FOR THE DUTCH THE FULLNESS OF SUCCESS WAS AT THIS TIME A deterrent upon further necessary efforts. Far gone were the days of 1702, when their army crouched under the ramparts of Nimwegen, and when their new English commander had invited them to take the offensive, sword in hand. The Meuse was clear to the gates of Namur. The whole course of the Rhine and all its strongholds were in Allied hands. Brussels had fallen. Antwerp, the greatest prize of all, had surrendered without a siege. Bruges, Ghent, Oudenarde, and Ostend were within their grasp, and Nieuport, Ypres, Menin, and Ath might well be gained. Behind these bristled the fortresses of the French frontier. But were these trophies essential to the preservation of the Republic? The Dutch wanted to humble the power of France. Surely it was humbled already. Were not the Great King’s envoys busy enough through half a dozen channels with proposals for a separate peace, based without question upon a good barrier for Holland? If Marlborough had merely won the Battle of Ramillies, taken Louvain, and perhaps entered Brussels, the campaign of 1706 might have carried the Allied cause to victory in 1707. But he now began to experience a whole series of new resistances and withholdings by the Dutch, as well as their grabbings and graspings, all of which were destined to bring the fortunes of the Allies once again to the lowest ebb.
These Batavian reactions had their counterpart at home. While in the field Marlborough and Eugene carried all before them, a series of English party and personal rivalries prepared a general reversal of fortune. The Whigs, who were the main prop of the war, and upon whose votes the Queen’s Government depended, demanded a share of public office. They chose the Earl of Sunderland, the son of James II’s erratic Minister, an orthodox, opinionated man of high ability, as the thin end of the wedge by which they would force their way into the controlling circle of the Government. According to modern ideas their majority in both Houses of Parliament gave them the right, and even at this time it gave them the power, to acquire predominance in public affairs. But Sunderland had married Marlborough’s daughter. “Therefore,” reasoned the chief of the Whigs, “he could not take their move as an attack upon himself.” But they let Godolphin know that if he could not make the Queen accept Sunderland they would use their power in Parliament both against the Government and personally against him. Marlborough and Godolphin, confronted with the vital need of obtaining from the House of Commons supplies to carry on the war, pressed the inclusion of Sunderland upon the Queen. She resisted tenaciously. It took the Battle of Ramillies to persuade her.
Britain’s military prowess and the sense of the Island being at the head of mighty Europe now bore more lasting fruit. The Union with Scotland was approaching its closing stage. It had been debated, sometimes acrimoniously, ever since the Queen’s accession. At last England was prepared to show some financial generosity to the Scots, and they in turn were willing to accept the Hanoverian succession. Marlborough, who was one of the Commissioners concerned, regarded the measure as vital to the strength of the realm. Not only the two nations but their Parliaments were jointed together. If Scotland on the death of Queen Anne were to choose a different dynasty from England, all the old enmities of the Middle Ages might revive. Both sides judged it well worth some sacrifices to avoid such a breach between the two kingdoms. The Act of Union was finally passed in 1707, and in spite of some friction was generally accepted. Gradually the Scots came to benefit from the free trade with England and her colonies which was now open to them. Slowly the English accustomed themselves to the Scots playing an important part in their own politics and commerce. The union has grown in strength the longer it has lasted. In the later eighteenth century Scottish thought and letters blossomed in the figures of the philosopher David Hume, Adam Smith, the economist, and William Robertson, the historian. Robert Burns and the great Sir Walter Scott were soon to follow. This fertile growth was undoubtedly helped by the peace, prosperity, and sense of participation bestowed by the Union, all of which still endure.
