Waterloo, Stalingrad, Alesia, Hastings, Leipzig, Tours; many battles can compete for the status of being Europe’s most pivotal battle, but all of these pale in comparison to the Battle of Blenheim. On 14th August 1704 the forces of the Grand Alliance, comprising of England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire, struck a crucial blow against the Franco-Bavarian Alliance.
Louis XIV had bestrode the end of the seventeenth and the opening of the eighteenth centuries with a mixture of menace and panache. He was as dominating a figure then as Napoleon was to be a hundred years later. Like Bonaparte, Louis relied on military might to impose his will; at home and abroad, he cajoled the unwilling and crushed the openly hostile. However, whereas Napoleon’s control was limited to less than twenty years, Louis’s pungent brand of autocracy wafted through seven decades of European history. Although the Battle of Blenheim did not completely halt the power of Louis’s French Empire, it certainly stemmed it.
One man was pivotal in bringing about this decisive victory; John Churchill, 1st Duke of Malborough. A combination of deception and brilliant administration – designed to conceal his true destination from friend and foe alike – enabled Marlborough to march 250 miles (400 kilometres) unhindered from the Low Countries to the River Danube in five weeks. Prior to attack Marlborough had arranged his men in an unusual tactical formation, designed to cope with the dangers of crossing water and marshland in the face of a strong enemy. He ordered his brother to draw up the infantry in two lines: the first of these, of seventeen battalions, was to spearhead the river crossing, with the second, of eleven battalions, following in the rear. In between the infantry formations rode seventy-one squadrons of cavalry, again divided into two lines.
By two o’clock the fighting was spread along the entire four-mile battlefront. From Blenheim and the Danube, through to Lutzingen and the wooded hills, five armies — Tallard’s, Marsin’s, the Elector’s, Eugène’s and Marlborough’s — were immersed in a series of struggles for ascendancy. Marlborough, son of a Royalist cavalry colonel, and disciple of Prince Rupert and Cromwell, knew that the cavalry charge frequently determined the outcome of battle. He coolly ordered his squadrons to assemble in two lines. This wall of horse and horsemen moved with ever-increasing speed and aggression and with an irresistible momentum. According to Captain Parker ‘Those of the enemy presented their fusils at some distance, and upon discharging them, wheeled about, broke one another in pieces, and betook themselves to flight.’
At the pivotal moment Marlborough had led his troops to victory and prevented total domination of Europe by the French. As Edward Creasy said in his famous book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, ‘Had it not been for Blenheim, all Europe might at this day suffer under the effect of French conquests resembling those of Alexander in extent and those of the Romans in durability.’