Marlborough, p.51Richard Holmes
It is, however, clear from Marlborough’s letter to Sarah that he saw Oudenarde as a victory which might help obtain a negotiated peace. He gave special parole to the captured Lieutenant General Biron, specifying that he was to return to France without first visiting the French army, hoping that Louis would be told just how much damage had been done to it before evasive reports arrived. Marlborough gave Biron dinner at Oudenarde before he left, and asked for news of ‘the Prince of Wales’, James II’s son, known to the French as the chevalier de St George, who had been with Burgundy during the battle. The company seemed delighted to hear of the young man’s character and behaviour, proof, suggests Winston S. Churchill, ‘of the latent streak of sentimental Jacobitism that Marlborough and the English army cherished and, oddly enough, felt able to indulge more particularly in their hours of triumph over French supporters of the Jacobite cause’.89 Biron told Saint-Simon that:
He was struck by an almost royal magnificence at Prince Eugène’s quarters and a shameful parsimony at those of the Duke of Marlborough, who ate the more often at the tables of others; a perfect agreement between the two captains for the conduct of affairs, of which the details fell much more on Eugène; the profound respect of all the generals for the two chiefs, but a tacit preference on the whole for Prince Eugène, without the Duke of Marlborough being at all jealous.90
The day after the battle Eugène ‘was sure that Marlborough would make no arrangements but what were excellent’, and went off to see his mother in Brussels. ‘She was glad to see the King humbled who had left her for another woman in her youth, and exiled her in her old age,’ wrote Eugène, who had certainly played his own implacable part in the humbling.91
In the Galley
There was always a good chance that the victorious Allies would turn their attention to the powerful fortress of Lille, known, not for nothing, as ‘Vauban’s masterpiece’. The capital of the old county of Flanders, Lille had been taken by Louis after a short siege in 1667 and then fortified by Vauban in 1668–74. Much of the town’s fortifications has now gone, but some of the old gates remain. The Paris Gate, built by Simon Vollant, survives, proudly embellished with the arms of France and Lille, crowned by an image of that Victory which seemed so elusive in 1708. The citadel, still sitting like a huge starfish on the north-west edge of the city, covered an area of ninety acres (thirty-six hectares), and its six huge bastions, each protected by a ravelin, had wolfed down sixty million bricks. Its broad ditches were fed from the nearby River Deule. Taking the place would weaken France’s administrative grasp on the whole region, significantly reduce the threat from the Dunkirk privateers, many of whom were financed by its merchants, and provide an invaluable bargaining counter for peace negotiations. But not only was Lille formidable in its own right: it was the spider in a web of French fortresses – Ypres, Douai, St-Venant, Tournai and Béthune – and a besieger’s lines of communication, along which heavy guns and ammunition must pass, lay within reach of other French garrisons.
The Duke of Berwick reached Givet on the Meuse the day Oudenarde was fought, and soon learnt of the magnitude of the French defeat. He assembled some 9,000 stragglers who had made off southwards, and, recognising that they were too badly shaken to stand in open field, parcelled them up amongst the garrisons. Leaving his army to concentrate at Douai, he went forward to Lille, and did what he could to prepare it for the attack he thought likely. Marlborough, meanwhile, had sent Lottum with thirty battalions and forty squadrons to break the line of French fortifications between Warneton and Comines, not far from the small fortress of Ypres, whose name would be seared onto British history two centuries later. Lottum arrived before Berwick could reach the lines, and set his infantry on to levelling the ramparts. Amongst the foot was Matthew Bishop.
We slung our firelocks and every man had a shovel in his hand; and when we got to the place appointed, we ran up their works. It was like running up the side of a house. When we got to the top we began to throw [the rampart] down as quickly as possible in order to make way for the army.92
Penetrating the lines put Lille within Marlborough’s reach, but it did not end his problems. Louis, now conspicuously writing to Burgundy rather than Vendôme, warned that the Allies would probably besiege Lille, but urged him to retain Bruges and Ghent if he could. This would both complicate Marlborough’s logistics and leave the French something from the wreckage of Oudenarde. Another pitched battle, though, was out of the question. Vendôme, for his part, doubted if it could be done. He warned the king that pessimistic officers ‘have thrown doubt into the spirit of M the Duke of Burgundy … From the brigadier to the soldier, good will is equal to all trials, but amongst the general officers it is not the same.’93 Marlborough recognised that ‘their possessing of Ghent, will be a great obstruction to the bringing up of heavy cannon and artillery, so that I fear we shall be obliged to retake that place before we can make any progress’.94
His first solution was a daring amphibious enterprise. His army would march to the coast and then follow the Channel as far as the mouth of the Seine, leaving the fortresses on the frontier grinning away at nothing. Major General Thomas Earle, at that moment off the Isle of Wight with eleven embarked battalions, would seize Abbeville as a forward base. The scheme was bound to be too much for the Dutch, and even Eugène, his fingers burnt at Toulon, would not countenance it. The project had foundered by the end of July, when Marlborough was bending every nerve to assembling resources for the siege of Lille.
