Battle of Blenheim / Höchstädt
|Date:||13 August 1704|
|Bourbon side:||Alliance side:|
|Mérode Westerloo||John Cutts|
The Battle of Blenheim was one of the most decisive battles of the War of the Spanish Succession. It's often described in connection with other events of the 1704 Danube campaign, but there is no immediate chain of cause and effect between these events and the Battle of Blenheim. Therefore the description of the Battle of Blenheim can best be started at the moment that Tallard and Eugen started to move to Bavaria.
- 1 Maneuvers towards the Battlefield
- 1.1 Tallard and Eugen march to Bavaria
- 1.2 The armies march towards Blenheim
- 2 The battlefield of Blenheim; the forces and plans
- 2.1 Map and description of the Battlefield
- 2.2 The Alliance Army
- 2.3 The Franco Bavarian Army
- 2.4 The Alliance plans
- 2.5 The Franco-Bavarian plans
- 3 First phase: infantry attacks
- 3.1 Attack on Blenheim village
- 3.2 Attack on the plain
- 3.3 Attack on Oberglau
- 3.4 Eugen's attacks
- 4 Second phase: Cavalry action
- 4.1 Cavalry on central plain decides the battle
- 4.2 Tallard's counterattack
- 4.3 The great Cavalry attack
- 5 Third phase: The capitulation of Blindheim
- 6 The Results
- 7 Blame and Credit
On 22 July 1704 the positions of the armies were as follows: Villeroy had crossed the Rhine and was in a position near Offenburg, held in check by Nassau-Weilburg at the Lines of Stollhofen. Tallard was still at Villingen, observed by Eugen who had arrived at Rottweil at the end of the siege. Marlborough had just left Aichach and was on his way to Friedberg, arriving there on the 23rd.
At Friedberg Marlborough was busy ordering his supplies and arranging for siege guns from the empire as well as the United Provinces. From this position he also hoped to cut off Max Emanuel and Marsin from resources in Bavaria. In their fortified camp at Augsburg these had however accumulated enough resources to wait for the arrival of Tallard.
After it had become clear that taking Villingen would take at least five more days Tallard had left Villingen on 22 July. He arrived at Tuttlingen on the 23rd and crossed the Danube there on the 24th. He then marched over Messkirch and Mengen to Ulm where he arrived on the 29th. He left Ulm on 31 July and then marched over Weissenhorn, Krumbach and Thannhausen to Diedorf where he arrived on 3 August.
Eugen had arrived in Rottweil on 23 July. When he heard that the siege of Villingen had been lifted he appreciated that he had no choice but to march east too. This he however did by first marching north and then east, supposedly to confuse the French as to his whereabouts. He arrived in Süssen on 29 July, at Heidenheim on 1 August and in Höchstädt on 3 August.
Meanwhile Marlborough and Louis of Baden stayed at Friedberg. They decided to besiege Ingolstadt and continued their preparations. In order to put some more pressure on Max Emanuel they sent out a 3,000 and a 2,000 strong cavalry detachment with orders to plunder and burn the Bavarian countryside. These returned to camp on 3 August.
As said above Tallard arrived in Diedorf on 3 August. He then conferred with Max Emanuel and Marsin about a plan to beat the alliance. Basically they had a choice between trying to attack the alliance troops and trying to cut of their communications to the north. In the end they decided to opt for the latter by attacking Nördlingen. The reason Tallard later gave for the march to the north was fear of Eugen taking Lauingen and the bridge there1. After leaving troops in Augsburg they marched their united armies first to Biberach, then to Aislingen, and crossed the Danube on 10 August. Here they attacked the castle of Dillingen, which had a 200 strong garrison that surrendered within 24 hours. They next descended the Danube till they sat up camp near Blenheim on 12 August.
