Friday, 20 September 2019

Churchill on Churchill 2: A Jolly Good Fellow

I'm still listening to the 76 hour audiobook of this.

It think its the largest book I've ever experienced. I'm still thinking about what to say about it and how to review it. There is SO MUCH happening, so much information and so much that could be said that its hard to know where to start.

Also, its history and saying anything meaningful about it would rely on a grasp of detail which I generally don't have.

I think I will have to, rather than reviewing the book, review the experience of reading the book, or of listening to it and then re-reading fragments of the text.

So to begin with, here is an kind of abstraction or condensation of what Marlborough was up to when he was *becoming Marlborough* - the guy who literally has his own song.

If you've ever sang "for he's a Jolly Good fellow",  then that was based on a French Folk tune. And that tune was about the rumoured death of Marlborough after the battle of Malplaquet.

"Marlborough Has Left for the War" also known as "Mort et convoi de l'invincible Malbrough", "The Death and Burial of the Invincible Marlbrough".

In which he did not actually die.

But that tune, in a sense and at at distance, commemorates him, and the death he didn't have.


This is the middle part of the Marlborough story

We've seen him growing up, (or inferred what it might have been like as sources are minimal) and we have seen him at court, scheming and boning the kings mistress, and we saw him get married.

Now we have two whole (large) volumes in which he can do all the stuff that made him famous, adored, then despised -

What this is, essentially, breaking it down is; being the military and diplomatic fulcrum of a multi-nation protestant alliance against the France of Louis XIV And running around in Flanders and Germany trying to outmanoeuvre French armies and fighting, almost once a year a series of super-big set-piece battles against French forces which he almost always wins, very often against the odds


Marlboroughs working life is made up of two great interconnected games. He is playing 'Diplomacy' and 'Warhammer' at the same time.

Fighting the French are the English (soon to be British, with the Act of Union) under Queen Anne (& Parliament). The Dutch who I think are a republic, and some German states, and Austria I think,

Queen Anne wants Louis to recognise her claim to the throne, stop trying to make England Catholic and to kick out the Pretender ("maybe 'tis our brother?") the son of the last Stuart king who got booted out by William during the glorious revolution.

Parliament want that, and also whatever random stuff any particular Parliament has currently come up with.

The Dutch want the French out of their country and a nice thick barrier zone to make sure they don't come back. And in the initial stages of the war, they want this preferably *without fighting a battle*.

The German states want something complex to do with the balance of power over on that side of Europe, but they are often fighting a bunch of other people at about the same time for complex reasons of their own.

And later on, after Louis schemes a relative onto the Spanish throne, all the same people want that relative off the throne.

Point being, all the forces aligned against France have different reasons for being there, different kinds of risk they are willing to take, and are subject to complex forces of their own (In Britain, hot serving maids and crazed factionalism become a thing). Plus all of these reasons and imperatives are continually shifting all the time.

While in France, the national policy is whatever Louis says it is.

France is unified and central, everyone else is divided and seperate.

So, all the time, but especially in winter when little fighting can take place, Marlborough's Diplomacy game is to vist, write, persuade, argue, cajole etc etc all the members of the grand alliance to keep throwing in troops, to work nicely with each other and to let the army keep fighting.

When spring and summer come around, the giant mud-stomping, dust-clogging, country-denuding armies of the time can stamp around doing things, then Marlborough gets to play Warhammer. If he played Diplomacy really well, he gets more guys for his Warhammer army.

But really, all of these things are happening all of the time. Every military decision, even the smallest, is also a political decision which can echo back up into that endless game of Diplomacy and change things there.

It is the dual nature of his job, or position, that really defines Marlborough's role. And its his position as a kind of "temporary", but necessary, Protestant Caesar, that really defines him.


Prince Eugine of Savoy!

A man with a large face and apparently quite un-prepossessing on first meeting, but someone who soon impresses everyone (military) around him with his ability to just keep punching dudes in the field.

Eugene is European Protestantisn's main travelling tactical facepuncher until Marlborough turns up.

The very close friendship and deep co-operation between the two men is another defining feature of Marlbroughs success.

They both like battles rather than sieges and marching about. They are both willing to roll the dice against larger forces. They both like, and excel in field command.

