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St. Jean, and encamped with its left at Braine I'Alleud
and its right at La Hulpe, on the very ground which WelUng-
ton selected in 1815 for a different purpose. Marlborough's


own headquarters were at Fischermont. Villeroi and the
Elector, who had been joined on the 15th by Marsin,
were virtually convinced that the Duke's real objective
was the city of Brussels. But they wanted to be sure.
They therefore reinforced Pasteur with a battalion of
foot and 350 grenadiers. If he was unable to maintain
his ground, he was instructed to retire upon a prepared
position which Grimaldi occupied at the junction of the
roads from Waterloo and La Hulpe. All the intervening
land being covered with impenetrable wood, these disposi-
tions appeared adequate to delay the progress of the allied
army, while the main body of the French fell back at the
very last moment upon Brussels. But in case Grimaldi
and Pasteur should prove unequal to their task, three
brigades of foot were transferred to the extreme right of the
French line, and posted on the eastern fringe of the forest of

Marlborough, who had early intelligence of the enemy's
movements, saw with satisfaction their growing anxiety for
Brussels, On Monday afternoon, to confirm them in the
erroneous opinion which they had evidently formed, he
ordered a detachment from Overkirk's army to dis-
lodge Pasteur from Waterloo. After a sharp engagement,
Pasteur was driven from his entrenchments, and pursued
for three miles towards Brussels. Meantime, the Duke
was busily engaged in interrogating peasants familiar with
the valley of the Yssche, and in selecting guides who had a
thorough knowledge of the banks and fords. That evening
he retired to bed at an early hour. But he was soon
awakened by a report that the enemy were advancing in
force. He hastily mounted, and rode out to Waterloo,
only to discover that the alarm originated in nothing more
important than the return of Pasteur to his former post.

Before daybreak on Tuesday Marlborough dispatched his
heavy baggage to Wavre, and ordered Churchill with
twenty battalions and twenty squadrons to take the road
to Groenendael, which was also the straight road from
La Hulpe to Brussels. It was Churchill's real function
to act against the right flank of the French position, while
Marlborough himself assailed the front. But the Duke


anticipated that this powerful column, advancing in the
direction of the capital, would be taken for the vanguard
of the allied army. Meantime that army was marching
by its right in three columns, between the Yssche and the

Rumours of these movements came quickly to the French
generals. They saw at once that, if Churchill pressed on,
through Groenendael and Boitsfort,into the plain of Brussels,
he would turn the strong position which Grimaldi had pre-
pared on the Waterloo road. They therefore instructed
that general to abandon a post, which no longer possessed
any value, and to occupy a new one at Boitsfort, where
Churchill presumably would debouch from the forest.
They also sent Grimaldi a couple of brigades of foot, which
could ill be spared from the already reduced forces available
for the defence of the Yssche. A little before 7, they
received an explicit report that the whole of the infantry
of the allied army was moving upon Brussels, and that the
columns in motion between the Yssche and the Lasne
consisted only of mounted troops, intended to amuse the
main body of the French. This statement, coinciding as
it did with their own presuppositions, they accepted as
entirely true. It placed them in a terrible dilemma. If
they stayed where they were, they would sacrifice Brussels ;
if they rushed to Brussels, they would abandon Louvain.
It was necessary to choose, and to choose quickly. After
a brief debate, they decided that, whatever else was lost,
the capital must be preserved. But they postponed for
a little the necessary orders, while they rode out in person
to reconnoitre the advancing columns. Marlborough's
leading squadrons were now distinctly visible. More and
more cavalry followed. Suddenly from the dark masses
of woodland the scarlet-coated infantry issued forth into
the plain. It was enough. Realising at last that they had
been completely fooled, the three generals galloped back
to camp. They knew now that they must fight, and fight
at a grave disadvantage. For now, as at Blenheim, Marl-
borough had surprised his enemy.

