Marlborough, p.52Richard Holmes
The presence of Earle’s British battalions at Ostend encouraged Marlborough to try a similar venture on a far larger scale. Earle, undaunted by his gout, had managed to drain some of the inundations, bridge the canal at Leffinghe, and assemble a huge convoy of munitions which would go to Lille via Thourout and Roulers. Marlborough sent Cadogan with twenty-six squadrons and twelve battalions to meet him, ‘for should this not come safe, I am afraid that we must not flatter ourselves of hoping to get any other’.111 Hearing that Lamotte was being sent from Bruges to intercept the convoy, Marlborough quickly dispatched another eight battalions and some extra cavalry, but when Lamotte caught the convoy on the wooded heath at Wynendaele, just outside Thourout, on the morning of 28 September he outnumbered its escort by at least two to one. Cadogan had still not come up, and Major General John Webb, a vain and loquacious Tory MP but a brave and seasoned soldier, was in command.
Lamotte had been briefed by Vendôme that the capture of the convoy was absolutely critical to French fortunes, and that he was to ‘march on the enemy, strong or weak, and to attack them’. He drew up his infantry in the space of perhaps 1,000 yards between two woods, facing the main road near Wynendaele château, and could clearly see the convoy making off behind Webb’s infantry, formed up in three lines ready to receive him. A long cannonade went well enough, although Webb wisely made his men lie down, so lost fewer men than he might. When Lamotte at last thrust forwards, his infantry promptly splintered in his hands. Most of his regiments were French-speaking Netherlanders who were now not sure where their real interests lay, and the repeated thump of the platoon volleys all along Webb’s line was too much for them.
Lamotte complained that they ‘behaved badly. Instead of charging with the bayonet as they had been ordered, they shot, and shot too soon.’ Then, ‘at the first discharge they made, our infantry began to fold by the left and fall back to the right, and all the lines were mixed up without it being possible to rally them for the whole of the action’. Lamotte paid handsome tribute to the fact that ‘I did the impossible to rally our infantry,’ and he was sure that ‘the enemy lost more men than us’.112 In fact Webb had lost about 1,000, most from the bombardment which preceded the attack, but perhaps 2,000 Frenchmen had been hit, and the convoy creaked its way to the safety of the besiegers’ camp. It is not too much to say that this encounter sealed the fate of Lille.
Cadogan rode up with his cavalry after the battle was won, asked Webb whether he should charge the French, and was wisely advised not to. When he told Godolphin of the victory on 1 October Marlborough reported that: ‘Webb and Cadogan have on this occasion, as they will always do, behaved themselves extremely well.’ However, the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, stationed the other side of Lille and with no personal knowledge of the battle, told the States-General of ‘the advantage which the troops, lately arrived from England, sustained by those of Mons. Cadogan … have obtained over … the troops which attacked them’. Winston S. Churchill suggests that it was this report which reached London first, and gave rise to the Gazette’s brief description of the action.113 The story is improbable, for the Gazette entry is fuller than Hesse-Cassel’s account. It is more likely that Cardonnel had dashed off a first report before the information was complete and, given that Cadogan had been meant to command the force, assumed that he had arrived in time to do so. The next Gazette corrected the error, and Marlborough had already congratulated Webb, attributing the victory ‘chiefly to your good conduct and resolution’, and promising to ‘do you justice at home’.114 He told Godolphin that he would nominate some generals for promotion at the end of the campaign, ‘which will be a mark of her favour and their merit’.115 Webb, he was sure, certainly deserved to be made a lieutenant general.
