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deputies consulted the generals of Overkirk's army,
who thereupon " unanimously retracted "^ the favourable
opinion which only a week before they had unanimously
expressed. They now suggested an attack upon the French
left. " But I know," wrote Marlborough, " they will let
that fall also as soon as they shall see the ground; for that
has much more difficulties in it than what I was desirous
they should do. In short, these generals are so cautious
that we shall be able to do nothing, unless an occasion
offers, which must be put in execution before they can have
a council of war. It is very mortifying to find much more
obstructions from friends than from enemies; but that is
now the case with me, and yet I dare not show my resent-
ment for fear of too much alarming the Dutch, and indeed
encouraging the enem3^"^

But Marlborough would not acknowledge defeat. At
length, by patience and persuasion, he carried his point.
The field-deputies reluctantly consented, but only on the
understanding that no risks were taken, a stipulation, which,
in all the circumstances, was suggestive of congenital
idiocy. The right of the French position was selected for
attack. The precise points chosen were the villages of
Corbeek and Neeryssche, which were separated from one
another by a distance of a mile and a half. A detachment
from Marlborough's army was to cross the Dyle at Corbeek,
and a detachment from Ovcikirk's at Neerj^ssche. In
each case, the main body was to follow, and support its
own detachment. The appointed time was daybreak on
the 30th.

On the afternoon of the 29th the two detachments

1 Coxe, vol. )., p. 295: Marlborough to Godolphin, July 9/20, 1705.

2 Ibid., p. 303: Marlborough to Godolphin, July 29, 1705.

^ Ibid., pp. 303, 304: Marlborough to Godolphin, July 29, 1705.


assembled on the left of the hne. Marlborough's consisted
of twelve battalions and thirty-seven squadrons under
Oxenstiern, and Overkirk's of five battalions and nine
squadrons under Heukelom. They were accompanied by
artillery and pontoons. At 5 o'clock they started, and the
French observed their departure. Between 11 and mid-
night the two armies followed, the Dutch, who had been
encamped on the left, leading the way. It was known at
once in the enemy's camp that the allies were in motion;
but the direction of their march, which was screened by
the forest of Meerdael, and shrouded in the darkness of the
night, remained uncertain. As hour after hour went by,
various and conflicting rumours arrived. The Elector, who
declined to assume that the main body had followed the
two detachments, was nervous for the safety of Lou vain.
But a little before dawn Villeroi, who had formed the opinion
that his right was seriously threatened, ordered Guiscard
with all the cavalry of that wing and some brigades of foot
to proceed towards Neeryssche.

Meanwhile, the two detachments, which had arrived in
the vicinity of Corbeek and Neer37ssche at 10 o'clock,
had continued all night under arms. At daybreak they
advanced to the banks of the Dyle, and covered by the fire
of their batteries, commenced to lay pontoons. The enemy's
posts defended themselves well ; but Heukelom crossed with
the whole of his infantry, and driving the French from hedge
to hedge, expelled two battalions and a regiment of dragoons
from the village of Neeryssche. Oxenstiern, though he
had the larger detachment, had by far the harder task;
for Guiscard, attracted by the sound of the cannon, pushed
rapidly forward to Corbeek, and deploying his foot along
the river bank, opened fire upon the pontoons with a battery
of ten triple -barrelled guns. Nevertheless, at this point
also, 500 grenadiers eventually got over and effected a
lodgment. But the marshy nature of the ground did not
encourage Oxenstiern to risk his squadrons. The Dutch
army had now arrived. Instead, however, of supporting
the two attacks with alacrity and vigour, the men remained
idle spectators of the combat, while the generals discussed
among themselves the probabilities of failure. Dopf, who


had been largely responsible for the halt at Tirlemont,
displayed conspicuous timidity at this juncture. The main
body of the French had followed Guiscard. In comparison
with the allies, they had a short road to travel, and the
heads of their columns were already discernible in the far
distance. This terrifying apparition completed the paralysis
of Dutch leadership. Marlborough's army, which had lost
its way in the darkness, was not yet up, but it was approach-
ing. The Duke himself was the first to reach Corbeek,
where he ascertained the exact position of affairs both there
and at Neer\^ssche. He instantly dispatched an aide-de-
camp to the Dutch generals with instructions either to
support Heukelom at once, or to recall him. Pausing for
a moment to examine the situation at Corbeek, he was
accosted by Brigadier Ferguson, a fine soldier, who im-
patiently enquired the reason of the delay .■"■ The Duke
gripped his hand. " Hold your tongue," he said, " you
know nothing. I have given my word to do nothing
without consent." Then he spurred forward to Neeryssche.
Galloping up to the group of palavering Dutchmen, he
demanded to know whether they would push home the