About this time Sarah’s relations with the Queen entered on a perilous phase. She had to bear the brunt of her mistress’s repugnance to a Whig infusion in the Cabinet. Anne loathed the Whigs from the bottom of her heart, but her Ministers could not see how it was possible to carry on the war without the Whigs and with only half the Tory Party at their back. Sarah wore out her friendship with the Queen in her duty of urging upon her an administration in harmony with Parliament. At the same time an interloper appeared. As Sarah grew older, and as all the affairs of a great lady with much more than the power of a Cabinet Minister pressed upon her, she sought some relief from the constant strain of personal attendance upon the Queen, which had been her life for so many years. Anne’s feminine friendships were exacting. She wanted her companion to be with her all day long and playing cards far into the night. Gradually Sarah sought to lighten the burden of this perpetual intercourse. In a poor relation, Abigail Hill, she found an understudy. She brought her into the Queen’s life as a “dresser” or lady’s maid. The Queen, after a while, took kindly to her new attendant. Sarah experienced relief, went more to the country and lived her family life. Abigail, by the beginning of 1707, had acquired an influence of her own with the Queen destined to deflect the course of European history.
Abigail was a cousin of Sunderland’s. She was at the same time a cousin of Harley’s. Harley was much disconcerted by the arrival of the Whig Sunderland in the Cabinet. He saw with the eye of a skilled politician that it was the prelude to a much larger Whig incursion. He felt embarrassed in his position as leader of the moderate Tories.
One day a gardener handed him a secret letter from the Queen. She appealed for his help. No greater temptation could have been cast before an eighteenth-century statesman. Moreover, it harmonised with Harley’s deep political calculations and his innate love of mystery and subterranean intrigue. Forthwith he set himself to plan an alternative Government based on the favour of the Queen, comprising Tories and moderate Whigs and sheltered by the renown and, he hoped, the services of Marlborough. This plan implied the ruin of Godolphin. Harley imagined that this would be no obstacle; but Marlborough when he became conscious of what was afoot would tolerate no severance between himself and his faithful colleague and friend. Thus Harley’s intrigue became of necessity hostile to Marlborough. At the time Sarah’s influence with the Queen had plainly suffered a final eclipse.
Everything went wrong in 1707. Marlborough’s design was that Eugene, aided by the Prussian contingent and all the reinforcements he could send him, should debouch from Italy into France and capture Toulon. From this sure naval base the Duke purposed not only to gain the command of the Mediterranean but to invade France in great strength in the following year. He used all his power, then at its height, to further this far-reaching plan, and after innumerable objections and divergences an Imperial army under Eugene marched along the Riviera to attack Toulon. Meanwhile Marlborough faced and held the superior forces of Marshal Vendôme in the main theatre of the Low Countries. He relegated himself to a holding campaign in the North in order that his comrade might strike the decisive blow in the South. He so far denuded himself that he was not strong enough to undertake any important siege. He watched vigilantly for the change of a battle, even at a disparity in odds. But Vendôme was far too clever to give him this satisfaction. The great armies glared upon each other at close quarters for weeks at a time. Then followed swift and most critical marches; but Vendôme always managed to avoid battle except on terms of a direct assault, which Marlborough was not strong enough to make. The campaign in the north thus reduced itself to stalemate.
Great misfortunes happened in Spain. The formidable Marshal Berwick had been sent to the Peninsula by Louis XIV to rally King Philip’s hopes. Berwick was steadily in receipt of fresh fighting strength from France. By the early autumn of 1706 the Earl of Galway in Central Spain with fifteen thousand men had found himself seriously outnumbered. His reception in Madrid had been cool, and he waited anxiously to be joined by the Archduke from Barcelona and Peterborough from Valencia. Weeks went by before they moved, and when they did it was with a paltry reinforcement. Castile and the other central and northern provinces had shown little desire to welcome the Austrian Archduke in place of King Philip V, who had now been in their midst for five years. Their indifference could not be forcibly overcome by the modest army at the disposal of the Allies. Galway, Peterborough, and the Archduke had to retreat towards the Mediterranean shore. The year had closed with King Philip once more propped up in Madrid, but with the Allies firmly in possession of the eastern quarter of Spain. Now in 1707 the Allied generals fatally divided their forces. They advanced with only a part of them in the direction of Madrid. They were met and engaged in battle at Almanza by a greatly superior Franco-Spanish army under the Duke of Berwick. The French commander was a Catholic Englishman, the British commander a Protestant Frenchman. In such curious ways did loyalties divide. A bloody defeat was sustained by the Allies, and the whole Spanish scene, so nearly triumphant in 1706, was now completely reversed. On the Rhine the Margrave was surprised by Marshal Villars in the celebrated Lines of Stollhofen, and all these tremendous works, which constituted the effective defence of Germany, fell in a night into the hands of the enemy. The invasion and pillage of large parts of Germany followed.
