After Blenheim

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:

AFTER BLENHEIM
Robert Southey
1796

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.”


Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Soldiers win the battles; generals get the credit. — Napoleon

Sixty-Eight Years Ago: D-Day, The Invasion Of Europe

It is certainly proper that we take a moment in our busy schedules to remember the momentous event of 68 years ago today.

The 20th century, like any other, was fully provided with great and terrible moments, and instances that have changed the course of history. Nevertheless, if there be one day — one isolated day — that can truly be called the single most important day in the last century, then surely D-Day must be that day.

It was on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 that I began periodically sending these historical notes. I must mark this anniversary, especially as there has recently been something of a distressing trend to minimize or denigrate the significance of D-Day. I feel a personal connection to this crucial historic event because my late father, Bill Rawson, Senior, flew his first bombing missions, co-piloting a lead bomber at the age of 19, in support of the invasion.

Sixty-seven years ago, Tuesday 6 June 1944, the leaders of the forces allied against Hitler’s terrible Reich gambled men and materièl on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen (and which we may ardently hope it never will see again!) At 0630 on 6 June, the first waves of what was to become a force 156,000 strong hit the beaches of Normandy to establish an allied toehold on the continent of Europe and to effect the beginning of the end for Hitler’s ghastly regime.

We know, live with, and daily benefit from the results of this day, but we may easily forget the risks that were then associated with the invasion and we rarely explore the dire consequences that a failure would have brought. It is easy to ignore the possibility of failure in the light of 68 years of hindsight, and we often tend to see that which has happened as inevitable. But to those involved at the time, the risks were real and the possibility of failure was keenly sensed; General Eisenhower carefully prepared his official statement in the event of failure. As it turned out, the invasion was successful beyond the most optimistic projections of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Planners’ predictions of the day’s casualties ranged from a low of 12% to a high of 60%; the actual results were far, far better despite the terrible fighting on “Bloody Omaha.” Recently, extensive archival research has been conducted to provide an accurate and precise total for the day’s actual casualties. Historically, the total allied casualties for that day were reported as fewer than 6,000, about 4% of the 156,000 troops landed that day, with about 2,400 of these being fatalities. The recent research, as reported at the British D-Day Museum website, gives revised totals standing at nearly 10,000 total casualties and almost 4,000 fatalities. The final human cost was enormous, but even adjusted to the newer 6% figure, it was far below what had been expected. And for a historical perspective, These losses were about the same as those which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia incurred in a single day at Gettysburg.

The invasion inescapably wrought death and destruction on the population of Normandy. The towns, villages, and farms of Normandy suffered under allied bombing and Nazi shelling, and from the ground battles that were fought across the Norman countryside. A 2009 article in the New York Times estimated that there were nearly 20,000 French civilian casualties as a result of the 10-weeks of fighting that followed the invasion. Allied tanks and armor bulldozed great swathes through the ancient hedgerows of the picturesque Norman farms. Driving through Normandy in early July of 1977, I noted that it was still easy to identify the route that the tanks had taken, because the relative newness of the hedgerows that had regrown was plainly visible, even 33 years after the invasion.

Within a few hours of the start of the invasion, it became clear that the allied forces could hold their beachheads. It took weeks for the armies to break out of Normandy, and it was almost a year before Germany capitulated, yet the outcome plainly hinged upon this daring gamble. The gamble succeeded for many, many reasons, of course. But today we should remember and be grateful to the soldiers of Free France, Canada, Great Britain, and The United States of America, as well as those of smaller contingents from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland, whose courage and determination made the victory a reality, and who allowed us to live and grow in a world where the open brutality and blunt terrorism of nations is less common, and the horrors of war less frequent than in the first half of the 20th century, albeit such horror is undeniably still far too frequent.

And we should remember that there are hundreds of thousands of men and women serving us around the world today. Some are directly in harm’s way, others well-removed from the front. But all serve. These people, too, deserve our thanks. So as we remember and honor the men and women of what Tom Brokaw has aptly styled “The Greatest Generation,” we should also say thank you to those who today rise to the challenge and serve a great nation even unto their last full measure.

My thanks to all who have served and who do serve in any capacity. I am deeply grateful for your sacrifices. Thank you. It cannot be said too frequently. Thank you.

Jamie Rawson

Flower Mound, Texas

In war, resolution;
in defeat, defiance;
in victory magnanimity;
in peace, goodwill.

— Winston Churchill

FURTHER READING:

Online Resources:

The Portsmouth British D-Day Museum Website:

http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/

The U.S. National D-Day Museum Website:

http://www.ddaymuseum.org/

New York Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/us/21iht-letter.html

Books:

For D-Day, there are, I feel, three essential books. First and foremost is Cornelius Ryan’s classic The Longest Day. First published in 1951, Ryan’s work was the first comprehensive distillation of the massive official documentation of D-Day (from both the archives of the allies and the Third Reich) supplemented with extensive personal interviews. Ryan was a journalist, and the style of The Longest Day reflects that background, but his work is a landmark of contemporary history. An excellent and highly readable work, The Longest Day is an excellent starting point from which to learn more about D-Day.

The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day, Cornelius Ryan; Simon & Schuster, 1994: ISBN: 0671890913

John Keegan, sometimes called “the Dean of Military History” was inspired by his childhood memories of watching the preparations leading up to D-Day in rural England. He became a historian and specialized in military history, bursting onto the mainstream literary scene in 1976 with his outstanding The Face of Battle, a study of three famous battles, comparing and contrasting them. In 1982, Keegan published Six Armies In Normandy, an account of D-Day that goes further that Ryan’s by following the invasion up to the Liberation of Paris two months later. Keegan is a wonderfully engaging writer who never forgets that history should be as interesting to read as the best fiction, while maintaining impeccable academic standards.

Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, John Keegan; Penguin, 1994: ISBN: 0140235426

Stephen Ambrose completed D-Day as a tribute to the 50th anniversary 17 years ago. This book was one of Ambrose’s most successful efforts to reach beyond the academic world and into the mainstream. And in this book Ambrose managed to crossover into popular publishing without compromising academic rigorousness or integrity. (Later, his popular success led to unfortunate carelessness which resulted in accusations of plagiarism, but this book predates that time.) D-Day is scrupulously well-researched and includes material from thousands of interviews which Ambrose conducted. The book reads so breathtakingly that you find yourself almost anxious to learn the outcome! This is among Ambrose’s best, and a must-read to learn more about D-Day. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers is an excellent supplement, containing extensive material from interviews with participants from D-Day through to The Bulge.

D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Stephen E. Ambrose; Simon & Schuster, 1995: ISBN: 068480137X.