Battle of Blenheim
The Battle of Blenheim in southern Germany was an important military victory for English and Austrian forces against the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). It was also a personal triumph for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.Habsburg king Charles II of Spain was childless. At the behest of King Louis XIV, French diplomats worked hard to secure the inheritance for Louis’s grandson, Philippe d’Anjou. On his death in November 1700, therefore, Charles left his considerable European and American possessions to Philippe on the proviso that they not be divided. European leaders had long dreaded the Spanish succession, and a partition of the inheritance might have averted a long and costly war, but Louis rejected any such arrangement. France aligned with Spain and its possessions would be a formidable power bloc.
The War of the Spanish Succession has sometimes been called “the first world war,” for fighting occurred around the globe, including in North America and in India. King William III of Prussia took the lead in forming a coalition to block the French. England became a leading player in the coalition, allying itself with Austria, the Netherlands, Prussia, and most of the other German states. Fighting began in 1701. In May 1702 England declared war, and John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, arrived in Holland as captain general of English and Dutch forces. Marlborough then waged a series of inconclusive maneuver campaigns. Hampered by Dutch caution, he nonetheless captured Venlo, Roermond, and Liège and was rewarded with the title of Duke of Marlborough.
Hoping to replace the Austrian Habsburg Leopold I as Holy Roman emperor, Duke Maximilian of Bavaria joined his country with France and Spain. Louis XIV then dispatched an army under Marshal Camille d’Hostun, Count de Tallard, to cooperate with the Bavarians in marching on Vienna. Leopold I recalled Austrian forces under Prince Eugene of Savoy from Italy to defend his capital. Marlborough meanwhile planned to drive deep into Germany, join forces with Eugene, and defeat the French and Bavarians before they could reach Vienna, thus forcing the French from Germany and forcing Bavaria from the war.
Leaving some 50,000 men to defend the Netherlands against a French army under Marshal François de Neufville, Duc du Villeroi, and without informing the Dutch government of his intentions, Marlborough struck south. Departing Holland in April with about 21,000 men (some 14,000 were English troops), he marched up the Rhine and Neckar rivers to reach Koblenz (Coblenz), Germany, in May. This was something of a military masterpiece, covering 250 miles in five weeks. Marlborough also tripled the size of his force by adding German mercenaries en route. Marlborough repeatedly feinted at an invasion west into France, forcing Villeroi to parallel his route.
Instead of proceeding up the Moselle River as the French expected, Marlborough then crossed the Rhine and made for the Danube. In a daring attack on July 2 Marlborough’s troops took the fortified hill of Schellenberg, overlooking Donauwörth, and then the fortress of Donauwörth itself, allowing them to cross the Danube there.
During July and early August, French marshal Ferdinand de Marsin and Duke Maximilian of Bavaria moved forces to Augsburg to block any effort by Marlborough to advance on the Bavarian capital of Munich. The Bavarians refused battle until they could be reinforced, allowing Marlborough to devastate much of western Bavaria. At the end of July French reinforcements under Tallard reached Ulm, and shortly thereafter he joined Marsin and Maximilian south of the Danube. Meanwhile, Eugene duped Villeroi into believing that he would remain along the Rhine, but instead Eugene moved with about 20,000 men to link up with Marlborough. Villeroi decided to remain in the vicinity of Strasbourg in order to protect against a possible allied invasion of Alsace.
On August 10 the Bavarian-French forces crossed the Danube. Tallard, who commanded the joint force, planned to attack Eugene and force him back to the north. On learning of this Eugene sent a message to Marlborough urging that they join forces, which occurred on August 12.
At 2:00 a.m. on August 13 Marlborough and Eugene led their combined force of some 52,000 men and 60 guns some five miles from Donauwörth to the southeast to attack some 56,000 unprepared French and Bavarian forces (about equally divided) with 90 guns. Prince Eugene had command of the allied right that would face the Bavarians, while Marlborough commanded the allied left against the French. Marlborough had the larger force and was to make the major effort, while Eugene fixed the Bavarians (who outnumbered his own force 3 to 2) in place with an aggressive holding attack. The French and Bavarian forces were camped just across the Nebel River, a little tributary stream of the Danube. Tallard had not imagined that the allies might attack him.
Marlborough’s columns, traveling over easy ground, arrived first, and at about 7:00 a.m. they opened artillery fire on the surprised French and Bavarians. The delay in Eugene’s arrival allowed the French and Bavarians time to deploy. Tallard placed the bulk of his infantry on his flanks. The extreme right flank of the French infantry was at the village of Blenheim, on the banks of the Danube. The wide center of the allied French-Bavarian line was on a ridge overlooking the Nebel and was held mostly by supported French and Bavarian cavalry. It extended northwest about two miles to the village of Oberglau, while Marsin’s Bavarians held the left flank of the line extending to the north.
Eugene’s troops arrived at about noon, and at 12:30 p.m. they and Marlborough’s men attacked simultaneously. Marlborough sent 10,000 infantry forward across the Nebel against Blenheim while Eugene attacked at Oberglau and northwest. The French repulsed the attack on Blenheim with heavy losses. Tallard then committed his reserves to the threatened flanks, enabling them to turn back a second attack by Marlborough on Blenheim, again with heavy losses for the attackers.
With 11,000 French now relatively isolated on the flank at Blenheim, Marlborough made his major effort in the center with his remaining infantry and cavalry. Crossing the Nebel, these forces came under a French cavalry attack and repulsed it. A second French attack by cavalry accompanied by infantry and artillery might have turned the tide, but Tallard failed to order it. Marlborough was also able to repulse a French cavalry attack against the right flank of his advancing troops, thanks to the timely intervention of Eugene’s cavalry.
Marlborough’s forces in the center of the line then reformed, and at 4:30 p.m. Marlborough ordered them forward. At 5:30 p.m. Marlborough’s cavalry broke through the center of the French line, causing the Bavarian right to withdraw to the north on the remainder of the Bavarian army. Marlborough’s infantry poured into the gap and, swinging left, cut off the French at Blenheim and pursued fleeing French troops, hundreds of whom drowned trying to cross the Danube. Tallard and two of his generals were among the many taken prisoner. After several attempts to break free failed, the French at Blenheim also surrendered. The unbeaten Bavarians, however, were able to retreat in good order from their numerically inferior foe.
The Battle of Blenheim resulted in allied losses of 4,500 killed and 7,500 wounded, while the French and Bavarians sustained 18,000 killed, wounded, or drowned and 13,000 taken prisoner. It was a superb example of seamless cooperation to achieve victory and a personal triumph for Marlborough, demonstrating his ability to both take risks and adjust to changing battlefield conditions. The battle shattered French prestige and reversed the military balance in the war. It cemented the Anglo-British-Austrian alliance against France, saved Vienna from attack, and removed Bavaria from the war. Duke Maximilian was forced to flee his country, which Austria then annexed.
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Churchill, Winston S. Marlborough: His Life and Times, Vol. 2. London: Harrap, 1934.
Green, David. Blenheim. New York: Scribner, 1974.
Jones, J. R. Marlborough. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Verney, Peter. The Battle of Blenheim. London: Batsford, 1976.