War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714

Blenheim Palace - given by a grateful sovereign to the 1st Duke of Marlborough

King Charles II of Spain died at the end of 1700 leaving an extensive empire with territories in Italy, the Netherlands, the Americas and the East Indies. He was childless at 39 but named his grand-nephew Philippe, Duke of Anjou, to be his successor. As Philippe was the grandson of the reigning King Louis XIV of France the rest of Europe, particularly Britain, the northern Dutch Republic and Austria, foresaw Spain’s vast empire coming under his control. This was vindicated by the swift French occupation of towns in the Spanish Netherlands and war soon followed.


In September 1701 Britain, Austria and the Dutch Republic formed the Second Grand Alliance. Britain declared war on France in May 1702 and John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, became the commander of an Anglo-Dutch army. Most of the German states which aligned themselves with Austria under Prince Eugene of Savoy joined this alliance. Prince Eugene was born in Paris but became an enemy of France and Louis XIV when his father was exiled. Under Emperor Leopold I of Austria he rapidly became the most renowned commander in Europe fighting the French and the Turks. In the first phase of the war to the end of 1703 there were mixed fortunes with Eugene having success in Italy and Marlborough in the Low Countries while France, with Maximilian Emmanuel II, Electoral Prince of Bavaria, won victories on the Rhine and in southern Germany. As a result of his successes in 1702 Queen Anne, who succeeded King William III in March that year, raised Churchill to become the Duke of Marlborough.

The March to the Danube

During 1703 Marlborough held the Grand Alliance together but was increasingly frustrated by the wary Dutch generals and representatives of their States General. They were holding him back and preventing a direct battle with the French. However in May 1704, in a masterful example of strategic guile, he marched his army 250 miles south to assist Austria which was under threat from Franco-Bavarian forces under Marshal Marsin and the Elector of Bavaria along the Danube. Bavaria's defection to France threatened the communications link between Austria and the rest of the allies.


In May 1704 Louis XIV was ready for war on eight fronts and with his marshals he planned their offensives. Marshal de Villeroy was to remain in the Low Countries in a defensive posture, Marshal Comte de Tallard would attack Germany after reinforcing Marsin and the Elector for operations along the Danube and further actions were planned in Italy. Marsin and the Elector were based at Ulm but marched westwards to receive Tallard’s reinforcements at Villingen. Despite attempts by Prince Louis, Margrave of Baden, to prevent this the Franco-Bavarian force was reinforced to total 50,000 men by the end of May.

Map by: Rebel redcoat - Engelsk wikipedia

Meanwhile Marlborough had formed his army in Flanders into two forces and leaving one under the Dutch Veldt-Marshal Overkirk he led the other half south. This army of about 19,000 all ranks assembled at Bedburg and after a review on the 18th May stepped off the next day with Marlborough leading the cavalry and his brother, General John Churchill, leading the infantry and artillery.

Schloss Bedburg

Their route led via Kühlseggen, Sinzig, Andernach and Neudorf to Koblenz which threw the French plans into some disarray. They concluded that Marlborough intended to conduct operations up the River Moselle threatening fortresses at Trarbach and Trèves. When Villeroy learnt that the allies were leaving Bedburg he left 25,000 men facing Overkirk and took 21,000 south to meet this threat. Tallard was returning north from Villingen but had to stay near the Rhine until they were sure the allies were going up the Moselle valley, whilst Marsin and the Elector were in limbo until they knew what was going to happen next. The result was that Marlborough had gained the initiative as the French marked time and waited for his next move.

River Rhine at Koblenz - looking south

French movements meant Holland was now safe but the Margrave became concerned that Tallard would return and threaten the Lines of Stollhofen. These lines were built by him in 1701 and provided strongly protected routes through the Black Forest and access to the Upper Rhine valley from Strasbourg. Marlborough urged the States-General to send reinforcements but Overkirk had anticipated the need and more troops were on the way to join him. Nevertheless he remained worried that Marsin had been reinforced and his army would be outnumbered.

