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1704 - The Battle of Blenheim

By Lord Morningstar

Introduction

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By the turn of the Eighteenth Century, Louis XIV, Bourbon King of France, had every reason to be smug. At only four years of age, he had inherited a backwards, feudal state, dominated by powerful nobles and rent by civil war. Sixty years later, he was the most powerful, feared and respected monarch in Europe. He had appointed able ministers to govern his kingdom, reformed her system of banking and finance, broken the power of the unruly nobles and concentrated power in Paris. France's colonies had multiplied, her border was ringed by fortresses, and her enemies felt the tramp of her large, well-led and professional army. Such was the might and splendour of Louis' reign that he became known as Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King. He was a far-thinking and progressive ruler who bought prosperity and stability to France, but also a militarist and an autocrat who famously declared that "I am the state" (L'Etat, c'est moi) and who had ambitions to dominate Europe.

These ambitions soon saw Louis at odds with the Hapsburgs, who had been the most powerful family in Europe since the late middle ages. The Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), had been the most powerful European sovereign since Charlemagne. He inherited Spain and its empire in the Americas from his mother (which he ruled as Charles I), Burgundy and the Netherlands from his father, and Austria from his paternal grandfather. Upon his death, his empire had been split between his descendants, with one line of the family ruling Spain and her colonies and the Empire's lands in Italy and the Netherlands, and the other ruling in Austria and effectively holding the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire.

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In order to keep their vast lands within their family the Hapsburgs were notorious inbreeders, and uncle-niece and first cousin marriages were alarmingly common among them. This was the cause of the infamous ‘Hapsburg lip', a deformity of the lower jaw which ran in the family. More importantly, it would eventually plunge Europe into war. In 1665, the crown of the Spanish Empire passed to Charles I's great-great grandson, Charles II. He was descended through the last five generations from only seven individual people, and so suffered from such severe genetic illnesses that he could hardly eat or speak, was physically disabled and apparently mentally retarded. It was soon clear that he could not possibly father an heir, and as he was the last male Spanish Hapsburg (in effect, the entire family tree converged on him) Spain needed to look elsewhere for a potential king.

Charles' aunt, Maria Theresa, was somewhat soft in the head but nowhere near as badly disabled as he was. And in 1660, the ambitious and far-sighted Louis XIV had married her, made her Queen of France and fathered a son and heir by her. She had since died, but Louis, Le Grand Dauphin of France (so-called for his large physical size rather than for any great achievement) was now the most direct descendant of the Spanish Hapsburgs and a likely heir to the Spanish throne.

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This state of affairs was of little liking to the Austrian Hapsburgs, who would have preferred to inherit Spain themselves, or indeed to the rest of Europe, which had little desire to see a vast Franco-Spanish Empire with the Sun King as its effective ruler. The Protestant nations of Northern Europe – Britain, the Dutch Republic, Hanover, Denmark, Prussia and Sweden – were especially concerned that they would be the first to feel the clout of the Catholic superstate. Louis XIV had little love of Protestantism, having revoked the Edict of Nantes and expelled thousands of Huguenots.

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Leopold I, the ruler of the Austrian Hapsburgs and Holy Roman Emperor, was eager to secure the Spanish crown for himself or one of his successors. This was less than ideal for the Protestant nations, as it would revive the Empire of Charles V. However, it was still preferable to a Bourbon on the Spanish throne, and the new Hapsburg Empire would balance the French behemoth. In addition, Louis XIV and Leopold were already rivals. The Holy Roman Emperor was notionally elected by the rulers of the German states (the Electors) from among Princes who ruled lands within the Empire's traditional borders (Germany, Northern Italy, the Netherlands and parts of France and Eastern Europe). For the last couple of centuries, the Emperor had always been the Hapsburg ruler of Austria. However, as parts of France were within the Empire's borders, Kings of France had not been above claiming the crown for themselves. Naturally, Leopold was suspicious that Louis might try his luck. He had already expanded France eastward into Imperial lands using guile, bribery and outright conquest, and had begun to seek allies among the Electors. Unlike France, the Empire was extremely decentralised, with many of its lands effectively autonomous kingdoms. The Hapsburgs had been unable to centralise their power as Louis had.