attack or not. " For God's sake, my Lord Duke, don't "

said Schlangenberg, taking him aside, and expatiating with
excited gestures on the probability that, if the army crossed,
it would be crushed before it could deploy. The others,
who had been moved by Schlangenberg's arguments,
remained silent. But Marlborough cut the matter short.
He told them plainly that there was " no time to reason,"
that they must do one thing or the other, but that, which-
ever it was, it must be done immediately. They still
hesitated. Thereupon the Duke sent orders of recall to
both detachments. Oxenstiern's grenadiers returned at
once. Heukelom, who had not only carried all before him
but had now estabhshed himself in a strong, defensive
position, which he was confident would cover the passage
of the rest of the army, was indignant and incredulous, and
flatly refused to retreat. His attitude was natural enough,
for he, who was infinitely the best judge of the prospects
of success, had not even been consulted by those vacillating

Cranstoun's letter, p. 254.


commanders, who lacked the moral courage either to
advance or to retire. All this time the French columns
were drawing rapidly nearer. Marlborough sent Heukelom
a second message, so peremptory in tone that the stubborn
soldier, though he stormed like a madman, had no option
but to obey. So little was he pressed that he brought off
his entire force without the loss of a single man or pontoon.
The two armies then withdrew to Meldert. Their casualties
did not exceed fifty. But the French were alleged to have
suffered severely from the fire of the batteries .•■■

It can well be imagined that the spirit of the allied troops
was not exalted by this rebuff. The French, on the other
hand, astonished to find that they had not been beaten,
were ridiculously elated. These disagreeable results were
viewed by Schlangenberg with equanimity. His object
had been fully achieved. For the deception practised at
the passage of the lines Marlborough had now been soundly
punished. He had been driven to break his own project
in the very moment of execution, and to countermand his
own attacks in the face of an enemy whom he despised.

Marlborough was far too public-spirited to advertise to the
whole world the combination of imbecility and spite by
which he had been victimised. A plain statement of the
facts would have irritated English opinion, embarrassed
the Dutch government, and delighted Louis beyond measure.
His official reports of the operation concluded, therefore,
with such brief and unilluminating sentences as these:
" It was thought fit to order our men to retire."^ " It
was not thought fit to pursue the attempt,"^ and " It was
not considered opportune to pursue the affair.'"* How
far he sacrificed his own reputation by the exercise of this
patriotic restraint, may be judged from one very remarkable
circumstance. His English biographers, of that and the
succeeding generation, remained in complete ignorance of
the truth. ^ Monotonously and often fulsomely eulogistic

1 Mdmoires de Maffei, t. ii., p. 142. Maffei says that they had seventy

~ Murray, vol. ii., p. 195: Marlborough to Hedges, July 30, 1705.

3 Ibid.: Marlborough to Harley, July 30, 1705.

* Ibid., p. 194: Marlborough to the States-General, July 30, 1705.

^ Boyer, The History of Queen Anne (1735), p. 198; Lediard, vol. i.
p. 502.


as they were, in their narratives of this particular episode
they did grave injustice to their idol.

The fiasco on the Dyle should have convinced the Dutch
government of the utter futility of their system of command.
Hoping that what had been refused to argument might
now be conceded to example, Marlborough again sent
Hompesch to the Hague. Hompesch carried with him a
private letter for the Pensionary, couched in the strongest
language of admonition and remonstrance. " I am very
uneasy in my own mind," wrote Marlborough to his friend,
" to see how everything here is like to go, notwithstanding
the superiority, and goodness of our own troops, which
ought to make us not doubt of success." Inefficiency, he
explained, was the necessary consequence of councils of war,
which ruined all chances of secrecy and dispatch, while they
favoured the growth of personal animosities and an insane
spirit of partisanship. " It is absolutely necessary," he
declared, " that such power be lodged with the general as
may enable him to act as he thinks proper, according to the
best of his judgment, without being obliged ever to com-
municate what he intends further than he thinks convenient.
The success of the last campaign, with the blessing of God,
was owing to that power which I wish you would now give,
for the good of the public and that of the States in particular.
And if you think anybody can execute it better than myself
I shall be willing to stay in any of the towns here, having
a very good pretext, for I really am sick. I know this is
a very nice point, but it is of the last importance, for with-
out it no general can act offensively with advantage."
Hompesch, he added, would unfold the new plans which
he had formed, and which, if properly carried out, might
end the war. But he prophesied that, unless the incubus
of the existing system were removed, nothing could be
achieved beyond " the levelling of the lines and the taking
of Leau." He concluded with a hint that he could say
much more, and a request that, whatever resolution was
taken should be taken quickly.-^

