The battle of Blenheim: how did the Duke of Marlborough triumph on the Danube?
The Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in 1704 shattered the myth of French invincibility and paved the way for Britain’s emergence as a world power. Battle historian Julian Humphrys explains…
As evening fell in Bavaria on 13 August 1704, a weary Duke of Marlborough climbed down from his horse and hastily scrawled a message to his wife on the back of an old tavern bill: “I have not 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’s triumph cemented his reputation as the greatest general of his age. It also helped prevent France from dominating Europe.
When the childless King Charles II of Spain died in 1700, he left his throne – together with all his territory in the Netherlands, Italy and the Americas – to Philip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. The prospect of Philip eventually becoming king of both France and Spain filled many European states with alarm. To counter Louis XIV's growing dominance, England, the Dutch Republic, Austria and Prussia, and a number of other states, revived the Grand Alliance that had been formed against France in the 1680s. Meanwhile, France allied itself with Spain and Bavaria, and war broke out.
The opening years of the conflict were largely indecisive but, in 1704, the Grand Alliance found itself faced with a major crisis: French and Bavarian forces stood poised to capture Vienna and thus knock Austria out of the war. In response to this threat, Marlborough, who was in command of the Allied forces in the Low Countries, acted decisively. He marched his army some 400 kilometres from Flanders to invade Bavaria, where he joined forces with his ally, the Imperial general Prince Eugene of Savoy. It was a triumph of organisation and logistics, and it was in a large part due to the efforts of the Dutch, who laid on much-needed supplies at very short notice.
Battle of Blenheim: fast facts
When was it fought?
13 August 1704
Part of War of Spanish Succession
France and Bavaria (Marshals Tallard and Marsin) 56,000 men, 90 guns
Grand Alliance England, Scotland, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Prussia and other German States (Duke of Marlborough, Prince Eugene of Savoy) 52,000 men, 66 guns
How long did it last?
13 hours, from the first shots to the final surrender
Who won the battle of Blenheim?
Crushing defeat of French and Bavarians
What were the losses?
Grand Alliance c12,000 killed and wounded
French and Bavarians c20,000 killed, wounded and drowned, 14,000 captured
The battle of Blenheim begins
On 13 August, Marlborough confronted the Franco-Bavarians near Höchstadt. Two armies had joined forces to face him: one under Marshal Tallard and one under Marshal Marsin and Elector Maximilian of Bavaria. On the face of it, the Franco-Bavarian position was a strong one. Their troops were drawn up on higher ground behind marshy land along the Nebel stream, with their flanks protected on one side by the River Danube and on the other by woods. They further strengthened their lines by fortifying three villages: Blenheim, Oberglau and Lutzingen.
Who was John Churchill?
Born into a family of royalist gentry that had been impoverished during the Civil War, John Churchill first joined the army in 1667.
He rose to become second-in-command of the royal army that defeated the Monmouth rebellion at Sedgemoor in 1685, but he deserted King James II for William of Orange during the so-called Glorious Revolution. Under William, he was created Earl of Marlborough and went on to command English forces in Ireland and Flanders, but also spent a month as a prisoner in the Tower on suspicion of being a secret Jacobite.
In 1702, he was appointed Captain General of the Allied armies in the war against France and made a duke. Despite his relatively humble origins, Marlborough was well-connected. His wife, Sarah, was a close friend of Queen Anne, and his sister, Arabella, had been the mistress of the future James II. Their son, the Duke of Berwick, followed his father into exile and went on to become one of Louis XIV’s most successful generals.
But Marlborough had spotted a flaw in the way the enemy had deployed. Instead of uniting into a single line of battle, Tallard and Marsin had drawn up their forces separately and, while their flanks were strong, the area where the two armies met was dangerously weak. Marlborough’s plan was simple: pin down the Franco-Bavarians on the flanks before smashing through the centre.
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It took a while for Prince Eugene’s forces to march into their positions on the right of the Allied line, so Marlborough ordered the bands in his army to strike up a tune. The French responded in kind and for some time the only battle was a musical one, as the bandsmen of each army sought to outdo each other before the fighting began. Eventually, the artillery of both armies opened fire, and while Marlborough was riding up and down supervising the bridging of the Nebel stream, a large French cannonball came bouncing along towards him. Much to the relief of those nearby, it narrowly missed him, but left him liberally coated with dust.
Marlborough began the battle by ordering an assault on the village of Blenheim on the French right. Led by Lord Cutts, a much-wounded veteran who was nicknamed ‘the Salamander’ because he could always be found where the fire was hottest, two brigades of British redcoats marched forward in close order. The village had been fortified with barricades of overturned carts and, as the British came into range, the French defenders opened a devastating fire. The redcoats were mown down in droves and the attack faltered.
Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne
A major factor in Marlborough’s rise to prominence was the friendship of his wife, Sarah, with Queen Anne. The pair enjoyed a close, if somewhat tempestuous, relationship and even had pet names for each other. Sarah called Anne ‘Mrs Morley’ and Anne dubbed Sarah ‘Mrs Freeman’. For many years, Sarah – a devoted supporter of the Whig party – was able to exert considerable political influence upon the queen who initially valued Sarah’s plain speaking.
But as time went on, the queen grew tired of Sarah’s increasingly hectoring manner and found a new confidante in Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham. Anne shifted her support to the Tory party who wanted to bring the war with France to an end. In 1711, Sarah was dismissed from court, Marlborough stripped of his offices and the pair went into self-imposed exile until the accession of King George I brought about a revival in their fortunes.
- Read more about Queen Anne's feuding favourites
Undeterred, the British tried again, this time with the support of Hessian troops, but once again the attack came to a halt in the face of the withering French musketry. Blenheim remained in French hands, but the British attacks had panicked Clerambault, the French commander on the spot, into pouring even more troops into the village. Soon Blenheim was packed with 12,000 men and the French centre was even weaker than ever.
Meanwhile, on the far side of the battlefield, Eugene was attacking the Elector of Bavaria and Marshal Marsin’s troops around the villages of Oberglau and Lutzingen. His men also suffered heavy casualties and three attacks were beaten back, but their determined assaults pinned down large numbers of Franco-Bavarians and prevented them from intervening where it really mattered – the centre of the battlefield. Marlborough now launched masses of infantry and cavalry against that very spot.
After first driving off an attempted counter-attack by the French cavalry, the Allies made their move. Despite the gallant resistance of nine battalions of young French infantrymen who stood their ground and virtually died to a man, they smashed through the French centre and then wheeled left and right to attack the French and Bavarians in the flank and rear. The majority of Tallard's troops tried to retreat to nearby Höchstädt, but many never made it the town. More than 3,000 of them drowned in the Danube, including Clerambault who had vainly tried to swim his horse across the river in a desperate bid to escape.
The collapse of their centre left the men on the French right flank cut off and surrounded in Blenheim. They fought on until dusk, even though the village was on fire; many of their wounded comrades died, screaming, in the flames. Eventually the French accepted the inevitable and surrendered. At the cost of 12,000 men killed and wounded, Marlborough and Eugene had inflicted a devastating blow to the Franco-Bavarian forces who suffered at least 20,000 casualties and lost 14,000 men taken prisoner. It had been a crushing defeat for the French. Austria had been saved and, that November, Bavaria withdrew from the war altogether.
Marlborough returned to England a hero. Tallard wouldn’t see France again for seven years. After his capture at Blenheim, he was brought back to England and housed in a comfortable residence in Nottingham. He soon became a popular member of the local social scene, hosting dinners and soirees, and is credited with introducing the English to the delights of celery.
When hostilities between England and France finally came to an end, Tallard was released and returned to France. He might have expected something of a frosty reception when he was presented to Louis XIV at Versailles. But as Tallard stooped to kneel before his monarch, the king broke all convention. Stepping forward to help the elderly marshal to his feet, he murmured “Welcome back, old friend”.
What happened next?
Two years later, Marlborough again beat the French, this time at Ramillies. He followed this up with victories at Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709. By now, France was faced with the real threat of invasion but allied unity broke. In 1710, the Tories came to power in Britain and resolved to end the war. A series of peace treaties saw Philip recognised a king of Spain but forced to renounce his claim to the throne of France. Spain lost a number of European territories while Britain gained Gibraltar, Minorca and land in the New World.
The fruits of victory: how John Churchill won Blenheim Palace
The Duke of Marlborough was showered with rewards after his victory at Blenheim. Queen Anne gave him the royal hunting estate at Woodstock and a grateful Parliament voted him money to have a monumental country home – Blenheim Palace – built on the site.
The building, designed by the baroque architect Sir John Vanbrugh, became the subject of considerable controversy, particularly over exactly who was to pay for it. Public funds dried up after the duke’s fall from grace in 1712 and later work on the building was eventually paid for by the Churchill family themselves, with Marlborough’s wife Sarah keen to oversee its completion as a memorial to her late husband.
Blenheim is the only palace in Britain not to belong to royalty or a bishop and is still the home of the Dukes of Marlborough.
This article was first published in the August 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed
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