Marlborough, p.49Richard Holmes
Marlborough was more than usually pleased to see Eugène on the eighth. The prince tells us that Cadogan had met him at Maastricht to say that the French had surprised Ghent and Bruges ‘and that my presence was wanted’. Eugène detoured through Brussels, ‘where my interview with my mother, after a separation of twenty-five years, was very tender but very short’, and went on, in a post-chaise escorted by Hungarian hussars, to meet Marlborough at Asse. He was four days ahead of his leading cavalry, and his infantry was even further back.
In his memoirs Eugène writes that he asked Marlborough if he intended to give battle. ‘I think I ought,’ replied the duke, ‘and I find with pleasure, but without astonishment, that we have both made this reflection, but without this our communications with Brussels will be cut off. But I should like to have waited for your troops.’55 Eugène told him not to wait, because the opportunity would not come again. In his private report to the emperor, however, Eugène painted a rather different picture. He admitted that Marlborough was ‘pretty consternated’, and Ritter von Arneth, one of his biographers, went further, telling us that the prince
was astonished to see such despondency in a general like Marlborough over a relatively unimportant misfortune. They were closeted together for several hours, and Eugène succeeded in convincing the Duke that his affairs were not in anything like so bad a state as he saw them.56
Friedrich Wilhelm von Grumbkow, boyhood friend of the Prussian King Frederick William I and his representative at Marlborough’s headquarters, agreed that all was not well. He told his master:
The blow which the enemy dealt us did not merely destroy all our plans, but was sufficient to do irreparable harm to the reputation and previous good fortune of My Lord Duke, and he felt this misfortune so keenly that I believed he would succumb to his grief early the day before yesterday, as he was so seized by it that he was afraid of being suffocated.
Just after this interview, while Marlborough was writing a letter, Eugène asked Grumbkow
exactly what all this meant. The Duke was incomprehensibly exhausted, and talked as though everything was lost, which the Prince did not consider appropriate, for unless he [Marlborough] lost his life we should with God’s help obtain satisfaction.
This morning My Lord Duke had a severe fever and was so ill that he had to be bled. He is very exhausted, and I believe it would do him a great deal of good if your Majesty could write him something consoling and assure him of your continued well-wishing in spite of the losses that he has suffered … 57
Grumbkow’s Prussian comrade Lieutenant General Dubislaw von Natzmer agreed that Marlborough was unusually gloomy.
All Flanders being lost, there was deep depression in the army.
My Lord Duke was inconsolable over these sad happenings and discussed with me with touching confidence this sudden turn in events which would have become even worse for us had the enemy exploited their advantage with persisting boldness. But our affairs improved through God’s support and Prince Eugène’s aid, whose timely arrival raised the spirits of the army again and consoled us.
The meeting with Eugène and the reappearance of Cadogan helped Marlborough to rally, and he ordered Brigadier Chanclos, governor of Ath, to take all the men he could spare to Oudenarde. As soon as he arrived Chanclos made it clear to the citizens of Oudenarde that he would fire the town if there was any sign of the behaviour displayed by the citizens of Bruges and Ghent. The council of war decided that the army should rest for a day or two, send all non-essential baggage to the rear, and then, without waiting for Eugène’s men, head for Lessines to succour Oudenarde, and perhaps (for there had so far been no news of its fall) relieve the citadel of Ghent. Having written to Chanclos, however, Marlborough was once more ‘indisposed and feverish’. His doctor advised him to go back to Brussels, but he refused to leave camp, although orders for the eighth were issued from old Overkirk’s tent. A letter to Major General Murray, sent out that day, was in Cardonnel’s hand. ‘My Lord Duke being indisposed,’ wrote Cardonnel, ‘commands me to acknowledge your letter of yesterday, by which his Grace sees that the burghers of Ghent have chiefly contributed to our misfortune in the loss of that place. His Grace approves of the dispositions that you have made for the security of the country, and has no further commands to you at present.’58
