13 August 1704

An engraving published in the 1823 British Portraits Encyclopedia shows the victor of Blenheim, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. His success in deceiving the enemy of his intentions opened the way to a stunning victory over the French and Bavarians.

Widely regarded as the most significant victory in English military history, the battle in and around the small Bavarian village of Blindheim (usually spelt Blenheim in English) had an English commander and a core of English soldiers and horsemen, but was a multi-national battle, as most early eighteenth-century battles were, in which more Germans, Dutch and Danes served than English. There is no doubt, however, that the English commander, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was the inspiration behind the victory over a larger French and Bavarian army in what was one of the critical battles of the War of the Spanish Succession. It was a battle that might never have happened if Marlborough had not deceived his allies, his government and above all his enemies about his plans for an unexpected offensive campaign deep in the heart of Europe.

Marlborough was the commander of a confederate army of European states that objected to the decision by Louis XIV of France to support his grandson’s claim to the vacant throne of Spain following the death of the feeble-minded King Carlos II in 1700. The crisis in Europe developed slowly but in May 1702 an alliance of England, Holland (the United Provinces) and the Austrian Habsburg Empire declared war on France. The armies of Louis XIV had not been defeated in forty years and posed a formidable challenge to Marlborough. By the spring of 1704, it seemed likely that Vienna would be captured by the advancing armies of France and her ally, Maximilien Wittelsbach, the elector of Bavaria, a move that would bring about the collapse of the coalition. Marlborough was stuck in Holland because his Dutch allies were unwilling to send their home troops on so distant and dangerous a campaign, and a major crisis loomed.

The deception at the heart of the eventual triumph at Blindheim was simple but risky. Without telling anyone except his monarch, Queen Anne, Marlborough pretended that he was taking part of his coalition army of 70,000 men to campaign in the Moselle Valley, close enough to Holland if the Dutch needed protection. Two French armies were positioned opposite the frontiers and could threaten his line of march, so he needed to persuade them, too, that he was staying in the north rather than moving to the aid of distant Vienna. He left Holland on 19 May with his secret still safe, though he had already made careful preparations to keep his men supplied and provisioned as he began the 400-kilometre (250-mile) trek down the Rhine and into Bavaria as far as the River Danube. By the time the Dutch found out that he had marched beyond the Moselle it was too late. At Koblenz, he ordered his surprised army across to the eastern bank of the Rhine and after five weeks of slow progress, as fast as the vast baggage train would allow, he reached Bavaria. Halfway along he had tricked the French again by pretending to throw bridges across the river as if to attack through Alsace and threaten Strasbourg. Only when he had finally arrived on the Danube, now with a coalition army of 80,000, was his intention evident.

Marlborough captured Donauwörth on the Danube on 2 July 1704, despite taking heavy casualties. Placing his armies between the approaching French and Bavarians and Vienna, the imperial capital, Marlborough joined up with the 20,000 imperial troops under Eugene, Prince of Savoy, and another force led by the tetchy Louis-William, Margrave of Baden. Facing them were the 56,000 French and Bavarians. The French armies were commanded by the veteran Marshals Count Ferdinand de Marsin and Camille d’Huston, Duke de Tallard, who had brought his army through the Black Forest with great difficulty, and with the loss of one-third of the horses from an epidemic of glanders. The French chose to make camp on the north bank of the Danube on the plain of Höchstädt, between the villages of Blindheim and Lutzingen, which was ideal ground for a major cavalry encounter, but also an ideal defensive position, protected in front by a small marshy river, the Nebel, and a slope difficult to assault against stiff resistance. Tallard was confident that his enemy would not risk battle.Marlborough and Eugene camped further east along the river near Donauwörth. To get their awkward ally out of the way they dispatched the Margrave of Baden to capture Ingolstadt. Then they worked out how to deploy their 60 guns and 52,000 soldiers and cavalry to achieve victory. On the face of it, their prospects were not good. French forces occupied the Danube village of Blindheim on one flank and the village of Oberglau on the other. Any chance of encircling the enemy was nullified by the large Bavarian force stationed on the French left in Lutzingen and the surrounding woodland. Once again deception was to play a part.

As Marlborough moved his army forwards towards the enemy on 12 August, he sent ahead men who would allow themselves to be taken by the French. The prisoners pretended that the coalition armies were moving north to protect their lines of communication. Since this was exactly what Tallard had expected – position, rather than actual battle, was everything in eighteenth-century warfare – the French and Bavarians slept soundly that night. Marlborough’s men did not sleep well. They were already moving into position ready to ford the Nebel and seek battle. Tallard’s camp was still asleep when the nine enemy columns converged on the plain.Marlborough’s plan for an offensive depended on the willingness of his men to accept a high level of sacrifice. The British left was to storm Blindheim, while the Germans and Danes on the right were to neutralize Oberglau, thus removing the threat from infantry on the flanks, while allowing Marlborough’s larger cavalry force, intermingled with infantry, to confront the concentration of French horsemen on the Höchstädt plain.

Meanwhile Eugene was to move through the woods and streams on the far right to pin down Marsin and the elector around Lutzingen, leaving Tallard without reserves. The plan was even riskier than it seemed in the light of what actually happened. The attack was delayed because of Eugene’s difficulty in getting his men and guns in place over difficult ground, and the French and Bavarians, despite the initial surprise, were able to organize a coherent defensive line. Only at mid-day was it possible to start the battle with a fierce infantry assault against the fortified village of Blindheim. Deception had its limitations.Marlborough was fortunate that the plan unfolded much as he had hoped. The attacks on Blindheim were repelled with heavy losses, but when the French army’s elite Gens d’Armes cavalry was sent in to finish off the attackers, they were hit by the sudden appearance of Hessian infantry, hidden in the marshy bank of the Nebel. The cavalry panicked and fled in disorder, creating a disturbing uncertainty throughout Tallard’s army. The French commander at Blindheim was so disconcerted that he gathered most of the French infantry into the village, leaving 12,000 soldiers to be bottled up by only 5,000 of Marlborough’s men. After savage hand-to-hand action against Irish soldiers fighting for France, Oberglau, too, was overrun after Marlborough’s prudent deployment of his cavalry reserves. Eugene’s imperial forces suffered heavy casualties on the right wing, but held Marsin and the Elector in place for the entire day.

A painting of the battlefield of Blenheim by the British artist John Wooton (1682–c.1765), now hanging in the National Army Museum, London, shows the point towards the end of the afternoon when the French cavalry broke in the face of heavy fire from Marlborough’s platoons of infantry.

By 5 p.m., with the French visibly tiring, Marlborough finally brought up his fresher lines of cavalry, supported by infantry four rows deep, firing by platoon rather than by line (a tactical innovation to ensure greater accuracy of fire), and launched them against the massed French cavalry. After a fierce engagement all along the line, the French cavalry broke, with many trying to cross the Danube where up to 3,000 are thought to have drowned. Tallard himself was captured by a Hessian trooper and invited to sit in Marlborough’s command coach. Marsin and the elector made their escape in good order, but the collapse left Blindheim isolated, and an hour later it surrendered, bringing 10,000 prisoners of war. The initial bluff had paid off handsomely. Some 100 guns and 14,000 prisoners were captured, as well as 129 infantry colours and 110 cavalry standards, a shameful loss for any eighteenth-century regiment. The cost, however, was high – 14,000 of the coalition side were killed or wounded, against French and Bavarian casualties estimated at 20,000. Tallard eked out his years as a prisoner in England, where he introduced celery to the English diet. Marlborough was fêted on his triumphal return to London in December 1704, but it was to be a further nine years before the long war had run its course.