Was Marlborough Britain’s Greatest General?

Acclaimed historian Saul David gives an appraisal of the great commander.
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‘There has been,’ wrote a recent biographer of the Duke, ‘no more successful English soldier than the 1st Duke of Marlborough. During the War of the Spanish Succession, he won all his battles, and triumphed at every siege. Moreover, Marlborough was simultaneously in charge of overall allied strategy and, as Ambassador-Extraordinary, of high diplomacy. The finer details of military administration, operations and logistics again fell to him. No other British general has ever been burdened with such all-pervading responsibilities.’

Born John Churchill on 26 May 1650, the son of Winston Churchill, a West Country gentleman impoverished after supporting Charles I, the future duke was brought up in modest circumstances. With the Restoration, his father was knighted and given a post at court. However, he died a debtor, and the experience of poverty marked Marlborough. In 1665 his sister Arabella was appointed a maid of honour to the wife of the king’s brother, the Duke of York. Arabella soon became the duke’s mistress, bearing him four children, and was able to use her influence to wangle her brother the post of page in the duke’s household. It was the duke who arranged for young Churchill, in 1667, to receive a commission without purchase in the First Foot Guards.

A year later, possibly to nip in the bud his burgeoning relationship with his beautiful cousin (and the King’s mistress) Barbara Castlemaine [1], he was posted to the English garrison at Tangiers (a North African colony that had been, along with Bombay in India, part of the marriage contract between Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza). Churchill left no record of this period, but we know from other sources that his time in the colony would not have been easy. Tangiers lies to the west of the Pillar of Hercules, on the stormy Atlantic coast, and is dominated by high ground that enabled the Moorish factions who controlled Morocco in the seventeenth century to overlook the town. Despite improving the outer defences by building two rings of forts (1663–9), the English were under constant attack and conditions within the garrison were grim: pay was intermittent, food was poor and disease was rife. Mutinies were frequent, and some soldiers even deserted to the Moors, where slavery awaited them.

Frequent were the skirmishes below the city walls, and it was probably here that Churchill received his baptism of fire. A fellow officer wrote: ‘[The Moors] lodge their ambushes within our very lines, and sometimes they killed our men as they passed to discover, which they continually do without any other danger than hazarding a few shots, whilst they leap over the lines and run into the fields of their own country. This insecurity makes men all the more shy in passing about the fields.’


Churchill saw his next action at sea, helping to blockade the Barbary pirates at Algiers in 1670 and, two years later, fighting against the Dutch at the naval battle of Sole Bay, an action for which he received a double jump in promotion. In 1673, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, he returned to land to fight alongside the French in the Netherlands, taking part in the assault on a key outwork of Maastricht that prompted the Dutch to capitulate. He distinguished himself during this battle by saving the life of the British commander (and bastard son of King Charles II), the Duke of Monmouth.

A year later, commanding a battalion in the British Brigade of the French Army, Churchill won the admiration of the great Marshal Turenne, perhaps the finest soldier of his age, for the part he played in the defeat of the Austrians at Enzheim. ‘It was from Turenne,’ wrote a biographer of the future duke, ‘that Churchill learnt the importance of infantry firepower; the effectiveness of employing artillery throughout a battle, rather than as a mere prelude; and the desirability of seeking decisive battle, rather than following convention and marching from siege to static siege.’

James II

Shortly before his promotion to full colonel in 1678, Churchill married Sarah Jenyns, the girlhood crush of the Duke of York’s younger daughter (and future Queen) Anne. The two women’s association was to have, in turn, good and bad consequences for Churchill’s army career. He prospered after Charles I’s victory over the Exclusionists in 1681 (these anti-Catholics were trying to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother as king), becoming a baron in the Scots peerage and colonel of the Royal Dragoons. When the Duke of York succeeded his brother as James II in 1685, Churchill was given an English peerage and, later that year, played a leading role in crushing the rebellion led by his former commander, the ultra-Protestant Duke of Monmouth, at the Battle of Sedgemoor. His stock had never been higher and, in recognition of this, he was promoted to major-general.