In 1688, Leopold I formed an alliance against the Sun King with the ambition of rolling France's borders back to where they had been at the start of Louis XIV's reign and putting a permanent dent in his power. It included the new Protestant king of England, William III, Sweden, Spain, the United Provinces (those part of the Netherlands that were independent) and several other states. Louis proved a match even for this formidable ‘Grand Alliance' and the Nine Years' War (1688-1697) ended in stalemate. With Charles II's health failing, the issue of the Spanish succession was becoming critical. In 1692, a new claimant was born, Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria. His father was the Elector of Bavaria, and his mother, Maria Antonia of Austria, was the daughter of Leopold and Charles II's sister, Margaret Theresa of Spain. Yes, even at this stage, the Hapsburgs were still marrying each other. England and France agreed that Joseph Ferdinand could inherit the Spanish crown, and that the rest of Spain's European territories would be divided between France and Austria. The Spanish, however, resisted the dismemberment of their Empire and the Austrians were angry that they hadn't been consulted. The whole thing became academic when Ferdinand died of smallpox in 1699. Before any other arrangement could be reached, Charles himself died on November 1, 1700, leaving his entire Empire in a will to his great-nephew, Philip of Anjou, the son of the Grand Dauphin.

Some of Louis' advisors suggested that he accept the partition treaty. But the Austrians would not accept French inheritance of any Spanish territory, and Charles' will forbade any division of the Empire – one of Louis' grandsons would need to accept the will in its entirety otherwise Leopold would inherit the empire. Louis decided to go all or nothing – he packed his grandson off to Madrid, where he was crowned King Philip V in early 1701, and prepared for war.

Cries of indignation and fear swept across Europe, followed by the steady beat of drums. Leopold and William of Orange began to form an alliance against France. The Dutch in the United Provinces had long been Louis's bitterest foes, and they had shown themselves willing in their long wars against him to flood their own lands rather than yield them to his armies. The Kingdoms of Britain (England, Scotland and Ireland, while under the same sovereign, were still separate kingdoms at this time) were still weak from civil war and the repressive rule of James II, but under William they had begun to grow into a potential European power. He died in March 1702, but his successor, Queen Anne, proved just as willing to fight. The King of Prussia, the Elector of Hanover and the Duke of Savoy all proved loyal to the Emperor, and pledged their troops to the alliance. They were subsequently joined by Denmark and Portugal. On May 4, 1702, the allies formally declared war.

Background

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It was a brave move. The Grand Alliance of 1702 was somewhat less grand than the one which had tried and failed to stop the Sun King in the previous decade. For a start, Spain was now an ally rather than an enemy of France. And Sweden, one of the most powerful Protestant nations, was now occupied with its own war against Russia and unable to aid the allies. In addition, Louis was not content to merely attack the Empire from without, but also set himself to tearing it apart from within. He won the support the Elector of Cologne, and more seriously for the allies, the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II Emanuel. The Elector had ambitions to displace the Hapsburgs as Holy Roman Emperors, and saw an alliance with his old enemy, Louis XIV, as a means of achieving it. His defection was a cruel blow, as he was an able general and had at his command one of the best armies in Germany. Furthermore, his lands lined up directly with Austria, allowing him to threaten the heart of the Empire. The Sun King also helped stir the people of Hungary to revolt against Austrian rule, besetting the House of Hapsburg from east as well as west.

But the allies had to do the best with what they had. England had not committed an army to the continent since its defeat in the Hundred Years' War in 1453. It had fought in the Nine Years' War, but had limited its involvement to raids, naval warfare and fighting in the colonies – Louis XIV no doubt viewed it as more of an irritant than a serious revival. Now, though, it could see that it could only make a meaningful contribution to the allied war effort by challenging France in continental Europe itself. It would land an army in the Low Countries – but who would command it?

