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Decisives Battles of History: Blenheim

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Marshal Tallard, the French commander, surrendering to the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim.

Marshal Tallard, the French commander, surrendering to the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim.

The War of the Austrian Succession

In November 1700, Charles II died, the childless King of Spain, a man whose death was anticipated for decades in the courts of Europe. As Charles had no direct heir, claimants from the dynasties of Europe emerged to take his place. The continent's great powers made pacts with each other to carve up the empire of the Spanish Habsburgs, but unsurprisingly the Spanish Court in Madrid was less than impressed by these deals made behind their backs.

When Charles died, he nominated Prince Philip of France, the grandson of Louis XIV as his heir and left him an undivided Spanish Empire. After some hesitation, Louis accepted the offer in his grandson's name. The implications of Philip’s succession scared the other rulers of Europe.

France already was the strongest state of the Old Continent, and it took a Grand Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic, the Austrian Habsburgs, Savoy and Spain to check the ambitions of Louis XIV in the Nine Year’s War (1688-1697). The other monarchs feared that the Bourbon succession to the Spanish throne would turn Spain into a mere satellite of France and give Louis such resources to enable him to dominate Europe.

The conflict became inevitable, and the war was declared in 1701. On one side were France and the Spanish nobles who supported the Bourbon cause, most importantly in Castille, Savoy and smaller German allies. On the other side was a slightly weaker version of the Grand Alliance of the Nine Year’s War.

Unfortunately for the British, the capable William of Orange was dying, and he could not take command in this conflict. Luckily for them, however, they had another commander who was more than ready and capable of stepping up to the challenge, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The war was waged on many fronts, but the results in the first two years of the conflict were mixed, and neither side achieved a decisive breakthrough. Prince Eugene of Savoy initially pushed back the French in Italy, but reinforcements and a counterattack in 1703 neutralised his earlier successes. A sort of stalemate was also developing in the Low Countries and around the Rhine. Marlborough was stationed in the Low Countries in this early phase of the conflict.

Marlborough's March to the Danube

Nonetheless, the situation of Emperor Leopold was getting critical in 1704. The elector of Bavaria decided to side with Louis. The addition of his 40,000 soldiers and his strategic position, which allowed him to threaten the Imperial Habsburg capital Vienna changed the strategic situation. Leopold was unable to deploy his full force against his threat, as a rebellion of mostly Protestant Hungarian lords threatened him from the East.

Marlborough understood the implications of the strategic situation of 1704. If the Bavarians and their French allies pushed East from Bavaria and took Vienna, Emperor Leopold will probably be forced to sign a peace treaty with Louis, and the Grand Alliance will collapse. This would enable Louis to divert some of his troops to Germany and Italy against the Dutch, English and their smaller allies (if they still had the stomach for the fight).

Marlborough knew what he had to do. He had to force the French and Bavarians to meet him in a decisive battle and crush them to save Leopold and the Grand Alliance. The only problem he had was to convince his Dutch allies to agree to this plan, which the cautious Dutch would never have done.

Still, Marlborough was adamant that he will go through with his intentions and decided to fool friend and foe alike. He started his famous march to the Danube from the Low Countries. At first, he hid his intentions, and to placate the Dutch, he told them he wanted to threaten France by moving along the Rhine. The Franch shadowed his movements, but once the Danube was near, Marlborough abandoned the Rhine and moved eastward towards the Danube.

His march was planned out meticulously, and he made arrangements with the German states along his planned marching routes to supply his army with food. Marlborough’s careful planning paid off, and despite the long march, his troops remained in good conditions and were more than ready to face any enemy in the heart of Germany.

The Participants of the War of the Spanish Succession

The Participants of the War of the Spanish Succession

Marlborough met with the two allied Imperial commanders, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Prince Louis of Baden, in early June, and the three of them devised the strategy of the allied armies. According to the plan, Eugene was to march west to the Rhine and block any French attempt at crossing. If this plan succeeded, the combined army of Marlborough and Prince Louis of Baden were left free to seek out and destroy the combined Franco-Bavarian troops in Bavaria, whom they outnumbered by more than 1.5 to 1.

Marshall Tallard had to get the approval of Versailles to alter the initial French plans of operations, which would not have allowed him to recross the Danube with over 30,000 men. He got the approval of Louis XIV, outflanked Prince Eugene and was on his way to reinforce his allies in Bavaria. Eugene, in turn, left 12,000 of his forces on the Rhine to watch and hinder further French reinforcements and marched to reinforce Marlborough and Louis of Baden.

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Upon receiving news of the French reinforcements, Marlborough decided to force the hand of Elector Maximilian by looting and ravaging Bavaria. The army of Marlborough destroyed the countryside, but the Franco-Bavarian force refused to be drawn into an unequal fight. Things changed when Tallard arrived and reinforced his allies. After his arrival, he had around 56,000 men under his direct command, with more men dispersed in the countryside.