Three years later, when a second attempt was made to usurp James II by his son-in-law William of Orange, Churchill was again a trusted senior army commander. Only this time he sided with the invaders. Why? Because he – along with many other senior military and political figures – was opposed to James II’s policy of Catholic toleration, particularly his Catholicization of the Irish Army (which, Churchill assumed, would soon be followed by the expulsion of Protestants from the English Army). ‘Like most of the professional soldiers involved in [the plot],’ wrote a biographer, ‘Churchill relied primarily upon his army pay, and so the much-feared purge of the English army after the Irish model would strike at his fundamental interests.’ He was, moreover, ‘sincere in his commitments to Anglicanism’ and was convinced that James’s religious policies would end in disaster.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 gave Parliament a statutory control over the army that continues to this day; but it also left the army of 1689 – or what remained of it after mass desertions and an order to disband – in a state of chaos. With a new war brewing against France in the Low Countries, and Jacobite rebellions in Scotland and Ireland, the newly crowned William III did not have the luxury of being able to dissolve the army and start from scratch (as Charles II had done). Instead he selected Churchill – newly promoted in the peerage to the earldom of Marlborough – to reform and strengthen the military. For William III, who was naturally suspicious of those like Marlborough who had switched horse in mid-stream, it was a question of needs must. He ‘felt keenly that no English politician or soldier was to be fully trusted but he did not possess enough Dutchmen or Germans to officer all the new regiments of the English army’.

In 1689, Marlborough was dispatched to command the 8,000 English soldiers serving with the Dutch in Flanders. For three months, before battle was joined, he drilled his men tirelessly, and spared no effort to secure adequate uniforms, arms and equipment. The Dutch commander, the Prince of Waldeck, was amazed by the transformation, informing William in July that he could not ‘sufficiently praise the English’, and that ‘Monsieur Milord Marlbrouck and the Colonels have shown that their application has had a good effect’.

At the Battle of Walcourt, in late August, the English infantry took the brunt of the French attack, before Marlborough personally led a spirited cavalry charge that won the day. Waldeck reported to William that Marlborough had, ‘in spite of his youth’ (he was thirty-nine), displayed greater military aptitude than most generals achieve in a lifetime.

Marlborough was given his first independent command in 1690 when he led a successful amphibious operation that captured the key Jacobite ports of Cork and Kinsale. But his flourishing career came to a sudden, grinding halt in 1692 when he was correctly suspected of communicating with the exiled court of James II. Dismissed from all his posts he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. But not for long because, as luck would have it, the documentary evidence against him was shown to be a forgery, while the actual letters that he wrote to his former patron were never discovered.

Though he was publicly forgiven in 1695 (when William allowed him to ‘kiss hands’), a further three years elapsed before he was restored to his army rank and place in the privy council, by which time the Nine Years War with France had been concluded by the Treaty of Rijswijk (1697). It was as if William, unconvinced that the French King Louis XIV would keep the peace, was looking ahead to the next war and had identified Marlborough as the man best equipped to continue the fight.

The War of the Spanish Succession duly broke out in September 1701 – with a Grand Alliance of England, Austria and Holland fighting to prevent France from uniting its crown with that of Spain – and would last for thirteen years. Even before it began, Marlborough had been appointed commander of all English troops in Holland and ambassador-plenipotentiary. After William III’s death in March 1702, Queen Anne promoted Marlborough to captain-general of her army and master-general of the Ordnance (with direct control over the infantry, cavalry and artillery). Marlborough was also confirmed in his ambassadorial role to Holland, and soon after was made deputy commander of the Dutch Army. No general since Cromwell had enjoyed such a combination of diplomatic and military authority. ‘In the context of 1944,’ wrote his most recent biographer, ‘he would have been Eisenhower, Montgomery and Brooke rolled into one.’

It helped that he had the unique talents that such a wide-ranging responsibility required, and would prove to be not just a brilliant battlefield tactician and campaign strategist, a superb trainer of men and master of logistics, but also a natural diplomat as deft at handling the oft-recalcitrant Dutch politicians as he was Allied generals. In addition he was a superb innovator: introducing the two-wheeled sprung cart that enabled his troops to move further and faster than any of his enemies; and taking advantage of new weapon technology and tactics – notably the flintlock musket and socket bayonet, and the practice of firing synchronized volleys from a line just three ranks deep – to make his foot soldiers the dominant force on the battlefield. Cavalry and infantry, too, he used in a more aggressive way than his opponents.

