Read between the lines!
For years I’ve been frustrated with the blatant Anglo-centric tone of almost all of the writing on the Duke of Marlborough, England’s “Greatest General.” I don’t think I need to mention that this writing is all in English, often written by former military professionals, and never looks at Dutch sources yet manages to savage them without mercy as ‘obstructionist’ allies.
I vented about this lazy tendency in my 2000 article on Ramillies, but I keep finding more and more examples of it. What’s even worse, the same over-the-top praise of Marlborough being a master tactician, master operational mind, master strategist, master logistician, master diplomat, master politician (okay, maybe not the last one so much) keeps getting repeated everywhere despite a number of important correctives – many of which are quite old, such as the works of Douglas Coombs and A.J. Veenendaal, Sr.
I feel, appropriately enough, like that little Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dyke, except the dyke is awfully leaky and I don’t have enough fingers.
(This frustration only gets reinforced when John Stapleton and I start talking, since he was also at Ohio State working on a similar topic – the Dutch in the 9YW – and finding the same thing at the same time I was).
So just another random example that I came across yesterday, as I’m preparing for a conference later this week where I’ll be talking about English strategic success in the WSS (this also explains why the posts have been and will continue to be slow for the next week). If you know much about the Marlborough literature, you know that Marlborough was, among other things, a pure genius as far as logistics are concerned, he like totally revolutionized army supply. Or at least that’s what authors such as I.P. Phelan and R.E. Scouller have said, and these claims gets repeated ad nauseum in other biographies of the Duke. What they miss, however, is that it was their oft-maligned Dutch allies who were actually in charge of setting up and overseeing the supply of bread to both Dutch-paid and English-paid troops. Two people in particular have written about this in some detail, the aforementioned John Stapleton (soon to be a book!) and Olaf van Nimwegen (already a book!). Of course, you need to be able to read Dutch in order to learn this basic reality of Allied logistics in the Low Countries from 1689-1712, which is something that far too few people are able (or willing) to do. And there are so few Dutch military historians to translate their results into English that the facts remain locked behind that Iron Curtain of Nederland taal.
Still, the idea that you’d want to look at the sources produced by the other allies before explaining how a coalition army works really shouldn’t in itself be a revolutionary idea. At the least, it should be pretty obvious that you need to look somewhere else after going through the English sources. Just reading through Marlborough’s correspondence (we’re talking several thousands of letters over a decade), you should start to wonder where all these details are that the Duke was a master of. As I discovered when I was doing my research on Allied siegecraft in the same war years ago, if you read through the Duke’s correspondence you’ll find shockingly little information on the sieges that he was supposedly “conducting.” Only when you start looking at the correspondence of the Dutch generals and field deputies (and their engineers) do you realize that Marlborough was usually commanding the observation army, keeping an eye on any French relief attempts, and it was only the Dutch correspondence that detailed all the tactics and developments of these sieges, because they were the main ones involved.
Similarly, it really shouldn’t be difficult to quickly realize that Marlborough only seems to write about logistics in particular, limited contexts. He sends orders to various municipalities and States to provide wagons and pioneers (i.e. conscripted peasants to construct things) for the army’s use, particularly during sieges. He might comment on the state of the army’s logistical system in general terms, whether they have consumed all the fodder in the area or not, or whether they are short on bread. Occasionally he’ll send orders to an outlying officer of the need to escort a convoy. More broadly, he discusses troop reinforcements, troop capitulations and the like. All these illustrate his coordination of logistical affairs, and obviously as commander he had to be aware of the logistical situation of his army. But if you add up all his letters on logistics and consider their general nature, there’s surprisingly little on the details of logistics. So where is all that detail?
Generally, the historian always has to be careful when searching for written clues to past behavior, especially when the behavior we’re examining might not require writing – as I mentioned in a previous post, we need to be careful assuming absence based solely on absence of evidence (‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’). Undoubtedly much of our knowledge of what Marlborough and his officers were thinking and doing is lost forever, because it was discussed orally either face-to-face or through messengers and never written down. But logistics is not one of those behaviors – supply is an inherently detail-oriented process. Logistics deals with large quantities of very specific numbers, and these numerous details had to be written down, if only because men’s lives and their money was at stake, so both contractors and administrators (and their political masters) wanted to keep track of who was getting paid how much for what in exchange. Further, most army supply, particularly bread, was a very involved process with numerous steps and several different actors involved at various stages. Grain (usually Prussian rye in our case) was purchased, transported to mills, ground into flour, baked into bread, then transported to wherever the army was, while administrators kept track of deliveries and credited the appropriate accounts. This required many different subcontractors, and only the final stage occurred in the army camp itself. So unless we find lots of evidence of an army commander frequently traveling to magazine towns to check on the status of the magazines, we know some larger system was at work. You are not, in other words, going to have a messenger reciting to the Duke that 58,000 rations of bread were delivered to the bread magazines on the 29th and 30th, then 113,000 rations on the 1st-3rd, then 56,600 on the 5th-6th… Businessmen in particular are really good at writing things down when there’s money involved.