These two just get on really, really, really well. In all of Marlboroughs major victories, Eugene is right there beside him, often commanding part of the forces. They occasionally disagree but they never turn on or backstab each other. They seem to amplify each others better qualities for the most part.

Its curious that, with his wifes defining relationship with the Queen having a dominating effect on his fortunes at home, for half of Marlborough's working life, he had another defining friendship, a work-wife really.


The battles of the period are fucking huge.

Some get exceeded by the Napoleonic wars. Some are not exceeded till WWI. But even then, a lot of WWI battles have huge numbers dying over very large ranges over many days.

These battles start at sunrise, they go on till dark and then stop. The fronts stretch roughly to the horizon. About three miles to each side. Everyone dies in a day. They are meant to be controlled by one man on a horse. There's a great deal of pre-planning and delegation of responsibility for different fronts, but the main concept still seems to be based around one guy on a horse being aware of everything that is happening and making all the key decisions, when to advance, retreat, commit reserves etc.

The level of bloodshed is startling in many of these large set-piece battles.

Generals will sometimes get stuck in themselves. This is considered a 'forgivable lapse' when Marlborough himself starts rallying cavalry charges, gets his horse shot from under him and is thrown into a ditch, only to be rescued by another charge. Winston considers it a shameful failure when during Blenheim, the French General Vendomme "a savage beast", gets too excited and commits himself to a central melee, ends up fighting in hand-to-hand with a pike and loses control of his forces.

Battles have to stop at sundown as everyone is knackered and no-one can find each other. One battle ends with Marlbrough ordering his troops to 'sit on their arms' till dawn. They think, or hope, they have the French encircled, but when day comes a lot of them have just made off in the night.

The are also rarely as decisive as any general might wish. I think the main hope for a horse-&-musket general is to beat up the other guys army with just your infantry and artillery, then after they are exhausted and break away, you send in your reserved cavalry to run them down, and END THE WAR IN ONE BLOW.

This never seems to quite take place. Turns out the enemy have cavalry and reserves too, so you need to commit yours to take care of theirs, so even if you beat someone really badly, by the time night falls you are too exhausted to pursue and finish so a lot of their (demoralised and upset) army manages to get away.


A classic Marlborough-style battle goes something like this.

The French have slightly, or a lot, more troops, and are often in a defensive position.

You (Marlborough) consider this good, because you have scouted their position and you think your troops are better trained and your army works a bit better across the board.

Everyone thinks that any 'fair' battle between roughly equal forces will probably be a battle of annihilation, so almost no-one wants to fight one. The only time anyone will really commit to a real battle is if they are trapped, or if they think they have such an advantage that they can reasonably win. (Or if political or psychological factors come in, like Louis telling his general - "You better fucking fight or else" or if honour or morale won't permit a retreat.)

So if you are a commander, like Marlborough or Eugene, who wants to have a big, lines-on-a-map kriegspiel Warhammer battle, then you need to essentially trick or force the other side into having one.

Marlborough deals with this (firstly by lying to his own employers, but more on that later) by attacking the French when the French are pretty sure they have the advantage in numbers and ground, so they don't want to withdraw.


So in the Morning of a Marlborough battle, the French commander wakes up to someone telling him there are Allied troops right outside. Ok, so the allies marched in the night/early morning. But they can't move troops/artillery/cavalry through the swamp/forest/flooded lowlands plus we are well set up here so lets fight this one out.

Ah shit, looks like the Allies are throwing competent forces against every part of the line. They can't mean to concentrate *everywhere*. Where are their reserves? Where do they mean to *really* attack?

Usually its in the morning of a Marlborough battle that he could easily lose if the enemy commander was very bold and knew, or guessed what he was up to. Often Marlborough has thrown troops across difficult ground and they are not necessarily well supported and often he is deeply involved with some Kriegspiel cleverness/bullshit like starting to concentrate a combined arms group on his side of the battlefield. This is all delicate shit and could easily be messed up by a strong counterattack.

However, its getting towards lunchtime and its time for the French to start making minor mistakes.


Ok, the allied troops are pretty good and they are pushing us back *here* and *here*. We still have reserves and we are pretty sure they still have theirs...

We don't want to lose this village or treeline or whatever, so send in troops to get them back.

