VIDEO: the life of a soldier during the Duke of Marlborough's Flanders campaign

James Falkner at Blenheim Palace
What was life like for the soldiers in a 17th century army? The Duke of Marlborough's troops were drawn from across Europe and brought to fight the French in Flanders for months on end. 

We asked James Falkner, one of the UK's leading authorities on Marlborough and the War of Spanish Succession to tell us more about the soldiers who put their life on the line in these incredible campaigns. 


Soldiers at the time in all armies lived a fairly rough and ready life and, by and large, they enjoyed that.

Their uniforms would have been a long, thigh-length coat of wool with a waistcoat, shirt, breeches, stockings and stout hob nail shoes.

A tricorn hat was generally worn, although grenadiers wore the tall mitre cap which was shaped to enable you to throw a grenade without knocking your hat off at the same time. 

All armies looked like this.

The French army wore a very similar uniform that was light grey, and sometimes called the white uniform. Danish soldiers wore grey uniforms. Spanish soldiers, and the troops of the Spanish Netherlands, wore a green uniform. There was a blue uniform for the Prussians, and red for the British and the Hannoverians. 

Hair was worn long, caught up behind the head at the nape of the neck with a ribbon and, bearing in mind that shaving was fairly difficult, there would have been lots of bristly chins. 

It was a very rough and ready existence, but most of these men were young men, although there were exceptions, and most would have been drawn from the land.

There was no conscription for British troops, but there was certainly conscription amongst German troops, and the French levies meant men were taken from their villages, from the plough, as it were. 

They were used to living outdoors and they were a fairly rough and ready lot. Generally, there was what was known at the time as a cheery indifference to physical discomfort. 

The battles at the time, were very confusing affairs. The weapons of the time, such as the smoothbore artillery and the muskets, used black powder, and so great clouds of powder and smoke would build up very quickly, to the point where there was smoke obscuration.

The soldier himself would only be able to see a few dozen yards around him, but that was all the soldier actually needed to see. The common soldier did not need to able to see beyond the end of the line in which he stood. 

A soldier who was shot or wounded and was left lying on the battlefield would very often bleed to death before he could receive assistance.

The assistance would come largely in the form of his friends, who would look for him once things had settled down, and bring him to one of the regimental surgeons. 

Every regiment in the British army at the time had a regimental surgeon and a surgeon's mate, but this was two for a battalion of six or seven hundred troops, so it gives an indication of what the lottery was for surviving.

But of course, the soldier who had fallen on the battlefield and survived long enough to be taken to the surgeon, was probably robust enough to survive. There are instances of quite severe wounds being inflicted and the wounded soldiers surviving.

Amputation was common. If a limb was shattered by shot and you didn't amputate, it would fester, gangrene would set in, then blood poisoning and the soldier would die. So the simplest solution was to cut the limb off, hence the often seen instances of soldiers lacking arms, lacking a leg, sometimes two legs. 

There's the case of Sergeant William Hine, who at the battle of Ramillies in 1706 received a musket ball wound to the stomach and suffered a massive double-barrelled pro-lapsed colostomy, which he had for 14 years before he died. It shows what a tough character he was. 

The campaigning season lasted from about late April to early October for two reasons.

The roads were unmetalled, so in bad weather they were just muddy ditches and could hardly be traversed. 

Secondly, you had the problem of finding enough forage for the horses. It was calculated that an army 100,000 men strong required 40,000 horses, not just for cavalry but also for dragging supplies around, and you could only have forage for horses during the good months of the summer. There's no point in having an army out on campaign if they couldn't move, and without horses they couldn't move. 

So once the campaign season in early autumn was over the troops would go into winter quarters, usually farmed out to the local peasants or local towns, in exchange for money paid to the house owners. 

If you would like to follow in the footsteps of Marlborough and his troops in Flanders, you can join our small-group tour with James Falkner. There are departures in May and September.

For dates, the daily itinerary and prices