As if the (lack of) clues from Marlborough’s own correspondence wasn’t enough, sometimes the giant question is staring us historians right in the face, but we can’t see it. So as I’m reading Scouller’s “Marlborough’s Administration in the Field,” I see vague references to Marlborough revolutionizing army logistics, paying particular importance to the Commissioners of Victualling, who oversaw the pay and crediting of bread deliveries to the troops (i.e. bookkeepers). To support his argument that Marlborough’s administration was really special, he includes a rather odd quote that is intended to prove how efficient the English supply system has become: he quotes a contemporary noting that the English troops “have had as much and as good bread … as cheap as the Dutch.” Kind of an odd quote, and Scouller provides no further elucidation. Upon reading this, shouldn’t our next thought be – ‘why are they comparing themselves to the Dutch’? ‘What’s so special about the Dutch?’ There’s a rather important assumption here, but Scouller doesn’t let us in on it.
As one reads further into Scouller, the light really should be going off in the reader’s head: reading between the lines, you really should put 2 and 2 together to make 4. After discussing the Commissioners of Victualling, Scouller mentions the various contractors that Marlborough worked with. But they have kinda funny-sounding non-English names, like Solomon and Moses Medina, Vanderkaa, and Machado. (Mostly Sephardic Jews based in the Netherlands or Antwerp, if we bother to look them up.) So maybe we realize that there’s a piece of the puzzle that we’re missing, and we investigate further by checking out the archives. Most of the papers written to and from Marlborough are collected in the Blenheim Papers, now in the British Library (though to be fair to earlier authors, the Blenheim Papers were somewhat jealously guarded by previous Dukes of Marlborough until they were deposited with the British Library in the 70s). Most biographers of the Duke, even the most recent ones, focus on his outgoing letters, partly because it’s published. But just as interesting is his incoming correspondence, because this really lets us know what information he was getting from whom, the information behind the orders he was sending out. And the British Library archivists have conveniently organized these tens of thousands of incoming letters by author, allowing us to get an overview of how much any individual wrote to Marlborough over a particular timeframe. When we look up these people with the funny names, we discover that they have almost no incoming correspondence to Marlborough. Let me repeat: the people who provided the bread to Marlborough’s allied army wrote him less than 100-folios-worth of letters over 10 years. These contractors were usually in Amsterdam or elsewhere, managing the provision of supplies. Some years include no correspondence to Marlborough at all, and most of the other letters are about issues of their payment being in arrears. There are perhaps half-a-dozen états listing the number of bread rations provided for short time frames throughout the period, hardly enough to keep a commander informed of the current status of his logistical system during 1,800+ days of campaigning. Noteworthy also, though far less conclusive, is the format of many of these documents – the stray memorandum that you find in the English archives on logistical matters always seem to be in French, which seems kind of an odd language for your average Englishman to write in if he was communicating with other Englishmen, i.e. if Englishmen were running their logistical system. If, however, you know that French was the language used by the English and Dutch allies to communicate with one another, we discover yet another clue that these two logistical systems were rather tightly intertwined. Which really isn’t that surprising, since they were fighting in the same army after all. (Admittedly the language of the logistical documents doesn’t resolve the question of who created these documents, as it’s possible that Englishmen wrote in French to share with their Dutch allies, so then you’d have to look at the provenance of those documents, the handwriting style… All of which would lead you back to the Dutch).
Hopefully by now, even if you haven’t read Stapleton and van Nimwegen or looked through the Dutch archives, you should be thinking to yourself: ‘Well no duh the English got their bread as often and as cheap as the Dutch, they were being supplied by the same Dutch-run system!’ At least that’s what I’d like to think we’d conclude. But sometimes it’s hard to read between the lines, if only because that might require skulking in holes and corners.