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The wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) online

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immense lines, which were sometimes constructed to cover
a whole province or an entire country, and which were
little favoured by the greatest generals because they could
always be entered by some skilful combination. But the
attempt to carry such works by direct assault was usually
regarded as hazardous in the extreme. And the artillery
of the period being what it was, this judgment cannot be
lightly treated as erroneous.

Everybody can criticise and even ridicule a military
system which was so fruitful in rigid formalism and so
barren in decisive results. But in many respects it was
only the product of the political, social, geographical, and
economic conditions of the time. Instead of being derided
by contemporary opinion as feeble or absurd, it was regarded
rather as a triumph of science and of progressive civilisation.
And certainly, in the minute perfection of its detail, in the
power of its weapons, and above all in the ample recognition
which it gave to the superiority of intellect and knowledge
over animal courage and physical force, it was by far the
most scientific form of war that had as yet been practised
in the world. And inasmuch as it restricted the miseries
inseparable from warfare to theatres of very limited area,
while it relieved the great majority of the people from the
burden of personal service, it appeared to many observers
to be singularly humane. But its humanity was more
superficial than real. It was gentle only where gentleness
paid. It was capable at times of sanctioning the exercise
of the most ruthless savagery upon civilian populations.
For it rested ultimately, as the conduct of all war must
always rest, upon expediency alone. And it was essentially
cruel, because it was essentially wasteful and slow. In
war mercy and efficiency go hand in hand. The most
liumane form of war is the one vv'liich crushes the enemy in


the shortest possible time and with the smallest possible ex-
penditure of life and money. Every campaign is accom-
panied by a chronic destruction of life from exposure,
exhaustion, and disease. From the first day that it takes
the field every army is a dying army. In an age which
knew little of medicine and nothing of sanitary science,
the losses other than those inflicted by the enemy were
certainly heavier than they are to-day. But such losses
are apt to escape the public eye. A sanguinary battle
excites the horror of mankind, while the insidious wastage
of prolonged campaigning passes comparatively unremarked.
The British forces in South Africa lost 20,721 men, of whom
not more than 7,582 died by the enemy's hand. This
consideration was largely overlooked by those who applauded
the humanity of the military system of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries.

And what was true of the lives of the soldiers was equally
true of the pockets of the taxpayers. Because the ex-
penditure, no less than the mortality, was spread over a
term of years, it seemed to be trivial when in fact it was
unnecessarily large. In the end, the intolerable strain
upon the financial resources of governments and the injury
done to the economic condition of peoples were usually the
causes which brought about the termination of the struggle.
A conclusion, which ought to have been attained by a short
and severe agony, was slowly and painfully reached by the
lingering process of exhaustion.

By strictly observing the rules of the game, it was possible
in that age for a very inferior commander to acquire a re-
putation which he could hardly have acquired in any other.
A general who never fought a battle, but who succeeded
in feeding his army upon hostile territory, was regarded
as a valuable servant who knew how to make war on
safe and profitable lines. Even if he were defeated in an
engagement forced upon him, he could never be censured
so long as he could never be shown to have infringed the
accepted maxims of his art. At the worst he would be
pitied as unlucky, and perhaps superseded by some more
' fortunate ' officer. The temptation never to be original
and never to assume responsibility for something not in the

