Louis XIV: The French Army I

The Marquis de Louvois, Né François Le Tellier (1641-1691) is not only one of the most important figures in French military history, but also in that of Western Europe; in addition to forging the weapon which enabled Louis XIV to carry out his policy of calculated aggression, he created the type of army whose tactical and administrative methods remained virtually unchanged until the coming of the mechanical age. He found himself confronted with a feudal army and transformed it into a modem one.

When Louis XIV took over the reins of government in 1661 it was merely a polite fiction to speak of the land forces as “the King’s army”; they were nothing of the sort. It was an army in which the King was, at best, one of the principal shareholders, and in the control of which the traditional status of the Crown gave him a casting vote. But as the majority of the regiments were not his property, his control was by no means absolute, and that of his War Secretary was practically non-existent. The armies which under Louis XIII and Mazarin had fought Spain, were a hard-bitten, hard-fighting, undisciplined, ill-fed, badly paid rabble, held together by the prestige of famous generals and colonels, living by loot and extortion, things of horror and terror to the civilian population, friend and foe alike. Such discipline as existed was maintained by sudden wholesale hangings, alternating with long periods of absolute licence in which even officers’ persons and property were not secure against the attacks of their own men. The officers, generally speaking, were as insubordinate as the troops, and once an army had been got together and sent to the front, the control of the central government often practically ceased to operate; indeed the government’s most obvious and urgent care was to get the army out of the metropolitan provinces with all possible speed, before their presence raised a revolt.

Hand in hand with indiscipline went corruption; it was the golden age for the military peculator, and there were few officers who did not see in a campaign a heaven-sent opportunity to reimburse themselves for their considerable capital outlay. Nor was there any efficient method of checking and punishing the officer’s dishonesty, for he was not in our sense of the word a King’s officer at all; he was an investor, who had bought a regiment or company as another man might buy a farm or a block of Paris municipal bonds; and ratification of purchase, and the subsequent grant of a commission lay not in the hands of the King but in those of two military viziers, the Colonel-General of Cavalry and the Colonel-General of Infantry, both of whom, by the way, had as likely as not bought their posts, and were now recouping themselves by collecting a brokerage on the purchase and sale of commissions. Like stock exchange values, the prices of commissions fluctuated considerably; only a very few corps d’élite were maintained in peacetime; so when peace was in the air, the price of all commissions fell heavily, while the market value of those in the new regiments fell to nothing. For the state admitted no obligation to recompense the holders of commissions in disbanded regiments; as on the stock exchange, the rule was caveat emptor. It would have been odd in the circumstances if every officer had not joined his unit determined to make hay whilst the sun shone; for his expenses were high, and the legitimate return on his investment low. For instance, in 1689 companies in the French guards were selling at rather over 3,000 louis d’or; it is true that a guards captain held the honorary rank of colonel in the army, and his pay seems to have been 12 louis d’or odd a month, as against some 4 louis d’or in the line infantry. And there was the further advantage that when army funds ran out, as they had a habit of doing in that unorganized age, it was the guards who got any money that was going, while the line was left to live as best it could; or in other words at the expense of the district in which they were quartered. But even when we take into consideration the relative security of tenure of the guards officer, a return of under five per cent on a highly speculative investment is a poor one.

Still, it was not pay but peculation that formed the bulk of an officer’s income, and his opportunities for making a little on the side, as the Americans say, were many. To begin with, it must be understood that the state did no recruiting; that was the business of the captain. The state paid the soldier’s pay, more or less irregularly, into the hands of the captain, who, in return for a recognized percentage of the sum received, and his recruiting grant, undertook to enlist, equip, clothe and feed say a hundred men. But though he received a fixed rate of pay per man, he in fact made the most advantageous bargain he could with his recruits, and when he had enlisted a hundred of them, marched his company to the assembly quarter to be inspected by the commissioner of war. For each recruit on parade he received about 2 louis d’or in the infantry, and nearly 10 louis d’or in the cavalry; and there appears to have been no check that the company which joined the regiment was of the same strength as that which had appeared on the muster parade. An arrangement better calculated to promote fraud could hardly be devised, and most officers took full advantage of it; as late as 1668 Luxembourg reports that if swindles were perpetrated by a few officers, he could take disciplinary action against them, but that he has in fact hardly one honest officer serving under him. And Rochefort, in the same year, ends a report on the same subject with the airy consolation that it is an evil which time alone can cure.

