Marlborough, p.32Richard Holmes
The Allies met at Wesel, on the Rhine, to discuss strategy in early March. Marlborough had not yet arrived from England, and was represented by Lieutenant General Cutts. Anthonie Heinsius told Marlborough that Cutts would be able to fill in the plan’s detail, but briefed him on its outlines. The Allies would besiege Bonn, where Prince Louis of Baden already commanded an Allied detachment, and then do something unspecified in Flanders or Brabant. He added that the effort would demand all the British and Dutch troops that could be made available. The scheme was fleshed out after Marlborough arrived: the capture of Bonn would be followed by a large-scale attempt on Antwerp.
It is clear from this that the general scheme was not Marlborough’s, as Winston S. Churchill suggests, but it is perfectly possible that its refinement into the Antwerp design was. He certainly did not favour the attack on Bonn, but told Godolphin that the Allies had made ‘so much noise’ about it that ‘I think it would be scandalous to avoid the making of it now.’99 On 27 April he wrote from the Allied siege lines before Bonn, where he had taken personal charge of operations, to tell Heinsius ‘that Antwerp is a greater security to the States than any other conquest that might be made’. However, he prefaced this with the warning that news from Paris suggested that the French saw Bonn as ‘but a feint’ and were taking steps to reinforce Antwerp. If they applied their whole strength to the place it might be impossible for him to take it.100
Marlborough hoped to be master of Bonn by the end of May, before the French were in the field, though a strong covering force under the Dutch field marshal Hendrik van Nassau, Heer van Ouwerkerk (‘Overkirk’ to his British allies) had been pushed forward between Liège and Maastricht in case Villeroi stirred early.101 Villeroi, his army far bigger than Overkirk’s, did indeed move sooner than expected, falling on two Allied battalions, one British and one Dutch, at Tongres on 8 May. This little garrison held out for a day before being forced to surrender, but the defence of Tongres gave Overkirk time to concentrate under the guns of Maastricht, ‘where he entrenched himself’, as Robert Parker tells us.
Notwithstanding this Villeroi advanced to attack us, and began to cannonade us with great fury; but the cannon of the town, of our camp, and of the Fort of Petersburg, soon made him weary of that work, and obliged him to retire; and upon hearing of the approach of the Duke, he made what haste he could to get within his lines.102
Marlborough offered good terms to the garrison of Bonn to ensure its surrender on 15 May, and then marched to join Overkirk, compelling Villeroi to scuttle away.
The fall of Bonn and the relief of Overkirk’s force left the Allies free to embark upon their Great Design against Antwerp. Marlborough would certainly have agreed with Mérode-Westerloo’s assessment of the Lines of Brabant. The French were not powerful enough to be strong everywhere, and the key to Allied success would lie in concentrating against a chosen point, in this case Antwerp, while manoeuvring elsewhere to prevent the French from reacting to the real threat. This use of manoeuvre in order to unbalance the enemy was an important ingredient of Marlborough’s battlefield tactics, with Ramillies as the outstanding example of its success. The method’s execution on a large scale, however, hinged on the prompt and unquestioning obedience of orders which must inevitably travel by courier, allowing Marlborough little opportunity for personal intervention with Allied generals who had not yet come to trust him. Moreover, the Allies had to communicate via exterior lines stretched around the great bend of the Dyle, while the French could use interior lines to move directly to any point.