The great enterprise against Toulon, to which Marlborough had subordinated all other interests, also ended in failure. This was the only occasion in the long wars when Eugene does not seem to have maintained his high standard, and the Duke of Savoy, who nominally commanded the Army, was even less enterprising. Eugene was a land animal. He never liked a plan which depended so much upon the sea. A magnificent English armada met him on the coast. Admiral Shovell was deeply imbued with Marlborough’s strategies. He helped and fed Eugene’s army along the coast, turning the flank of the enemy’s successive positions with the fire of the Fleet. Arrived before Toulon, he landed thousands of sailors and marines and hundreds of cannon. All the time he assured the illustrious Prince that if his communications were cut the Fleet would embark and carry all his men wherever he wanted.
The French concentrated powerful forces not only to defend but to relieve Toulon. After several costly assaults the siege failed. The Imperial army retreated upon Italy. The British Fleet, after bombarding and largely destroying the harbour of Toulon and sinking the French warships which were clustered there, sailed for home or for winter harbours. One final disaster remained. Sir Cloudesley Shovel, making the winter passage home, was wrecked in thick and violent weather upon the sharp rocks of the Scillies. Two great ships and a frigate were dashed to pieces, fifteen hundred sailors were drowned, and, worst of all, Britain’s finest admiral, Marlborough’s trusted naval leader, perished on the shore.
Marlborough returned from these tribulations to a furious party storm in England. Harley’s designs were now apparent, and his strength nourished itself upon the military misfortunes. Marlborough and Godolphin together resolved to drive him from the Cabinet. An intense political crisis supervened. At this time Harley was weakened by the fact that a clerk in his office named Greg had been caught betraying the most secret dispatches into the hands of the French Government. Harley had certainly been negligent in the management of his high correspondence, and the Whigs, in their natural wrath at being excluded from rightful power, made every effort to convict him of treason. Greg however, while confessing his own guilt, died at Tyburn avowing the innocence of his chief. It was alleged he could have saved his life by incriminating him.
Upon all this Marlborough demanded Harley’s dismissal from his Secretaryship of State. Anne, now completely estranged from Sarah and with Abigail at her elbow, fought a stubborn fight for her favourite Minister. When Marlborough refused to sit another day in Cabinet with Harley and tendered his resignation the Queen answered that “he might as well draw his dagger and stab her then and there as do such a thing.” But a true Stuart and daughter of James II would not let Harley go. Marlborough returned to his home at St Albans. When the Cabinet met and Harley rose to read some paper one of the Ministers roughly asked the Queen how they would do business in the absence of the General and the Treasurer. Harley was unconcerned. The Queen, nearly suffocating with emotion, left the room, and the Cabinet broke up in confusion. The news spread far and wide that Marlborough and Godolphin had been dismissed. Both Houses of Parliament decided to conduct no business until they were better informed. The City was in consternation. Anne’s husband, the Prince George, perturbed by what he heard and saw of the public mood, and strengthened by what he felt himself, implored his wife to bow to the storm. Even then it was Harley and not the Queen who gave way. He advised the Queen to accept his resignation. She wept, and he departed. With him went Henry St John, whom Marlborough had regarded almost as an adopted son.
This struggle gave Marlborough a final lease of power. He had to a large extent lost the Queen. He had lost the moderate Tories. He must now increasingly throw himself into the hands of the Whigs, and at every stage of this process make wider the breach with the Queen. It was on these perilous foundations that he embarked upon the campaign of 1708. The plan was in principle a renewal of the double invasion of the previous year. This time however the effort was to be in the north, and the Duke of Savoy, entering France from the south, was to play the minor but none the less essential part. Marlborough had hoped to bring Eugene’s Rhine army into the Low Countries and by superior numbers to crush the French in the field and pierce the fortress barrier; but a succession of unexpected misfortunes occurred. Conditions on the Rhine compelled Eugene to leave his army behind him. The Dutch rule of the conquered Belgian cities had estranged their inhabitants. By treachery Ghent and Bruges, which together controlled the chief waterways of the Scheldt and the Lys, were delivered to the French. Marshal Vendôme, with whom were the Princes of the Blood, the Dukes of Burgundy and Berri, and the Pretender, the young Prince of Wales, commanded a field army which, after providing for all the garrisons, numbered about eighty thousand men.