On the alliance side Marlborough, Eugen and Louis of Baden had decided to besiege Ingolstadt. These generals counted that this would force the French either to attack them or loose Ingolstadt, which would be a big prize for the alliance. Eugen therefore started to retreat from Höchstädt on 6 August and took up a new position on the Kesselbach. Marlborough and Louis of Baden left their camp near Friedberg on the 4th and marched north along the Paar. After some reconnaissance Louis of Baden left for Neuburg on the 9th while Marlborough continued to a position near Echsheim. At about the same time Marlborough however got intelligence about the whereabouts of the French army, and so strong detachments were sent to Eugen in the morning of the 10th. The rest of the army moved on to Niederschönenfeld and Rain in order to observe the affairs from there. However, in the evening of 10 August a courier from Eugen arrived with the news that the French had crossed the Danube, and so by three o'clock that night the whole army was moving towards Eugen's position on the Kessel. In the evening of 11 August Eugen and Marlborough had united their forces behind the Kessel. They could be very satisfied by having acted faster than the French and finding themselves in a good position to cover the siege of Ingolstadt.
On the 12th Marlborough and Eugen decided to gather some intelligence. They therefore rode towards Höchstädt with a strong cavalry detachment. From the church-tower of Tapfheim they then personally observed the Franco-Bavarian army preparing a camp behind the Nebelbach. Both generals probably thought of attacking this camp, for Marlborough immediately gave orders for pioneers to level the way from the Kessel to the Nebelbach. Because some French cavalry came up and tried to disturb these works infantry and cavalry were brought forward across the Nebel to better protect the pioneers. Because the French didn't come back most troops were however ordered back behind the Nebel, and only nine battalions stayed behind to cover Tapfheim. It was stated by Dr. Hare that after this reconnaissance Eugen and Marlborough decided to give battle on the 13th.
Here is a map of the battlefield of Blenheim. There were potential strong-points in the villages of Blenheim and Oberglau. Between these villages was a flat plain ideal for maneuvering, but protected by the Nebelbach, a 12 feet wide stream surrounded by marshes and only passable by bridging. The field north of Oberglau was far more rugged with bushes and woods. The principal strength of the French position was the Nebelbach.
The Nebelbach could perhaps be crossed easily, but not in battle order. This meant that troops passing it had to redeploy on the other side and would be very vulnerable at that moment. If the French were to take a defensive stance on this battlefield they did have to make a choice of strategy for the eastern half of the battlefield. The first option was to take a purely defensive stance by trying to dispute the crossing of the Nebelbach.
The second option was to let the enemy pass the Nebelbach and to fight it out on the central plain. The problem of Blindheim village was that troops fortified in this village could not prevent the enemy from crossing the Nebelbach. In this second strategy they could function as a strong point, but its connection to the central plain was complicated by the Weiherbrunn.
There are of course multiple sources for the strength and composition of the allied army. From these we can deduce that it counted 66 battalions, 181 squadrons and 66 guns2 or 51,000 men3.
With the right wing under the command of Eugen were: 11 Prussian Battalions, 7 Danish battalions and 74 squadrons of Imperial, Prussian, Swabian, Franconian, Würtemberg and other Imperial cavalry.
With the left wing under command of Marlborough were: 14 battalions and 18 squadrons of the United Provinces; 14 battalions and 14 squadrons from England; 7 battalions and 7 squadrons from Hesse; 25 squadrons from Hannover, Luneburg, Zell and Swiss; 22 Danish squadrons4. Because it's hard to get a good OOB or Order of Battle for Blenheim I have made it for the alliance infantry.
The Franco-Bavarian forces can be put at 79 battalions, 143 squadrons and 90 guns5, or 48,000 men6. Most of these were French, some were Bavarian, and some were Spanish from the Spanish Netherlands. Of these forces 16 Squadrons had lost their horses to disease, 12 of these were behind a barricade of wagons that stretched from Blenheim to the Danube, 4 others were positioned somewhere between Blenheim and Oberglau.
Judging by this division of forces many historians have claimed that Eugen was not expected to win at his wing. It would have been his task to pin down the French left wing between Oberglau and Lutzingen. Marlborough would then attack the French centre (or right wing) between Oberglau and Blenheim and achieve a breakthrough there. Junkelmann has however pointed out that Eugen tried just as well to achieve a breakthrough but was not aided by the mistakes of his enemies7. However this may be, the basic idea of Marlborough's plan was to outnumber the French in the central plain between Oberglau and Blenheim. To do this he would need time to deploy the mass of his cavalry and infantry over the Nebel by bridging it. In order to keep the French in Oberglau and Blenheim from interfering with this Marlborough ordered Lord Cutts to attack Blenheim, and the prince of Holstein-Beck to attack Oberglau.
