Marlborough, p.59Richard Holmes
With Eugène gone but the Prussians under his command, Marlborough had some 90,000 men in the Douai plain, confronting a French army perhaps 30,000 men stronger. Villars had thrown up the lines of Ne Plus Ultra, ‘No Further Back’ – or perhaps, if we accept Winston S. Churchill’s suggestion that Villars had borrowed the phrase from a tailor’s description of Marlborough’s latest red coat, ‘The Last Word’.142 The lines were a thick belt of field fortifications, woven into inundations, running from Bouchain on the River Scheldt, along the southern bank of the Sensée, and then following the Scarpe to Arras. Their left flank was secured by field fortifications on the River Canche and the fortresses of Frévent, Hesdin and Montreuil, and their right by Valenciennes, Le Quesnoy, Maubeuge, Charleroi and Namur. Ypres and St Omer, outside the lines, were both strongly garrisoned, and although Marlborough might take them, he would waste the campaign doing so. There were two causeways through the central part of the lines, at Arleux and Aubenchel le Sec.
Before deciding what to do in 1711, Marlborough sent Lord Stair to England in an effort to persuade Harley (now Earl of Oxford) to provide sufficient extra money to enable the Allies to remain in the field all winter, imposing a pressure that the French would be unable to bear. The idea was shelved, however, because it was not Oxford’s intention to continue the war on the same basis through 1712. This left Marlborough with the pressing need to do something about Villars and his pestilential lines. He began on 6 June by snatching the little fort of Arleux, which guarded the northern end of one of the causeways over the Sensée, and began to refortify it on a larger scale. The operation was covered by Hompesch, with a strong force camped just outside Douai, and when Villars mounted a surprise attack Hompesch’s force was badly cut about, although Arleux held out. Marlborough was visibly irritated, as well he might be, for as Richard Kane tells us, ‘this was the only affront the Duke of Marlborough received during the whole war’.143 However, he then proceeded to leave Arleux so thinly garrisoned that Villars was able to take it on 22 July.
It is widely agreed that Marlborough’s action was deliberate. Cadogan was sent to relieve the place, but ‘took not as much haste as the occasion seemed to require’. Having captured Arleux, Villars demolished its fortifications, thereby leaving the northern end of the causeway undefended, and, encouraged by his success, sent a strong detachment to Maubeuge, whence he might be able to raid into Brabant. Marlborough’s correspondence, admittedly an inexact guide to his thoughts, for he was always concerned about the danger of his letters being captured, gives no hint of his detailed intentions. On the twenty-seventh he told Godolphin that he had been ‘so out of humour’ that he had not written by the last post, though whether this irritation was caused by the simple fact of Arleux’s capture or because the captured garrison had been ‘stripped naked’ it is impossible to say.144 Sometimes the smallest of things can make a difference. In August Marlborough received a letter from his eleven-year-old grandson William Godolphin (eventually to earn notoriety as Willigo, Marquess of Blandford), who had visited Queen Anne to present the standard, due on 13 August each year as the ‘peppercorn’ rent for Blenheim. The boy reported that he had been ‘received but coldly’, a sure sign that the family was out of favour.145
Richard Kane thought that Marlborough ‘seemed very much chagrined’ by all this, and, unusually, ‘seemed very peevish, and would see but little company, and seemed resolved upon attacking Villars’.146 On 30 July Marlborough informed Godolphin: ‘I shall march the army on Saturday [1 August], and if I can see any hope of success, I shall attack them.’147
Marlborough now had much of his army concentrated opposite the lines just west of Arras. He reconnoitred Villars’ position with an escort of 2,000 horse, and discussed his intention to attack with the Dutch general Count Tilly, whose wife, present on the campaign, was at best talkative and at worst, if Goslinga is to be believed, in communication with the French. Villars deduced, not unreasonably, that the attack would be delivered in the area between Vimy Ridge and Avesnes le Comte, and concentrated to meet it. Although Marlborough had apparently placed all his weight on his right foot, he had begun, imperceptibly, to shift it to his left. Albemarle had been sent to Béthune, a little to his left, with twelve battalions and twenty-four squadrons, and in the general clutter of his move the army’s heavy guns and baggage were slipped further eastwards behind Vimy Ridge. Marlborough stripped the garrisons of Lille, Tournai and St Amand to bring Hompesch’s force at Douai up to twenty-three battalions and seventeen squadrons, and, a key intelligence indicator had Villars only known of it, now had all his pontoons at Douai.
