Battle of Blenheim 13th August 1704

The Elector’s position at Dillingen was now at risk with the loss of Donauwörth so he abandoned the line of the Danube, marched south to Augsburg and concentrated his forces by pulling in garrison troops from outlying cities. He was waiting for Marshal the Marquis de Tallard and his army to reach the area via the Black Forest where they were being severely hampered by hostile locals. Tallard had been Louis XIV’s popular ambassador to London until 1701 and had many friends in the Allied army.

 

In the meantime Marlborough received some reinforcements but lacked a siege train and guns to attack Bavarian garrisons. Nevertheless he captured Rain, just south of Donauwörth, on 16th July and threatened an attack on Munich before turning west and facing Augsburg. He then directed the controversial sacking of Bavaria in order to deny supplies to the Elector’s troops and to pressure the Elector into seeking peace. Marlborough needed a decisive victory before autumn when he would have to withdraw north into Germany for winter and when the Dutch would recall their troops. To achieve this victory he would also need Prince Eugene’s army of 20,000 men, with their guns, to join him from the Lines of Stollhofen where they were blocking any French reinforcements to Bavaria. This need was urgent as Marlborough had agreed to the Margrave leaving to besiege the Bavarian force in the Ingolstadt fortress. Although he was free of the disagreeable general his combined army of 52,000 would be outnumbered by the combined French and Bavarian armies.

Rain - monument with fine bronze of Maximilian I, grandfather of Max Emmanuel II

Tallard’s army of 26,000 linked up with the Elector’s and Marshal Marsin’s force of 30,000 on 6th August near Augsburg and with 90 guns they crossed the Danube back to the north bank at Dillingen on 10th August. They anticipated attacking Eugene before he could join forces with Marlborough and were unaware that the Margrave had left and was marching to Ingolstadt. Tallard pressured the Elector into reassembling his troops who had been deployed on guard duties on his estates when Marlborough was sacking Bavaria. Tallard believed Marlborough would be withdrawing soon due to his cautious allies and long lines of communication. He was unwilling to commit French troops to offensive action without the Elector’s military contribution and whilst he might have anticipated short engagements he did not believe he would be attacked in strength.

 

Eugene's professional skills were excellent and he shared with Marlborough a close understanding of the campaign they were fighting. They were in constant communication with each other and both read the developing situation with a joint awareness. He now marched east towards Donauwörth where his advance guard prepared defensive positions. When Marlborough learnt of the French redeployment on 10th August he immediately sent the Prince of Württemberg with 27 cavalry squadrons and his younger brother, Charles Churchill, with 20 infantry battalions to support Eugene. The two commanders met at Donaumünster, just west of Donauwörth, that evening and the two armies linked up the next day.

Hochstadt - where there is a museum with random opening hours

On 11th August the French and Bavarians moved east of Hochstadt to open ground where they set up camp. They had a strong position over four miles with their right on the Danube and their left on wooded high ground of the Swabian Jura. Their front was protected by a marshy area, the Nebel stream and a string of strongly defended villages, Blenheim (Blindheim), Oberglau and Lutzingen. As they moved in on 12th August they could see an allied encampment 6 miles away in the area of Tapfheim between the high ground and the river. It seemed an opportunity for attack so Tallard sent a reconnaissance force of 40 squadrons forward. They were soon seen off by an equal force but came back with four prisoners. These men were planted and they told the French that the Margrave had joined them and the allied force was moving off north to Nördlingen the next day. Tallard, Marsin and the Elector decided the allies were too strong to be attacked but because they seemed to be withdrawing, as anticipated, they lowered their guard.

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

The Plain of Hochstadt looking east from the extreme northwest of Lutzingen on the French left flank

Looking east to Unterglauheim across the Nebel, from approximate centre of French deployment

The Nebel now is all neat and tidy, running straight and draining the previously marshy land

Marlborough and Eugene used the 12th August for reconnaissance, notably from the tower of the church at Tapfheim and a hill near Wolperstetten before joining their cavalry to see off the French squadrons.

The church at Tapfheim from where Marlborough and Eugene viewed the battlefield

Looking west from outside Tapfheim over rising ground to Blenheim (on the left)

Whilst the French relaxed the allied army moved forward that night. 40 squadrons led with the infantry in eight columns following on prepared routes. As they marched forward they picked up the outposts who formed a ninth column on the left. By 0600 hours they were at Schwenningen under early morning mists with 66 battalions, 160 squadrons and 66 guns, about 56,000 men, just two miles away from the French camp. The plan was for Eugene to attack and hold the French left wing whilst Marlborough attacked and destroyed their right wing.

