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Battlefield: Blenheim

The Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in 1704 shattered the myth of French invincibility and paved the way for Britain’s emergence as a world power. Julian Humphrys explains…

Triumph on the Danube

As evening fell in Bavaria on 13 August 1704, a weary Duke of Marlborough climbed down from his horse and hastily scrawled a message to his wife on the back of an old tavern bill: “I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.” Marlborough’s triumph cemented his reputation as the greatest general of his age. It also helped prevent France from dominating Europe.

When the childless King Charles II of Spain died in 1700, he left his throne – together with all his territory in the Netherlands, Italy and the Americas – to Philip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. The prospect of Philip eventually becoming king of both France and Spain filled many European states with alarm. To counter Louis XIV's growing dominance, England, the Dutch Republic, Austria and Prussia, and a number of other states, revived the Grand Alliance that had been formed against France in the 1680s. Meanwhile, France allied itself with Spain and Bavaria, and war broke out.

TURNING POINT French infantry stubbornly defended the village of Blenheim all day, but were eventually surrounded and forced to surrender

The opening years of the conflict were largely indecisive but, in 1704, the Grand Alliance found itself faced with a major crisis: French and Bavarian forces stood poised to capture Vienna and thus knock Austria out of the war. In response to this threat, Marlborough, who was in command of the Allied forces in the Low Countries, acted decisively. He marched his army some 400 kilometres from Flanders to invade Bavaria, where he joined forces with his ally, the Imperial general Prince Eugene of Savoy. It was a triumph of organisation and logistics, and it was in a large part due to the efforts of the Dutch, who laid on much-needed supplies at very short notice.

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Discover the daring escapes and rescue missions of the Dunkirk evacuation, find out how the Victorians revolutionised British summers with the creation of the seaside holiday, and meet the exotic dancer-turned-World War I spy, Mata Hari.