Plan of the Battle of Blenheim
Plan of the Battle of Blenheim

Ostensibly the War of the Spanish Succession was a dynastic struggle to decide whether the crown of Spain should rest on the head of a Hapsburg or of a Bourbon, a question of the balance of power to prevent the undue preponderance of France in Europe, a question in which England would hardly have been concerned but for the wound inflicted on her amour propre by the French king's recognition of a king of England whom England herself had rejected - another dynastic question.

But in actual fact matters of vital interest were at stake. If England had stood aside, France and Spain between them would have taken complete pos­session of Italy and the Netherlands, and there would have been very little left of Holland. France and Spain would have been so closely united that they would have counted practically as a single power, and might have developed a maritime strength which would have become more than a menace to English naval supremacy.

The whole of the Bourbon dominion would have been closed for British commerce, while the British colonies in America and the British trade in the East would have been seriously endangered. These possibilities had passed long before the war was actually over; but when the war began they were imminent perils.

Neither statesmen nor merchants probably had any very definite idea of a British Empire as the stake for which the nation was fighting; but the mercantile interest, which was chiefly associated" with the Whig party, was very much aware that unless the nation fought its commerce would be in jeopardy.

Fighting between France and Austria had already begun in Italy; and the allies whom William had brought together were much relieved to find that William's death would not withdraw England from the alliance. William himself, at the close of his reign, had settled upon Marlborough as the man to carry out his policy.

Marlborough, conscious where his own supreme genius lay, was certain to feel that the road of his ambitions lay through European battlefields; and Marlborough's influence at home was ensured by the relations between the Countess Sarah and Queen Anne. War was declared in May, and William's nominee occupied his place as commander-in-chief of the allied army.

The new chiefs operations were seriously hampered by the fact that instead of his having a free hand his plans were liable to be vetoed by a body of Dutch commissioners or "field deputies," who were not by any means military experts, while their views of the purposes to be served were strictly confined to the immediate securing of Holland against invasion.

Marlborough, prohibited by them from seeking to destroy the French army in the field, had to content himself with manoeuvres which forced the enemy back from the line of the Meuse. A series of forts were captured and Marlborough's reputation, which had hitherto been called in question, was established by the campaign, though his accomplishment fell far short of what he would have aimed at achieving if his hands had not been tied. In England his success was rewarded by his elevation to a Dukedom.

The Vigo Raid
Meanwhile, an expedition had been despatched to Cadiz under Sir George Rooke, which failed there ignominiously; but his fleet redeemed his credit by breaking the boom of the harbour of Vigo, where it destroyed a powerful French squadron, and sank the most part of a great treasure fleet after securing booty to the value of about a million sterling.

The Blenheim Campaign
[Again, in 1703], the French confined themselves to a campaign in the Netherlands, and again the Dutch sought to confine Marlborough to a campaign 6f sieges. His operations were marred by the disobedience to orders of the Dutch generals, and the flat refusal of the Dutch field deputies to sanction his design of falling upon the main French force.

The campaign, therefore, was marked with no striking results. Meanwhile France had designed what should, have been a paralysing blow to the Grand Alliance. Marshal Villars from the Upper Rhine, the Elector of Bavaria, and Vendome from Italy, were to effect a junction and strike straight at Vienna.

The plan was frustrated by the unforeseen. Villars and the Elector joined hands; but then the latter proceeded into the Tirol, a province of Austria which had been promised to him with careless generosity by the French king. He meant to secure the Tirol and to join the French as they came up from Italy by the Brenner Pass. But the Tirolese, who were not parties to this arrange­ment, handled the electoral troops so roughly that Max Emanuel evacuated the country and declared himself unable to proceed to Vienna.

Moreover, no French column came from Italy, because Victor Amadeus of Savoy played his favourite game of changing sides at the critical moment. He fell upon Vendome's communications, and the French general had to turn back instead of advancing to join hands with Villars.

Now Austria was in no plight to resist a French invasion in force, supported by Bavaria. On the east she was harassed by a Hungarian rebellion; and her military organisation was in a state of desperate disorder, which Prince Eugene was patiently struggling to remedy. Austria owed .the services of that brilliant commander to the fact that when he offered his sword to France some years before, when his talents were still unknown, she had' declined.

Though the French scheme of invasion had been baulked in 1703, it was to be carried out next year on a less complicated plan of campaign. Vienna was doomed, unless England and Holland came to the rescue, and neither England nor Holland would dream of withdrawing forces from the Netherlands in order to take care of Austria.

It was true that if the power of Austria were shattered France would be able to concentrate the whole of her force on the Netherlands; but English Tories had a vague conviction that English troops ought not to be fighting on the continent at all, certainly not further off than Holland; and the Dutch did not look further than the defence of their own frontier.

The Battle of Blenheim
Marlborough appreciated the situation and formed his own plan, which had to be carried out without being suspected either in England or in Holland, to say nothing of France. He required a confidant in Holland and another in England to hoodwink the two governments while he con­certed his scheme with Eugene.

From Eng­land he obtained an authority which sufficed for his purpose; from the Dutch he procured permission to conduct a campaign on the Moselle with a large force. To the Moselle went Marl­borough with his army; the great French force still on the Upper Rhine awaited developments. Suddenly Marlborough banished; he was racing through Germany to Bavaria to join Eugene, and was fairly out of reach before Dutch or English could make any attempt to stop him. On the way he joined a German force under Lewis of Baden.

