Louis XIV: The French Army II

It was the existence of this reserve of ex-officers which enabled France to mobilize so swiftly in 1666, and when peace came in 1668, the officers alleged to have been demobilized were in fact secretly absorbed into the permanent formations.

But it was on the young entry into the officers’ corps that Louvois pinned his faith, and with them he spared no pains. In 1682 the old casual system of attaching a youngster to a regiment to pick up what he could (usually bad habits) whilst the family lawyer haggled over a company for him, was abolished and its place taken by a modem system of military education. Nine cadet companies were formed in frontier towns, commanded by the governors of the places, each with an instructional stag for the benefit of the cadets. The idea being a complete novelty, the companies naturally suffered from teething troubles, but within a very short time they were already proving their worth. By June 1683 Louis admits that not even his Musketeers make a better show on parade than the Besançon company, and a year later the Cambrai company had already passed out some four hundred satisfactory young officers. The instruction given seems to have been good, and the syllabus extensive; drill, the manual, and musketry were the most important subjects, but in addition the cadets were taught dancing, fencing, riding, geography, and the principles of mathematics. But instruction in the latter subject seems to have left much to be desired, for Louvois complains in 1685 that he has examined four Longwy cadets and found them ignorant of the first rules of the subject.

Having set on foot a training scheme for the officers, Louvois turned his attention to the problem of the men: and here too he found an ample field for the exercise of his abilities. The first thing to be done was to improve the quality of the recruit, and it is interesting to notice that Louvois at Versailles and Montecuculi at Vienna hold the same view. Both insist that the time is gone by when a satisfactory army can be manufactured out of the dregs of the people, and both are anxious to secure a better stamp of recruit. Louvois tackled the problem by tightening up the recruiting regulations, giving increased powers to the army Intendants, and improving the private soldier’s opportunities and status. Recruits were enlisted on a written attestation, and for a fixed period of four years’ service: they must be physically fit, either bachelors or widowers, and under forty years of age: if intended for the Maison du Roi, the man must be a Roman Catholic, over twenty-eight, and, if possible, a gentleman. If he is a gentleman he must have a minimum of two years’ service in some other corps, and if not a gentleman, a minimum of four years.

But in spite of Louvois’ exertions in this field, the quality of the recruits yielded by the overstrained economy of the country remained a constant preoccupation. As early as 1673 Louis XIV remarks that whilst he had plenty of men, they “were not of the quality needed for the capture of fortresses.” In 1676. Luxembourg complains that his recruits are “deplorable; a good half of them mere children, whom I shall have to send back to France.”

In 1683 the War Minister has to issue orders that soldiers must not be discharged because they are an inch or two under the average height of their comrades; the line infantry must not be measured with a tape as is done in the guards, he says. In 1689 Vauban urges a defensive campaign on the ground that the infantry is very different in quality from what it was in the last war, and almost at the same moment Duras writes from another front to complain about the quality of the cavalry. By 1690 the kidnapping of recruits in Paris had reached such proportions that the Lieutenant of Police is instructed to proceed against kidnappers with the utmost rigour. By 1703 Louis has found it necessary to offer five years’ total exemption from direct taxation to any man who will enlist on a three years’ engagement. The plain fact was that France, as then organized, simply had not got the manpower available to carry out the grandiose policy of Louis XIV.

Louvois was more successful in dealing with the abuse of direct peculation than he was in solving the recruiting problem. Under his reformed system the captain still received and issued the men’s pay as heretofore, but his pay roll was audited by the army Intendant: and if his accounts did not balance, he could think himself lucky if he escaped with a sentence to make good the deficiency by stoppages from his pay. At about the same time Louvois made a real effort to improve the status of the common man; the infantry sergeant and his cavalry equivalent, the maréchal de logis were given the rank of under-officers, thus exempting them from all punishment other than that inflicted by court martial, and a system of awards for gallantry and good service was instituted. The day of decorations, even for officers, is still far distant, but Louvois provided the perhaps more powerful incentive of financial easement; exemption from the most galling direct tax, the Taille, was awarded for periods ranging from six months to total exemption for life to those soldiers who had distinguished themselves.

In 1670 a uniform scale of pay was laid down for each arm of the service: and not only laid down, but actually paid, which did something to reduce the enormous amount of desertion which was ordinary in the armies of the period. And even Louvois did not succeed in stamping it out; in 1077 there were forty-two cavalry deserters in one day from Luxembourg’s army, and in a fortnight of the same year the Regiment Dauphin lost fifty men. In the following year the crack Regiment de Champagne had sixty-five deserters in ten days. As late as 1694 the evil was still widespread, and Louis XIV, in writing to one of his generals, says that the first step towards curing desertion is to see that the behaviour of the captains gives the men no excuse for deserting. But though desertion continued, and indiscipline was scotched rather than killed, Louvois undoubtedly raised the status of the rank and file, with beneficial effects on the efficiency of the army.