Captain Robert Parker, who knew the duke’s methods well, thought that there was ‘something extraordinary’ in his reconnaissance of the French position, and saw how ‘his countenance was now cleared up, and with an air of assurance, as if he was confident of success, he pointed out to the General Officers, the manner in which the army was to be drawn up, the places that were to be attacked, and how sustained’. Parker saw Cadogan break away from the group with only a single servant, but thought nothing of it at the time.148 Having fluttered the matador’s cloak, Marlborough lunged with the sword. On the evening of 4 July,
on our beating Tattoo, to our great joy, orders came along both lines, to strike our tents, and form our regiments with all dispatch imaginable; and in less than an hour, the whole army was on a full march away to the left. This was no small surprise to us; nor could we yet conceive what he meant by it. We continued marching all night, being favoured by the light of a bright full moon, and fine calm weather. A little before day [at about 3 a.m. on the fifth], the Duke being at the head of the march, an express arrived from General Cadogan, signifying that he and General Hompesch had passed the causeway of Arleux without opposition … and that they were in possession of the enemy’s lines. Upon this the Duke rode off with all the left wing of horse; at the same time he sent an account of it to every particular regiment of foot, with orders to continue their march with all the expedition they possibly could.149
It was the apotheosis of Marlborough’s infantry. With the French sometimes in sight in the moonlight on the other side of the Scarpe, and with the men lengthening their stride, the word was passed back, for the last time, that ‘My Lord Duke desires the foot to step it out.’ Private Deane remembered how ‘we accordingly marched … at a very sharp rate all the night long, leaving Arras on the right hand … and got to Arleux and marched through it at about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning’. He could see that the French cavalry had already come up, but that they dared not attack without infantry, which was still strung out along the line of march. ‘And by this means and nobly thought and notable stratagem,’ exulted Deane, ‘was this noted admirable pass taken and nearly tricked from the enemy by the noble conduct and the profound judgement of a wise, prudent general.’150
Villars’ army was complete in the area of Bourlon Wood, just west of Cambrai, and Marlborough debated attacking it. Goslinga, our main source for the discussion, records his despair at Marlborough’s eventual decision, backed by the majority of his council of war, not to attack. Goslinga complained that suggestions that the ground was ill-suited to an attack were merely temporising, but Villars had already begun making abatis on the northern edge of Bourlon Wood, and the shadow of Malplaquet fell across the debate. Marlborough’s decision aroused criticism, some of it from the same folk who had blamed him for attacking at Malplaquet, and on 13 August he told Heinsius:
I cannot help unburdening myself to you, that I think I lie under great hardships and discouragement on this occasion by some letters I have seen in Holland, which seem to reflect on my note making the best use of our advantage by giving the enemy battle as soon as we had passed the lines. I own that had it been practicable there is no comparison between the advantage of a battle and what we can reap from a siege, but there is not one general or other officer that have the least judgement in these matters but must allow it was altogether impossible to attack the enemy
Instead, Marlborough swung north-east to besiege Bouchain. He could not begin the siege proper until he had dislodged Albergotti from a strong intermediate position, and on the morning of the ninth Robert Parker, waiting in a wheatfield with the grenadiers of the British contingent, saw how
the Duke of Marlborough (ever watchful, ever right) rode up quite unattended and alone, and posted himself a little on the right of my company of grenadiers, from whence he had a fair view of the greater part of the enemy’s works. It is quite impossible for me to express the joy which the sight of this man gave me at this very critical moment. I was now well satisfied that he would not push the thing, unless he saw a strong possibility of success; nor was this my notion alone: it was the sense of the whole army, both officer and soldier, British and foreigner … He stayed only three or four minutes, and then rode back. We were in pain for him while he stayed, lest the enemy discovered him, and fired upon him; in which case they could not very well have missed him.152
Marlborough cancelled the assault, and when the French followed up his withdrawal, savaged their advance guard.