On the day preceding the miscarriage on the Dyle Lord
Sunderland arrived in the allied camp. The death of

1 Murray, vol. ii., p. 197: Marlborough to the Pensioner, August 2, 1705.


Leopold and the accession of Joseph had placed the Queen
under the necessity of sending an Envoy Extraordinary to
the Court of Vienna, " to make the compliments of con-
dolence and congratulation."-^ Whoever was chosen, would
also be required to undertake the delicate task of promoting
an accommodation between the Emperor and the Hungarian
rebels. The Whigs exerted all their influence to procure
the post for Sunderland. The Duchess supported the
claims of her son-in-law with her accustomed warmth,
Godolphin, who considered that the result of the elections
had rendered the policy of ostracising the Junta no longer
safe, saw in the proposal an opportunity for gratifying the
Whig leaders without admitting them to real power.
Marlborough knew well that a more inept appointment
could hardly have been imagined. The friction between
Wratislaw and Stepney, which still continued, showed how
sensitive the Austrian government was to foreign inter-
ference in the Hungarian question. An extreme Republican
in theory, and an acrimonious Whig in practice, Sunderland
was of all men the most likely to aggravate the trouble
which he would be expected to assuage. But the miserable
exigencies of party politics compelled the Duke to acquiesce
in a selection which his own judgment unhesitatingly
condemned. To the huge dehght of the Whigs, the Queen
swallowed her natural prejudice against Sunderland, and
accepted the advice of her Prime Minister. But when the
Envoy Extraordinary turned out of his road to visit the
army in Brabant, his father-in-law took every advantage
of the opportunity to warn him against the diplomatic
pitfalls that awaited him at Vienna. Wratislaw, who knew
Sunderland weU, had already informed Marlborough of
the very unfavourable impression which the appointment
had created in that capital. " I entreat you," wrote the
Austrian minister, " to soften by your influence the re-
publican zeal of Lord Sunderland."^ And again: "I
frankly declare to you that I dread the republican prin-
ciples of Lord Sunderland."^ And again: "If he hopes
to establish a republic in Hungary, he will not succeed.""*

^ Boyer, The History of Queen Anne, p. i8o.

2 Coxe, vol. i., p. 340: Wratislaw to Marlborough, July 19, 1705.

^ Postscript to the same * Ibid.


This anxiety was only too well founded. The Envoy
Extraordinary had need of all the admirable counsel which
an accomplished diplomatist could impart to a narrow
doctrinaire. In the choice of his suite he had already
exhibited his unfitness for his task. He brought with him,
said Hare, " a parcel of notable Whigs — their company
will not much advance the Hungarian mediation."-^ During
the week that these visitors remained with the army, Marl-
borough showed them everything of interest, and personally
conducted them along the front of the French position.
In their many conversations upon Austrian politics Sunder-
land exhibited so much deference to the opinions of his
father-in-law that on August 6, when he departed for
Vienna, the Duke felt justified in writing to Wratislaw
that, despite his " humour and ardour," the Emperor's
ministers would find him " very flexible."^

In their camp at Meldert the soldiers of Marlborough
indignantly discussed the contemptible exhibition which
the army had offered to the enemy on the banks of the
Dyle. Bitterly as the Duke resented the treatment to which
he had been subjected, his men resented it more bitterly
than he. How high was the value which he set upon their
affection, appears from a letter which he sent at this time to
the Duchess, who had rebuked him for venturing his life at
the passage of the lines. " As I would deserve and keep the
kindness of this army," he wrote, " I must let them see that,
when I expose them, I would not exempt myself."^ And
never were troops more devoted to their commander or more
eager to be led against the foe. Yet thanks to the imbecile
policy of the Dutch government, all this magnificent fighting
material was condemned to inactivity, or else to a grotesque
parody of war, which St. John most truly described as a
" jest to our enemies.""*

