Marlborough, p.38Richard Holmes
He rode out as soon as he could, accompanied by his two aides de camp and sixteen spare chargers, and went to the camp, where he found everyone asleep, ‘although the enemy was so close that their standards and colours could easily be counted. They were already pushing back our pickets, but nobody seemed worried about it.’ He got his regiments mounted as quickly as he could, and soon Tallard galloped by, congratulating him on being so beforehand, and ordered him to get the two cannon salvoes fired to recall the foragers. An aide duly galloped to a nearby battery, ‘got himself recognised and obeyed by the gunners, and we soon heard the 24-pounders fire two salvoes’. Across the whole of the Franco-Bavarian camp drums beat up the générale, an insistent flurry that their opponents recognised, infantry formed up in rank and file, troopers mounted, and gunners and their teams hauled their pieces forward. Tallard, prescient as ever, had just penned a note to Louis XIV saying that he thought the Allies were falling back on Nordlingen. Why else would they be about so early in the morning?
Chaplain Sandby heard how ‘the enemy beat to arms, and fired the signal for the foragers to come in’. He then saw the French and Bavarians
set fire to the villages of Berghausen, Weilheim and Unterglauheim, and to two mills and some other houses near the [mouth of the Nebel] rivulet. They likewise brought forth their cannon, and planted several batteries along the hill which formed their position.79
Tallard posted thirty-six battalions and his twelve squadrons of dismounted dragoons between the Danube and the plain north of Blenheim, and sent two battalions up to his left to support Marsin’s fourteen battalions around Oberglauheim. From there twelve more battalions took the line off towards Lutzingen, held by d’Arco and five Bavarian battalions, with another eleven French battalions continuing the line up to the hills on the extreme left. Tallard’s own sixty-four squadrons of cavalry were reinforced by sixteen slipped down by Marsin, and the remaining sixty-seven squadrons formed up between Oberglauheim and Lutzingen. At about ten o’clock the Elector and the two marshals met in Blenheim to discuss their plan. Marsin and the Elector resolved to hold as far forward as they could, on the Nebel itself, while Tallard determined to let the Allies cross and then to break them on the west bank. Tallard admitted that the lie of the land was unfortunate: ‘The village [Blenheim] was too far from the brook to defend the passage, and too close for us to deploy [all the infantry] in front of it and leave the village behind.’ However, he posted two brigades of cavalry with orders ‘to move quickly to the brook and charge the enemy before they were formed up’.80
The Franco-Bavarian plan was cobbled together at the last moment, but Marlborough’s was the result of careful thought and wholehearted agreement. Eugène’s wing would pin Marsin and the Elector to their positions, preventing them from helping Tallard. With the Franco-Bavarian left held in check, Marlborough would be free to defeat Tallard, making best use of his greater numbers of cavalry on ground ideal for their use. However, this meant that there could be no advance until Eugène was ready, and he had a good way to go, across the grain of the country, with numerous streams and ditches that made life especially difficult for his gunners, making extemporised bridges for their pieces.
By ten o’clock Marlborough’s infantry, under the overall command of
his brother Charles, was formed up east of the Nebel facing Blenheim and Unterglauheim. On his extreme left Salamander Cutts, with twenty battalions, faced Blenheim itself, with Major General Wood behind him with fifteen squadrons. Churchill’s infantry were interleaved with the Prince of Hesse’s horse, with a line of infantry in front, then two lines of cavalry, and then a second line of infantry. This would allow the first line of infantry to cross the Nebel ‘and to march as far in advance on the other side as could conveniently be done, and then to form and cover the passage of the horse, leaving intervals in the line of infantry large enough for the horse to pass over and take their post in front’. When the French guns had opened fire at about eight o’clock, Marlborough ordered Blood to reply, and ‘visited each battery, and stood by to observe the range of the guns and the effect of their fire’.81
The French guns could not engage the full line of the Nebel without being brought well forward of their cavalry, and the high corn obstructed the view on both sides, so they did less damage to Churchill’s infantry than we might expect. Mérode-Westerloo recorded that cavalry out in the open certainly suffered from artillery fire. ‘I was riding past Forsac’s regiment,’ he wrote, ‘when a shot carried away the head of my horse and killed two troopers.’ One roundshot hit the ground at the feet of Marlborough’s grey charger, covering horse and rider with dust, but he continued to visit his own gunners, and suggested that the infantry should lie down to avoid the fire and take some cover from what Mérode-Westerloo called ‘the brightest imaginable sun’. It was a Sunday, and chaplains conducted service under this desultory bombardment: Robert Parker heard that Marlborough took communion and then mounted, saying: ‘This day I conquer or die.’
Marlborough knew that Eugène would have to ‘fetch a compass’ to get into position, but towards midday he grew impatient and sent off Cadogan to find out what was happening. At about 12.30 one of Eugène’s aides de camp arrived to announce that all was ready: Marlborough ordered his brother to cross the Nebel, and sent word to Cutts to attack Blenheim. Pioneers had already done a good deal of work on the Nebel, piling fascines into it, making temporary bridges with wood from ruined houses, and even using some tin pontoons, and the infantry began to cross, forming up, as they had been told, on the far bank, but with enough space between themselves and the water for the cavalry to cross, form up and then move through the infantry.
On the left, Lord Cutts’ attack on Blenheim was in the gallant but unsubtle tradition of the famous Salamander, fighting his last battle. Brigadier Rowe, commanding the leading brigade, had told his men not to fire until he had struck the French palisade with his sword, and they stoutly took him at his word. He went down, mortally wounded, and his brigade was thrown back. Ferguson’s brigade did no better against the dismounted dragoons holding improvised barricades on the southern edge of the village: Private Deane recalled ‘trees, planks, coffers, chests, carts, wagons and palisades’. 1st Foot Guards lost its commanding officer, and the attack was repulsed here too, though only after ‘our men fought in and through the fire and pursued others through it, and many on both sides were burnt to death. At length the enemy making all the force they could upon us forced us to retreat and to quit the village.’82
As Cutts’ first wave fell back, Lieutenant General von Zurlauben, a Swiss professional and one of the few French generals to earn Tallard’s approval that day (‘He did marvels, both as an officer and a brave man’), led three squadrons of elite Gens d’Armes, part of the French Household Troops, into the flank of Rowe’s brigade, doing considerable damage before being checked by the Hessians of Wilkes’s brigade, now safely across the Nebel and coming on in good order. Although the attack on Blenheim had failed, it persuaded Lieutenant General the marquis de Clérembault, responsible for its defence, to summon more troops from the open country to its north. Tallard complained bitterly that Clérembault eventually denuded the whole of his centre of infantry and then, when the rot set in, ‘preferred to get drowned rather than to remain at his post’. By 2 p.m. Cutts’ attack on Blenheim was called off for the moment, but Tallard’s right had become fatally unbalanced by its defence.
Further north, Churchill’s leading infantry scrambled across the Nebel as ordered, and by the time Zurlauben led his Gens d’Armes forward as planned, there were already five squadrons of British cavalry on the west bank under Colonel Francis Palmes. The Gens d’Armes halted to fire their carbines and were, predictably, roughly handled. Palmes charged them frontally, and ordered his two flanking squadrons to come in at an angle and take them in the flanks: the gallant Zurlauben was mortally wounded. The defeat of this prestigious element of the Maison du Roi infuriated Tallard: ‘The officers of the gendar
Palmes’s men were soon driven back by a countercharge, but, as the exasperated Tallard observed, they were not broken, and as more Allied squadrons crossed the Nebel the battle slithered out of Tallard’s control. He later confessed that ‘misfortune … came upon us because we did not drive back the enemy in our first charges’.84 An anonymous French officer affirmed that: ‘The general officers were no help to the marshal; they let the enemy pass the marsh and a little brook which was in front of our camp without defending it, and the enemy was across it in three lines before anyone charged.’85 The line of the Nebel was lost and the French cavalry, their charges described by Tallard as ‘useless’, were beaten, partly by the disciplined action of the Allied horse, and partly by the steady volleys of the supporting infantry. Mérode-Westerloo grimly recalled one of his charges being broken by fire at thirty paces, after which there was ‘a definite but unauthorised movement to the rear’.