Looking west from higher ground above Wolperstetten; the horizon includes Blenheim to the left and Lutzingen to the right - a 4 mile front

When the mists cleared and the French saw this army to their front Tallard, as late as 0700 hours, still believed the allies to be withdrawing and had no anticipation of a battle. He and the Bavarians were soon shocked into action as they saw the allies forming into line to face them for an attack. Tallard ordered signal guns to recall his foragers and to sound the alarm. As the French hurried into battle deployment retiring pickets fired the forward hamlets they had occupied and the guns opened up. An artillery duel took place as the allied guns came up and returned fire.

 

The two French marshals and the Elector met in Blenheim and viewed the scene from its church tower. They assumed the Margrave was with the allied army but were happy with their own deployment. Marsin’s and the Elector’s troops were forward with Tallard’s in their rear. Looking across the large plain on their left they saw allied troops deploying towards Lutzingen near the foothills, and on their right four lines of infantry and two of cavalry deployed forward of Blenheim. Between Blenheim and Oberglauheim the main allied force were drawn up in four lines in an unusual formation, a line of foot, two of cavalry, three or four deep, and another of foot.

Blenheim church from where the two French marshals and the Elector reviewed their deployments

The French plan of defence was for Marsin and the Elector to hold the front from the hills to Oberglauheim whilst Tallard, reinforced by 30 squadrons from Marsin, would hold the ground between Oberglauheim and Blenheim and extended to the Danube. There was disagreement on their tactics which were to differ on the ground. Marsin and the Elector would station their troops forward on firm ground close to the marsh to destroy the attackers as they crossed or before they could reform having crossed. Tallard planned on using his cavalry on firmer ground and to allow more enemy to cross before engaging them on their flanks and rear with his massed troops in Oberglauheim and Blenheim as they would then be unable to escape.

 

On the French left 12 battalions were posted in Lutzingen and nearby woods. 16 guns on a rise provided excellent fields of fire across cornfields and the Nebel towards Weilheim Farm where Eugene’s infantry formed up.

 

Tallard closed the gap between the Danube and Blenheim with 12 squadrons of dismounted dragoons behind a wall of carts, and defended Blenheim with 9 battalions with 7 behind them and another 11 further back in reserve. Between Blenheim and Oberglauheim at 1000 yards from the Nebel he deployed 68 squadrons with 11 battalions in support and sent two battalions to join Marsin’s force in Oberglauheim. Marsin and the Elector stationed 27 squadrons, the rest of the French and all the Bavarian cavalry, between Oberglauheim and Lutzingen. The force facing the allies comprised 84 battalions, 147 squadrons and 90 cannon totalling about 60,000 men. The three villages of Blenheim, Oberglauheim and Lutzingen provided a line of strongpoints supported by artillery, with massed cavalry between them with massed infantry on their flanks. A formidable defensive deployment had been adopted in good time.

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

As Marlborough’s army deployed to face the enemy over the four mile gap between the Danube and the Jura hills his engineers and pioneers were busy. Their task was to repair and construct crossings over the Nebel and causeways across the marshland between Blenheim and Oberglau. When the army came within range the French guns, under the Marquis de Frequeliere, opened up and had the advantage until the allies’ guns arrived in position. On the right Eugene with the smaller wing of about 20,000 men made slow progress through rough country trying to reach their positions opposite Marsin and the Elector by 1100 hours. On the left the ninth column of 20,000 men under Lord Cutts deployed to a position at about 150 yards from Blenheim. En route they cleared the enemy from two water mills. In the centre the rest of the allies waited under fire, held drumhead services and ate their lunch’.

 

Marlborough’s plan was for the right to attack and hold the Bavarian forces at Lutzingen. This would pin Marsin’s French army in place around Oberglau in the centre and prevent aid being sent to Tallard’s army on the open fields stretching south towards Blenheim. He would force the line of the Nebel with his 32,000 strong wing and deploy his cavalry to destroy Tallard’s squadrons on the Hochstadt plain. This required the destruction of French troops in Oberglau and Blenheim.

 

As they waited Marlborough rode slowly in front of his lines where he was nearly hit by round shot. He positioned his field hospitals and each battery, spoke to his commanding officers, watched the artillery duel and waited. After lunch’ with his command group he remained calm and concealed his growing anxiety over Eugene’s slow progress. The bands were ordered to strike up to keep morale high and the French bands responded providing a battle of the bands to artillery accompaniment. The scene was reported as a “magnificent spectacle”.

 

It was after midday before word arrived to say that Eugene would attack at 1230 hours. His target was the Elector’s cavalry between Oberglau and Lutzingen. Marlborough now gave the order for Cutts to attack Blenheim and the infantry under his brother Charles Churchill to come up across the Nebel. Casualties from French gunfire had amounted to 2,000 before the army stepped off.

