- Battle for Europe: How the Duke of Marlborough Masterminded the Defeat of France at Blenheim
- John Wiley & Sons, 384 pp.
A Glorious Victory
Even the greatest deeds of brave men can be forgotten in the mists of time – even when those deeds have a direct impact on how our world is organized today. Charles Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana, does his family and his nation the signal honor of recapturing one of England’s greatest national victories in this recapitulation of the events in 1704 leading up to the Battle of Blenheim.
Blenheim is lost to all but the most dedicated of military historians today, a mere blip in the crowded strand of regional wars that dogged Europe for two centuries between 1618 and 1815. It was a time, however, when the map of western Europe assumed its modern boundaries. Blenheim set British arms on its course toward eventual dominance over the face of the entire globe. And it provided that island nation with generations of political and military leadership courtesy of the Churchill family, whose progenitor became the victorious Duke of Marlborough and whose descendant, Winston Churchill, would see his nation through its darkest hour.
Why is Blenheim so important in historical terms? It marked the first great triumph of the British army in combat on the continent since the 100 Hundred Years’ War in the 1400s. It derailed the invincibility of the French military system, which had enjoyed undisputed primacy of arms in continental Europe for decades prior to the summer of 1704. It cleared the way for the rise of Prussia and the eventual reunification of Germany. It gave new life to the tottering Habsburg dynasty. The historical forces set in motion at Blenheim would require two world wars to settle in the Twentieth Century. No wonder Edward Creasey chose Blenheim as one of the fifteen most important battles in the history of Western Civilization.
Blenheim was but one of the intricate military turns making up the War of the Spanish Succession. It marked the turn of the tide, however. Before Blenheim, the English, Dutch, Austrian and German allies wasted time campaigning in the Low Countries, engaging in useless sieges that did nothing to alter the strategic situation. Afterwards, Louis XIV’s French armies would stumble from battlefield loss to battlefield loss, only rarely able to recapture its old glories and never able to completely destroy Marlborough.
Spencer weaves a swashbuckling tale around the summer of 1704. Marlborough, dogged in the previous year’s campaign by Dutch field inspectors who would never give him permission to come to grips with the French armies in the Low Countries, managed to unshackle himself by selling the Dutch States-General on a campaign further south in Luxembourg along the Moselle River. Instead, the devious duke marched his army to the banks of the Danube, something the States-General would never have permitted had they known of it in advance.
Once in Bavaria, whose Elector was the main partner of Louis XIV in the war, Marlborough teamed up with Eugene of Savoy, one of the greatest soldiers of the age. The two men, along with the meddlesome Lewis of Baden, seized the crucial river crossing at Donauworth, then, leaving Baden to guard the rear approaches to the Rhine, Marlborough and Eugene devastated large swathes of the Elector’s land, forcing Maximilian Emmanuel and his French allies, Comte Tallard and Marechal Marsin, into open battle near the tiny Bavarian village of Blintheim (anglicized later as Blenheim).
Battle on the continent in the later half of the 17th Century had become a formal affair dominated by intricate maneuvering, feints and only moderate amounts of bloodshed. Blenheim broke the mold, becoming the bloodiest battle in nearly two hundred years of European history. Marlborough, who had already risked so much to bring on a decisive engagement, threw the dice one last time by accepting battle on terrain unsuitable for his forces’ maneuvering. He knew his enemy well, however, and Tallard in particular inexplicably gave the Allied armies room to cross a marshy river to his front and form up unharassed by anything except artillery (bad enough as it was – Marlborough would lose 2,000 men to cannon fire before his troops ever executed their first charge on the French position).
Blenheim turned into a slugfest that lasted for hours, with Eugene barely able to hold onto his exposed positions. In the center, however, Marlborough’s foot and cavalry eventually punched through Tallard’s defenses and the Comte’s army came unglued shortly afterward when Blenheim village, stuffed with French infantry, was surrounded by the Allies and ground to pieces. Tallard’s troops could not withstand the attack and his entire army dissolved, its soldiers dying by the thousands in the swift currents of the Danube or surrendering to Marlborough’s men.
Marlborough’s victory was complete and resounded throughout Europe. At home, Queen Anne (his wife, Sarah’s, best friend) granted the Duke and Duchess the royal hunting preserve near Woodstock for a massive new estate named after the battle. Marlborough’s Tory enemies were neutered for the time being, although they would eventually return to harassing the Duke with accusations that he was prolonging the war in order to profit from it.
In Battle for Europe, Spencer does an outstanding job of satisfying the interest of the amateur military historian, while embedding the strictly military aspect of the Blenheim campaign into the broader historical context of the time. There is at least one excellent biography of Sarah Churchill on bookstore shelves at the moment and Winston Churchill’s outstanding study of John Churchill remains in print. But we have nothing for the War of the Spanish Succession save for this single volume. It’s enough for the moment, enough to draw attention to the unfairly forgotten military genius of the Duke of Marlborough. Perhaps Earl Spencer will continue to write about the times and life of his illustrious forebear. Blenheim helped shape the world we know. It’s time we had a worthy modern account of it and this is exactly what Charles Spencer has provided us.