The Thirty Years War had created across Europe immense fatigue, as well as immense fear. Reports on the devastation of the Germanic states vary, but a huge percentage of the population died and the physical and economic recovery took decades. Attempts were made to alleviate similar future suffering at the hands of marauding mercenaries by the widespread adoption of “rules of war” codified by Hugo Grotius. The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the war in 1648 had some of its foundations built on these rules. The primary goal was to stop making civilians victims of warfare, and the rise of professional armies that individuals such as Gustavus Adolphus implemented went a long way toward achieving that goal. The nation that set the pattern for increasing professionalism was not Sweden (whose star waned after Gustavus fell) but France.
France’s suffering in the war had been more financial than otherwise, since the war was not fought on its soil. Still, the superior performance of professionals had been proven and, after a bit of its own civil war, the government began taking serious measures to upgrade the military. This began at roughly the same time a new monarch came to the throne, Louis XIV. He had the assistance of two able administrators who completely reworked the nature of France’s military structure. In 1668 Michel le Tellier was appointed to the post of secretary of state for military affairs; he was aided and ultimately succeeded in this position by his son, Francois Michel Tellier, better known as the Marquis de Louvois, who orchestrated the transformation of the army into a truly royal force, and became the first great civilian minister of war in any country. One of his major accomplishments (though not completely fulfilled) was to address the corruption among army officers. It was not uncommon to list more manpower in one’s unit than actually existed, in order to be provided with more money and supplies. Limited inspection visits made this easy, even though it could prove dangerous in wartime when one expected to field an army of a certain size when such numbers did not exist. Further, having responsible soldiers (rather than the traditional prison recruits) became a priority. Advancement became possible through merit and not just birth or purchase of a commission.
Up-to-strength units received the best possible training and supplies. In order to accomplish the second item, the ministry developed a system of supply magazines. Regular food on campaign meant no need to pillage, which both maintained positive civil relations and gave soldiers fewer opportunities to leave camp, something that usually resulted in unmilitary activities and behavior. What Gustavus had tried to implement, regular food and pay, became established and successful policy under the French regime, which did much to expand the army significantly as well as increase the number of talented officers through the merit system. Other countries had to follow suit or be completely at France’s mercy.
The infantry made up about one-fourth of the French army. Foot soldiers were organized by the turn of the century into battalions of thirteen companies of 40–50 men each, armed with matchlocks or flintlocks. The transition from the older, heavier, less dependable weapon had not completely taken place by 1700. Indeed, in the French army it almost did not take place at all. For some reason King Louis XIV disliked flintlocks, even for a time ordering they be abandoned, but luckily for him cooler heads convinced him otherwise. The flintlock offered an increased rate of fire, two to three shots per minute as opposed to two shots in three minutes with the matchlock. Without the need to worry about a long, burning fuse, soldiers needed less space to reload, so they could be lined up in tighter formations, increasing the firepower. There was another area in which the French had not advanced, and that was their rejection of the paper cartridge, carrying both powder and ball. Most other European armies had adopted the paper cartridge used by Gustavus. The French continued to deploy their men in five or six ranks, better for resisting attacks but not designed to put as much lead in the air as fewer ranks would have allowed.
Two new things appeared among the French infantry under Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century. One was the socket bayonet invented by the fortification-engineering genius Sebastian Vauban, which led to the death of the pike. Earlier attempts at using bayonets resulted in the plug type, which was stuck in the barrel and therefore prevented the weapon from firing. A ring bayonet merely slipped over the barrel and easily fell off. Vauban’s device slipped over a lug that held the bayonet in place once it was rotated. With the bayonet’s ability to provide the sharp points that charging horses did not want to encounter, the pikeman was removed from the field by 1700. Thus, everyone on the line now had a musket, increasing firepower even more. The second was the introduction of the grenadiers, who along with their standard weaponry of flintlock, bayonet, sword, and hatchet carried 12–15 grenades. These were hollow iron shells filled with gunpowder, which had first appeared in the Middle Ages. In 1667 four men from each infantry company were trained in throwing grenades and termed “grenadiers”; four years later one company of grenadiers was assigned to each battalion. Physically large and strong, they became an elite soldiery designated for difficult assignments.