Judging by a letter Tallard sent to Louis in the morning of 13 August, the French (or at least Tallard) were surprised by the enemy showing up8. The surprise prompted the French to make a hasty deployment of their two armies next to each other. On the left Marsin started with a traditional deployment with the infantry in the center and his cavalry on the wings, but later made some corrections by moving infantry to the west. On the right Tallard did not have this option because cavalry was not suitable for the small strip of land between Blenheim and the Nebelbach. He therefore sent his infantry to his right wing and added his right wing cavalry to his center. This made that he had his main line of infantry of 27 battalions concentrated in or near Blenheim and only 9 battalions on the plain9.
The normal course of action for an army in Tallard's position would have been to prevent Marlborough from crossing the Nebel. In such a strategy the 27 battalion main body of Tallard's infantry could all have deployed north of the Weiherbrunn and from there it could have disputed the Nebelbach and would have been able to support the cavalry on the plain. What in fact happened was that (part of) the first line of this infantry fortified Blenheim and thus prevented this strategy. I do not know whether this was the intention of Tallard, but had it been so the decision to fortify Blindheim should have been followed by deploying the second line of infantry to a position west of Blenheim. This was not done and so between 14 and 18 battalions were left in a rather useless position behind Blenheim. From there these could have intervened on the battlefield west of Blenheim, but the Weiherbrunn would complicate such a maneuver if it was to be done later in the battle. To sum it up: Tallard's deployment was neither tuned to disputing the Nebelbach nor to fighting on the plain.
Though the cannonades had already started at eight o'clock the allied plan could not be put into action immediately. This because Marlborough had to wait for Eugen to deploy. Therefore the battle was opened only after 12:30.
The initial attack on Blenheim was executed under the command of Lord Cutts. The first two brigades were commanded by Wilkes and the first of these under Rowe crossed the Nebelbach undisputed. It neared the barricaded village till the French opened fire at 30 feet. Notwithstanding the heavy losses it suffered the brigade pressed on to Blenheim, but soon saw itself compulsed to withdraw. During this withdrawal it was attacked by three squadrons, but these came under fire of the second (Hessian) brigade that was posed near the Nebelbach. These complied the French to withdraw again to the Meulweijer. The English were then reinforced with 5 squadrons of the left of the allied cavalry under Palme. These were in turn attacked with firearms by the 8 Gendarmerie squadrons under personal command of Tallard. The English cavalry responded by charging with their sabers and so pressed them back across the Meulweijer and wounded Tallard. In turn the English were turned back by a cavalry attack of the second line under Zurlauben.
Now Lord Cutts did not attempt anymore direct assaults on Blenheim. In stead he drew up his troops at the distance of a musket shot from Blenheim. From there small parties would continuously come forward and fire on the village. Under cover of the resulting smoke more and more troops were deployed to his right and the plain, bypassing Blenheim. The French cavalry performed some more charges but to no avail.
Meanwhile the French command made two mistakes. The first was that almost immediately after the first attack Marquis de Clérambault (commanding the French wing in Blenheim) ordered 9 battalions into the village, bringing the total troops in Blenheim to 27 battalions. This circumstance only hindered in its defense and exposed Tallard's centre, leaving only 9 battalions of recruits on the plain to prop up the cavalry. Clérambault's action thus prevented the French from deploying a solid line on the plain. On the other hand it would not be just to blame Clérambault for what happened later. Tallard did have enough time to order these battalions back, but he did not. The second mistake would be made on the plain.
The center (Dutch) and right (Danish) wing of the allied cavalry also had to cross the Nebel proceeded by 4-8 English battalions under General Churchill in the center. On the allied right wing the Danish and Lüneburg cavalry had to fight hard after it had crossed and was twice repulsed to or across the Nebel by Marsin's cavalry. This probably also due to infantry fire from Oberglau. In the center the French made their second mistake: They let the Dutch cavalry pass unopposed and Hompesch later remarked he thought the enemy hit with blindness10. This way the center of the allied cavalry calmly deployed across the Nebel.