An obvious fraud was that the company commander could and did retain more than his legal percentage of the pay, and, in extreme cases, pocketed the lot. But this rather elementary swindle had the inconvenient result that the company usually deserted en masse, and even a seventeenth-century colonel was apt to object to a company whose captain was its only member. So the more intelligent contented themselves with the profit to be made out of passe volants. Under this system, the captain who was receiving pay for a hundred men, would in fact pay and maintain perhaps sixty, annexing the money of the imaginary forty. Inspections were few and far between, commissioners of war were conveniently blind, and their visits well-advertised beforehand; on the day of the muster a collection of valets, grooms, and beggars would be issued with musket and bandolier, and would shuffle along behind the real soldiers. The commissioner would sign the muster roll, the stage soldiers would be dismissed with a pourboire, and the captain could put the whole matter out of his mind for another twelve months. If word came down that the commissioner was of a tiresomely observant and inquisitive disposition, it was merely necessary to give what Pooh-Bah calls a touch of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative by borrowing forty real soldiers from the nearest regiment; for as there were no uniforms, there was nothing to expose the deception which was being practised, especially as all the men on parade were obviously soldiers. The fraud was not, one must admit, peculiar to the French service; Montecuculi, the Austrian commander, in his memoirs, complains bitterly of it, and advises that the captain who employs passe volants be “chastiz’d with the utmost rigour”: but he is silent as to the means to be employed.

There is some excuse for the juniors in that the examples set in the most exalted circles were not calculated to promote professional integrity; in 1641 that curious ruling prince, Charles IV de Lorraine, found himself short of cavalry horses, and without means of buying any. Nothing daunted, he raised the cry of the Church in danger, convened his clergy, and made them an eloquent address in the principal church of his capital. While he was so doing, his troopers stole all the horses of the assembled ecclesiastics. Again, the raising of contributions in enemy territory was a legal and normal method of subsisting an army in wartime; but it was notorious that many generals remitted to the War Office much smaller sums than they had extorted from the occupied area. And, of course, where the general was known to be feathering his nest, naturally each collecting officer did likewise.

The military aspect of the passe volant abuse was an even more serious matter than the financial, for it meant that a commander took the field in complete ignorance of the effective strength of his army. To be sure, he had the daily strength returns; but what percentage of the men inscribed thereon really existed? Was his army ten, twenty, or even forty per cent below its nominal strength? It follows from this state of affairs that we must be very cautious in accepting battle casualty figures in the earlier part of the century; for the captain whose company had a nominal strength of a hundred and an effective strength of seventy would undoubtedly, if he could manage to get his men under fire at all, report that he had lost thirty men in action when perhaps he had had no losses at all.

Sometimes the ingenious company commander would turn his attention from his men to their equipment; two company commanders would decide that in peacetime, with a little management, one set of muskets and bandoliers would suffice for both companies. They would then sell one set for their common profit, lending each other what was necessary for muster days. Then too, some little assistance could be got from the use of the soldiers’ rations in garrisons where these were provided by the King and not the company commander; a pack of hounds, for instance, was found to thrive on soldiers’ biscuit. And, of course, the immediate consequences of such a theft was a further outbreak of the chronic evils of desertion and looting. In the cavalry, the wide-awake officer found that there were pickings to be made out of the forage ration; it was a simple matter to loot corn for the horses from the countryside, and sell the King’s corn to the commissary, who in turn sold it to the army bread contractor. Well may a contemporary complain that the ill-conduct of the officers “frequently produces very fatal inconveniences.”

This glimpse of the old-style army will give us some idea of the colossal problem which confronted Louvois in 1665, when at the age of twenty-four he threw himself into the work of reforming the service. To the task he brought an energy, a clear-sightedness, and a brutality which was to make him the most feared and hated man in France, but, on the whole, the greatest administrator of the reign, not even excepting Colbert. For he had behind him the enthusiastic backing of Louis XIV, upon which his rival could never absolutely depend.