French cavalry was divided into three classes. Louis XIV’s time witnessed the introduction of cavalerie légère or light cavalry, which used to be the heavy cavalry. It was renamed because the new cavalrymen did not wear heavy armor as previously. In 1690 came the introduction of modern light cavalry, the hussars. The third class was the dragoons, or mounted infantry. Each carried a musket, pistol, saber, and shovel. The shovel meant that he could entrench himself just like regular infantry, but with his horse he could also be used in long-distance service such as transport escort. Regular cavalry were equipped with a sword with a three-foot straight blade, two flintlock pistols carried in saddle holsters, and a shorter musket called a carbine. Just as the grenadiers became elite infantry, Louis’s army introduced elite cavalrymen in the form of carabiniers who were given rifled carbines. In October 1690 they were formed into their own company. In late 1693 these companies were grouped into a new unit called Royal Carabiniers, 100 companies strong—a sort of elite reserve cavalry division.
In spite of the return of power tactics with the cavalry of Gustavus Adolphus’s Swedes, the French retained many of the older practices. The French cavalry was not used for shock, as Gustavus had used his, but as mobile musketeers. Just as in the older cavalry, they attacked in the caracole, using pistols or carbines. The main difference was that the horsemen now fired in volleys of three ranks, expanding their firepower somewhat. The French tended to mass their cavalry on the wings with the infantry arrayed in the center. Nothing special is indicated in the early seventeenth-century sources about French artillery, an interesting omission, since artillery became one of the French specialties by the middle of the eighteenth century.
The English and Dutch armies were organized along virtually parallel lines, which is probably not surprising given their common head of state. They were not, however, anywhere near as large as that fielded by Louis. Neither England nor the Dutch Republic could call up military force on a whim, since both had elected governments that held the purse strings. The Dutch army was far larger than that of England, since the Dutch had been fighting for generations, first against Spain and more recently against France. King James had attempted to increase and professionalize the English army, but his thinly concealed religious motives kept Parliament from allowing much of anything beyond a national defense force. When William came to the throne in 1688 the total enlistment was roughly 35,000–40,000 men, of which some 11,000 were based in the Netherlands. It had a number of veterans from the wars against the Dutch in the 1670s and more recently in the suppression of rebellion in Ireland. In order to assist his home country he expanded the English army to as many as 60,000, though many of them fought in Ireland. After the War of the League of Augsburg ended in 1697, the army was reduced to a mere 7,000.
English infantry, like the French, had thirteen companies to a battalion, twelve of foot and one of grenadiers, each company numbering 60 men at full strength. They also carried the flintlock, which had a maximum range of about 250 yards though only a 50–60 yard effective range. They too used the socket bayonet and thus had relegated the pike to a ceremonial weapon for officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Unlike the French, they deployed in an extended line only three ranks deep, all of which fired. The major difference in tactics was that the battalion was arranged into platoons. When the battalion was deployed (with half the grenadier company on either flank) it was divided into eighteen equal sections, or “platoons.” As the enemy came into range, instead of firing by ranks, six of the platoons spaced through the battalion fired their muskets and then began reloading. The second set of six platoons would then fire and begin the reloading process, followed by the third firing of platoons. Having one-third of the battalion firing at a time meant a round of gunfire would normally take about thirty seconds, at which time the first platoon was ready to begin the process again; thus, an almost constant fire was maintained. This allowed the NCOs to keep their platoon under control, and one-third of the force was always loaded and ready for unexpected developments. In most battles, however, this was more theory than reality. Once combat started the excitement began to outweigh the discipline, and the platoon fire broke down into individuals shooting their muskets as soon as reloaded rather than waiting for the command. Although Marlborough did not institute this practice—it had grown out of Gustavus’s army—he insisted on year-round drills and practices with live ammunition, both in season and out, and thus helped create the most devastating infantry in Europe. Usually no more than a few minutes of this kind of firing was sufficient to break the morale or formation of most opponents. The following bayonet charge then tended to be decisive. This constant practice and maintenance of unit cohesion was one of Marlborough’s keys to victory.