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For a future national hero, the Duke of Marlborough had a decidedly chequered past. Born in 1650 of a landed yet impoverished family, he became a page at the court of Charles II. His good looks attracted one of Charles' mistresses, the Duchess of Cleveland, who gave him money and influence in exchange for...certain services (this method of career advancement is not recommended). He went on to build up a formidable military career in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and eventually earned an Earldom. He served King James II in the Monmouth Rebellion, then abandoned him to support William of Orange (later King William III) in the Glorious Revolution. He proved no more loyal to his new master as his old, and actually slipped to the French the details of an English plan to assault Brest during the Nine Years' War. He ended up disgraced, locked in the Tower of London, and then exiled. There was, however, reconciliation between Churchill and King William around the time of the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession – it was rumoured that the dying William called for him to be placed in command of Britain's armies. Regardless, his wife had huge influence with the new Queen, and he was placed in charge of the army that Britain landed in the Low Countries in 1702. His famous charm won him complete command of all the allied armies in that theatre, with the United Provinces and the Empire agreeing to place their forces under him. And their trust was not misplaced – he won a string of victories against the French and even defeated the Elector of Cologne. However, the French forces in Flanders remained strong, and he was unable to win a decisive victory, nor capture the Spanish Netherlands, nor end the French threat to the United Provinces.

The second major theatre of operations was in the Spanish territories in Italy. There, Imperial forces were commanded by one of Leopold's best generals, Prince Eugene of Savoy. Born and raised in Paris in Louis XIV's own court, he had transferred his loyalty to the Emperor. He had won renown in both the Nine Years' War and against the Ottoman Turks, whom he decisively defeated at Zenta in 1697. He proved himself a match for the French General Villeroi in Italy, but lacked the numbers or supplies to make serious progress.

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So it was that the skill of Marlborough and Eugene denied Louis mastery of the Netherlands and Italy, but the war in those regions remained slow-moving and cautious. Between the Alps and Luxembourg however, the story was different. There the allies lacked another skilled commander, and the superiority of the French army and its generals was proven again and again throughout 1702 and 1703. Camille D'Houston, the Duc de Tallard, made the French masters of the Upper Rhine. At the same time, Elector Maximilian II of Bavaria and another French army under Marshal Villars were victorious along the Danube, and were able to threaten Austria itself. By 1704, the French and Bavarians had taken Augsburg and Landau, Imperial armies in southern Germany were on the verge of collapse, the Hungarian revolt was gaining momentum and the very survival of the Empire was in doubt. Eugene was recalled to Vienna.

Louis then saw an opportunity to deal the allies a single, fatal blow. His forces in the Netherlands under Marshal Villeroi would stand on the defensive, where the French fortresses were too numerous and strong to be overcome in a single year. As such, 46,000 French troops could tie down 70,000 allied. At the same time, Tallard would lead his victorious army, totalling 35,000 men, out of Strasbourg and march to the Danube. He would join up with the Elector and Marshal Ferdinand Marsin, who had replaced Villars, and their combined 40,000 men. Another French army under Marshal Vendôme would move up from Italy and further swell his forces, while other French troops would be dispatched to Hungary to stiffen the rebels. Tallard would then strike straight into the heart of the Empire, seize Vienna, and dictate Louis' terms of peace to the Emperor. All that stood in his path were 36,000 shaky Imperial troops under the short-tempered Count Baden and another 10,000 men under Count Styrum on the Danube itself. Marlborough and Eugene could thwart his designs all they liked in the Low Countries and Italy – the war would be decided elsewhere.

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Marlborough clearly saw the danger that the allies were in, and resolved to do something about it. But he knew that the northern allies, especially the Dutch, would never consent to him taking an army away from the Netherlands. As such, he simply lied and said he wanted to go on the offensive a little to the south, promising to return if there were any fresh French attacks, and asked them all to lend him troops. Such was his diplomatic skill and charm that he succeeded, was placed in command of an army totalling 21,000 men, and then promptly absconded with it.

Marlbourough's march was an outstanding achievement of logistics, diplomacy, and deception. He managed to maintain excellent discipline in his growing multinational force, keep it supplied, and keep the enemy guessing as to where he was going. He was constantly pressured by the allies to turn aside and fulfil some or another military objective in their own region, but kept to his course and was also able to keep his force together. He had left 50,000 men under General Overkirk to defend the Netherlands but Villeroi chose instead to follow him with a force of some 30,000.

