The Storming of the Schellenberg 2nd July 1704
The armies of Marlborough and the Margrave linked up fully at Launsheim by the end of June and together they formed the largest force gathered so far in this war. It comprised 177 squadrons and 76 battalions but was weak in artillery and engineer resources.
In the high command there were growing doubts about the Margrave’s total commitment and his possible associations with the Elector. These doubts were reinforced by his delaying tactics which slowed the allies and allowed the Elector to withdraw from Giengen where it had been agreed a battle would be sought. Further doubts arose over other operational proposals put forward by the Margrave which Marlborough could not accept.
Marlborough now had to establish a base with secure lines of communication. He decided on Donauwörth which would enable a new supply route through Nuremberg and Frankfurt rather than back down the Rhine. The town is overlooked and dominated by the prominent high ground of the Schellenberg which was linked to the town by earthworks from the 30 Year’s War. These had been strengthened and the whole position was strongly defended by troops men under command of Count D’Arco.
Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point
Swift action was needed so the whole army was moved on 30th June to Balmershofen, only four miles from the army of the Elector and Marsin between Lauingen and Dillingen. Marlborough continued the next day with a flank guard of 60 squadrons to Amerdingen and sent out a strong reconnaissance force of 400 horse with several senior officers.
The Elector had left it rather late to reinforce the Schellenberg but the Comte d’Arco and 14,000 men were in place and the defences were being completed. An attack was not expected before 3rd July and by then the position should be strong enough. His force was made up of 16 Bavarian battalions, five French battalions, nine squadrons of French dragoons and 16 field guns. The old Donauwörth fortifications of the Thirty Years War were linked to the Schellenberg earthworks by a breastwork of earth filled gabions (bottomless baskets). Conscripted peasants and D’Arco’s soldiers improved these defences of the Schellenberg and they were manned by some of his battalions. Two battalions of the Elector’s Guards were stationed on the right where the woods ended at the top of the Schellenberg to protect the flank against an advance through wooded country. The French Bearn Regiment and a battalion of French grenadiers were held in reserve under Colonel Jean de La Colonie back near the crest of the hill (in a rather exposed position).
Outline of the earthworks shown on the Schellenberg memorial, traces can be seen on the ground
After hearing reconnaissance reports Marlborough decided to take the Schellenberg in a direct assault as soon as possible before the defences were finalised. He formed a special force of 6,000 men in companies of 130 with a forlorn hope of 80 men from 1st Foot Guards to head the assault. Behind them 16 battalions formed two divisions and they were backed by 35 cavalry and dragoon squadrons under Major Generals Hompesch and Lumley. Behind them the Margrave had a brigade of grenadiers to reinforce the assault where necessary. Two batteries of guns were to be positioned north of the town to provide direct fire support when the assault went in.
Marlborough's assault force left Amerdingen, 15 miles from Donauwörth, at 0300 hours on 2nd July under his command. The rest of the army followed on under the Margrave’s command at dawn. It was generally anticipated that they would be in position by the end of the day in order to attack on the 3rd but Marlborough knew there was no time to be lost and he would attack that evening. They crossed the River Wörnitz at Ebermorgen in the mid-afternoon and were fired on by outlying pickets and artillery as they approached the Schellenberg.
Old stone bridge at Ebermorgen
They moved into dead ground at the foot of the hill whilst their artillery returned fire from high ground at Berg and disabled exposed French troops near the crest of the Schellenberg. As the outlying defenders scurried back to the Schellenberg they fired the outlying villages and dwellings. The defences were unfinished and after learning that French reinforcements were on their way to occupy a camp marked out across the Danube Marlborough decided to attack that evening.
D’Arco had seen an allied camp being marked out about four miles away beyond the Wörnitz that morning and concluded that he had the rest of the day to prepare his defences. Late that afternoon and in the early evening he realised the worst and saw that the river had been bridged and large bodies of troops were moving into position to attack. He gave orders for his artillery to open fire when enemy forces were in range but harassing fire proved ineffective and the allies deployed in dead ground between Berg and the foot of the Schellenberg.
The approach to the Schellenberg from Berg with dead ground used for the start line
Marlborough’s tactical plan was significant. He would pitch a strong force of infantry at the point the enemy would consider critical. They would reinforce it and Marlborough would then gain the advantage elsewhere which could be exploited where and when the opportunity arose. By 1700 hours the assault troops were formed up across the Kaiback stream about 220 yards from the defenders breastworks, near the wood about half-way up the Schellenberg, and with the forlorn hope leading the 6,000 extended in three close lines over about 300 yards. The cavalry delivered a fascine to every man for them to use to cross the ditch at D’Arco’s defences. Behind this force came eight battalions in support and then the other eight in reserve. The cavalry squadrons were formed close behind them.
The Kaiback stream
The attack began at 1815 hours by the leading storm troops under command of Lieutenant General Goor. The forlorn hope led at a fast pace and the shouting and cheering was so great that De La Colonie ordered his drummers to beat a tattoo to drown the noise and hearten his own men. However the assault soon came under withering case shot from a forward battery together with musket fire and Goor was killed at about 100 yards. The French grenadiers came under fire from Colonel Blood’s batteries as the assault force charged. Due to the elevation the balls skimmed the earth parapet and ploughed into the infantry on the higher ground where many were lost before the assault troops arrived.
Chapel and memorial from where the assault began
Unfortunately for the assault troops a dry gully 50 yards forward of the defences was mistaken for the defence ditch and they dropped their fascines into it which left them with no means to scale the breastworks when they got there. Nevertheless they pressed on into savage close combat and fought to a standstill with about 3,000 casualties. Marlborough ordered a second assault and when this too was halted he ordered the cavalry and dragoons up and the men advanced again for a third assault.
The Margrave’s force headed to the right and started its attack shortly after the main assault. By 1900 hours it had closed with the enemy when a gap further on the right was reported to Marlborough where the defenders had closed up. He sent his eight reserve battalions to attack on the right together with the Margrave who had also seen this weakness.
D’Arco saw this move developing and attempted to stop it with his dragoons but they were driven off as they tried a flank attack. The Margrave’s grenadiers approached the hill top in the rear of the defenders who were taken by surprise and confused when they were ordered to face about. Marlborough’s assault troops, reinforced by his dismounted dragoons, now pressed in and the defenders broke. The Allied cavalry went into pursuit and hacked the fleeing troops down as they ran for Donauwörth and the Danube. A pontoon bridge they were using broke and many were drowned in the river.
The Schellenberg memorial with remains of the earthworks beyond
Only 5,000 of Count D’Arco’s men were accounted for after the battle and the Elector’s loss of this powerful corps was significant. Donauwörth was abandoned and the garrison left the town and bridgehead intact. The Allies lost 5,400 men killed or wounded including seven generals but Marlborough now had a secure base for further operations with control over the local Danube crossing.
There was concern in England at the scale of the losses and the method of attack but the soldiers were proud of their victory. The Dutch minted a coin to celebrate the victory but put the Margrave of Baden’s head on it instead of Marlborough’s.
No battle honour was awarded for the Schellenberg despite other lesser actions being recognised. The reviewing committee were uncertain which regiments had been present although subsequent research has removed any doubt.
The victory was the first complete victory on the Continent for an English commander since the Hundred Years War. On the ground it now enabled Marlborough to cross the Danube and take the war to the Elector. This became urgent as Tallard had avoided Eugene on the Rhine and was now heading through the Black Forest with another French army.
These photographs were taken in August 2014. A Bundeswehr army unit was based on the Schellenberg in the 1960s but left that year for the site to be re-developed.