Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Readings 2K9: Blenheim

Blenheim: Battle For Europe
by Charles Spencer

This is a solid work of narrative history, arguing for the importance of the 1704 Battle of Blenheim in the overall history of Europe. For Spencer, the battle marked the beginning of the decline of French military power on the continent. A skeptic might argue that the advent of Napoleon less than a hundred years later mitigates the point somewhat, but Spencer certainly makes an efficient case for the battle being a turning point in the War of the Spanish Succession, which itself went some way toward defining the political map of Europe — establishing Spain and France as separate countries, for example.

The story of the Battle of Blenheim is dramatic: a general in late middle age, the Duke of Marlborough, marches his men 250 miles in a move hidden even from his allies, in a desperate attempt to bring his enemies to battle before they can launch an attack against the empire at the heart of a grand alliance struggling against the greatest military power of the age. That said, the details which surround the core of the story are legion. The War of the Spanish Succession itself is neither well-known nor easy to summarise; and other than Marlborough and his ally, Prince Eugène of Savoy, there are few great personalities involved. The battle was long — beginning at 8 AM, it lasted until 9 PM — and complex, with a number of reversals spread over several interlinked fronts. Spencer manages to make the details comprehensible, presenting events chronologically, but breaking away when necessary for as long as a chapter-length in order to provide context or biographical detail. It tends to blunt narrative drive, and Spencer does double back from time to time in providing information from different perspectives, but is overall effective.

The most curious decision here is to underplay some of the hard calls Marlborough made. Most notably, after arriving in Bavaria in July, he had to find a way to lure his enemies out of their defenses into an open battle; his solution was to lay waste to the countryside, burning villages and terrorising the inhabitants. This was controversial even among his allies. Spencer doesn't sell this decision short, but more discussion of what Marlborough was thinking — even if Marlborough wrote little or nothing about this tactic, that very absence should be notable — would have been nice.

On the other hand, Spencer does make effective use of memoirs, diaries, and letters from both Marlborough and the men who followed him, as well as their allies and enemies. Generally, Spencer is very effective at presenting the realities of eighteenth-century warfare, from the appalling medical conditions to the difficulties of navigating bad terrain while under artillery bombardment. This almost tactile sense of the period helps make his description of the battle of Blenheim succeed, even when the movements of different detachments of men grows complex.

Overall, this is a valuable resource both for the battle of Blenheim and for descriptions of the strategy and tactics of warfare in the period. I do wish that the publishers had included another map in it —there are good small-scale maps for individual battles (though maps showing Blenheim at different points during the day of the battle might have been useful), and a good overall map of Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession, but a map showing the route of Marlborough's march would have been very useful; Spencer casually mentions a number of towns along his way which I can't find in my atlas, and I would have liked to be able to follow the geography more closely. Still, that minor caveat aside, there's no doubt that this is a useful and engaging book.

(And a note with respect to the overall purpose of these posts — I took this book out from the my local public library, so it doesn't count as far reducing the unread matter in my apartment. The count for the year so far is thus two books down, three overall. More, I hope, to come soon.)

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