Nor were the King and his ministers without some sense of responsibility for the welfare of the men who paid so heavily for the advancement of Louis’ glory and Louvois’ reputation. In 1666 we find the King writing with his usual good sense on the subject of soldier’s allowances when in billets, and in the same year he orders extra pay for troops serving in plague areas. In 1664 Beaufort, commanding in Algeria, is instructed to “take the greatest care of the sick and wounded. Tell them how I feel for them in their sufferings, and assure them that their wounds will always be a powerful recommendation to my favour.”

And again to Beaufort in the same year: “I want to know if Captain Laurier leaves a wife and children, so that I may do something for them, being anxious that people shall see that those who die in my service continue to live in my memory.”

Nor did he overlook the then generally ignored problem of those discharged as unfit for further service; in 1672 the Order of St. Lazarus and Mount Carmel was reendowed and revivified for the benefit of indigent ex-officers, while in 1674 the Hôtel des Invalides was opened for ex-soldiers. Not that this was the first provision made for this class; the wounded soldier, called a donné, had, up to this, been billeted on a monastery, a system which was not without its inconveniences. The conversation and habits of the retired warrior had not tended to the edification of the younger brethren, and we may suspect that the cellarer found himself forced to write off a good deal of his stock to leakage. The religious orders gladly purchased exemption from the requirement to lodge destitute soldiers with an annual subscription to the new foundation of the Invalides. A beginning was also made in giving preferential treatment to the fit ex-service man by allowing this class a monopoly of the sedan-chair traffic in the royal palaces.

At the same time a vigorous and much needed effort was made to reform the field hospital services; and for the moment at any rate, with such success that in 1673 a wounded officer writes from Holland, “I could not be better off (than in this hospital) if I was in my mother’s house…and the same is true of the men” A very different state of affairs from that existing in the 1667 campaign when the men preferred to die in billets rather than be admitted to the hospital. But the radical unsoundness of the hospital organization engendered constant abuses, which could be checked, but not eradicated; for the hospitals were let out to contractors at a fixed rate per patient, and a dishonest contractor had therefore every inducement to spend as little as possible on the unfortunates in his charge. But with Louvois as Secretary of War, he did so at considerable risk; in 1683 the Secretary detects frauds being perpetrated by the hospital contractor of Alsace, and gives judgment in a letter to the Intendant. The offending contractor is to be led by the common hangman through every hospital ward in the province, wearing sandwich boards with the legend fripon public, after which he is to be banished for life.

If Louvois did not entirely succeed in his struggle to stamp out indiscipline, he at any rate never relaxed his efforts to do so; but circumstances, the whole tone of society, were against him. And, oddly enough, it was Louvois who was responsible for much of the indiscipline against which he himself strove. With a naïveté remarkable in so able a man, he imagined that it was feasible to incite French armies to commit murder, rape, robbery, and arson for so long as it suited his strategical objective, and that then, on the word “halt,” the troops would once more become models of soldierly discipline. It is some little consolation for the atrocities committed by Louvois’ orders in Holland in 1672 and in Germany in 1689 to know that the damage thereby done to French morale was a major factor in bringing about the ultimate ruin of his master’s plans.

When Louvois began to look into the question of regimental training, he found that it was not so much a reform that he had to make as a beginning. The first shock came when the commander of the Hungarian Expeditionary Force reported in 1664 that one of his chief difficulties was that many of his so-called trained soldiers had never fired a musket, and did not even know the theory of that cumbersome weapon. Musketry drill, and even musketry camps, made their appearance soon after this startling disclosure, and a rigorous inquisition into the state of the muskets of all regiments was made; those which did not conform to standard weight and measurement being withdrawn and replaced at the captain’s expense. Here, for once, Louvois shows himself a reactionary; the fusil, a more modern weapon, had already made its appearance when the French army was being rearmed with the musket. But Louvois would have nothing to do with the fusil; the musket was the traditional weapon of the French infantry, and to change, said Louvois, was to disarm: an argument with which we are not unfamiliar, even today. It was not until 1670 that he consented to the experimental introduction of four fusiliers into each infantry company. He was equally conservative over the pike, with which about a third of each company was armed until 1703, in spite of frequent reports that whenever the enemy infantry was routed in battle, the first thing the Frenchman did was to throw away his pike or musket and pick up an abandoned fusil. The obstinate retention of the pike is the more inexplicable, seeing that in 1687 Vauban had invented the bayonet, which gave the infantryman a musket and pike in one. Apropos of muskets, let us note a point arising out of the correspondence, which shows Louvois’ amazing capacity for entering into detail without, like Louis XIV, losing sight of major issues. In 1683 he circularizes inspectors of infantry on the advantage of having a leather pad sewn on to the left shoulder of the tunic to take the friction of the musket when on the march.

