James Falkner, Prince Eugene of Savoy (Pen & Sword, 2022)
If you didn’t know, Prince Eugene of Savoy was one of Europe’s greatest commanders. A colossus in an era of great rivals, Eugene has been overshadowed somewhat by the Duke of Marlborough, at least in the anglophone world of most of our military history. James Falkner offers a necessary corrective in this military biography by placing Eugene firmly in the context of the wider European history while bringing to the fore his often brilliant achievements.
Falkner skips straight into the action after a brief nod to Eugene’s parentage and upbringing. Eugene, the unpromising teenager, absconded to Vienna from under Louis XIV’s uncaring nose to offer his service to the Habsburg Emperor Leopold. Thus began Eugene’s extraordinary career narrated in surefooted fashion by Falkner. Eugene arrived at an opportune moment, with the Ottoman empire expanding to the gates of Vienna. He earned his spurs in the fightback, despite his impecunity, and rose through the ranks in six years of fighting. He next campaigned against the French in Italy before taking up the command of the army in the East in 1697 at the age of just 33 years old. He subsequently destroyed the Ottomans at Zenta. But Eugene had little time to bask in his glory before being sent to command in the War of the Spanish Succession. That began in Italy with victories against the French, leading to his appointment as head of the Imperial War Council from where he could reorganise the Empire’s battered and out-dated armies.
Eugene joined the Duke of Marlborough on the Danube in 1704 to combine their armies against the French. The two great commanders established a lasting friendship that served both of them well as they swept to victory at Blenheim. Eugene then commanded Imperial forces in Italy again, giving the hapless French the runaround in what Falkner describes as an ‘astonishing campaign’. Eugene became Field-Marshal of the Empire as his reward. There followed the curiously lacklustre campaign to seize Toulon, which failed, and Eugene never again returned to Italy. Instead, he once more joined Marlborough to defeat the French at Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709. Marlborough’s sacking by Queen Anne and Eugene’s failed diplomatic visit to London severely dented the Alliance’s chances of success against France. Eugene took part in further operations, but treaties and peace became the best options for all concerned. In 1715, Eugene’s attention returned to the Ottoman threat. A stunning victory at Peterwardein followed in 1716 then came the siege and capture of Belgrade. Eugene’s political fortunes failed to match his military successes, and Falkner winds down his biography with court politics reducing Eugene’s status before a comeback even as his health declined. Eugene took to the field one last time in 1734 in an inconclusive effort against the French. He died in his bed in 1736.
Despite Falkner describing Eugene as a ‘unique genius as a military commander’, this book is far from being a hagiography. Rather Falkner has written a straightforward account of Eugene of Savoy’s career that toes a central line for the most part, and you have to keep in mind that some of Eugene’s military achievements were truly astonishing. Falkner also points out Eugene’s faults, particularly his seeming ambivalence, or negligence, of courtly politics with unfortunate personal results. Falkner is also even-handed in establishing the context for Eugene’s career, with Vienna looking east at the Ottoman threat as much as anything coming from France. That reduces the anglophile emphasis on Eugene and Marlborough so common in books relating to this pivotal era in European history. If you don’t know Eugene of Savoy but keep hearing his name, then Falkner’s biography is a solid and reliable place to start.