Marlborough, p.10Richard Holmes
The Lord Admiral’s Regiment had lost four of its captains at Southwold Bay, and on 13 June John Churchill was commissioned into one of the vacancies. This left the unlucky Lieutenant Pick, once his superior in his company of 1st Foot Guards, pressing Lord Arlington’s under-secretary for a captaincy, promising him £400 once his commission arrived, though there is no evidence that it ever did.
Captain John Churchill was now confined to his regiment’s garrison at Great Yarmouth, which was convenient for rapid embarkation aboard the fleet but rather less handy for access to the capital, and had been denied the post as gentleman of the bedchamber to the Duke of York. The inference is clear: Charles wanted him out of Whitehall. Barbara might no longer be the king’s favourite, but for a handsome young officer to get her with child was too much even for the merry monarch. Years later the Duchess of Portsmouth sent Churchill a rich snuffbox in memory of their (unspecified) association, and it is possible that the young cavalier had been fishing in forbidden waters again. Promoting Churchill out of the Foot Guards and into the Lord Admiral’s Regiment also made perfect sense, for the Lord Admiral’s was already warned for foreign service. Even so, John set off for the Continent well in advance of his regiment, and in June 1673 he was with the Duke of Monmouth’s party of gentleman volunteers, supported by thirty troopers of the Life Guards, in the trenches before Maastricht, besieged by Louis in person. There, a determined garrison disposed of a variety of ingenious contrivances which were a good deal more unpleasant even than the disapproval of Charles II.
The Imminent Deadly Breach
Fortification and siegecraft had a grammar of their own, which John Churchill was now beginning to learn. The military historian David Chandler has observed that during the period 1680–1748 there were 167 sieges to 144 land engagements in Europe, and the Earl of Orrery affirmed in 1677: ‘We make war more like foxes than lions; and you have twenty sieges for one battle.’64 The high walls of medieval castles had offered but a poor defence against gunpowder, and this period saw the apogee of the new artillery fortification, the speciality of military engineers like the Frenchman Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban and his Dutch rival Menno van Coehoorn. The bastion, an arrow-shaped work jutting out from the main curtain wall of a fortress, was the key to the system. The cannon mounted on it could fire, from its flanking ramparts, along the wall and, from the ramparts on its angled faces, could sweep the gently-sloping glacis on the other side of the broad ditch protecting the brick or ashlar scarp, the wall which shored up the squat, solid mass of bastion and curtain. A ‘covered way’ enabled men to walk in safety along the top of the counterscarp, the wall which propped up the far side of the ditch, and a palisade of sharpened stakes protected the covered way against an enemy who might have fought his way up the glacis.
Outworks, like the half-moon-shaped demi-lune or ravelin, could be used to keep the attacker out of reach of bastion and curtain, and the hornwork, sometimes called a crownwork because of its spiky plan, might cover an attractive approach or an exposed suburb. A variety of ingenuity was employed to make life unpleasant for the attacker. Caponiers, hutch-like works whose name came from the Spanish for chicken house, sat smugly in the ditch, ready to blast storming parties who hoped to cross it. Tenailles were banks of earth rising up out of the ditch just in front of the curtain to prevent the attacker’s artillery pounding the base of the wall. Ditches themselves might be wet, which made it hard for attackers to mine beneath them, but were prone to icing over in the winter and were smelly in the summer. Or they might be dry, in which case they were often provided with countermine galleries sneaking off below the glacis in the hope of allowing the defending engineers to interrupt the attackers’ attempts at mining.
Faced with this intractable low-lying geometry, the attacker, having first ensured that he had his slow-moving battering train of siege guns to hand, would encircle the fortress, digging ‘lines of circumvallation’ to keep off raiding parties from the outside. At an early stage he would summon the fortress to surrender, but a cool-headed governor would usually reject such impertinence. When the Dutch were besieging Maastricht in 1676 the governor, Count Calvo, entered into the spirit of the witty exchanges that were common at this stage in the siege. George Carleton, then serving as a gentleman volunteer in the Prince of Orange’s Foot Guards, tells us that:
The governor, by a messenger, intimating his sorrow that we had pawned our guns for ammunition bread [the siege train was late in arriving], answer was made that in a few days we hoped to give him a taste of the loaves which he should find would be sent him into the town in extraordinary plenty … I remembered another piece of raillery which passed some days after between the Rhinegrave and the same Calvo. The former sending him word that he hoped within three weeks to salute the governor’s mistress within the place, Calvo replied that he would give him leave to kiss her all over if he kissed her anywhere in three months.65
The attacker formally began the siege by ‘breaking ground’ (tranchée ouverte), commencing his first line of trenches facing the part of the fortress he planned to assail. From this ‘first parallel’ zig-zag saps were pushed out, until a second parallel could be dug; more sapping would lead to a third. While the attacker’s engineers were busy grubbing their way forward, cannon would be mounted just forward of the parallels to bring fire to bear on the chosen front. A clear bell-like ring announced a direct hit on the exposed muzzle of a defending cannon, probably sending it spinning from its carriage, to the discomfiture of its detachment. Eventually, having first sent gusts of grapeshot scudding up the glacis to weaken the palisade, the attacker would try to storm the covered way.
