Swiss in French Service

The Swiss connection to the French king that had begun in the fifteenth century grew even closer under Louis XIV; he employed them not only as regiments in the army, but also as his household guard. There were two units protecting the king, the Cent Suisses (literally the 100 Swiss), who were his bodyguards, together with the Gardes du Corps, of French birth; the Gardes Suisses, together with the Gardes Françaises, were responsible for guarding the palaces. There were also eleven Swiss regiments which served valiantly in every war, adapting to the technological changes swiftly—dropping the traditional Swiss pike for the musket and bayonet even though this meant accommodating themselves to a minor role in the larger armies of the 18th century.

Swiss regiments were often employed where Frenchmen were reluctant to serve. For example, they helped garrison the fortress of Louisbourg on the God-forsaken coast of Nova Scotia. This was a location beloved of fishermen, who could dry their catch on the rocky shores, but no one else. Even before the siege by American colonial troops in 1745, the garrison was mutinous, but it fought well enough that if reinforcements had been able to arrive by sea, the fortress would not have fallen. It was, after all, the French Gibraltar in the Americas; and it was recovered in the peace treaty!

The Swiss Guards could probably have thwarted the most violent excesses of the French Revolution if King Louis XVI had been willing to approve the timely use of force against the mobs raging through Paris and other cities. However, the gentle king was reluctant to allow the army to fire on Frenchmen. In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable: on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob, believing that a counter-revolution was underway, marched on the Bastille, once the east gate of the city, but later converted into a seldom-used prison. Its military function had long since disappeared except as a gunpowder depot and housing for some eighty invalid soldiers. The prisoners, it turned out, were not victims of royal anger, but a handful of common criminals, religious dissidents and prominent malcontents; moreover, it could hold only about fifty inmates.

The Bastille’s evil reputation as a prison spoke more to popular dislike of royal absolutism than actual mistreatment—visitors were frequent, card games were allowed and there was even a billiard table. The food may have been more plentiful than tasty, but notables incarcerated there had fared well. Confinement itself, the isolation from the lively world outside, that was what made the Bastille feared; that and the knowledge that the king could imprison anyone for any length of time, without any judicial process (the infamous lettres de cachet)—the fact that this rarely occurred does not seem to have bothered anyone, certainly not to anyone who had ever heard the Marquis de Sade shouting down from the tower walks that the governor was intent on massacring all the prisoners. It was taken apparently as a matter of course that a governor would allow such behaviour; as was well-known, the Old Regime was not very well organised.

The Parisians’ march on the Bastille was merely the culmination of a process that had begun days before. As Simon Schama described the events in Citizens, crowds celebrating the removal of the unpopular minister, Necker, had got out of control. The first attempt by the authorities to disperse the mob in the centre of Paris had failed, the cavalrymen retreating to the Tuileries—at that time joined to the Louvre to make one vast palace. The crowd then grew in size and began looting shops selling guns, swords and knifes, then bakeries, and finally tearing holes in the wall surrounding the city in hopes of attracting tax-free food from the country. It was at this moment, Schama says, that Paris was lost to the monarchy.

Still, it did not look hopeless to contemporaries. Although the king was informed that the French troops could not be relied upon, his German and Swiss units might be. This estimate was soon outdated—80,000 citizens marched on the Invalides, the military hospital and arsenal across the Seine. There they seized 30,000 muskets and the powder that had not been sent to the Bastille. The foreign troops encamped only a few hundred yards away made no move to stop them.

The government, at last realising that the Parisian mob was dangerous, dispatched Swiss troops to hold the key points in the city. Thirty-two went to the Bastille, a number that could have held the fortress until help arrived, if the government had been willing to do so. A crowd of about a thousand gathered in front of the Bastille, warning the commander that they intended to arm themselves from the weapons stored there and that he might as well surrender.

The commander, Bernard-René de Launay (1740-89), had been born in the Bastille when his father had commanded the garrison there. His force—if it could be called that—consisted of about eighty aged veterans, some invalids. The Swiss reinforcements would be sufficient as long as the mob lacked artillery. Therefore, he refused to open the magazines as the leaders of the mob demanded.

The ensuing chaos was witnessed in part by Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the American ambassador. He described the storming of the Bastille, remarking that there were so many different stories of the event that none of them could be believed. What is clear is that the ropes to the drawbridge were cut during the negotiations. That allowed the mob to stream across. When someone began firing, the confusion turned into a battle royal, that is, royalist troops versus Parisians who were becoming republicans. Though the rioters managed to break into the courtyard, they made little further headway against the handful of Swiss troops until a unit of the Gardes Françaises arrived with two cannon. This elite unit had been plagued by desertions for months; now, in the critical moment, it went over completely to the people. The garrison, already out of water and realising that no rescue was coming, then reconsidered its situation and surrendered. As the troops tried to march away, however, the mob fell on them, lynching the commander and several soldiers. Most of the Swiss Guards, having taken off their uniforms, were mistaken for prisoners and ‘liberated’.

Few realised that the Bastille was already on a list of fortresses to be demolished, to be converted into a public park. As the Parisians tore down the impressive building and carried away its bricks for private use, Louis XVI travelled from Versailles to Paris, with a tricolour ribbon on his chest to indicate his adherence to the revolutionary cause. Only a few months later a mob of women protesting the cost of bread (an event that should have been expected, considering the disorders in the countryside) made the royal family prisoners.

In June 1791 the king made an attempt to flee the country, to join counter-revolutionaries in the Holy Roman Empire. At a checkpoint near the border, however, he stuck his head out of the carriage window to ask what the delay was about. Since his profile was on every coin in France, he was easily recognised. As the armies of Prussia and Austria, supported by troops raised by exiled officers, pressed into northeastern France, the National Assembly became persuaded that unless the king and the remaining nobles and royal officials were dealt with, the Revolution would fail. However, the king was still protected by his bodyguard and the Revolutionary Army was at the frontiers.

By August 1792 the situation of the king was critical. Armed volunteers from around France were streaming toward Paris, singing La Marseillaise and looking for royalists to murder. One group ran in with the Irish regiment commanded by Theobald Dillon (1745-92), the last of the line of exiles to serve the French king; the Irish mistook the militia for Austrian troops supposed to be hurrying to rescue Louis XVI’s queen, who was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Dillon became separated from his men, was captured, then murdered and mutilated. Word of this atrocity spread to all the foreign troops, especially to the Swiss, who were now Louis XVI’s last hope.

On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, the foremost royal residence in Paris. The palace was defended by 900 red-coated Swiss troops, but running out of ammunition, the best they could do was to delay the mob sufficiently until the royal family escaped. As the immense building was consumed by flames, the defenders who managed to stagger outside were massacred. Over six hundred died; about two hundred perished in prison or were later executed.

In retrospect, we can see that the Swiss mercenaries had not expected to be slaughtered in the brutal manner that soon became normal for ‘the terror’. It was, as Schama remarked, the logical consummation of the revolution that had begun in 1789; bloodshed was not a by-product of the revolution, but provided the energy that moved it forward. Soon afterwards the National Assembly dismissed all Swiss troops and sent them home. The king was thenceforth helpless. Louis XVI thus lost his head twice—once in making poor decisions, the second time to the guillotine.

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