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.

Hans Brinker, Madurodam (Wikipedia)

(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.


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20 responses to “Read between the lines!”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    I find it stretches credulity to think that a someone overseeing so many could be a master of that many details across so many areas. Even if Marlborough had the mental ability to be a one man General Staff, could anyone possess the stamina required?

  2. Wienand Drenth says :

    Thank you for this very much needed posting. It is about time! Being Dutch, I am probably a bit biassed towards the efforts and pains taken by William III and the Dutch Republic to keep France at bay. Ever since 1672!
    Nevertheless, in front of me is Fortescue’s volume covering the WSS. Almost every adjective is used to praise the great Duke’s abilities. As if he
    singlehandedly concluded the Grand Alliance (”inexhaustible charm, patience, and tact”). And much ranting on the Dutch (who were unwilling, jalous and avoiding combat), in particular the field deputies ever blocking the Duke’s
    ambitions. Reading all that, one might also get the impression that the WSS was fought by the Brits only, aided by a few, of course unwilling, others.

    It would be nice when van Nimwegen’s PhD thesis was translated in English someday. Also, I think Wijn’s ‘Staatsche Leger’ would add much to the knowledge of the non-Dutch speaking people researching the WSS. As for Dutch military history, that seems to be a bit of a neglected aspect (you speak Dutch, so you will understand ‘ondergeschoven kindje’) in this country. This has probably also to do with some the thought that writing about ‘the military’ is somehow not-done. That is, at least , what I learned talking as one ot two seminars.

    • jostwald says :

      Yes – I’d hope that Olaf’s book and Wijn’s volumes in English would revolutionize the field. But I have my doubts: the English still keep churning out biographies of the Duke that still rely solely on English sources (and van ‘t Hoff and maybe Veenendaal’s 1708 opening campaign article). They don’t even cite my Ramillies article from 11 years ago! Stapleton, Olaf and I did a panel at the American Historical Association aways back on the topic, but I don’t think there were a lot of military historians there, and the ones we really need to reach are in Britain.

      My strategic success chapter that I’ll be presenting later this week (hopefully it will get published somewhere) talks about the British troops always serving within much larger coalition armies – they usually averaged about a third of the overall size of the forces of which they were a part.

      It is interesting that in Chandler’s last book (Blenheim Preparations), he did try to be a bit more balanced, but even then couldn’t quite pull it off. National pride dies hard I guess.

      ondergeschoven kindje: I like the English phrase ‘red-headed stepchild’, but only because I’m neither. I’m afraid to admit that since I haven’t used my Dutch much over the past 8 years or so (been more focused on the English of late), it’s extremely rusty. It never was that great, just enough to read the sources with a dictionary. I never could speak it, other than to order een moorkop and a lumpia!

      Re: the lack of a vigorous Dutch military historiography, I think J.L. Price talked about it in “A State Dedicated to War? The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century,” in A. Ayton, ed., The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Tauris, 1995).

  3. jostwald says :

    Forgot to mention another clue: when Marlborough is talking about the details of logistics in his correspondence, he’s usually discussing it with (or referring it to) other funny-sounding dudes like Gildermalsen and Vegelin. Geldermalsen and Vegelin van Claerbergen being two of the Dutch field deputies of the Raad van State (Council of War). The guys who were actually coordinating the supplies.

    • Björn Thegeby says :

      An interesting comparison is in looking at the supply situation in the Northern theatre (where the Dutch were the senior partner), whit that in Portugal Spain (where the Dutch played a lesser role). Badly organised logistics had hampered the offensive in1706 and forced the evacuation of Madrid late that year. The troops that finally crossed the Jucar were in complete rags according to the contemporary sources.

      • jostwald says :

        The Dutch do indeed get short shrift. I’ll bet that Iberia was also difficult not only because of its smaller agricultural base, but probably also due to the shortage of Anglo-Dutch financial networks there (for bills of exchange and the like). A separate contractor (i.e. not Machado, Pereira, Medina, et al) helped the English in Iberia – his family papers are in England, but I don’t think I’ll have time to look at them.

  4. Erik Lund says :

    I’m not seeing the issue. Marlborough was awesome. Like Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, Stonewall Jackson, Edward Hawke, Panzers, Zeros, Highlanders, Gurkhas, Navy SEALs, Spartans, Roman legions, Mongol hordes, Ernst Udet, Douglas Bader…

    (Coming soon: a list of non-awesome units and commanders. (Prince Thomas of Savoy, Spinola, the Prince of Waldeck, and Milanese National regiments are not-awesome. You’ve never even heard of them!)

    But for now, I’ll be in my bunk.

  5. rmhitchens says :

    Anglocentrism is rampant in the historical community. I just reviewed a book about the War of 1812 (for the Michigan War Studies Review) and the author spent a lot of time discussing the (largely irrelevant) international scene, i.e., the Napoleonic Wars, and I suggested that his analysis could pass muster as Fleet Street propaganda during the Pitt administration. Not a good word to say about Bonaparte.

  6. Edwin Groot says :

    Marlborough was a great commander, not because he was English but because he was smart (but not politically), was patronised by William III, from which he took his agressive battlefield attitude and general contempt for life of his men, and relied heavily on the best troops of that period (Dutch) and dutch logistics. On the other hand, Dutch writers like Knoop massacre Marlborough just because he is English.