WAR 17

books was therefore strong and permanent. Moreover,
most men whose profession was war were easily disposed to
exaggerate and to abuse those weak and tardy methods
which, mider an imposing appearance of orthodoxy, tended
to make the active employment of their class a perpetuity.
Even so fine a soldier as Luxembourg was accused of
designedly permitting a beaten enemy to escape destruction.
Nevertheless, generals of the first order, generals who like
Cromwell and Frederick would have shone under any
system and in spite of any system, did actually appear, and
from time to time amazed and confounded the pedants
and the pettifoggers. " If," said Napoleon at St. Helena,
" I had had a man like Turenne to be my second in command
during my campaigns, I should have been now master of
the world; but I had nobody." The genius of Turenne
would have enabled him to command large armies as success-
fully as he did little ones. " If he had sprung out of the
earth and stood by my side at Wagram, he would have
perceived my plan, and have understood everything. Conde
would have understood it too." What the same authority
thought of Marlborough may be judged. Never losing
sight of the true end and of the proper means of war, such
generals refused to be trammelled by the maxims of a
perverted school. They strove to practise their art upon
right principles, in so far as the inevitable limitations of
their envkonment permitted them a free hand. That these
limitations were neither few nor slight, has already been
abundantly shown. The smallness of armies involved a
strategical weakness which it was not in a commander's
power to remedy, and which hampered him at every point.
However much he might resent the waste of time and energy
inseparable from the annual retirement into winter-quarters,
he was bound to recognise that often there was no alterna-
tive. The timidity of the government which employed him
and of the officers who served under him was a continual drag
upon his powers. If he desired to accept great risks in the
hope of great advantages, he had first to extort the permis-
sion of his civilian masters, which might not arrive, if it
arrived at all, until the opportunity had passed away. If
however he decided to proceed upon his own responsibility,
I. 2


he was often confronted by the remonstrances and even the
insubordination of Ueutenants, imagining their own careers
to be jeopardised or hoping to curry favour with the govern-
ment. In either case he was worried and embarrassed at
the very moment when he had need of the utmost tranquillity
of mind; and in either case he was universally and un-
sparingly condemned, if the enterprise miscarried.

Such was the military system of Churchill's day; and it
was vastly and essentially different from that of ours. Ever
since the French Revolution the dominant type of
European army has been the nation in arms. Such armies
are gigantic and comparatively cheap. But their action
is swift and terrible. Swift at any rate it must be, for a
system which summons the whole of the able-bodied man-
hood of the nation to the colours, and which gives thereby
to every family in the land a direct and intimate interest
in the speedy termination of hostilities, would be quite
intolerable, if it followed the dilatory procedure of an earlier
age, when only limited areas and restricted classes endured
the heaviest burdens of war, and when successful war might
even be self-supporting. And swift it must be in this
modern world, where the outbreak of hostilities produces
such a hideous dislocation and destruction of the complex,
commercial and industrial interests of the belligerent powers,
that even the victor may find his victory to be worse than
worthless if it be too long deferred. By reason of this very
swiftness war has become more humane. And more than
ever it is now the grand security for peace. Nations do not
lightly appeal to the arbitrament of arms, when the stakes
are so high, and the interests involved are so enormous,
and when that popular sense of irresponsibility, which
always accompanies, in some degree, the employment of
professional armies, is replaced by the natural and honour-
able obligation of personal service.

In England, however, the small, professional army which
was created during Churchill's lifetime still survives; and
with it have survived certain of the evil traditions of that
period. With the great courage which is begotten of great
ignorance, the British democracy, alone in the face of
Europe, still cherishes the suicidal fallacy that the forces

WAR 19

of the twentieth century can be successfully encountered
with the forces of the seventeenth. And the mass of the
people still clings to the pernicious delusion that war can
be waged without bloodshed, that manoeuvring is a sub-
stitute for fighting, and that the greatest general is he who
never permits his soldiers to be killed. If a thousand are
slain in one da3^ public opinion is aghast ; but ten thousand
may rot to death in the course of a year without greatly
perturbing it. Englishmen, at any rate, ought to be very
sparing of their criticism upon the military methods of
the past. Mistaken as to some extent those methods were,
the universal adoption of them did at least place all
belligerents upon an equal footing. But a state, which
persists in retaining an obsolete system and a vicious point
of view, while it ignores or even reprobates the development
of its neighbours and potential foes, deliberately imposes
on itself a crushing handicap fatal to the very possibility
of success in the time of trial.


