That war, known by some military historians as “the first world war of modern times,” lasted thirteen years and resulted in battles in Spain, Hungary, France, the Netherlands, Italy, America, Austria, and on the high seas, as well as trade wars in India and South America. The war concerned who would succeed to the throne of Spain; France wanted an heir to the Bourbons, and Austria to the Hapsburgs. Combined with the most complex political maneuverings by all the countries in Europe, the Grand Alliance was again assembled against France. England’s goal was to maintain the balance of power in Europe and protect her trade routes around the world.
An Anglo-Dutch squadron captures a Spanish treasure fleet in 1702,
during the War of Spanish Succession
Defending the Dutch Republic was key to the strategy. In his first campaign, Marlborough captured Kaiserswerth in 1702 and cleared the territory between the Rhine and Meuse Rivers, for which triumphs he was created Duke of Marlborough. In order to assist Austria—whose armies were engaged in Italy and along the Rhine—Marlborough attacked along the Moselle River and feinted toward Alsace to draw off Bavarian forces that had been committed to the French. In August of 1704, the Anglo-Dutch army fought the great battle of Blenheim, in which he lost 12,000 men but inflicted more than 36,000 casualties on the French. After a full year of one success after another, the other coalition countries sat back on their laurels, against the offensive strategies planned by Marlborough.
The Duke of Marlborough writing the Blenheim despatch to his wife, Sarah, after the Battle of Blenheim
The French attacked on all fronts to win back territory and probably sue for peace. At Ramillies, Marlborough very nearly lost his life but in the end, inflicted an enormous defeat of the French, who lost five times the number of troops. As the years passed and the war engulfed more men, and expanded around the world’s oceans, Marlborough’s political enemies increased their numbers in Parliament and called for negotiated settlement along Whig lines, rather than the Tories, who had brought the war on and demanded ultimate victory on the battlefield. Peace talks collapsed in 1708 as the Allies invaded France, looking for that killer blow that would end the war.
The Battle of Ramillies between the French and the English, 1706