During the whole of the year which succeeded that in which the glorious battle of Ramillies had been fought, our army made no movement of importance, much to the disgust of very many of our officers remaining inactive in Flanders, who said that his Grace the Captain-General had had fighting enough, and was all for money now, and the enjoyment of his five thousand a year and his splendid palace at Woodstock, which was now being built. And his Grace had sufficient occupation fighting his enemies at home this year, where it began to be whispered that his favor was decreasing, and his duchess losing her hold on the Queen, who was transferring her royal affections to the famous Mrs. Masham, and Mrs. Masham’s humble servant, Mr. Harley. Against their intrigues, our Duke passed a great part of his time intriguing. Mr. Harley was got out of office, and his Grace, in so far, had a victory. But her Majesty, convinced against her will, was of that opinion still, of which the poet says people are when so convinced, and Mr. Harley before long had his revenge.
Meanwhile the business of fighting did not go on any way to the satisfaction of Marlborough’s gallant lieutenants. During all 1707, with the French before us, we had never so much as a battle; our army in Spain was utterly routed at Almanza by the gallant Duke of Berwick; and we of Webb’s, which regiment the young Duke had commanded before his father’s abdication, were a little proud to think that it was our colonel who had achieved this victory. “I think if I had had Galway’s place, and my Fusileers,” says our General, “we would not have laid down our arms, even to our old colonel, as Galway did;” and Webb’s officers swore if we had had Webb, at least we would not have been taken prisoners. Our dear old general talked incautiously of himself and of others; a braver or a more brilliant soldier never lived than he; but he blew his honest trumpet rather more loudly than became a commander of his station, and, mighty man of valor as he was, shook his great spear and blustered before the army too fiercely.
Mysterious Mr. Holtz went off on a secret expedition in the early part of 1708, with great elation of spirits and a prophecy to Esmond that a wonderful something was about to take place. This secret came out on my friend’s return to the army, whither he brought a most rueful and dejected countenance, and owned that the great something he had been engaged upon had failed utterly. He had been indeed with that luckless expedition of the Chevalier de St. George, who was sent by the French king with ships and an army from Dunkirk, and was to have invaded and conquered Scotland. But that ill wind which ever opposed all the projects upon which the Prince ever embarked, prevented the Chevalier’s invasion of Scotland, as ‘tis known, and blew poor Monsieur von Holtz back into our camp again, to scheme and foretell, and to pry about as usual. The Chevalier (the king of England, as some of us held him) went from Dunkirk to the French army to make the campaign against us. The Duke of Burgundy had the command this year, having the Duke of Berry with him, and the famous Mareschal Vendosme and the Duke of Matignon to aid him in the campaign. Holtz, who knew everything that was passing in Flanders and France (and the Indies for what I know), insisted that there would be no more fighting in 1708 than there had been in the previous year, and that our commander had reasons for keeping him quiet. Indeed, Esmond’s general, who was known as a grumbler, and to have a hearty mistrust of the great Duke, and hundreds more officers besides, did not scruple to say that these private reasons came to the Duke in the shape of crown-pieces from the French King, by whom the Generalissimo was bribed to avoid a battle. There were plenty of men in our lines, quidnuncs, to whom Mr. Webb listened only too willingly, who could specify the exact sums the Duke got, how much fell to Cadogan’s share, and what was the precise fee given to Doctor Hare.
And the successes with which the French began the campaign of 1708 served to give strength to these reports of treason, which were in everybody’s mouth. Our general allowed the enemy to get between us and Ghent, and declined to attack him, though for eight and forty hours the armies were in presence of each other. Ghent was taken, and on the same day Monsieur de la Mothe summoned Bruges; and these two great cities fell into the hands of the French without firing a shot. A few days afterwards La Mothe seized upon the fort of Plashendall: and it began to be supposed that all Spanish Flanders, as well as Brabant, would fall into the hands of the French troops; when the Prince Eugene arrived from the Mozelle, and then there was no more shilly-shallying.
The Prince of Savoy always signalized his arrival at the army by a great feast (my Lord Duke’s entertainments were both seldom and shabby): and I remember our general returning from this dinner with the two commanders-in-chief; his honest head a little excited by wine, which was dealt out much more liberally by the Austrian than by the English commander:—“Now,” says my general, slapping the table, with an oath, “he must fight; and when he is forced to it, d—- it, no man in Europe can stand up against Jack Churchill.” Within a week the battle of Oudenarde was fought, when, hate each other as they might, Esmond’s general and the Commander-in-Chief were forced to admire each other, so splendid was the gallantry of each upon this day.