This is where grenadiers came into their own. The hand grenade, its name deriving from the Spanish for pomegranate, which the little projectile resembled, was carried by specialist infantrymen who wore crownless caps rather than the more common tricorn hats, which made it easier for them to sling their muskets across their backs, leaving both hands free to light the fuse on their grenade before hurling it. The process required strength and courage, and by this time grenadiers, usually recruited on the basis of one company in each battalion, were the elite of the infantry. Although grenades could be used in a variety of circumstances, it was in the attack on the covered way that they were indispensable. The song ‘The British Grenadiers’ describes the process perfectly.
Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades
Our leaders march with fusees and we with hand grenades
We throw them from the glacis, about our enemies’ ears,
Sing tow row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.
A good deal could go amiss long before the victorious grenadiers fell to ‘drowning bumpers’ and tow-row-rowing. A Scots grenadier, Private Donald McBane, was about to hurl his grenade over the palisades at Maastricht when it exploded
in my hands, killing several about me, and blew me over the palisades; burnt my clothes so that the skin came off me. I … fell among Murray’s Company of Grenadiers, flayed like an old dead horse from head to foot. They cast me into the water to put out the fire about me.66
George Carleton was part of a ‘forlorn hope’ (two sergeants and twenty grenadiers, a captain and fifty musketeers, and then a party carrying empty sandbags) sent to rush a breach in one of Maastricht’s bastions. They got into the work well enough, but then:
One of our own soldiers aiming to throw one [grenade] over the wall into the counterscarp among the enemy, it so happened that he unfortunately missed his aim, and the grenade fell down again on our side of the wall, very near the person who fired it. He, starting back to save himself, and some others who saw it fall doing the like, those who knew nothing of the matter fell into a sudden confusion … everybody was struck with a panic fear, and endeavoured to be the first who should quit the bastion … 67
There was, though, a silver lining to this dark cloud: an ensign in Sir John Fenwick’s Regiment was killed in the scuffle, and Carleton received the vacancy.
Once the grenadiers had duly taken the covered way, the attacker would ‘crown’ the spot with gabions, great wicker baskets filled with earth, and would then haul up his heavy guns to thunder out across the ditch at the base of the scarp. His gunners would try to adjust their fire so as to make a cannelure – a long groove – cutting through the retaining masonry, and eventually gravity would assert itself and the whole mass of scarp and rampart would tumble down into the ditch. To be deemed practicable for assault the breach had to be wide enough for two men to walk up it side by side without using their hands. The great Vauban would often check practicability himself, creeping forward after dark and scrambling back like some great earthy badger, muttering, ‘C’est mûre, c’est bien mûre.’68
The establishment of a practicable breach was usually the sign for the defender’s drummers to beat the chamade, requesting a parley, or for the attacker to formally warn the governor that, with a practicable breach in his wall and assault imminent, he should give in at once to avoid a needless effusion of blood. If a town was taken by storm the attacking troops could not be expected to respect either the possessions of the inhabitants or the virtue of their womenfolk, and a sensible governor would make what terms he could, although usually the longer he left the negotiation the worse the deal he could expect. The garrison of a fortress taken by storm could expect no mercy, a practice designed to discourage pointless last-ditch defence and reflecting the very real difficulty of controlling maddened troops who had just come boiling into the town through a defended breach.
Of course there were variations to this theme. A fortress might be taken by a coup de main, perhaps with a group of picked men in civilian clothes making their way covertly into the place and then suddenly opening a gate to admit troops hiding just outside. In 1702 the Bavarians took Ulm by this method, but a subsequent Austrian attempt against Maubeuge miscarried when a French sentry beat a particularly sullen ‘peasant’ in a line of carts awaiting entry, only for the man (in fact an infantry major) to lose his temper and grab a musket from under the hay on his cart, killing the sentry but alerting the garrison. While the siege was in progress each side would drop mortar bombs onto the other, and sometimes a lucky hit on a magazine would end the struggle at a stroke: in 1687 the Venetian siege of the Acropolis at Athens was decided by two mortar bombs which caused extensive damage to the Parthenon, then used by the Turks to store gunpowder. Sorties might set back the progress of the siege by wrecking trenches and carrying off or breaking engineers’ tools; mines could engulf whole bastions and discourage even the stoutest governor, or either side might run out of food or water.