    Olaf van Nimwegen’s book on the dutch army of the 17th century is translated in English, I haven’t seen real criticism on the book apart form the usual “it’s too expensive” or “why no spanish sources” and his books on logistics has an english summary, I think I posted it a while ago on my blog. (I can dig it up for those interested).

    • jostwald says :

      I’m curious about William’s aggressive battlefield attitude – what do you base this on? Certainly by the 1700s the English contrast Marlborough aggressiveness with William’s lack of willingness to fight battles, and modern historians have continued along that line.
      Or maybe you mean tactically, once in a battle?

      Good point about Olaf’s English summary. I’ll scan it in, OCR it and post it on the blog.

  7. Gavin Robinson says :

    As well as Anglocentrism it’s the corpse of Great Man history refusing to lie down and accept that it’s dead. There’s some similar stuff in lots of histories of the New Model Army: Cromwell and/or Fairfax was a super-special logistical genius who made everything more efficient (especially Cromwell because he later became Lord Protector so he must always essentially have been a Great Man, which leads historians who should know better to see signs of future greatness in the most mundane things). That erases the important but not very sexy work done by Robert Scawen and the Army Committee, who did most of the admin and dealt with private contractors. I’d argue that this was an advantage because it left the generals free to concentrate on commanding the army, whereas in 1643 Cromwell had to waste lots of time writing letters begging county committees to send him more reinforcements and money.

    There’s Anglocentrism here too. It’s all too common to read that the NMA was more ‘professional’ than its predecessors, but Mark Stoyle has shown that lots of experienced professional officers were kicked out in 1645, apparently because they weren’t English.

    • Erik Lund says :

      But their replacements were extra-Protestant,* thus extra-professional!

      *Possibly “Calvinist,” which is Whig for “awesome.”

      • Gavin Robinson says :

        Those Calvinists were so awesome. They definitely didn’t waste any time being depressed or trying to kill themselves. They just worked really hard for Progress because of their work ethic.

    • jostwald says :

      Great Captains: that’ll be a small section in my battle book, as we’ve discussed here in the past I think. It’s interesting how the English c. 1700 still have to keep Cromwell a little bit at arm’s length, given that whole republican taint. One contemporary said that Cromwell would’ve been a great example, if only he hadn’t been a tyrant and usurper.

      It is striking how Marlborough’s battlefield victories are interpreted as evidence of English martial prowess (according to both contemporaries and many modern English historians), yet English manpower totaled no more than a third of Marlborough’s armies in battle, and at Ramillies played very little role in the victory (Blenheim much more so).
      And then there’s the English disgust with William relying on foreign professionals (Dutch, Huguenot, Danish…) instead of homegrown Englishmen. Marlborough of course gets himself into a little trouble on this count.

  8. Björn Thegeby says :

    Well, Medina et al. were Portuguese Jews, so would hardly be able to offer their services. Interestingly, the Dutch ambassador to Portugal was a convert Jew originally named Belmonte. I have been toying with the idea of going to the Dutch national archive to read his correspondence this weekend. (As he was Portuguese his handwriting should be legible) Do you have a name for the English contractor?

    • jostwald says :

      Don’t have the info handy – I’ll look it up when I get back in a couple weeks.

    • jostwald says :

      Here’s a citation. The catalog entry for his papers are also online.
      Rubens, Charles, “Joseph Cortissos and the War of the Spanish Succession,” Jewish Historical Studies, 24 (1975): 114-133. This article is available (OCRed text) online, though I think the OCR may have turned it into Gortissos.

  9. jostwald says :

    Or, like Churchill and Phelan, you could conclude that because there aren’t lots of written planning records on the subject in Marlborough’s papers, he must have kept all the details in his head! (Phelan, 1990, p39). Note as well that Phelan mentions the Dutch contractor Vanderkaa by name, but doesn’t connect the Dutch dots.

    Further, imagine what this revelation of Dutch supply contractors would do to the idea that Marlborough hid his march from his Dutch allies. This idea is a staple of the English historiography, despite Olaf reproducing (in 1995) a 1704.05.11 letter from Marlborough to Slingelandt, one of those pesky Dutch administrators, clearly indicating that the top Dutch leaders knew about his Danube plan before the march even began. So what would Dutch-organized supply for Marlborough’s march to the Danube mean? The exact interpretation may depend on which part of the march you’re looking at, but the fact that Marlborough was relying on Dutch-based contractors to set up their supplies would seem to suggest that maybe some Dutch knew about his plans. And assuming such foodstuffs needed to be organized and contracted *in advance* – contractors like Vanderkaa and Abrahams and Medina and Pereira and Machado needed at least some of the money up front to pay their subcontractors, as collateral for further loans, etc. – key Dutch personnel would’ve known about the final destination long before the Allied army crossed the Meuse. Olaf has also pointed out already that Marlborough kept the secret from the States-General (though Olaf’s Marlborough letter indicates that even this secret had reached at least the rumor stage), but for that matter he also kept it secret from Parliament.

    So it’s disappointing that history bashing the Dutch continues to get written without bothering to consult the Dutch side. But then the Anglo historiography is so Marlborough-centric that English historians can apparently believe that Heinsius may have known about Marlborough’s (Wratislaw’s) plan to march to the Danube, but no other Dutchmen could have, because Marlborough kept the secret from them. Apparently the Duke was the only source of such information, and of course Heinsius would never share information like that with any of his confidants or military planners in his own country! Bizarre.

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