John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (May 26, 1650 – June 16, 1722), in full The Most Noble Captain-General John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Earl of Marlborough, Baron Churchill of Sandridge, Lord Churchill of Eyemouth, KG, PC (in addition to these English and Scottish titles he was also Prince of Mindelheim and a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire), was an English military officer during the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill is generally considered the greatest military genius that Britain has produced. Historian Sir Edward Creasy wrote that "[he] never fought a battle that he did not win, and never besieged a place that he did not take."
In 1688, William of Orange invaded England with the support of most of the nobility, as James II was a Catholic and was clearly attempting to reintroduce absolutist rule into his kingdom, as well as toleration and even ascendancy for Romanism over the Church of England. James promoted Churchill to lieutenant-general in November and ordered him to engage and defeat the invaders; instead he deserted to the Orange cause, which caused most of the army to come with him and put James into a very difficult position. He quit the country for France rather than fight. The Glorious Revolution had been pulled off with far less bloodshed than anyone expected, and the Stuarts no longer ruled in Britain. In reward Churchill was appointed a Privy Councillor (hence the postnominal abbreviation "P.C.") in February 1689 and created Earl of Marlborough in April.
Marlborough was out of the public sphere to a large extent for the next few years, as William did not entirely trust the Stuart supporter.
He returned to the forefront with events leading up to the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701. Philip, Duke of Anjou, the grandson of the King of France, Louis XIV, was put forward as heir to the throne of Spain, and rather than allow France to expand its power to such a great extent, a coalition of European powers including Britain, Holland, Austria, and most of the smaller states and principalities of the Empire prepared for war, backing the rival Austrian claimant, the Archduke Charles. Portugal and Savoy joined the alliance ere long. William died in 1702, but not before he had successfully organized the anti-French alliance, and the war was prosecuted without him. Now came Malbourogh's finest hour, for he proceeded to distinguish himself in the field of battle as no English general had done before him. His position and career at home also reached an apex.
William's successor, his sister-in-law Queen Anne, was completely under the domination of Marlborough's wife, and he enjoyed the new queen's confidence and favour; immediately upon her succession to the throne he was knighted as a member of the Order of the Garter (hence the postnominal abbreviation "K.G."), appointed captain-general of the English troops, and made Master-General of the Ordnance. The same year, the War of the Spanish Succession with France finally broke out into the open and Captain-General Lord Marlborough was made commander-in-chief of the Allied armies.
The campaign of 1703 was indecisive overall, but Marlborough gained a substantial advantage in preempting Louis XIV's plans to invade Holland by capturing the North Eastern fortresses of the Spanish Netherlands, Venloo and Ruremonde, and by overrunning the Electorate of Cologne and the Bishopric of Liege, two German allies of Louis. For these victories, he was made Duke of Marlborough, the title by which is best known. He is also credited with founding a new school of military strategy. European generals up to his time were of the old school, which subscribed to headlong pitched engagements with armies properly arrayed opposite each other in a "gentlemanlike" fashion, where victory was usually bought with heavy loss. On the field of battle he was vigilant and energetic, yet he was even more vigorous in pre-battle operations to secure the best advantages, such as circumventing flanks and positions, and deceiving and attacking an enemy when he was least expected. In one instance, he drove a French army of 60,000 men before him and seized half the duchy of Brabant (in modern day Belgium) with the loss of a mere 80 men. Yet when bloody and pitched battles were necessary, he never shrank from them, and personally lead his men into the hottest fray with a cool-headed courage that won him universal admiration.
1704 brought the first notable campaign wherein Marlborough was able to show his full abilities. At the outset, his army lay on the Meuse and Lower Rhine, protecting Holland from the French. However, Louis XIV had brought up another army into South Germany and united it with his Bavarian allies, and the combined force held the valley of the Upper Danube, seriously threatening Austria. Marlborough quickly realized that the more strategic theater lay in Bavaria, not on the Meuse. Accordingly he rapidly marched his force, including the reluctant Dutch, across Germany to Bavaria, whilst along the route he performed a series of brilliant feints that led the French to believe he was preparing to attack Alsace. While they scrambled to meet him there, he quickly struck across Wurtemburg using forced marches and arrived in the valley of the Danube. He then stormed the fortified Bavarian camp at Schellenberg, placed himself between the enemy and Austria, and thwarted any further advance on Vienna. He was then joined by a small Austrian army under Prince Eugene of Savoy, and the combined force was strong enough to take on the whole Franco-Bavarian army, which were 56,000 strong. He accordingly attacked, and won a great victory at the Battle of Blenheim. He captured all of Bavaria, and Austria was saved. The defeat was so crushing that Louis XIV was forced to retire behind the Rhine, and was never again able to threaten Germany. As quickly as he came, Marlborough hurried back to the Dutch Frontier, and was again on the Meuse by spring, threatening the Spanish Netherlands on their eastern front.
In 1705 Marlborough was obliged to forgo an ambitious attack on the French via the valley of the Moselle, owing to the fact that Prince Eugene had been sent to fight in Italy. He therefore decided on an offensive in the Spanish Netherlands. The French, under Marshal Villeroi, had ranged themselves in a long line from Antwerp to Namur, covering every vulnerable point with fortifications. Marlborough wanted to fight a pitched battle at Waterloo, but the Dutch government withdrew their forces and prevented any decisive engagements. His opportunity came in the spring, however, when he induced Villeroi to concentrate all of the French forces in the Spanish Netherlands to defend the fortress of Namur. The consequent Battle of Ramillies (1706) was a crushing defeat for the French, and resulted in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, all of Flanders and Hainaut falling into Marlborough's hands. All that remained to the French in the territory were the fortresses of Mons and Namur.
Marlborough was almost as able a diplomat as a general. No other personage within the anti-French alliance could keep together so divergent and fractious an assortment of armies. Without his astute guidance, they would have fallen into quarrelsome disunion. He had all the abilities of a statesman: patient, genial, sophisticated and practical.