donderdag, april 16, 2015

Digitizing the War of the Spanish Succession

 (plan of the fortifications and inundation at Oudenarde, 1708; source: Rijksmuseum)

A wonderful early 20th century work on the campaigns of the Spanish Succession is now available in PDF (OCR/searchable text) on Gallica: Captain Maurice Sautai (1868-1915)'s Une opération militaire d'Eugène et de Marlborough. Le forcement du passage de l'Escaut en 1708 (Paris: Chapelot, 1905).

The story of military operations in this pan-European conflict is extremely well documented. Inevitably, the digitizing revolution going on in most archives an libraries will render countless letters, images, books and pamphlets  available for free all over the world. Currently, europeana, a European cross-database search engine, links to results from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris), the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Munich), Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and many others. Not the "decisiveness" of military events as such should attract our attention, but foremost the organisation of war in army hierarchies, the conceptualisation of the world in geographic, legal and diplomatic terms or the interpretation of contemporary events through the lens of historically constructed identities. Discussions on military events include long descriptions of geography, Ancien Régime hierarchy at court or in the army and is coloured by notions of honour and pride. All major powers in Europe were involved in the conflict. Although political and military elites had strong mutual transnational links, communication outside this perimeter was more subjective and politically biased. This can especially be seen in the British case. The Duke of Marlborough (ancestor of Winston Churchill) conducted campaigns on the continent with British taxpayers' money and was thus a logical object of political attacks at home. Moreover, war suspended commercial relations and deprived thus part of wealthy citizens -involved in the British political system- of their income. Consequently, his successes needed to be portrayed as impressive as possible, in order to sustain the war. To that respect, audiatur et altera pars ! French archives show that the humiliation of Louis XIV's armies was real, but that the process was highly complex and unfolded slowly.

(the battle of Wijnendale, 28 September 1708, where a French corps was defeated by a smaller allied group escorting a convoy to Lille, source: Rijksmuseum)

Sautai extensively consulted the military and diplomatic archives and sheds light on the complex second part of Marlborough and Eugene's 1708 campaign in Flanders. The battle of Oudenarde (11 July 1708) was by no means decisive in the struggle for control of the Southern Netherlands. The siege of Lille (August-October 1708) was a logistically more than hazardous operation. Due to the fall of Bruges and Ghent, early in July, the allied army was cut off from the Scheldt and the sea. Lille moreover counted as Vauban's most formidable fortress (see Sautai's other monography on Gallica). Yet, the French army did not manage to exploit this situation and had to allow the passing of allied chariots over land and ad hoc maritime provisions by Ostend, as their defeat at Wijnendaele illustrated. Instead, the French general staff was prepared to confront Marlborough and Eugene on the Scheldt, on a front stretching from Tournay to Gavere (halfway Ghent and Oudenarde). 100,000 French soldiers guard 80 kilometers. Returning from the siege of Lille, the allies broke through the French lines in a single night (25-26 November 1708), crossing at Kerkhove and Gavere, bypassing the fortifications of Oudenarde. After this "passage of the Scheldt", the year was lost for France. Ghent and Bruges capitulated in the harsh winter of 1708 (although another commander than lieutenant-general de la Mothe Houdancourt, also responsible for the defeat at Wijnendale, might have held it out until Spring). The North of France had become the theatre of war. Villars's victory at Denain in 1712 , treated by Sautai as well (click here), ended the painful episode for Louis XIV.

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