By 9 o'clock the allied army, having passed the forest
and several defiles, which might easily have been held against


them, obtained a fair view of the French position. From
the bustle and excitement which prevailed among the enemy,
it was evident that the contingency of a battle on the
Yssche had not been seriously contemplated. The Elector
and the Marshals were therefore compelled to make their
dispositions and improvise their defences under the interested
eye of Marlborough himself. The Duke dashed eagerly
forward to examine the ground. He discovered no fewer
than four points which seemed to him most suitable for
assault. He rode so close to one of them that he attracted
the fire of the French gunners. When the round-shot
came whistling across the stream, he remarked with a smile
that these gentlemen did not choose to have that particular
place too narrowly inspected. He could plainly see that,
try as they would to extend themselves for effect, the French
forces were insufhcient in number for the position which
they occupied. He also noted that the sun had hardened
the marshy ground adjacent to the river. As he returned
from Neeryssche, he encountered Overkirk and showed
him the situation of the French right, which the Dutch army
was destined to attack. The two rode back towards
Huldenberg, when the Duke's eye detected a spot so feebly
defended that he ordered the nearest troops to seize it
forthwith. But on learning that his artillery had not yet
arrived, he held his hand. Thereupon, the enemy, who had
perceived his intention, hastily brought cannon to the
threatened point. The guns of the allies had marched in a
separate column, and under strict injunctions to proceed
with the utmost expedition. They had, however, been
wantonly delayed by Schlangenberg, who, in spite of the
Duke's express command that no baggage should mingle
with the train, had insisted with his usual brutality and
insolence that his own belongings should hamper the mobility
of this important arm.

Shortly after noon the allied line was entirely formed.
For the third time Marlborough rode along the front of the
French position, and for the third time satisfied himself
that the task which he had set his army was well within
their powers. He was convinced that the enemy would be
beaten in any event, and that if they seriously attempted


to stand their ground they would be destroyed. Ap-
proaching the field-deputies, he congratulated them upon
the prospect of a brilliant victory. They received him coolly ;
and when he suggested that they should sanction an im-
mediate advance, they replied that it was necessary in the
first place to consult their generals. All superfluous delay
reduced the advantages, both moral and material, which
Marlborough's skill had secured. He submitted, however,
with a good grace, and himself addressed the Dutch officers.
He told them that he had carefully examined the ground,
and made every preparation for immediate attack. He
expressed the opinion that the allies were already too
deeply committed to withdraw, except at the price of their
reputation, and that the opportunity was too fair to be lightly
thrown away. In particular, he drew attention to the hurry
and confusion, manifest in all the motions of the French;
and while he admitted that the day was already far spent,
he urged that, if a night's respite were granted, the position
would be fortified under cover of darkness and the price
of victory indefinitely raised.

An ominous murmur ran round the group ; but none made
answer, till Schlangenberg at last cried out that, since he had
been brought to Overyssche without having been previously
consulted, it was his opinion that an assault at that point
was impracticable. The conclusion in no way followed
from the premises. But the Dutch generals, feeling as
Albemarle had complained to Heinsius that they were
" treated like children," had evidently resolved to behave
as such. Schlangenberg having added that whatever
orders he received, he was prepared to execute, Marlborough
remarked that he was fortunate in possessing the services
of so courageous and capable a subordinate. He requested
the Dutchmen to raise no difficulties, when time was precious,
and offered to entrust him with the command of the
attack on Overyssche. " Murder and massacre,"^ growled
Schlangenberg. Thereupon, the Duke suggested that, to
spare the army of Holland, two English regiments should
be employed to every Dutch one. Schlangenberg objected
that he could not speak the English language. Then

^ Coxe, vol. i., p. 310.


Marlborough promised him German troops. Schlangenberg
merely reiterated his original statement that an assault
at that point was impracticable.

