Marlborough, p.54Richard Holmes
There was more to the queen’s repeated refusal to grant Marlborough the captain generalcy for life than her antipathy towards Sarah or her desire not to be bullied. She believed that any grant would be unconstitutional unless ratified by Parliament, and thought that the creation of a permanent captain general by a Whig-dominated Parliament was a most dangerous precedent. Even the Whig leader Lord Somers, lord president of the council and a distinguished lawyer, warned the queen of the danger she ran if Marlborough’s friends managed to force their way by parliamentary address. The Tories, with their traditional antipathy to a standing army and readiness to see their own times in the light of the 1640s, began to snipe at Marlborough as ‘Oliver’ or ‘King John’. The ensuing propaganda war did Marlborough significant damage, though there is not a jot of evidence to suggest that his ambitions went beyond the captain generalcy.
Although the squabble went on from early 1709 till the beginning of 1710, even in its early stages the queen began to flex her muscles and to take a personal hand in senior army appointments. Early in 1709 the experienced Major General George Macartney, one of Marlborough’s favourite commanders, was appointed governor of Jamaica and selected to command an expedition to Newfoundland, part of which had been taken by the French. In May, however, he was accused of raping his housekeeper, a clergyman’s widow. Rape was then a capital offence, and although Macartney escaped the full penalty of the law, the queen, who took the advice of the Bishop of London, saw that he was cashiered for ‘disgraceful conduct’, though he was allowed to sell his regiment. Marlborough made his own feelings in the matter clear by letting Macartney stay with the army as a volunteer, and he fought so valiantly at Malplaquet with Sir Thomas Prendergast’s Regiment that the queen forgave him, giving him the colonelcy made vacant by Prendergast’s death in the battle. He did not stay forgiven for long, for he was one of the three senior officers dismissed for drinking damnation to the new ministry in November 1710. ‘The orders for their stripping were passed through Marlborough,’ writes Scouller, ‘who had to deliver them unopened.’23 So far had the mighty fallen.
In mid-1709 Marlborough felt that his powers as captain general were not what they had been. From his camp before Tournai he wrote to Robert Walpole, the Secretary at War, enclosing
a memorial delivered to me by Captain Chudleigh of Colonel Bretton’s regiment, complaining of the great hardship he lies under by a much younger officer being made major over his head during his absence in France.
You have likewise a memorial of Major Wedderburn of Colonel Sutton’s regiment. There are so many more instances of the like nature, which deserve to be considered and redressed, that I know not what to advise on it: but I hope that when I come home in the winter, H.M. will think it fit to refer all these matters to the general officers, that proper measures may be taken to relieve those that are prejudiced, and make the officers of the army more easy in the service.24
A Very Murdering Battle: Malplaquet
Even without the painful recognition that his hold on the queen’s affections had been loosened, Marlborough would have begun the campaign of 1709 at a disadvantage, because he had genuinely believed that the French would accept the Allied peace terms. Yet the early spring was not wasted, and Cadogan was ready to put the army into the field, whether to fight or to occupy territory given up by the French under the terms of the peace. On 22 April he cheerfully reported that he could ‘assemble the army at the time your Grace is pleased to direct it … Fine weather has forwarded everything, and a great deal of the corn which was thought dead begins to spring out again, so that suffering the assembly of the army for eight or ten days is as long as any may require.’25 On the following day Marlborough told Major General Palmes, then at Vienna, to meet the Duke of Savoy and ‘press H.R.H. in his preparations to take the field’, for if the French did not make peace, then ‘if we neglect the opportunity of this campaign, while the enemy’s circumstances are reduced to so low an ebb, it is to be doubted whether we may ever have the like again of reducing them to reason’.26 He was doomed, yet again, to be disappointed in the Duke of Savoy, who took so long to agree arrangements with the Imperialists that French troops were able to redeploy from Spain to Dauphiné to parry his thrust.
