Episode 58 – The Battles of Salamis versus Blenheim

Today, we head on over to the Battle bracket where we begin with a naval engagement between the mighty Persian Empire against a combined Greek force fought in 480 BCE, known as the Battle of Salamis. The other is a fight led by one of our past contestants, John Churchill who along with Prince Eugene of Savoy, defeated the French in 1704 at the Battle of Blenheim.

As for my primary sources of information, for both clashes, I’m using 100 Decisive Battles by Paul Davis, Battles That Changed History by various authors and The Greatest Battles in History edited by Jack Watkins.

Battle of Salamis
Battle of Salamis

When I first put together my choices for the greatest battles of all time, Salamis was not on the list. Instead, I chose another Greek-Persian clash that occurred a month earlier, the Battle of Thermopylae. You may know this better as the 300, which is a totally misleading number. There were 300 Spartans there, but they were joined by between 5,000 and 7,000 other Greeks. Whatever the number, the battle was in no way decisive, whereas Salamis, was.

The reason for the Persians invading the Greek mainland was to punish it for the defeat they suffered from their attempted invasion in 490 BCE. This one was led by King Darius, the father of the man who would try with another army ten years longer, namely, Xerxes. Darius died in 486 before he could return to Greece due to his having to squash a rebellion in Egypt.

Thermopylae was a fight fought between the 7,000 or so Greeks and an army of over 120,000 Persians, far less than the Roman historian Herodotus claimed a number of 2.6 million. While holding off the vastly larger army opposing them on a narrow strip of land, the Greeks were eventually defeated, and the Persians continued on their way. Their problem was in how they were going to supply their vast army. The only way was with their massive navy. 

The Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis were part of the invasion of the Persians led by King Xerxes. The Admiral in charge of the Persian Navy was a Phoenician, Ariabignes. One the one side we had 700 triremes on the side of the Persians versus around 300 ships on the other side, supplied by many of the members of Greek League. Xerxes was very confident post-Thermopylae, something that would cause him and Ariabignes to make critical mistakes. 

For the Greeks, they are led by the legendary commander, Themistocles. He was the key to the Greeks eventual victory, but it wasn’t just his military strategy that would win the day, it was the use of deception that would lead the Persians into making a foolish mistake that they actually knew might happen. The story of what Themistocles did is fascinating. 

Xerxes knew and counted on the fact that the Greek city-states never really saw eye to eye and even had reports from his spies that there were disagreements between the allies. The Persian King believed that the Greeks would eventually break up and allow him a smashing victory against his main target, Athens and the region it resided in, Attica.

Themistocles knew this and exploited it as he sent a message to Xerxes, indicating his displeasure with his allies and that he was ready to jump to the Persian side. In his letter, Themistocles warned Xerxes that the Greek fleet was preparing to flee during the night. The trap was set as the possibility of Themistocles claim was inherently plausible.

As we set up the battle, we need to know how the boats were crewed and managed as this was another critical issue which would help decide the coming clash. The Persians had ships that whose center of gravity was higher than their Greek counterparts. This would have been fine, and actually superior had the Battle of Salamis been in open water, but it wasn’t. It was to be fought in the narrow straights of Salamis which gave the Greeks the advantage, especially since the seas became very choppy the day of the battle, September 20th, 480 BCE.

What you also need to know is how sea battles were fought at the time. Aside from ramming your opponent’s ship in its side, marines would jump on to the other boat and proceed to hack at their adversaries, eventually killing all on board. Xerxes and Ariabignes thought that putting 30 marines on each ship would give them the advantage. Problem is, the men were jammed together, having little room to maneuver. The Greeks, on the other hand, put ten marines on each boat which gave them far more flexibility. The main advantage though was that the ten men the Greeks deployed were the finest fighting units of the ancient world, the Hoplites.

Ariabignes and Xerxes were so confident that they had the plan and the surprise of pre-knowledge of the Greeks intentions that they left their men on the ship during the night to make sure that they could catch the retreating ships. They stayed up all night waiting for a retreat that would not happen until the morning. With choppy seas prevailing, the rowers and marines were likely exhausted when things began to happen.

When the battle began, the Greek ships started to look like they were abandoning the scene just as Themistocles had said would happen. Xerxes, believing he had caught them in a trap, had put a portion of his navy on the other side of the Straight of Salamis to destroy them. His main fleet then headed into the narrow waterway, believing that they would surround the Greeks. When Themistocles turned the supposedly fleeing ships back towards the advancing Persians, Xerxes knew he was in trouble.

