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"Marlborough's Great Victories"

Marlborough's first great victory, as part of the War of the Spanish Succession, occurred on the north bank of the Danube River near the small town of Hochstadt and the village of Blendheim, on Aug 2/13, 1704. It was "one of the most memorable battles in the history of the world."1 The great lesson of Blendheim, as expressed by the defeated French marshall, Tallard, was that there should only ever be "one man in command of the army." The French had divided their command; and, the result was, that the French had divided opinions as to which strategy they should have; and, by definition, there can only be one strategy. The French did not know whether they wanted to go on the offensive or to go on the defensive. Compromises were worked out, one with the other; and, the result was that the French generals at Blendheim were to do things in half measures. The French were consequently, soundly defeated by the allies and the defeat set the tone for the entire war.2 Despite the disastrous effect that a divided strategy had and usually has on the outcome of any project, the biggest problem for the French, was, that they were faced with the greatest British general of all times, the First Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill (1650-1722).

"Malbrook" had become a name of terror to the French soldier and their belief as to his invulnerability was first established at Blendheim. His reputation in the British army, though, as a cool and thinking head, had developed over the course of his career.

John Churchill was born in 1650, the son of an "impoverished Devonshire Royalist," Winston Churchill, from whom the parents of his famous 20th century descendent took their name. John was posted as a page to a royal family, the family of the Duke of York. Such a posting was a regular inlet to the officer corps. He was handsome and bright, and soon promoted. Churchill was to see service fighting for "Dutch Billy," Prince William of Orange who was to take the throne of England after the Battle of the Boyne in 1689. In 1677, Marlborough had married a commoner, the quick tempered and talkative, Sarah Jennings (she was however never to run afoul of her comparatively mild tempered husband). Queen Anne was to make the acquaintance of Sarah and came under her spell.3 Thus it was, that Marlborough was to come to the very top of the Queen's army. The choice of Marlborough as the leader of England's military forces, while coming about because he was the Queen's favourite, was one, nevertheless, that could not have been better made.4

At the Battle of Blendheim, the French and the Bavarians met a strange medley of Englishmen, Dutchmen, Hanoverians, Danes, Wurtembergers, and Austrians. The combating sides had 50,0000 men, each. The position of the French on the ground was good; on its flanks the river and the town; and to its front an impassible swamp (or so the French thought). Marlborough and his second, one whom he invariably consulted in all strategic matters, and with whom he was to become the best of friends for life, Prince Eugène, each took a flank and both failed in their assaults, but retired with their armies in tact. It did not take too long for Marlborough, a man who recognized an opportunity when it presented itself, to see that the center, while thought by his enemy to be the strongest point, was now the weakest point due the French having drawn off most of their center troops to the far flung wings. "By making an artificial road across the morass which covered it, he was at last enabled to throw his 8000 horsemen on the mass of the French calvary ..." Green continues and points out: "Of the defeated army only 20,000 men escaped. Twelve thousand were slain, 14,000 were captured. Vienna was saved, and Marborough, who followed the wreak of the French host in its flight to Alsace, soon made himself master of the lower Moselle."5

In 1704, May 23rd, to be precise, Marlborough was to pull off his second great victory: Flanders: "Marshall Villeroy, the new French general, was as eager as Marlborough ... The French were drawn up in a wide curve with morasses covering their front. After a feint on their left, Marborough flung himself on their right wing at Ramillies, crushed it in a brilliant charge that he led in person, and swept along their whole line till it broke ... in an hour and a half the French had lost 15,000 men, their baggage, and their guns"; Flanders was delivered.6