The Duke, who had not hitherto abandoned his accustomed
gentleness of tone, began to be angry. As he would not
condescend, he said, to expose his soldiers to risks which he
himself was unwilling to share, he would in person direct the
assault at Overyssche. He then exhorted the field-deputies,
in the most solemn language, not to fling away so splendid
an opportunity. They remained unmoved. The discussion
prolonged itself for two hours. A messenger arrived from
Churchill with the news that he had occupied Groenendael
at 10 o'clock, but that, the enemy having blocked the ways
with timber, and concentrated a powerful force in the neigh-
bourhood of Boitsfort, he could not debouch from the forest
at that point. Marlborough sent him orders for a temporary
retirement. Meanwhile the senseless controversy con-
tinued for yet another hour. " That beast Schlangenberg,"
says Hare,-^ " was veiy noisy " ; and according to Cranstoun,
he " spoke frowardly and harshly to the Duke."^ Over-
kirk, to his everlasting honour, advised the field-deputies
to consent to the attempt, and alone among his compatriots
maintained that it was perfectly feasible. Marlborough
at one moment would stand a little way apart, wi'estling
with his indignation and his shame; at another, he would
plunge into the discussion, using " sometimes fair words
and sometimes hard ones."^ Eventually he told the field-
deputies that " if they neglected this opportunity, they
could never answer to it to God or their masters, and that
this should be the last time he would lead them to an
enemy.""* But the generals, with the exception of Overkirk,
were unanimous against him. And the field- deputies
decided, like true republicans, by counting noses. What
did it matter that Overkirk was their own field-marshal,
a favourite soldier of William, and a veteran fighter who had
seen more of war than any man in the Dutch service ?

1 Hare MSS.: Francis Hare to his cousin (George Naylor), August 20,
1705 (Hist. MSS. Comm., 14th Report, Appendix, part ix., p. 205).

2 Portland MSS.: Major J. Cranstoun to Robert Cunningham, October r,
1705 (Hist. MSS. Comm., 15th Report, part iv., p. 254).

3 Hare MSS.: Ibid. * Ibid.


What did it matter that Marlborough was commander-
in-chief of both the alUed armies, that he had virtually
been appointed by William himself, that his last campaign
had amazed Europe, that at the passage of the lines he had
just exhibited afresh the superiority of his talents ? In
the Dutch army, besides Schlangenberg and Salisch, generals
of infantry, there were seven lieutenant-generals, and nine
major-generals, or eighteen in all. What were two against
so many ? Unless they were prepared to admit the fatal
doctrine that majorities can err, the representatives of the
Republic had really no option in the matter. But after
all, their faith in the democratic principle was not very
robust. It stopped short at general officers. Had they
taken a poll of the rank and file, the result might have
astonished them.

It was resolved that an assault at Overyssche was imprac-
ticable. In regard to the remaining points which Marl-
borough and Overkirk had selected for attack, the
Dutch generals, who had not inspected them, declined to
express any opinion. They proposed that, in the first
instance, Schlangenberg, Salisch, and Tilly should examine
the ground. Marlborough requested three of his own
officers, Noyelles, Bothmar, and Stark, to accompany the
Dutchmen. Noyelles, who could not trust himself to keep
the peace with such an insufferable person as Schlangenberg,
begged to be excused. The other five rode off towards
Huldenberg, while Marlborough withdrew to his own
quarters with a heart well-nigh broken. The opportunity
was passing. Before this reconnaissance was finished, it
would have passed.

Bothmar and Stark did not enjoy their promenade.
Everything which the Dutchmen saw was a text for adverse
criticism. The infantry could never wade through the
Yssche, because it was too deep, nor the cavalry manoeuvre
on its banks, because they were too soft. The French
position was studded with villages, which were natural
fortresses, and seamed with hollow roads, which were
natural entrenchments. Even if a column succeeded in
fording the river, its head would be blown away before
it could deploy. And even if any portion of the Duke's


project had once been feasible, it was so no longer, for the
French were now busily employed with pick and shovel.
The party did not proceed as far as Neeryssche. In the
circumstances it was unnecessary. Enough had been seen
for the purposes of argument, and enough time had been
squandered to damn the whole enterprise. The sun was
descending towards the forest of Soignies when they turned
their faces to the west. As they rode towards Overyssche,
they discussed the relative strength of the opposing forces,
and Schlangenberg produced a document, which purported
to demonstrate in black and white that, both in squadrons
and battalions, the allies were vastly outnumbered. Salisch
enquired of Bothmar, who had fought at Blenheim, whether
the position on the Yssche was not stronger than the position
on the Nebel. According to Schlangenberg (who was not a
respecter of the truth), Bothmar repHed that it was thrice
as strong. Thereupon SaHsch triumphantly remarked that
the battle of Blenheim itself was widely condemned as an
example of inconsiderate temerity on the part of the allies.
Bothmar and Stark, who were Marlborough's men, heard
him in silence. And in silence they quitted the party,
and went to make their report to the Duke.