Junction of the rivers Rhine and Moselle at Koblenz

The Allies reached Koblenz On 26th May and crossed the Moselle by a stone bridge before crossing the Rhine by a pontoon bridge which Marlborough had had built for them. The cavalry were over first and when the infantry and artillery crossed local spies and informers told the French that the force was going deeper into Germany and not up the Moselle to France.


The column next crossed the River Main and French uncertainty resolved that Marlborough was heading for Alsace with Landau the first objective. This would be clear once Marlborough crossed the River Neckar but he knew that when he reached Ladenburg his plans would become more transparent. He wrote to the States-General informing them his objective was the Danube and called for their support. He directed his brother with the infantry and cavalry to cross the Neckar at Heidelberg and by 6th June he was in Wiesloch so it was clear to the French that he was not going to Landau. They realised that if Marlborough could link up with the Margrave’s army he would have about 100,000 men. The French armies were too far apart to match this total and risked being attacked piece-meal. Marlborough had also gathered enough boats on the Rhine to give him another possible option of moving his army swiftly back downstream to Flanders before Villeroi could march his men back.

River Neckar at Heidelberg

Marlborough now had the strategic advantage, the marshals were baffled and it became up to King Louis to decide on a plan. He received separate requests for military support from the Elector and Marsin as they now faced a serious threat. Eventually Tallard was ordered to lead a corps south to Villingen, Villeroi to take a corps to Offenburg to keep the enemy in the lines of Stollhofen and General Coigny to defend Alsace with a third corps. Both marshals doubted that they would be able to link up to gain superior strength but did as they were ordered.


In early June Marlborough met Prince Eugene of Savoy, who headed the Austrian War Council, and they were joined by the Margrave in Gross Heppach. They met in the Lamb Inn.

The Lamb Inn, Gross Heppach

There is a rather strange sculpture outside the Gasthof commemorating the meeting - clever and unusual but possibly sited where a large tree once sheltered the three generals.

Eugene took on the defence of the Rhine to block any more French reinforcements reaching Marsin whilst Marlborough and the Margrave would lead their respective armies in a pincer movement to destroy the Franco-Bavarian forces in the Danube valley.


Marlborough’s army of 60,000 men advanced unopposed through the Geislingen Pass whilst Marsin’s and the Elector’s total of 40,000 men were further south and entrenched at Dillingen. Marlborough’s intention was to force his enemy out of their position into the open and brought to battle. He decided to make Donauwörth his base due to its strategic strength as a fortress overlooking the Danube and guarding a bridge across it. The allied armies linked up at Launsheim and the infantry and artillery under Churchill followed in. They were to have sought battle from Giengen but following the evaluation and dismissal of alternative proposals by the Margrave, the armies rested and moved off on 30th June. The camp at Balmershofen was just four miles from the French lines and next day the armies marched to Amerdingen, just 15 miles from Donauwörth.

Donauwörth, looking west from the Schellenberg - hills of Swabian Jura to the right, Danube off to the left


In addition to its strategic success this march was a remarkable administrative achievement which remained unequalled until Napoleon’s march to the Danube a hundred years later. Rations and forage were provided in place where needed and paid for. Similarly fresh uniforms and boots were also produced as the march progressed. Marlborough’s troops were joined en route with Prussian, Hessian and Hanoverian forces and all arrived in good order and fighting fit. They averaged 10 miles per day for six weeks.


Their route was:

Bedburg – Kühlseggen – Meckenheim – Sinzig – Andernach – Neudorf – Koblenz – Braubach – Nastätten – Schwalbach – Kastel - Gross Gerau – Zwingenberg – Weinheim – Ladenburg – Weisloch – Sinzheim – Eppingen - Gross Gartach – Lauffen – Mundelsheim – Gross Heppach* – Ebersbach – Gross Süssen – Geislingen – Launsheim* – Westerstetten – Elchingen – Langenau – Giengen* – Balmershofen – Amerdingen*

*Gross Heppach - conference of the three generals on 10th June.

*Launsheim - Marlborough's army and the Margraves army link up on 11th June.

*Giengen - original location from where it was hoped to bring the French to battle.

*Amerdingen - camp from where the advance to the Schellenberg started.


The photographs were taken in August 2014. The exact route is difficult to follow today due to the development of the countryside over the last 300 years and all the modern industry and infrastructure.