Webb, however, was annoyed at the earlier implied slight, and his political backers prolonged a row that might easily have blown over. Although he was received by the queen ‘very kindly, and with a great deal of distinction’, he refused to return to the Continent without his promotion. The government thought about increasing the scale of the promised reward by giving him a governorship, as well as the lieutenant generalcy which would materialise in a general promotion at the New Year, but nothing suitable was available at the moment. The Tories would not leave the matter alone, and set about getting the Commons to pass a vote of thanks to Webb, ‘Which was brought on,’ grumbled Godolphin, ‘not so much out of any real kindness to him, but that one of their leaders might have that handle to show as much malice as they could to 39 [Marlborough] and to Mr Montgomery [Godolphin].’116 Nor was it Webb’s nature to forgive and forget. He was soon very much the Professional Veteran, steering every conversation unerringly round to Wynendaele, causing even the Duke of Argyll, his political ally, to lament, after Webb was wounded at Malplaquet the following year, that he had not been hit in the tongue, which would have done everyone a service. Richard Kane probably spoke for many when he maintained that ‘a great deal was owing to Lamotte’s ill conduct; and Webb spoiled all, by boasting too much of it’.117
The siege of Lille, meanwhile, lumbered on as creakily as the wagons of Webb’s convoy. Maintaining communication with his logistic base at Ostend, now periodically isolated behind floodwaters which enabled French gunboats to dart in to shoot at ammunition wagons, was the key to Marlborough’s success. Vendôme had sworn to Louis that he would cut the narrow lifeline between Lille and Ostend, and in early October Marlborough took the army out to Wynendaele to see him off. There is no doubt that Eugène had been ill served by his engineers, the Huguenots du Muy and Le Vasseur des Roques, but equally, there is no doubt that these gentlemen learnt from their mistakes. The Saxon general Schulenberg tells us that:
Six weeks after the opening of the trenches the engineers appreciated that they had opened the attack on too broad a front, and tried to breach the fortifications at too many points, namely twelve. It would have been better to confine the breaching fire to the two main bastions and the intervening curtain.118
On the eighteenth Marlborough told Sunderland that they had at long last established breaching batteries atop the counterscarp – ‘nearly fifty pieces of cannon … beside a battery of mortars’ – and hoped to start work on breaching the main walls the following day. Sadly, that brave old warrior Overkirk would not live to see the ramparts of Lille crumble under Allied fire: he ‘died here yesterday’, wrote Marlborough, ‘and is very much lamented as well in the army as by all that knew him’.119 On 22 October, after a day’s battering, the troops were at their stations to mount the final assault, which Marlborough knew ‘will cost a good many lives’, when they heard Boufflers’ drummers beating the chamade, the request for a parley. Boufflers agreed to give up the town if allowed two days to retire into the citadel with his surviving troops, some 4,500 men, and to send his sick and wounded to Douai.
The fall of the city enabled the defenders to hold a much smaller area, but the attackers, too, could draw in their lines, freeing more troops to guard against attempts at relief. The war did not stop elsewhere simply because the cannon still thundered before Lille. Marlborough was aware that French agents were at work in Brussels, and warned the governor, Colonel Pascal, to be on his guard and, above all, to keep sending his cavalry deep into the countryside: ‘Make them go out all the time, I beg you, without relaxing.’ It is an index of Marlborough’s responsibilities that the same letter confirmed his pardon of Private John Donia of Sarrablanca’s Regiment, who was to have been shot, and instructions that a German nobleman with a French commission was to be arrested ‘without fuss’ if he reappeared in Malines.120 The Elector of Bavaria had appeared before Brussels, but Pascal, confident that he had neither the troops nor the time to mount a proper siege, sent a courteous reply to his summons to surrender, and sat tight to await help.
