Marlborough, p.41Richard Holmes
Huy’s outlying forts were soon taken, and the garrison of 450 men in the citadel surrendered as prisoners of war within two hours of Allied batteries opening fire. Marlborough had already decided that the misfortune at Trier meant that there was no longer any merit in his moving back to the Moselle, and so determined to pierce the Lines of Brabant as soon as the trenches dug before Huy had been filled in and his batteries there levelled. The operation depended on Dutch approval, and Orkney told his brother: ‘You cannot believe how much it was opposed by the Dutch.’38 Sicco van Goslinga, who became a field deputy the following year, acknowledges that all was not well: ‘intrigues amongst the generals and even among the deputies, who instead of using their authority to stifle this fire of dissension at birth, encouraged it by choosing sides’.39
Marlborough established that the portion of the Lines between Neerhespen and Esmael was poorly guarded, and accordingly told Overkirk to make a diversion, crossing the River Mehaigne and feinting towards the lines north-east of Namur, threatening the very spot that the defenders thought most vulnerable. Villeroi marched at once to the spot. ‘As soon as day began to shut in’ on 17 July, Marlborough sent off General the comte de Noyelle, Lieutenant General Richard Ingoldsby and Lieutenant General Lumley with an advance guard of twenty-two battalions and twenty squadrons.40 He brought the rest of his army along in two huge columns two hours later, heading for the Lines, ‘three great leagues’ from his camp. Overkirk had been sent word, though only that very evening, so as to preserve security, ‘that he might likewise march in order and join us’. The advance guard reached the Lines – made up of a ditch and ramparts, protected by the Little Geete – by dawn on the eighteenth, and, as Lieutenant General Lumley reported: ‘The too great security of the enemy made them negligent enough to possess with some advanced detachments of foot two of their barriers.’41 Sergeant Millner was in a party of combined grenadiers under Colonel Godfrey, drawn together from the six British battalions in the advance guard, which was there when the River Geete was forced.
Notwithstanding they [the enemy] were just on the other side of the river, yet we posted ourselves under cover of a quick set hedge without so much as one shot being fired. Where we continued the space of a quarter of an hour until such time as the pontoons on the carriages came up along a little causeway which led to the river, in order to lay the bridges. At the noise whereof the enemy took the alarum and began firing very sharply on that place where they judged the bridges would be laid. Which galled our workmen so prodigiously that they were not able to stand it. Which Brigadier Blood perceiving, came to Colonel Godfrey desiring three companies of grenadiers from the right to advance to the riverside in order to fire upon the enemy to divert them during the laying of the pontoon bridges. And as the bridges were finished the grenadiers had orders to march over the same; which we accordingly did and beat the enemy from that ground.42
Colonel Charles Godfrey was another echo of the past. He had married Marlborough’s sister Arabella, very quietly, at some time in the 1680s, and, fecund as ever, she had borne him two daughters and a son. He was ‘a sensible and well-liked fellow’, a Whig MP and a source of regular support for Marlborough in the House. He was also a brave and determined infantry officer with something of the Salamander’s stamp, and Marlborough rewarded him by deploying his interest to see Colonel Godfrey appointed clerk to the Board of Green Cloth and master of the Jewel Office. For all Arabella’s early flightiness her marriage to Charles Godfrey was firm and good, although when she died in 1730, after a distressing period of dementia, she was buried in St Paul’s with her brother George (who died in 1710), naval officer turned Tory politician and something of a thorn in the Marlburian side. ‘I am very sorry that 16 [George Churchill] behaves himself so very ill,’ lamented the duke to Sarah. ‘I do not flatter myself with having much power over him, but if you please I shall speak to him, for I had much rather he should be unkind and disrespectful to me than to you, whose happiness is dearer to me than my own life.’43