History can be written in more ways than one — in the
manner of Herodotus, for example, or in the manner of
Thucydides. It can be written, and well written, by
political partisans like Livy and Macaulay, or by religious
partisans like Gibbon and Froude. The one qualification
which is absolutely essential to the historian is the power
of sympathy. If he can sympathise with, or at least
understand, all the men and the things of which he has to
treat, his temper is ideal. If however his powers in this
direction are at once so limited and so intense that he is
compelled to take a side, his work may be profitable and even
admirable, so far as it goes. And it will still be history.

But early in the nineteenth century there arose a school
of historical writers, whose method was fundamentally
vicious and futile. They would seem to have started with
the highly original a^umption that, prior to the French
Revolution, all the rulers of Europe were knaves and all the
peoples fools. All the old governments were desperately
wicked, and all whom they governed were brutalised sots,
until at last the ringing of Fouquier-Tinville's bell and the
crashing of Sanson's axe heralded the dawn of morality and
light. This melancholy hypothesis precludes the very
possibility of sympathy with anything that existed in
Europe before 1789. History, written under this obsession,
is either a crazy diatribe or a complacent tract. It may
gratify the palates of prigs and doctrinaires. It may flatter
the vanity of an ignorant proletariat. But it possesses no
sort of relation to utility or truth. It is vastly inferior to
the most biased production of the most partisan historian.
For the partisan historian must have an abundance, and
even an excess of sympathy, to be a partisan. And he is
always corrected by another of his own class. The antidote
is always forthcoming. History as written by a Mitford



is provocative of history as written by a Grote. But
history as written by a Michelet is provocative of derision
and disquiet. By the nature of the case a partisan historian
is saturated with the ideas and prejudices of some at any
rate of the men and women w'hose actions he describes.
He has therefore the virtues of his defects. But he w^ho
writes the record of a bygone age in the spirit of the present,
and for the greater glorification of the present, whatever else
he may be, is no historian.

To this school of writers no theme is so agreeable as the
essential wickedness of

" battles long ago,"

They are prepared to prove that almost all the great
struggles of the past originated in the natural depravity"
of kings, the caprice of concubines, or the machinations of
Jesuits. The old governments existed only to plunder and
maltreat their subjects. The diversion of public attention
from their own misrule was therefore a supreme interest
which they all shared in common. One of the best devices
for attaining this end was chronic war. One of the best
pretexts for chronic war was the maintenance of ' the
balance of power.' The idea of 'the balance of power '
is therefore to be held up to reprobation and ridicule. It
is to be represented as a piece of nonsensical jargon, invented
by interested statesmen to delude the masses of ignorant
dupes whom they kept in degrading servitude. And
mankind is to be invited to rejoice at the thought that blood
will never again be shed in Europe for the sake of a shibbo-
leth, incomprehensible alike to those who framed it and to
those whom they compelled to die for it. This gospel,
which in some mysterious fashion is supposed to palliate
the absurdities and atrocities of the French Revolution
and its imitators, has possessed no finer exponent than
Southey's engaging babe:

" ' Why, 'twas a very wicked tiling !'
Said little Wilhelmine,"i

It is indeed amazing that views so grotesque should ever
have obtained the vogue which they enjoy to-day. For

1 Southey, The Battle of Blenheim.


nothing could be simpler, saner, or more natural than the
conception of ' the balance of power.' So great a logician
as the Tory, Hume, declared that it was founded upon
" common sense and obvious reasoning. "■'• So good an
Englishman as the Nonconformist, Defoe, contended that,
instead of being a pretext for unjust wars, it was " the life
of peace. "^ Whenever from any cause or variety of causes
one European state of the first class becomes vastly stronger
than every other of that class, a situation fraught with
possibilities of peril is at once set up. Accumulated ex-
perience has shown conclusively that a nation which has
thus outstripped its peers, and is profoundly conscious of
its superiority, will attempt to lay hands upon the territories
of those second and third-rate powers which have the mis-
fortune to be its immediate neighbours, " I question,"
wrote Defoe, " whether it be in the Humane Nature to set
Bounds to its own Ambition, and whether the best Man on
Earth wou'd not be King over all the rest if he could.
Every King in the World would be the Universal Monarch
if he might, and nothing restrains but the Power of Neigh-
bours ; and if one Neighbour is not strong enough for another,
he gets another Neighbour to join with him, and all the
little ones will join to keep the great one from suppressing
them."^ This spirit of encroachment must almost certainly
prevail, unless the larger states are willing to resist it. If
it prevails, that strength, which was before excessive,
becomes more excessive, and the potentiality of resistance
in the remainder of the continent is diminished in proportion.
The aggressor is tempted to repeat the process. With each
new acquisition his resources are augmented, and the
difficulty of checking his ambition is augmented too.
Theoretically, by this method he might in time absorb the
whole of Europe. But in practice such designs have in-
variably been thwarted by a coalition of the powers both
big and little. The sooner this combination is formed, the
cheaper and safer is the task of reducing the common
enemy to a position in which he can no longer threaten the
independence of others. Indeed, prompt and resolute action