Louvois was not the man to batter his head against a brick wall: he had a clear perception of the possible and the impossible, and he wasted no time in attempting to abolish the sale of commissions. But he determined that the King should in future have some say in the conditions of purchase and the qualifications of the purchaser.

At the very outset he was cheered by an unexpected piece of good fortune: the Duc d’Epemon, Colonel-General of the Infantry, died in 1661, and Louis himself assumed the vacant post of colonel-general. Henceforth, every infantry officer thus held his commission direct from the King, and that document was countersigned by the Secretary of War. To be sure, the Colonel-General of Cavalry and the Grand Master of the Artillery still remained in office, but their positions had been fatally weakened by the disappearance of their colleague, and Louvois, sapping and mining with unwearied patience, lived, to see their functions become purely decorative. Though, this being the ancien régime, they of course never lost the salaries paid them for the duties they had ceased to perform. Louis XIV took his colonel-general’s functions seriously, and indeed, as was his wont, rather lost sight of the wood for the trees. The officer’s confidential report may be said to have come into existence with his assurance to Coligny in 1664 that no one shall be informed of the tenor of Coligny’s remarks on the officers under his command: and by 1673 such reports are common, and have about them a very modern ring. “D’Espagne,” writes Luxembourg in that year, “is a brave man, and admirably fitted for a subordinate position; but he has not the qualifications to fit him for an independent command.” This is very well, but we must feel that the King is usurping the functions of his subordinate commanders when in 1676 he not only selects the town major of Aire, but winds up by saying, “for the minor appointments I wish to have men from the Guards: but I have not yet chosen them.”

Having, through the King, secured control of the infantry officers, Louvois’ next care was to attack the passe volant evil, and simultaneously with it, the general financial laxity which pervaded the whole army. Purchase of commissions in the Gardes du Corps he did succeed in suppressing, but that very minor reform of a fundamentally vicious system was all that he attempted directly. Indirectly, he tried to combat the evil by ensuring that, all other things being equal, the purchase of regiments and companies should be reserved for wealthy men who would have little temptation to indulge in petty larceny, while at the same time opening a new ladder of promotion to the keen but needy officer. The army, as he found it, knew no other ranks than ensign or comet, lieutenant, captain, colonel, and general, all of which, up to and including a colonel, were venal posts. In modern language Louvois did not introduce any new ranks, but instituted two important and unpurchaseable appointments, those of lieutenant-colonel and major, filled by merit alone, and qualifying the holder for promotion to die rank of general officer. It was, and was intended to be, a severe blow to the members of the old regimental hierarchy; the lieutenant-colonel, technically the colonel’s deputy, tended more and more as time went on to exclude the colonel from any detailed control of the regiment, and to place him in something like the position now occupied by the colonel of a regiment in our present-day army. The major held no command, but was responsible for the supervision of the officers, discipline, training, and administration; he was, as we should say, adjutant and quartermaster combined, and was assisted by one or more subalterns called aide-majors. In 1667 and 1668 came a further innovation, the introduction of brigadiers, whose functions then were the same as today; but to become a brigadier it was not necessary to have been a colonel, and a colonel who became a brigadier did not relinquish the command of his regiment.

With the introduction of brigadiers, the two ladders to the top of the tree are now complete: ensign, lieutenant, captain, colonel, brigadier, for the wealthy man; ensign or the ranks, aide-major, major, lieutenant-colonel, brigadier, for the needy. For it is a great mistake to imagine that the officer of the second half of the seventeenth century was invariably a noble who had entered direct by purchase; Maréchal de Catinat was not noble, and Maréchal Fabert was a ranker, to name only two exceptions.

