hills and rivers.'

'Those natural defences can be pierced.'

'Not when we're outnumbered, Marshal.'

'There's no possibility of that,' said Overkirk, meeting his gaze. 'Many of the regiments will have been withdrawn to stiffen resistance near Leau. We'll have a numerical advantage.'

'Nonsense!' cried Slangenberg.

'Try to moderate your language, General.'

'It's complete and utter nonsense!'

'We must agree to differ,' said Marlborough shooting Overkirk a look of gratitude for his support. 'I have the greatest respect for your military experience, General Slangenberg, but, if I'd listened to your advice in the past, I'd never have ventured outside Dutch territory and secured advances elsewhere in Europe.'

'To do that, Your Grace,' asserted Slangenberg, 'you gambled with the lives of Dutch soldiers.'

'The gamble paid off handsomely on the Danube last year.'

'It failed dismally this year on the Moselle.'

'We're bound to suffer reverses from time to time, General,' said Marlborough, stung by the comment but reining in his temper. 'We now have a chance to make amends for what happened on the Moselle. Behind the Lines of Brabant, the enemy feel that they are wholly invincible. Since they don't fear attack, we have the element of surprise on our side.'

'Then we must use it,' said Overkirk with an authority that silenced even Slangenberg. 'A clever strategy has been put to us by our commander-in-chief. We must adopt it bravely.'

There was a murmur of support from some of the Dutch generals but Slangenberg was unconvinced. He brooded sulkily. As the council broke up, British and Dutch commanders rose from their seats and dispersed. In the end, only Marlborough, Cardonnel and Overkirk remained. Marlborough shook hands with the Dutchman.

'Thank you,' he said. 'Your intervention was appreciated.'

Overkirk smiled. 'It's a brilliant strategy, Your Grace.'

'That's why you needed to understand the thinking behind it.'

'It was good of you to explain. Had you not done so, I would have been in the invidious position of having to agree with General Slangenberg. On the face of it, your plan is a poor one.'

'It will not deceive Villeroi for an instant,' said Marlborough. 'I'm counting on that fact.'

'I hope that he reacts in the way you anticipate.' 'We know the way that his mind works.' 'The marshal has one glaring fault, Your Grace,' remarked Cardonnel. 'He believes he knows the way that your mind works.'

Marlborough laughed. 'Then I'll take the utmost pleasure in disappointing him, Adam.'

Chapter Three

On 17 July, 1705, Marshal Overkirk led the Dutch forces towards the fortress of Namur at the southernmost tip of the Lines of Brabant. Allied engineers worked hard to build twenty pontoon bridges over the River Mehaigne so that the army could cross with its equipment. As soon as French scouts became aware of the operations, they sent urgent dispatches to Marshal Villeroi. He responded by marching a substantial part of his army — 40,000 soldiers, in all — to a position between Merdorp and Namur. The first part of Marlborough's plan had worked perfectly. He had read the French commander's mind like a book. Instead of being distracted by what he assumed was a deliberate feint in the north, Villeroi hastened to repel an apparent attack in the south. He had swallowed the bait dangled so temptingly before him.

Marlborough acted promptly. Gathering his army of British, German and Danish troops, he hurried them north through the night in the direction of Elixhem. The advance was led by General Ingoldsby and Count Noyelles with 38 squadrons and 20 battalions supported by 600 pioneers. The cavalry carried large trusses of hay to serve as makeshift fascines when they met ditches or rivulets. Wider streams compelled them to make diversions.

Many complained about the rigours of a forced march through heavy mist and persistent drizzle but Captain Daniel Rawson was not one of them. Riding as part of Marlborough's staff, he was aware of the genius behind his commander's strategy. A double bluff had been used. Because there had been a feint near Leau in the north, Villeroi had been tricked into believing that the real danger lay in the south and the whole Dutch corps — with the exception of Marshal Overkirk — had also been misled. When they crossed the Mehaigne, they thought that they truly were the main strike force against the French. In fact, they merely acted as a decoy and would soon receive orders to withdraw.

By dawn on 18 July, Marlborough had reached his destination, a section of the Lines where the topography greatly favoured the French and where it had been reinforced with a series of fortifications. Had the defences been properly manned, it would have been virtually impossible to breach them. As it happened, they were more or less deserted. Scrambling over them, the advance guard sent the picquets scurrying away like startled animals. Pioneers laboured strenuously to level some of the ramparts to the ground and it was not long before Marlborough could take his cavalry and a detachment of foot soldiers over them. They dealt swiftly with any resistance and overwhelmed the defenders along a three-mile front, killing them, taking them prisoner or forcing a retreat. The dreaded Lines of Brabant, deemed impassable by the Dutch, had been broken apart with comparative ease. Progress had so far been rapid and largely unimpeded. It was a good omen.

Daniel Rawson was riding beside the commander-in-chief.

'We've put them to flight, Your Grace,' he said.

'They'll be back when they've had time to regroup and call up their reserves,' warned Marlborough. 'We'll be up against a strong French and Bavarian counter-attack. I daresay they'll have some Spanish horse as well.' He allowed himself a smile. 'But it was satisfying to draw first blood.'

'Where will Marshal Villeroi be now?'

'My hope is that he's still in the vicinity of Namur, wondering what happened to the Dutch army threatening his stronghold. By the time he realises that they stole away in the night to support us, it will be too late for him to get here in time.'

'It was a cunning strategy, Your Grace.'

'We've yet to bring it to a conclusion.'

'Do you have any accurate details of their numbers?'

'No, Daniel, but my guess is that we'll have an advantage.'


'If and when Marshal Overkirk gets here, of course, we'll have markedly superior numbers but the fighting may be over by then.'

'As long as I can play my part in it,' said Daniel, eagerly. 'I've seen no action in the field since Blenheim.'

'You've not exactly been idle,' noted Marlborough.

'I know, Your Grace, and I always enjoy the assignments you've given me. Gathering intelligence behind enemy lines is an adventure but it will never compete with the exhilaration of combat.'

'Sound intelligence helps to win battles.'

'Not on its own. It has to be backed up by heavy artillery and well-trained soldiers. And those troops have to be carefully deployed. I've watched you do that so many times. You're a master tactician.'

'My skills come from long experience.'

'It takes more than experience, Your Grace,' argued Daniel. 'Marshal Tallard had just as much experience as you and yet he was trounced at Blenheim. What he lacked was your instinct for victory.'

'Thank you, Daniel.'

'That's why he's now a prisoner in England while you're free to continue the fight. One day, under your command, we'll bring this war to an end and give Europe a taste of peace for once. Yes,' he added with a grin, 'and, while we're about it, we'll kick the Due d'Anjou off the Spanish throne and give it to its rightful heir, Archduke Charles of Austria.' He raised a fist and recited the rallying cry of the Allies. 'No peace without Spain!'

Marlborough was practical. 'No peace without more battles.'

'Oh, yes — France is far from beaten yet.'

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