Let us return to watch Charles Godfrey at the business he knew best. Neerhespen, on the Allied side of the lines, fell easily, and the château at Wangé, along the river to the south-west, was speedily taken. Three battalions rushed Elixheim, further west still, taking village and bridge; three enemy dragoon regiments encamped nearby did not even try to stem the flood, but fell back on Leau. However, for a time Marlborough’s position was excruciatingly vulnerable. Part of the follow-up force had missed its way in the dark, and was still some way back. Marlborough sent a galloper back to Lord Orkney, its commander, urging him to step out. In the meantime, Marlborough pushed Lumley’s advance guard cavalry over the obstacle ‘without loss of time, though not without difficulty’. Orkney’s men, with that turn of speed which the duke’s infantry always produced when they knew he really needed them, reached the bridges while the last of the cavalry were still crossing. Orkney reported the bridges so poor that ‘hardly above one man could go over abreast though in some places one foot man and a horseman passed over together. However, though the passages were very bad, men scrambled over them strangely.’44
Marlborough himself rode forward to join the cavalry, and saw that forty or fifty enemy squadrons were now coming up, with a number of light guns and infantry behind them. Orkney, some way back, saw ‘two good lines of the enemy, very well formed, a line of foot following them. We were in a very good position to receive them, and we outwinged [outflanked] them, and still more troops coming over the pass. As I got over to the [1st] foot guards, I saw the shock begin.’ Although his infantry was not yet in a position to intervene, many of the enemy cavalry were Bavarian cuirassiers in half-armour, and his own men – British, Hanoverian and Hessian – were ‘a good deal mixed up and not in their proper place’, Marlborough at once ordered his horse to charge. In the cavalry mélêe, separated from his escort and with only a few staff officers to hand, he was, as Lumley reported, in great peril. Orkney recounts how:
My Lord Marlborough in person was everywhere, and escaped very narrowly, for a squadron, which he was at the head of, gave ground a little, but soon came up again; and a fellow came up to him and thought to have sabred him to the ground, and struck him with that force, and, missing his stroke, he fell off his horse. I asked my Lord if it was so; he said it was absolutely so. See what a happy [e.g. fortunate] man he is.45
The battle was really over before the infantry arrived. Blackader wrote that ‘our horse had some action with them, and beat them wherever they encountered them. Our foot had nothing to do, for the enemy fled before they came up.’46 John Marshall Deane of 1st Foot Guards recalled a busier time:
our men were so eager upon the design that they jumped furiously upon the enemy into the trenches, the which they soon quitted, and then our men took the pass it being a pretty big river. Some of our regiments wading through it breast high; and afterwards engaged them with notable valour and broke their army most confusedly, giving the enemy a total rout.47
So far, so good. The Lines were pierced on a wide front and the French counterattack was thoroughly beaten. Overkirk was on his way, though about two hours from Marlborough, who felt it rash to follow the retreating French infantry until he arrived. We now know, though Marlborough did not, that Villeroi did not in fact hear of his defeat till nine that morning, by which time Overkirk’s men had already started to cross the Geete. Marlborough could have taken the risk of pressing the Bavarian infantry, which had fallen back in good order, without any chance of Villeroi intervening. He did push on to Tirlemont, capturing a battalion there; and some dragoons, pursuing the survivors of the morning’s battle, overtook and seized part of Villeroi’s baggage train. When Marlborough wrote to Harley from Tirlemont that evening he reported the day’s events as a significant victory, and concluded that he hoped to advance on Louvain the following day.