^ Hume, Essays ; " Of the Balance of Power."

2 Defoe, The 2'wo Great Questions Considered (1700).

3 Ibid.


upon these lines may even obviate the necessity for war
at all. Too often, however, the organisation of resistance
has been foolishly postponed, at the ultimate cost of a
needlessly lavish expenditure of blood and money. History
has invariably proved that, in dealing with disturbers of
the European system, " principiis obsta " is the only reliable
rule. But all wars undertaken for this cause, whether they
be undertaken soon or late, are wars for the restoration of
' the balance of power.' The phrase, though metaphorical,
is sufficiently exact. The circumstances to which it is
applicable are matter of common knowledge. The ethics
of the question are hardly relevant. It may, for example,
be contended by the devotees of the Napoleonic cult that
Europe would be better and happier to-day, if its thrones
had been vested in perpetuity in the Bonaparte family
and the Marshals of France. But, wisely or unwisely, the
nations have always objected to resign their independence.
So long as they retain a predilection for liberty, so long will
they regard the maintenance of ' the balance of power '
as a material interest and as a reasonable, and, indeed, an
imperative ground for an appeal to arms.

In England, unfortunately, there are many who have
persuaded themselves that, even if ' the balance of power '
is admitted to concern the peoples of the continent, it has
nothing whatever to do with the inhabitants of these
islands. This opinion, which is by no means new, has
always been a folly of the most dangerous kind. Let it be
assumed that, by some magician's wand, the various nation-
alities which comprise the continent of Europe were welded
into one homogeneous state. It is obvious that the inde-
pendence of this country would not then be worth a week's
purchase. A community so vast, controlling so many
strategical positions, and commanding naval resources so
enormous, would be irresistible. It has been well said that
" the domination of Europe by one power would auto-
matically reduce Great Britain to the political level of the
Isle of Man."^ Though this precise contingency is not very
likely to be realised, conditions dangerously approximating
to it have always been possible, and have more than once

^ The National Review, October, 1910.


existed. Whenever a continental state, by the absorption
of territory, by offensive alliances, or by the creation of a
species of hegemony or suzerainty over Europe or a part of
it, has obtained control of maritime forces of exceptional
magnitude, the integrity of the British Isles is virtually
menaced. Those who pretend that it is not, and who reason
as though they were living in a world of " little Wilhelmines,"
are no friends to their country. Over and over again, in
modern history, this peril has arisen. And sooner or later
every disturber of the equilibrium of Europe has collided
with the might of England. The foreign policy of England,
which it is a kind of tradition on the continent to represent
as dark and tortuous, has always been marked by a severe
simplicity. Whoever is planning to establish a dangerous
predominance upon the mainland, is, for the time being,
England's enemy. No nation has played a more consistent
and conspicuous part in the recurring struggles for the
preservation of ' the balance of power.' Philip II,
Louis XIV, the first Republic, the first Napoleon, all owed
the eventual collapse of their designs to combinations of
which England was often the mainspring and always
an essential part. It is therefore no accident that she is
now regarded as the protagonist of Europe in the conflict
which must inevitably be waged against the latest aspirant
for universal empire.

