13 August 1704
War of the Spanish Succession
Allied Forces under The Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy, approx. 55,000 and 85 guns
Franco-Bavarians under Marshals Tallard & Marsin & the Elector of Bavaria, approx. 59,000 and 88 guns
Location: 48° 37’ 55” N 10° 37’ 11” E the modern village of Blindheim, Bavaria, Germany
First Light: 04:45 Sunrise: 05:20 Sunset: 19:41 End of Twilight: 20:16
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from location and date)
Introduction: A Lesson in Success-Induced FailureAdmittedly the Battle of Blenheim is not exactly an "obscure battle," at least to seasoned history buffs and wargamers. So you may wonder why I'd write an article about so momentous an event under my inconsistently themed blog title. In fact, in terms of its historic significance it probably ranks up there with Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Stalingrad.
Many far better authors have given us thumpingly good narratives of Blenheim, not the least of whom is Winston Churchill in his epic biography of his ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough (and my ancestor, too...at least obliquely...on Marlborough's wife's side). Toward the end of this post I will add a bibliography of excellent works on the Great Battle for those of you interested in what really happened.
The purpose of this arrogant submission, then, is to indulge in my own take on this battle, which I hope is itself obscure--if not downright quirky. And I'll also offer some considerations for playing it as a wargame.
However, so that you don't have to read the whole post to find out what my point is, let me jump to the chase and claim that Blenheim seems to me like an another object lesson in success-induced failure.
In abstract, my thesis is that the French, who had, from Rocroi in 1643 clear up to 1704, been the world's Super Power. They had enjoyed an uninterrupted record of military success for the last sixty years of the 17th century and were just too cocky to take the battle seriously. They "phoned it in" as they say in Hollywood of has-been performers. In fact, the French commanders couldn't even believe that Marlborough and Eugene, lining up opposite them the morning of August 13th, were actually intending on attacking them. It looked like a bluff, one they had seen many times during the first two years of the war. The French and their allies, the Bavarians, had superior numbers, a superior defensive position, and a far more professional army of veterans. Moreover, they had contempt for the English troops and their hodge-podge of German allies. Their opponents weren't "real soldiers." It reminds me of the taunting by the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "You don' frighten us, you English pig dogs!"
And this proved their undoing. Well, that and just some bad leadership. And some sick horses.
See detailed deployment maps farther down, under "Deployments." (Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
Strategic BackgroundThe War of the Spanish Succession had begun two years earlier in 1702. The ostensible cause was, of course, which claimant to the recently vacated Spanish Throne was most legitimate. Hence the name of the war.
Louis XIV of France favored his own grandson--surprise! surprise!--Philip d'Anjou and the step-half-nephew-in-law-twice-removed of the impotent, mentally challenged, shovel-faced and now dead Spanish king, Charles II. The rest of Europe, fearful of Louis' even greater domination of Europe than he already had, favored the Habsburg Emperor Leopold's son, Archduke Charles. Roughly. (Don't worry, you don't have to keep track of any of this; it won't be on the quiz.) And as the war plodded on for some twelve years, some of the claimants died of smallpox and weak genes, and others were diplomatically offered as possible candidates for the job by either side and then withdrawn. It gets very confusing. My hunch is that the actual combatants themselves couldn't remember or care whose claim they were fighting for.
The real contest was not about which inbred prince had a right to which crown, but about stopping the ever-growing hegemony of Louis XIV. Absolute ruler of the largest, richest nation in Europe, oppressor of Protestants, disrespector of other people's rights and property, the self-named Sun King was generally regarded in much the same way as other military dictators in other ages. And his control, through his grandson, of the Spanish Empire, still the richest and most extensive empire in the world, was just too much for the rest of Europe to swallow. So in 1702 England, Scotland, the United Provinces, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, Prussia, and almost all the other princes of the Holy Roman Empire went to war to stop him.
For the first two years of the war, at least in northern Europe, it had been fought more or less in the Netherlands and what is now Belgium (then the Spanish Netherlands--don't get me started). There had been some fighting in northern Italy and a small battle in Spain, but the real war was going on in and around the innumerable fortified towns of the Low Countries. Not much decisive had happened so far. Marlborough had been chafing for a real showdown battle. But whenever he'd maneuver his army to force the French into one, his Dutch allies, who had veto power over risking their own troops in the field, would...well...veto it. The French, for their part, began to see Marlborough as a paper tiger. He besieged a lot of towns but seemed to avoid pitched battle, so their fear of him ebbed. He once even sent a letter of apology to his French opposite number for failing to bring on a battle when he had the chance. This was certainly a polite age.
The Duke Steps OutIn May 1704 it was therefore remarkable that Marlborough managed to slip his Dutch leash and edge eastward, ever so nonchalantly, in order to meet up with the allied Imperial armies under Prince Eugene of Savoy and the Margrave of Baden. His cover was that he was just going to go over there for a little bit, you know, to make the French Marshal Villeroi in Luxembourg nervous about his flank. Just a short demonstration with his 10,000 British troops only. He even managed to take some of the Dutch troops with him. He'd be right back. He was only supposed to go as far as the Moselle to demonstrate against Villeroi's flank, and then turn right around to defend Holland again.
|The Duke of Marlborough|
Fortunately in this era before instant, satellite communications, this political veto did not happen--for the ultimate fortune of the Allied cause.
Marlborough's intended target was Donauworth, on the Danube and the gateway into Austria. The French were massing in Bavaria with their new allies there, with the object of invading Austria, seizing Vienna, and knocking one of the main combatants out of the war. And the way into Austria was through the Danube gorge, which started just below Donauworth. So Marlborough's plan, in consultation with the Austrians, was to shut this door for good.
This plan was a secret he managed to keep from both the enemy and his allies, the Dutch. On his march, the French Marshals Villeroi and Tallard were constantly trying to second guess what he was up to and kept maneuvering their own two armies back and forth to anticipate an interception. They sent repeated messages to Versailles asking for instructions. Marlborough's ruse worked, however, for he kept them assuming that he was going to make an end-run around the two and invade France from the east, keeping them from hustling east themselves to intercept him.
As he moved ever eastward, Marlborough also rendezvoused with contingents from more and more German states--Prussians, Danes, Hessians, Hanoverians, Mecklenburgians, Hesse-Kasselitestrians, Ansbachians, and Just Plain Joes from little principalities all over the Land of Oz-- so that his army swelled to over 33,000. When he met with Prince Eugene and the Duke of Baden and their Imperial forces near the Bavarian city of Ulm on 2 July, the combined Allied army in the theater had grown to nearly 80,000. (Let me know if I'm going too fast for you.)
It suddenly became clear to all the French marshals and their new Bavarian ally, The Elector Max Emmanuel II, what Marlborough was really up to. Their master plan had been to invade Austria by marching up the gorge of the Danube from Donauworth, seize Vienna, knock the Empire out of the war and dictate terms to the remaining alliance. And that plan was suddenly in peril. (Barely over a hundred years later, Napoleon implemented the exact same invasion plan through this same corridor--see my posts on Wertingen and Durnstein). Tallard, in consulting with Louis in Paris, got a direct order to move his army through the Black Forest and join up with Marshal Marsin and the Elector to stop Marlborough. Which he proceeded to do hastily.
The French Get a Rude Awakening at the Schellenberg
Meanwhile, on July 2, Marlborough and the Margrave of Baden surprised a Franco-Bavarian force in the process of fortifying Donauworth on the Danube. It was not a moment too soon. The works on the hill above the town (the Schellenberg) were almost complete and obvious construction was going on south of the town across the river for a large invasion camp. This was to be the French jumping-off point for their lunge on Vienna.
Battle of the Schellenberg.
Ten thousand Bavarians and a single battalion of French (five other French battalions hid in the town itself) manned the unfinished works on the prehistoric hillfort. When they saw the redcoats show up late in the afternoon, they assumed, in the civilized and slow traditions of Enlightenment Warfare, that the enemy would want to rest first and freshen up for an attack the next day. They believed they'd have time to finish their fortifications during the night.
But Marlborough didn't need to rest. He assembled an assault force of about 5,800 of his English infantry and launched them straight up the northwest side of the hill. They were repulsed with heavy loss, but they came on again and again, hurling grenades as they did. The term "grenadier" in fact comes from this early job of specialist soldiers who carried sacks of grenades, which they lit like little round Looney Tunes bombs, to throw into entrenchments during an assault.
The Bavarians were unnerved by these suicidal attacks and pulled troops from other parts of the Schellenberg to shore up this threatened point. In so doing, though, they denuded the western face (the one facing the town of Donauworth, from which they thought the French inside the town would cover them).
Now Baden attacked this gap with an assault force of Imperial Grenadiers, who swarmed over the unmanned and half-finished barricades and into the rear of the Bavarians, who were preoccupied with fighting off the English from the north. This assault force also included some English dragoons, among whom included a famous female soldier, Kit Cavanagh (going by the nom de guerre, Christian Davies), who was wounded in the fight.(As a side note, incredibly, Kit went on to fight at Blenheim and apparently kept her gender a secret from her fellow dragoons for years.)
The battle was essentially over as thousands of Bavarians and French stampeded to the one pontoon bridge over the Danube, many drowning in the crush. The Allies killed, wounded or captured some 9,000 troops and 16 guns, though losing 1,500 themselves. It was a messy victory.
The Schellenberg has long since been flattened and turned into an industrial park, with an autobahn running right through it. Can you blame the Bavarians for wanting to forget this whole incident?
A Slight Change of PlansThe loss of Donauworth definitely put on hold the French plan for invading Austria that summer. The door was now shut. Tallard had not yet arrived. And the French army of invasion under Marshal Marsin and the survivors of the Bavarian army fell back toward on their base at Augsburg to wait for reinforcements from Tallard.
Marlborough then did something seemingly uncharacteristic of his genteel nature, and even this newly "enlightened" age. He ordered the devastation of Bavaria. Over the next month some 400 towns and villages were torched, thousands of acres of crops burned, and ordinary people--who had no dog in this fight--were made to suffer on behalf of their aristocratic ruler backing the wrong dog. James Falkner, in his history of the campaign, suspects that the extent of the devastation was exaggerated for propaganda purposes, quoting eye-witnesses on both sides who claim they rarely saw a burned house or barn.
The Elector was not unmoved by the sufferings of his people (and source of tax revenue). He dispatched many of his regiments to protect his own property from the depredations of the enemy. This greatly weakened the Franco-Bavarian strike force (much to the exasperation of Tallard and Marsin), leaving it only five battalions for a battle in which it would desperately miss those troops.
So while the wanton destruction of Bavaria seemed barbaric for such an English hero as Marlborough (not "seemed"; "was"), it was not "wanton" for it achieved its desired effect; getting the Elector to disperse his army. The Elector's French allies were themselves disgusted with his putting the protection of his private property (most of his troops were sent to defend his own castles and business investments) above the Cause.And his own subjects who didn't happen to live near his own private property were probably a little non-plussed, as well.
They were supremely confident. To them, it seemed that Marlborough had made a fatal, strategic blunder and now found himself trapped at Donauworth by an overwhelmingly superior Franco-Bavarian army. They were threatening what they supposed was his line of communications (he had, anticipating this, actually moved his LOC northward). It would be but the work of a day to snip off his supply route and bring him to humiliating surrender. There was no hurry.
Biology Rears its Ugly HeadHowever, there was a glitch in the foolproof French calculations (of course, there was). While winding their way through the hills of the Black Forest, Tallard's horses had picked up a nasty bug, glanders. (At least, from its contemporary description; modern veterinary historians say it sounded like glanders.) At any rate, it swept through Tallard's cavalry like a forest fire and decimated his horses. Glanders (Burkholderia mallei) is not only greatly debilitating to horses, it usually leads to agonizing death in a matter of weeks. And it's highly contagious, not just to horses but to humans.
So it is likely that as Tallard's army stumbled to its rendezvous with the Elector and Marsin, not only was his cavalry greatly weakened, but likely his human forces as well. Strength estimates for the size of Tallard's army at Blenheim are based on rough approximations of standard field strengths of battalions and squadrons at the time (e.g. 500 men in an average battalion and 120 in an average squadron). It may, in reality, have been much lower than this, certainly among the mounted troops.
Some efforts were made to purchase (or seize) remounts among the farms of Bavaria (those which had not already suffered at the hands of the English marauders). But the quality of those remounts could not have been very high as there had been no time to train them up to military standards (it took months to train a horse to battle ready condition), and the horse buyers were in no position to be choosy. So the strength and combat effectiveness of Tallard's cavalry could not have been high. This would prove to be a critical weakness in the battle of the 13th, which, it turned out, was to hinge on the cavalry.
The French, of course, knew that the disease was a contagious epidemic. Whether it was from glanders or not, the horses were dropping in herds. Great care was taken to keep the animals of Tallard's army hermetically separate from those of the Bavarians and Marsin. This was one reason Tallard was given the right flank of the combined army at Blenheim; it was not only the position of honor, it also meant his camp was downstream from the others. And the smell must have been something.
Besides picking up glanders, the trek through the mountainous Black Forest was just plain grueling. The marching French, in seizing horses, livestock, and wagons, and in indulging in just plain casual looting, so enraged the local populace (their supposed ally's subjects) that Tallard reports thousands of his own troops murdered in grisly ways by vengeful Bavarian villagers. This had been a part of Germany that had suffered unspeakable depredations 70 years before during the Thirty Years War. So these farmers were not ones to suffer abuse by passing armies meekly.
Tallard arrived in Augsburg to meet with Marsin and the Elector on the 5 August, his army pretty well beat up.
"I'm sorry to wake you, Monsieur, but you may want to come outside and look at this."
During the first week of August, Marlborough and Prince Eugene concocted a devious plan. They would lure the French into battle onto ground of their own choosing by dangling an irresistible bait in front of them. On the 5th (the same day that Tallard joined with Marsin and the Elector) Eugene moved his 17,000 men ostentatiously to Hochstadt, a town on a narrow, rolling plain on the north side of the Danube, a few miles south of Blenheim. He lingered there a day or two, acting like a defenseless bunny waiting to get pounced on.
The French bit. Seeing a chance to destroy Eugene in detail, they hurriedly threw pontoon bridges across the Danube (the French were also great military engineers) and crossed over to the left bank to trap Eugene. But the prince just as quickly hustled his bacon back out of harm's way and up to meet Marlborough's army between Blenheim and Donauworth. Now they had the French where they wanted them; on a narrow plain with their backs against a big river. The two generals then spent the next few days bringing all of their forces down to hit the French hard.
By August 12th, the combined Franco-Bavarian army was encamped in a strong position for four miles along the rolling plain on the northwest bank of the Danube. It numbered 55,000 men (or less, if we deduct for the mysterious epidemic mentioned above). Its leaders and men were confident that in the next few days they would easily march forward and crush the mongrel band of Englishmen, Danes, Dutch, and Germans. The mouse was in the trap and they could afford to play with it a little. Not only were they vastly superior in force to the Allies, they were French, undefeated in battle for over sixty years--the most professional soldiers in Europe.