By the time the Allied army did actually need to assemble, though, both time and weather had worked in favour of the French. ‘We have rain every day,’ Marlborough told Godolphin, ‘which gives us the spleen, and is of great advantage to Marshal Villars, since it gives him time to finish his lines, which he is working at the head of his army.’ Villars was closer to his soldiers than his illustrious predecessors, and knew just how near to starvation they were. ‘I am humble,’ he told Louis’ wife Madame de Maintenon, ‘when I see the backbreaking labour men perform without food.’27
When Marlborough took the field in June, Villars had already been hard at work. He had some 128 battalions and 247 squadrons arrayed in a strong line of field defences between the fortresses of Douai on the Scarpe and St-Venant on the Lys. Much of his infantry was in a strong fortified camp at La Bassée, with most of his cavalry drawn up behind it and a strong detachment thrown out to watch his right flank. ‘He has La Bassée on his front leaving Lens to his rear,’ Marlborough wrote to Godolphin.
His flanks are covered by two little rivers which have marshy grounds to them. By this situation you will see that he has no mind to offer battle but on very advantageous terms … Their people are in great misery, but by what we hear from Paris all the money they have will be employed for the subsisting of their armies. And I think it is plain by the entrenching of Monsieur de Villars’ army that they will be upon the defensive, which they would not do, were they not sure of subsistence. If we should be so fortunate as to have an occasion of beating them, we could not, for want of forage and provisions enter into France, but by the sea coast, and then we should be in want of your assistance.28
Godolphin assured him that he could indeed help with supplies. If Marlborough took his army to the coast it could be supplied with bread for 40–50,000 men with little notice, and agreed that a move along the Channel coast offered better prospects than a thrust into Artois, ‘where the enemy has eaten or destroyed the greatest part of it’.29
In late June Marlborough had 164 battalions and 271 squadrons in the plain of Lens, outnumbering Villars by 110,000 men to about 90,000, and far better sustained. The general dearth, however, made life uncomfortable even for the Allies. Although the weather had now improved, ‘there is no straw in this country, so that the poor men have been obliged to lie on the wet ground’.30 On 24 June Marlborough and Eugène looked at the French position, and their conclusions, as he admitted to Sarah, were unsurprising. ‘If it had been reasonable,’ he wrote,
this letter would have brought you the news of a battle, but Prince Eugène, myself and all the generals did not think it advisable to run so great a hazard, considering their camp, as well as their having strengthened it so by their entrenchments, so that we have resolved on the siege of Tournai, and accordingly marched last night, and have invested it when they expected our going to another place, [so] that they have not half the troops in the town that they should have to defend themselves well, which makes us hope it will not cost us dear. I am so sleepy that I can say no more but that [I] am entirely yours.31
Goslinga maintains that Marlborough would have preferred to besiege Ypres, but Eugène and the rest of the council of war preferred Tournai. Jinking swiftly to invest Tournai was certainly a tactical masterstroke, achieved by striking camp at tattoo on the evening of 15 June and marching all night. ‘Nay, he had done it so privately,’ wrote an admiring Private Deane, ‘that the inhabitants of the town nor soldiers in the garrison knew nothing of it till next day at 3 o’clock in the morning – and then was discovered by a convoy of bread wagons coming innocently out of town laden with provisions for their army’.32 Even Goslinga admitted that it had gone surprisingly well, and that ‘M de Villars was caught head down in the basket’.33
The move may, however, have made less strategic sense. Marlborough had recently asserted that the French, at their last gasp, should be pressed as hard as possible, and sieges, no matter how successful, were unlikely to cause their collapse. Although the written record is silent on the subject, we may doubt whether a thrust along the Channel coast, sustained by seaborne logistics, would have appealed to either Eugène or the Dutch. One of Marlborough’s most astute biographers argues that the abandonment of an offensive reflected Eugène’s influence, ‘which consistently worked towards a conservative policy and by which, almost uniquely, Marlborough would allow himself to be guided when it contradicted his own opinion’.34