The infantry attack on Oberglau went not that well for the allies. Here Blainville did take proper action. When the first 2-4 battalions under Holstein Beck had crossed the Nebel they were immediately attacked by 9 French battalions. Especially the battalions of Goor and Beinheim suffered heavy losses, with Goor's suffering about 200 killed and missing and 200 wounded. Holstein-Beck was seriously wounded and captured11. Marlborough personally interfered on this section of the front. He let three battalions of the second line advance and ordered some Württemberg dragoons and field guns forward. Even this did not prove enough and more squadrons, some battalions and even part of the Imperial cavalry reserve had to be brought up to withstand the enemy cavalry and push the enemy battalions back into Oberglauheim. This was achieved at about three o'clock. For other accounts see this12 note below.
Somewhere between one and two o'clock Eugen started his first attack. The infantry of the right wing moved forward and won some terrain near Lützingen. The cavalry at first did better and broke through the first line of Marsin's, but was thrown back to the Nebelbach by the second line. After that the infantry was also pushed back some 300-400 feet by a counter offensive. This way Eugen's first attack had failed completely.
Somewhere around 14:30 Eugen launched a second attack. Again the cavalry was rolled back after some initial success. This was probably also due to flanking fire from the villages. The infantry was also charged by Marsin's cavalry, but succeeded in retaining its posts close to the enemy.
It was 16:30 before Eugen was ready for a third attack. This time the cavalry succeeded in overthrowing the first line, but was again pushed back to the Nebelbach by the enemy's second line and was quite defeated. The infantry under Leopold von Dessau however succeeded in nearing Lützingen near the end of the battle. By then the elector had to dismiss the opportunity to push them back with his victorious cavalry because the battle had been decided in the southern sector.
To the eye of the casual observer the allies had not been making much headway, but in reality the battle had been all but won by Marlborough. At about 16:00 hours he had deployed on the open plain between Oberglau and Blenheim a cavalry force superior to the French, and an infantry force infinitely superior to the French infantry in the area. On this plain the allies with 16 battalions13 and almost 80 squadrons faced 9 battalions and about 55 squadrons. The allies were deployed in two lines of cavalry with most of the second line of the infantry behind them. The French also had two lines of cavalry and had 9 battalions of infantry. An attempt by Westerloo to get some battalions from Blenheim was twharted by Clerembault who forbade his troops to leave the village14.
Tallard now finally called for a general attack on the alliance cavalry. It was executed near Oberglauheim with his cavalry and nine battalions of recruits, who were mixed in between the squadrons. Counting the numbers it's not surprising that this cavalry failed in its attack.
What is surprising is what happened to these infantry battalions. Of course they tried to retreat too, but they were surrounded. It therefore seems that the French cavalry was either so thoroughly beaten that it could only regroup in a position behind the Weiherbrunn, or that it lacked the command and leadership to stay close to these battalions and to aid them in their retreat.
However this may be, the alliance troops were not hindered very much when after chasing away the French cavalry they brought forward the infantry and some artillery that fired shrapnel against these battalions. The result was predictable, after some time the units became disorganized and the remains were cut down by the cavalry or taken prisoner. After dispatching these 9 battalions the alliance troops regrouped once more in order to annihilate Tallard's army with a final charge.
At about 18:00 Marlborough's cavalry of about 80 squadrons got the orders to charge against the disorganized lines of cavalry in front of them. Seeing the enemy coming at them the French cavalry correctly assessed they had no chance and fled the battlefield. Thirty squadrons under Hompesch then pursued the part of the French cavalry that fled to Höchstädt. Marlborough and Hessen Kassel pursued those that fled in the direction of Sonderheim and the Danube. A great part of these drowned while attempting to swim the river or while their horses plunged from the river bank that was up to 6 meters high in the area. Many others escaped to Höchstädt.
Tallard was captured near Sonderheim. The breakthrough between Blenheim and Oberglau led to the retreat of the army of Max Emanuel and Marsin. They packed their trophies and escaped capture by retreating via Mörslingen.
Only the 27 battalions of infantry and 12 squadrons of dismounted dragoons in Blenheim were now left on the battlefield. It has been stated that these belonged to the best of the French infantry, but in fact the composition of this force was rather average and less 'elite' than Marsin's infantry15. Westerloo gave a description of the terrible circumstance these troops now had been in for some time. The village was in flames and the troops were so constricted that they suffered extra losses because enemy fire was bound to hit someone.
