Monday, September 9, 2013

Soldier of Monarchy: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

Undoubtedly one of the greatest military minds England has ever produced, fully deserving to be ranked among the great captains of history from any nation, the life of the first Duke of Marlborough, also known by his nickname “Corporal John” is marred only by the fact that, while a soldier of monarchy all his life, he did betray the King he had sworn allegiance to and who had been his patron. Because of this, Marlborough will always have the taint of a Brutus about him and yet, no one can deny his military brilliance or discount the great victories he won for Great Britain on the field of battle. His skill was wide-ranging as he displayed a mastery of battlefield tactics, overall strategy, logistics and the political competence to coordinate an allied war effort made up of diverse forces. After a long period of internal conflict had left the British Isles in a weakened state on the European stage, the victories of Marlborough brought Britain roaring back as a major world power and for that he deserves all due credit. The fact that he was ambitious, untrustworthy and a shameless opportunist can also not be denied and, apart from his accomplishments, as a man, he left much to be desired. However, those accomplishments were immense and even his many enemies and rivals had to admire his military ability.

John Churchill was born in Devon on May 26, 1650 into a family of good royalist standing but very poor finances. Nonetheless, his connections were good enough to secure him a place as a page to the Duke of York (future King James II) when he was seventeen. It certainly helped that his sister was then the mistress of the Duke. This put Churchill in a position to meet the right people and as he grew older he managed to befriend the right men and romance the right ladies to advance himself. In 1667 the relationships he had made were good enough to secure him a commission as a junior officer in the Foot Guards and he saw his first action fighting the Moors in North Africa (mostly around Tangier), an area gained from Portugal through the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. He gained valuable experience there but gained even more when he returned home and began an affair with the veteran mistress of the King (and many others) the Duchess of Cleveland. In 1672 he was fighting the Dutch at sea on the flagship of the Duke of York where his heroism won him promotion over other, more senior, officers. At this time, Britain was allied with France against the Netherlands and many of the French officers he fought beside he would one day fight against.

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.

When the Prince of Orange became King William III, alongside his wife Queen Mary II, he promoted Churchill to lieutenant general and raised him to the nobility as the Earl of Marlborough. A nice prize but many viewed it as his thirty pieces of silver and despite giving good service in minor conflicts from Ireland to the Flemish coast, Marlborough was not trusted with great responsibility. Some were still wary of him given his background. He had betrayed his King, the man who set him up in life, so who was to say if he might not do the same again under the right circumstances? This was simply the price Marlborough had to pay for the decisions he had made. Of all those who had turned against James II, the betrayal of Marlborough probably hurt the most (outside his own offspring of course) and some credit it with breaking the will of King James to resist and prompting his flight into exile. Given how shocking this was, it is no wonder that King William III never entirely trusted Marlborough, nor did Queen Mary II and Marlborough came to dislike them both as well. Eventually neither tried very hard to hide their true feelings. Doubts about the loyalty of the Earl of Marlborough came to a boil when it was discovered that he had been writing to the exiled King James II, asking the deposed monarch to pardon him for his betrayal. It is unlikely that Marlborough was truly sorrowful and more likely that he wished to regain the good graces of his former patron in the event that the male-line of the House of Stuart was restored to the British thrones. Whatever the reason, it was enough for Marlborough to be arrested and locked in the Tower of London where he remained until Queen Mary II died.

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.

Along with this though, as much if not most of the credit for the victories of Marlborough grew from his grasp of the importance of logistics (which allowed for the mobility his armies were famous for) and morale. He moved his men at odd hours to foil enemy spies and scouts, he took great pains to establish supply trains, set up camps at predetermined positions so that his troops could carry less and so march faster and always be well fed and well equipped. He saw that his men were paid promptly and regularly and that they had new boots before going into battle. His careful planning of attacks also cut down the casualty rate at the troops felt that their commander cared for their welfare and so would fight all the harder, confident that he would not waste their lives needlessly. Because of the respect he inspired among his men, they adoringly nicknamed him “Corporal John”. Marlborough showed what confident, well cared for British troops were capable of. In 1702 he cleared enemy forces from Belgium with relative ease and two years later teamed up with Prince Eugene of Savoy for his greatest victory at the battle of Blenheim in Bavaria on August 13. For a loss of only 13,000 men he had inflicted casualties of 34,000 on his enemies, knocked Bavaria out of the war and showed in a dramatic way that the French, previously considered unstoppable, could be beaten.

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.

The large death toll was seized upon by the Tories who wanted Britain to focus on naval power rather than committing large armies to the continent. They were also none too fond of the Duke whose wife was an outspoken Whig who was rapidly falling out of favor with her former friend, Queen Anne and generally making herself (and so her husband) thoroughly disliked by those coming into power. Marlborough’s lavish estate and high living also attracted envy and accusations of misuse of government funds. He was relieved of his command and recalled to England. With the death of Queen Anne and the arrival of the new King George I, the Duke of Marlborough had his position restored but, by that time, his health was too poor for him to return to active duty. He died after a series of strokes on June 16, 1722 at the age of 72. Even to the last his character had been in doubt and yet, at the same time, no one could deny that the man who had just passed away had been one of the greatest military minds Britain had ever produced. Perhaps not until the rise to fame of the Duke of Wellington was it no longer the Duke of Marlborough that any successful British general was measured against.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes wonder whether he turned to the side of the Protestants because he was afraid of their numerical superiority. Considering his military prowess, even at that stage in his life, I believe that he could have won the war for Catholicism if he had stood by his King. If he had done so, history would have turned out quite differently, wouldn't it?

    And, as you yourself have said, "You don't surrender for such a silly reason as being hopelessly outmatched." It's a very good quote, I think, and applies very well here. A large, dark mark on the character of an otherwise great general.


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