Marlborough set out from Bedburg on May 19 with 16,000 Englishmen and Scotsmen and 5,000 Dutchmen. At first Villeroi thought he was planning to invade France in the area of the Moselle River, but instead he crossed the Rhine at Coblentz into Germany on May 26 (picking up 5,000 Hanoverians and Prussians). He then began constructing bridges across the Rhine at Phillipsburg in order to trick the French into thinking he was going to attack Strasbourg. This paralysed Tallard, who was unable to leave with his own army until he was sure the danger had passed. Marlborough continued to march through Franconia, swelling his army with 14,000 Danes and Prussians at Ladenberg on June 3, before joining up with Prince Eugene and 28,000 Imperial troops at Mundelsheim. It was the first meeting between the two men, and was the start of a lifelong professional and personal relationship. They reached Launsheim on June 22, making the final addition of Baden's 35,000 men. In five weeks, Marlborough had put over 100,000 allied soldiers between Tallard and Vienna.

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Neither Tallard or the Elector knew where the allies were, and so they got a rude shock when he suddenly attacked and stormed the fortress of Schellberg on July 2, gaining control of the Danube crossing at Donauwörth. Outnumbered 2 to 1, the Elector and Marsin fortified themselves near Augusburg, which Marlborough could not attack for lack of siege artillery (Baden had promised to supply some but not come through), and waited for Tallard. Marlborough tried to draw them out to battle by systematically ravaging Bavaria, burning more than 400 towns and villages. This policy of spoliation was controversial even at that time, and not to the liking of many of his officers.

In the meantime, Tallard had set out from Strasbourg on July 1 with his 35,000 troops. He was able to outwit the Imperial commanders in his path and get through the Black Forest in fairly good order, but he suffered losses from enraged Germans peasants angry at his army's plundering and from an ill-timed five-day siege of Villingen.

Tallard finally reached the Danube at Ulm and joined with the Elector and Marsin at Augsburg on August 5. The former had dispersed his army in response to Marlborough's spoilage, and so he needed to wait for it to be re-assembled. The allies, for their part, pulled their force together on some heights north of the Danube, near where it joins the Nebel at Blenheim. Baden's short temper proved too much even for Marlborough, and Eugene had suspicions about his close friendship with the Elector of Bavaria, so they decided to find another job for him. He was sent to take Ingolstadt, some 30km (20 mi) further down the Danube, and secure for them another crossing in case they lost Donauwörth. Now all that remained was for Tallard to join the party, and he moved swiftly. He bridged the Danube on August 9, and by August 13 his entire army had crossed and was camped on the fields around the Hochstadt road between Blenheim and Lutzingen. According to British historian Sir Edward Creasy, the army of the Grand Alliance had 52,000 men and 66 guns; the Gallo-Bavarian army, 56,000 men and 90 guns.

Prelude

Tallard was not particularly concerned about the allied army blocking his path – he expected it to withdraw towards Vienna. And his belief was hardly an unreasonable one – most prudent commanders would have done so. The difference in numbers between the armies was not huge, but it was not insignificant either. Tallard had a core of 45,000 French soldiers who had served under him before, and the Bavarian army was a formidable fighting force in its own right. In contrast, Marlborough's multi-national, multi-cultural force could prove extremely unwieldy, as many of its officers owned no personal loyalty to the Empire that they were defending, nor to the English Duke commanding them. Most had never fought under Marlborough before, and some had never fought at all. Orders given in English would need to be relayed down lines of command in German, Danish or Dutch, creating the possibility of havoc. Being prudent, Tallard nevertheless fortified the three villages around which his army was camped.

That evening, the allied commanders held a council of war. Most were no doubt deeply concerned – they knew Tallard by reputation, and knew of the superiority of his army. They knew of their disadvantages, and knew also that the defeat of Marlborough's army could see the collapse of the alliance against France. Some suggested that they should stand and fight where they were, as their defensive position was fairly good. Some suggested that they should fall back.

Marlborough, however, had other ideas – he would attack at daybreak. It was a very bold course of action, but not irrational. The allies' supply and communication lines were in danger and the French and Bavarian armies would prove far more resilient to a long campaign than his. Now that now his location was known the French could concentrate more forces in the area, either building up Tallard's army to undefeatable proportions, or else cutting off the allied supply lines through Franconia. He did not want to risk handing the initiative to Tallard, knew that the French commander could use his superior artillery to devastating effect in an attack, and had reason to doubt that many of his troops could stand their ground in the face of the rapid and deadly volleys of French regulars. Prince Eugene agreed with him completely, and he silenced his dissenters with the famous speech – "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". Orders were issued that night, and were, surprisingly perhaps, met by the soldiers with confidence and enthusiasm. The next day would see a decisive battle.