The brigade commanded by Major-General Webb gave and received about as hard knocks as any that were delivered in that action, in which Mr. Esmond had the fortune to serve at the head of his own company in his regiment, under the command of their own Colonel as Major-General; and it was his good luck to bring the regiment out of action as commander of it, the four senior officers above him being killed in the prodigious slaughter which happened on that day. I like to think that Jack Haythorn, who sneered at me for being a bastard and a parasite of Webb’s, as he chose to call me, and with whom I had had words, shook hands with me the day before the battle began. Three days before, poor Brace, our Lieutenant-Colonel, had heard of his elder brother’s death, and was heir to a baronetcy in Norfolk, and four thousand a year. Fate, that had left him harmless through a dozen campaigns, seized on him just as the world was worth living for, and he went into action knowing, as he said, that the luck was going to turn against him. The Major had just joined us—a creature of Lord Marlborough, put in much to the dislike of the other officers, and to be a spy upon us, as it was said. I know not whether the truth was so, nor who took the tattle of our mess to headquarters, but Webb’s regiment, as its Colonel, was known to be in the Commander-in-Chief’s black books: “And if he did not dare to break it up at home,” our gallant old chief used to say, “he was determined to destroy it before the enemy;” so that poor Major Proudfoot was put into a post of danger.
Esmond’s dear young Viscount, serving as aide-de-camp to my Lord Duke, received a wound, and won an honorable name for himself in the Gazette; and Captain Esmond’s name was sent in for promotion by his General, too, whose favorite he was. It made his heart beat to think that certain eyes at home, the brightest in the world, might read the page on which his humble services were recorded; but his mind was made up steadily to keep out of their dangerous influence, and to let time and absence conquer that passion he had still lurking about him. Away from Beatrix, it did not trouble him; but he knew as certain that if he returned home, his fever would break out again, and avoided Walcote as a Lincolnshire man avoids returning to his fens, where he is sure that the ague is lying in wait for him.
We of the English party in the army, who were inclined to sneer at everything that came out of Hanover, and to treat as little better than boors and savages the Elector’s court and family, were yet forced to confess that, on the day of Oudenarde, the young Electoral Prince, then making his first campaign, conducted himself with the spirit and courage of an approved soldier. On this occasion his Electoral Highness had better luck than the King of England, who was with his cousins in the enemy’s camp, and had to run with them at the ignominious end of the day. With the most consummate generals in the world before them, and an admirable commander on their own side, they chose to neglect the councils, and to rush into a combat with the former, which would have ended in the utter annihilation of their army but for the great skill and bravery of the Duke of Vendosme, who remedied, as far as courage and genius might, the disasters occasioned by the squabbles and follies of his kinsmen, the legitimate princes of the blood royal.
“If the Duke of Berwick had but been in the army, the fate of the day would have been very different,” was all that poor Mr. von Holtz could say; “and you would have seen that the hero of Almanza was fit to measure swords with the conqueror of Blenheim.”
The business relative to the exchange of prisoners was always going on, and was at least that ostensible one which kept Mr. Holtz perpetually on the move between the forces of the French and the Allies. I can answer for it, that he was once very near hanged as a spy by Major-General Wayne, when he was released and sent on to head-quarters by a special order of the Commander-in-Chief. He came and went, always favored, wherever he was, by some high though occult protection. He carried messages between the Duke of Berwick and his uncle, our Duke. He seemed to know as well what was taking place in the Prince’s quarter as our own: he brought the compliments of the King of England to some of our officers, the gentlemen of Webb’s among the rest, for their behavior on that great day; and after Wynendael, when our General was chafing at the neglect of our Commander-in-Chief, he said he knew how that action was regarded by the chiefs of the French army, and that the stand made before Wynendael wood was the passage by which the Allies entered Lille.
“Ah!” says Holtz (and some folks were very willing to listen to him), “if the king came by his own, how changed the conduct of affairs would be! His Majesty’s very exile has this advantage, that he is enabled to read England impartially, and to judge honestly of all the eminent men. His sister is always in the hand of one greedy favorite or another, through whose eyes she sees, and to whose flattery or dependants she gives away everything. Do you suppose that his Majesty, knowing England so well as he does, would neglect such a man as General Webb? He ought to be in the House of Peers as Lord Lydiard. The enemy and all Europe know his merit; it is that very reputation which certain great people, who hate all equality and independence, can never pardon.” It was intended that these conversations should be carried to Mr. Webb. They were welcome to him, for great as his services were, no man could value them more than John Richmond Webb did himself, and the differences between him and Marlborough being notorious, his Grace’s enemies in the army and at home began to court Webb, and set him up against the all-grasping, domineering chief. And soon after the victory of Oudenarde, a glorious opportunity fell into General Webb’s way, which that gallant warrior did not neglect, and which gave him the means of immensely increasing his reputation at home.
