The British Army emerged from the crisis of revolution and civil war that had given it birth with a distinctive military doctrine based on movement, firepower, and aggression. But realising its potential required a master of war in the Army’s own image.
The following article is an extract from our 9-page feature on Blenheim, in issue 12 of Military Times.
Marlborough’s first objective was Donauwörth, a defended city on the Danube protected by a formidable hilltop fortress, the Schellenberg. Its capture would afford him a strong forward-base and a bridge over the Danube from which he could devastate the territory of the Elector of Bavaria, France’s ally; block any Franco-Bavarian drive on Vienna; and maintain communications with his
Late in the day on 2 July 1704, Marlborough launched a series of frontal infantry attacks on the Schellenberg entrenchments. The Bavarians became fixed on the struggle with the redcoats, leaving the line between the city and the summit of the hill weakly held. Here, the Imperialist troops broke in and turned the defenders’ flank. The Bavarians were routed: barely 3,000 of the 10,000 or more engaged succeeded in rejoining the Elector’s main army.
The Elector and the French marshal Marsin took refuge in Augsburg to await the arrival of a French army marching from the west. This was being watched and shadowed by Prince Eugene, but was too powerful for him to oppose. Meanwhile, Marlborough, in an effort to bring the Elector and Marsin to battle, laid waste the territory of Bavaria.
The crisis of the campaign came suddenly. The junction south of the Danube of three armies – those of the Elector and Marsin with that of Tallard – followed by their rapid passage to the north bank threatened Eugene’s army and Marlborough’s communications. By rapid marching, Marlborough united his army with Eugene’s by late on 11 August. But his men had crossed three rivers and marched 24 miles on bad roads in 20 hours; they were exhausted and would not be able to fight the following day. The 12th was to be a day of rest and planning.
Deploying for battle
The opposing camps lay but five miles apart. The Duke and the Prince rode westwards on the morning of 12 August, climbed the church tower at the village of Tapfheim, and from there observed the Franco-Bavarian army. It was posted in a strong position on rising ground west of the Nebel stream, its right anchored on the Danube and the village of Blenheim, its centre on the village of Oberglau, and its left on the village of Lutzingen.
The Nebel was a marshy obstacle along its entire length, but on the left of the enemy position, where Marsin and the Elector of Bavaria were posted, the ground was especially wet and broken. Between Blenheim and Oberglau, on the other hand, where Tallard was posted, the ground immediately beyond the Nebel was an open and gentle slope, ideal for mounted action.
The position was strong, and the Franco-Bavarian army slightly outnumbered the Allied one, having 56,000 men and 90 guns to 52,000 men and 66 guns. Yet, closing their telescopes at the top of the tower, the two Allied commanders agreed that they would attack the next day.
The plan was for Eugene to deploy on the Allied right, facing Marsin and the Elector, Marlborough on the left, facing Tallard. Eugene’s men had a distance to march and the ground was broken and difficult; it was past midday before they were all in position and the attack could begin, some four hours after the guns had first opened fire with long-range shot and shell.
Marlborough’s plan was to launch two major attacks designed to fix the enemy and draw off his reserves. Prince Eugene was to attack along his entire front, engaging the full attention of Marsin and the Elector, but without any expectation that he would break through. Meantime, the Duke’s English redcoats, under General ‘Salamander’ Cutts – who owed his nickname to his fondness for being where the fire was hottest – was to attack Blenheim on the far left.
Phase One: the fixing attacks
Cutts deployed his foot, a mix of English, Scots, and Hessians, in four lines, with two lines of horse in the rear. Blenheim had been turned into a fortress, every building a loopholed blockhouse, every street barricaded. As they passed the Nebel, the first line, five battalions of redcoats under General Row, came under heavy close-range fire of grapeshot and musket volleys. Soon, a third of the brigade was down, and the survivors recoiled, making way for the second wave, formed of Hessians.
Again and again, the infantry went forward, and though each attack was repulsed, the French commander was panicked by the ferocity and persistence of the onslaught into ordering the 11 battalions in rear of the village to join the 16 within: the very outcome Marlborough most desired. Satisfied, the Duke ordered Cutts to withdraw to some dead ground immediately in front of the village, and from there to maintain fire and mount occasional feint attacks.
On both left and right, Marlborough was applying the principle of economy of force with careful measure. Cutts had turned Blenheim into a cauldron, inducing the French to commit a force superior to his own to its defence; a force stacked up in depth and largely neutralised. Meantime, in the centre, the scales were so finely balanced that Marsin hazarded a sudden counterattack, striking from Oberglau and threatening to drive a wedge between the Imperialist and English halves of the Allied army.
Marlborough appealed urgently for aid from Eugene. Though the Prince was desperately hard-pressed, he dispatched a regiment of Imperialist cuirassiers. Their intervention broke the French attack, and Marsin’s troops fell back on Oberglau; they ventured nothing more, remaining henceforward on the defensive. It was now four in the afternoon.
Phase Two: the main attack
During the hours of battle, French reserves had been filtered to left and right. Tallard’s main line between Blenheim and Oberglau had thinned. It comprised two lines of horse and very few foot.
Marlborough, on the other hand, had passed four lines over the Nebel and reformed them on the far side, a line of infantry, two of cavalry, then another of infantry. In all, on this sector of the battlefield, he had 28 battalions of foot to Tallard’s nine and 71 squadrons of horse to his opponent’s 64.
After several hours of chaos, from the smoke and roar of battle, Marlborough’s purpose became apparent. All the blood and aggression had been to this end: that on the open ground in the centre of the battlefield, in the one place where a mass of horse might charge and break right through, Marlborough had achieved a decisive preponderance of force.
In the belated hope that he might yet roll the enemy back into the marsh, Tallard now unleashed his cavalry. As they swept down the slope, the meaning of Marlborough’s peculiar interlacing of lines of foot and horse became clear. Thousands of English, German, and Dutch musketeers gave fire, supported by guns discharging ‘partridge’ shot. The charge of the French first line became a shambles of fallen chivalry.
Now was the moment. As the survivors of the first line fell back on the second, the Allied mass moved forwards, 14,000 of foot, 5,000 of horse, coming on steady and certain. The troopers were knee-to-knee, speeding to a fast trot as they closed, pistols holstered, sabres drawn. The French horse fired ragged volleys, and then turned and fled, even the cream of the cream, the Maison du Roi, the royal household cavalry.
As the French centre collapsed, panic spread on either side, and soon tens of thousands were running towards the Danube, many plunging madly straight over the bank and into its deep, wide
waters, to be swept to oblivion.
Marsin and the Elector, their right flank turned, pulled their men out as fast they could and saved a good proportion of their armies. But nothing could save the swollen garrison of Blenheim, which fought on for a while, before, as the sun went down, 10,000 surrendered themselves into captivity.
This article is an extract from our 9-page feature on Blenheim, in our new series A History of the British Army in 25 Battles. To read the full article, see Issue 12 of Military Times.