The conflict was part of the long-running Wars of Spanish Succession, with French King Louis XIV attempting to put his grandson Philip on the vacant Spanish throne. The allies supported the Austrian contender, Charles of the Hapsburg dynasty.
After defeat at Oudenaarde the previous year the French King had sued for peace, but the allied terms were humiliating and France had no option but to continue the conflict.
The scene was set for Malplaquet.
Marlborough and Prince Eugene marched their army through Flanders towards the French border. In response the French, under the command of Marshal de Villars, rode to meet them. The two sides arrived outside the hamlet of Malplaquet on 9 September.
Marlborough, a bold commander who looked to engage his enemy whenever the opportunity arose, advocated an immediate attack. His senior advisers argued against the plan, in favour of waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
The French used the time cleverly, creating a formidable earthwork defensive line between two forests, with cavalry positioned at the rear to respond to any breaks the allies were able to force.
Marlborough and Eugene planned a series of feints at the French right flank and centre to disguise their true target, the left flank.
Heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides but, eventually, de Villars weakened his centre to protect the left and Marlborough sent his troops into attack.
The French fought with pride and resolution and held their positions, inflicting even more casualties on the allies.
After repelling attack after attack, the French leaders recognised they had run out of reserves and withdrew from the battlefield in an organised manoeuvre, unlike the panicked retreats of earlier encounters.
The exhausted allies were unable to pursue.
Marlborough claimed victory, but the battle was the bloodiest of the 18th century. The allies suffered around 17,000 casualties, more than the French.
Parliament was horrified by the losses. Queen Anne called Marlborough back to England and withdrew Britain from the coalition.
Malplaquet invigorated the French and in a few months they won back the cities that had been lost to the allies over the previous two years.
From a position of weakness before Malplaquet, the French went on to crush the supporters of Charles of Habsburg. Philip claimed the Spanish throne, ending the Wars of Succession.
Malplaquet is one of the battlefields explored on our history break Marlborough's Victories in Flanders. The tour is led by James Falkner, an expert and author on the Wars of Spanish Succession.
Based in Mons, the four-night tour also visits the battle sites of Ramillies and Oudenaarde, providing an in-depth exploration into the people and personalities that were at the fore of Marlborough's campaigns, and gives participants an unrivalled understanding of the innovative tactics and strategy that proved so successful.
Marlborough's Victories in Flanders
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