Ok, minor fuckup. In this fight over this relatively small village, we sent in too many reserves at the same time. Now there is a logjam and they can't manoeuvre. Or we pushed the allies back, but they just retreated, they didn't completely go away so we still have to think about them. Or we sent in cavalry to wipe out the infantry but they didn't do quite as well as expected.

Or if you are VENDOMME "DRIVE ME CLOSER SO I CAN HIT THEM WITH MY SWORD" you act like a Warhammer General and fucking dive in to wherever the fighting is thickest and try to issue army-wide orders from there.

The sun is high. Both forces are committed all across the line.

The French may still have cavalry reserves. But, their C&C is confused. Many small units have been repulsed. It's not clear what the allies are doing. You can't see their manoeuvres through the fighting lines. You have the vague but growing sense that you have been fucked somehow. Possibly the General is missing, off dealing with some serious problem to stop the line being rolled up, and now some prince or cavalry commander is 'in charge'.

You still have most of your men. And you have been inflicting huge casualties on the allies. But they haven't gone away and you are not sure what is happening.


Its 'oh shit' time. While Marlborough's troops and artillery were toughing it out being outnumbered and often unsupported, but being a *little bit* better than their opposing forces, they have tied up the French side and put enormous pressure on its command, both psychologically and in pure informational terms.

From the other side this looks like chaos, and it is a little because no particular section of the battle has gone according to anyone's plan.

But while all this has been going on, Marlborough has been building his pontoon bridges, moving his men through the forest, guarding his reserve elite cavalry, accumulating unspent Warhammer command points, hoarding magic the gathering cards or whatever the fuck his smartass plan was. And while it was, and is, a plan complex enough that it would be intensely vulnerable to disruption if the enemy knew what it was, they didn't and don't.

Plus Marlborough has Eugene, who he can send as a highly effective commander to deal with any developing fuckups on his side.

So now its mid-afternoon, all committed troops are under enormous stress and at their limit. But now Marlborough plays his Royal Flush hand, or uses his cascading game-breaking but tournament-legal special rules and hits the French line at the point they had to take guys from to back up the other guys who went to help the first guys who got into trouble.

Then, in Blenheim at least, he lawnmowers whatever is in front of him. And in other battles, generally does pretty well.

Marlborough wins! Whooo! And we have Peace in Our Time.

Except we don't because night falls, a lot of the French get away, the battle hurts them but isn't decisive, Louis has more troops somewhere, the Allied troops are also exhausted and badly mauled, and the allies are still politically fragmented and want different things. Also Louis XIV is the fanciest boy ever really _really_ doesn't like backing down.

Still the allies have gained a serious advantage for the season, which is enough to depress the French, convince parliament to keep voting money for the war etc etc, and the Dutch have a bit more of their country back, see you next year.

I want to find some space at some point to talk about Winston Churchills writing, his storytelling and prose. He is almost writing a soap opera.

I showed you his supervillian Louis previously, here are two word-portraits, one very short of a minor figure (in this story anyway);

"Victor Amadeus was a proud and courageous turncoat. While weaving his webs of intrigue in the interests of his small country he never forgot that he was a soldier with a sword at his side. Indeed, he was capable of fighting with the utmost personal valour in the forefront of a battle which his policy required him to lose."

For one paragraph, that't pretty fucking great.

Here's a much longer one of Robert Harley, a much larger character in Marlboroughs life and a heel-turn antagonist as time goes on. This is tremendously fun walk through some classic Churchillian prose;

prodigies of dark and oracular utterance

an entire scaly apparatus of ruse and ambiguity.

"But Harley embodied much more than the contradictions of his career; he was a man of broad and solid ability. He was no seeker for small or near prizes. In vain had William cast the Ministerial bait before him. He seemed with strange shrewdness to seek to represent the central opinion of the Commons without losing contact with the main body of the Tory party. 

We may picture him in the Chair hearing confidences from both sides, persuading the one to concede and the other to forbear; and giving when asked advice which suited his general purpose, withal preserving agreeable relations in every quarter. 

In his desire to dwell at the hub of Parliamentary opinion he had necessarily to use much artifice. 

