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28 August 2004

12:00 AM

28 August 2004

12:00 AM

Blenheim: Battle for Europe Charles Spencer

Weidenfeld, pp.365, 20

Blenheim, 1704: Marlborough’s Greatest Victory
by James Falkner
Pen & Sword Military, £10.99, pp. 144, ISBN 184415050X

By rights the battle of Blenheim in 1704 ought to be as well known as Waterloo. It was just as momentous, just as exciting, just as victory-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat. In fact you could argue — as Winston Churchill did — that it was the event which opened for Britain ‘the gateways of the modern world’. So how come all most of us remember about it today is that it was won by John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and that it had a palace in Woodstock named after it?

One reason may be that since it involved neither Stalin nor the Nazis and since its hero was a toffy Englishman (his father, Sir Winston, was a Royalist cavalry officer), it will not have been taught in our schools for many years. But the main reason, perhaps, is that it happened in the awkward post-Middle Ages and post-Civil War but pre-Victorian period of British history on which most of us tend to be rather shaky.

So thanks then to Charles Spencer for putting us right with this pacy and enjoyable account of his distant relative’s exploits, published to coincide with the battle’s 300th anniversary. Though it does cash in on his nob credentials a bit cheesily — ‘he achieved world-wide attention after speaking passionately at the funeral of his sister Diana,’ announces the fly-leaf — this is a fine, intelligent, patriotic book which deserves to be read, rather than merely to languish on shelves as a trophy signed copy purchased from the Althorp gift shop.

One fascinating aspect of the Blenheim story is the extent to which it prefigured the course of the Napoleonic wars a century later. Louis XIV played the role of the tyrannical Frenchman with expansionist ambitions, John Churchill that of the brilliant strategist sniped at by politicians, let down by some of his allies and with an army so much smaller than those of the opposition that he couldn’t afford to lose a single battle.

In many ways, he had it even harder than Wellington. At the end of the 17th century, England could barely muster a professional army because parliament, fearful of another civil war, kept voting against having one. And though the Grand Alliance forces that Marlborough commanded as Captain General were swollen by Dutch, Hessians, Hanoverians, Danes, Austrians, Imperial Germans and Prus- sians, this meant that he had to spend more time negotiating the sensitivities of his allies than fighting the enemy.

Among the most obstructive were his bosses at the Dutch States-General whose timidly defensive policies meant that Marlborough had to waste a whole campaigning year on pointless manoeuvres, rarely able to attack the French even when their army was in disarray. Equally maddening was Prince Lewis of Baden, whose tactical ineptitude Marlborough considered so counterproductive that he preferred to allow him to take 15,000 valuable men off to a time-wasting siege rather than let him mess up his battle plans.

By the time Marlborough was ready to fight, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Reviled at home by a public which believ- ed the war was a futile and unnecessary one that he was conducting mainly for his own glory (sounds familiar) — the losses his troops had sustained in the storming of the Schellenberg fortress did not help his cause — Marlborough knew that if he lost the battle that would become known as Blenheim (an English mispronounciation of Blindheim, the Bavarian village near which it was fought) he would face imprisonment, possibly even execution.

Like Waterloo it was a damned near run thing. The French outnumbered the Allies and were fighting them from a strong defensive position. (For a clear guide to the battle with more maps and tactical detail than Spencer’s there is the excellent James Falkner). But after a day-long succession of charges and counter-charges which sent both sides into an exhausted stalemate, Marlborough, helped throughout by his heroic ally Prince Eugène, spotted an opening in the centre into which to pour his cavalry, and the field was his. The Allied casualties were appalling, the French ones even worse: over 40,000 men were killed or wounded that day.

When news reached the Sun King he was so shocked he appeared to have a stroke. His army had been thrashed and 14,000 taken prisoner, including 40 of his general officers. For Britain, though it had provided only one in five of the Allied combatants, it was the greatest victory since the defeat of the Armada and proof that she was now ready to take on the world and win.

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