Marlborough announced the capture of two lieutenant generals, the marquis d’Allègre and the comte de Hornes, two major generals, two brigadiers,
each piece having three bores … touching the match to one touch hole they fired out each piece 3 balls at once. These very murdering cannon were made the last year at the city of Brussels for the security of the line, but by the providence of God we secured them so that they did our army but little mischief.49
Marlborough wrote to Sarah on the evening of the eighteenth. Knowing what we do of his headaches, we will not be surprised to hear that ‘my blood is so hot that I can hardly hold my pen, so that you will my dearest life excuse me if I do not say more’. He still paid tribute to the architects of his victory: ‘It is impossible to say too much good of the troops that were with me, for never men fought better.’ The battle was unquestionably a ‘good success’ – not Blenheim, to be sure, but a valuable victory in its own right and an earnest of what might come.50 The ministry, anxious for something to celebrate, proclaimed a day of public thanksgiving for ‘having forced the French lines … [and obtained] a signal and glorious victory within those lines’. The mellifluous Gazette lovingly described the royal procession from St James’s to St Paul’s Cathedral to hear the Dean of Lincoln preach and join a thundering Te Deum.51
It may not have been Blenheim, but there was certainly a palpable feeling of unity of purpose linking Marlborough and his men that day. Lieutenant Colonel Cranstoun of the Cameronians wrote:
Those who know the army and what soldiers are know very well that upon occasions like this where even the common soldier is sensible of the reason of what he has to do, and especially of the joy and success of victory, soldiers with little entreaty will even outdo themselves, and march and fatigue double with cheerfulness what their officers would at other times compel them to do.52
Men shouted, ‘Now, on to Louvain,’ and ‘Over the Dyle,’ and even the Dutch Lieutenant General Slangenburg, when he came up, told Marlborough: ‘This is nothing if we lie here. We should march on Louvain or Parc.’53 Marlborough was touched by the noisy acclamations he received. He confessed to Sarah that ‘the kindness of the troops to me had transported me … to make me very kind expressions, even in the heat of the action, which I own to you gives me very great pleasure, and makes me resolve to endure anything for their sakes’.54
There was widespread recognition that by marching straight for Louvain on the eighteenth the Allies would have intercepted Villeroi, who had to swing through a quarter-circle to cross the river there. But Overkirk, usually so much in Marlborough’s mind, declared (not unreasonably, for they had marched twenty-six miles in thirty-one hours) that his soldiers were exhausted, and camped between Leau and Tirlemont. With the great opportunity missed, a smaller one, of crossing the Dyle to fight Villeroi on the far side, still remained. However, unseasonable rain flooded the water meadows, which the army needed to traverse to reach the river, and then the Dutch Council of War unanimously ‘declared the passage of the river to be of too dangerous a consequence’.55
Marlborough was furious, but told Godolphin that he dared not show his resentment too much for fear of annoying the Dutch and encouraging the French. He did, however, privately acknowledge that he had not let Overkirk know what his plan really was (‘I was forced to cheat them into this action, for they did not believe I would attack the Lines’), which suggests that, for all Marlborough’s annoyance at the Dutch decision, his ally’s irritation was not without cause.56 He told both Heinsius and Godolphin of his fear that the decision now gave the campaign ‘a very melancholy prospect’. Although he urged secrecy on his correspondents, it is clear that his frustrations were widely aired in Britain, probably because it suited the ministry to blame an ally, rather than its chosen commander, for what now looked very much like a missed opportunity: Blenheim had been such a stunning success that public expectations were unreasonably high.
Most historians believe that Marlborough was right to blame the Dutch, but Ivor Burton sounds a note of caution. There were fundamental differences within the alliance. The Dutch, engaged in a life-or-death struggle against France for the past three decades, never saw battle in the same light as Marlborough. Nor did they welcome his methods, which were, by the standards of the age, secretive. Much later in the war, Goslinga saw how, unusually, ‘Milord on his arrival had all the infantry and cavalry generals called to a sort of council of war. I must note that Milord never used these councils: he limited himself to the deputation, or [Dutch] general in chief assisted by the two quartermasters-general, Dopff and Cadogan.’ Marlborough went on to tell him: ‘I must teach you a general maxim; that is if you find yourself in a delicate situation, or need to decide on a battle or some great and hazardous enterprise, if you are resolved to do it, neither consult your generals, nor call a great council.’57
The three centuries since Blenheim emphasise that Marlborough was right to believe that ‘It is absolutely necessary that such a power be lodged with the general as may enable him to act as he thinks proper according to the best of his judgement, without being obliged either to communicate what he intends further than he thinks convenient.’58 Yet it is no less evident that the issue of command goes to the very heart of coalition warfare, and he is a fortunate coalition commander who enjoys the undiluted authority that Marlborough sought.