In 1674 one Sergeant Lafleur of the Regiment de Dampierre, is mentioned for distinguished service in Holland; whereupon Louis XIV writes to his general, “His Majesty desires that Lafleur be promoted lieutenant in the Regiment de Dampierre when there is a vacancy, and that in the meantime he be given a gratuity of five hundred livres.” When St. Simon is serving in the Royal Roussillon Regiment in 1693, he mentions Boissieux, comet of his troop, who “had started life as a swineherd, and had raised himself by sheer merit; though old, he had never learned to read or write. He was one of the best scouts in the army….We all liked and respected him, as did our Generals.” I quote the case, not as being in any way exceptional, but because St. Simon is the speaker; had the case been exceptional, the waspish little duke would have spoken very differently about the obligation to treat such a man as a brother officer. As a matter of fact, the number of rankers one meets with in Louis XIV’s armies is remarkable, and it would not surprise me to hear that the class was commoner in the French service in 1690 than the British in 1890. And promotion by the poor man’s road was very far from being a War Office dead letter, one of the King’s pious hopes; when in 1684 Louis created twenty-seven new infantry regiments, there was not one of the new colonels who had not been either a major or a lieutenant-colonel.

But it is time to turn to Louvois’ struggles with the passe volant, a struggle in which he was ultimately successful, because, unlike so many of his fellow bureaucrats, he did not content himself with issuing orders, but proceeded to enforce them. His first step was to cut off the supply of soldier impersonators; in 1663 a detected passe volant was flogged: in 1665 flogged and branded: and in 1667 the crime was made a capital one. Next it was the turn of the officer. Any soldier denouncing his captain for using passe volants is to be given his discharge and a gratuity of three hundred livres, provided by the stopping of that sum from the captain’s pay: and in addition, the offending officer is to undergo at least a month’s imprisonment. Next the heavy hand descends on the dishonest commissioner of war; in 1671 Louvois catches Commissioner Aubert at Dunkirk drawing a salary from the garrison for giving officers notice of his muster days—and Dunkirk knew Commissioner Aubert no longer. Belleisle was a distant garrison where a man might reasonably have hoped to live out his days as in the good old pre-Louvois times: but the rage for innovation does not spare even Belleisle. There the governor, instead of discharging a sergeant who has denounced a passe volant, has put him in arrest, and the news reaches the War Office. A month’s forfeiture of pay for the governor, three months’ for the town major, and cashiering for the captain says Louvois; adding that this is only an instalment of what the three may expect if the delator has any complaints to make about his treatment. And let them beware of showing any resentment against the commissioner who has reported the case. Here, by the way, we may correct a common impression that Louvois put the French army into uniform with the double object of checking desertion and destroying the passe volant Actually, Louvois rather disapproved of the idea, and so far from uniforms being “introduced,” they came into use at the whim of individual colonels, except in the case of the Maison du Roi, which had been clothed uniformly since 1664. It was not until 1682 that uniform was made compulsory, and even then, it was for officers only.

Whilst still keeping a vigilant eye on the administrative side of the service, Louvois now turned his attention to the hitherto almost totally neglected matter of training, particularly officers’ training. The officer, not only undisciplined but ignorant, did not take kindly to Louvois’ effort to improve the standard of his professional competence, but the young War Minister was both swift and merciless in his dealings with those who opposed him. Incompetents learned to their horror that their continued employment was conditional on the efficiency of their units; useless colonels and captains were tormented into selling out, and rebellious Marshals of France were sent to their estates to meditate on the unwisdom of trying to stem the tide of reform. Martinet and Fourilles, two of Louvois’ discoveries, were made, the one Inspector of Infantry, the other of Cavalry, and we may guess at the nature of their performance from the name which Martinet has bequeathed to our own military vocabulary; we have no difficulty in believing that he was “a man of rare merit and firmness.”

The inefficiency and insouciance of the officer of the earlier part of the century was largely due to the precarious tenure of his employment, and it seems to have been Louis XIV himself who, in seeking for a palliative to the situation, hit upon an elementary version of the modern army’s reserve system. Speaking of the demobilization of 1659, he says of the disbanded officers:

“Some of them had no means of subsistence but their profession, and I pitied their case…I put a number of them into the Musketeers, and formed the Dauphin’s Light Horse to absorb others, giving them in addition to their pay, pensions calculated on their past service…thereby having the means available to mobilize new units in next to no time.”


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