Book Review – Marlborough, England’s Fragile Genius, by Richard Holmes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Richard Holmes’ Marlborough, England’s Fragile Genius is a military focused biography of John Churchill, the 1st Earl of Marlborough. This book was recommended to me by a Warrant Officer at my unit, as a historical example of the interconnection of campaign strategy, battlefield tactics, logistics and political influences of war. John Churchill has been the subject of numerous books since his death in 1722, most notable of which was an immense four-volume book written by his famous descendant Winston S Churchill. Winston tended to paint his ancestor in a more favourable light when regarding some of the Duke’s more dubious conduct. Richard Holmes however, gives a more rounded version of the Duke detailing his dealing with the Jacobites and the exiled King James II, along with his ambitious pursuit of money and honours.

The book is well researched and takes the reader on a journey through the turbulent times during the life of John Churchill (1650-1722). This period of England’s history saw the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the book describes how his family navigated being on the losing royalist side while England was a Republic until the restoration of the crown. This ability to navigate political turmoil served Churchill well in subsequent years with the abdication of King James II, the revolution of William of Orange, the succession of Queen Anne and unification with Scotland, and lastly the bloodless transition to the House of Hanover and George I. This was all the while serving as a member of parliament and navigating the political tussle between the Whig and Tory factions.

A young Churchill came to military prominence during the rebellion of 1685, its defeat primarily through Churchill’s actions, as demonstrated by his administrative capacity, tactical skill, and courage in battle. These qualities would be instrumental to his future success as a military commander. The centrepiece of the book follows his actions during the War of the Spanish Succession, when he rose to be the Captain General of the allied forces against France. This war was a classic power struggle to avert one state’s control over continental Europe, a constant in European history even to this day. 

This book gives an excellent account of his most famous battles that changed the fate of Europe away from French control. From the Battle of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet it showed Churchill as what we now know as a manoeuvrist, always trying to apply his strengths to an enemy’s weakness while shielding his own. The acquisition and analysis of intelligence underpin everything he did and he had a remarkable way of using the local terrain to his advantage. These concepts we know would be put forward a century later by Clausewitz.  Although not the first commander to understand the importance of logistics his ability to have the right resources in the right place at the right time gave him an advantage over France and her allies in the Spanish, Italian and Dutch theatres. This reinforces an important lesson I learnt from one of my former COs, ‘good commanders talk tactics but great commanders talk logistics’.

Churchill understood combat arms and how they complement each other, his infantry to seize and hold, his cavalry for shock and to turn the tide of a battle, and his artillery to support the battle. He subscribed to what we would now call mission command, even though it was unavoidable on the battlefields of 1700s noting that a commander could not be in every place at once. He was extremely mobile on the battlefield, darting from his flanks to his centre and then back again. The British Army came of age under Churchill, thereby setting the conditions for its dominance in the coming centuries.

Although a little heavy in places, I would highly recommend this to a more mature officer looking for other examples of historic strategic campaigns outside the 20th Century. It is an engaging book that also captures the historic picture of the time. It has improved my ability to appreciate the larger strategic perspective of modern conflicts and my understanding of an important time in history that I knew little about. If you are going to read just one book about one of England’s most famous field generals, then Richard’s one is a good choice.

Captain Braden Holmes in an Australian Infantry Officer and is currently posted to the Combined Arms Training Centre.