Perhaps there may be more to it than that. Marlborough’s correspondence consistently reflects astonishment at the blighted state of France, and a conviction that the French could not continue the war. Louis was indeed in dire straits: early in July he told Villars that he could spend two or three thousand louis d’or on the fortification of Béthune and St Venant, though it was ‘a sum difficult to assemble in the present state of affairs’.35 Early in July Marlborough warned Heinsius that he did not expect better terms at the end of the campaign than had been embodied in the rejected preliminaries. He was wholly correct in emphasising that the Spanish clause had proved fatal: ‘Were I in the place of the King of France, I should venture the loss of my country much sooner than be obliged to join my troops for the forcing [of] my grandson.’36 Yet he still expected that the French would agree terms close to those suggested that spring, and on 22 July suggested that: ‘The account of the misery and disturbances in France are such, that if it continues they must be ruined.’37 Perhaps the whole rotten structure was about to tumble down, and a brisk kick at Tournai might just prove the last straw. He had a well-placed agent at Versailles whose reports told of people struggling to tear fragments from a dead horse on the Pont Neuf, crowds of unemployed workmen seeking jobs, aristocrats preparing to leave the country, and the king’s guards sleeping booted and spurred in case of insurrection. ‘Certainly,’ he told Godolphin, ‘the misery of France increases, which must bring us to a peace.’38
There was, alas, to be nothing brisk about the siege of Tournai. It was defended by the marquis de Surville-Hautefort with a garrison of some 7,700 men. Surville lacked the troops to defend the town itself, and on 28 July agreed to give it up after some of his outworks had been taken by storm. Marlborough promptly informed the queen of this success, hoping that it might ‘oblige the enemy to submit to such terms as may conduce to a happy and lasting peace’.39 Surville retired into Tournai’s citadel, which, as Private Deane reported, ‘is an invincible strong place for mines’.40 Richard Kane agreed that it was ‘one of the best fortified places by art that is in the world, there being more works a great deal under ground, than above, which made our approach very difficult’.41 Marlborough took direction of the siege while Eugène commanded the field army, but ‘bloody work at the siege’ meant that some regiments had to be relieved from the trenches and replaced by fresh units. The defenders’ use of mines lent a particular horror to operations, and Sergeant John Wilson thought that
of all the horrid schemes of war, this bringing of mines and sapping to find out the same was the most dreadful, for it was with great reluctance that even the boldest men in the army then on this service have turned their backs and given way. Nay, even those who had seen death in all its shapes above ground was struck with horror to stand (as he supposed) on the top of a mine in danger of being blown up every minute. And those who went under ground into the saps had a co-equal reluctance, if not more, they being in danger every minute either of being suffocated or buried in the rubbish in the like nature.42
Villars, meanwhile, extended his lines to the Scheldt above Condé, and swung his army up behind them between Douai and Valenciennes. On 8 August Marlborough assured Godolphin that Villars was too weak to cover the lines at La Bassée and to prevent the Allies from moving against Valenciennes if they wished to do so. He watched from a distance the slow unrolling of Allied plans for the invasion of south-east France, spoiled first by its slow development, and then checked fatally by the defeat of the Elector of Hanover’s advance guard at Rummersheim in late August. Perhaps, by any reasonable standards, France might be dead, but her corpse was still twitching to some purpose. Marlborough was convinced that the French would come to terms if only the Allies would moderate their demands, and Spain was still the sticking point. He assured Heinsius that ‘the French ministers have it not in their powers to recall the Duke of Anjou’, and declared that ‘the insisting on the [surrender of] three towns in Spain’ made it impossible for the French to come to terms. ‘I call to God to witness that I think it is not in the power of the King of France … it is in my opinion declaring the continuation of the war.’43
Goslinga thought precisely the same, and warned Marlborough that he could not see how ‘by the terms of this treaty we could enter, without firing a shot, into possession of these fortresses which we could never … take by force of arms in four campaigns’. Marlborough, he complains, could give him no satisfactory answer, and attributes this to the fact that he ‘wished for the war to continue because of resentment at his rejection as Governor of the Low Countries, by ambition and desire for money’.44 As we can now see from Marlborough’s correspondence, the accusation that he was anxious for the war to continue was patently untrue: he was now heartily sick of it, and longed to live out his days at Blenheim, albeit with the captain generalcy as a souvenir of his great and glorious days. In 1706 the emperor, on behalf of Charles III, had offered to make Marlborough governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Godolphin had assured him that the queen ‘likes the thing very well and leaves it to you to do, as you shall judge best for her service and the common cause’.45 Marlborough quickly recognised that ‘it would create a great jealousy, which might prejudice the common cause’, and turned it down.46 It is hard to see how Goslinga could have read Marlborough more incorrectly.