Watching from land, there was no way for the Persian King to warn his commanders. What Xerxes saw horrified him as a hidden fleet of Greek triremes came out of a bay, smashing into the right flank of the Persians. The rout was on.

The Persians were jammed into the narrow straight with nowhere to turn. When they began to panic and tried to flee the scene, the Greeks saw their exposed sides and smashed into them with their bronze rams. Chaos ensued within the Persian ranks. Xerxes had many of his captains executed if they had been found trying to getaway.

The losses that the Persians suffered were very heavy. It is estimated that they lost upwards of 200 ships versus just 40 for the Greeks. Many other ships were captured by the victorious side leaving the Persian navy unable to fight on. Of the many Greeks ships that sank, many of the men were saved as they were able to swim to shore. Unfortunately for many of the Persian sailors, they were surprisingly never taught how to swim, so they drowned. The Greek victory was so complete that when they got prepared the next day for a counterattack, they were got off guard as there were no more Persians to fight.

Without a fighting navy to protect the supply ships, Xerxes was forced to put his army into a full retreat. While a substantial land army remained in Attica, we learned in episode 10, that at the Battle of Platea, the Persians would finally be defeated and thrown off the Greek territories for good.

The Battle of Salamis would bring to an end the threat of Persia and would end their dream to dominate the lands of their Greek foes. Some 150 years later, a Greek General who we met in episode eight, Alexander the Great, would put an end to the Persian Kingdom at the Battle of Gaugamela. Salamis was the beginning of the end for the once-mighty kingdom. 

Time to move on over to our next contestant, the Battle of Blenheim. 

Battle of Blenheim
Battle of Blenheim

Europe had just finished a particularly costly war known as the War of the Grand Alliance, also known as the Nine Years War, which was fought between 1688 and 1697. It pitted France against Britain, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Savoy, Sweden, Portugal, and the Holy Roman Empire. No one really won the war as they ceased hostilities due to financial exhaustion. But a major crisis would spring up, namely the death of Spanish King Carlos II. The problem was, he had no legitimate heir lined up leading to the War of the Spanish

The French wanted to name their man, the grandson of King Louis XIV, Duke Philip of Anjou as the rightful King of Spain while the opposition, declared for Archduke Charles, younger son of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. This led to Louis targeting the Holy Roman Emperors most important city Vienna, hoping a win would take his adversary out of the war and give him control over Spain. 

While all of this was going on, relations between France and Britain were getting more and more acrimonious. King William III of England was at first, the acknowledged ruler of the island country by Louis, but after a while, the French King decided to recognize the son of deposed King James II, James Edward Stuart, a Catholic as the rightful heir. When William III died in 1702, the French thought that they might be able to press for their man to take the reins, but that honor went to William’s sister-in-law, the new Queen Anne. Her chief adviser was none other than Sarah Churchill, wife of John Churchill who we met in episode 50.

One interesting development before the Battle of Blenheim was the advance of the bayonet mounted musket. This new weapon would cause the end of the use of pikemen who had been in use for millennium. Due to the slow loading and poor accuracy of the musket, the pike was necessary as they were needed when close, hand-to-hand combat ensued. Still, the musket was extremely powerful, and the pikeman was not able to fire off any shots. The bayonet mounted of a musket was the best of two worlds.

John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, was keen to develop tactics based on the use of this new weapon. By 1697, the German and British forces had abandoned the use of the pike and gone all-in on the bayonet mounted musket. The French, on the other hand, didn’t begin to incorporate the new weapon into their arsenal until 1703, a year before the Battle of Blenheim. This was to be a costly mistake as the British were able to develop strategies that the French had no time to prepare for.

Up until 1704, the French troops were for the most part successful against their opponents, and they picked up an important ally, Bavaria. This presented a significant problem for their adversaries led by the English, known as the Grand Alliance. This is because of Bavaria’s proximity, in relative terms, to Vienna, one of the seats of power for the Holy Roman Empire and one of the crossroads of Eastern Europe as seen in our previous discussions of the Siege/Battles of Vienna against the Ottomans.

The Grand Alliances forces were far away, some 400 miles away. Churchill had cobbled together an army of some 52,000 men, with only 12,000 of them British. He had to figure a way of getting all of his troops to the Danube without letting either his enemies or his allies knowing what his plans were. Churchill told his allies he intended only to go as far as the Moselle River. With ever-thinning supply lines, Churchill had to rely on the other commander of allied forces, Prince Eugene of Savoy, to keep the French away from them. On top of that, the road towards Vienna was surrounded by the French, and Churchill knew he had to arrive at his destination with all of his troops intact. He could not spare a single soul.