Marlborough was very much better on the ninth, when the army marched towards Lessines, with Cadogan commanding the advance guard and the Earl of Albemarle ‘with all the grenadiers of the army and thirty squadrons’ in its rear, in case the French tried to slip past towards Brussels. That day Marlborough admitted to Godolphin that ‘the treachery of Ghent, continual marching, and some letters I have received from England, have so vexed me, that I was yesterday in so great a fever that the doctor would have persuaded me to have gone to Brussels, but I thank God I am now better’.59 In the same post he assured Sarah that ‘I can’t be at ease till I regain Ghent, or make the enemy pay dear for it. I am with all my heart and soul yours.’60 On the tenth he sent a brief résumé to Heinsius, concluding, in almost the same words, ‘I shall not be at ease till I have regained Ghent or made the enemy pay dearly for it.’61
To understand the reasons for Marlborough’s determination we must glance at the map. The French now held most of Flanders apart from Ostend, and could defend it by holding the lines of the Scheldt and the Bruges canal. To do so effectively, however, they would first have to deal with the Allied garrison of Oudenarde on the Scheldt, already the subject of Marlborough’s interest. Happily for the Allies, the French commanders did not get on well. Vendôme was capable and experienced, but was also brusque, notoriously scruffy and, as a great-grandson of Henri IV, not overly impressed by princes of the blood royal. He was not the ideal foil for the well-bred but less experienced Duke of Burgundy. Vendôme had wanted to march on Oudenarde without delay, while Burgundy favoured besieging Menin. The matter was referred to Versailles, whence Louis XIV wisely observed:
If Oudenarde had been invested as soon as my army had reached Alost, and if you [Burgundy] had been able to prevent the enemy from sending support there and making a good defence … [then] the garrison being weak and the terror great in the first moments, the citizens would have been able to persuade the governor of the fortress to return it to its legitimate sovereign.
He had heard that Eugène was ‘marching with incredible speed’ to join Marlborough. The capture of Ghent and Bruges was impressive, and Menin ‘will fall of its own accord without a siege’. In consequence, he added presciently, ‘you must not regard the siege of Oudenarde as your prime objective so that to besiege it you lose your grip on what you are obliged to hold elsewhere’.62 The two generals agreed that Marlborough was more likely to move against Namur or Charleroi than against them, and so decided, on 9 July, to march on Lessines, whence they could cover the siege of Oudenarde. Vendôme told a fellow general: ‘We will make siege by detachments, and the bulk of our army will always defend the river.’63
By 9 July Marlborough knew that the French had sent 16,000 men to Oudenarde, and a letter from the robust Chanclos, which reached him at eight o’clock that morning, told him that the town was just about to be invested, and that Chanclos had heard that a siege train was on its laborious way from Tournai. Marlborough hoped that he would be able to reach the crossings of the Dender at Lessines before his enemy, so placing Oudenarde within easy reach and preventing the French from using the line of the Dender to cover their siege. He had stripped down his army to what was, for the age, a very light allowance: generals were permitted a coach and two wagons, and brigadiers simply a coach and a wagon. Chaplain Hare thought that the arrangements were made ‘with a greater strictness than has been used on our side this war that we may have nothing to hinder our march’. The heavy baggage had been sent back to Brussels with an escort of four battalions: Marlborough was determined to be able to manoeuvre freely. Nor would he be checked by the need to make bread, for enough had been baked at Asse to last for eight days. The ro
When the army marched off at two on the morning of the ninth:
The regulation touching the baggage was exactly observed, and the ways being well made, the army marched with exact order, though with the most extraordinary expedition: the head was past Herselingen, which is six leagues from Ashe, before 1 o’clock, the lines being perfectly closed up without any straggling.