Just as Cadogan had been the right man to command the advance guard on the sprint to Oudenarde, so now he was the right man to supervise bringing up the battering train which was to concentrate at Brussels, most of the guns coming by water from Antwerp. The eighty siege guns in the Great Convoy required twenty horses apiece and the twenty heavy mortars sixteen, and there were 3,000 four-horse ammunition wagons. ‘I received this afternoon yours of yesterday evening,’ wrote Marlborough on 31 July, ‘and am glad to see you have found means to get the whole number of wagons from the province of Brabant.’ Later the same day he told Cadogan that he had just held a meeting with Eugène and the deputies, and that it was imperative to get the whole train up just as soon as he could. He followed this, the very next day, with a warning that he had heard that some horses bringing guns in from Mechelen had ‘failed by the way’. Cadogan must not on any account yield up any of his spare horses: ‘They must wait with the train to supply any like accidents that may happen.’95
On 2 August Marlborough told Secretary of State Boyle that almost all the siege train had now reached Brussels, though he was still very concerned that it might be intercepted on its journey thence. A letter to Cadogan of the same date, in a clerkly hand, bears a concerned postscript in the duke’s: ‘For God’s sake be sure you do not risk the cannon, for I had rather come with the whole army than receive an affront.’96 Eugène’s army covered the first phase of the move from its base near Soignies, and the responsibility then passed to Marlborough’s men at Helchin, as Eugène marched down to begin the investiture of Lille. The convoy was accompanied throughout its journey by the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, commanding an escort of sixteen squadrons and six battalions, and for the first day of its march from Brussels another six squadrons, based in the city, accompanied it. On 3 August Marlborough formally told Boyle that ‘the siege of Lille has been thought preferable to any other operation’ by unanimous vote of his council of war. The train, toiling along in two columns, covering thirty miles of road space between them, had crossed the Dender at Ath by the ninth, and was at Menin on the thirteenth, the very day that Eugène completed the encirclement of Lille.
Berwick had guessed that the convoy was actually heading for Mons, and so failed to intercept it, but as soon as he realised what was afoot he rushed a final reinforcement into the threatened city, bringing its garrison up to a total of twenty battalions, seven squadrons of dragoons and two hundred spare horses, all under the command of the squat and energetic Marshal Boufflers, hero of th
Careful reading of the documents shows, however, that the capture of Lille was not Marlborough’s immediate object. He hoped that the threat to this jewel in the crown of French fortification would force his opponents to offer battle, and on 16 August he outlined his plan in a letter to Eugène.
If the enemy comes into Brabant, as I believe they will, I must go at them head down. I hold myself ready to march to Ath, and as, without doubt, the Duke of Berwick will act in concert with them, and may even join them, I beg Your Highness to hold himself in readiness to execute what we are agreed upon. As soon as we march, four or five days will decide this whole affair by a battle.97
Ironically, it was Marlborough’s own nephew who warned a truculent Versailles not to rise to the bait and risk a battle which the French would inevitably lose. ‘It is sad to see Lille taken,’ he told Chamillart, ‘but it is sadder still to lose the one army left to us, which can stop the enemy after the loss of Lille.’98 Uncle and nephew both recognised that a major French defeat would compromise the whole of the Flanders frontier. Without a surviving field army to protect them, the fortresses of the north must inevitably fall one after another, but the loss of Lille need not prove fatal in itself. Modern apostles of manoeuvre warfare argue that a general must ‘focus on the enemy, not on the ground’, and this is precisely what Marlborough did in the summer of 1708. It was his misfortune that the astute Berwick did precisely the same, and, despite Versailles’ urging the marshals to attack, Marlborough never got his battle. He later lamented to Godolphin: ‘We shall endeavour all we can to bring the French to a general engagement, but as that is what we shall desire, I take it for granted that is what they will avoid.’99 So the scene was set, not for the decisive battle that Marlborough sought, but for the most bloody and protracted siege of his career.
