After so thoroughly enjoying Charles Spencer’s Prince Rupert biography, I picked this up, even though I really shouldn’t have. At this point, I don’t need to be dragged into the early 18th century, as much fun as it is. To be honest, it’s a period I know very little about. I couldn’t place the Battle of Blenheim at all, until Spencer clarified that on the continent it’s usually referred to as Höchstädt, which is at least vaguely familiar to me.
By 1704, the armies of Louis XIV were on the verge of dominating Europe, threatening the Habsburg emperor in Vienna itself. Spearheaded by the English and the Dutch, an alliance rose to challenge the French and their Bavarian allies in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Fortunately for those of us who are unfamiliar with the time period, Spencer lays the groundwork, picking up almost exactly where the Prince Rupert biography leaves off in the 1680s. Though it became clear that France would become the biggest threat to England and European stability during Charles II’s reign, William of Orange was the first English monarch to take that threat seriously. By the time he was succeeded by Queen Anne (his sister-in-law), William had cobbled together an alliance with the Netherlands, the Habsburg Empire (Austria) and several German kingdoms, most notably the up-and-coming Prussians.
Under superb generals like the Prince of Conde and Marshal Turenne, the French were nearly unstoppable for most of the second half of the 17th century. Fortunately for the rest of Europe, two men of outstanding ability rose to counter Louis. Subtitled, “How Two Men Stopped The French Conquest Of Europe ,” the book focuses on the characters and actions of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy.Marlborough is a controversial figure, gaining the bulk of his power because of his wife’s close friendship with Queen Anne. He had many enemies at court and in parliament and much of the campaign leading up to Blenheim was fraught with political undermining by his opponents and overly cautious Dutch obstructionism.
I’m a lot more familiar with Eugene of Savoy, mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time in Vienna, where you can’t turn around without bumping into a statue of or plaque about Prince Eugene, and I’ve visited his two-palace-complex of the Belvedere more than a few times.Raised in the court of Louis XIV, Eugene was rejected from the French military because he was so poorly-looking and encouraged to join the clergy. This didn’t sit well with the aggressive youngster who offered his services to Austria instead.
By the time the English confronted the French on the continent, Eugene had a number of important victories against the Turkish under his belt. His relationship with Marlborough was uncommonly harmonious and based on mutual respect. Together, they conceived a plan in which they tricked the French into believing that they were aiming to confront them on the Rhine while in reality, they were targeting Bavaria, France’s most important ally.
The most thrilling moment of the book isn’t the Battle of Blenheim itself, but rather the storming of the Schellenberg. Held by the Count d’Arco, working for Max Emanuel, the Elector of Bavaria and his French ally, Marshal Marsin, the Schellenberg commanded the heights above Donauwörth, an important bridgehead for the Anglo-German allies to launch an attack into Bavaria. Acting together, Marlborough and the Margrave of Baden stormed the fortification and in a bloody two-hour contest, ran d’Arco’s forces across the river, securing the city.
Though Marlborough then hoped to engage the Bavarians and Marsin before they were reinforced by the main French force under Marshal Tallard, they refused engagement. So Marlborough, in a controversial move, plundered Bavaria in the hopes of bringing the Elector to heel. He didn’t succeed, but in the meantime, he was joined by Eugene of Savoy with his Imperial forces and they managed to get rid of the Margrave of Baden, who they feared would refuse to directly engage the French by sending him to besiege Ingolstadt.
By then, Tallard arrived and linked up with the Bavarians and Marsin. The French had 56,000 troops to the allies 52,000, and had a strong defensive position around the village of Blenheim, but Marlborough and Eugene decided to attack anyway. The allies were lucky in that Tallard made some critical mistakes in the disposition of his troops and his commanders failed to correct those when they could. They also benefited from the strong relationship between Eugene and Marlborough. When Marlborough needed reinforcement at a critical moment, the Prince sent his cuirassiers, even though he needed them himself. Both had a keen eye for tactics and took advantage of every opportunity and of Tallard’s many blunders.
After a long day of fighting, the village of Blenheim was finally taken,30,000 French troops lay dead or wounded and Marshal Tallard himself taken prisoner. The effects were far-reaching, causing devastation at the French court and creating possibilities for further allied victories in the years ahead.
As in his Prince Rupert biography, Spencer delivers the goods yet again. He makes excellent uses of contemporary sources, including some astonishingly detailed eyewitness accounts and presents a complex engagement in an entertaining and highly readable way. His focus on the interesting personalities involved make this far more than just a military history. I’m dying to read “Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I,” but I will have to hold off until I’m ready to properly research the English Civil War for the next series.