The French defenders of the Lines of Brabant consisted of Villeroi and Boufflers, with sixty battalions and 110 squadrons, in the west, and Count Bedmar, with fifty battalions and ten squadrons, most of them Spanish and spread out in small garrisons, in the east: a small force covered the centre of the Lines. The Allied plan was certainly bold. The attack on Antwerp would be carried out by General Jacob van Wassenaer, Heer von Wassenaer en Obdam (‘Opdam’ to the British), an experienced Dutch officer who had been promoted full general the previous year. His force would be strengthened by fourteen battalions, released by the fall of Bonn, which would travel by river round to Bergen op Zoom, while another six battalions and fourteen squadrons marched by land. Dutch garrisons in the east would be reduced to strengthen Opdam still further. On 19 May Marlborough wrote to Opdam from Maastricht, saying that he had done his best to ensure that The Hague understood the need to send as many troops as possible to Bergen op Zoom, and begging him to apply pressure of his own.103
While the Allied field army under Marlborough, with sixty battalions and 130 squadrons, fixed Villeroi in the east so as to prevent him from helping Bedmar, the venerable siege expert Menno van Coehoorn was to move along the Flanders coast to besiege Ostend, presenting Bedmar with a conflict of priorities. On 23 May, with Villeroi duly fixed near Hannef, Marlborough wrote a long and diplomatic letter to Coehoorn, assuring him that ‘I know your experience, your zeal and your good judgement too well not to trust it entirely,’ but stressing that the siege of Antwerp could not begin until Coehoorn had first attacked Ostend.104 However, he informed Godolphin that he was very worried that Coehoorn would not in fact besiege Ostend as agreed, but would instead make a ‘diversion’ in Flanders ‘which will not oblige them [the French] to make any great detachment’. He believed that Coehoorn simply hoped to force the northern end of the Lines to raise money, ‘for as he is the governor of Dutch Flanders he has the tenth of all the contributions’.105 This was not an unreasonable view, for the Dutch themselves were concerned at Coehoorn’s attitude. On 25 June Jacob Hop, the Dutch treasurer general, warned that ‘It seems that we cannot justify the conduct of M. Coehoorn, if he pretends to dispute the command of the army in Flanders with his superior [Opdam],’ though he agreed that ‘It would be irritating enough for a governor of Flanders … to have the honour and profit’ of the operation taken from him.106
There was actually another layer of inter-Allied complexity. The Dutch feared that if Ostend was taken it would finish up in English hands, and would form a bastion of future English trade. On 17 June Marlborough tried to persuade Heinsius that this was not in fact the case. ‘I do assure you that [we] are very desirous it should be taken from the French,’ he wrote, ‘but they would not be masters of it … so that you need not apprehend any dispute that might arise upon the taking of this place.’107 Soon afterwards he warned Heinsius that Coehoorn might be ‘disobliged’ by one of the generals in Opdam’s force, quite possibly Lieutenant General Frederik Johan Baer, Heer van Slangenburg, with whom he was shortly to have a blazing row. He would be happy to meet Opdam’s generals at any central spot, but warned that time was being wasted: ‘I think the common interest does require that no more time should be lost, but that we either attack Antwerp or Ostend, or else put ourselves on the defensive and send the rest into Germany.’108 As late as 25 June NS Marlborough still hoped to persuade Coehoorn to besiege Ostend, and sent the baron de Trogne, governor of Liège, to press his case again.
By this time, though, Coehoorn was concerned that his own attack would run into forces released by Villeroi. Marlborough agreed to send some extra troops, repeatedly assured him that Villeroi had not yet moved a detachment westwards, and undertook to keep the French under pressure. It was not until the very end of the month that the Allied right wing at last advanced. Coehoorn and Spaar each pierced the Lines of Brabant to enter the Pays de Waes, the coastal area just west of Antwerp, and Opdam, on the other side of the Scheldt, headed towards Antwerp itself. However, Coehoorn’s attack was not serious enough to persuade Bedmar to divide his forces, and on 28 June Marlborough, who had always argued that the project would work only if Bedmar was distracted from Antwerp, told both Coehoorn and Opdam that he would make best speed to join them. On the same day he warned Godolphin that, although he was confident that he had stolen a march on Villeroi, ‘we are now got into so enclosed a country’ that the French would probably move faster. Worse still, he thought that Villeroi