He spoke slowly, "with serpentine convolutions, numerous hypotheses, and long involved periods." He performed prodigies of dark and oracular utterance. It was remarked that the broken and often obscure style of his official letters corresponded with his ambiguous speech. Even his calligraphy conformed. Just as he stuttered and stammered in speaking, so in writing he used to slur and entangle the lines.

No greater disservice can be done to his memory than to read his letters. There is a personal awkwardness about them and a scent of lamp-oil, redolent even after two hundred years. None of the eminent men in England in or out of office wrote quite this kind of letter either to their betters or their clients. 

It was said of Robert Harley that if he desired anything for himself or another he preferred to knock at the back door even of his closest acquaintance rather than go straight up to the front. For no particular reason but simply out of habit or preference he would take tortuous and secret alleys rather than the street. His supporters said that in managing the parties he would "burrow like a mole and used with great skill a dozen petty underground sources of information" - only regretting there was not a thirteenth.

His frequently disconcerted opponents dubbed him trickster and sharper. They said that his political creed reached its pinnacle in the conviction that power, fortune, and influence were identical with enjoyment. When the factions of the day rose to such extravagant heights a man in a central position needed to protect himself from their fury by an entire scaly apparatus of ruse and ambiguity.

That Harley was false to every cause and every man was in a certain sense true; but he was not false to himself, nor to his persistent purpose of steering a middle course for England between many alternating extravagant attitudes and perils. At this juncture he presents himself in his youthful prime as at once the most massive and more artful Parliamentary figure." 


  1. I've always wanted to run a fantasy campaign with a lot of full on force-on-force battles, with the different personalities of the generals showing through in their battlefield performance.

  2. Recently read an old popular biography of Prince Eugene. That problem of bringing an opposing army into a pitched battle very much shines through.

  3. Is there any shorter historical work of Churchill you can advice to read?

    1. I've only read this of his. The man did write a great deal though. Your tolerance of him may depend on your tolerance for the oft-repeated ideas of Winston Churchill being amazing and the British Empire being 100% right about everything.

    2. The Island Race is pretty short and breezy. If you're after his writing more generally, My Early Life is a good place to start.

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  5. I like your description of a typical Marlborough battle! And yeah, he and Eugene were just Batman and Robin. I can't think of another combo who were that successful for that long.

    I recommended Lord Macaulay the other day. As long as I'm doing that, might as well recommend two other books that I think you'd probably enjoy: _The Thirty Years War_ and _William the Silent_, both by C.V. Wedgwood.

    Cicely Veronica Wedgwood was a polymath genius who spoke and wrote eight languages fluently, was a speed reader with near perfect comprehension, and who by age 25 had an erudite yet lively and readable prose style the envy of most writers twice her age. Her career was slow to take off because it was 1930s Britain and she (1) was female (2) had health issues (3) was wow, super gay and also (4) was female. Nevertheless she persevered and she ended up writing a bunch of books, all of which are good and two of which are goddamn amazing.

    The Thirty Years War is just what it says: a single volume history of the Thirty Years war. Since this was an insanely complicated conflict, getting the whole thing between two covers is no small achievement. Making it comprehensive, accurate, and yet not only readable but really interesting is a HUGE achievement, and one that frankly hasn't yet been exceeded. Like, 80 years later this is still the best one-volume history of the Thirty Years War.

    _William the Silent_ is a biography of, yup, William the Silent, the great-grandfather of William III of England, and the George Washington of the Dutch Rebellion against Spain. Actually he's more like Washington and Lincoln and FDR rolled into one. He was a great political leader who was also a seriously decent human being trying to get a difficult job done in literally impossible circumstances. Wedgwood kinda falls in love with him and it's totally easy to see why.

    IDK if the European history stuff is regular or occasional with you, but if you want to dig deeper into the super interesting history of Europe's crazy 17th century, then T30YW is essential reading and _William_ is kind of a great prequel.

    Doug M.

    1. I read The Thirty Years War a few years ago and found it quite good. Given the scale of the conflict, I am not surprised it has not been bettered.

      I can't say in reading it I knew anything about Wedgwood, but still a worthwhile book. Especially given how important the Thirty Years War has been in European history since (and an area I think always neglected in the English-Speaking world - there has, I believe, been only one major Hollywood film set in this time, which is a barometer of sorts).