History books are full of footnotes and marginal “by-the-ways” in eight point font, relegating to a mere sentence events and people who changed the course of the world. There are many events of 1704 that do indeed merit twelve point font: the formation of Delaware, the contemporary work of Isaac Newton, and Louis XIV’s declaration, “I, the Monarch, am the State.” And it is here that our world-changing annotation goes.
Louis XIV set about proving that his were no empty words as he intrigued and warred and battled and indulged in debauchery, with every effort a calculated endeavor on his part to become the dictator of Europe.
And but for one man, he would have succeeded. The Duke of Marlborough was England’s one hope. Formerly imprisoned, with the king unsure of his trustworthiness, now the Duke was Queen Anne’s sole hope to stop Louis the Sun King from taking over Europe. And the Duke knew that this was his chance at redemption, to prove his fidelity to the Queen. It was a battle against dictatorship, but it was a personal battle, too.
So all hope rested squarely on the Duke of Marlborough’s uniformed shoulders as in August, 1704 his army came face to face with the French troops near the town of Blenheim. But the armies facing off were less than equal.
The French and Bavarians were an imposing line-up, with more men and more guns than the British and Austrians. Not only that, but the French had not suffered a major defeat in fifty years, and a superstitious aura of invincibility seemed to surround them. Their military force was in its prime, and hungry for a conquest.
The British army, on the other hand, was made up of leaders without any formal military education. Furthermore, many of the officers were wealthy men who had simply purchased their undeserved promotions. The Duke of Marlborough didn’t have much to work with, and that night before the clash of the two world forces he must have felt the solemn weight of the dire consequences should he fail.
The sun rose the morning of the planned battle, but that was the only predictable part of the whole day.
Marlborough sent a troop of soldiers to attack the village of Blenheim at 1:00 pm, August 13th, 1704. And that was when Louis XIV’s general, Duc de Tallard, made his fatal error: he panicked. He sent his reserves into the village to help, and Marlborough’s heart must have raced with a tinge of hope. Marlborough immediately ordered the troop to contain the French in the village while he charged the rest of the French and Bavarian armies.
The English and Austrians fought stoutly, their hearts in every sword stroke, until they broke the French lines, and the enemy turned tail and began fleeing like madmen. In the chaos, the Allies succeeded in capturing Marshall Tallard himself, who would spend the next seven years in captivity in England. The French and Bavarian armies suffered devastating losses, with over 14,000 men surrendering in defeat to the victorious Duke of Marlborough.
The Duke’s victory was decisive, and it was the turning point in the War of Spanish Succession. Through the victory at Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough saved Vienna from the greedy French armies, and he would go on to lead England and her allies to complete victory against the French. Bavaria ended its alliance with the French, and for the first time the Sun King’s brilliance began to smother. The victory was so great that it is said that when Queen Anne heard the news of the great and glorious victory, the regal monarch began to weep.
Out of context, this tale is nothing more than a footnote. But not when you consider that over two centuries later another dictator would threaten to sweep Europe, another equally egotistical and greedy leader. Once again, England would be compelled to come to the aid of her allies, and once again they would need a genius to lead them. Once again, one man would be called upon to helm England’s part in a great war. In 1704, that man was John Churchill, the man whom you know as the Duke of Marlborough. And in 1940, John Churchill’s direct descendant, Winston Churchill, led England through her darkest hour. And thus reads our footnote: “John Churchill, the man who brilliantly saved Europe from the French in 1704.” John only gets a sentence compared to the chapters spent on Winston, but without John Churchill’s leadership that day at Blenheim, there may not have been an England for Winston Churchill to guide to victory in 1940.
So now you know it—the rest of the story.
Photo Credit: Matt Schwartz