After the great cavalry attack the village of Blindheim was surrounded. Clérembault died by drowning in the Danube, a probable suicide and was succeeded in command by Maréchal de camp Marquis de Blansac. Afterwards critics in France wondered why this force did not make a concerted attempt to escape encirclement and surrender. Single regiments did make attempts to escape, but were repulsed. What was needed in a case like this was a body of about a dozen battalions in a formation. The troops in Blenheim had however become very disorganized and also lacked the space needed to deploy such an amount of troops in an orderly formation. Apart from this the village of Blenheim was in a corner and a retreat would mean breaking through the whole width of the battlefield.
The troops thus stayed in Blenheim and the alliance brought forward its artillery. Of course the alliance demanded the surrender of the French in Blenheim. Just as naturally the French were not inclined to surrender such a large force. The increasing casualties and the hopelessnes of their situation however convinced Blansac to accept the allied offer. Some officers of the Navarre regiment and the regiment royal protested and tried to resist, but were overcome. At about 20:00 PM the battle of Blenheim ended with the surrender of the 27 battalions and 4 dragoon regiments in the village.
The allies had lost about 6,000 dead and about 6,500 wounded. The French had lost about 11,000 prisoners in Blenhem. With only about 16,000 men escaping back to France their total loss from all causes (killed, wounded, missing) was estimated at 30,000 (Barnett). Of their loss in materiel the allies captured 5,400 wagons, 330 mules, 151 guns and mortars, 34 coaches with French ladies, 144 standards and colors, the army's treasury, 3,600 tents, 2 ship-bridges, and 18 pontoons (Churchill).
The French army also lost something more immaterial, but just as important: its reputation of invincibility. In the past decades it had of course lost other battles, but it had never suffered a rout like this. After Blenheim the soldiers of both sides knew that a French army could actually be annihilated on the battlefield. It robbed the French soldier of some of his confidence and he could no longer quench his fears by the rational argument that French armies were never routed.
The political consequences were quite clear. Bavaria was lost for the Two Crowns and Louis XIV could no longer hope for German princes to switch to his side. The empire would become a more or less solid block able to keep the French of its territory. The Habsburgs would start to focus on Italy and Hungary and the seapowers would undoubtedly try to enter France or conquer Flanders. The loss of Bavaria also meant that in any peace agreement Louis had to offer something to the alliance in order to let them reinstate Max Emanuel. Fighting to a stalemate was therefore no longer sufficient to keep the whole Spanish inheritance. If France conquered Savoy however, it could hope to exchange it for Bavaria.
There can be no doubt about the genius of Eugen. With his small army he kept a much larger army occupied, supported Marlborough in a crisis by lending the imperial cavalry, and even made some headway against Marsin. Doing so he perhaps achieved what could be achieved against a more numerous enemy under the leadership of Max Emanuel. With regard to Marlborough's generalship one could be tempted to say that he won because Tallard made mistakes. Viewed from a certain perspective this is true; had Tallard deployed his infantry better and contested the crossing of the Nebel, it's quite possible that Marlborough would not have achieve a breakthrough. On the other hand: Marlborough did not make mistakes, always had his army under control and achieved some surprise, he could also have won (but not in such a crushing way) had Tallard behaved more wisely. Contesting the genius of his generalship is thus useless and unjustified.
With regard to the Franco-Bavarian army it is useful to say something of its command. The failure of its generals resulted in a crushing defeat, and while one is not directly a bad general when one looses a battle, the rout that the army suffered at Blenheim is to blame on its generals. First to blame is undoubtedly Tallard. He chose an unusual deployment for his troops in order to defeat Marlborough. While it is perfectly allowed to leave the paths of conventional wisdom in order to follow a different plan, the general should see to its execution in such a case. In stead of doing this Tallard went to look at how things were going on the other wing, allowing Clérambault to ruin his deployment. Upon his return to his post Tallard did not rectify the situation thereby approving of Clérambault's action, or at least taking responsibility for it. It is possible that he did not see it in time due to his physical short-sightedness, but that would expose him to the even more serious allegation of not having organized his command structure. Anyhow: the full blame for the mismanagement of his army lies with Tallard himself, not with Clérambault.