The army made camp on its line of march, ‘fronting towards the enemy’, and when the retreat was beaten at seven that night tents were struck at once and the march was resumed. Cadogan was well ahead with the advance guard, marching flat-out for Lessines ‘like Jehu in his chariot’. By an orderly-room error the letter dated 9 July telling Godolphin of the Allied plan was not actually sent, and Marlborough opened it to assure his old friend that he was a contented man, for Cadogan had reached Lessines before the French, at about midnight on the eighth/ninth, thrown pontoon bridges over the Dender ready for the arrival of the main body, and crossed to secure a camping ground protected by a small tributary. ‘I should think myself happy, since I am got into this camp,’ concluded Marlborough, ‘if they continue with their resolution of carrying on with that siege.’64 He was similarly confident when he assured Boyle that if the French persisted with the siege ‘it may give us an opportunity of coming soon to a battle, wherein I hope God Almighty will bless the justice of our cause’.65
The Devil Must have Carried Them: Oudenarde
The French were astonished to find themselves beaten in the race for Lessines. Vendôme was in favour of hurrying on to catch Marlborough before he could cross the Dender in strength, but Burgundy was more cautious, and wanted to get the Scheldt between him and the Allies. Accordingly, the French called off their operations at Oudenarde and sheered away for Gavre (Gavere), six miles below Oudenarde on the Scheldt. When it came within his reach, Chanclos hacked at their rearguard with Wallis’s Dragoons. Marlborough realised that if the French were able to bridge the Scheldt at Gavre they could then fall back towards the security of their frontier fortresses, and Berwick’s imminent arrival would bring the forces to near-parity. The French might lose Bruges and Ghent, but any opportunity for bringing them to battle in the open would be lost.
Accordingly, he ordered Cadogan, with eight squadrons, sixteen battalions and thirty-two light ‘regimental’ guns, the army’s pontoon train and a strong party of pioneers – perhaps 10,000 men in all – to make straight for Oudenarde. Once there, he was to supplement its two masonry bridges with five pontoon bridges (two in the town and three downstream), which would enable the main body of the army to cross as fast as possible, and to hold a bridgehead on the far bank to give the newly-arriving troops space to form up. Cadogan was on the move at one on the morning of the eleventh, and about eight hours later he reported that he was in sight of Oudenarde and the French were still at Gavre, east of the river. His five leading battalions were across the river by midday, and the bridges were complete soon afterwards. The French had begun their own rather more leisurely crossing at about ten o’clock on 11 July.
The field of Oudenarde is the most difficult of Marlborough’s battlefields to grasp, for the expansion of the town, especially in the form of light industrial premises and market gardens on the water meadows north of the river, obscures the traveller’s vision. The view enjoyed by Cadogan from the high ground at Eename, just above his bridging site north-east of the city, is hard to duplicate today. But for Cadogan, who had something of his master’s eye for the ground, the picture was very clear. The Scheldt meandered northwards through Oudenarde, built on both its banks, and then curled out in a great eastward bend south of Gavre. Inside the bend rose a range of low irregular hills, laced by streams – the most substantial of them the Norken, the Diepenbeek and the Marollebeek – which flowed down to the Scheldt. Almost due north of Oudenarde, and a little over four miles from its ramparts, were what some contemporaries called ‘the heights of Huyshe’, bosky hillocks, one of them crowned, then as now, by a windmill. The Norken flowed across the southern front of this little ridge. The main Ghent road followed the northern bank of the river, while the tree-lined Bruges road ran north-westwards over the wooded ridge of the Boser Couter through the village of Oyke. The area’s dark soil was fertile, its villages prosperous. In the short term the heavily-cultivated low ground on the Scheldt’s north bank would be crucial, for if Cadogan was to gain Marlborough room for manoeuvre he had first to seize this.