For the only time in the Duke’s career he bent and bowed under the convergent strains at home and in the field. Eugene, arriving with only a cavalry escort, found him near Brussels in the deepest depression. He was prostrated by fever and so ill that he had to be bled. For a few hours he seemed unable to recover from the strategic injury of the loss of the fruits of Ramillies, the Ghent and Bruges waterways which were the railways of those times. Here Eugene sustained his comrade. Marlborough rose from his sick-bed, mounted his horse, and the Army was set in motion. By a tremendous march they reached Lessines, on the Dyle. At dawn on July 11 they set out towards the fortress and bridgehead of Oudenarde, on the Scheldt, which Vendôme intended to seize. The French had not contemplated the possibility of a battle, and their great army was crossing the river in a leisurely manner at Gavre. By half-past ten General Cadogan, with the English vanguard, had reached the high ground north of Oudenarde. Including the bridges of the fortress, nine bridges in all were prepared. Behind Cadogan the whole Army, eighty thousand strong, came on in a state of extraordinary wrath and enthusiasm. Goslinga, the Dutch deputy, records, “It was not a march, but a run.” The soldiers hurled all the officers’ baggage-wagons from the road in their eagerness to engage. The Army had marched fifty miles in sixty-five hours before they reached the bridges of the Scheldt. Cadogan meanwhile crossed and attacked the French detachments and flank guards.
Vendôme could not at first believe that the Allies were upon the scene in force. He rode out to see for himself, and was drawn into action by degrees. As the Allies poured across the Scheldt the French army wheeled to their left to face them. The Battle of Oudenarde was in every aspect modern. It more nearly resembled Tannenberg in 1914 than any great action of the eighteenth century. Marlborough, giving Eugene command of the right wing, held the centre at heavy odds himself while the rest of the Army was prolonging its line to the left. This long left arm reached out continually, and the battle front flared and flamed as it grew. The operation of crossing the river corps by corps in the face of an army equal in strength was judged most hazardous by the military opinion of that age of strife. The pace of the battle and its changes prevented all set arrangement. The French fought desperately but without any concerted plan, and a large part of their army was never engaged. The shadows of evening had fallen upon a battlefield of hedges, enclosures, villages, woods, and water-courses, in which the troops were locked in close, fierce fighting, when the Dutch, under the veteran Overkirk, at length traversed the Oudenarde bridges and swung round upon the heights to the north. At the same time Eugene, with magnificent courage, broke through on the right. The opposite wings of the Allies almost met. The French army was now utterly confused and divided into two parts. More than forty thousand men were virtually surrounded by the Allies; the other forty thousand stood baffled on the ridge above the battle. It was pitch-dark when the fighting stopped. So intermingled were the combatants that orders were given to the Allies to cease firing and lie upon their arms. But the weapons of those days did not enable an encircling net to be thrown round field troops on such a scale. Most of the surrounded French escaped during the night. In furious anger and consternation Vendôme ordered a retreat on Ghent. A quarter of his army was destroyed or dispersed. Seven thousand prisoners, many high officers, and a wealth of standards and trophies were in Marlborough’s hands when on the morning of July 12 he and his great companion rode their horses into the fine old square of Oudenarde.
This great victory altered the posture of the war. The Allies had recovered the initiative. Marlborough wished to march forward into France, leaving the great fortress of Lille behind him. He had already prepared in the Isle of Wight a force of seven thousand men with transports wherewith to seize Abbeville and establish a new base there behind the French barrier, from which he could march directly upon Paris. But he could not persuade Eugene. The “old Prince,” as he was called, though younger than Marlborough, felt it too dangerous to leave Lille behind him, and was over-distrustful of operations dependent upon the sea. It was resolved to attack Lille, the strongest fortress of France.
