“I know the danger, yet a battle is absolutely necessary, and I rely on the bravery and discipline of the troops, which will make amends for our disadvantages.” – Marlborough
The Battle of Blenheim, featuring a series of excerpts selected from Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Sir Edward Creasy published in 1851. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Battle of Blenheim.
Place: Blenheim, Bavaria, Germany
On the other hand, Marlborough recrossed the Danube, and on August 11th united his army with the Imperialist forces under Prince Eugene. The combined armies occupied a position near Hoechstaedt, * a little higher up the left bank of the Danube than Donauwoerth, the scene of Marlborough’s recent victory, and almost exactly on the ground where Marshal Villars and the Elector had defeated an Austrian army in the preceding year. The French marshals and the Elector were now in position a little further to the east, between Blenheim and Lutzingen, and with the little stream of the Nebel between them and the troops of Marlborough and Eugene. The Gallo-Bavarian army consisted of about sixty thousand men, and they had sixty-one pieces of artillery. The army of the allies was about fifty-six thousand strong, with fifty-two guns.
[* The Battle of Blenheim is called by the Germans and the French the battle of Hoechstaedt.–ED.]
Although the French army of Italy had been unable to penetrate into Austria, and although the masterly strategy of Marlborough had hitherto warded off the destruction with which the cause of the allies seemed menaced at the beginning of the campaign, the peril was still most serious. It was absolutely necessary for Marlborough to attack the enemy before Villeroy should be roused into action. There was nothing to stop that general and his army from marching into Franconia, whence the allies drew their principal supplies; and besides thus distressing them, he might, by marching on and joining his army to those of Tallard and the Elector, form a mass which would overwhelm the force under Marlborough and Eugene. On the other hand, the chances of a battle seemed perilous, and the fatal consequences of a defeat were certain. The disadvantage of the allies in point of number was not very great, but still it was not to be disregarded; and the advantage which the enemy seemed to have in the composition of their troops was striking.
Tallard and Marsin had forty-five thousand Frenchmen under them, all veterans and all trained to act together; the Elector’s own troops also were good soldiers. Marlborough, like Wellington at Waterloo, headed an army of which the larger proportion consisted, not of English, but of men of many different nations and many different languages. He was also obliged to be the assailant in the action, and thus to expose his troops to comparatively heavy loss at the commencement of the battle, while the enemy would fight under the protection of the villages and lines which they were actively engaged in strengthening. The consequences of a defeat of the confederated army must have broken up the Grand Alliance, and realized the proudest hopes of the French King. Alison, in his admirable military history of the Duke of Marlborough, has truly stated the effects which would have taken place if France had been successful in the war; and when the position of the confederates at the time when Blenheim was fought is remembered–when we recollect the exhaustion of Austria, the menacing insurrection of Hungary, the feuds and jealousies of the German princes, the strength and activity of the Jacobite party in England, and the imbecility of nearly all the Dutch statesmen of the time, and the weakness of Holland if deprived of her allies–we may adopt his words in speculating on what would have ensued if France had been victorious in the battle, and “if a power, animated by the ambition, guided by the fanaticism, and directed by the ability of that of Louis XIV, had gained the ascendency in Europe.
“Beyond all question, a universal despotic dominion would have been established over the bodies, a cruel spiritual thraldom over the minds, of men. France and Spain, united under Bourbon princes and in a close family alliance–the empire of Charlemagne with that of Charles V–the power which revoked the Edict of Nantes and perpetrated the massacre of St. Bartholomew, with that which banished the Moriscoes and established the Inquisition, would have proved irresistible, and, beyond example, destructive to the best interests of mankind.
“The Protestants might have been driven, like the pagan heathens of old by the son of Pipin, beyond the Elbe; the Stuart race, and with them Romish ascendency, might have been reestablished in England; the fire lighted by Latimer and Ridley might have been extinguished in blood; and the energy breathed by religious freedom into the Anglo-Saxon race might have expired. The destinies of the world would have been changed. Europe, instead of a variety of independent states, whose mutual hostility kept alive courage, while their national rivalry stimulated talent, would have sunk into the slumber attendant on universal dominion. The colonial empire of England would have withered away and perished, as that of Spain has done in the grasp of the Inquisition. The Anglo-Saxon race would have been arrested in its mission to overspread the earth and subdue it. The centralized despotism of the Roman Empire would have been renewed on Continental Europe; the chains of Romish tyranny, and with them the general infidelity of France before the Revolution, would have extinguished or perverted thought in the British Islands.”
Marlborough’s words at the council of war, when a battle was resolved on, are remarkable, and they deserve recording. We know them on the authority of his chaplain, Mr. (afterward Bishop) Hare, who accompanied him throughout the campaign, and in whose journal the biographers of Marlborough have found many of their best materials. Marlborough’s words to the officers who remonstrated with him on the seeming temerity of attacking the enemy in their position were: “I know the danger, yet a battle is absolutely necessary, and I rely on the bravery and discipline of the troops, which will make amends for our disadvantages.” In the evening orders were issued for a general engagement, and were received by the army with an alacrity which justified his confidence.