Despite ‘the backwardness in the siege of the citadel of Lille’, Marlborough knew that because of the threat to Brussels he was now ‘obliged to attempt to force our passage over the Scheldt’, even at the risk of
Keeping the army in the field long after it would normally have dispersed into winter quarters meant that there was no let-up in its remorseless appetite for food and fodder. On 10 November Marlborough warned the Earl of Stair that he had had complaints of
the great looseness and disorderly conduct of the troops that are with you, particularly the horse, in plundering the churches, and all the whole country round about, I cannot forbear sending this to you to desire that all possible care may be taken to prevent it, and that some examples may immediately be made by execution, and that public notice of it given to the country that they shall be indemnified, otherwise I fear we may in great measure be disappointed of the hopes we had of a good quantity of corn from your parts. I believe that it would likewise be necessary that a guard be posted at the bridge with a careful, severe officer to search the troopers and others, and to take from them whatever they have plundered in the country, in order to its being restored to the owners.
As was often his habit, Marlborough summarised the letter in a short postscript in his own hand, transmitting what we would now call ‘commander’s intent’. ‘All our happiness,’ he wrote, ‘depends upon your getting a good quantity of corn.’123
The reduction of the citadel of Lille proceeded remorselessly, and on 9 December the gallant Boufflers at last came to terms. Marlborough had generously declared that he would allow him to propose any reasonable conditions, and so the garrison was to march out with the honours of war ‘on the 13th of the present month, at nine in the morning, by way of the Porte Dauphin, with arms and baggage and horses, drums beating, musket-balls in mouth, matches burning at both ends, enough ammunition for 20 rounds per man, flags flying …’ Six cannon, three twelve-pounders and three eight-pounders, were to accompany the garrison, and the Allies were to provide it with safe conduct, by the shortest route, to the nearest French fortress. This was more than gentlemanly flummery. It was worth giving Boufflers good terms to get him out of the citadel, for there was still work to be done elsewhere. And, while Marlborough was happy to be generous, the conditions affirmed that the French were to pay all debts, public and private, incurred during the siege, and were to leave three officers in Allied hands till these had been discharged.124 Goslinga, who had clashed with Marlborough on the advance to the Scheldt, did not share the general delight. The defence of the citadel ‘was not remarkable for any vigorous action, that one might have expected from such a large garrison … There must have been secret reasons, and a lack of necessary things, which contributed to this prompt capitulation.’125
The fall of Lille did not end the campaign. Although Goslinga assures us that he sowed the idea of retaking Bruges and Ghent in Marlborough’s mind, it is certain that Marlborough had always regarded the recapture of these cities as essential, and on 6 November he assured Godolphin that he still hoped for ‘further success’ after the citadel fell, although he feared that it was very late in the year. However, ‘the disagreeableness of the French having it in their powers to see all our letters’ made him a cautious correspondent.126 But even before the citadel had surrendered he reminded Godolphin that ‘I have formerly told you that we must end this campaign with the retaking of Ghent, if possible.’127 He was even more positive three days later: ‘Yet I think we must have Ghent and Bruges, cost what it will.’128 Winston S. Churchill (though as parti pris as those historians who take their cue from Goslinga) is right to suggest that Marlborough encouraged Goslinga to think of the idea as his own so as to increase its attractiveness to the Dutch.
Scarcely was the ink dry on Boufflers’ capitulation than Marlborough moved against Ghent, held by Lamotte with thirty-four battalions and nineteen squadrons, but now with a worried population which sent a delegation of ‘clergy, nobility and citizens’ to plead that he would not bombard the place. He told Sarah, ‘with all my heart I wish it could be taken without doing hurt, but in kindness to our own soldiers we must use all means for the reducing in the shortest possible time’.129 At last fortune, scowling for so much of the autumn, beamed on him: a sudden thaw enabled him to move his siege train by water, and on Christmas Eve he opened his trenches before Ghent.