William III

And yet all of Marlborough’s talents might have counted for nothing had a recent revolution in public finances not provided him with the funds to fight a war that would last for more than a decade. In the early 1690s, with the cost of war outstripping revenue and virtually no long-term system of borrowing, the government set up the Bank of England and introduced exchequer bills and the concept of the National Debt. Marlborough, as a result, would not be starved of resources or men, and at the height of the war would deploy 150,000 soldiers (half of them British).

When he arrived in the Low Countries in 1702 he was already 52 years old (six years older than the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon were at Waterloo) and keen to establish the military reputation denied him in his prime. And yet his aggressive intent was constrained by the constant interference of the Dutch field deputies, political advisors to the Dutch Army, who were anxious not to risk a set-piece battle. On numerous occasions they refused Marlborough permission to attack the over-extended French, particularly at Roermond in l702. Yet this first year of campaigning was still a triumph for Marlborough as he swept the enemy out of the Barrier Fortresses along the river Meuse, captured Liège, and was rewarded for an outstanding campaign with a dukedom.

The year 1703 was one of tragedy and frustration for Marlborough, as first his only son died of smallpox in February, and then the cautious Dutch continued to thwart his ambitious plans to beat the French, notably a ‘Grand Design’ to seize the port of Antwerp, and an attempt to pierce the defensive Lines of Brabant so that he could engage the enemy in open battle. Meanwhile, further south, his ally Emperor Leopold I of Austria was under threat from two directions: from Hungary, where unpopular taxation had provoked a rebellion; and from Bavaria, the most powerful state in southern Germany, which had switched sides to join France. By the end of the year, Franco-Bavarian forces had captured a number of fortresses on the Danube, the Lech and the Rhine, and had defeated an Imperial army at Höchstädt.

With Austria in danger of being knocked out of the war, Marlborough agreed to march an army south from Holland to relieve the pressure. He was only able to do so by keeping his true intentions secret from not only the French but also the Dutch field deputies (who would never have agreed for him to take Dutch troops so far from the Low Countries). Even so, it was an extremely hazardous undertaking. It required a flank march along the eastern borders of France, with an ever-lengthening line of communication that would be vulnerable to a French counter-attack. It meant crossing great rivers, many of them unbridged, and marching across 250 miles of wooded, hilly and poorly tracked country. And all the while Marlborough would have to feed, water, shelter and move an army of 40,000 soldiers – a third more than the population of Bristol, then the largest city in England after London – with its size growing to 60,000 after other contingents had joined the line of march.

It helped that his quartermaster-general, William Cadogan, was a man of outstanding ability, and never were his talents put to better use than during the march to Bavaria when he and his staff had to help Marlborough ‘plot the line of march, and select suitable places for nightly camps; arrange for the baking of bread, the army’s staple ration; set up depots along the line of march to be stocked ahead of the army’s arrival with food and other supplies – even fresh shoes to replace those worn out by marching’. They also had to hire the army’s transport of 1,700 wagons and 4,000 draught animals, collect boats to move heavy supplies up the Rhine, and arrange sufficient fodder for 19,000 horses, all the draught animals and the beef ration on the hoof. The fodder alone amounted to 100 tons of oats a day.

That fewer than 1,000 men fell out sick during the inclement weather was largely down to the measured tempo of the march – with Marlborough urging his brother in one letter ‘not to press your marches as to prejudice your men or horses’ – and the fact that every effort was made to reduce the men’s discomfort. On 8 June, for example, the duke found the time in his hectic schedule to write to his brother about how best to replace the infantry’s worn-out shoes by buying replacements at Frankfurt.

Marlborough also established two transit hospitals at Kassel and Heidenheim, using medical equipment moved by river and road convoy. Towards the end of the march he directed his brother to send ‘your sick men’ to the latter hospital, which was further south, ‘in carts with an able [surgeon] and a mate or two to look after them’. It was yet another example of the tireless attention to logistical detail and soldierly welfare that prompted Marlborough’s men to give him the grateful soubriquet of ‘Corporal John’. Marshal Tallard’s French army, by contrast, had lost a third of its effectives to illness, desertion and stragglers during the march to Ulm in May.

Marlborough’s final masterstroke was to convince a pursuing French army under Marshal Villeroi that he intended to invade Alsace (by, for example, building a bridge-of-boats across the Rhine at Philippsburg that he never intended to use). When Villeroi realized his mistake, it was too late to intervene.