Cadogan kept his first four battalions, all of them Prussian, close to
the Scheldt to protect the crossing. He formed up the remainder of his infantry on the axis of the Ghent road, with Joseph Sabine’s brigade, carrying its Union colours in action for the first time, on the left, and Plattenburg’s Dutch and Scotch-Dutch battalions on the right: Major General Josef Rantzau’s Hanoverian dragoons were on the left of the foot. Lieutenant General the marquis de Biron, responsible for covering the flank of the French army as it crossed the Scheldt, was on the move towards Cadogan, with two brigades of infantry, comprising seven good Swiss battalions, and one regiment of horse, perhaps 5,000 men. However, he could not see the crossing site, and when he heard shots as the leading Swiss bumped into Rantzau’s troopers near the village of Eyne he rode to the windmill there to see what was happening. His second in command, Major General Pfeiffer, in Eyne with the leading brigade, had quickly summoned the second brigade. Biron, who had now seen the crossing site and Cadogan’s force, rode back to hasten the arrival of this reserve, and sent a galloper to tell Vendôme what was happening.
The marshal, enjoying an alfresco lunch by the roadside between Gavre and Huysse (Burgundy, tellingly, was some short distance away, lunching with his own entourage), was not pleased. ‘If they are there,’ he declared, ‘then the devil must have carried them. Such marching is impossible.’ He looked hard at the southern horizon, where he could see clouds of dust announcing that Marlborough’s main army was on its way. Vendôme’s decision, although quickly made, was probably the right one. Biron was told to attack the bridgehead as soon as he could: Vendôme himself would take the cavalry of the left wing to support him, and a message was sent urging Burgundy to follow with the left wing’s infantry. Vendôme hoped to brush Cadogan away from the crossing site and hold the line of the river before Marlborough was up in strength.
Everyone in the Allied army soon knew that they were running a race against time. Lieutenant General Natzmer wrote:
On the march we received the cheerful news that Cadogan had thrown bridges over the Scheldt at Eename, near Oudenarde, without any resistance, and also that the enemy, coming up from Alost, were planning to cross the river at Gavre.
This news filled us with joy and in our eagerness we sought out my Lord Duke to allow us to advance at a faster pace.66
Even the lowly Private Deane could see what was afoot:
we marched by break of day, and by 2 in the afternoon we came to Oudenarde, which was a good five leagues, where we were drawn up on the rampart walls until more of our horse advanced, which they did in brave order about 2 in the afternoon. The front of our army passed that river and as fast as they came over were drawn up, in brigades, in order of battle towards the defiles, as well to sustain Major General Cadogan … 67
Eugène was there in person, though his troops were still far behind. ‘Towards 12 o’clock the head of our cavalry of the right wing reached the bridges and crossed by the pontoons at a brisk trot,’ he wrote, ‘but the infantry took longer to move, and it was several hours later that they began to cross.’68 ‘It was no longer a march,’ declared Goslinga, ‘but a run.’ As successive units breasted the rise at Eename they could see ‘the dust of the enemy’s march in the air as far as the Scheldt; a certain sign that the enemy was trying to cross it before us and dispute the passage’. As this happened, ‘the power of emulation was so great that we could not ke
We cannot be sure quite when Vendôme mounted his horse and rode down to meet Biron, for in the wake of the French defeat the issue soon became politicised. Vendôme argued that it was as early as ten in the morning, and that he could not get Burgundy to move till four in the afternoon: if only the royal prince had moved when he was asked to do so, the French would have enjoyed a famous victory. Saint-Simon, in contrast, suggests that it was not until two o’clock, after Allied cavalry had begun to cross and the window of opportunity was closing fast, that Vendôme was sure what was happening. Eugène certainly thought that the marshals’ failure to agree on a joint course of action and carry it out promptly was fatal. ‘But for this misunderstanding,’ he admitted, ‘we should perhaps have been defeated; for our cavalry was engaged a full hour before the infantry could join it.’70 In contrast, the French Lieutenant General d’Artaignan (sic) maintained that his own infantry was very slow in getting into action in adequate numbers. ‘As the army came up,’ he wrote, ‘we found the enemy had already moved in such strength that we could not oppose the passage of the river, and the business reduced itself to a general action.’71 The official Allied account reckoned that it was not until five o’clock that there was more infantry than the sixteen battalions that had accompanied Cadogan.
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