High water mark of the military career of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, the Battle of Blenheim is celebrated by many as a masterpiece of military genius. If you want to read about military genius on the battlefield you can do that elsewhere.
My reading of history has shown me that the simple act of getting an army to the battlefield with clothes on their backs, shoes on their feet, food in their bellies and weapons in their hands is often enough to win the day. It is an added bonus if you can follow the maxim of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and “git thar firstest with the mostest”.
Blenheim was the turning point in the War of the Spanish Succession, knocking Bavaria out of alliance with France and saving the Grand Alliance from disaster. To fight the battle Churchill had to move his troops from Bedburg in Northern Germany, nearly on the Dutch border, to Blenheim in Bavaria. This is a journey of 250 miles (400 kilometers).
To say that he covered 250 miles in only 5 weeks does not sound like a great achievement today. 50 miles a week, just averaging 7 miles per day. But this was in 1704 when the best roads in Europe where those left behind by the Romans. Much of the journey was over rough terrain, open country and muddy tracks.
Along the way he organised food and equipment depots to keep his army stocked, and arranged for rendezvous with additional troops from North Eastern Germany at Coblenz and Ladenburg. A 250 mile route march will eat the shoes off the feet of troops and you can’t expect 50,000 troops to live off the land.
To celebrate this triumph of logistics I have illustrated this post with a carefully chosen picture. There are many paintings and tapestries which celebrate the battle of Blenheim showing galloping Cavalry and stalwart Infantry bearing up under Artillery fire.
The photo above is of a tapestry in Blenheim palace showing a light cart which was designed and commissioned by the Duke of Marlborough himself. It is narrow, with tall wheels and is drawn by two horses in tandem. The “driver” is mounted on the lead horse.
This is a cart designed to cope with the needs of an army moving rapidly. It can travel on very narrow roads, tracks and bridges. If there is a breakdown on the road the driver can pull off the road and move cross country to bypass the blockage.
It was by using carts like these that Marlborough was able to move so many troops so far and so quickly (for the time). Furthermore, he did so with great secrecy, masking his movements from the French and Bavarians. As a result he achieved the benefit of surprise.
This is not to say that he was NOT a brilliant general. Despite his unexpected arrival Marlborough still commanded a slightly smaller army and could field only 66 artillery pieces to the 90 guns of his foe. His generalship on the day was masterful and rightly elevates him to the position of military genius.
After Blenheim; by Robert Southey
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
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 newborn 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 Welhelmine;
“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.”