The Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene entering the French entrenchments during the Battle of Malplaquet (1709), a decisive engagement of the War of the Spanish Succession.
The late Richard Holmes considered Marlborough to be Britain’s greatest general. He was probably right. But, like many great commanders, Marlborough was paired with a man of comparable calibre: Prince Eugene of Savoy.
So outstanding were Eugene’s talents that Napoleon listed him among history’s top seven generals, alongside figures like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and Frederick the Great; Marlborough did not appear on the list at all.
Marlborough and Eugene were very different characters. The former was a largely self-made man who had risen through merit and court favour, whereas the latter was a man born to aristocratic privilege. While Marlborough was vain, avaricious, and concerned with his own advancement, Eugene took wealth and power for granted.
Nonetheless, they were bound together by the political alliance between Britain and the Holy Roman Empire during the War of the Spanish Succession, and they discovered that they shared a genius for war, a dedication to their profession, and, by the standards of their age, an unconventional approach to strategy and tactics.
Early 18th-century warfare was dominated by fortifications, cautious manoeuvre, and avoidance of risk. European armies were immensely expensive state investments, and most generals were reluctant to expose such valuable assets to the destructive power of pitched battle.
Wars tended to be dominated by slow sieges. Frontier regions were meshed with fortified towns. Armies campaigned for only a few months each summer, and they tended to inch forwards a few miles at a time. Dirt roads and cumbersome trains of artillery and baggage discouraged rapid movement.
But Marlborough and Eugene shared a commitment to pitched battle. They understood that the most effective way to shift the military balance was to draw the enemy’s main forces into combat and destroy them. And they were willing to take the risks usually inherent in trying to force on a cautious, defensive-minded enemy a full-scale battle on open ground.
This is an extract from a 15-page special feature in the July 2018 issue of Military History Monthly.
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