The Battle of Blenheim was among the most decisive, and most complex, battles in European history. Fought on Aug. 13, 1704, during the war of War of Spanish Succession (1701–14)—in which allied powers including Austria, England and the Netherlands squared off against the armies of Bavaria and France’s King Louis XIV—Blenheim established the Duke of Marlborough as one of England’s greatest military captains.
Early in 1704, after three years of indecisive campaigning in the Low Countries, Prince Eugene of Savoy proposed to change the theater of war. A brilliant commander who fought under the Austrian emperor’s flag, Eugene suggested that a movement of the allied armies from the Low Countries to the upper Danube River would protect Vienna, threaten Bavaria and force Louis to weaken his formidable defenses in northern France in order to aid his sole ally. Marlborough agreed.
On May 19 Marlborough led his army of Germans, English, Danes, Dutch and others from the Netherlands toward southern Germany. Franco-Bavarian forces balefully observed the march from perches along the Rhine, but Marlborough spread confusion about his route of march to keep his enemies off balance and arrived safely at the Danube near Ulm on June 22. There he united with an allied army under Margrave Louis of Baden.
Over the next seven weeks Marlborough moved aggressively into Bavaria, capturing the fortress at Donauwörth in a bloody assault on July 2. This forced the French to intervene. Weeks of sparring followed as a French army under Marshal Camille d’Hostun, duc de Tallard, crossed the Rhine and united with the Bavarians and another French force under Marshal Ferdinand de Marsin. Tallard crossed the Danube on August 10 and came face to face with Marlborough, Baden and a newly arrived army under Eugene. The opposing forces were roughly equal at just over 50,000 men each, but Tallard, who encamped near the village of Blenheim, assumed his adversaries would withdraw to protect their lines of communication. He was disastrously mistaken.
Marlborough and Eugene, whose friendship and aggressive nature made them a formidable pair, eschewed retreat and moved against the Franco-Bavarian army on the morning of August 13. Tallard and Marsin had deployed their forces on mostly open terrain behind the narrow, marshy Nebel River. Blenheim itself, heavily garrisoned by infantry under the Marquis de Clérambault, anchored the Franco-Bavarian right along the Danube. Tallard and Marsin, operating more or less independently and without coordination, held the right and left, respectively, with a mass of cavalry at their point of juncture in the center and no general reserve. This would prove a major area of weakness.
Marlborough—facing Tallard while Eugene pushed Marsin on the Franco-Bavarian left—correctly surmised the importance of Blenheim and decided to assault it frontally. Repeated assaults that afternoon failed dismally; but the skittish Clérembault jammed more and more infantry into the village—including units he might have held in reserve—until his soldiers could hardly move, or fire without hitting their own men. As French infantry streamed into Blenheim, Marlborough decided to halt his attacks on the village. Instead, he would demonstrate against it just enough to fix the French infantry there while the main allied assault shifted suddenly and decisively against the Franco-Bavarian center. This would mark the battle’s turning point.
One challenge remained. As Marlborough formed his cavalry and infantry for the final attack, Tallard roused himself and launched a major cavalry assault that caught the allied troops as they crossed the Nebel and nearly unhinged Marlborough’s entire line. But instead of reinforcing the assault with troops from Blenheim or his reserves, Tallard hesitated at what might have been his moment of triumph. This gave Marlborough time to throw back the French cavalry and mount his decisive attack.
Coming at dusk, the attack dispersed Tallard’s cavalry and shattered the Franco-Bavarian center. Marsin, under pressure from Eugene, refused to send troops to Tallard’s aid; and Clérambault threw himself into the Danube and drowned while his infantry milled about in Blenheim. Tallard’s remaining forces fell back on the river and were captured along with their commander. Marsin, his force intact but isolated, withdrew. By nightfall Marlborough and Eugene had suffered about 12,000 casualties; the Franco-Bavarians some 34,000 killed, wounded and captured.
Marlborough’s quick tactical thinking and decisive assault on the Franco-Bavarian center won the Battle of Blenheim and delivered a definite check to the growing power of Louis XIV. Blenheim also marked the arrival of the English army as a force on the European stage. The War of the Spanish Succession continued for another decade, and a century would pass before France again challenged the Continental balance of power.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.