The others rode on to Overkirk's quarters. On the
way they encountered Marlborough, who passed them
without speaking. They found the Field-Marshal asleep
in his coach, a spectacle which Schlangenberg appears to
have regarded as peculiarly diverting.-^ The time was
August. Ov-jrkirk was sixty-four. He had had little
rest on the preceding night, and he had been long in the
saddle. Also he had assisted for three hours at a debate
in which Schlangenberg had been the principal orator.
If he was drowsy, he had every excuse. But Schlangenberg' s
sense of humour was as abnormal as his sense of duty.

When Bothmar had finished his tale, Marlborough did
not attempt to conceal his feelings. " I am at this moment,"
he said, " ten years older than I was four days ago."^

The French generals were astounded at their escape.
But they made good use of the respite, for they regarded

^ See Schlangenberg's letter, printed in Lamberty, August 27, 1705
(t. iii., p. 487).
2 Coxe, vol. i., p. 311.


it as nothing more. That night they recalled the greater
part of Grimaldi's detachment from the neighbourhood of
Brussels. They erected new batteries at dominating points.
They posted thirteen squadrons of the Household at
Neeryssche, where the ground was suitable for cavalry.
And all through the hours of darkness they laboured to
fortify their line from end to end.

On Wednesday morning Overkirk informed Marlborough
that the report of the three generals was entirely adverse,
and advised him of the transformation which the art
of the French engineers had effected in the night. The
Duke, having personally examined the works, which were
still in progress, realised that it would be worse than waste
of time to reason with the field-deputies, and ordered the
army to prepare to march. The French, who were fully
expecting to be attacked, watched with anxiety the com-
motion in the allied camp. Late in the afternoon they saw,
to their amazement, the hostile columns retiring on Basse
Wavre. They were more than satisfied with their good
fortune. Having dispatched four squadrons to observe the
retreat, they made no attempt to harass it. In the words
of Hare, " thus fell this noble enterprise. "•"■

From Basse Wavre Marlborough dispatched his report
to the States-General. " I should have writ," he informed
the Duchess, " in a very angry style, but I was afraid it
might have given the French an advantage."^ The style
which he adopted was certainly restrained. Yet it ex-
ceeded what was usual in his communications with the
Dutch government. " I flattered myself," he told them,
after briefly describing the situation on the Yssche, " I
flattered myself that I might soon have congratulated
your High Mightinesses on a glorious victory." He did
not condescend to elaborate the technical arguments, which
had been used at the council of war. With obvious irony
he left that task to " Messieurs the Deputies." But he
emphasised the fact that, in thinking that " the opportunity
was too fair to let slip," he had been supported by the
judgment of Overkirk. " However," he said, " I sub-

1 Hare MSS.: Francis Hare to his cousin (George Naylor), August 20,
1705 (Hist. MSS. Comm., 14th Report, Appendix, part ix., p. 205).

2 Coxe, vol. i., p. 312: The Duke to the Duchess, August ig, 1705.


mitted, though with much reluctancy." Th bitterness
of his disappointment was fully revealed only in the post-
script, which ran as follows: "My heart is so full, that I
cannot forbear representing to your High Mightinesses on
this occasion, that I find my authority here to be much
less than when 1 had the honour to command your troops
in Germany."^

The report of the field-deputies was twice as long as the
Duke's. They declared that all the generals, with the
exception of Overkirk, had considered the attempt most
hazardous, and had dwelt upon the horrors to which defeat
would have exposed the army, cut off as it was from its
hospitals and magazines, and had urged that the affairs of
Holland and the Grand Alliance were " not yet reduced to
such a condition " as to justify " so desperate a work."
It was a plausible dispatch; but those who framed it had
not sufficiently mastered the art of reticence. Having
referred at the end to the mysterious marches which they
had been instructed to permit without summoning a council
of war, they added these illuminating words: "And we
cannot conceal from your High Mightinesses that all the
generals of our army think it very strange that they should
not have the least notice of the said marches."^

By this one sentence they condemned themselves. For
in exposing the malice which actuated their advisers, they
exposed their own incompetence in accepting advice, which
they well knew to be derived from a polluted source.

