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Marlborough: Britain’s Greatest General by Richard Holmes

Britain’s Greatest General? A brave statement indeed! But then again, if anyone can make such a statement, Richard Holmes can.

Richard Holmes is probably best known for his series of ‘war walks’ programmes some years ago. In recent years he has turned his attention more towards writing, with an acclaimed biography of the Duke of Wellington, and some interesting studies of British soldiers through the ages. Neither is Holmes a mere TV Historian (yes, you, Dan Snow!) – he is Professor of Military Studies at Cranfield University. Not only that, he is a former senior TA Officer too. Clearly, this guy knows his military history.

John Churchill (yes, an ancestor of THE Churchill) was born during the reign of Charles II. Rising to prominent military rank during the reign of James II, Churchill was caught up in the dilemma of James’s overt Roman Catholicism. Originally on the side of the monarch, his switching of sides before the battle of Sedgemoor tipped the balance and helped lead to William of Orange acceding to the throne, jointly with his wife Mary. Churchill fell out of favour somewhat during the reign of William and Mary, such was the turbulent nature of late Stuart high society.

What really seems to have advanced Churchill’s career was his wife’s friendship with the next monarch, Queen Anne. Although Churchill was a gifted soldier, as always in military history some social connections go a long way in aiding a rise to the top. Churchill was eventually ennobled as the Earl and then Duke of Marlborough, after decisive victories at Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde during the war of the Spanish Succession.

So what makes Marlborough Britain’s Greatest General? Well, he was probably Britain’s first true professional commander. Prior to Marlborough, Royals tended to take command. Cromwell might have been a commoner, but his career was driven by politics. Marlborough heralded a new age of military competence and professionalism. Military command was no longer something that the great and the good turned to when they had to. And with the existence of a standing army for the first time in British history, there was now the potential for men such as Marlborough to hone their skills. Marlborough also made a first class Allied commander – Eisenhower would have done well to read up on his Marlburian history.

But what makes Marlborough really iconic is his grasp on the simple matters of command. In particular, logistics. He lacks maybe the drive of a Napoleon, but he was always totally in command of his supply lines. Only by organising his army so well could he march so deep into Europe as he did in the Blenheim campaign. And, as Holmes states, he had a rapport with his soldiers – Wellington’s redcoats, by contrast, would never have called him ‘Corporal John’, as they did Marlborough. But all the same, we can see the start of a clear progression, from Marlborough, to Wellington, to Montgomery.

Holmes makes the point very well. At times it feels that the story is too enmeshed with Stuart society, but that is difficult to avoid – it explains much of Marlboroughs career and his significance. This is an eminently readable book with a refreshing down to earth style.

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