It was on 13 August 1704, that the combined forces of England, The United Provinces of the Netherlands, and The Holy Roman Empire joined to defeat the armies of France’s Louis XIV and his Bavarian allies near the small Bavarian village of Blindheim (“Blenheim,” usually pronounced “Blen’um,” in English.) The battle was the key action of The War of Spanish Succession, and, in the words of Robert Southey, “a famous victory.” Under the command of English general John Churchill, just two years earlier created Duke of Marlborough by England’s Queen Anne, the daring attempt by the French to seize Vienna was permanently thwarted, and the fortunes of war turned to favor the English.
Marlborough’s campaign leading up to Blenheim has been called the first example of modern military action, featuring sophisticated logistical support of supply and provisioning, and very rapid movements which recalled the famed celeritas (speed) of Julius Caesar 17 centuries before. Marlborough was ably assisted by some of the finest military talent in Europe such as Prince Eugenio von Savoie. The French side had its share of talent as well, but the thorough planning and unexpected speed of Marlborough’s execution caught them ill-prepared. The battle was a rout, pure and simple. The Franco-Bavarian alliance lost more than half of its strength, captured, wounded, or killed. It was nevertheless an expensive accomplishment for Marlborough’s side: the success cost them nearly a quarter of their effectives. But it was a famous victory …
What did this titanic struggle accomplish? Well, it did prove that the mighty and theretofore almost invincible armies of Louis XIV’s France could be beaten, and soundly. That realization changed the stage of European politics for generations.
The famous victory also established John Chuchill as one of the great leaders in European military history. For his great victory, Churchill – already elevated to the new Dukedom of Marlborough – was granted a vast new estate and a promise from Queen Anne to build a great commemmorative Ducal palace for Marlborough and his Duchess Sarah. (Anne renegged on this promise after expensive work was well underway on “Blenheim Palace.” It would take several more years and intense political intriguing for the Crown to finally make good on its obligation. That whole drama is worthy of a book devoted to just that topic!) Blenheim Palace – either a masterpiece of the short-lived English Baroque Style or a hideous excrescence, pure and simple – remains the only non-Royal “Palace” in England.
Blenheim Palace is to this day the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, though its most famous resident was himself never a Duke, and resided there only briefly during his childhood. It was at Blenheim Palace in 1874 that the expatriate American wife of Lord Randolph Churchill, nee Jennie Jerome, gave birth to Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, the future Prime Minister and great World War II leader of Great Britain. Winston Churchill would grow up to write a definitive biography of his famous ancestor John Churchill.
But in the grand scheme of things, the outcome of the Battle of Blenheim did not change things so very much. Though the Victorian military historian Edward Creasy accounted Blenheim as one of the pivotal battles of history, modern evaluations of it are less emphatic. True, the defeat of the French forces was important and had a key impact upon subsequent events, but Blenheim was part of a much longer campaign and the fighting lasted many more years afterward. Louis XIV’s France was overtaxed and its men and materiel were being exhausted by his many wars, and it is unlikely that France’s domination could have been sustained with or without the defeat at Blenheim. As with so many famous victories, the results could probably been achieved in other, less spectacular, less deadly ways.
There is one outcome from The Battle of Blenheim, however, that has always struck me as most apposite. In 1796, England’s future Poet Laureate Robery Southey wrote “After Blenheim,” one of the most powerful anti-war poems ever written. The power of this work lies in the ironic understatement with which it presents the famous victory and its aftermath. The poem is all the more interesting for having been written in the late 1700s. (Many contemporary folk seem to feel that anti-war sentiments are a modern phenomenon.)
If you have never read “After Blenheim,” here is the text:
It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.
“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.
“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.
“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
Flower Mound, Texas
Soldiers win the battles; generals get the credit. — Napoleon