Tallard joined his allies on August 5 and took over as overall commander. He was more cautious than Maximilian and the other French commander Count Marsin. He stationed his army in a good defensive position on the plains near Hockstadt, confident that Marlborough would not try to attack him in such a strong position. Without the decisive battle, the English commander would be forced to retire as the campaigning season fizzled out in Autumn.

Had Tallard faced two cautious commanders, his line of thought no doubt would have been correct, but the two men he was about to face were much more aggressive, and they were determined to get their battle, even on a disadvantageous ground to them.

Some of Marlborough’s commanders were questioning the wisdom of attacking the French, who were stationed on the ground of their choosing, but Marlborough was determined to go through with his plan.

The job at hand was not easy, but not impossible either. The French choose their battleground carefully. The Danube protected their right flank and, with a forested area on their left, flanking attacks were unlikely to be successful. As turning the enemy's flank was not a possibility, Marlborough decided to attack frontally both the enemy's flanks, which ideally would have drawn away reserves from the centre. The main blow of the allies would fall on the centre when it was sufficiently weakened; once the centre was broken, the isolated flanks had no choice but to give up the fight.

As the allies were planning and preparing their attack, the French were lured into a false sense of security by their strong position. Tallard was not anticipating a battle at all, and on the morning of the battle, he even wrote to King Louis XIV a report in which he stated that the allies were about to retreat.

The Battle of Blenheim

Much to their surprise, the French were faced by the enemy, and they formed into battle formation to meet the challenge. The commanders of the French army agreed to divide command among themselves. Tallard remained overall commander and took command over the right side of the French army, from the Danube to the village of Oberglau. Elector Maximilian and Marsin would command the troops from Oberglau to Lutzingen.

The French commanders were divided about how they should use the small river Nebel, which was running a few hundred meters ahead of their position. In the end, Tallard’s method was implemented, according to which they left their enemies to cross it, only to push them back into the marshy river.

The allies attacked the French right first, and heavy fighting erupted around the village of Blenheim. The French held their ground and repulsed the English, but the French commander panicked and mistakenly withdrew the reserves to the village, which in practice meant that over 10,000 French soldiers were hemmed into a small crowded space. Marlborough spotted the error and ordered his troops to stop the futile assaults and blockade the French. As a result, 5,000 English soldiers were enough to pin down over 10,000 French for the rest of the battle.

Simultaneously to the fighting around Blenheim, the allies were also heavily engaged around the French left. Under the leadership of Prince Eugene, the allies attacked the French defending Lutzingen, only to be repulsed. Thanks to the heroic leadership of Prince Eugene and the other allied commanders, the retreating troops were inspired to make further charges. Still, the fighting was murderous, and the allies and the French both suffered many casualties.

As the two armies were engaged on the flanks, in the centre the soldiers of Marlborough were crossing the Nebel and were slowly deploying. Tallard threw his elite cavalry against them, but to his surprise, these were driven back, which meant that his strategy was in tatters. He urgently rode to Marsin to request reinforcements to his centre, but Marsin was heavily engaged against Prince Eugene, so was unable to comply.

As Marlborough’s troops were crossing, they came under fire from French and Bavarian troops holding Oberglau. The allies realised they had to capture the village, and after heavy fighting and several near-disasters, they succeeded, and the village was cleared of enemies.

With the allies deployed in front of his centre, Tallard ordered his cavalry to charge, but they were eventually thrown into a headlong retreat despite their initial success. Once the cavalry was beaten, the allies moved against the French infantry. Despite a brave last stand of the young French infantry, the combined artillery, infantry and cavalry attacks overwhelmed them. Tallard tried to rally his troops, but he was captured in his attempts and taken prisoner.

Prince Eugene’s flank succeeded in overruling Lutzingen also, but most of the wing under the command of Maximilian and Marsin retreated when they saw their centre fleeing in front of the allies.

Marlborough then turned against Blenheim and surrounded the village from all sides. The allied tried to overwhelm their enemies, but the French repulsed all their attempts. The French finally surrendered around 9 am.

Aftermath

Both sides suffered heavy casualties during the battle, but the French losses were much worse, as they lost nearly half their army during the battle, while the remnant of the force led away by Marsin and Maximilian lost further men through desertion as they made their way to Strasbourg.

The victory of Marlborough thwarted the Franco-Bavarian push toward Vienna and saved Emperor Leopold and most probably the Grand Alliance.

Sources

Tincey, John. (2004). Blenheim 1704: The Duke of Marlborough's Masterpiece. Osprey Publishing.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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