Marlborough, p.37Richard Holmes
A Glorious Victory: Blenheim
The Allies were on the move betimes on 12 August. Marlborough had ordered his regiments to bridge the little Kessel with fascines during the night, and his forces marched westwards parallel with the northern bank of the Danube and halted for the night between the villages of Münster and Tapfheim. Marlborough later admitted that they were ‘intending to advance, and take this camp of Höchstädt … but found the enemy had already possessed themselves of it, whereupon we resolved to attack them’.69 He and Eugène climbed the church tower in Tapfheim to view the ground, and then rode forward to the Hühnersberg hill near Wolperstetten. They saw a wide, flat floodplain stretching north from the Danube, now canalised but then curling up in a great bend east of Höchstädt, to the wooded high ground of the Waldberg and the Obere Hölzer, the former a little over four miles due north of the river. On the plain’s eastern edge a natural defile, a mile across, between woods and river was dominated by the village of Schwenningen.
Just over a third of the way from Schwenningen to Höchstädt the Nebel brook tottered – in such flat land we can scarcely say it ran – from the slopes of the Waldberg to the Danube. A row of tightly-nucleated villages lay along its line, from Blenheim, on a bend in the Danube, through Unterglauheim and Oberglauheim to Schwemmenbach on the edge of the hills. It was rich farming country, with water rarely far below the surface, but in the summer it provided excellent going for cavalry. The Nebel itself, now cribbed in by modern land drainage, was then more boggy, but could be passed by infantry and cavalry on improvised crossings in most places, although guns would have to use bridges or causeways. One French officer recalled it as ‘only a brook two feet wide, which formed a little marsh much dried out because of the great heat, and this deceived our generals who thought it wide’.70 They might not have thought it so had they taken the trouble to look at it.
Spread across the plain behind the Nebel, and packed into its little villages, were the seventy-eight battalions and 143 squadrons of the Franco-Bavarian army, perhaps 54,000 men in all, with Tallard’s wing on the right towards the river and the Elector’s and Marsin’s army on the left, brushing the high ground with its left cuff. We have seen Marlborough and Eugène manoeuvre with the intention of obtaining the battle they were soon to have: what spirit, then, animated the Franco-Bavarian army? If victory has many fathers, defeat is indeed an orphan, and Camille de Tallard anxiously told Chamillart in his two post-combat reports, written as a prisoner of war, that he had certainly not sired the greatest defeat endured by French arms for a generation: others were to blame. His reports contain a good deal of special pleading, but they do help us understand why the French and Bavarians were sitting about in this natural amphitheatre with the sword of Damocles poised above them.
First, poor logistics (‘with no magazine, not even six days’ supplies in any place’) sharply limited their ability to manoeuvre, just as Marlborough had suspected they would. There had been damaging desertions, especially amongst foreign units. An outbreak of glanders, a deadly and contagious horse-sickness among cavalry units from Alsace, some of whom were now at half-strength, meant that Tallard and Marsin were reluctant to exchange cavalry in case the infection spread, and Tallard had been forced to dismount four regiments (twelve squadrons) of dragoons to give their surviving horses to his cavalry. Worse, Tallard professed ‘a total ignorance of the strength of the enemy’. He had no idea that Marlborough and Eugène were fully united and so close. After all, when he had asked if the Höchstädt plain was a safe place to await further reinforcements, ‘everyone assured me yes’.
With two marshals of France, a ruling prince and several ambitious lieutenant generals in the field, command was a mite difficult, and the council of war a mere debating chamber.
This diversity of advice, Sir, which made public what one wished to do, shows us clearly that it is a fine lesson that we should only have one man commanding an army, and that it is a great misfortune to have to deal with a prince of the honour of the Elector of Bavaria, above all when lieutenant generals advised him directly … as did certain of M le Maréchal Marsin’s army.
The Elector, claimed Tallard, had heard from Donauwörth that they faced only Marlborough and a small advance guard who had joined Eugène, and it would therefore be safe to attack.
On 12 August Tallard ordered the comte de Silly to take a strong party of horse forward to the Reichenbach, beyond Schwenningen, ‘in order to take some prisoners, whatever the cost’, and so find out how strong Eugène really was. News of this raid arrived when Marlborough and Eugène were at dinner. They thought it an attack on their pioneers, who were at work levelling a ‘hollow way’ that ran across the army’s route just west of the Kessel, and rode forward to see what was happening, ordering their horse to be ready to assist if required. Silly fell back with four prisoners, but neither they nor his scouts gave any warning of what was about to happen. Indeed, there were later suggestions that the prisoners may even have been ‘plants’, carefully briefed by Cadogan. Tallard himself was worried about the Nebel, and hoped to throw up a battery ‘on the main road that crosses the brook’, and to dam it near its confluence with the Danube so as to deepen it. The Elector, anxious not to damage the corn, which was ready to be harvested, was against all this, but on the following day, Tallard concludes pathetically, ‘those who were against precautions on the previous day sought to make them when there was no more time’.71
Marlborough and Eugène, in contrast, were determined to attack, although, with sixty-six battalions and 160 squadrons, they were slightly inferior in strength, with perhaps 50,800 men.72 They certainly had fewer infantry, but the French were to diminish their advantage in this arm by packing infantry into Blenheim, where their numbers were a source not of strength but of confusion. The Allied numerical advantage in cavalry was especially important in view of the open country, which favoured the mounted arm.
The armies of the age fought in line, although lines tended to be deeper then than they were a generation or two later. The French Ordonnance of 1703 still reflected the old days of pike and musket, and decreed that infantry battalions were to form up five deep, although shallower formations were adopted when strengths fell below their establishment figures. In contrast, Richard Kane reflected the best of British practice when he recommended that a battalion of eight hundred men should be drawn up
three deep, their bayonets fixed on their muzzles, the grenadiers divided on the flanks, the officers ranged in the front; and the colonel, or in his absence the lieutenant colonel (who, I suppose, fights the battalion) on foot, with his sword drawn in his hand, about eight or ten paces in front, opposite the centre, with an expert drum by him. He should appear with a cheerful countenance, never in a hurry, or by any means ruffled, and to deliver his orders with great calmness and presence of mind.
The commanding officer would divide his battalion into four grand divisions, each of four platoons. These in turn would be subdivided to give three ‘firings’, although Kane recommended that the front rank might be kept separate to give a fourth ‘fire in reserve’. The result of methods like this was to have volleys rolling out regularly from distinct parts of the line, with some loaded muskets (the ‘fire in reserve’) on hand for an emergency.73 It was more complex, and certainly required more attention by the officers, than firing by whole ranks (‘rank entire’), but was believed to generate a better rate of fire.
The maintenance of a high volume of fire was essential to British infantry tactics in the eighteenth century. In his masterly work Fit for Service (1981) J.A. Houlding argued that this ‘illustrates the fact that a sound appreciation of the supremacy of firepower over all other forms of combat had been a lesson well learnt by the end of Marlborough’s campaigns, and had been taken to heart in the army’.74 What was really different between Marlborough’s battalions at Blenheim and King William’s foot ten years before was this ‘most formidable and destructive fire’ produced by platoon firings. Marlborough took
There are good practical reasons to doubt just how long a battalion could maintain its platoon firing in the smoke and din of battle with the enemy’s musketry and canister shot winnowing its ranks.75 Some forty years later an experienced infantry officer wrote of the British foot at Dettingen:
They were under no command by way of Hyde Park firing, but with the whole three ranks made a running fire of their own accord, at the same time with great judgement and skill, stooping as low as they could, making almost every ball take place … The French fired in the same manner, I mean without waiting for words of command, and Lord Stair did often say he had seen many a battle, and never saw the infantry engage in any other manner.76
John Dalrymple, 2nd Earl of Stair, fought at Blenheim, and his testimony cannot be brushed aside easily. Even the best infantry could not sustain proper platoon firing for very long, but the impact of no more than half a dozen crisply delivered volleys would break opposing infantry if their morale and training were not up to the strain. Contemporaries were right to warn of the very unpleasant consequences of getting in the way of a French volley fired ‘by rank entire’, but the deep deployment of French battalions, the wide spacing between their ranks, and, so often, the recent arrival of new recruits, meant that a close-packed British battalion, its men standing shoulder to shoulder and its three ranks ‘locked up’ one against the other, maintained cohesion better and generated a significantly higher volume of fire than its opponents. In combat the effect of success is cumulative: the side firing fastest and most accurately boosts its own cohesion and confidence, accelerating into a virtuous spiral as its opponents spin round their own vicious circle, losing more men, firing more slowly, and eventually breaking.
The achievement of Marlborough’s foot resonated down the ages, and a British officer writing in 1743 told how: ‘Our people imitated their predecessors in the late war gloriously, marching in close order, and still kept advancing; for when the smoke blew off a little, instead of being among their living we found the dead in heaps by us: and the second fire turned them to the right about, and upon a long trot.’77 Platoon firing was the business of Marlburian infantry, and one can almost see them now in the cornfields bordering the Danube, three ranks locked solid, silken colours catching the sun, with the first warning ruffle from the colonel’s drummer picked up by drummers along the line, and then those drawling voices, from Cork and Canterbury and Cumberland: ‘First firing, make ready. Present. Fire!’ Men were already beginning to speak of the canine courage of the British foot, cold resolution coupled with extraordinary ferocity, an impression heightened by their practice of barking out three sharp hurrahs before pressing in with bayonet and butt to take advantage of the damage done by their fire. Many opponents did not care to await their arrival.
If Marlborough believed that firepower was the essence of infantry, he argued that shock action was the soul of cavalry, and trained his horse to eschew squibbing off pistols or carbines before impact, but to charge home at the sort of ‘good round trot’ that Cromwell’s Ironsides had delivered. This was considerably slower than charges would be a century later, when they were delivered ‘at the utmost speed of the slowest horse’. Marlborough’s method, however, ensured a high degree of control, and at Blenheim Captain Parker and Marshal Tallard both watched, one with elation and the other with growing gloom, the flower of the Maison du Roi being seen off by British horse.
Cannon, such a nuisance on the line of march, were generally too cumbersome to move easily about the battlefield. They were usually sited where they could do most damage in the early stages, grouped in small batteries in the battle line. Knowing commanders might clump some of their guns on a suitable piece of high ground: a well-sited sixteen-gun Bavarian battery at Lutzingen helped prop up the Franco-Bavarian left flank at Blenheim. Roundshot, an iron cannonball which spread death and destruction by bounding through the enemy’s ranks, was the most common projectile, and there was widespread agreement that no cannon, whatever its calibre, could usefully be employed at a target more than a thousand yards away. Although there were by now a few howitzers about, which fired explosive shells, their primitive fuses and the unreliable casting of their shells meant that they were often rather patchy in their effect. Gunners who lobbed their shells over friendly units would tend to receive forcefully expressed suggestions that they should do something more harmful to the foe and less dangerous to their friends.
In contrast, canister, multiple shot loaded in box, bag or tin, or strapped to a wooden plug the size of the bore, was a real killer. Its range was limited, perhaps three hundred yards at the most, but it could do terrible damage to packed formations at this distance. Canister was the most effective projectile for ‘regimental pieces’, light guns which kept pace with the infantry, fired from the intervals between battalions and, in their noisy and destructive way, foreshadowed the use of machine-guns two centuries on.
If armies fought in line, they moved in column. The easiest way of deploying from the latter to the former was simply to march onto the field with units destined for the right of the line at the head of the column, to order a right wheel at some suitable point, and then, when the whole army had completed the wheel, to halt it, and order it to turn left into line: this was essentially what the French did at Ramillies. If this was the simplest method of deploying it was easily the least satisfactory, for it required sufficient space to form the whole army up in column of route, a suitable approach on one flank of the field, and time to complete the whole manoeuvre without interference.
We do not use the expression ‘give battle’ for nothing, for an army in column could usually move faster than an opponent in line. The surest way of avoiding contact with an enemy wheeling into line with all the martial glory of drum ruffles, officers shouting beautifully articulated orders and earnest but profane sergeants urging men to step very, very short on the inner flank, was to march off apace, leaving a few dragoons to hold suitable defiles on the line of withdrawal. It was far better, if the terrain and one’s training permitted it, to enter the field in a number of parallel columns. These could still deploy into line by wheeling, but for the best-trained there were more complex procedures available, like the deployment en tiroir as units down the column slid out of it to one side or the other, like drawers being pulled out of a chest.
Moving from column into line was always a delicate business, especially if there was a natural obstacle in the way, and the problem for the Allies at Blenheim was that they would reach the Nebel in column and then deploy only after they had crossed it, at their most vulnerable at the very moment that they entered a plateau filled with foes. What Marlborough’s reconnaissance on 12 August had almost certainly revealed was that along much of Tallard’s front the Nebel was invisible from his campsites. Tallard was certainly right to tell Chamillart that pushing a battery forward to cover the main crossing would have been a good idea, and just as correct to admit that his main line of defence, between Blenheim and the Nebel, was too far back from the obstacle. On the Allied right Eugène was not as fortunate, and this simple piece of geography helped make the battle on his flank a good deal harder than it was for Marlborough on the left, and helps explain why, in essence, there was to be a fixing battle on the Allied right and a striking battle on the left.
The soldiers of the Allied army rose without beat of drum just after midnight on 13 August and, leaving their tents standing, moved out through the Schwenningen defile into the plain, fanning out into eight columns as they did so, with the brigade which had held Schwenningen overnight forming a ninth. Forty squadrons of cavalry screened the advance. Robert Parker recalled that the march started ‘by break of day’, and at about 6 a.m., well after first light, Marlborough held a brief conference with his generals near Schwenningen, and paid particular attention to the ad
The comte de Mérode-Westerloo, in command of the right wing of Tallard’s second line, did not much like the Franco-Bavarian position. He thought that with its left on Lutzingen and its right on the Danube it was far too wide: by pushing the whole line forward, so that the left was on the woods,
we could have held a far more compact position, with our right still on the Danube … and our centre more concentrated. There we could have drawn up three if not four lines of infantry, one behind the other, with our ninety-four guns to the fore, and three or four lines of cavalry to support them in the rear.78
However, on the night of the twelfth – thirteenth, Mérode-Westerloo ‘sat down to a good hot plate of soup in Blenheim with my generals and colonels’ and retired to his camp bed, which had been set up in a barn on the edge of the village, for a good night’s sleep.
He was awakened by his head groom at six in the morning.
The fellow, Lefranc, shook me awake and blurted out that the enemy were there. Thinking to mock him, I asked ‘Where? There?’ and he at once replied, ‘Yes – there – there!’ flinging wide as he spoke the door of the barn and drawing my bed-curtains. The door opened straight onto the fine, sunlit plain beyond – and the whole area appeared to be covered by enemy squadrons. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, and then coolly remarked that the foe must at least give me time to take my morning cup of chocolate.
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