The citadel of Tournai capitulated at last on 3 September, having cost the Allies over 5,000 killed and wounded. Its garrison was allowed to go to France on parole, to await formal exchange with the Allied garrison of Warneton, taken by Le Blanc, the ‘lively, bold and enterprising’ Intendant of Ypres. Marlborough at once darted south-east to besiege Mons, moving his siege train by water to Brussels and then down to Mons by road. On 7 September he told Godolphin that although he could not begin serious battering till the train arrived, probably towards the twentieth of the month, he hoped to take the little fort of St Ghislain with the guns he had with him, and complete his lines of circumvallation around Mons. Villars had just managed to reinforce its garrison before the iron fist closed around Mons, but there could be little doubt that, once the heavy guns started gnawing at its walls, Mons would go the same way as Tournai.
Louis had hitherto been reluctant to allow Villars to risk battle, arguing that a lost battle would leave France open to invasion, while a victory could not be exploited. That summer Villars was given heavily-qualified permission to fight, and on 6 September Marlborough’s agent at Versailles warned him that Villars now planned to give battle as soon as Tournai surrendered. Moreover, claimed the agent, Boufflers, who had been at Versailles, had now departed for the frontier with his cuirass and weapons.47 The marquis de Cheldon, captured in an outpost action near Mons, was happy to assure his captors that Villars intended to fight, and Lord Orkney told his brother that ‘we had intelligence of Boufflers being come up to their camp with orders to risk all and venture a battle’.48 On 10 September, in his last letter written before Malplaquet, Marlborough told Sarah that a battle might not be far off.
I have received intelligence that the French were on their march to attack us. We immediately got ourselves ready and marched to a post some distance from our camp. We came in presence between two and three o’clock yesterday in the afternoon, but as there was several defiles between us, we only cannonaded each other. They have last night e
Marlborough had swept down from the north-west to beleaguer Mons, crossing the little River Haine not far from the town. Villars, in turn, had crossed the headwaters of the Scheldt and marched north-eastwards, with the Sambre away to his right. The town of Bavay was the hub of the local road-system, with Roman roads spreading out from it like the spokes of a wheel. Between the two armies lay a series of big, broad-leaved woods. The most northerly, jutting up towards the Haine, and today dismally curtailed by the post-industrial sprawl of towns like Frameries, Paturages and Boussu (for this was once mining country), was then called Sars Wood, named for the village of Sars-la-Bruyère. Then came the small round copse of Thiery Wood. Finally, Lanière Wood, astride the Roman road from Bavay to Givry, closed the southern front of the battlefield, with a bosky finger poking down towards the Sambre near Hautmont. The woods have changed their size and shape somewhat with the passage of two centuries, and, confusingly, the nomenclature of modern maps bears limited relation to that in contemporary accounts. To any traveller making his way from Mons to Malplaquet, and passing the deserted checkpoint that marks the Franco-Belgian border and the stone obelisk that commemorates the battle, the message is clear. This is close country, made for defence, that denies even the most capable general any room for manoeuvre.
There were three militarily-practicable gaps between the woods: the trouée de Boussu north of Sars Wood, then the trouée de la Louvière north of Thiery Wood, and the Aulnois gap to its south. The ground was generally flat and often marshy, but there was enough microterrain to make a difference to those who must live and die by it. The road from Mons to Bavay forks just north of Sars, and its eastern extension climbs the gentlest of gradients as it traverses the Aulnois gap towards the village of Malplaquet, then as now a few houses strewn along both sides of the road. The solidly-built farm complex of Bléron stood beside a brook just west of Thiery Wood, and, with it, separated the Louvière from the Aulnois gap as the cutwater of a bridge divides the current.
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