In the year 1700 France under Louis XIV had destroyed
the equilibrium of the continent. Rapidly and surely she
had risen to a position of supremacy more commanding than
that once occupied by Spain. The dominion of Philip II,
slowly wasting from mismanagement and from sheer neglect
of its superb resources, and shattered in its military prestige
by the sword of Conde, had long ceased to be even a possible
match for its mighty neighbour. The Empire, loosely
organised, and harassed on its flanks by the Turkish peril,
was hardly in better case. France could hold her own with
• ease against these two combined. And there existed no
other first-class power which might restore the balance.
Sweden was too weak and too remote, and Russia still too
barbarous to be seriously considered. Such a situation
was not unnaturally regarded by the lesser states with grave


disquietude. Louis of course disclaimed all large designs
against the liberties of Europe. He had always a specific
pretext ready for each new act of aggression. The business
of diplomacy was better understood at Versailles than at
any other European court. It is however a mistake to
concentrate attention upon Louis to the exclusion of the
twenty millions over whom he ruled. Louis, for all his
autocratic power, was only the type and the perfect repre-
sentative of a nation, which in the economic, the adminis-
trative, and the military sense was the most highly developed
in Europe. Those egregious historians, who see in the
France of Racine and Bossuet, of Colbert and Turenne,
nothing but a horde of slaves, exploited by a self-indulgent
tyrant and his gang of sycophants and harlots, have yet to
explain how a people so infamously degraded could have
been a model in peace and a terror in war to every state
in Europe, including those which already enjoyed the sup-
posed advantages of free and even republican institutions
and of the Protestant religion. But truth to tell, the facts
were very different from the misrepresentations of a set of
writers, whose sole concern is to justify the cataclysm which
destroyed the ancient system. " Go through the public
services of every kind," wrote Guizot, "the finances, the
roads, the public works, the military administration, and
all the establishments which belong to any branch of
administration whatsoever; there is scarcely one which you
will not find to have had either its origin or its development
or its greatest perfection under the reign of Louis XI V."^
Under him the French nobility was at once the most
polished and the most warlike clan that the world has ever
seen. The bureaucracy was exceptionally able. The
commercial and industrial orders were thrifty and prosperous,
and were skilfully encouraged and assisted in the production
of wealth by the central government. The peasantry,
though labouring under a variety of oppressive burdens,
were then as always the backbone of the country. Although
inferior in several respects to the yeomanry, the tenant-
farmers, and the agricultural labourers of England, they
were by no means the squalid serfs of modern imagination.

^ Guizot, Histoyy of Civilisation in Europe, lecture xiv.


So close an observer as Arthur Young, who certainly held
no brief for the ancient system, estimated that on the eve of
the Revolution one third of the soil of France was in the
hands of peasant proprietors. A race of helots could never
have given birth to the rank and file of those gallant armies
which broke the Spanish infantry at Rocroi, which followed
Turenne in his wonderful winter march of 1674 when he
chased the Germans from Lorraine, and which at Steinkkk
and Neerwinden hurled back the hard fighting soldiery of
England and the stubborn Dutch. For the France of 1700
was not merely populous and rich; from top to bottom
she was penetrated by the military spirit. A succession
of extraordinary statesmen and soldiers had made her
what she was, a unified kingdom with the most strongly
centralised government in Europe. Henry of Navarre
and Sully, Richelieu and Mazarin, Conde and Turenne,
Colbert and Louvois, had all contributed their share. Louis
himself was the last of the line. Henry of Navarre had
dreamed of the hegemony of the continent ; Louis' ambition
assumed a more concrete form. Behind him stood a haughty
and pugnacious race, equipped with immense resources
and an unrivalled organisation, and bent upon the destruc-
tion of the liberties of Europe. The passion for national
expansion may, or may not, be morally defensible; but
it is deeply implanted in every virile and enduring stock.
It flourished strongly in the France of Louis XIV, just as

Online LibraryFrank TaylorThe wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 44)