By early July, Marlborough reached the Danube at Dönauwörth where he hoped to cross into Bavaria. But first he had to capture the fortified hill above Dönauwörth known as the Schellenberg. The attack began, after a long approach march, in the late afternoon of 2 July. Wave after wave of attacking troops were driven back, and for a time defeat looked possible; but eventually a weak section of the perimeter was targeted and the hill taken. The close-run victory had cost Marlborough more than 5,000 casualties – including 16 generals – though the Franco-Bavarians lost almost twice that number.

The Battle of Blenheim, by John Wootton

It was not one of Marlborough’s finer tactical victories, for the simple reason that time constraints and the terrain had narrowed his options to an unsubtle frontal assault. His discovery of the enemy’s weak spot, moreover, was lucky in the extreme. His swift and conclusive reaction was not, and is evidence that Marlborough possessed that quality most prized in a military commander: coup d’œil, literally ‘stroke of eye’, or comprehensive glance, the ability to recognize the decisive moment in a fight and to act accordingly. It would be displayed to even greater effect in the next major engagement of the war: Blenheim.

On 13 August, having tried and failed to goad Maximilian to fight in the open by torching 400 Bavarian villages (an aspect of his ruthlessness that is often overlooked), Marlborough risked all with a surprise attack on a combined Franco-Bavarian force of 60,000 men in a strong defensive position. Sited on raised ground, its left flank protected by woodland, its right by the 300-foot-wide Danube, and with three villages (including Blenheim, closest to the river) acting as strong points in between, it seemed all but impregnable. Marlborough had recently joined forces with Prince Eugène of Savoy, an exiled Frenchman and the most talented Imperial commander who had won notable victories over his countrymen in Italy; yet their combined army of 56,000 men and 60 artillery pieces (the enemy had 100) was both outnumbered and outgunned at Blenheim. Marlborough would, moreover, have to fight his way over a stream, the Nebel, which was ‘thought unpassable, as it afterwards was found in several places’.

But Marlborough had spotted a crucial weakness in the enemy formation – they had lined up their two armies side by side, with the centre held by cavalry rather than infantry – and set out to exploit it. His plan was to put pressure on the various key points of the enemy line in the hope that they would either buckle or draw troops from elsewhere; this would enable him to switch his point of attack to the newly vulnerable area. In particular he hoped that that the attack by his ally Prince Eugène would fix the Bavarian army on the left of the enemy line so that he could engage and destroy the French on the right.

It almost ended in disaster as Marlborough’s initial attack on Blenheim was repulsed, as was Eugène’s assault at the far end of the Allied line. In the centre, meanwhile, an advance by Marlborough’s Hanoverian troops was driven back with heavy loss. ‘At this moment,’ recalled Marshal Tallard, the French commander, ‘I saw the hope of victory.’

The Hibernia Regiment, aka the Wild Geese.

But the Allied centre held, just, thanks to Marlborough’s intervention: he personally led forward three reserve battalions of Hanoverians to plug the gap, and then sited cavalry to break up an attack by ‘Wild Geese’ (Louis XIV’s Irish mercenaries). By late afternoon Marlborough’s plan to bottle up the enemy infantry had paid off: no fewer than twenty-seven battalions of infantry, for example, were defending Blenheim. Marlborough saw his opportunity and, at 4 p.m., ordered a combined force of cavalry, infantry and artillery to attack the weak enemy centre that, by this stage, was protected by just 64 squadrons of cavalry and some raw infantry.

In a last throw of the dice, Tallard ordered his cavalry to counter-attack and, for a time, pushed the Allied horse back. But Marlborough had planned for such an emergency by supporting his cavalry with foot and cannon. ‘I went to the head of several columns [of horse],’ recalled the commander of Marlborough’s infantry, ‘and got ‘em to rally and form upon my right and left, and brought up four pieces of cannon, and then charged both foot and horse. The [enemy] horse were put to flight.’

With the decisive moment at hand, and just thirteen battered squadrons of cavalry holding the centre of Tallard’s line, Marlborough ordered his horsemen to charge. ‘Those of the enemy presented their fusils at some small distance and fired,’ wrote the duke’s chaplain, ‘but they had no sooner done so than they immediately wheeled about, broke one another, and betook themselves to flight.’