Bavaria was commanded by a hostile force holding the heights of Schellenberg, by Donauwerth; the position was stormed and carried, Meanwhile Tallard, who had taken the place of Villars as commander of the army of invasion on the Rhine, had started on his march to join the Elector of Bavaria and the French forces under Marsin which were already in that region.

By August 12th Marlborough had effected his junction with Eugene, and the hostile armies lay facing each other, the river or stream of the Nebel flowing between them into the Danube. The French right was in the village of Blenheim on the bank of the great river.

It was the task of Eugene on the right of the allies to keep the French left in play when the great battle was fought on the 13th. It was not till mid-day that the allies opened the attack, which was developed on the two wings. At four in the afternoon every attack had been beaten back, but the French centre had been weakened to strengthen the wings.

It was at this point that Marlborough reconstructed his lines for a furious assault upon the French centre, which was pierced. The French right was rolled up, and nearly the whole of it was cut to pieces, driven into the Danube, or forced to surrender; the left, principally the Bavarian contingent, for the most part made its escape, since the victorious army was unable to follow up the pursuit But the victory was absolutely decisive and crushing. The French were driven back behind the Rhine, and there was no more thought or talk of a French army threatening Vienna. Marlborough returned to the Netherlands.

The Taking of Gibraltar
Meanwhile Admiral Rooke had been despatched with intent to an attack upon Toulon, the naval control of the Mediterranean being very definitely a part of Marlborough's conception of the war policy as a whole. He did not attack Toulon, because the Duke of Savoy was unable to co-operate as had been intended.

Though he had a great fleet it appeared that he would have made no use of it at all if he had not been goaded into trying what could be done with Gibraltar. When the attack was made it was found that the place was practically incapable of offering resistance. It was seized in the name of King Charles III - that is, the Austrian Archduke Charles, the son to whom the Austrian Emperor had finally made over his own claim to the Spanish throne - and was garrisoned with English troops.

Little general importance seems to have been attached to the capture at the time except by Marlborough, who declared that no cost should be spared to make it secure. Thus accidentally the great fortress passed into English control.

Political Turmoil
The last parliament of William III was also the first parliament of Queen Anne's reign. It was dissolved in the summer of 1702, and the new House of Commons, which met in the autumn, showed a large Tory preponderance. The small Whig majority in the Lords was due to the presence of the latitudinarian bishops appointed under William - men who were in sympathy with the principles of toleration.

The queen and the Tories were antagonistic to the Nonconformists. The bulk of the Tories were opposed to Marlborough, not on the general principle of main­taining the war, but because they wished to restrict it to the sea so far as England was concerned; whereas Marlborough, like William, while he understood better than the Tories themselves the importance of naval supremacy and the way to secure it, was also determined that England should take the lead upon land as well.

Thus practically from the outset there was a growing estrangement between Marlborough and Godolphin on the one hand and the Tories on the other, while the duchess exerted herself to ally her husband with the Whigs, and to manage the queen on the same lines. The advanced Tories for their part endeavoured to establish a complete Tory ascendency, increasingly antagonistic to Marlborough himself.

The struggle between Tories and Whigs was to a very considerable extent a contest between the Commons and the Lords. In this contest the Lords were victorious. They were able to defeat the attempt of the Commons to apply the late Act of Succession so as to exclude from the House of Lords the Dutchmen who had received peerages from William. They defeated also an Occasional Conformity Bill, which now became a favourite scheme of the Tories.

Church struggles
William's Toleration Act had conceded freedom of worship to the Nonconformists, but retained the tests which required all office-holders to participate in Anglican services. Nonconformists in general, while habitually attending their own places of worship, did not find it-against their consciences to make the necessary attendances at the Anglican rites, so that the still valid Corporation and Test Acts did not in effect preclude them from taking office.

The object of the High Churchmen was to disqualify these Occasional Conformists by penalising them heavily if they attended the religious services of any body other than that of the Church of England while they held office.

This attempt also the Lords were able to frustrate. Popular sentiment was at first on the High Church side, but a strong reaction was produced, in part at least by an ironical pamphlet entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which pretended to be an inflammatory appeal to all good Churchmen to insist on the extirpation of the enemies of Church and State.

The satire on the Tory programme was convincing, and the Tories only made matters worse for themselves by having the author, Daniel Defoe, set in the pillory. The punishment provided the audacious pamphleteer with a popular ovation.

Consequences of Blenheim
The Blenheim campaign saved what may be called the Marlborough Administration. The Tories had been studiously minimising the Duke's doings on the continent; but the attempt to belittle Blenheim itself recoiled on their own heads. The victory was in effect a Whig triumph.

A general election in the spring of 1705 gave a small Whig majority in the Commons, where Harley, the leader of the moderate Tories, alone of that party remained firmly attached to the Ministry, since Marlborough and Godolphin must now be reckoned as Whigs. But the administration was also rein­forced by Henry St. John, the most brilliant of the younger Tories.

The remaining members of the party were soon displaced by pronounced Whigs. The Government thus formed devoted itself to the whole-hearted carrying out of Marlborough's war policy; but it achieved something still more vital to the future of the British Empire in carrying through the Incor­porating Union between England and Scotland.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age