Mrs Christian Davies had laid aside her dragoon’s coat after Ramillies and become a sutler. Riding her little mare with its provision bags, she had a narrow escape from a dreadful fate when Colonel Cholmondley’s black stallion (small but perfectly formed) had, ‘like a brute as he was, began to be very rude with my poor beast, and in his rough courtship broke me four bottles of wine’. Her husband Richard was sent forward with the party that first night, ‘ordered to lay the [marker] ropes and direct the cutting of the trenches’. She tells us that she ‘always accompanied my husband, however dangerous it was’, but was stopped by his commanding officer until the trench-line was laid out, and
he with his companions were retired into a turnip field, and lay flat on their bellies, expecting the trench, which the workmen were throwing up, to cover them. Major Irwin told me where he was, and both the major and Lieutenant Stretton begged hard of me for some beer; but as I had but three flasks, and feared my husband might want, I had no pity for anyone else: as the night was very cold, and the ground wet, I had also provided myself with a bottle of brandy, and another of gin, for my dear Richard’s refreshment.130
Her husband’s comrades were fortunate, for Private Deane recalled that ‘the enemy fired both cannon and small shot all night’. In 1st Foot Guards the fire killed the veteran Colonel Charles Gorsuch, commanding its two battalions, Captain Nicholas Hearne and a private soldier. It was, though, small loss for having ‘entrenched ourselves to admiration, and very near their palisades too’.131
On 27 December the Allies took Fort Rouge, on the northern side of the city, and planted their batteries. Lamotte, perhaps fearing that his infantry, which had performed so poorly at Wynendaele, would not stand a storm, at once asked for terms, agreeing to march out unless relieved within a week. Louis, furious at this ‘premature’ capitulation, had him court-martialled. As Marlborough had predicted, ‘I believe Monsieur de Lamotte will not be able to give good reason for what he has done,’ and he never served again. On 3 January 1709 Marlborough mused on the way his luck had changed.
I was yesterday from ten in the morning till six at night seeing the garrison of Ghent, and all that belonged to them, march by me. It is astonishing to see so great numbers of good men look on, and suffer a place of this consequence to be taken at this season with so little a loss. As soon as they knew I had possession of the gates of the town they took the resolution of abandoning Bruges [and retiring right along the coast as far as Dunkirk]. The campaign is now ended to my heart’s own desire, and as the hand of God is so visible in this whole matter, I hope her Majesty will think it due to him to return public thanks, and at the same time to implore his blessing on the next campaign.132
Decline, Fall and Resurrection
Failed Peace, Thwarted Ambition
While Marlborough was racing for Oudenarde and battering at Lille, the Duumvirs were inexorably losing their grasp on government. A biographer who sought to present his readers with Marlborough’s political and military identities in parallel would be forced to intersperse correspondence on strategic policy, tactical detail, administrative minutiae, cabinet reshuffles, borough-mongering and monarch-management. The fact that no reference has been made here to Marlborough’s political tribulations does not, however, mean that they were not both real and present. A psychologist considering his behaviour after he received news of the loss of Ghent and Bruges might opine that those events were simply the trigger for the breakdown that followed, and that Marlborough had simply been doing too much for too long to tolerate the sudden and unexpected appearance of a new crisis. This, indeed, is why his well-wishers, like Natzmer and Grumbkow, found it hard to link the crisis itself to what seemed to them an extreme response.
Relations between Sarah and the queen went from bad to worse, and, with more unwise insinuations of lesbianism from the prurient pen of Arthur Maynwaring, from worse to impossible. The final breakdown came on 19 August 1708, the day of thanksgiving for the victory of Oudenarde. Prince George, beset by chronic asthma, was in slow decline, and the queen had been at Windsor nursing him. It was a hot day, and when she changed her clothes at St James’s Palace, Anne took exception to the heavy jewels that Sarah, as groom of the stole, had laid out for her. Sarah interpreted her refusal to wear the jewels as evidence of Abigail Masham’s influence, and the two women had a blazing row in the royal coach on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral. It apparently ended with Sarah telling the queen to ‘be quiet’ as they reached their destination, so that they would not be overheard by the onlookers. Sarah later tried to make amends, ending what came close to a letter of apology with the assertion that ‘I shall never forget that I am your subject, nor ever cease to be a faithful one’; but the damage was done.1
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