The French infantry which might have supported the charges, as Churchill’s foot did their own horse, had started the day too far back, and too much of it had now been drawn into Blenheim by that anxious officer the marquis de Clérembault. ‘We had too many battalions on our right,’ wrote another officer, ‘and lacked them in our centre.’ Tallard galloped north to ask Marsin for help, but the French and Bavarians on his left, barely holding their own against determined attacks by Eugène, had nothing to spare, and so ‘he did not think himself in a state to give me any’.
The baron de Montigny-Languet said that the battle was not simply lost because of French mistakes. Hitherto French armies had been ‘everywhere victorious’, but now they had encountered a new and enterprising foe: ‘Nothing was better conducted than the enemy’s march. They were superior to us, and apart from their lines which were equal to us in their three attacks, were in column five or six lines deep to support them.’ In short, the French and Bavarians were facing an enemy who understood combined arms battle, and it had been madness to offer battle at all: ‘It would have been better to have kept the intact forces of the empire together, to have dug in and risked nothing.’ Quite how such an option might have been sustained logistically, however, he does not begin to say.86
In contrast, Adam de Cardonnel thought that Marlborough threw himself heart and soul into the battle because he knew he had so much to win from a decisive action.
The Duke of Marlborough exposed himself in every place, from one attack to another, beyond what is thought advisable in a general, but he saw the good effect of his doing so, and no doubt knew the necessity of a battle better than any of us, for I believe had the opinion of the majority of us prevailed, we should not have been for us under our circumstances, in short orders were never better given, or better executed.87
Marlborough was also well served by his generals in an inverse proportion to the way that Tallard was let down by his. John Wilson called Marlborough and Eugène ‘such wise and experienced generals’, a telling tribute from a sergeant to his commander-in-chief.
Communicating in person, or by gallopers and by runners, the latter wearing jockey caps and carrying staves denoting their function, Marlborough spent the day riding along his front as the demands of the battle changed: chaplain Noyes saw how ‘he exposed his person the whole day in a most uncommon manner’. In early afternoon the Dutch infantry were already in trouble at Oberglauheim, whose defending Irish infantry fought for King Louis with more courage than some of his own subjects, when Marsin launched a well-handled cavalry counterattack. Marlborough was on hand to send forward fresh infantry and to ask Eugène for help. No sooner demanded than delivered: up trotted Count Fugger with a brigade of Imperial cuirassiers, and the threat melted away. Soon afterwards, when he felt the battle had reached its point of balance, Marlborough sent his aide Lord Tonbridge to tell Eugène that he expected to break the French, but needed Eugène to continue to hold Marsin and the Elector in play. As always, men noticed his grace under pressure. When Lord Orkney hurtled in at last to tell him that the day was his, ‘he took my Lord Orkney by the hand, and said “George, thou art a happy man and a messenger of good tidings. Praised, therefore, be Almighty God.”’88 Orkney, an experienced professional, admitted that the victory was ‘entirely owing to my Lord Duke, for, I declare, had it been my opinion, I had been against it, considering the ground where they were encamped and the strength of their army’.89
Before Marlborough was in a position to thank God, however, his infantry had first to deal with Blenheim, set on fire by its defenders who, as Mérode-Westerloo wrote, ‘were grilled amongst the continually collapsing roofs and beams of the blazing houses, and thus were burnt alive amidst the ashes of this smaller Troy of their own making’.90 Tallard, seeing that the battle for his left and centre was lost, ‘wanted to go back to the village and make a last effort, in order to fall back with the infantry: I was followed by a regiment of Hessian dragoons [in fact Bothmar’s Regiment], who surrounded me, the officer having recognised my Order of the Saint-Esprit’. As Tallard was led to the rear, at about 5.30, much of the huge garrison of Blenheim stood fast among the blazing houses, but:
M de Clérembault, lieutenant general, who commanded the 27 battalions which were in the village on our right and the 12 squadrons of dragoons, did not think of withdrawing with this body; he went and drowned himself in the Danube at four in the afternoon, two hours before the end of the battle, having lost his head.91
Clérembault, dead and in no position to defend himself, was soon to become the French bête noire. He had certainly committed a major mistake in packing infantry into Blenheim, but once the battle in the centre was lost his course of action was less than clear. There was then a large bend in the Danube, tipped by the village of Sonderheim, south-west of Blenheim, and the direction of the Allied attack meant that the main Höchstädt road, which might once have enabled the garrison to escape, was already in hostile hands. The suggestion that Clérembault could have formed his men into a huge square and marched them off to safety is absurd: the ground simply did not allow it. Yet again the French found themselves fighting with a river to their back, and yet again they paid the price. Clérembault was wrong to ride for his life and leave his men to their fate: even Tallard had hoped to do something for his still-undefeated whitecoats.
Many officers and men of the broken right wing tried to cross the Danube. There was a single bridge of boats but, says Robert Parker, ‘The bridge (as frequently happens in such cases) broke under the crowd that rushed upon it, and down they went.’92 Many tried to swim their horses or strike out on their own, but the microterrain told against them. Sonderheim is on the outer sweep of a great bend, and the river there, scoured by the current, was far deeper than it was at the far bank. French fugitives, already tired and hot after a day’s fighting, entered the Danube well out of their depth. They may have been encouraged to risk it by the sight of a few fortunate comrades scrambling up through the reeds on the far side. Some, shocked by the chill of the river’s water, would have died quickly; others would have been dragged down by sodden uniforms or brained by the hooves of flailing horses.
Lieutenant General the marquis de Clérembault cannot have died well in the muddy waters of the Danube; worse, he perished shamed by the courage of better men, most of them with no title or lineage to their name. Nine battalions of newly raised infantry held together well on the open ground north-west of the village, coolly forming square on order and firing steadily till they were overwhelmed. Lord Orkney admiringly wrote that they stood ‘in battalion square and in the best order I ever saw, till they were cut to pieces almost in rank and file’.93 Chaplain Sandby, riding over the field next day, saw the youngsters lying in their ranks as i
The best that can be said for the defence of Blenheim is that it forced Marlborough to mask it with part of his infantry, and helped prevent him from rolling up the left wing of the Franco-Bavarian line, which was able to draw off largely intact at the end of the day. The village was surrounded by about seven o’clock, and Churchill’s infantry closed for the kill. Colonel de la Silvère tried to extract the regiments of Artois and Provence, but could not break the circle round the village, and there was sustained and heavy fighting as the French fought hard, street by street and house by house, for the village. Tallard, a prisoner in Marlborough’s coach, sent the duke a message saying that he would order his men to retire to save further bloodshed, but Marlborough, who had nothing to gain from permitting the escape of the beleaguered garrison, replied: ‘Inform Monsieur de Tallard that in the position which he is now in, he has no command.’ Eventually Brigadier the marquis de Blanzac asked for terms, but Orkney told him that there were none but to surrender at discretion.
The scenes that followed are not pleasant for a historian with an enduring regard for an army which, in its long history, has scaled the heights as well as plumbed the depths. An ensign of the Régiment du Roi cut a British officer across the arm when he reached out to take his colour, and the Régiment de Navarre, one of the best of the old French line, proud ‘Navarre sans peur’ to its officers and men, burnt its colours rather than give them up. Officers wept unashamedly in the smoking village, many repeating: ‘What will the king say? What will the king say?’
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