But as dawn broke on Wednesday the 13th, some incredible reports began to come in from pickets that Allied troops were coming down in force on the Donauworth road. By 08:00 nine columns of redcoated horse and foot were seen streaming across the plain to the northeast of the Nebel stream and forming up, right to left, in four lines of battle. As a final gesture of thanking the locals, the French pickets in the villages north of the Nebel torched the towns that had hosted them in the evenings before and scampered south to alert the army. (This final little act of gratuitous barbarity would play out in karma later that evening when those same French were trying to seek shelter from the locals in their panicked flight.)
|Eugene of Savoy|
Fine, thought the French Marshals, if that's the way they wanted it.
Tallard and Marsin and the Elector got their army out of bed and began to deploy along the four mile front on their own high ground. It was taking the Allies a long time to deploy themselves, so the French, though a little surprised by the sudden appearance of the enemy, had plenty of time to get into position and start bombarding the assembling Allies with their artillery. In fact, it wasn't until a little after noon that Eugene's 17,000 men, which had the farthest to march, were in position to start the battle. Marlborough would not start his main attack until everybody was in place.
Because of this long delay, the French, too, had plenty of time to get ready and fine tune their defense. They had excellent position on good ground and were confident of easy victory. They had even left their tents standing and cooks preparing a victory meal behind them.
The Franco-Bavarian Deployment
Franco-Bavarian left around Lutzingen (Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
French center (Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
On the far right, on the banks of the Danube, in the village of Blenheim (called "Blindheim" by the locals, who evidently didn't speak English properly), Tallard had entrusted the hyper-sensitive Marquis de Clerambault with over 12,000 infantry, including four regiments of dismounted dragoons and some of the French army's most veteran troops. Clerambault was to serve as the other strong point in the French line, hammering the English left as they tried to cross the Nebel. Blenheim itself was heavily fortified by walls, hedges and busted up furniture (again, the poor Bavarian civilians paying the price of their own "defense"), and protected by two streams and marshy ground. The dismounted dragoons piled barricades over overturned wagons on the banks of the drainage ditch called the Maulweyer, which ran out of Blenheim and into the Danube.
French right, in and around Blenheim (Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
Behind and to the left of Blenheim, Tallard stationed his reserve force of 5,000 foot under the Marquis de Marinvaux. It would have been a good position for them to be able to come to the support of either the center or the right, if either section was in dire need. (This is called "ironic foreshadowing" in the storytelling trade.)
The Franco-Bavarians had a rough parity in artillery (88 guns to the Allies' 85), which they deployed evenly across their front. On their left they had set up two strong batteries of 12 pounders to enfilade Eugene's infantry should it attempt to attack Lutzingen.
In summary, the French had a strong position and seemed to have deployed appropriately to use it. All they had to do was let the Allies become entangled in the marshy Nebel stream and then they could swarm down on them to cut them to pieces
The Allied DeploymentMarlborough had begun leading his army onto the field at dawn; his advanced guard, under General Cutts, deploying first, opposite Blenheim village. They were the assault column that would open the engagement, pinning the French right in Blenheim and, if possible, driving them out. But not yet. First Marlborough wanted to get his entire army and that of his ally, Prince Eugene, in place. Once the battle commenced everything depended on timing, but the actual start of the battle didn't; the French weren't going anywhere and didn't seem inclined to come down off their ridge. So the Duke could take his time to do it right.
Allied left; Cutts' command approaches Blenheim in four lines, with supporting cavalry.
(Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
Next Marlborough deployed his main battle line behind the village of Unterglau, to the north of the Nebel. He set his infantry in the first line, lying down just behind a ridge to minimize the slow cannon fire from the French guns (who fired at an extreme range of over 1500 yards) with gaps between the battalions to allow the second line (of horse) to weave through in support. Behind this second line the Duke set a third line, also of horse, supported, in turn by a final line of infantry. In front of this nearly 2 mile long line Col. Blood positioned more batteries of guns to answer those of the French. Both sides' artilleries, however, were firing at such extreme range and so slowly that they did little harm to each other the entire morning. It is not known whether the French infantry was also lying down, but it would have gone against their pride to do so. The cavalry, of course, could not lie down and would have been suffering greatly from the gunfire had it been closer, though they may probably have dismounted and even tried to get their horses to lie down. I would have.
Allied left and center
Meanwhile, while all this deploying was going on, and while Eugene's army was hustling behind Marlborough's troops to get into position on the extreme far right, Allied engineers were furiously banging together bridges across the Nebel. The previous night cavalry troopers had also been gathering bundles of sticks to make fascines for throwing into the streambed to cross over on. This was the same primitive, ancient technique that besiegers had used to cross castle moats during the Middle Ages, but still highly effective. So all through the morning,detachments of troops were braving the cannon fire to hurry down to the stream and toss their bundles in. By the time the general assault was ready, the Nebel was prepared for relatively easy crossing by several bridges and man-made "beaver dams."
By a little past noon, Eugene had deployed his own 17,000 men. He occupied a front from the hamlet of Welheim all the way to the wooded slopes on the eastern side of the battlefield, about 2.5 miles. He had a longer front to cover with fewer troops than Marlborough, but as the two had conferred and agreed the night before, his was to be a holding mission, locking down Marsin's and the Elector's troops while Marlborough delivered the main coup in the center.
Eugene's deployment. (Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
12:30 Gentlemen, shall we begin?Once Eugene sent word to Marlborough that he was in position, the Duke set everything in motion. All morning his engineers and cavalry had been preparing crossing points all along the Nebel by building bridges and filling in the ditch with tens of thousands of bundled sticks, all while enduring slow artillery fire from the French guns. His own guns had been replying, but also at a slow pace. Some eyewitnesses account for casualties from this fire. There undoubtedly were casualties, but the Allied infantry had been lying down, and since most of the guns were out of effective range of these targets I can only guess that any hits during the morning must have been rare and anecdotal, with an occasional cannon ball rolling into or across a line of men, most of its energy spent. Nevertheless, the psychological effect of this long bombardment must have been stressful after four hours. And even a relatively slow rolling cannonball can take off a foot that tries to stop it. It isn't a soccer ball.
But now everything was ready and Marlborough sent out orders to all of his commanders to begin his attack all up and down the line.
The first wave was on the left, as Cutt's infantry got up and moved across the Nebel to assault Blenheim village. His first line, Rowe's big brigade of five British battalions, 2,800 men, crashed into the barricades of the village and suffered horrific casualties from the French fire. They fell back to dead ground below the village to regroup, then made a second attack, which was also repulsed. While the French were satisfied at their defensive fire, the almost suicidal nature of these attacks clearly shook them. Stories of the ferocity of the British infantry from the Shellenberg a month before must have had an unnerving effect on these veteran French troops.
To help the defenders of the village, General Zurlauben, stationed to the left of Blenheim, sent a couple of squadrons of his elite French horse, the Gendarmes, to charge Rowe's redcoats in the flank. But these cavalry (at maximum only 400 troopers) were themselves raked in the flank by the brigade of Wilkes's Hessians, who, after firing a devastating volley into the surprised Gensdarmes, actually charged them (foot charging horse!) and drove them back to whence they came. Then Wilkes's men worked around to the western side of Blenheim to add to the pressure, seizing a battery of French guns in the process.
Action around Blenheim continued see-saw for the rest of the day, in almost a stalemate. Eventually all four of Cutts's brigades (Rowe, Wilkes, Ferguson, and St Paul's Hanoverians) were committed, pinning the defenders and keeping up the pressure throughout the afternoon, occasionally attempting another bayonet assault, just to keep them honest. Several attempts were made by the defenders (who outnumbered the attackers 2:1) to sally out and attack the attackers, but they were themselves cut down whenever they tried to climb over their own barricades and form up. Even though outnumbered, the Allies managed to find cover and use their superior platoon fire tactics (see section on platoon fire vs fire by ranks below) to overwhelm any attempts to counter attack. The result was that over 12,000 French were bottled up for the rest of the battle. You can only imagine the frustration of the veteran French rank and file at this fine state of incompetence.
