So it looks to me like your ready to have a peek into the Eighteenth Century, lets go…
Blenheim 13 August 1704, 10.00 a.m.
Although he has had little time for it, Joseph Fleet has managed to shave this morning; that much is evident from the finely cropped stubble that pricks out from his chin, giving him an altogether smarter appearance than he might have hitherto. The once white cloth tied tightly around his neck is now browned on the edges, made worse by the peppering of black powder stains on its right side made by the spark and fire of the musket that he must jam firmly into his shoulder so that the recoil might not break his arm.
Judging from the slightly pungent smell he has had little time to bathe, this again is punctuated by the sulfurous stench of rotting eggs that has latched onto him, the smell of stale gunpowder. The sleeves of his brick red coat with the large blue cuffs and lapels, are patched at the elbow, as are his breeches in their seat, his knees are spared from such uniform ignominy however by the large white gaiters he wears, buttoned form the ankle up to below the cap of his knee, and are looped round his square toed shoes, a dark smudge, not fresh, stains his right gaiter, showing where he has knelt in the front rank to fire his 42 inch .68 caliber fire-lock musket which he now held in his right hand, its barrel pointing skywards.
Strapped over his left shoulder is a worn leather strap, from which is hung a black leather cartouche box with his regimental emblem fastened upon it; inside is fitted a wooden box with three rows of holes drilled into it, which supports his paper cartridges, a greased piece of paper rapped a round a measured amount of gunpowder topped off with spherical lead ball of ounce weight.
On his left hip hangs two scabbards, one noticeably longer than the other and holds an infantry hanger, the smaller of the two holds a relatively new fangled device, the new triangular section socket bayonet, sixteen inches long and double sided with a wickedly sharp point, the scars on his ramming hand testify to that.
Even from a distance it is apparent that there is a difference between this man and the others that fill up the rest of the 150 or more yards to his left, physically he is a good head taller than his diminuative tricorn wearing comrades, he has a slightly heavier build too, and their uniform differs, albeit in slight ways, to them as well.The greatest difference from afar is the imposing miter cap that the sixty or so men at the end of the line wear, fronted with the regimental facing color and the colonel’s coat of arms and motto, with a small white pom-pom on top.
These, like the tricorns of the ‘hat men’ are in various states of repair, some being battered and bent over, others are sickly thin because they have been jammed down over their owners heads leaving very little form in them and giving the wearers the appearance of wearing a flashy nightcap. Although they bear the title grenadiers they do not carry them today, and they are ever more becoming an honorary title, there is little place for them on a battle field.
For nearly two hours he has stood with the rest of the brigade, which is part of General “Salamander” Cutts’ Division, being bombarded by French cannons positioned a low ridge that ran across the plain behind the village of Blenheim. These men are all shock troops, as one would have to be in the Salamander’s Division, the nickname deriving from their commanders penchant for relishing the hottest places of the fight, find a position that cannot be taken then by all means throw in the Salamander.
To men like our Grenadier standing with his comrades in line listening to the deafening roar of guns and watching the cannon balls fly over their heads, the reason they were being subjected to this was a mystery, but they after all were not paid to think, only do.
Everything was ready for the advance, pioneers had gathered bundles of wood for fascines to help cross the boggy stream to their front. They must be moving forward soon. Then a galloper was seen flying past and soon after, the long awaited order “Stand straight in your ranks. Slope arms!” rang out and they hoisted their muskets up onto their shoulders. At the command “By the Centre – lock ranks!” the second and third ranks took a few steps to their left so that they could see unobstructed past their comrades.
“Forward…March!” they stepped off briskly, men where suddenly toppled from their ranks as the French laid their guns anew to the long snaking lines of redcoats advancing towards them. Men jogged forwards with bundles of sticks and tossed them into the Nebel stream, then in they went, cannon balls zinging over head as the cold water seeped up to their calves, cohesion now suffered accordingly and it was indeed fortuitous that the steep bank rose into a patch of dead ground where the French guns could not target them.
They were now within 300 yards of the village of Blenheim, here they halted under cover and were ordered to lie down on the boggy ground to wait for the supporting Hessians of Wilks’ brigade to come up in support with their accompanying artillery, which once across immediately opened a well directed fire on the French that were stationed behind their barricades at the street entrances.
As the Hessians came across our Grenadier’s regiment was given the order to again stand, as they did General Rowe, the commander of their brigade approached with his staff and dismounted, he told them to withhold their fire until he first had struck the enemy barricade with his sword, it was a stunning and stirring order.
“With ball shot Loaaaad!” cried the colonel, they reached to their cartouche boxes, retrieved the cartridge ripped of the end, flipped open the striking steel dribbled some powder into the pan, closed the steel, poured the rest down the gleaming barrel. Five hundred heads bent for an instant as they dropped the ball down and capped it off with the paper and then rammed home to recover their fire-locks.
“Fix…Bayonets!” as they had been drilled they completed the four moves that were dictated in the manual to attach the new fangled pike heads to their muskets. “Cha-a-arge, bayonets!” the first two ranks brought their muskets up to their chests with sharp jerk and a cheer, the third hoisted theirs at high port. As the roar of artillery intensified General Rowe raised his sword aloft and brought it down to the carry as he yelled “Advance!” and with drums beating and colours flying, into hell they marched.
The Duke of Marlborough was without a doubt the greatest soldier of his age, he inherited the title of Britain’s Greatest soldier before the Duke of Wellington took the title from him over one hundred years later, but as Richard Holmes most admirably states, That no great general ever won a war on his own, for he doesn’t wield a musket on his own or physically drive the enemy from the field, without those brave boys in red like my fictitious Grenadier there would just be two men on a field fighting it out with swords like any other duel, as one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s many maxims reads, “Soldiers win the wars, Generals take the credit.”
In as short a time as I can manage I will try to detail a soldier’s life in the time of the first iron Duke.
See you next time for more adventures in Historyland. Josh.
Blenheim Preparation, David Chandler.
Blenheim Battle for Europe, Charles Spencer.
Blenheim the Duke of Marlborough’s masterpiece, John Tincey.
Weapons & equipment of the Marlborough wars, Anthony Kempt
Marlborough England’s fragile genius, Richard Holmes.
Marlborough’s army 1702-1711, Michael Barthorp.
Marlborough’s Sieges, James Falkner.
Marlborough, Corelli Barnett.
Diary of Colonel John Blackadder.
The complete art of self defence by McBane via Highland swordsmanship, Mark Rector.
English army lists & commission registers, 1661 – 1714, Charles Dalton.
The life and adventures of Matthew Bishop of Deddington in Oxfordshire.
Marlborough, Angus Konstam.
Marlborough his life & times vol 2, Sir Winston Churchill.