In order to press the siege of Bouchain while Villars was on hand with an army roughly the size of his own, Marlborough constructed elaborate lines of circumvallation, fortified his camp, and entrenched a corridor up to the Scarpe at Marchiennes to protect the arrival of his supplies. In mid-August the besiegers cut the ‘Cow Path’ linking Albergotti’s position outside the town to the fortress itself, and on the twentieth Marlborough happily reported to Godolphin that ‘They are now shut up on all sides.’ On 14 September he told his old friend: ‘I am sure you will be very well pleased with the good news I now send … of our being masters of Bouchain, and that Marshal Villars has done us the honour of being witness of the garrison being made prisoners of war. They consist of eight battalions and 500 Swiss.’153
Marlborough rated highly his achievement in breaking the Ne Plus Ultra lines and capturing Bouchain, and three of the great tapestries in Blenheim Palace were to be devoted to these episodes. However, with Maynwaring and other Whig pamphleteers assailing the ministry, Tory propagandists struck back, belittling the captain general’s achievements, and Marlborough looked vainly to his political masters for some support. But, unknown to him, as early as August 1710 Harley had opened secret negotiations with Torcy, the French foreign minister, based on the recognition that Philip V was never going to be expelled from Spain. The negotiations became formal in April 1711, and were placed in the hands of St John, who became Viscount Bolingbroke in 1712, though with a very bad grace, for he had hoped to be an earl. ‘I was dragged into the House of Lords,’ he complained, ‘in such a manner as to make my promotion a punishment, not a reward.’154 Bolingbroke sought to get the best peace he could for Britain, even though this involved forcing her allies to accept worse terms than those which had so nearly been achieved in previous negotiations. Preliminaries were signed in October 1711, although they did not end the war, and a conference was to assemble at Utrecht in January 1712 to discuss definitive terms. The ministry used Jonathan Swift to support its case for peace in a brilliant pamphlet called The Conduct of the Allies in the late War, in which he argued that the conquest of Spain had never been in Britain’s interest, and that had it not been for the Whigs’ rash insistence upon it the war could have been ended in 1709.
The peace signed at Utrecht in early 1713 embodied a number of individual treaties between the belligerents. The Duke of Anjou was recognised as Philip V of Spain, but he renounced, for himself and his descendants, all claims to the throne of France, while various French princes relinquished their own possible claims to the Spanish throne. The Pyrenees had been rebuilt. Archduke Charles, the Hapsburg claimant to Spain, could survive well enough without his pretended throne, for he had in fact succeeded his brother Joseph as Holy Roman Emperor in 1711. At Utrecht he received the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, Sardinia, and most of the Duchy of Milan. Victor Amadeus of Savoy was rewarded for his adherence to the Allies by gaining the remainder of Milan and the whole of Sicily.
Spain ceded both Gibraltar and Minorca to Britain, enabling Richard Kane of the Royal Irish to set off for the latter as its new governor, and to pen his own account of the war in its pleasant climate. Spain also granted Britain the asiento de negros, a thirty-year agreement to sell slaves and five hundred tons of merchandise annually in Spanish colonies. This allowed legitimate traders into the hitherto closed markets of Central and South America, and smugglers immediately followed: disputes, and the alleged mutilation of a British sea captain, led to the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739.