Battle

Early in the morning of August 13, 1704, the allied army left its camp and began marching downhill towards the Nebel and the enemy. Marlborough commanded the left wing, closest to the Danube, and Prince Eugene commanded the right. Lord Cutts would lead four infantry brigades against Blenheim itself, while the allied middle, commanded by Marlborough's brother, John Churchill, would force a crossing of the Nebel. Two infantry divisions, commanded by Generals Horn and Ingoldsby, would lead, followed by three cavalry divisions. The Prince of Württemberg-Neuenstadt's infantry division would bring up the rear. On Eugene's side, Danish, Prussian and Imperial Infantry under General Scholten and the Prince of Anhalt-Dessau would attack Lutzingen, while the remaining three allied cavalry divisions would support them.

The morning was foggy, and the first Tallard knew of his foe's approach was when the allied army began to emerge from the mist at around eight o'clock, only about a mile away. He had not positioned his men to fight a defensive battle, and had he more time he would have probably removed some troops from Blenheim and Lutzingen and placed them between the villages where his lines were weak. As it stood he needed to rely on the swampy ground around the Nebel to hinder the allies' advance and allow him to bring his superior artillery to bear. He hurriedly recalled his foragers and pickets and arrayed his men as best as time allowed. The bulk of his forces were in the three villages, with most of the artillery covering them. On the left, the Marquis de Clérambault commanded a total of twenty-seven infantry battalions and twelve squadrons of dragoons in and around Blenheim itself. In the centre, the Marquis de Blainville had fourteen infantry battalions in Oberglau, including the renowned Irish Brigade, known as the ‘Wild Geese'. On the right, on the Bavarian side, the Marquis d'Maffei had five infantry battalions in front of Lutzingen, while the Marquis d'Rossel had a further seventeen in the woods to the side. There were also two Bavarian and one French cavalry divisions between Lutzingen and Oberglau, effectively commanded by Marshal Marsin, and three cavalry and one infantry division under the Marquis de Montpeyroux between Oberglau and Blenheim. The French and Bavarian guns started a spirited barrage as soon as the allies moved into range – the Battle of Blenheim had begun.

The allies found progress through the swampy valley difficult, especially for their artillery. Nevertheless, the allied guns responded to the French and Bavarian in kind, and soon the dissipating mist was mixed with smoke as the barrage intensified. Marlborough had his 36,000 men in position by mid-morning, facing the 33,000 under Tallard on the Gallo-Bavarian right. Prince Eugene, however, found progress much harder, and it was nearly midday before his 16,000 men were ready to attack the 23,000 under the Elector and Marsin. Finally, with the allied troops growing impatient, all was ready.

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Marlborough gave the order to attack at about 1 O'Clock. On the left, Lord Cutts sent forward two brigades against Blenheim. They advanced in good order despite the pounding they had taken from the French artillery, but at fifty yards from the palisades they came under rapid, accurate volleys from the French regulars and dismounted dragoons defending the village. Brigadier Archibald Rowe fell before he could even order his own brigade to fire, and they were driven back. They reformed in good order and Cutts sent them forward for a second attack, but were again unable to win through the firestorm.

As the battle for Blenheim raged, Marlborough was pushing his main force across the Nebel. Most of the French and Bavarian troops, especially the infantry, were in the villages where they were staying when the allies attacked. This left Tallard's centre fairly weak, and Marlborough intended to take advantage of it with his cavalry. But first, he needed to get his army across the stream. Charles Churchill's two infantry divisions picked their way across, but were attacked by the French cavalry roaming the far bank before they could properly reform. Nevertheless, they managed to hold their ground and drive the horsemen back. Their success was short-lived, however. The Irish brigade, based in Oberlgau, threw themselves against the flank of General Horn's division. At the same time, the three battalions of the Regiment de Roi opened fire on Churchill's other flank from the field beside Blenheim, and the French cavalry launched another attack.