The siege of Lille was not only the largest but the most complicated operation of its kind known to the eighteenth century. In many ways it is unique in military annals. Marshal Boufflers with fifteen thousand men defended the city. Eugene conducted the siege, and Marlborough with the covering army held off the largely superior forces which, both from the neighbourhood of Ghent and from France itself, sought to relieve the city or sever the communications of the besiegers. Sixteen thousand horses drew Marlborough’s siege trains from Brussels to the trenches. The bringing in of these great convoys involved the movement of the whole covering army. The heavy batteries played upon the town, and a succession of bloody assaults was delivered week after week upon the breaches. At length the French cut the Allied communications with Holland. But Marlborough had meanwhile created a new line to Ostend, feeding himself from the sea. The French at Dunkirk opened the sluices; the inundations covered the coastal region, and an aquatic war developed in which the passage of every cannonball and sack of powder or of corn was disputed. From ship to boat, from boat to high-wheeled wagon, from these to the ordinary vehicles, the supplies of the siege were steadily conveyed.
Vendôme and the French princes, marching round to the south side of Lille, joined an army under Berwick, who had been transferred from Spain to the Belgian front. Marlborough, keeping pace on interior lines, confronted them. Eugene joined him with every man that could be spared from the siege. The French advanced in battle array and superior force, and at the same moment Marshal Boufflers made a furious sortie upon the weakened lines. So convinced was Marlborough of the necessity of a battle that he would not allow his own front to be fortified for several days. But the position selected was already too strong by nature for the French to make the attempt. They remained the mortified spectators of the impending fall of the city.
A brilliant action pierced the gloom of the autumn months. The long line of English communications stretching to Ostend was threatened by a powerful thrust of over twenty thousand French troops. The Allied convoys moving southwards upon Lille were in peril. General Webb, a Jacobite Tory and a competent soldier, was dispatched by Marlborough to meet the danger with an inferior force. A frontal attack upon Webb’s position in the woods hard by the Château of Wynendael failed with heavy loss through the magnificent fire discipline of the English soldiers. It was this action that sealed the fate of the city of Lille, which capitulated in October. To cover this loss Vendôme and Berwick attacked Brussels while the citadel of Lille still held out. But Marlborough and Eugene, marching north-east, forced the fortified line of the Scheldt and relieved the capital of Belgium. The citadel of Lille fell in December. Marlborough would not rest while Ghent and Bruges remained in hostile hands. Aided by the beginning of a memorable frost, he dragged his cannon to the assault of both these places. Bruges was recaptured at the end of December, and Ghent in the first days of January. Thus ended a campaign of struggle and hazard of which Prince Eugene said, “He who has not seen this has seen nothing.”
At the same time the capture of Minorca, with its fine harbour at Mahon, gave to the English Navy at last a secure, permanent base in the Mediterranean. Thus the year which had opened in such dismal fashion ended in complete victory for the Allies. Louis XIV made far-reaching offers of peace to the Dutch, and Marlborough himself entered into secret negotiations with his nephew Berwick for the same purpose. The war was now decisively won. The power of France was broken. The Great King was humbled. A terrible frost laid its grip upon tortured Europe. The seed froze in the ground; the cattle died in the fields, and the rabbits in their burrows. The misery of the French people reached the limit of endurance. All sought peace, and all failed to find it.
Meanwhile in England the Whigs had at last achieved their long purpose. They had compelled Marlborough and Godolphin to rest wholly upon them. They overbore the Queen. They drove the remaining Tories from the Cabinet, and installed a single-party administration, above which still sat the two super-Ministers, Marlborough and Godolphin. Hitherto, for all the differences upon methods, the war had had a common purpose. It was now a party policy. The Whigs, ardent, efficient masters of the Parliamentary arts, arrived in power at the very moment when their energy and war spirit were least needed. Marlborough and Godolphin, estranged from the Queen, must now conform to the decisions of a Whig Cabinet, while the Tories, sullen and revengeful in their plight, looked forward to their former leaders’ downfall. Harley, by his gifts and his craft, by his injuries and his eminence, became their natural leader. To him rallied the elder statesmen, Rochester and Nottingham. Strong in the favour of the Queen, maintained up the backstairs by Abigail, Harley reached out to Shrewsbury, now back in English politics after a long retirement, and ready to play an ambitious and powerful middle part.