That is precisely what happened. Villeroi had already ordered his central force to join Bedmar, and now he ordered Boufflers to take thirty squadrons of cavalry and thirty companies of grenadiers (five battalions’ worth) to make forced marches to the west: Marlborough’s spies reported that a foot soldier was mounted behind each horseman to make better time. On 28 June Marlborough warned Opdam that the French were on the move in open country ‘where it will be very easy for them, without running any risk, to make detachments’. Villeroi, moving within his own lines, had no shortage of forage, whereas Marlborough, ‘our march being upon the heaths’, was less well supplied. He assured Opdam that he would be in a position to help him just as soon as he could.109 The next day he wrote again, begging Opdam to keep him apprised of his movements, and on the thirtieth he admitted that he was a little vexed not to have heard from him for days. On 2 July he assured Heinsius that he was only two days away from Opdam, and urged him to convene a meeting of Allied generals and members of his own government at some suitable place. With the letter signed but not sealed, he added a desperate postscript: ‘This minute I am told the postmaster of Breda has written to the postmaster here that Opdam is beaten. I hope it is not true.’110 He also dashed off a postscript to a letter to Godolphin when he heard the news, saying: ‘We have a report come from Breda that Opdam is beat. I pray God it be not so, for he is very capable of having it happen to him.’111
Jacob Hop, the Dutch treasurer general, had joined Opdam at the end of June, and told the Estates General that Marlborough had warned them that the French were on the move south of the Lines. A council of war had accordingly decided that Opdam’s camp at Eckeren, containing only thirteen battalions and twenty-six squadrons, was dangerously exposed. Opdam’s generals got their heavy baggage away towards Bergen op Zoom, and on 30 June, with the French now in sight, they resolved to fall back on Lillo on the Scheldt. ‘But that could not be done so soon but that the enemy appeared both before and behind, and on both sides of us,’ wrote Hop to the Estates-General.
We then engaged with them, and the fight was very furious in several places, lasting from 3 o’clock till it was nearly dark, and frequently with very doubtful success, till at last, by the unwearied bravery (which in truth can never be enough commended) of both your own national troops and those of foreign princes in your service, one of the chief posts by which we must pass to come hither, viz. the village of Oerderen, was forced from the enemy and kept in possession.112
Mérode-Westerloo acknowledged that the Allies fought very hard indeed, and saw for himself that Oerderen, through which they had to pass to escape, was the scene of frenzied fighting. His own leading battalion bolted under heavy close-range artillery fire, and although he rallied about three hundred of his men, all was in ‘desperate confusion, pikemen picking up muskets and musketeers laying hold of pikes’. Major General Hompesch led a handful of Dutch horsemen in a counterattack which drove back superior numbers of French cavalry. The infantry wilted too, and Mérode-Westerloo could not hold the village without support that never came: ‘I never saw a single general officer during the whole affair,’ he complained.
We lost more than 2,000 killed or wounded, although, in fact, we might have made the whole Dutch army prisoners of war for a loss of less than a hundred if only we occupied the line of dykes and pounded them to pieces with cannon … But French foolhardiness and I don’t know what besides made us muff the opportunity.113
Opdam himself had been cut off from his troops, and was first reported missing: Jacob Hop heard that he was a prisoner in Antwerp. It soon transpired, however, that he had made best speed to Breda, whence he gave the Estates-General what Robert Parker called ‘a melancholy account of the affair’. Slangenburg took charge of the initial battle and the running fight that followed it, and although Eckeren was scarcely a victory, its results could have been far worse. One byproduct, welcomed by Parker, was that Opdam never received another active command. Marlborough acidly observed that Baron Hop ‘had the honour of seeing more of it than the general that should have commanded’, and added that the French, who had certainly not done as well as they ought, ‘will pretend … they had the best of it, and prove it by Opdam’s letters’.114
The battle of Eckeren left the Great Design in ruins, and worse followed. Marlborough heard that Coehoorn had fallen out with Slangenburg and was thinking of quitting the army. He urged them both to put the public interest before private matters, but Coehoorn, ill and with only a year to live, returned to The Hague. It was in evident despair that Marlborough wrote to Heinsius on 21 July.
It is impossible the war can go on with success at this rate, if measures must be taken between two armies, and the quarrels and animosities of private people shall make a delay which hinders the whole … I know not if I shall outlive this campaign, but I am sure I have not the courage to make another.
He added that his own government was pressing him to send troops to Spain, but he had been able to stave them off for the moment, promising only four battalions of newly-arrived foot and Lord Raby’s Dragoons. ‘I own to you that I have the spleen to a great degree,’ confessed Marlborough, ‘which may make me an ill judge of what I write in this letter. I wish it may prove so, and that you may have a glorious campaign.’115 There was something of the same gloom in a letter to Sarah.