On August 2, Hompesch returned from the Hague with a
resolution of the States. For sheer silliness it could hardly
have been excelled. The field-deputies were informed that

1 Hare MSS., August 3, 1705 (Hist. MSS. Comm., 14th Report, Appen-
dix, part ix., p. 204).

2 Murray, vol. ii., p. 204: Marlborough to Wratislaw, August 6, 1705.

3 Coxe, vol. i., p. 297: The Duke to the Duchess, August 6, 1705.
* Ibid.- • 304: St. John to Marlborough, August 18, 1705.


Marlborough had conceived a design, the execution of which
would necessitate two or three marches. These marches
they must permit him to make without summoning a council
of war. A council of war, they were told, was never to be
summoned unless it should be absolutely necessary. The
Duke, on the other hand, was warned that he must attempt
nothing without the concurrence of Overkirk and the field-
deputies. But inasmuch as the field-deputies could form
no opinion on military subjects without the advice of mili-
tary men, it was certain that in practice they would always
consult the officers of their own army. The whole resolution
was consequently useless. Indeed, it was worse than
useless, for it was so drawn as to increase the irritation of
the Dutch generals, while it could be so worked as to leave
their power for mischief unimpaired. The very men, who
were known to be aggrieved because Marlborough had not
confided to them his project for the passage of the lines,
were now directed to assist him on the execution of another
mysterious enterprise, and were provided, at the same time,
with an ample opportunity of ruining it at the last moment,
if they so desired.

Nevertheless the Duke did not abandon hope. Now, as
ever, his aim was to crush the enemy in battle. But as the
enemy would never attack, and as the Dutch would not
permit them to be attacked in existing circumstances, it
became necessary to devise some means of provoking or
compelling an encounter. The plan conceived by Marl-
borough exhibited both imagination and insight, and com-
bined within itself a variety of chances of bringing the French
to action. It involved, in the first place, a two days' march
to Genappe, twenty-five miles to the south-west of Meldert.
This movement, however it might be interpreted by Villeroi
and the Elector, would certainly be condemned by them
as a hazardous violation of the rules, because it would
carry Marlborough clean past the front of the hostile position,
and would leave his communications with Maestricht and
Liege through Diest and Tirlemont entirely exposed. The
Duke, who always studied the psychology of his antagonists
with the utmost care, was not without hope that the advan-
tage, theoretically accruing to the French from this incorrect


strategy, might tempt them to forsake the line of the Dyle
and throw themselves upon his rear. If only he were once
attacked, even the Dutch field-deputies could not refuse
him permission to defend himself. Assuming, however,
that the enemy declined to be drawn into the open, the
advance of the allies to Genappe, while it would disclose
no definite intention, could not fail to excite anxiety for at
least five fortresses, Ath, Mons, Charleroi, Brussels, and
Namur. Villeroi and the Elector would therefore be com-
pelled to weaken their army by detaching reinforcements
to the threatened garrisons. As an alternative to this
unpleasant process, they might reluctantly determine to
offer battle. But if, after all, they adhered to their defensive
system, and remained, though \vith diminished numbers,
between Brussels and Louvain, Marlborough intended,
by a third march to the north, to occupy the ridge of Mont
St. Jean. This movement was calculated to excite so much
alarm for the safety of Brussels, the fortifications of which
were notoriously feeble, that the enemy might be expected
to make yet another detachment for the protection of the
capital. Then, when the numerical odds were palpably
in his favour, when the obstacle of the Dyle no longer barred
his progress, and when he stood between the aimy of France
and the French frontier, wheeling swiftly to the right, he
would fall upon the foe in circumstances so propitious that,
for once, even the Dutch field-deputies and generals would
cheerfully declare for battle.

It was obvious to Marlborough that, if Villeroi and the
Elector could materially augment the numbers under their
command, the calculations upon which his whole design
reposed would be vitiated. He had already taken precau-
tions to ensure that the French and Spanish garrisons of
northern Flanders should be too busy to assist their army
in the field. On August 3, Spaar, who led the handful of
Dutch troops operating in that region, crossed the canal
between Bruges and Ghent, and under cover of darkness
attacked the lines. With little loss he captured four forts
and over 300 prisoners, and marching day and night, levying
contributions and arresting hostages as he went, spread
panic far and wide. Not until the 7th did he retire before a


superior force, hastily collected from the garrisons of those
parts. In this diversion, which had been concerted with
Marlborough, Spaar exhibited so much activity and enter-
prise that it became unsafe for Villeroi and the Elector to call
men southward, as long as this dashing raider continued
within striking distance of the lines. But Marlborough
had learned that a powerful contingent from Villars' army
in Alsace was already on the way to Flanders. To anticipate
its arrival, he proposed to march as soon as possible. He
waited only for the huge convoy of provisions, which he had
been accumulating at Liege, and without which he dared not
cut himself adrift in the enemy's country.

On August 13 the convoy reached Meldert with biscuit
and bread for ten days. The anniversary of Blenheim was
duly celebrated in the allied camp, and the Dutch field-
deputies and generals dined with the Duke. At Louvain
the French spies reported that the waggons had not been
unloaded. It was evident, therefore, that Marlborough
was about to move. But whither ? Since he withdrew to
Meldert, many rumours had been afloat. Some said that
he would march towards the Demer, others that he would
make for Hal, others that he intended to besiege Namur, and
others that he meditated a battle. Villeroi and the Elector,
who had reinforced the garrisons of Mons and Cliarleroi, and
warned the governors of Givet, Philippeville, and Maubeuge,
patiently awaited developments. The Dutch generals were
as much in the dark as they. One of them, Albemarle,
William's old favourite, wrote at this time to Heinsius to
complain that they were " treated like children."^

On Saturday, the 15th, Marlborough marched to Cor-
bais, and Ovcrkiik on a parallel line to Nil St. Martin.
This movement disclosed nothing definite. Villeroi and
the Elector were disinclined to believe that Namur was
threatened, as the numerical superiority of the allies seemed
insufficient to justify so serious a siege. They anticipated
rather that the Duke would pass the Dyle at Wavre, and
would either operate against their right wing, or make a
dash on Brussels. They therefore dispatched Grimaldi
with nine battalions and twelve squadrons to the capita],

1 Heinsius Archives (Rij ks- Achief [State Archives] at the Hague),
August 13. 1705.

1. 21


while they themselves with the main body stood ready to
move round, as Marlborough moved, but not before, lest
Louvain should be prematurely uncovered. On Sunday,
Marlborough and Overkirk crossed the Dyle at and
about Ottignies (where Grouchy would have crossed it,
a century later, had he marched to " the sound of the
cannon"), and encamped together on the heights above
Genappe (where Uxbridge's Life Guards rode down the
lancers of Napoleon). Villeroi and the Elector were sur-
prised and puzzled. They were totally at a loss to compre-
hend how any general could so far forget the book as to
abandon his magazines and march across the enemy's front
into the heart of a hostile country. Yet they displayed
no eagerness to profit by the advantage which Marlborough's
theoretically unsound movement was supposed to have
conferred upon them. Instead of attempting to punish
him for his blunder, they merely shifted their position a
little further from Louvain and a little nearer to Brussels
Pushing out their right to Overyssche, and bringing up their
left to Neeryssche, they encamped between the forest of
Soignies and the Dyle, with the little river Yssche upon their
front. At the same time, they dispatched nine more
battalions to Grimaldi, and sent Pasteur with six squadrons
of dragoons to Waterloo, to hold the main road from Ge-
nappe to Brussels. In Louvain they left three battalions
and three squadrons with orders to patrol the country
unceasingly. Even so, they were not satisfied. Ath,
Mons, and Charleroi, all lay within the zone of danger.
Each of these garrisons, therefore, they reinforced with one
battalion apiece. Marlborough was attaining his end.
Though he had not succeeded in luring the enemy into the
open, he had drawn them from the Dyle, and he was com-
pelling them to make so many detachments in various
directions that their numerical inferiority began to be very

On Monday, the allied army, altering its direction from
south-west to north, marched up to the ridge of Mont

Online LibraryFrank TaylorThe wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) → online text (page 30 of 44)