Marsin and Max Emanuel do not often receive criticism for their conduct, but a few questions may be posed. They had a substantial majority over Eugen: could they not have pressured him more in order to force Marlborough to send reinforcements to him? Or, could they not have kept some troops in reserve or detached some troops to Tallard? To put it short: they should have appreciated that they heavily outnumbered Eugen, and that at least part of their troops was needed to aid Tallard, who was outnumbered by Marlborough. Though they performed some action near Oberglau the attitude of Marsin and Max Emanuel seems easy-going, and not appreciative of the overall situation on the battlefield. On the other hand it would be hard to imagine them checking whether Tallard was doing his job.
According to Saint Simon however, public blame fell on a lot of officers, certain regiments etc., but not on the generals.
|1) Memo written by Tallard around 1727, printed in Het Staatse Leger Volume 8/I page 754|
|2) Het Staatse Leger says 64 battalions, 166 squadrons and 52 guns according to Austrian and Bavarian General Staff histories. Also 66 battalions 181 squadrons and 66 guns according to Eugen, Ivoy and Hompesch. According to Barnett 66 battalions, 160 squadrons and 66 cannon totaling 56,000 men. According to Churchill 66 battalions, 160 squadrons and about 66 cannon totaling about 56,000 men. According to Dr. Hare 66 battalions and 160 squadrons.|
|3) See Staatse Leger VIII/I page 460 and the computation made there|
|4) Composition of both wings According to Dr. Hare|
|5) Staatse Leger VIII/I page 457|
|6) Staatse Leger VIII/I page 460 and the computation made there|
|7) Das greulichste Spectaculum by Marcus Junkelmann|
|8) This letter by Tallard can be found on page 136 of Campagne de monsieur le maréchal de Tallard en Allemagne 1704 Vol. 2, Amsterdam 1763.|
|9) It's thus my point of view that Tallard did not start out by planning to fortify Blindheim with 27 battalions, but simply sent his main body of infantry to the eastern part of the battlefield. Once there it started to entrench itself in the village. Comparing the order of battle of Tallard's army before and at Blenheim could shed some light on this.|
|10) Staatse Leger VIII/I page 752 Letter by Hompesch to Heinsius, also in H.A. 1704 nr. 785: 'Je dois croire que nos ennemis ont esté battu d'aveuglement pour ne nous pas avoir attaqué avant que nous eussions tous passes le ruissaux etc.'|
|11) It's often stated that he died of his wounds, but he lived till 1744. This notwithstanding the bayonet stabs he received from the French when they had to leave him. The first mention of him having died of his wounds I found in Lediard's biography of Marlborough.|
|12) My version of events comes from 'Het Staatse Leger' There are other versions of events at Oberglauheim. Dr. Hare said: 'The Irish regiments in the French service attacked those of Goor and Beinheim, but they were so warmly received, that after a sharp dispute they were forced to retire.' This account is not probable for I do not see the remainders of Goor's regiment pushing that many men back. In Lediard we find: '(Holstein Beck) passed the rivulet at the head of two battalions, with great resolution; but, as the Imperial Cavalry, which was to have supported him, were wanting in their duty, and kept musket-shot away from him, he was hardly got over, when seven or eight of the enemy's battalions fell upon him, with great fury, before he could form his two battalions; so that one of them, that of Goor, was almost entirely cut in pieces, ... Notwithstanding this shock, these battalions were no sooner supported, by some Danish and Hannoverian cavalry, than they charged a second time; but with no better success. Till, upon the third charge, the duke having himself brought up some squadrons, which were supported by others of the body of reserve, made them advance with some battalions beyond the rivulet; whereupon the enemy began to retire' This account by Lediard has the advantage that it fits the list of losses sent to the States General. Other, secondary sources imply that Holstein Beck's ten battalions were entirely beaten and or pushed back over the Nebel, and that there was a danger of the French breaking through the allied lines. I have not found the primary source where these accounts originate. If you do please let me know.|
|13) It's often stated that by the time General Churchill had two lines of infantry on the plain, but in fact the whole original first line was at Blindheim or near Oberglauheim.|
|14) I still have to check this in his memoirs|
|15) Taking the List of French Infantry regiments one can easily see that both Marsin's army and the Blenheim force consisted almost exclusively of regiments founded before the war. If one then counts how many regiments belonged to the 24 oldest in the army, the difference starts to show. Of the Blenheim force 2 regiments belong to this group making less than 25% of battalions 'elite'. Of Marsin's force 6 regiments belong to this group, making 14 battalions or 40% 'elite'.|