From the French point of view, the fault of this lay on the nervous Marquis de Clerambault, himself more shaken by the ferocity of the Allies than his own, competent troops were. Even though with his original 12,000 men he already had so many defenders that they got in their own way in the tiny village, he panicked and took it upon his own authority to order up Tallard's army reserve of 11 battalions (another 5,000 men) under Marinvaux into the town as well, compounding the problem by increasing the self-incarcerated troops to 17,000, few of them able to get at the enemy because of the over-crowding.
Tallard was at first unaware that his reserve had been purloined and when he found out about it, issued no orders to rescind the unauthorized requisition. Why Marinvaux obeyed an order from a co-equal commander who was not above him in the chain of command, and didn't ask for a second endorsement from his immediate commander (Tallard) is unknown. I'd chalk this up to the chaotic leadership culture of Tallard's entire army.
At any rate, once the reserve battalions had packed into the already over-crowded Blenheim, they were shortly sealed off themselves by the Allies and unable to add their own firepower to the defense. So Cutts's attack, following Marlborough's strategic plan, was working beautifully; taking almost a third of the entire French force out of the battle with a minimum of investment on his part.
In broader historical terms, at least in the context of French military history, this action was analogous to the disaster of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam 250 years later, in which the French kept reinforcing a surrounded, lost post. It was glorious. But stupid.
Inconceivable!One more incident happened on this sector that was to have a profound psychological effect on the mind of Tallard and his forces for the rest of the battle. Many thought, including the memoirist Merode-Westerloo, that Tallard was so affected by the shock of this happening that it psychologically paralyzed him for the rest of the battle.
To support his envelopment around Blenheim, Cutts asked General Lumley to move his suppporting cavalry to cross the Nebel bridges and engage Zurlauben's cavalry to keep them off of his infantry's back (see Allied deployment map above). Zurblauben had with him some 3,000 of the most elite cavalry regiments in the French army, including the eight, big squadrons of the Elite des Elites, the Gendarmes. These redcoated horsemen were thought to have no equal on the continent. They were the Sun King's Immortals.
It had, then, been a little unnerving to the French when two of these squadrons had been ignominiously chased away by lowly Hessian infantry, having the temerity to charge them on foot. But now, as the Gensdarmes saw a mere five squadrons of English dragoons file cross the Nebel, they saw their chance to show their real quality and flick away this new, supposed threat from Palmes's handful of horsemen.
All eight Gensdarmes squadrons (the book strength would have been 1,600 men, but the horse losses from the glanders epidemic must have made this somewhat less) advanced at a stately but menacing walk toward Palmes's brigade of dragoons (about 700 troopers). Even in three ranks to the English two, the Gensdarmes' frontage overlapped the little British brigade and so the outermost squadrons wheeled inward to take it in flank, like a giant sea anemone engulfing a little fish.
But the English were a poisonous fish (I should probably just drop this metaphor). Marlborough's attention to the training and tactical doctrine of his cavalry for the past several years was about to pay off. For one thing, all this stately advance thing was tossed aside as so un-English. Like Oliver Cromwell's Ironsides from the previous generation, Marlborough's cavalry were trained to advance at a trot and then charge home at the gallop, applying Newton's recently discovered law of physics, F=MA (Force equals Mass times Accleration), to the art of war. And their swords were sharp, out, and pointed right at the enemy's face. Instead of halting to fire their pistols (Marlborough had them issued only three rounds each, and only for picket duty; he forbade any to use their pistols in combat), they just went in at ramming speed. Also, recognizing that their speed made the third rank superfluous in terms of weight, the British cavalry were able to widen their front by using only two ranks, one to strike the first blow and the other to mop up.
This impetuous use of cavalry was not a new tactic-- Gustavus Adolphus had used it decades earlier--but it was one the French didn't use themselves. Firepower from closed ranks was their own doctrine, both on foot and on horse.
Comparative frontage of English and French cavalry squadrons(Protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying)
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying|
As the two lines of horse approached each other, Palmes, seeing that the French were about to outflank him, ordered his own two outermost squadrons to outflank the flankers. The result was that after the French had halted so their front rank could pop off their pistols (pretty ineffectively) and almost without time to draw their own swords and get up to speed again, they were hit hard by the fast charging English and completely thrown on their backsides. Next, the outflanking English squadrons, after driving off the outside Gensdarmes squadrons, now enveloped the remaining ones in the center. After a brief skirmish, and suffering tremendous casualties, the Elite des Elites of Europe, turned tail and ran.
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying|
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. Map protected by Digimarc watermark against unauthorized copying|
By the same token, the spectacle had probably given equal heart to the Allies. They probably thought, "We can beat these guys! They aren't so tough." (Of course, in 18th century vernacular.)
I think that it is this small skirmish within the huge battle which, more than any other, decided the Battle of Blenheim, and consequently the entire War of the Spanish Succession, and the balance of power in Europe for a century, and, ultimately the advent of the Internet (okay...that's probably going too far). It would not be until the Napoleonic era that France would again regain its military preeminence. And it was that era that was decisively ended, too, when Napoleon's own Immortals, the Imperial Guard, broke at Waterloo. It's probably a good reason not to have an over-hyped elite unit in your army, or at least not risk it in front of everybody.
Meanwhile, Over on the Right...
While Cutts was beautifully executing his pinning attack on the Allied left wing against Blenheim, Eugene committed his own 17,000 men into an even more difficult pinning attack against Marshal Marsin's and the Elector's armies around Lutzingen. These two generals were in far better command of their troops than Tallard. They had intelligently prepared their defenses, taking advantage of the marshy ground between them and the Allies, fortifying (just enough but not too much) the town of Lutzingen, and deploying artillery to enfilade the attacking infantry. Their cavalry, too, had not been weakened by the glanders that had decimated Tallard's horses. In fact, Marsin had made it a point, even in the final deployment, to keep his horses as far away from the sick ones of Tallard's command as possible. ("No offense, you lordship.")
|Prince Maximilian of Bavarian|
But Eugene had made his reputation in Italy as an aggressive maniac. So he did here. He completely understood that the energy of his attack on the French left was vital to pin those forces down and, if possible draw more strength from the point of the intended blow on the center. So for the rest of the afternoon he selflessly led attack after attack across the Nebel and into the teeth of tough resistance, suffering heavy casualties. There were no noteworthy tactical events in this part of the battle; it was pretty much a head-to-head slugfest and a battle of attrition. But its duration and tenacity were absolutely critical to the overall Allied plan of battle. And the Danes, Austrians, and Prussians who fought it were, like Eugene himself, maniacs. As were the Bavarians, Irish, and Frenchmen who defended against them (we must be fair here).
And Now, the Moment We've All Been Waiting For...
While the pinning attacks were doing their job on each wing, Marlborough launched his coup. By about noon his engineers and fascine-tossing cavalry had finished nullifying the Nebel as an obstacle. He had carefully massed his strength in the center, aiming at the junction between Marsin's and Tallard's commands, and where the enemy was noticeably weakest.
He ordered his infantry to stand up, his cavalry to mount, and everybody dress ranks. He courteously invited his commanders to advance.