I find myself daily delaying, so that if I may not have time of living quietly with you, and meddling less with the business of this world, I can’t hold long. But of this I shall say a great deal more when I have the happiness of seeing you, which time is passionately wished for by him that loves you above all expression.116
A conference at Bergen op Zoom resolved that the Allies would pierce the Lines of Brabant near Antwerp, but Marlborough discovered that neither cannon nor forage was ready, and by the time he reached the Lines, Villeroi and Boufflers were there before him. He still rode forward to see if anything could be done.
On Friday [27 July NS] I went with 4,000 horse to see the lines. They let us come so near that we beat their outguard home to their barrier, which gave us an opportunity of seeing the lines; which has a ditch 27 foot broad before it and the water in it nine foot deep, so that it is resolved that the armies return to the Meuse, and in the first place take Huy. Upon the whole matter, if we can’t bring the French to a battle, we shall not do anything worth the being commended.117
Huy fell surprisingly quickly, and its garrison, which surrendered as prisoners of war, gave Marlborough the wherewithal to exchange his own two battalions taken at Tongres earlier in the year. Already, shaking off the despair of high summer, he had spotted a new opportunity. The Lines of Brabant were incomplete between the Mehaigne and the Meuse, and he proposed piercing them between Leau and the headwaters of the Mehaigne. As this is precisely where he was to penetrate them in 1706, it is likely that his plan would have succeeded, and that he would have brought the French to battle.
At a council of war, held at Marlborough’s headquarters at Val Notre Dame, not far from Huy, on 24 August, all the Allied generals present supported the plan. The Dutch generals, however, would not agree, and without their consent the operation was impossible. They proposed instead the siege of Limburg, which Marlborough rightly believed was so insignificant an objective that it could be fitted in at the end of a campaign. The senior British, Danish and German generals took the unusual step of signing a formal document declaring that they believed that with an attack on the Lines ‘We could, with the help of the good Lord, hope for a victory so complete, and whose consequences would be so great as not to be predicted.’118 Marlborough sent a copy of the letter to Harley, and told Godolphin what had happened, enclosing a copy of his own letter of well-mannered protest to the Estates-General. He added that ‘I am really tired out of my life,’ but concluded by telling Godolphin that he had, as requested, ‘taken care of’ one of his clients: John Yarborough duly became a captain in Hill’s Regim
The dispute with the Dutch hit Marlborough hard. He told Godolphin that he would be home soon, for he had no mind to command an army that did nothing but eat forage. He added that the whole business ‘has heated my blood so, that I am almost mad with a headache’, and railed against the Dutch generals, some of whom were by then beginning to say that they would have supported the attack if only they had had more cannon.120 He warned Heinsius that Dutch failure to support offensive action would be used by ‘disaffected people in England … to convince our Parliament men that the war ought to be made in other places and not in this country’.121 It is clear that his complaint was against the Dutch generals, not the field deputies, and on 11 October he reported to Heinsius that ‘the Deputies have promised me that they will tell their generals very plainly that the army must continue in the field all this month’.122
Even now, dragging on the fag-end of a wasted campaign, he was still corresponding about the regiments due to be sent to Portugal and the allocation of generals to command them; discussing the state of affairs in southern Germany and northern Italy with a bevy of princelings; lamenting the defeat, in late September, of Count Styrum’s Allied army by Villars and Max Emmanuel near a small town called Hochstadt on the Danube; and telling the Duke of Schomberg that he did not think the government would give the generals ordered to Portugal any more than the £10,700 already allocated. There was a little old-world courtliness with his nephew, the Duke of Berwick, whose master of the horse wanted a passport to visit the United Provinces to buy some horses. Indeed, he risked trespassing on this scarred friendship, saying:
I should be glad … if you think it proper, and not otherwise, that you would desire the Maréchal de Villeroi to give me a pass for twenty pieces of burgundy or champagne to come to Huy or Liege, which in that case M. Puech may deliver to Colonel Cadogan when they meet on Thursday at Borchloen.123
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