As Shakespeare’s Richard III cynically observed, short summers lightly have a forward spring. The siege seemed to begin well enough, with Eugène’s men breaking ground for their first parallel before the gates of Ste-Marie Madeleine and St-André on Lille’s northern front on 22 August. Marlborough told Boyle that this had been accomplished ‘with good success’, but he was anxious to hear what had become of Major General Earle’s embarked force, now that it was no longer making for Abbeville: it was imperative ‘to give the enemy a diversion and oblige them to detach that way’.100 Two weeks later he was vexed ‘to see so little prospect of success from our sea-expedition’, whose commanders, in another of those hand-wringing councils of war, had decided against a landing in the bay of La Hogue. However, he told Boyle that he had just visited Lille and had ridden out with Eugène to ‘mark the place for the field of battle, in case the enemy should … attempt to succour the town’. Even if he did not get the battle he hoped for, ‘Our siege is so far advanced that the engineers intend tomorrow in the afternoon to attack the counterscarp, wherein if we succeed the town must soon surrender.’101
Marlborough was quite wrong, and over the next few weeks the siege went badly. On the evening of 7 September the Allies exploded four mines under the counterscarp, and seized four of the salient angles of the covered way at the cost of 3,000 men, perhaps more than had fallen at Oudenarde and, in the awful way of sieges (the trench warfare of the eighteenth century), with a high proportion of killed to wounded. Marlborough admitted to Galway that he had hoped that they would either have taken the town by this time, or fought a battle outside it. ‘We offered them battle twice but they declined it,’ he wrote, ‘and their design seems now chiefly to be to distress us for want of provisions, being at a great distance from our magazines … but I hope with the blessing of God we shall succeed.’102 He had assured Sarah that he had chosen such good positions that he was wholly confident of beating the French if they attacked, ‘Which makes me think they must be mad if they venture it,’ and added that although the enemy probably had more battalions than he did, his were better manned.
In early September the French did indeed conclude that they had no chance of raising the siege without risking a major battle, and thereupon occupied all the crossings of the Scheldt and attempted to make the siege logistically unsustainable, for their possession of Bruges and Ghent already prevented supplies coming in from the west. This, had they but known it, was Marlborough’s worst fear. On 17 September he assured Sarah:
I am so well entrenched that I no way fear their forcing us. But the siege goes on so very slowly, that I am in perpetual fear that it may continue so long, and consequently consume so much stores, that we may at last not have the wherewithal to finish, which would be very cruel. These are my fears, but I desire you will let nobody know them. I long extremely to have this campaign well ended, for of all the campaigns I have made, this has been the most painful. But I am in the galley, and must row as long as the war lasts.103
A second assault on the counterscarp was made on 12 September, and the Godfearing Major Blackader, detailed to command four hundred grenadiers, recorded his adventures in characteristic form.
I was easy and calm, committing myself to God … I take the order from him, and not the Brigade-Major … I went up and down to see where our attack was to be. Prince Alexander of Württemberg came in about four [p.m.], made the dispositions, and gave us our orders. When he posted me, he bade me speak to the grenadiers and tell them that the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène expected that they would do as they had always done – chase the French, and that it was better to die than to make a false step. I answered ‘I hope we shall all do our duty’; so he shook hands with me, and went away.
Near seven, the signals being given by all our cannon and bombs going off together, I gave the word upon the right, ‘Grenadiers, in the name of God attack!’ Immediately they sprung over the trenches, and threw their grenades into the counterscarp, but they fell into some confusion. I then ordered out fifty more to sustain them, and went out myself, and in a little time got shot in the arm. I felt that the bone was not broken; and all the other officers being wounded, I thought it my duty to stay a while, and encourage the grenadiers to keep their warm post. About a quarter of an hour afterwards, the fire continuing very hot, I got another shot in the head. I then thought it time to come off … I had a great deal of trouble to get out of the trenches in three hours space … 104
On 21 September a major assault by 15,000 men captured most of the ravelin between Bastions II and III, but Eugène himself, snicked above the left eye by a musketball, was among the 1,000 casualties. Marlborough had already confessed to Godolphin:
It is impossible for me to confess the uneasiness I suffer at the ill conduct of our engineers at the siege, where I think everything goes wrong. It would be a cruel thing if we have obliged the enemy to quit all thought of relieving the place by force, which they have done by repassing the Scheldt, we should fail to take it by the ignorance of our engineers, and the want of stores; for we have fired very nearly as much [ammunition] as was demanded for the taking [of] the town and the citadel, and as yet we are not entire masters of the counterscarp; so that to you I may own my despair of ending the campaign, so as in reason we might have expected.105
With Eugène wounded, Marlborough needed to attend the siege every day, ‘which with the vexation of it going so ill, I am almost dead’. To make matters worse, the Dutch commissaries had now formally told the deputies ‘that they have not sufficient stores for the taking of the town’.106 A letter to Heinsius, written the same day, ended crossly: ‘I have the spleen and say no more.’107
There was now a cha
If the Allies were running short of ammunition outside Lille, Boufflers’ men, within its walls, were no better off. On the night of 28 August the chevalier de Luxembourg left Douai with 550 grenadiers and 2,000 troopers, each carrying fifty pounds of gunpowder. A few men were blown up in accidents on the way, but thanks to their Allied field-signs and some Dutch-speaking officers at the head of the column, the Frenchmen bluffed their way through the checkpoint of the Allied lines of circumvallation near Pont-à-Tressin. At that point an officer in the middle of the column unwisely ordered his men to close up in French – ‘Serre, serre!’ – and the guard, duly alerted, turned out and opened fire. There were more explosions, but Luxembourg reckoned that he got 40,000 pounds of much-needed powder through to Boufflers.110
Marlborough by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes