Dramatic story, well told
Beoordeeld in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op 16 juni 2020
If Amazon allowed I would give this excellent book 4 and a half stars.
The Battle by the Danube in Bavaria in 1704 that Britain calls Blenheim, and Continental countries call the Second Battle of Höchstädt, really did change the fortunes of Europe. This book tells the story of the lead up to the battle and the fight itself.
Louis XIV's France threatened to dominate all Europe. Other countries had to decide whether to band together to resist, as Britain, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Prussia and some other German states did, or, like Bavaria and the majority faction in Spain, to help France in the hope of favourable treatment in a French dominated Europe.
The coalition against France was often in danger of falling apart. In 1704 of its key members, Austria was in danger from internal rebellion, the Dutch were reluctant to risk their army in aggressive operations, and in Britain acrimonious party politics threatened to undermine the efforts of the British commander John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and distant ancestor of Winston. Added to which the enemy French army was reputed the best in the World.
This book is the story of how two commanders, Marlborough and, in the Austrian service, Prince Eugene, and their combined army, and I will say it, especially their British troops, saved the day, not just beating but practically destroying the main Franco-Bavarian army in a day's fighting at Blenheim.
The author Charles Spencer (also known as Earl Spencer) brings out the excitement of the story and how easily it could all have gone wrong. The difficulties Marlborough had to face with his allies and his own countrymen, never mind the enemy, were so great that it is astonishing that he could remain on speaking terms with those he had to deal with.
Without telling the Dutch government, who would undoubtedly have vetoed it, Marlborough took the Anglo-Dutch army across Germany to counter the French threat to Vienna, combining with two Austrian armies, respectively led by Prince Eugene, an equally daring and skillful general, with whom Marlborough formed a natural understanding, and the more senior and plodding Prince Lewis of Baden.
Marlborough and Eugene got Prince Lewis out of the way by encouraging him to go to command a siege elsewhere, leaving them in charge of the rest of the army long enough for them to attack the Franco-Bavarian army, although it outnumbered them.
Soon after, the French army under Marshall Tallard, encamped in a prepared defensive position, one end of which was in the village of Blenheim by the River Danube, were surprised to wake to see the Allied army already up, armed and in motion towards them across a shallow valley, with red coated British and Hanoverians, Dutch and Austrians in contrasting light greys and Prussians and Hessians in blue.
The ensuing battle involved inspired moves and bungles on both sides, but in the end Marlborough and Eugene, both boldly leading their men under fire and lucky to escape injury, proved the better commanders.
The French had more artillery but Marlborough used his more actively, not just as was common in a preliminary bombardment before the infantry and cavalry went in, but bringing up the cannons to take part in the fights.
The French cavalry were trained to use pistols and short muskets (carbines) from the saddle before closing to sword combat. However, given how inaccurate the single shot firearms were then and the difficulty and time taken to reload while riding a horse the British cavalry proved more effective by not bothering with fire arms and charging straight in with the sword.
The French infantry fired by lines which allowed less direction on to targets than the British drill of firing by platoon.
The care that Marlborough took for his men's welfare, food and, so far as the primitive state of medicine at the time allowed, medical care, they repaid with loyalty and high morale.
For all this, Marlborough, and his old boss the late King William III, under whom the British army had been trained and reorganised, both deserve much of the credit.
The French army had so long thought itself the best that it became complacent. The French were slow to change from old fashioned matchlock muskets as used in Cromwell's time to modern flintlocks. It shows how primitive the guns of those days must have been that the author says it was an advantage of the flintlock that it only misfired one time in five.
During the fighting Prince Eugene went into a battle rage. At one point he drew his pistols and shot dead two of his soldiers who were running away from the battle. In contrast, when one of Marlborough's officers also tried to flee, Marlborough merely called out 'Mr ___ you seem to be labouring under a misapprehension. The enemy is that way' and persuaded the officer to return to the battle.
Marlborough's plan was to begin by attacking the right and left wings of the enemy army, committing too few troops for the attacks to be likely to succeed, but to press them so vigorously that the French took troops from the centre of their line to reinforce the points under attack. This then allowed Marlborough to attack with the rest of his forces against the weakened French centre, breaking right through them and threatening the enemy's right and left with attack from behind.
By the end of the day many French regiments, including elite ones, were surrounded in Blenheim village and surrendered. The French commander Tallard was captured.
Catholic Irish exile regiments in the French army fought fiercely but could not prevent that army's collapse. Nor could a force of newly trained French troops who stood their ground to the death so bravely that that their corpses were found fallen largely in formation.
Prussia was only newly a kingdom and the participation of Prussian troops on the allied side in retrospect is part of the story of the rise of Prussia into a great power, whose descendant, Germany, would one day threaten to dominate Europe just as France did in the period of Blenheim. However, that was too far in the future for people to see at the time.
Strangely, to modern eyes, Marlborough had himself years before served with distinction in the French army, gaining early experience of war. Prince Eugene was of French and Italian ancestry and had grown up at the French court. Louis XIV of France, in a costly error, had judged the homosexual Eugene too effeminate to be suitable for the career he sought in the French army. Rather than give up his ambition for military service, Eugene enlisted in the army of Louis' rival, the Austrian Emperor.
In a final chapter, Charles Spencer tells us a little of what happened in subsequent years. Marlborough and Eugene, sometimes in separate commands and sometimes together, won more victories. Marlborough was not always treated well by his own country although Queen Anne gave him a former royal estate in Oxfordshire and Parliament voted money for Marlborough to build himself a grand house there called Blenheim Palace.
While not mentioned in this book, Frederick the Great of Prussia, greatest European general of the mid-Eighteenth century, attributed much of his success to what he learned serving as an assistant to Prince Eugene in the latter's old age.
As for Marlborough, nearly a hundred years after the battle of Blenheim, at the siege of Acre in 1799, the British commander Sir Sydney Smith challenged Napoleon to a duel. Napoleon replied that he would only fight a duel against an equal, and if the British wanted to find someone the equal of Napoleon they would have to resurrect Marlborough.
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