It is in the run-up to the Battle of Blenheim that we see the genius in Churchill’s way of war. Making it to the Danube River crossing town of Donauworth on July 1, 1704, the Duke of Marlborough noted that the other side of the river was rather well fortified with Bavarian troops, some 14,000 of them, led by Marshall D’Arco. Churchill ordered his men to pitch tents and make camp, lulling their opponents into thinking that they were not going to attack quite yet. Instead, the Grand Alliance troops launched four attacks immediately, with the fourth one being successful. The Alliance lost 1,400 dead and 3,800 wounded but the Bavarians lost 10,000. The most important part was that they were across the Danube and ready to face their foes. 

The Franco-Bavarian commander, Marshal Count de Tallard, had picked an incredibly defendable position with his flanks protected by forest and the Danube. He had with him 56,000 men as opposed to Churchill’s 52,000. For days, the British leader goaded de Tallard into coming out and fighting to no avail. The French commander was no slouch and knew that he had the better position. Churchill went out to personally inspect the situation and saw a way to attack and defeat his opponents. All that was required was stealth and surprise. 

Two days before the decisive clash of forces, Churchill called on Prince Eugene to bring all of his men to join at the position near the town of Blenheim. Churchill had successfully gathered his men into position by starting at 2:00 am on August 13 and getting his men close to the by now relaxed Franco-Bavarian force by 7:00. The way the Battle of Blenheim unfolded had the initial attack pointed at the town itself when the allied forces appeared out of the morning fog, pointed at where the French had camped out followed by Prince Eugene attacking the Bavarians to the left. This kept them away from the primary target the French center led by Marshal de Marsin. 

The fighting in the center went back and forth with no one making any real headway. With the two flanks being engaged, Marsin couldn’t muster any relief forces for his center troops. The big break came when Prince Eugene was able to send in a squadron of heavy cavalry to help Churchill in the center. The French were smashed and seeing this, the Bavarian’s broke and retreated mid-afternoon. 

The French-Bavarian Army suffered over 13,500 casualties with a further 11,000 men taken prisoner. Bavaria was taken out of the war and placed under Austrian control. The French, who seemingly had the strength to dominate Europe and destroy the Holy Roman Empire just a short time prior, were subdued for the time being. 

Churchill was given Blenheim Palace as a reward for this victory and was elevated to the rank of Duke. From there Churchill would defeat the French at Ramillies in May 1706, Ordenarde and Malplaquet in 1709 to stunt the reputation of the might French.

Time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

The first fifteen points are for the number of people involved in the battle. For the Battle of Salamis, it has been estimated that there were a total of around 20,000 Greeks and probably about 50,000 Persians for a total of 70,000, while at Blenheim we have a total of 108,000 men engaged. Fifteen points for the 18th century battle with 12 going to the Greco-Persian clash.

Next up is the twenty points for how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. The Battle of Salamis was a regional fight whereas Blenheim was more international as it was part of the multi-continent War of Spanish Succession. For these reasons, I’m giving the clash in Bavaria the twenty with Salamis receiving ten.

Next up is the twenty-five points for the effect of the battle on world history. This one is a real toss-up as both changed the course of history. With Salamis, we have the retreat of the Persians from the land of the Greeks with the end coming just a year later. It also was the predecessor to Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Persian Empire only 150 years later. With Blenheim, you have a significant battle that helped curtail French incursions into Austria, but it was one of a number that Churchill and the Grand Alliance fought. For these reasons, I’m giving Salamis the twenty-five points with Blenheim getting 17.

Last, we have the big forty-point total for how the battle affected their country for the better. Salamis was able to stop the Persians from destroying Athens and making the Greek states a vassal to them. The Battle of Platea would finish off the Persians just a year later, with them never to return. What followed was the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars only fifty years later, which would end the Golden Age of Greece. Still, the war allowed Greek civilization to remain as is and eventually spread with the emergence of Alexander the Great.

The Battle of Blenheim checked the growing power and influence of the French and with the help of the great military mind of John Churchill, elevated Great Britain in the eyes of Europe. It would take the three other battles under the Duke of Marlborough to complete the job, but Blenheim was the turning point. For these reasons, Salamis gets the full forty points with Blenheim getting 35. 

The score is 87 to 87, which means we have a tie. The tiebreaker is which Battle won the most points in the last score, so the Battle of Salamis moves on to face the winner between the Battle of Cynscephalie which was fought amongst the Romans and Greeks in 197 BCE and the American Civil War turning point, the Battle of Gettysburg. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.

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