His cavalry tactics, like those of the Dutch, also grew out of Gustavus’s philosophy. The English cavalry were divided into horse and dragoon units, light cavalry not coming into play until later. The horse soldiers were organized into troops of 40–60 troopers (three troops to a squadron) and armed with straight sword, pistol, and sometimes carbine. As the Swedes had done, Marlborough rejected the caracole tactic; instead he trained his Anglo-Dutch cavalry in the true cavalry charge with cold steel, but delivered at a fast trot with his squadrons knee-to-knee in two ranks. The momentum of the charge was sustained by the reserve squadrons. He had so little faith in the firepower of cavalry (and so much in the shock value) that his troopers were allowed no more than three pistol balls each. Marlborough tended to keep a fairly large cavalry reserve and use them for the breakthrough assault and pursuit.
Like the French dragoons, the English were mounted infantry with a variety of roles. Described in the field manuals of the day as “mounted musketeers,” they were to assist wherever needed. Like the French they were used both on the battlefield and for detached duty as well as some engineer duty, clearing obstacles and such. At the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession, the English had fifteen regiments of horse and nine of dragoons. The Austrian imperial army also employed hussars, light horsemen for reconnaissance and harassment.
While the English artillery was little different from that of any other nation of the time, Marlborough gave it special attention. The siege guns were still too large to be hauled around with the army on campaign, so the largest guns on the battlefield would be 6- or 9-pounders. Marlborough spent time situating his cannons and developed the tactic of moving them forward after the opening volleys of an engagement. He also added smaller guns, 1.5-pounders and 3-pounders, to increase battalion firepower. The 3-pounder could fire solid cannon balls to a range of about 450 yards and grapeshot to about 300 yards, though it was usually reserved for close-in fighting. Getting the increased firepower onto the field, and siting the guns himself at times, meant that Marlborough could readily assist his infantry and cavalry operations. He had an average of 100 guns at each of his four great victories, Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet. This meant usually 1.34 guns per thousand men.
While Marlborough was commander of Dutch forces only when they were serving alongside the English forces, he also had Austrian troops. Austria had come out of the Thirty Years War politically strong, and the emperor had maintained a standing army after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Austria had been busy, however, with regular offensives against the Ottoman Empire as well as acquiring, then trying to hold on to, Hungary. This meant that the imperial army was spread thin, having to operate in the Balkans and Italy as well as trying to stymie Louis’s aspirations toward empire. Thus, it was a veteran army but one stretched to the limit by enemies and the time committed to various wars. The cavalry became the best arm of the Austrian army. It was that army that introduced the modern light cavalry, the hussars, which were of Magyar origin and used for skirmishing and reconnaissance. Luckily for the Austrians, and for Marlborough, they had the services of a general who was virtually Marlborough’s equal, and some think his tactical superior: Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Although the Savoy territory was under French authority and Eugene’s mother had been mistress to Louis XIV, he had been rejected from French military service. A slim boy, described by Spencer as “effeminate,” he just did not look like a soldier, and Louis quite brusquely told him so. Instead, Eugene offered his services as an eighteen-year-old with no experience to the Austrian government and from his first combat showed remarkable bravery. He also developed into as good a strategist and tactician as was active in the era. He and Marlborough became fast friends and fought together at Blenheim and Oudenarde.
The Austrians suffered a serious disadvantage in matters like supply, equipment, and above all numbers. While not particularly innovative, however, the army had marvelous commanders and an emperor who trusted them. During the War of the League of Augsburg, Eugene fought the French in Italy and handled them severely. Finally realizing his mistake in dismissing the young Eugene, King Louis is said to have offered him a marshal’s position, the principality of Champagne, and a huge pension, all of which Eugene rejected. From 1697 to 1699 he fought the Turks and defeated them decisively at Zenta in September 1697.
As for French generals, the great ones by this time had passed on. Marshal Count Turenne was the class of his era and certainly Marlborough was glad to have served under his command and picked up some lessons. His immediate predecessor (and rival during the French civil wars) was Louis de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé, also known as “The Great Condé.” Both had risen to high command near the end of the Thirty Years War and had also fought in the various conflicts with the Dutch. The master of siege warfare, both offensive and defensive, was Sebastian Vauban, but he was far more an engineer and master of siegecraft than a combat commander. Still, Louis’s army was not without some talent, although his generals tend to be overshadowed by Marlborough and Eugene. Some, like the dukes of Tallard, Villeroi, and Bourgogne were political appointees with little to recommend them, but some, the duc de Villars and duc de Vendôme in particular, had real talent.