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.



Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Early Modern History

21 responses to “Marlborough: Britain’s Greatest General by Richard Holmes

  1. Mike Burleson

    Whew! Marlborough joins a list of the greats. Not sure I would consider him the best. Often you can view the caliber of a general by the quality of his enemies. Wellington beat Napoleon in their only encounter on the battlefield at Waterloo. Wolfe might be counted, but he only fought one, howbeit enormously decisive battle. The exploits of Cromwell can’t be discounted.

  2. James Daly

    I find it extremely hard comparing Generals from different ears. The big problem is that by cutting across hundreds of years its easy to discount the context of the time. And not only that but they all had strengths and weaknesses of their own.

    If I really had to pick I think I would say Wellington is my favourite. He does seem to be overshadowed by Nelson in terms of British public consciousness, but then dying is the best career move anyone can make.

  3. Mike Burleson

    I think thats why I thought of Wellington. You always hear of these great Captains like Hannibal, like Napoleon, and their exploits sung. What about the generals who defeated them, like Scipio? Or why is Lee celebrated and not Grant, ect? And Rommel is much praised, but could never seem to make the decisive blow, while Montgomery is much criticized, yet he won!

  4. James Daly

    I think there are more than a few great Generals like Rommel, Model and von Rundstedt who were hamstrung by their superiors – you could argue that no German generals in the second world war were really able to show their potential thanks to Hitler’s meddling. The same could be said about some of Napoleon’s Marshals – Soult, Davout etc.

  5. Scott

    Say what you like about Marlborough, but the march from The Netherlands to Bavaria during the Blenheim campaign was a logistical and tactical masterpiece. The real similarity between Marlborough and Wellington was their command of logistics.

  6. James Daly

    Quite right. I think what marks Marlborough out is that in the context of his time he made logistics a part of command, and made command a profession rather than something that royals and nobles played at.

  7. Scott Daly

    Yes, the one thing which I really enjoy about this period of British military history is that the Royals started to appear less regularly on the battlefield. Most European armies were still commanded by the heads of state. Theres definitely a sense of Britain relying more on its nobility to do the dirty work.

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