Meanwhile, Prince Eugene was having no more luck against the French and Bavarian defenders of Lutzingen. General Scholten and the Prince of Anhalt-Dessau ordered their divisions forward, but the four allied brigades came under devastating fire from the sixteen Bavarian guns defending the village, as well as from the muskets of the troops in both Lutzingen and the woods to the west. Eugene then sent Prince Maximilian's cavalry division across the Nebel in support, but they were charged by Marsin's cuirassiers.

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The situation was now critical. Repulsed from both Blenheim and Lutzingen, the allied army was wavering. At the same time, the Irish threw the Prince of Holstien-Beck's brigade into complete confusion, mortally wounding the prince has he tried to rally his fleeing troops. Marsin's cavalry was also triumphant, and the entire right wing of the allied army was thrown back. The French and Bavarians advanced, capturing ten colours and hundreds of prisoners. From their vantage points above the valley, Marlborough and Eugene could see the allies retreating, could see that Marsin and the Irish Brigade were now on the verge of winning through all the allied troops in their path and splitting the entire army in two, and recognised that, if they did not act quickly, the doom of the Grand Alliance could be upon them.

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Marlborough quickly rallied about him all the cavalry squadrons he could readily call to, and personally led a charge into the flank of the advancing Irish. On the right, the day was saved by Prince Eugene, who showed great leadership in personally rallying many fleeing battalions, and the Prussians, who resolutely stood their ground. But the battle still hung in the balance, as Marsin was threatening to charge the remaining allied battalions still on the south bank of the Nebel. Marlborough urgently requested that Eugene release his last reserve, Count Heinrich Fugger's Brigade of Imperial Heavy Cavalry, to repel them. Despite his own desperate situation, Eugene complied instantly. Marsin saw them approach, and was forced to abandon his proposed attack to wheel and meet them. But Fugger's cuirassiers were fresh, and still in good order, and they hit Marsin before he could properly reform and threw his squadrons back. Churchill's infantry rallied, pushed back, and drove the French and Irish battalions back into Oberglau. The Marquis d'Blainville himself fell trying to organise the defence, and by 4 O'Clock the threat to the allied army had passed.

In the meantime, seeing that he was taking the worst of the allied attacks, Tallard left Clérambault in command of Blenheim and rode across the battlefield to ask the Elector to send him some troops. In a stark contrast to Eugene's willingness to help Marlborough, and even though his soldiers had proved more than ample to repel allied attacks in his area, he refused. And worse, while Tallard was away, Clérambault saw that Cutts was preparing for a third attack and pulled every French unit he could lay hands upon into Blenheim to defend it. It was a foolish move – the troops he had defending the village already had no difficulty repelling the first two attacks. And now the sector between Oberglau and Blenheim, where Marlborough was concentrating his main attack, was left woefully undefended. Not only that, French troops were packed so tightly in the village that they were getting in each other's way. The soldiers of such elite units as the Gens d'Armes and Regiment de Roi were hardly able to move, yet alone fire their weapons or make any contribution to the battle. Marlborough noticed this, and ordered Cutts to hold his attack back and simply contain the enemy. He had now more troops for his decisive breakthrough.

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Over the next hour, the allied cavalry were steadily crossing the bloody Nebel. First by fords, then by makeshift bridges, squadron after squadron, brigade after brigade. Slowly but steadily, formed up on the fields beyond the marshes behind the covering infantry. Tallard could see the danger he was in but could do nothing – the infantry he needed to repel the assault were shut up in Oberglau or else in a confused mass in Blenheim. He had only nine infantry battalions to stop the allied breakthrough. His cavalry made a gallant effort to push the allies back (at this point Marlborough allegedly needed to turn back a cavalry officer furtively trying to make his way back across the stream with the words "Sir, you are under a mistake, the enemy lies that way...") but Churchill's infantry stood firm and covered them.