France made extensive concessions in North America, renouncing its claims in Newfoundland, the huge territory of Rupert’s Land (named for the cavalier Prince Rupert) around Hudson’s Bay, and the coastal region of Acadia. Both Île St-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) remained in French hands, and work soon began on building the Vauban-style fortress of Louisbourg on the latter. War between France and the Empire formally lurched on until it was ended by the Treaties of Rastatt and Baden in 1714. In the following year the Treaty of Madrid closed the struggle between Spain and Portugal, although a state of war between Spain and the Empire officially existed till 1720.
There was widespread indignation amongst the Whigs that the French had escaped too lightly, especially in view of the fact that the terms agreed at Utrecht fell well short of those the French had earlier seemed so close to accepting. The Whig politician John Wilkes later said that, like ‘the Peace of God, the treaty passeth all understanding’. The Tories argued that the treaty served British interests well, though there was no denying that the Dutch, who had played such a resolute part in the struggle and then hosted the negotiation that ended it, had gained little. ‘De vous, chez vous, sans vous’ (‘About you, at home with you, but without you’), quipped bitter Dutchmen. However, although many of the fortresses captured by the Allies in the last three years of the war were, like the mighty Lille, restored to the French, there was no realistic threat to Dutch sovereignty for the next two generations.
What was undeniably true, though, was that the treaty had removed the danger of a huge Bourbon super-state, comprising not only France and Spain but all the latter’s overseas colonies, whose existence could only have been inimical to British interests. The lesser risk of a Hapsburg super-state had also been averted, and the Tories could claim, with some justice, that the agreement created a European balance of power which it would be hard for a single nation to disrupt.
Dismissed the Service
Marlborough’s position was exceptionally difficult. He had long had reservations about the Whigs’ policy of ‘No Peace without Spain’, but as what Winston S. Churchill calls ‘the soul of the Grand Alliance’, he disliked the notion of abandoning the allies upon whose troops he had relied. He had especially close relations with Hanover, whose Elector, likely to become king of Great Britain in the foreseeable future, was firmly opposed to the preliminaries. However, he was more Tory than Whig by personal persuasion, and had worked well enough with members of the present ministry, most notably Bolingbroke.
He was certainly convinced that the war could not go on, though he was less sure what constituted reasonable peace terms. In October 1711 he told Oxford that ‘there is nothing upon earth I wish more than an end of the war … I am perfectly convinced that it brings the draining of our nation both of men and money, almost to the last extremity. Our Allies by degrees so shift the burthen of the war upon us, that at the rate they go on, the whole charge must at last fall on England.’155
It would have been hard for Marlborough to keep his head below the political parapet, although the signs are that, tired and beset by an increasing number of headaches, he might well have wished to. In December 1711 the House of Lords debated a Whig amendment to the queen’s speech. It affirmed
Two of the many irregularities that the commissioners discovered in army accounts affected Marlborough personally. The first was that he had accepted a total of £60,000 in gifts from Antonio Machado and Sir Solomon de Medina, contractors for bread and bread wagons. Medina, testifying in London, agreed that he had indeed given Mr Sweet, the deputy paymaster at Amsterdam, 1 per cent of all the monies he had received for the contracts, and had also paid Cardonnel five hundred ducats a year. As soon as Medina had given his evidence, Marlborough assured the commissioners that ‘this is no more than what has been allowed as a perquisite to the general, or commander-in-chief of the army in the Low Countries, even before the Revolution’. He told them that he had not accepted the money on his own behalf, but that it had been ‘constantly employed for the service of the public, in keeping secret correspondence, and getting intelligence of the enemy’s motions and designs’.156 Cadogan, who produced the papers to assist Marlborough in his defence, went back so far in the accounts that he was sure it was ‘undeniably evident, that for these five and thirty years past it was the established custom to present the grand commander-in-chief with a considerable annual gratification in proportion to the number of troops of the army’.157
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