Marlborough’s reign was ended. Henceforward he had but to serve. His paramount position in Europe and with the armies made him indispensable to either party as long as the war continued. First he served the Whigs and afterwards the Tories. He served the Whigs as plenipotentiary and General, and later he served the Tories as General only. His great period, from 1702 to 1708, was over. There still remained three difficult campaigns, upon a scale larger than any yet seen; but he no longer had control of the policy which alone could render fruitful the sombre struggles of the Army.
When we look upon the long years of terror and spoliation to which the princes of the Grand Alliance had been subjected by Louis XIV great allowances must be made for their suspicions in the hour of victory. Nevertheless the offers now made by France were so ample as to satisfy all reasonable demands of the Allies. The Dutch barrier was settled; the claims of the Duke of Savoy were met. The German princes were reassured upon the Rhine. There remained only the question of Spain. After all, the war had been fought about the Spanish Succession, and none of the victories of Marlborough and Eugene had settled that issue. In Spain alone did French fortunes prosper. But the Spanish quarrel had developed an independent life of its own. The Spanish people from high to low had accepted the claims and espoused the cause of the Duke of Anjou. In the fierceness of the struggle they had abandoned their hopes of preserving the Spanish inheritance in its integrity. They now set their hearts only upon having a king of their own choice. All questions at issue between the Allies and Louis XIV were settled. But what was to happen in Spain? Philip V declared he would rather die than abandon the Spanish people who had rallied to his aid.
He appeared ready even to defy the head of his house, the great monarch himself.
We cannot plumb the family and political relations at this juncture between Louis XIV and Philip; but there was substance in the argument of the Allies that they should not make peace with a France which they deemed at their mercy and let her recover her strength, while all the time they would have to continue a separate war in Spain. Moreover, the Dutch made it clear that they would not in any case fight in Spain. They had their barrier and all they wanted. The Whigs in England, on the contrary, were determined to drive Philip from Spain. They had committed themselves to the extravagant formula “No peace without Spain.” Torcy, the French Foreign Minister and son of the great Colbert, asked what it was the Allies expected his master to do. Louis was willing to dissociate himself entirely from Philip, to withdraw all French troops from the Peninsula, even to yield important French fortresses as a guarantee. The Allied negotiators believed that he had only to give the order and Philip would abdicate. But this is by no means certain. The one thing Louis would not do was to use French troops to drive his grandson out of the kingdom he had made his own. And this was the fatal rock upon which the whole peace conference was wrecked.
Marlborough, carefully watched by the Whigs, saw the danger ahead. He thought it would be better to make peace with France, accept the proffered fortresses as hostages for its execution, and settle the war in Spain separately. He had a plan for a great Spanish campaign, in which he would invade from Lisbon and Eugene from Barcelona. This, as events ran, might well have been the quickest and most merciful course. But the forces at work were too stubborn. The Tories wanted immediate and total peace. What they got was four years’ bloody and finally disastrous war. The negotiations broke on the article that Louis must himself become responsible for expelling his grandson from Spain on the pain of having the Allies renew the war against him from the bases and fortresses he was to surrender in guarantee. The Great King, old and broken, amid the ruin of his ambitions and the misery of his people, might have yielded; but the Dauphin with indignation demanded that his son should not be robbed of his kingdom by his own kin. When Torcy left the conference he passed through the headquarters of the French Army, commanded by Villars. The indomitable Marshal adjured him to tell the King that the Army could defend the honour of the monarchy. Thus driven and thus inspired, Louis XIV uttered the famous sentence, “If I must fight, it shall be with my enemies rather than with my children.”