After Oudenarde, and against the counsels of Marlborough, it was said, the Prince of Savoy sat down before Lille, the capital of French Flanders, and commenced that siege, the most celebrated of our time, and almost as famous as the siege of Troy itself, for the feats of valor performed in the assault and the defence. The enmity of the Prince of Savoy against the French king was a furious personal hate, quite unlike the calm hostility of our great English general, who was no more moved by the game of war than that of billiards, and pushed forward his squadrons, and drove his red battalions hither and thither as calmly as he would combine a stroke or make a cannon with the balls. The game over (and he played it so as to be pretty sure to win it), not the least animosity against the other party remained in the breast of this consummate tactician. Whereas between the Prince of Savoy and the French it was guerre a mort. Beaten off in one quarter, as he had been at Toulon in the last year, he was back again on another frontier of France, assailing it with his indefatigable fury. When the Prince came to the army, the smouldering fires of war were lighted up and burst out into a flame. Our phlegmatic Dutch allies were made to advance at a quick march—our calm Duke forced into action. The Prince was an army in himself against the French; the energy of his hatred, prodigious, indefatigable—infectious over hundreds of thousands of men. The Emperor’s general was repaying, and with a vengeance, the slight the French King had put upon the fiery little Abbe of Savoy. Brilliant and famous as a leader himself, and beyond all measure daring and intrepid, and enabled to cope with almost the best of those famous men of war who commanded the armies of the French King, Eugene had a weapon, the equal of which could not be found in France, since the cannon-shot of Sasbach laid low the noble Turenne, and could hurl Marlborough at the heads of the French host, and crush them as with a rock, under which all the gathered strength of their strongest captains must go down.
The English Duke took little part in that vast siege of Lille, which the Imperial Generalissimo pursued with all his force and vigor, further than to cover the besieging lines from the Duke of Burgundy’s army, between which and the Imperialists our Duke lay. Once, when Prince Eugene was wounded, our Duke took his Highness’s place in the trenches; but the siege was with the Imperialists, not with us. A division under Webb and Rantzau was detached into Artois and Picardy upon the most painful and odious service that Mr. Esmond ever saw in the course of his military life. The wretched towns of the defenceless provinces, whose young men had been drafted away into the French armies, which year after year the insatiable war devoured, were left at our mercy; and our orders were to show them none. We found places garrisoned by invalids, and children and women; poor as they were, and as the costs of this miserable war had made them, our commission was to rob these almost starving wretches—to tear the food out of their granaries, and strip them of their rags. ‘Twas an expedition of rapine and murder we were sent on: our soldiers did deeds such as an honest man must blush to remember. We brought back money and provisions in quantity to the Duke’s camp; there had been no one to resist us, and yet who dares to tell with what murder and violence, with what brutal cruelty, outrage, insult, that ignoble booty had been ravished from the innocent and miserable victims of the war?
Meanwhile, gallantly as the operations before Lille had been conducted, the Allies had made but little progress, and ‘twas said when we returned to the Duke of Marlborough’s camp, that the siege would never be brought to a satisfactory end, and that the Prince of Savoy would be forced to raise it. My Lord Marlborough gave this as his opinion openly; those who mistrusted him, and Mr. Esmond owns himself to be of the number, hinted that the Duke had his reasons why Lille should not be taken, and that he was paid to that end by the French King. If this was so, and I believe it, General Webb had now a remarkable opportunity of gratifying his hatred of the Commander-in-Chief, of balking that shameful avarice, which was one of the basest and most notorious qualities of the famous Duke, and of showing his own consummate skill as a commander. And when I consider all the circumstances preceding the event which will now be related, that my Lord Duke was actually offered certain millions of crowns provided that the siege of Lille should be raised: that the Imperial army before it was without provisions and ammunition, and must have decamped but for the supplies that they received; that the march of the convoy destined to relieve the siege was accurately known to the French; and that the force covering it was shamefully inadequate to that end, and by six times inferior to Count de la Mothe’s army, which was sent to intercept the convoy; when ‘tis certain that the Duke of Berwick, De la Mothe’s chief, was in constant correspondence with his uncle, the English Generalissimo: I believe on my conscience that ‘twas my Lord Marlborough’s intention to prevent those supplies, of which the Prince of Savoy stood in absolute need, from ever reaching his Highness; that he meant to sacrifice the little army which covered this convoy, and to betray it as he had betrayed Tollemache at Brest; as he had betrayed every friend he had, to further his own schemes of avarice or ambition. But for the miraculous victory which Esmond’s general won over an army six or seven times greater than his own, the siege of Lille must have been raised; and it must be remembered that our gallant little force was under the command of a general whom Marlborough hated, that he was furious with the conqueror, and tried by the most open and shameless injustice afterwards to rob him of the credit of his victory.