Historians (and contemporaries) have criticized Tallard for placing his lines too far back from the Nebel to be able to hinder the crossing. But if you look at the deployment map, his forward cavalry, was only about 3-7 minutes from contact (even if they walked) from the struggling Allied troops. It took far longer than this for the Allies to cross and reform. Had he wanted, Tallard could have completely destroyed them. So it wasn't for the rearward deployment that Tallard took heat from his judges, it was his conceited insistence on waiting until Marlborough had his whole force over and ready. As Tallard arrogantly claimed, "The more I let over, the more there are to kill." I also suspect that he was still traumatized by what had happened to the Gensdarmes and may have been hesitant to commit the rest of his cavalry, who were nonetheless champing at the bit to get at the enemy (if we can believe the self-serving memoirs of one of them, le Comte de Merode-Westerloo).
Marlborough was therefore making a huge gamble on Tallard's inertia. He had probably met the man earlier in his career when French nobleman had been ambassador to the Court of St. James, and possibly anticipated what he would do today (or not do). Other famous commanders, from Caesar to Napoleon to Lee, have built their careers on being able to read their opponents' minds. At any rate, it was a good bet: Most of the first line of Allied infantry and supporting line of cavalry were over the ditch, reformed, and marching up the slope before Tallard judged there were "enough to kill" and unleashed his cavalry, who, like the Gendarmes earlier, walked down the hill to fire at them with their pistols. They were driven back by the massed, platoon fire of the Allied infantry, and charged by the Allied horse through the intervals.
It was not an easy victory for Marlborough, though. Fighting in the center went on, back and forth, most of the afternoon. Even though half the cavalry facing him may have been hobbled with sick or untrained horses, half were the fresher squadrons of Marsin's. And sick or no, the French probably had some of the best cavalry in Europe.
|Marshal Marsin, who, with Prince Maximilian|
did better than his colleague, Tallard.
By about 17:30, after five hours of see-sawing back-and-forth, the numerical superiority of the Allies in the center, with their four successive lines of infantry and cavalry, as well as their coordinated combined arms operations, began to tell on the French. Individual horsemen, in trickles, then clumps, then entire squadrons began to melt back toward the French camp, fleeing past their infantry.
The French, unlike the Allies, did not use their nine infantry battalions in the center to support their cavalry. In fact, it was not until quite late in the battle that the French infantry (St. Pierre's command), held back and composed of fairly new recruits, even fired a shot. It was now, too, that Tallard regretted no longer having access to his stolen reserve (locked up uselessly in Blenheim by Clerambault's panic).
As the French cavalry began melting away in exhaustion and exposing the infantry, Marlborough pulled his own cavalry back and moved both infantry and Colonel Blood's guns right up to the French foot--and unleashed hell.. Some of the French infantry formed hollow squares to defend against the Allied horse, but without support from their own artillery and cavalry, these just became densely packed targets to the combined arms of the Allies, The poor young men died gallantly. Robert Parker, an English eyewitness, admired that they fell in straight ranks, where they stood. I'm sure Louis XIV was proud.
The French center collapses. Painting by John Wooten about 1743. It's a small thing, I know, but why do all these Enlightenment artists only paint horses with their two front feet off the ground, like they're doing the bunny hop? It's a ridiculous pose. Horses don't hop like this. Nearly all the horses in this fantasy painting are doing it. It drives me nuts. (See also woodcut of the Battle of the Schellenburg above.)
It was at this point that the French center completely collapsed. What had begun as slow trickle became a stampede as the thousands of survivors ran for their lives back through their still-standing tents and toward the pontoon bridges over the Danube. The bridges were so crowded with panicked troops that they quickly broke and hundreds drowned. Others (including, so he claimed, the memoirist Merode-Westerloo) were carried by the rout over the steep banks of the river and into the water, where they also drowned in the hundreds. Some thousands of others who actually made it drenching to the other bank were reportedly butchered by the angry villagers whose houses, crops, livestock, and daughters they had earlier burned, stolen, or ravished. It doesn't pay to be rude to your allies, it turns out (see my post on the later battle of Durnstein and the mistreatment by the Russians towards their allies during the Napoleonic Wars).
It was also during this collapse that the hapless Marshal Tallard was captured by some German cavalrymen, who took him to Marlborough. The English Duke was the epitome of grace as he sympathized with his sad counterpart and gave him the use of his personal carriage. Though they were not above putting hundreds of villages full of innocent people to the torch, gentlemen, even enemies, knew how to treat each other with courtesy in those days. All this while, and all during the night, Allied troops and civilians were butchering fleeing and unarmed Frenchmen.
Seeing that the battle was lost in the center, and their flank was suddenly exposed, Marsin and the Elector began to carefully move back. Their troops were still under discipline and they managed their retreat skillfully. Eugene, for his part, pressed them as best he could. But his own troops were just as exhausted, so perhaps a quarter of the French army was able to safely make its escape.
|Marshal Tallard surrenders sullenly to Frederick of|
Hesse-Cassel. And who can blame him?
What About Bob?It looked like the battle was won for the Allies. Decisively. The French center was completely in rout. The Franco-Bavarian left, though still in tact, was in a retreat for its life. And a Marshal of France (the first ever in history) was a POW.
Over on the French right, though, there was the unresolved matter of those 17,000 men bottled up in Blenheim. They were still full of fight and relatively undamaged. But they had also been so effectively pinned by the 9,000 infantry of Gen. Cutts's command, who had, by this time, every exit from the village covered, and wouldn't let anyone inside poke his head above the barricades.
A little before this time, the Blenheim commander, Clerambault, lost all hope and, accompanied only by his valet, bolted. He made his way to the Danube and rode his horse halfway across before he fell off and drowned...some say this was deliberate suicide since his valet managed to swim to the other side himself. It was a shameful end to a shameful performance. Apologists for the poor man say that he was fording the Danube to see if he could lead his men to safety. We'll go with that.
In a very tangible sense, though, Clerambault had lost the battle for Tallard by denying him a third of his army when he critically needed it. Except that it was Tallard himself who was ultimately responsible.
But now what to do about those 27 battalions Clerambault had left behind in Blenheim?
Marlborough was all for resting his army, keeping the French in Blenheim bottled up overnight, and dealing with them in the morning. But his brother, General Charles Churchill, reasoned that it would be much harder to prevent a breakout in the night (which the desperate French would most certainly try to attempt) and moved his own forces to completely surround the village, reinforcing Cutts, and had Colonel Blood move up his guns and howitzers into close range of Blenheim. Soon the town was ablaze from the shellfire and the troops inside were choking from the smoke and trying to put out the flames. Churchill and Cutts also ordered renewed charges on the outworks of the town, and several Allied infantry managed to break in and torch more houses.
But the troops inside Blenheim were in no mood to surrender. They had had no word of the disaster to the rest of the army, which they could not see from their vantage point. And they anyway included some of the proudest regiments in the French army, with heritage of victory generations long. Marlborough was setting up to besiege the town and resume fighting the next day. Tallard, his prisoner, sent a message that to avoid more bloodshed, he was willing to go into Blenheim himself and order its surrender. But Marlborough coldly sent back, "Inform Monsieur Tallard that, in the position in which he is now, he has no command." Oh, snap!
After a few more hours of trying to survive in the burning town, some of the regiments did begin to surrender. Even though it was getting dark, the blaze of the village made firing into it an easy target and with the men packed so tightly within, every shot found a mark. Finally, another captured French general, M. de Denonville of the Regiment du Roi, accompanied by two English emissaries under a white handerchief of truce, met with some of the remaining commanders of the garrison and convinced them that Tallard had surrendered, that the French army had been destroyed, and that further resistance was futile. So those commanders agreed to surrender.
Many of the men and regimental officers were furious at this, and some refused to sign the surrender documents. The Navarre regiment, one of the oldest in the Army, had never surrendered in its history and burned most of its flags (or buried them) rather than hand them over. But they all, nonetheless, marched out meekly (if not sullenly) and deposited their unburned flags, muskets, halberds, and swords on a growing pile.