Blenheim from the bridge over the Nebel

On Marlborough’s left flank Cutt’s troops advanced across dead ground between the Nebel, which they waded, and Blenheim. Brigadier General Rowe’s leading English infantry brigade led the assault and met well-directed musketry fire from the French infantry. Rowe was killed and as his brigade fell back three squadrons of the French Gens d’Armes, under command of the Swiss General Von Zurlauban, attacked their flanks from around the edge of the village. Cutts now sent Brigadier General Ferguson’s brigade further left and attacked Blenheim again with the re-formed Rowe brigade in the centre and the Hessian brigade to the right. Marquis De Clérambault commanding French troops in Blenheim had put seven more battalions into the village but found the attack so fierce he called up 11 more from Tallard’s reserve on his right. Eventually 27 battalions and four regiments of dismounted dragoons were brought into the village until it was congested with 12,000 men so crammed together they could not move or use their muskets. 2,000 dead or wounded lay outside the village. Cutts prepared to lead a third attack with his Hanoverian brigade when Marlborough sent orders to hold the position which he achieved with 16 battalions holding down almost twice as many and leaving the Hanoverians available to join the main body of Churchill’s infantry.

 

On the right Eugene’s attack started well with his Prussian and Imperial cavalry crossing the Nebel and breaking the first line of the Elector’s squadrons before being driven back by the second line. This left his infantry’s left flank exposed and they had to fall back, especially with enemy cavalry pursuing them, until Eugene managed to rally them behind their start line at Schwennenbach. They advanced to attack again but came under very heavy artillery fire from Lutzingen and Oberglau before being driven back once more. Fortunately the French and Bavarians were almost equally exhausted and muddled to be able to respond effectively and commanders on both sides were seen trying to inspire their troops for fresh attacks.

 

On Eugene’s right a fresh infantry attack stormed Lutzingen but was unsuccessful and again fell back across the Nebel. Despite these rallies his force had made no progress and by mid-afternoon there was stalemate. Nevertheless they had kept the forces of Marsin and the Elector busy preventing them from involvement in the more significant battle to the south.

From the north side of Blenheim looking northwest. To the left is the firm ground used for Tallard's defence. Unterglauheim can be seen in the middle with farm buildings beside the Nebel where the mills once stood.

In the meantime at midday Tallard, anticipating a two hour delay, rode over to view the left of the Elector’s line. The heavy firing at Blenheim soon had him back in the centre where he saw Clérambault reinforcing the village and left him to it. He then saw that Marlborough’s first line of infantry was crossing the Nebel and forming up on firm ground while his first line of cavalry was crossing the causeways. Five squadrons of General Lumley’s cavalry under Colonel Palmes had crossed earlier near the burning mills and were now formed up in low ground on the edge of the plain. Zurlauban sent eight Gendarmerie squadrons against the five English squadrons which responded by charging them outwardly in three directions, breaking the French wings and then in a perfect inwards wheel attacking the Gendarmes’ centre, routing them and pursuing them 300 yards beyond the Maulweyer brook west of Blenheim until they caught musketry fire from the village.

 

Marlborough’s second line of cavalry was now drawing up in the centre behind the first lines of cavalry and infantry. Tallard ordered a cavalry charge on the left of this line which despite being ragged overwhelmed five English squadrons until infantry fire saw the French off. Lumley replaced his damaged squadrons with fresh Danish and Hanoverian cavalry.

 

The next excitement was forward of Oberglauheim as ten of Churchill’s battalions on right, under the Prince of Holstein-Beck, advanced to attack. The French commander, the Marquis de Blainville met them with nine battalions headed by the Irish Brigade in French service, the “Wild Geese”. Marsin’s cavalry threatened Holstein-Beck's right and help from the Imperial Cuirassiers of General Fugger’s brigade on Eugene’s left was not forthcoming. Holstein-Beck was mortally wounded and captured. Marsin’s cavalry now threatened the right of Marlborough’s central force which could separate it from Eugene’s left. At this time the battle raged across the whole front from the hills to the Danube, a rare feature in such battles.

 

Marlborough now rode forward to take personal command of this sector of the battlefield. He crossed the Nebel by a causeway leading three Hanoverian battalions from Prince Holstein-Beck's reserve, a battery under command of Colonel Blood and forced the Wild Geese back towards Oberglau. Holstein-Beck brought the rest of his brigade up on to firm ground but seeing this Marsin then re-formed his cavalry to deal with them. Marlborough had sent an aide to Eugene asking for Fugger’s brigade and despite being hard pressed in fighting at Lutzingen he released it. The Imperial Cuirassiers advanced, charged and hit the French cavalry obliquely on their left-hand side, the bridle hand, and sent them back in disarray. This enabled Marlborough to use his guns against Oberglauheim’s defenders and advance with the Hanoverian battalions and more from Holstein-Beck’s brigade. Intense fighting took place as the forces closed in front of Oberglauheim until the French were driven into the village and contained there.

