George of Hanover [George I] and The War Of The Spanish Succession


Count Claude Florimond de Mercy (1666-1734)


George in 1706, when he was Elector of Hanover. After Johann Leonhard Hirschmann.

Both before and after 1705, foreign affairs were of prime importance for George. He took an interest in the strategy and tactics of the War of the Spanish Succession, and kept a watchful eye on English affairs and on Hanover’s relationship to the emperor and the Empire. His knowledge of the Rhine frontier as well as of the Netherlands battlefields explains a scheme which he pushed, with his uncle Georg Wilhelm, in the early stages of the war for massive deployment on the Middle and Upper Rhine of German troops independently maintained or in the pay of the Maritime Powers. Versions of this plan were never far from his thoughts. Once the danger to the Empire after the French victories of 1702 became apparent, he was one of those who urged a campaign in Bavaria by Marlborough and prince Eugene. There has been much discussion of the ‘originator’ of the 1704 Blenheim campaign. Recent English historians have been more inclined to give part at least of the glory, earlier reserved for Marlborough alone, to the Habsburg diplomat Wratislaw who persuaded Marlborough to go south. But behind Wratislaw we can discern men of military experience on the Rhine, and George especially. Documents preserved in the Bernstorff archive show that he urged such a campaign as the only solution to the predicament of Leopold, ground between Hungarian revolt in the east and French advances in the west.

Sophia, proud of her son’s successful intervention in the Holstein-Gottorp affair in 1700, hoped that the War of the Spanish Succession would give him an opportunity to add laurels to his fame. Might he not be made the leader of the coalition against Louis XIV, inheriting the mantle of William III? Individual Dutchmen suggested him as commander-in-chief for the army of the United Provinces: he had, in their opinion, all the qualities of a ‘great general’. Such dreams were, however, unrealistic. Hanover could not bear war costs in any way comparable to those undertaken by the Maritime Powers. Those who paid the piper felt entitled to call the tune and, by 1705, when George had inherited Celle and had more money at his disposal, the experience of Marlborough and Eugène in commanding large-scale forces far outweighed his. So did their ambitions. They had their way to make in the world and had no intention of letting the elector of Hanover take up any position which might detract from their search for glory and its rewards. This explains, in part, why George’s hopes, limited to an independent command of part of the allied army, were frustrated. After 1705, he was willing to furnish sizable forces at his own cost to breach the French positions on the Middle and Upper Rhine. But he was not taken seriously; indeed, at times he was deceived by the chief allied commanders in the interests of the strategy on which they had privately agreed.

Quite apart from Marlborough’s and Eugène’s fears that George’s rank would create problems (might he not try to impose his ideas on them?), the elector suffered from the lack of confidence of the Anglo-Dutch leadership in the emperor’s willingness to put the Empire first. Leopold had his eyes firmly fixed on Italy; there, once troops could be spared from Hungary, he wanted to direct the main Habsburg war effort. Better things were expected from Joseph (who succeeded Leopold in 1705), but the Reichsarmee continued to be starved of troops. Its commander, margrave Ludwig of Baden, was known to be dissatisfied with the way the initiative was monopolized by Eugene, always concerned with the interests of the house of Habsburg. Marlborough for his part was content, after the successful campaign in Bavaria of 1704, to let the war in the Empire rest so that he might pursue vigorous campaigns in the Netherlands in the hope of a breakthrough into France.

The German princes, however, had war aims of their own. The allied occupation after 1704 of the territories of the two electors who had sided with Louis XIV, Bavaria and Cologne, excited the appetites of some of these princes; though it was realized that the emperor would demand the lion’s share of Bavaria. All of them were vocal in demanding that Alsace and Strassburg and, if possible, also Franche-Comté (which, though a Spanish possession before 1678, had once formed part of the Imperial circles) should be regained for Germany as a barrier against France. The house of Habsburg was strongly in favour of such reconquests, which constituted its ‘German mission’. But it held that they could be won at the negotiation table as long as the emperor made sure of conquering, with Anglo-Dutch naval help, all Spain’s Italian possessions; much as Marlborough argued that Spain could be wrested from Philip V if France was beaten in the Netherlands. The Hofburg and Whitehall had nothing against diversionary military efforts on the Middle and Upper Rhine, and at times encouraged them. With financial resources stretched to the utmost on the other fronts, however, they regarded such efforts as bows at a venture: if they succeeded good and well, if they failed nothing much was lost.

This attitude was naturally galling to the Imperial field marshal, to his second-in-command Thüngen (to whom he increasingly left the thankless task of leading the Reichsarmee) and to all ‘honnêtes gens’ in the Empire. When the margrave died in January 1707, it was not easy to find a successor. The Imperial diet unanimously chose prince Eugène so as to animate the Habsburg ‘German mission’. But Joseph was not prepared to spare his best general: 1707 was the year of the allied Toulon attempt and the Austrian conquest of Naples.