So the battle was finally over. And the Allied victory was complete.
The AftermathTo wargamers, this is the dull part, I know: What was the aftermath of the Battle of Blenheim and how did it change history? It turns a fun afternoon of game playing into a college history assignment. But I like that stuff. So if you want, you can scroll down to the Wargame Considerations.
The Military TollThe battle itself was bloody as hell. The Franco-Bavarians lost, roundly, 40,000 men in killed, wounded, missing, and captured. Or almost three-quarters of their entire force. French losses included some 3,000 captured Swiss mercenaries of the Greder and Zurlauben regiments, who, according to Charles Spencer, defected to the Allied side for the remainder of the war. They were, understandably disgusted with serving the Sun King.
The Allied losses were more precisely tabulated (which is what you'd expect if the losing side's staff had been destroyed): 4,542 killed and 7,942 wounded, or about a quarter of their entire force. A very costly victory. The English troops particularly took it hard, with nearly 40% of their officers killed or wounded. (Spencer, p. 303)
The Geopolitical ConsequencesThe ultimate aftermath of Blenheim was that the war over whose little boy should be King of Spain went on for another decade. WSS aficionadi know all about it and there are far better resources to describe the broader, geopolitical implications than I have space or inclination here (see References below). But, in brief, the French went from over a half-century of military success to, following Blenheim, a ten year holding pattern in which they lost big battle after big battle (Ramilles, Malplaquet,Oudenarde). It was a world war, with fighting taking place in three oceans and on three continents (called Queen Anne's War in North America). And in the end it ended more or less in stalemate.
The strategic implications were that Blenheim upset the balance of power in Europe. For fifty years France had been the overwhelming and undefeatable super power, never losing a major battle or war. Louis XIV's forces, his generals, his monarchy had been thought of as invincible. Blenheim showed that Louis could be defeated. So in that sense Blenheim was the pivotal point of the center of power in the West, with Britain rapidly replacing France as the 600 pound gorilla.
In the immediate aftermath of Blenheim, the French regrouped. Louis forgave his old friend, Tallard (when he was eventually paroled and sent back to France nine years later). Marsin and the Elector went on to fight another day (many other days), but mostly in the Low Countries. And Eugene went back to Italy to secure it for the Habsburg empire. And the war went on and on, with France now on the defensive, struggling to merely preserve what it already had instead of seeking to expand.
Though it was early in the twelve-year-long War of the Spanish Succession, Blenheim has rightly been considered by most credentialed historians as its strategic turning point. It didn't end the war, not by far (it was going to take much bigger effort to slow down the juggernaut of Louis' France), but it certainly changed its character and showed the way to the eventual outcome. So, in that sense, it resembled other early victories like Midway, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, El Alamein, and Saratoga, which themselves did not end the wars they were in, but certainly marked the beginning of the end.
And who got to be King of Spain? (Oh, yeah! That's what this was all about!) Philip V. But for the life of me I've lost track of whose son or grandson or great-nephew he was.
The People Nobody Thinks AboutWhenever I read about a battle, apart from my interest in military history, my old, '60s shoulder angel pops up and makes me think about the people nobody considers in these historical narratives: The ordinary people. Today, of course, we are very conscious, thanks to the-24 hour, instantaneous news cycle, of the mass human toll of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the rest of the world. But that toll was no less catastrophic 300 or 3,000 years ago.
The tragic carnage suffered by the armed antagonists at Blenheim was certainly pitiable. Gwynne Dyer, in his groundbreaking 1980s series, "War", describes a battle as a man-made disaster. Standing on the field of Gettysburg, he paints a picture, "Imagine a 747 full of people crashing on this field every 10 minutes for three days. That's the scale of the human disaster we're talking about." This was comparable to the slaughter of Blenheim. Only it happened in one day.
But as I read casual mentions of how, for instance, the retreating French pickets in the villages above the Nebel, set fire to the houses they vacated as the Allies started showing up, I thought about all the thousands of ordinary people living peaceably in those villages prior to the battle. These were their supposed allies doing this arson, and Lord knows what other destruction and theft. And then there were the towns of Blenheim, Lutzingen, and Oberglau, also set fire by artillery fire and deliberate arson. And the hundreds of thousands of feet and hooves trampling the crops, just before harvest time. Were there still people in those towns while this was going on (as there were in Gettysburg)? Were families huddling in their basements hoping the storm above would just go away? Were they being burned to death along with the soldiers?
And even if all these farmers, tradesmen, merchants, men, women and children all hastily evacuated, knowing from other wars what was to come, they would still have had to return to their devastated villages, with their homes and all of their earthly possessions destroyed, their larders emptied, and their crops trampled and burned; the same crops they were depending on to ward off famine in the coming winter.
This is an aftermath that hardly any historians (and certainly no wargamers) ever write about. And nobody took roll call of the civilians afterward. But, in terms of tactical significance, it may also explain why so many of the fleeing French soldiers were themselves butchered by the locals after the battle. Those locals would have been pissed and have seen the French "allies" as the immediate cause of their present and future suffering.
Sorry. Got a little carried away by my hippy conscience all of a sudden. I'm better now.
The Tactical Assessment
Platoon Fire vs Fire by Ranks
The French Fire by RanksOne of the features of this, the first really pitched field battle between the French and the British in this war, was the immediate advantage in firepower the British had over the French.
The French had been one of the last armies in Europe to adopt the new flintlock musket over the old matchlock as standard equipment for their infantry. In fact, by as late as 1704, they were still in the process of refitting their regiments with flintlocks. However, they had not yet changed their old tactics from their matchlock days. Firing was still done by ranks. The first rank would fire, then lie down to let the next rank fire, and so on. After the last rank had fired, the whole battalion would get up and commence reloading. There was a variation of this in which the last rank fired first, over the heads of the crouching or lying first ranks. But both systems prevented simultaneous reloading in the ranks. So, if they hadn't stopped an attacker in five firings, they were suddenly vulnerable to bayonet or cavalry charge. This is why it was common practice (though not universally applied doctrine) for battalion commanders to withhold the fire of the first rank (who would stay crouching or lying down with loaded muskets) as a precaution.
It also begs the question, if everybody was now lying down, relatively safe from the flying lead, how hard was it for the officers and NCOs to get them to stand up again and reload their muskets? Apparently, you couldn't load a flintlock lying down. You needed to be standing up to pour the gunpowder down the barrel. Though I have actually seen people lie down to load a musket.
Each rank of the entire battalion of 13 companies would fire at once. The main disadvantage of this fire system was that it was nearly impossible for each company, or the entire battalion, to direct fire anywhere but straight ahead. And, as already mentioned, there would be a potentially fatal lull while all ranks reloaded (unless the front rank was held in reserve).
Also, in practice, the fire by ranks system would so easily break down order, so most battalion commanders would, after the first mass volley, just let their men start firing as fast as they could, individually (the Germans called this heckenfeuer, or "hedge firing"). But with the five or four rank formations common at the time, this meant that only the first two ranks would be able to use their weapons (without shooting each other in the back). So the back ranks were worthless in a firefight. And the front ranks were probably constantly paranoid about being accidentally shot in the back. It was a serious workplace safety violation. It was also common for the men in the front two ranks to pass their muskets back for reloading while the rear ranks would pass freshly loaded muskets forward.
Consequently the effective firepower of a French battalion was reduced to, at most, 40% of its strength.
