Monday, September 9, 2013
Soldier of Monarchy: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough
After returning to England in 1677 he married a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anne (daughter of the Duke of York and the future Queen), Sarah Jennings. He undertook some diplomatic tasks and continued to advance himself in the army, rising to the rank of brigadier general. Because of his background at court, his marriage and his military service alongside him, Churchill was seen very much as one of men most attached to the Duke of York and when he succeeded his brother on the throne as King James II, Churchill solidified this image by helping put down a revolt against the new, and openly Catholic, British monarch. The religion of the King was soon seized upon as the pretext for the Protestants at court to plot the overthrow of James II and his replacement by his son-in-law, the Prince of Orange, who was mounting a Dutch invasion of Great Britain. Churchill, as most expected, was initially staunchly loyal to his sovereign and longtime patron King James II. However, by this time certainly, Churchill knew a losing cause when he saw one and when Prince William of Orange landed in England with his Dutch army in 1688, Churchill promptly turned his coat to join the invaders. For most, this was a religious issue, Catholic versus Protestant, and there were later attempts to make Churchill a sort of Protestant champion, however, he had been loyal to James II long enough knowing full well that he was a Catholic and intended to reign as a Catholic king so there seems little explanation for his betrayal other than simple opportunism. Fortunately for him, he had picked the winning side.
Although he never trusted him, King William III finally gave Marlborough his rank back. Not long after King Billy died and was succeeded by Queen Anne. Just as importantly for Marlborough, the unfortunate King Carlos II of Spain, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, died and so brought about the War of the Spanish Succession. Anxious to keep France and Spain apart, England allied with the Netherlands and Austria and declared war. The Dutch would not be major participants but Marlborough would find himself fighting alongside the Austrians under the command of another of the great captains of history; Prince Eugene of Savoy. For the next nine years this pairing of two of the greatest military leaders in history never lost a battle and set a new standard for military excellence. Warfare, at that time, had become rather stagnant again thanks to the brilliant designs of the influential French military engineer Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban and his impregnable fortifications. Marlborough insisted that no one could win a war fighting defensively and built his new method of warfare on the twin pillars of “attack” and “planning”. He would often employ diversions to draw away the strength of an enemy from a certain point and then launch a surprise attack, often leading from the front in person and like so many of the greatest captains in history, he seemed to be able to read the mind of his enemy and knew just when to throw in his reserves for the knock-out blow.
By this time his victories had earned him promotion to first Duke of Marlborough and the Queen lavished the genuine war hero with money and land. It did not take long for the Duke of Marlborough to become the wealthiest man in all of the British Isles. And, still his victories continued. Back in Belgium, he defeated the French again at the battle of Ramillies on May 23, 1706 and two years later won, perhaps, and even more shocking success. At the battle of Oudenaarde it seemed that, at last, the Duke of Marlborough had been bested. The fight on July 11, 1708 saw the French take Marlborough by surprise for a change but, in a dramatic turnaround, “Corporal John” again displayed his masterful ability to maneuver the army, worked his troops around to advantageous position, stopped defending and started attacking. The French were beaten and their morale suffered heavily from the loss. The following year, on September 11, 1709, Marlborough gained what would be his final victory at the battle of Mons. It was a brutal, hard fought battle that took a terrible toll on both sides. Again, for a time, it seemed he might be beaten but Marlborough knew just when to commit his reserves and did so at just the right time to win the day. Still, casualties had been immense; some 21,000 losses.
Throughout his life, the private life and the military career of the Duke of Marlborough were always in contrast. His betrayal of King James II was shocking and distasteful even to those whose side he joined. His efforts to keep one foot in each camp, as it were, also lowered his reputation. Later on, when his self-seeking pride and disloyalty might have been somewhat forgotten, his arrogance and outlandish opulence won him many more critics. His wife and her gossip, intrigues and haughty behavior certainly did not help his reputation either. All of that, of course, was off the battlefield. When it came to warfare, Marlborough was a soldier almost without equal and, indeed, his reputation would probably be still higher were it not a number of other exceptionally gifted captains he shared the stage with. In his entire career he had never lost a battle. He had won four major victories on the field and succeeded in twenty-six sieges. Marlborough and his army were masters of the continent for ten years and he would probably be easily titled as the greatest captain of his time were it not for the presence of his ally, the brilliant and daring Prince of Savoy. Nonetheless, his achievements were astounding and he fully deserves both the contempt many have for him as a man but also his standing as one of the great captains of world history and one of the greatest figures in the hall of heroes of the British army.