In general, though, a siege, as Captain Churchill was now beginning to discover in the trenches before Maastricht, was rather like a formal dance, in which everyone stepped out to a rhythm they understood, with engineers calling out the time and gunners providing the percussion. Vauban reckoned that the average siege, if there was such a thing, would run for thirty-nine days from tranchée ouverte to the attacker’s formal entry after terms had been agreed. In April 1705 Louis XIV gently reminded his governors that they were expected to put up a proper defence, not merely surrender on terms as soon as the outworks were lost:
Despite the satisfaction I have derived from the fine and vigorous defence of some of my fortresses besieged during this war, as well as from those of my governors who have held their outworks for more than two months – which is more than the commanders of enemy fortresses have managed when besieged by my arms; nevertheless, as I consider that the main defences of my towns can be held equally as long as the outworks … I write you this letter to inform you that in the circumstances of your being besieged by the enemy it is my intention that you should not surrender until there is a breach in the main body of the enceinte, and until you have withstood at least one assault … 69
On the other side of the lines, Brigadier General Richard Kane commended Captain Withers of Calthorp’s Regiment, who in 1696, ‘being posted in a chateau with only six men’, faced the French off for several hours. When he saw that they were preparing to storm, he beat the chamade and received the same terms as much bigger garrisons which had surrendered without firing a shot. This ought to show officers, declared Kane,
that they be not too forward in delivering up places committed to their charge; nor yet too foolhardy in standing out till an attack is begun, for then it will be too late. I mean, the attacking a breach, or such works as may be easily carried, especially when there is not a considerable force to oppose.
In 1695 the Allied governors of Dixmude and Diest were court-martialled for premature surrender. Nobody expected ‘that they should stand a general assault, for the design … was only to keep the enemy employed as long as they could’. The Danish Major General Elnberger, governor of Dixmude, admitted that ‘a panic seized him, which he could not get over, nor account for’, and he was beheaded ‘by the common executioner of the Danish forces’ in November, after William of Orange had confirmed his sentence. He had served blamelessly for forty years until this single error of judgement cost him his life. The commanding officers who signed the capitulation with him lost their commissions, as did Brigadier O’Farrell, ‘a man of long service, who had always behaved well’ but had surrendered tiny Diest without even a show of resistance.70
Besiegers had their own hierarchy, with a general of the trenches doing duty for a day at a time, assisted by a trench major to oversee daily routine. The French, with their British allies, opened their trenches before the Tongres gate of Maastricht on the night of 17–18 June 1673, and a week later they were ready to assault a hornwork and ravelin in front of the gate. The Duke of Monmouth was trench general that day, and his contingent took part in the assault: Captain Churchill, it was said, planted a colour on the ramparts of the outwork. The night was spent consolidating the captured position, and Monmouth’s men had scarcely retired to their tents after dawn the next day when the thud of a mine and an outbreak of firing announced that the governor, Jacques de Fariaux, a French gentleman in Dutch service, had mounted a sortie and recaptured the ravelin. Monmouth at once sent word to a nearby company of the French king’s Mousquetaires Gris, commanded by Charles de Batz de Castelmore, comte d’Artagnan, and set off hot-foot for the ravelin.
Colonel Lord Alington was an eyewitness to what happened next, as he told Lord Arlington.
After the duke had put on his arms [i.e. body armour], we went not out at the ordinary place, but leapt over the bank of the trenches, in the face of our enemy. Those that happened to be with the duke were Mr Charles O’Brien, Mr Villiers, Lord Rockingham’s two sons, and Capt Watson their kinsman, Sir Tho Armstrong, Capt Churchill, Capt Godfrey, Mr Roe and myself, with the duke’s two pages and three or four more of his servants, thus we marched with our swords in our hands to a barricade of the enemy’s, where only one man could pass at a time. There was Monsieur d’Artagnan with his musketeers who did very bravely. This gentleman was one of the greatest reputation in the army, and he would have persuaded the duke not to have passed that place, but that being not to be done, this gentleman would go along with him, but in passing that narrow place was killed with a shot in his head, upon which the duke and we passed there where Mr O’Brien had a shot through his legs. The soldiers at this took heart the duke twice leading them on with great courage; when his grace found the enemy begin to retire, he was prevailed with to retire to the trench, the better to give his commands as there should be occasion. Then he sent Mr Villiers to the king for 500 fresh men and to give him an account of what had passed. When those men came, the enemy left us without any further disturbance … Some old commanders say, this was the bravest and briskest action that they had seen in their lives, and our duke did the part of a much older and more experienced general, and the king was very kind to him last night.71
Fariaux was a wily campaigner, and had stood siege five or six times before. Louis, in overall command, noted that he ‘was used to dealing with narrow approach trenches whic
The Handsome Englishman
On their return to Whitehall at the close of the campaigning season that autumn Monmouth presented John Churchill to the king as ‘the brave man who saved my life’, which seems to have been instrumental in restoring him to royal favour. As succeeding events were to show, Monmouth was not the brightest of Charles’s bastards. Although Monmouth was the monarch’s eldest son, by the ‘actress’ Lucy Walter (who even Charles could not bring himself to ennoble), when Gilbert Burnet asked the king if it might not be wise to legitimise him and make him his successor instead of his Roman Catholic brother James, Charles ‘answered him quick that, well as he loved him, he had rather see him hanged’.73 However, Monmouth’s approval strengthened Churchill’s hand. Barbara Castlemaine had borne him a daughter the previous summer and, we may conclude, was now helping him financially; the Duke of York, already favourably disposed to his former page and having an affair with his sister, had seen him fight bravely at Southwold Bay; and now Monmouth told his indulgent father that John Churchill had saved his life. This was interest in full spate, and it would have been astonishing had our hero not been swept onwards by it.
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