By nightfall Marlborough had taken more than 14,000 prisoners (including 40 generals and 1,100 officers), 300 colours and standards, 60 cannon and the entire contents of the enemy camp. The Franco-Bavarians, in addition, had lost a further 20,000 killed and wounded, giving a total casualty rate of well over 57 per cent of the troops engaged. The Allies, too, had suffered badly. Of their 13,000 casualties (4,500 of whom were killed), more than 8,500 were from Marlborough’s army (including 2,200 of the 10,800 British soldiers present).

It was undoubtedly an Allied victory: Dutch, Hanoverian, Hessian, Prussian and Danish soldiers all played their part, as did Prince Eugène, praised by Marlborough for his ‘good conduct and the bravery of his men’ (who rallied after their initial setback). But British soldiers did more than their share of the fighting – as evidenced by their casualties – and the battle was won not by Eugène’s generalship but Marlborough’s: ‘the bold night advance, his firm, flexible control of the battle at its different stages, his personal intervention at the places of crisis, and his proven ability to wield a multi-national army into an integrated weapon of high morale and single-minded purpose, contrasted most markedly with Tallard’s muddled leadership and weak authority.’

Blenheim had far-reaching consequences: it saved Vienna, but also established Marlborough’s reputation as the finest general in Europe. He would enjoy many more victories over the French in the coming years – notably Ramillies in 1706, Oudenaarde in 1708, Malplaquet in 1709 and piercing the ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ Lines in 1711 – but none as significant as Blenheim. No such decisive victory had been won in Europe by any general, not even Condé, Turenne or Luxembourg, since the successes of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus at Breitenfeld and Lützen in the Thirty Years War (with Gustavus paying for the second triumph with his life). It was, moreover, the first major defeat suffered by the armies of the Sun King, who, for the previous forty years, had swept all before them. From 1704, as a direct result of Blenheim, the most feared soldier on the battlefield was no longer a Frenchman but a Briton.

Marlborough’s reward was a grant of £5,000 a year and, in 1705, the gift of the Royal Manor and Park of Woodstock so that he could build a home fit for a hero. Parliament footed the bill, voting the colossal sum of £240,000; but even this was not enough to keep pace with the escalating costs, and the duke would not live to see the completion of the magnificent Blenheim Palace, still the largest private house in the country.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

In 1712, with the anti-war Tories in power and Queen Anne under the influence of a new favourite, Marlborough was accused of embezzling army funds (not entirely without justification) and sacked from all his posts. A year later, after tortuous negotiations, Britain and Holland ended the long war with France by signing the Treaty of Utrecht (the Austrians would fight on for another year). It was a treaty that was of most benefit to Britain. With Holland in terminal decline, Britain emerged from the war as the world’s greatest maritime power, with a seaborne empire – including colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India – whose trade in slaves and sugar would soon dominate the world’s commerce. It had also assumed, for the first time since Agincourt, the military leadership of Europe.

The Royal Navy had played its part, not least by protecting the expansion of British trade during the war. Yet by far the most significant theatre of conflict was not at sea but on the Continent, where the armies of France – the superpower of the day – were met and repeatedly defeated by Marlborough’s polyglot forces. But for the duke’s inspired generalship, and the increasingly impressive performance of his British troops, Louis XIV’s France would have gained mastery over mainland Europe, the Channel coast and, ultimately, the British Isles. That much was at stake.

In 1714, in tacit recognition of this, Marlborough was reappointed captain-general by Anne’s successor King George I. But never again would he command armies in the field. He died in 1722, at the ripe age of seventy-two, prompting even his former enemy Lord Bolingbroke to describe him as ‘the greatest general, and the greatest minister that our country, or perhaps any other has produced’.

The final word, however, should rest with one of his soldiers. In the course of ten campaigns against the French, noted Captain Robert Parker, Marlborough never ‘slipped an opportunity of fighting’, and ‘concerted matters with so much judgement and forecast that he never fought a battle, which he did not gain, nor laid siege to a town which he did not take’.

[1] If that was the case, the ruse did not work as Churchill later had an illegitimate daughter by Castlemaine.

Saul David is the author of Great Military Commanders: Wellington, Marlborough and Slim.