In justice to the Dutch generals it should be said that
a majority of the officers of Marlborough's own army con-
sidered that an attack would have been attended with the
gravest risks. But similar views were taken on the eve
of Blenheim. Marlborough himself was entirely confident
of success. That fact alone is not far short of scientific
proof that success would have been assured. In any case,
it is impossible to believe in the peculiarly " desperate "
character of an undertaking, which had been approved by

^ Murray, vol. ii., pp. 223, 224: Marlborough to the States-General,
August 19, 1705.

2 Pelet, t. v., p. 592: Lettre des deputees des Etats-Generaux au
pensionnaire Heinsius, 19 aout, 1705.


so wary and experienced a veteran as Overkirk, and
which the French generals themselves, most cautious and
orthodox of soldiers, fully expected to be carried through,
even after time had been allowed them to fortify their
position. Marlborough's opinion did not rest upon the
configuration of the ground or the details of the landscape.
It rested on his certain knowledge that the three great
factors of surprise, numbers, and moral were all upon the
side of the allied army. That the French were surprised
was manifest from the dispositions which they had made
for the defence of Brussels, and from those which they had
neglected to make for the defence of the Yssche. That
they were outnumbered was known beforehand from the
many detachments which they had sent away, and was
demonstrated now by the dangerous sparseness of their
lines at several points. "We were at least one- third
stronger than they,"-"- wrote Marlborough to Godolphin.
That the moral of the allies was infinitely superior, could
be presumed from the fact that very many of them had
fought at the Schellenberg and Blenheim, and that all of
them had just participated in the passage of the lines. By
infallible signs, which he detected in his daily contact with
the army, Marlborough knew well the spirit of the men.
It was a significant circumstance that the warmest advocates
of battle were to be found among the officers of his cavalry,
the very arm which was supposed to be least able to operate
against the French position. But the cavalr}^ since its
triumph on the plain of Tirlemont, would stop at nothing.
Now, of these three factors, surprise, numbers, and moral,
any one, by itself, might have sufficed to turn the scale
in favour of a tactician so accomplished as Marlborough.
The three together made victory certain. As for the
dangers consequent upon defeat, they were at least as
serious for the French as for the allies. So sensible were
the enemy of the magnitude of their risk, that all the
prisoners and deserters, who were subsequently brought
into the alUed camp, unanimously declared that the Elector
and the Marshals would never have stood before a resolute
attack, but would have retired forthwith to Brussels. If,

^ Coxe, vol. i,, p. 314: Marlborough to Godolphin, August 19, 1705.


on the other hand, they had offered a determined resistance,
it was Marlborough's considered judgment that " the affair
would have been somewhat serious, and would have cost us
a good many men, but that, according to all appearances,
and considering our superiority and the excellence of our
troops, we should have gained one of the most complete
of victories."^

The allied army fell back by easy stages through Corbais
to Tirlemont. Marlborough's correspondence on the road
sufficiently displays his feelings. " The people I am joined
with," he told Godolphin, " will never do anything."^
And again: " It is next to impossible to act offensively with
this army, so governed as they are; for when their general
and I agree, as we did in this, that it shall be in the power
of subaltern generals to hinder the execution, is against all
discipline. Nor can I ever serve with them without losing
the little reputation I have; for in most countries they
think I have power in this army to do what I please."^
To Eugene, who had complained of apathy at Vienna, he
wrote that he would gladly transport himself and half the
forces in the Netherlands to Italy .■* To Shrewsbury, who
was suffering from gout, he declared: "Our army is in a
manner laid up too by a disease, for which I see no cure."^
To the States, who were sending him more soldiers, he
explained that he had already too many for the use which
he was permitted to make of them.

From Tirlemont he sent Dedem to besiege Lean, a small
place surrounded by marshes, which had served as a point
for the lines of Brabant. Dedem having threatened that
he would put the garrison to the sword if they prolonged
their resistance, they surrendered within a week. Four
hundred men were taken, with twenty cannon and abun-

Online LibraryFrank TaylorThe wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) → online text (page 31 of 44)