Finally, Marlborough had managed to get his four cavalry divisions ready to attack. The rest of the article can be summarised like this – at half past five on the afternoon of August 13, 1704, the Duke of Marlborough launched a massive cavalry charge at the French army, broke it, won the Battle of Blenheim and put an end to Louis XIV's plan to dominate Europe. Marlborough loved cavalry, and used it to achieve many of his decisive victories. As the French attacks began to peter out, he moved his own cavalry through the gaps between his infantry and ordered a general charge. Almost eight thousand allied cavalry surged forward in a single, great mass. The French cavalry fired their pistols wildly and fled. Tallard stood his ground with his nine remaining infantry battalions, but they were overrun. Tallard himself was caught up in the rout, but made a final effort to rally his fleeing troops near Hochstadt. There, while standing among the tents yelling entreaties at the wildly running men to stand their ground, he was surrounded by Hessian dragoons and taken prisoner. Clérambault, recognising what he had done, entrusted the defence of Blenheim to his deputy, the Marquis de Blanzac, and fled the field as quickly as his horse could carry him. He, and some two or three thousand other French soldiers, drowned trying to escape across the Danube. The Elector also decided then that discretion was the better part of valour, and the Bavarian army retreated in as good order as it could manage.

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Cutts and Churchill now completely surrounded Blenheim with their infantry. They turned artillery on the village, setting many of the houses on fire. Smoke obscured the battlefield in the gathering dusk, as the French infantry desperately stood their ground among the burning houses. Recognising that the result of the fight for Blenheim could only be mass slaughter, one of the British Generals, the Earl of Orkney, offered Blaznac a chance to surrender. At 9 O'Clock, he reluctantly accepted, and ten thousand of France's finest troops laid down their arms. After seven hours of fighting, the Battle of Blenheim was over.

Marlborough, who had been leading the cavalry in pursuit, met up with Eugene, who had been securing Lutzingen and Oberglau. The former had sent a brief dispatch 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." And a glorious victory it had been, if war can ever be glorious. Barely 20,000 French and Bavarian soldiers made it back to Strasbourg. Tallard had lost 30,000 men killed, captured, wounded or missing, and the allies had captured 110 cavalry and 128 infantry standards. It had nevertheless been a costly battle - some 12,000 allied soldiers were also killed and wounded.

Within three months, the allies had overrun Bavaria, placing it under Austrian military rule and forcing the Elector in exile. Louis XIV was never again in a position to threaten Vienna or gain a quick victory, and the war settled into one of attrition.

Consequences

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Victorian English historian Edward Creasy included Blenheim in his famous book, Fifteen Decisive Battles. He claimed that Marlborough had denied Louis XIV from conquests matching those of "Alexander in scope and the Romans in duration". He probably overstates the case, but it is very likely that, had Tallard won through at Blenheim, he would have taken Vienna, and France would have won the War of the Spanish Succession and become the most powerful state in Western Europe since the Empire of Charlemagne. That superstate may have persisted to the present day, radically altering the entire course of European (and world) history. This is the view of Earl Charles Spencer in his modern critically-acclaimed work, Blenheim: The Battle for Europe, where he credits the co-victors with stopping "the French conquest of Europe". Certainly the Queen and Parliament of England thought so, and Marlborough was rewarded with a massive new house – Blenheim Palace. It remains the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough to this day.

Blenheim is more notable for what it prevented than what it caused. Even with their decisive victory in southern Germany, the allies were not able to break the stalemate in the Low Countries and Italy. And when Marlborough did try to invade France, he only won the field at Malplaquet at a cost of 21,000 men. Louis had been denied his decisive victory, but he remained too powerful to be clearly defeated. The conflict continued for another decade, outliving even Le Grande Dauphin of France. In the end, the exhausted combatants came to the table in 1714 and agreed that Philip could retain the Spanish crown provided he renounced his claim to the French one (and his descendant sits on the Spanish throne today), and that Austria could have the bulk of Spain's territories in Italy and the Low Countries. France had lost no territory, and had a friendly monarch in Spain, but she was bankrupt. The Sun King died the next year with his dreams of European dominance unfulfilled – dashed on the fields around Blenheim.

Bibliography and further reading

Edward Creasy, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

James Falker, Blenheim 1704: Marlborough's Greatest Victory

Charles Spencer, Blenheim: The Battle for Europe

And of course, Wikipedia.

Portraits of Louis XIV, Charles II, Leopold I, the Elector, Marlborough, Eugene and Tallard are from Wikimedia commons, along with the map of Marlborough's march and the Hillingford painting. All other images are the author's own work. All dates in the article use the Gregorian ‘New Style' Calendar, which had not yet been adopted in Britain.


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