With Marlborough's victories in Bavaria and Flanders, alone, by 1704, the War of the Spanish Succession might well have come to a negotiated end, except that there were two European fronts: there was Flanders and then there was Spain. In Flanders, the English and their allies were completely successful under the leadership of Marlborough and their success continued through the summer of 1706, during which time the allies laid successful sieges against Ostend, Dendermonde, Menin and Ath; it was thus that the southern borders of Holland were secured and the northern borders of France were threatened. However, in Spain: there was to be no great success as the Spanish people were dead against all the warring foreigners, especially the English and the Dutch. "Starved, when not sickened by strange food and drink; unprepared and ill-equipped for a semi-African climate; ill-paid, hated, ambushed, assassinated, massacred, the English carried on the horrid struggle, themselves miserable and inflicting misery, without any longer the remotest chance of success."7 The British army in Spain had no leadership to come even close to that of Marborough's. The British, however, with the constantly dependable leadership of the Royal navy (George Rooke and Clowdisley Shovel, of whom the most interesting stories might be told) did achieve success in the Mediterranean with the capture of Gibraltar (Aug, 1704) and Port Mahon in the Island of Minorca (Sep, 1708).

Marlborough went on, in 1708, to his third great victory, and, thus perfecting his primary place in history: Lille: "... though Marlborough was hindered from striking at the heart of France, he reduced Lille, the strongest of its frontier fortresses in the face of an army of relief which numbered 100,000 men. The blow proved an effective one. The pride of Louis was at last broken by defeat and by the terrible sufferings of France. ... He [Louis] offered to banish the pretender from his dominions, and to demolish the fortifications of Dunkirk, a port hateful to England as the home of the French privateers." By the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain was "stripped": with Sardinia to Austria, who handed Sicily to the Duke of Savoy, to "England he [Louis] gave up not only Minorca but Gibraltar, two positions which secured her the command of the Mediterranean." 8

Given Marborough's unequaled military success,9 and the huge advantage that that success gave England at the bargaining table which led to England's territorial gains as was to be recognized internationally by the Treaty of Utrecht, gains which extended her empire world wide and formed the basis of her world superiority for the next two centuries, -- one would think that Marborough would have returned from the battle fields of Europe to the plaudits of the entire nation. Instead, malignant or hostile feelings, that always exist in others against a man of success, were to have full expression and impact: charges were laid against Marborough.10 G. M. Trevelyan writes: "The thanks he received, on his return home that winter [1711], was [that he was] to be arraigned in Parliament as a swindler, attacked in the Press as an incompetent and even a cowardly soldier, and driven back, an exile in disgrace, from the island he had saved to the continent he had set free."11 Though the matter was substantially fixed up with the death of Queen Anne and the coming of the Hanovers,12 in 1714, the treatment of Marborough remains as a great blot on the history of England.


[1] Green, vol. IX, p. 110.

[2] As quoted by Trevelyan in his work, England Under Queen Anne, vol. 1, p. 374.

[3] The spell was to be broken when Sarah made the mistake of introducing her cousin, Abigail Marsham to the Queen, who being tired of Sarah's "hectoring" replaced Sarah with "Mrs. Marsham": Sarah and the queen were to become estranged.

[4] See what William Hazlitt had to write about Marborough: "On Manner".

[5] Green, vol. IX, p. 112.

[6] Green, vol. IX, p. 116; also see Trevelyan's England Under Queen Anne, vol. 2, pp. 100-20.

[7] Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne, vol. 2, p. 159.

[8] Green, vol. IX, pp. 123-130.

[9] Marborough "never fought a battle he did not win, nor sat down before a place which he did not take." (Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne, vol. 2, pp. 304-5.)

[10] These charges likely arose as a result of Sarah's and the Queen's estrangement. The charges were that he had taken money from the bread contractors and in addition syphoned off two and half percent of the money paid to the foreign troops which England had been paying to fight for her. Likely this was substantially true; not only for Marborough, but all the leaders of the time: money, secret money was needed to gather intelligence and swing forces by the ancient and effective methods of bribery.

[11] England Under Queen Anne, vol. 3, p. 134.

[12] The Hanovers were in the field with Marborough during the battle of Blendheim and the battles and sieges in Flanders.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)