Of course personal jealousies and ambitions amongst the Dutch generals played their part, just as they had in the squabble between Coehoorn and Slangenburg in 1703. Most of them were petite noblesse, gentlemen of ancient lineage but narrow acres, given to high words and long memories. Opdam, who refused to serve under Overkirk, who in turn blocked his promotion, had a remarkable thirty-two quarterings on his coat of arms, and was made a count by the Elector Palatine in 1711. Sicco van Goslinga declined a similar honour from the emperor: being a gentleman of Friesland was quite enough for him.
There were added layers of complexity in 1705. A French deputation was at The Hague, and although Marlborough assured Godolphin that the Dutch would not make a separate peace, there was always a risk that the French might attain, through a diplomatic master-stroke, what they had so far failed to achieve by battle. In the very same letter in which he warned Heinsius of the need for undivided command, Marlborough added an apparently harmless paragraph saying that the captured Lieutenant General d’Allègre, who ‘has a very good reputation’, had ‘pressed me for a pass for two months’. Marlborough was anxious to do this decent fellow ‘all the civilities I could’, but he just wanted to clear the matter with Heinsius first.
D’Allègre duly received his pass. Then, whether or not with Marlborough’s foreknowledge we cannot say, though the implications are obvious, he went straight to Versailles, where Louis XIV told him:
Until the present moment, the king believed that his honour demanded that he maintain his grandson the King in the possession of all the states which the late King of Spain left him … having defended him for five years, without deriving any advantage … it is now time that the King puts the interests of France above those of Spain.
Louis gave d’Allègre plein pouvoir to negotiate a settlement on his return to Holland, and urged him to get Marlborough firmly on side. The French king could not offer the duke ‘more dignities than he already possessed’, but a gift of two million livres ‘would solidly establish a fortune, always doubtful in England, if it was not supported by great wealth’. D’Allègre was also to pass on to Marlborough ‘sentiments full of respect and veneration’.
Marlborough asked d’Allègre to dinner soon after his return to The Hague on the expiry of his leave, but the marquis reported to Louis that: ‘As for Marlborough, while affecting a sincere inclination for peace, he claimed to defer entirely to the decisions of his sovereign and above
It is clear from subsequent correspondence that Marlborough regarded the offer of two million livres as lasting beyond the immediate failure of the d’Allègre mission. Louis later suggested that the offer should be increased to four million if the peace terms were particularly attractive, proposing a menu of rewards related to specific points in any eventual treaty. However, Torcy, the French foreign minister, met Marlborough at The Hague in the spring of 1706, and ‘when I mentioned his private interests he blanched and seemed desirous of changing the topic of conversation’. In 1708, when the strategic situation was even more encouraging for the Allies, Marlborough told Berwick: ‘You may be sure that I shall be heartily in favour of peace, not doubting that I should find proof of the goodwill which was promised to me two years ago by the Marquis d’Allègre.’60
The extant evidence does no more than identify key features, for it was in the nature of such discussions that little entered the written record. However, it is certain that the French ‘sweetener’ was no mere figment of anti-Marlborough propaganda, and that the duke’s desire to make money was so widely known that Louis XIV thought it worth appealing to his cupidity. It is no less clear that, while Marlborough was prepared to grasp the money if he could, he was not willing to let the prospect of such a substantial reward change his view on the conduct of the war. At the very time that he was considering the French douceur he was inflicting a series of substantial military defeats on his would-be paymaster, which would be puzzling behaviour from a man who had been bought and sold. Conversely, Marlborough was sometimes accused (not least by Berwick and Goslinga) of prolonging the war for his own financial reward. This is not a view supported by his personal correspondence with Sarah and Godolphin, and it would indeed be an odd line to take given what we now know of his financial interest in ending the war.
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