When reading Richard Holme's biography of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough I was struck by how close we were to not ever seeing the full potential of 'Corporal John'. The court of Charles II in which Churchill and his wife Sarah operated was a wilder, less civilised and more dangerous place than I had imagined (It was also dirtier; Charles II only bothered to shave a couple of times a week). The career path John Churchill would take would eventually lead him to a command of a coalition army in the struggle against the imperial ambitions of Louis XIV but this future was by no means assured. As he progressed from Ensign with the First Foot Guards through royal courtier to Captain-General of the Imperial Forces he would do so against the backdrop of the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession. Initially a James II man he fought against Monmouth at Sedgemoor before switching to William of Orange in 1688. However he would continue to flirt with the Jacobite pretenders, as many did, throughout his career until the succession of George I was assured.
In the meantime he took the British Army and turned it into the magnificent instrument it would become. From 1703 to 1710 he would campaign in Europe sometimes alongside his great ally Prince Eugene of Savoy, sometimes not. He would fight set-piece battles like Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. He would undertake both sieges and open field manouveres with equal aplomb and Holmes is very good at describing all of these and, as ever, the political context in which he operated. Holmes is also good on the technological and tactical developments that took place, the introduction of the flintlock musket and platoon firing and the transformation in reputation of the British Army.
Marlborough's career would end mired in court and parliamentary intrigue and the fall from grace of Sarah, who doesn't sound like the easiest companion. However his war record was magnificent, his impact on the British Army, continental Europe in the eighteenth century and Woodstock today still remains. Holme's brings his life and legacy brilliantly to life, with a lively writing style and an obvious knowledge of his subject. Marlborough: Britain's Greatest General is well worth putting on your Christmas list.