Monday, March 4, 2013

Bridges and Blenheim

Amidst volunteering at a local hospital I've had an opportunity to catch up on my book backlog; and lo a new blog series has started! The first book I read was "Battle For Europe" as I did not know a great deal about campaigns relating to John Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough, Eugene of Savoy, nor Louis XIV. Napoleon spoke with some admiration of the first two, particularly Eugene and I'd like to see if there's much to learn from their campaigns (most often there is). Marlborough is oft referenced as the best British land general; though naturally still in the shadow of Horatio Nelson overall, and Blenheim is his signature victory.

I do not wish to discuss the overarching implications of the battle but instead to focus on a specific event and how that can be viewed and learned from. The battle took place on August 13th, 1704 in Hochstadt, Bavaria directly north of the Danube (the longest river in Europe). The Franco-Bavarian force was arrayed in a superior defensive position, with the two flanks of Marshal Tallard's central force being well guarded by fortified towns and the center having a four meter wide creek. The author suggests this was the pivotal point of the battle; the ability to defend this central crossing effectively.

Fording a river is a frequent military quandary to this day and the general school of thought is that attacking while the enemy is still in the midst of crossing the river is the best option. A second option is to fortify your side of the river and dissuade the enemy from crossing altogether (which could have varying implications but would be unlikely to be decisive except in shifting the focal point of the conflict). Tallard, however, took neither of these courses and instead decided to charge upon the foe with his esteemed Gendarmie cavalry force; though said force performed underwhelmingly in this battle and when the counter offensive finally began Marlborough's force had aligned four lines of troops; a rather powerful beachhead. The French failed to break through here and so began the main phase of the battle. Eventually Tallard's force in the center was utterly routed and the marshal himself captured; while the position of fighting was defensively sound they had failed to account for a necessary retreat route and thus thousands of men drowned in the Danube and thousands more were captured.

However this did not need to happen as obviously a more decisive and forceful action to repulse the crossing of the stream would have effected a different result, as would a simple fortification and defensive holding. France and Bavaria maintained a local numerical superiority in this battle and holding defensively would have worked reasonably well; while a decisive defeat may not have been dealt a tactical victory could certainly have been attained. Though I posit a fourth potential strategy; perhaps not one for Blenheim in particular but in defense of a forded river one could lure the opponent into a weak center in a similar fashion to Hannibal's masterpiece Cannae and then converge simultaneously on the disparate front and the troops still crossing the river; with pontoons and support a potential counter crossing to cut off retreat in this process would be quite functional. Though a difficult maneuver to perform a merging of Cannae and Frederick the Great's Rossbach could allow for an exceptional victory to echo across the ages.

However, Blenheim; though certainly a significant battle historically, is not all that tactically interesting; apart from the mysteries of having 3 concurrent small conflicts on the same battlefield with only a modest amount of support from either wing. This battle should be hailed as a catastrophic failure on the part of Tallard; Marlborough simply took advantage. However he did not take advantage in a particularly interesting nor innovative fashion and thus his contribution as a commander is somewhat limited in comparison with great semi-contemporary European marshals; Turenne, Conde, Frederick the Great, Gustavus Adolphus, and Napoleon. I have yet to come to a determination as to Eugene of Savoy's merit and shall investigate this matter further.