborough’s cavalry force used the extra time this had bought them to split off and ride around the back of the French.
Realising they’d been surrounded, this sent them into a panic:
“The gentlemen troopers then lost their nerve and galloped for the rear, careering through the ranks of those French infantry battalions that stood nearby to support them (men that French commanders had managed to stop from being sucked into the villages).”
But it wasn’t all triumph for the British. As they slammed into the French centre, British horsemen came under fire and one, Major Richard Creed, a squadron leader, was killed. His younger Brother John wrote home to his mother afterwards:
“The enemy forst us to reteir & I missing my Dearest Brother un ye retreat I advanced in haste toards the enemys squadrons with indeavour to rescew him but a dismall sight found him struggling on ye ground & one of ye enemy over him with his sord in his hand I shot ye enemy and dismounted and lifted up my Brother and brught him off but he neaver spoke more.”
Still, the French were stunned that their cavalry, thought of as the most unstoppable force in Europe, had actually been beaten.
It was a major psychological blow.
But the enemy wouldn’t give up.
A counter-attack made by three Red-Coated Irish regiments that were fighting on the French side tore into some of the Dutch troops and routed them.
Marlborough, in turn, ordered artillery be brought up to support the Dutch by firing on the Irish units that had repulsed his attack.
This, in turn, was at risk of coming under attack from French cavalry as it got into position, though cuirassiers (armoured cavalry) belonging to the Duke were sent in to deter them.
With the artillery free, they were able to support the Dutch as well as Hessians and Hanoverians who fought tooth and claw, or rather musket and bayonet, to force the French back into the village they were on the verge of breaking out of.
They did so, but at considerable cost, with one unit, the Goor Regiment, having only 50 men left by the end.
Despite the damage being sustained, the Allied Army was winning. Marlborough’s plan of penning in the French was working so well that those packed into Lutzingen and Blindheim were actually restricted from firing by being so close together.
In the centre, the gradual wearing down the French cavalry was also working:
“Tallard’s squadrons were ragged and tired. The Allied cavalry, however, were still in good order due to the valuable support of their infantry, whose steady musketry volleys broke up the French cavalry attacks with ruthless efficiency.”
As one man on the French side, Merode-Westerloo, put it:
“They had brought their infantry well forward and they killed and wounded many of our horses.”
This continued pressure led to a rout, which left the French infantry abandoned and vulnerable – a mere nine battalions facing enemy infantry, cavalry and cannons all directed against them.
They formed squares to resist cavalry charges but were soon cut down by fire.
The fleeing cavalry, meanwhile, plunged into the Danube, with riders (many of whom couldn’t swim) clinging to their horses.
For a lot of those who failed to hang on, drowning was inevitable.
Tallard, at this point, went to Marlborough to surrender. He found him near the Hochstadt road, where he was watching the continuing rout of the French army. He said to Tallard:
“I am very sorry that such a cruel misfortune should have fallen upon a soldier for whom I have the highest regard.”
“And I congratulate you on defeating the best soldiers in the world.”
While Tallard talked surrender terms with Marlborough, Prince Eugene continued to press the attack home on the Franco-Bavarian force at Lutzingen on their Left Wing.
The fighting here was in sharp contrast to the gentlemanly discussion going on between Tallard and Marlborough.
The Bavarian gunners poured canister shot relentlessly into the ranks of attacking Prussians, who, even more relentlessly, ignored the terrible losses and drove on, slaughtering the gun crews when they finally got to them.
Running hand-to-hand battles also took place beyond the village as Eugene’s men pursued the remains of the French Left through the copses just behind the battlefield.
This “left the groves thickly scattered with broken bodies in their blue, grey and white uniforms”.
Counter-intuitively, resistance at Blindheim also continued – so cut off it seemed to be from Tallard at this point.
Unfortunately for those crammed inside, the Duke’s Left Wing troops continued to press home, working their way through the gardens and orchards, and then blasting the streets with lethal musket volleys as the defenders tried to flee down them.
Artillery was later brought in to do the same, of course with even more lethality.
Around the churchyard, which was particularly strongly defended, “a bitter struggle with bayonet and musket butt” ensued as the attackers continued to pour in.
The battle at this point also caused many of the cottages to catch fire, a terrible development for the wounded that had been stuffed inside them. John Deane later remembered:
“Many on both sides were burnt to death. Great and grevious were the cryes of the maimed, and those suffering in the flames.”
In an example of just how confusing and difficult it was to control battles at this time, Tallard, upon hearing the continued musket shots emanating from the village, sent Marlborough a message saying he was prepared to get word to the garrison within to leave the field of battle. With him in captivity, and the local commander now dead (he’d drowned crossing the Danube), there was no one present to tell the men there to either surrender or leave.
But Marlborough was not receptive. Busy helping Prince Eugene deal with the even more resistant French Left Wing, he sent word:
“Inform M. Tallard that, in the position in which he now is (i.e. a prisoner), he has no command.”
Eventually, the Frenchmen still within Blindheim would be persuaded to give up the fight, and, as darkness came on, 10,000 of them surrendered the colours (national and unit flags) and laid down their muskets.
The Allied Army too were exhausted, and Falkner points out that it was a blessing for them too that the French decided to surrender when it did.
For his part, the Duke was still involved in the pursuit of remnants of the French army, and, grabbing an aid, the Virginia-born Colonel Daniel Parke, hurriedly scribbled a note on the back of an old tavern bill and bid his man take it on to his wife, the Duchess Sarah in London. It read:
“I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know that her Army has had a glorious victory. M. Tallard and two other generals are in my coach and I am following the rest. The bearer, Colonel Parke, will give her an account of what has passed. I shall doe it in a day or two by another more at large.”
Eight days later, the note reached the Queen at Windsor Castle.
More than 9,000 men under Marlborough’s command had become casualties, and 5,000 from Prince Eugene’s. The French suffered, in turn, 34,000 casualties, 14,000 of whom as prisoners.
It was a great victory, and although it didn’t end the war (it would go on for another 10 years) it did at least prevent King Louis from winning it.
The House of Lords certainly thought it a splendid victory:
“The happy success that has attended Her Majesty’s arms under Your Grace’s conduct in Germany in the last campaign, so truly great, so truly glorious in all its circumstances, that few instances in former ages equal, much less excel the lustre of it.
Your Grace has not over thrown young and unskillful generals, raw and undisciplined troops, but Your Grace has conquered the French and Bavarian armies, that were fully instructed in the arts of war; select veteran troops, flushed with former successes and victories, commanded by generals of great experience and bravery.”
In return for his triumph, Marlborough was given the royal hunting estate at Woodstock in Oxfordshire and the funds to build upon it a great palace, Blenheim Palace.
It stands to this day and has continued to serve as the home of the Dukes of Marlborough.
One descendant of the Duke born and brought up there would go on to be Prime Minister and would become even more famous than Marlborough himself. The Duke’s name was actually John Churchill, and Winston would one day follow him into the history books.