In Germany that year’s campaign gave cause for alarm. French invasions threatened all along a western frontier too thinly defended. The new Reichsfeldmarschall, the margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, showed little or no initiative. The reputation of George, who with a Hanoverian contingent had command of one section of the western front, rocketed, however, during 1707 and he was generally lauded as ‘the saviour of the fatherland’. It is now known that the French commander Villars’ withdrawal to the left bank of the Rhine in July 1707 was the result less of George’s military exploits than of the danger which threatened France from the Austro-Savoyard march towards Toulon; but the lustre which was added to the elector of Hanover’s name explains why he was pressed to accept the Imperial field marshal’s baton for the rest of the campaign and also why he acquiesced. He was fully aware of the difficulties under which his predecessors had laboured, but hoped that he could pin down Vienna and the Imperial diet firmly enough over money and men to make something of his command. He had little difficulty with the diet. Money and men were promised and George showed great energy and resourcefulness in making sure that these promises were kept.

Plans for the coming campaign were co-ordinated in April 1708 in Hanover with Marlborough and Eugène: the greatest strength was to be concentrated on the Rhine-Moselle fronts, with George and Eugene in independent command of two separate armies, while Marlborough with Anglo-Dutch forces would act defensively to tie France down in the Netherlands. The prospect of offensive action was more important to George than the title of Reichsfeldmarschall; and the disillusionment he suffered later in the year, when it dawned upon him that Marlborough and Eugène had deliberately deceived him, was severe. They had privately agreed, long before April 1708, that the main allied effort was to be in the Netherlands and that by means of ostensibly confidential letters during the campaign, addressed to each other but meant to be passed on to George, they would pretend that a sudden emergency had occurred which made it necessary for Eugène’s Moselle army to join Marlborough. The only other person who was privy to this secret, if in general terms, was the emperor Joseph; and he, like Marlborough and Eugène, judged the deceit of George essential so that the French might be lured to draw the major part of their forces to the Rhine and the Moselle. Only in this way could Marlborough and Eugène attempt to break Louis XIV’s fortified lines to thrust at the heart of France. ‘I do not like having to deceive the Elector’, wrote Marlborough; but while the historian appreciates his and Eugène’s motives, their natural desire to keep control in their own hands being strengthened by their disbelief in the efficacy of the Reichsarmee, he may conclude that the better course might have been to take the elector into their confidence. To judge from all evidence available, and especially from George’s lack of rancour in his later cooperation with the two commanders, his consent would have been given. As it was, the resources of the Empire were needlessly wasted.

The campaign of 1709, as far as the Reichsarmee was concerned, proved just as frustrating and more damaging to George’s reputation. Again George did wonders in rallying the diet and obtained firm promises of money, especially from the Hanse towns. He worked out a plan which, though this time only diversionary, might make a real contribution to the allied war effort. Moreover, he made sure that the Maritime Powers, and prince Eugène personally, accepted the scheme as part of a strategy of encouragement for revolts inside France to facilitate allied invasions on several fronts. That the Allies hoped to use the revolt of the Camisards in the Cevennes to weaken Louis is well-known, ‘the affair of Besançon’ less so. Negotiations had long been afoot with discontented French subjects in Franche-Comté. It was assumed that if the Reichsarmee arrived there in strength in 1709, men of standing would make common cause with Louis’ enemies or at least make occupation of the province easier and thus help build the western barrier against France. Swiss sympathizers with the Imperial cause had suggested a route for the Reichsarmee which, in part, traversed canton territory. Success was reckoned likely.

Habsburg measures, however, ruined George’s prospects of carrying out his plan. Emperor Joseph appropriated the Hanse money for his own army to achieve his house’s priority aims. This in its turn brought other defections in assignations, troops and quarters by German princes. The result was that the Reichsfeldmarschall had to open his campaign with too few troops to take the initiative. He could not even revenge the defeat at Rumersheim of general Mercy, one of his commanders who, during an exploratory manoeuvre, was surprised by the French. Whether George would have succeeded if he had been given a freer hand cannot be answered. It is, however, unlikely. French intelligence had got wind of the invasion scheme and had arrested some of its key men in Franche-Comté. George never blamed Mercy, a brave officer; though he let it be known among those who were closest to him that the general had acted without his knowledge. He himself was, however, held responsible for the defeat at Rumersheim; not by the German princes, who were well informed of the problems which any commander of the Reichsarmee faced, but by other allied commanders who sought a scapegoat. Later Jacobite propaganda even contrived to insinuate that it was George in person who had been defeated at Rumersheim.

For his part George felt he had had enough. In the given circumstances it was impossible to deploy the Reichsarmee profitably and he laid down his field marshal’s baton, never to go on active service again. A significant gain had, however, come to Hanover in 1708; partly because of George’s rise in reputation in the campaign of 1707 and partly because of his skilful use of the opportunity offered when all the chambers of the diet begged him to take on the command of the Imperial army. As all electors, Catholic and Protestant, wished to secure his services, his suggestion that Hanover should, at last, be admitted to the Electoral College could not be refused. From 1708 onwards the ninth electorate took its seat in that college; and in 1710, when George was allotted one of the Imperial offices, the arch-treasureship, he could feel that he had completed the work of Ernst August.

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