Marlborough had laboured faithfully for peace, but he had not asserted to the full the still gigantic remnants of his personal power. He had misgivings, but upon the whole he expected the French to yield. “Are there no counter-proposals?” he asked in surprise when the courier brought the rejection of the Allied ultimatum. With Eugene he made some last efforts; but nothing availed. The disappointment of the Allies found vent in a vain and furious clamour that they had once again been tricked and fooled by Louis XIV. The drums beat in the Allied camps, and the greatest armies those war-worn times had seen rolled forward to the campaign of 1709 and the carnage of Malplaquet.
From this time forth the character of the war was profoundly affected. Justice quite suddenly gathered up her trappings and quitted one cause for the other. What had begun as a disjointed, tardy resistance of peoples, Parliaments, and Protestantism to intolerant and aggressive military power had transformed itself gradually and now flagrantly into invasion and subjugation by a victorious coalition. From this moment France, and to a lesser degree Spain, presented national fronts against foreign inroad and overlordship. There was a strange invigoration in the patriotic spirit both of the French and Spanish peoples. A new flood of strength welling from the depths which the early years of the century had not measured revived and replenished the enfeebled nobility, the exhausted professional armies, and a ruined treasury.
The Allied army had meanwhile been raised to its highest strength, and Marlborough and Eugene, concentrating south of Ghent, began the siege of Tournai. After a large and serious operation the city and citadel surrendered at the end of August. Marlborough now looked to Mons as the next objective. All this time the negotiations had been going forward behind the scenes, and both sides still felt that the little that separated them might at any moment be removed. But suddenly an explosion of war fury, an access of mental rage, took possession of both Governments and both armies down to the private soldiers. They discarded calculation, they flung caution to the winds; the King gave Villars full freedom for battle. Marlborough and Eugene responded with equal zeal. A terrible ardour inspired all ranks. They thirsted to be at each other’s throats and slay their foes, and thus bring the long war to an end.
By swift movements Marlborough and Eugene invested Mons, and, advancing south of it, found themselves confronted by Villars in the gap between the woods in which the village of Malplaquet stands, almost along the line of the present French frontier. On September 11 a hundred and ten thousand Allied troops assaulted the entrenchments, defended by about ninety thousand French. The battle was fought with extreme severity, and little quarter was asked or given. Marlborough in the main repeated the tactics of Blenheim. He first attacked both French wings. The Dutch were repelled with frightful slaughter on the left. The right wing, under Eugene, broke through the dense wood, and eventually reached the open country beyond. Under these pressures Villars and his second in command, the valiant Boufflers, were forced to thin their centre. The moment came for which Marlborough was waiting. He launched the English corps under Orkney upon the denuded redoubts, and, having seized them, brought forward his immense cavalry masses, over thirty thousand strong, which had been waiting all day close at hand. With the “Grey” Dragoons and the Scots Greys in the van, the Allied cavalry passed the entrenchments and deployed in the plain beyond. Villars had been grievously wounded, but the French cavalry came forward in magnificent spirit, and a long series of cavalry charges ensued. At length the French cavalry were mastered. Their infantry were already in retreat. “I am so tired,” wrote Marlborough to Sarah a few hours later, “that I have but strength enough to tell you that we have had this day a very bloody battle; the first part of the day we beat their foot, and afterwards their horse. God Almighty be praised, it is now in our powers to have what peace we please.”
Europe was appalled at the slaughter of Malplaquet. The Allies had lost over twenty thousand men, and the French two-thirds as many. There were hardly any prisoners. The victors camped upon the field, and Mons, the local object of the battle, was besieged and taken. But the event presented itself to all men as a terrible judgment upon the failure of the peace negotiations. The Dutch Republic was staggered by the slaughter of its finest troops. In England the Whigs, still for war on the most ruthless scale, proclaimed by oratory and pamphleteering that a decisive victory had been won. But the Tories accused them, and also Marlborough, of having thrown away the chance of a good peace to produce a fruitless carnage, the like of which Europe could not remember. Indeed Malplaquet, the largest and bloodiest battle of the eighteenth century, was surpassed only by Napoleon’s barren victory at Borodino a hundred years later.