Many of the churches carry plaques such as this one in Oberglauheim explaining how the village was the centre of the French defence and was mostly destroyed in the battle.

It was now about 1500 hours and there was a lull in the battle. French troops in Blenheim and Oberglau were constrained but not defeated and Eugene’s attack was halted, the exhausted cavalry facing each other at 60 paces apart. Tallard could hope for a successful outcome from what he saw but Marlborough was confident of victory. His plan was now evolving as he sent words of encouragement to Eugene that all was well in the centre. By 1600 hours all of his cavalry and Churchill’s infantry had crossed the Nebel and formed up in two double lines, cavalry in front, and his guns were moving up to join them. Over the two miles between the villages Marlborough had nearly 80 squadrons facing 60 French squadrons, and his were fresher. His guns now raked the French infantry, some in squares, and the Germany infantry used their muskets on them as well. This continued for about an hour until the French were in severe disarray.

 

At 1730 hours Marlborough reformed his cavalry in front of the infantry, rode along the ranks and, drawing his sword, ordered the charge. The advance took place at the trot and the enemy cavalry discharged their pistols and carbines with little effect before fleeing to leave their remaining infantry standing alone. These soldiers died bravely in their ranks.

Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

Tallard, back near his camp, rallied some of his cavalry to try and help his infantry in Blenheim to retire. He sent orders to them and to Marsin for assistance but by now Marlborough and 70 squadrons were upon them. The French fled, both inland and towards the Danube. They were all pursued and about 2,000 men went over high banks into the marshes and a fast flowing river where many drowned. Tallard was captured, escorted to Marlborough and put in his coach for safety. Marlborough scribbled a note to his wife on the back of an officer’s inn receipt asking her to inform the Queen of his glorious victory.

River Danube south of Blenheim where many of the defeated troops drowned

By now it was 1800 hours and Eugene was still dealing with the Elector’s cavalry. Three cavalry attacks had failed and he now fought with the infantry driving the French extreme left back more than two miles over very difficult country. From the higher ground Eugene could see the enemy centre disintegrate and so he prepared for the pursuit. Marsin also saw this and with the Elector decided to retreat. This left wing of the French army then disengaged and withdrew in good order to Lauingen. Despite being considerably stronger than Eugene’s force and without losing troops to Tallard’s centre they had lost a hard fought contest against a determined and inexhaustible leader.

 

By 1900 hours Marsin’s army with prisoners and rescued troops were marching for Mörslingen. Churchill’s infantry was providing flank protection against possible threats from French troops in Oberglau and Blenheim while the cavalry prepared for the pursuit. As the cavalry moved off Blenheim was encircled and Rowe’s brigade attacked the stronghold three times before breaking in and engaging in fierce close combat along the Nebel side of the village.

 

Due to difficulties in identifying troops coming from the back of Oberglau, thought to be Marsin’s rearguard but actually Eugene’s leading brigades, there was a delay. By the time they were identified Marsin and the Elector were moving across Marlborough’s front in good order. To attack now against superior numbers when he still had Blenheim to deal with would not be wise so he broke off the pursuit. In Blenheim the defenders, who had fought bravely and well could see that they were now cut off from the rest of their army. Clérambault blamed himself for the defeat and fled to cross the Danube where he died in mysterious circumstances. The 27 battalions in the village were leaderless for an hour until Count Blansac assumed command when they were attacked on all sides. Artillery fired down the crowded streets and break-ins were driven out as attempts to sally forth were driven back. Eventually a French brigade got out and its commander was sent back in for difficult negotiations with regiments which had not been defeated. After much argument the surrender was achieved by 2100 hours.

Afterword

 

Enemy losses totalled 20,000 killed and wounded with 14,000 unwounded prisoners being taken. Another 6,000 French and Bavarian soldiers are alleged to have deserted permanently. The Allies gathered in 117 guns and mortars, 129 regimental colours, 110 cavalry standards, 4,000 horses and 3,000 loaded mules. This massive haul and the Allied losses of 14,000 men, including 9,000 from Marlborough’s wing, prevented further pursuit of the surviving French and Bavarian forces.

This observation tower, memorial and information board can be found on the north side of

Blenheim on the road named Oberfeldweg.

The photographs were taken in August 2014.

 

References:

Churchill, S Winston (1933 reprint 1966) Marlborough, His Life and Times, Book One,George G Harrap & Co. Ltd

Falkner, James (2004) Blenheim 1704, Marlborough’s Greatest Victory, Pen & Sword