The Allies' Platoon Fire
The British infantry, on the other hand, employed a newer fire system called platoon fire, which took advantage of the new flintlock technology. While the French were finally discarding the matchlock, they did not embrace the new formations and tactics that made the most of it, as the English and Dutch did. Among other things, the flintlock allowed troops to be more densely packed, not only making for more bullets per yard of front, but making the formation always ready to repel cavalry (especially with that other new invention, the locking socket bayonet). The French, even with their flintlocks, still deployed at a yard spacing as they had with their old matchlocks. The British were able to line up almost shoulder to shoulder.
In platoon firing when a company was ordered to "prepare to give fire" the first rank would kneel, the second rank would move forward and a half-step to the right and lean forward, and the third rank would move forward, in turn, and take a full step to the right. All three ranks would then present their muskets forward, over and between the ranks in front. This was called "locking on." All three ranks of the platoon would then fire on command, without the danger of getting shot in the back (unless you were an unpopular battalion commander out front--which did happen at Blenheim).
First developed by the Swedes some sixty years before and later refined by the English and Dutch, platoon fire involved dividing the regiment up into 18 firing platoons, with three "firings" per battalion. In platoon fire, six platoons (about 40 men) in three ranks would step forward and deliver fire. Then, the platoon would immediately commence to reload while the platoon to its left would step forward, "lock on" (see diagram above) and give its fire, repeating the process. Well trained infantry of the period could reload in 20 seconds so the entire battalion could be more or less constantly delivering directed volleys in dense, lead-lined packets.
Because, too, the flintlock allowed the files to pack together tighter, and the three firing ranks to be able to get closer to each other (the worry about all those lit matches and loose gunpowder gone with the matchlock), platoon firing meant that Allied infantry would be able to have thinner lines (three ranks vs four or five).
Most Allied infantry had picked up and trained with the new platoon firing system, though most, outside the British and Dutch, retained a four-rank line (the fourth rank's fire held in reserve), mostly from the psychological boost this extra depth was supposed to give to morale. I could not find, in my research, if the Bavarians, allies of the French, used platoon firing. They did seem to deploy in four ranks, though, as did the French after Blenheim.
Another great advantage of platoon fire became evident was that precise fire control could be maintained by individual platoon officers and NCOs. Because their orders could be clearly heard by the 30-40 members of each platoon (unlike those of the battalion commander, who might be a hundred yards away) they could direct the platoon's fire. Battalions were also less likely to devolve into individual fire--which was extremely difficult to stop once started--and so ammunition could be preserved.
In the end, the difference platoon fire versus fire-by-ranks made in this battle would have been in the greater volume of fire the Allies were able to pump into the French cavalry and infantry. Around Blenheim, though outnumbered by the defenders, the English troops surrounding it were able to handily outshoot the crowded French and cut to pieces any that tried to sally out; all the result of the superior rate and greater control of platoon fire. It is also probable that platoon fire is what allowed the outnumbered Allied infantry under Eugene to survive long enough to pin the Elector's and Marsin's infantry around Lutzingen.
But this was just one factor that decided Blenheim.
The decision really came in the center; Marlborough's carefully engineered coup. There have been few battles in history that were as carefully planned, or that came out exactly according to that plan. Blenheim was certainly one of them. The plan was for Cutts on the eastern flank and Eugene on the west to so pin down and draw strength away from the center so that it became the weak point of the enemy line. Marlborough took all morning to prepare his strength in the center so that he was overwhelming there. He also saw that the center was the hinge between the two French armies (Marsin's and Tallard's). He may have known that the two generals didn't get along (his intelligence was worthy of today's NSA). And he could see that there was a physical gap here, where Marsin edged his cavalry away from Tallard's infected horses. Finally, he took his time attacking so that the crossing points prepared over the Nebel were numerous and ready.
Besides sheer numbers, Marlborough's army was thoroughly trained in combined arms operations. Cavalry, infantry, and artillery all worked together like a well drilled team. Whenever the cavalry was thrown back by the enemy, it was able to easily thread back through the spaces between the infantry battalions, who, in support, poured continuous platoon fire into the following enemy. And whenever the infantry felt pressed by cavalry, a fresh line of friendly horse was able to filter back through the gaps and fall on the flanks of the French. After several hours of this, the French horse, unsupported by their own infantry, began to think of things they'd far rather be doing.
All during this part of the battle, Tallard left his center 4,000 infantry in the rear, standing uselessly in front of their tents. These brigades (St. Pierre's) have been described as new recruits, which they may have been. When it came time for them to stand alone against the overwhelming combined attack of the Allies, they died like brave soldiers, nonetheless. Moreover, they must not have been all that untrained since they had been able to form defensive battalion squares against the Allied cavalry. But as they were unsupported at this point by either cavalry or artillery, they could only just stand like tethered lambs and be mowed down by Col. Blood's canister and Gen. Churchill's elite infantry regiments. Had Tallard trained his army to operate in combined arms, he might have survived the day.
Tallard the HaplessOne of the reasons I love the study of military history (besides having been raised in a family of professional military officers, as well as having been one myself) is how it is full of object lessons in management and leadership. Most of what I learned in my career as an executive in civilian life came from my own military experience. Blenheim gives us one of those lessons because of the stark leadership contrasts we see on the opposing sides. Military history is therefore useful in everyday life. Anyway, it's how I rationalize my hobby to my friends and family, so they don't think I'm an unmitigated nerd (we prefer "Hobbo-Americans").
But to the evaluation of leadership...
Even accounting for the differences in tactical doctrine between the two sides, the biggest factor in the outcome of Blenheim was leadership. Certainly the close relationship between Malborough and Eugene helped. But Marlborough's commanders, his staff, his tactical and strategic instincts, and his personal inspiration had to be contrasted with the complete opposite on the French side.
Tallard was like a deer in the headlights from the moment he had been rudely awakened that morning by the unpleasant report of enemy forces on his front yard. But his mistakes and faults competed with each other in severity. When I was a Naval Officer, every six months our commanding officer would complete an evaluation form on my performance. I'm sure they are common in all services and in all armies, as well as in civilian life as performance reviews. I've had the conceit to imagine what Marshal Tallard's FitRep would read like:
Tallard's Fitness Report:
- He was an arrogant aristocrat and a condescending know-it-all. He haughtily rebuffed advice from his co-commanders, Marsin and Maximilian. His relationship with them, in fact, was the opposite of Marlborough's with Eugene. For a self-described diplomat, he managed to make enemies of his own allies
- He let Marlborough cross the Nebel and reform unhindered.
- He failed to rescind Clerambault's requisitioning his reserve.
- He appointed the unimaginative and incompetent Clerambault to the command of his right in the first place.
- During most of the battle, he was AWOL over on the left, conferring with Marsin during crisis points in the battle when he should have been with his own wing.
- He failed to coordinate his cavalry attacks or integrate his infantry into them.
- He let his artillery waste all of its ammunition in a largely ineffective, long range bombardment before the battle even got under way.
- He let his subordinate commanders run the battle on their own hook.
- He allowed his troops to run amok in his march through "friendly country" in Bavaria, encouraging indiscipline by neglect.
- And by his own admission later, he was so disheartened by witnessing the early defeat of his elite Gensdarmes that he lost all confidence in victory from that moment on. As I said; a deer in the headlights.
Both Marsin and the Elector, on the other hand, did very well in their own battle management. They handily held off Eugene's attacks, inflicting great damage on the enemy. They controlled their troops and integrated their artillery, cavalry and infantry. They were even able to draw off their forces more or less intact when they realized that Tallard had lost his battle in the center and the right.
Marlborough may have been the soul of gentility and charity to the captured Frenchman, but I think his contemptuous snap that Marshal Tallard "... no longer commands here," when the latter offered to mediate the surrender of Blenheim village, must have come from his disdain. The French troops might have been worthy foes, but Tallard certainly wasn't.
Of course, that's so easy for me to say. I wasn't there.
To account for the difference, not only in overall rate of fire of platoon fire systems among the Allies, but the fact that the French, operating in five-rank formations (to the English and Dutch three rank), it may be realistic to reduce the net firepower quotient of the French infantry. I would suggest a ratio of 3:1 between Anglo-Dutch and French for fire (but not hand-to-hand). Since the rest of the Allied army and the Bavarians seemed to deploy in four ranks, and may also have been using platoon fire (there is at least documentation that the Hessians, Hanoverians, and Prussians were), you could give them a firepower rating of say 2:1 vs the French.
CavalryThere was also a significant doctrinal difference between the tactics of the French and the English cavalry. The French, having successfully used the slow advance to fire method for decades, saw no reason to change that which wasn't broken. They were trained to walk up to the target and fire their pistols, and then draw swords and advance to contact at a trot. The English, on the other hand, were trained to not fire at all, but to go all out at the enemy, swords pointed right at their faces--a tactic they had perfected from the Swedes during the last century. This gave the English horse a huge advantage in a melee.
Again, if I were to give each side a rating, I'd give a 3:1 ratio between the English and French cavalries for this tactical difference alone. This is not to say that the overall training level and morale of the French would not start off at least as high as the English. It was just their charge doctrine that was out of date.
Another wargame factor may have been the weakened state of Tallard's cavalry; the glanders epidemic. This could also be accounted for by reducing either the strength levels of the horse units under Tallard or their fatigue levels (if your wargame figures that). In the Order of Battle charts below, I have not made this reduction but have merely listed strengths as have been speculated by the standard OOBs. But that doesn't mean you can't take a "glanders tax."
Was the Ground Around the Nebel Stream Really Marshy?This is something that has always bothered me about the narratives of this battle. It was late summer in Bavaria. Beautiful, hot weather. Of course, the ground around the Nebel today is not marshy;much in the way of hydraulic management and drainage has been applied over the last 300 years. But even back then it couldn't have been that soggy, certainly no Okefenokee Swamp. And the Allied troops seemed to be able to cross and recross the ditch of the Nebel fairly frequently and easily throughout the day. Furthermore, if the stream was cut deep enough to form high banks, as contemporary accounts describe it, the ground on top of the banks wouldn't have been wet.
So I'd run a wargame without the marsh factor. In spite of what the historians say. They weren't there. And I'd treat the Nebel as a minor ditch, possibly even dry, certainly easily fordable. Of course you'd need bridges and fascine-filled causeways to move guns across it, but infantry and even horse should have been able to cross it (if the cavalry got down off their horses and led them, as was by eyewitnesses like Parker and Merode-Westerloo).
Orders of BattleThe following orders of battle for both the Allied and Franco-Bavarian forces were compiled as a best-guess from many of the sources listed below. For those strengths for which there were documented parade states ("roll calls"), I have included those exact numbers. For those where there was only approximation, the strengths are given as round numbers (e.g. 500, or 120 and marked with an *).
Caveats and Key to the Table
First Column Command is the name of the command or regiment, colored in the primary uniform coat color for each regiment. Where known, this includes the regimental number it would eventually be known as later in the century.
Second Column Facing is the command level and type, using standard military symbology. This column is color-coded in the “facing” color of the regiment, that is, the cuffs, lapels, and sometimes turnbacks of their coats. Where unknown, as with many of the French cavalry regiments, I have defaulted to the most common color for that period.
Third Column Flag is a miniature of the colonel's and regimental flag for that regiment, if known. If unknown, this cell is left blank.
Fourth Column Strength is the number of personnel present for each command. For this battle, I could find only documentation citing exact parade states ("roll calls") for some of the units, e.g the British. For the rest I have used the approximate strengths given in the Wikipedia Order of Battle for Blenheim. This should be good enough for wargaming scenarios, but not for academic purposes. So don't go using these numbers in your graduate dissertation.
Fifth Column Guns is the number of guns supporting each unit. Larger guns were generally organized as batteries, but several of the infantry battalions on both sides had small guns (3 and 4 pdrs, known as "minions") attached to them for close artillery support.
Sixth Column Units is the number of battalions (for infantry) and squadrons (for cavalry) for each command. It should be noted that many of the cavalry regiments of the various countries were not organized as squadrons by this date, but were composed of individual companies. But for the purposes of apples-to-apples I have listed them as squadrons.
Seventh Column Ranks is the doctrinal deployment depth for each army in 1704. This may have actually varied, regiment by regiment, depending on the tactical whim of the colonel, but, for the most part, the British Foot deployed on 3 ranks, the British Horse in 2, and everyone else's infantry formed on 4 ranks, and their cavalry in 3. The French, though the largest and most successful army in Europe, was also the most conservative and felt themselves modern in deploying on 5 ranks, down from their previous six. French military thinkers of the time believed that the deeper the formation, the more steady it would be. Their fire system (by ranks, see above) also depended on more ranks to keep up a more continuous fire.
In leaping to the rash conclusions I did in this post, I used the following references, both physical books and online links. Some were for battle narrative, some for orders of battle, and some for research on tactics and formations. The maps I created from scratch using as reference a combination of Google Maps (satellite view) and maps from the following sources.
Barthorp, Michael & Mcbride, Angus, Marlborough's Army 1702-11, Men-at-Arms #97, 1980, Osprey Press, London, ISBN: 0-85045-346-1
Chandler, David, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, 1994, Sarpedon, New York, ISBN: 1-885119-14-13
Chandler, David, Marlborough as Military Commander, 1984, Spellmont, Staplehurst, Kent, UK, ISBN: 0-946771-12-X
Chartrand, Rene, Louis XIV's Army, Men-at-Arms #203, 1988, Osprey Press, London, ISBN: 0-85045-850-1
Churchill, Sir Winston S., Marlborough, His Life and Times, Vol 2., 1933, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226106357
Falkner, James, Marlborough's Battlefields, 2008, Pen & Sword Books ISBN: 978-1-84415-632-0
Grant, Charles Stewart, From Pike to Shot, 1685-1720, 1986, Wargames Research Group, ISBN
Greiss, Thomas E., et. al., The Dawn of Modern Warfare, The West Point Military History Series, 1984, Avery Publishing, ISBN: 0-89529-263-7
Jorgensen, Christer, et.al., Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World, AD 155- AD 1763. 2005, St Martin's Press, New York, ISBN: 0-312-34819-3
Merode-Westerloo, le Comte de, and Robert Parker,edited by David Chandler, Military Memoirs, Archon Books, ISBN: 0208007075
Nosworthy, Brent, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics 1689-1763, 1990, Hippocrene Books, New York, ISBN: 0-87052-785-1
Spencer, Charles, Blenheim: Battle for Europe, 2004, Orion Books, ISBN: 0297846094
Tincey, John, Blenheim 1704: The Duke of Marlborough's Masterpiece, 2004, Osprey Press, ISBN:
http://www.thewaroffice.co.uk/Blenheim/Blenheim.htm for OOB and uniform research
http://royalfig.free.fr/index.php?/category/42 for regimental flag references for the French Army
http://royalfig.free.fr/index.php?/category/31 for uniform references, French Army
https://www.baccus6mm.com/index.php?content=howto/gnw_wss&detail=paintguide_gnw Bacchus painting guide for uniform references
http://www.thewaroffice.co.uk/Blenheim/DanishUniforms1699-1720.pdf for detailed information about the Danish forces during the WSS
http://www.wfgamers.org.uk/resources/C18/prusorg.htm for information about the Prussian forces during the WSS
http://www.warflag.com/flags/wss/wssselect.shtml for details on regimental flags during the WSS
http://www.miniatures.de/colour-18th-century-artillery.html for artillery carriage colors during the 18th century
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