As late as 1688 the relative weakness of French fire power was still causing Louvois anxiety; in that year officers are ordered to provide themselves with muskets, to practise on the range, and to introduce company pool shooting-competitions. And in 1692 Louis is enquiring into the report that at Steenkirke the whole of the French fire power was produced by the fusiliers alone.

Cavalry was still, and for many years to come, considered to be the arm which won battles; the rôle of the infantry being to soften up the enemy line in preparation for the cavalry charge. Consequently, cavalry training was better understood and better carried out than that of the infantry. Cavalry camps were held annually, where new tactics and weapons were tried out, and one result was that in 1679 the sabre replaced the sword as the standard cavalry weapon. In the same year cavalry fire power had its modest beginnings in the addition of two carbineers to each squadron.

In dealing with problems of administration Louvois was as indefatigable and as fertile in expedients as in those of discipline and training: and if the administrative side of Louis XIV’s armies strikes us as amateurish, it is largely because we contrast it with the administration of today, instead of with that of Louis’ opponents. Louvois’ major contribution to the problem of field maintenance was the introduction of the magazine: one of those ideas which is so obvious, once someone else has thought of it. The magazine conferred a strategic power on Louis XIV’s armies which took Europe off its guard; hitherto it had been accepted as a law of nature that cavalry could not take the field until the spring herbage was sufficiently grown to supply it with forage. Now, thanks to magazines, French cavalry could both march and manoeuvre in any month of the year; and further, the existence of magazines helped to offset the French cavalry’s notorious extravagance in the matter of forage consumption. Certainly from 1693 on-wards there were authorized scales of forage issue, but an attention to such details was a clerkly activity unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

And the same attitude was taken towards the feeding of the troops. The staple ration of the French soldier was bread, and on the march, biscuit, the latter baked hard, with a hole in the middle, so that the ration could be strung on the bandolier. Of these biscuits, a soldier could carry enough for six days. But it never seems to have occurred to the officers to check consumption; at the first night’s halt the men would barter their biscuit for wine, with the result that a formation badly wanted at the front would be found immobile and three days’ march from its destination, having ran out of rations. One French general suggests as a remedy that the men should be given an allowance in cash instead of the biscuit ration; but it would seem unlikely that the French, or any other soldier of the period, would have wasted the money on bread. The Austrian Montecuculi is a strong advocate of the system of supply by contract; which suggests that either Montecuculi was very lucky in his contractors, or else took very little interest in his supply problems. If the regimental officer was careless about the conservation of rations, he could point to an equal and more criminal carelessness on the part of his superiors. When Boufflers defended Lille in 1708, he had to surrender for lack of provisions; but the shortage was caused by the issue of rations throughout the siege for the same number of men as on its opening day, no regard being paid to the very heavy casualties sustained by the defence. Indiscipline as well as negligence played its part in complicating the work of the French supply service; in 1673 the whole of Luxembourg’s army was put under stoppages of pay as a punishment for looting their own magazines. And where the troops did not loot, there was the ever present difficulty of the dishonest contractor; Berwick, commanding on the Spanish front in 1704, complains that his bread comes up bad, by reason of the contractor only half-baking it so as to make it weigh more.

Ration scales varied considerably according to the troop’s tasks and the resources of the terrain; the army in Lorraine in 1670 had an issue of fresh meat daily, Fridays excepted, but the general is told to make it clear to the men that meat is an extra to which they have no right, and which is given them by the King, and not by their captain. Again, in 1677, on the Rhine, the order is that each infantryman is to have one-third of a pound of meat daily, and each cavalryman a quarter: but while the infantry get a free issue, the value of the cavalryman’s ration is to be stopped from his pay. And the issue of meat is to cease as soon as there is an abundance of peas and beans. In 1690 the authorized meat issue is three pounds a week, free to the infantry, and at a reduced rate to the cavalry, while the Maison du Roi pay full contract price. Louis XIV is himself credited with one contribution towards solving the problem of rations in the field, that of introducing the portable oven, which in one day’s halt could bake enough bread for the next six days. I am inclined to suspect that this is truly his own idea; it is just the sort of administrative detail at which the King, nothing of a general, but an excellent junior staff officer, excelled.

Wherever we turn, we find the generals hampered by having to rely on the contract system for the performance of duties which are now regarded as an integral part of the functions of an army; even the artillery was, until 1672, a civilian commercial enterprise, in which the contractor hired soldiers to mount his batteries, and was paid so much for each gun brought into action, a system only one degree less bad than that obtaining in the contemporary Spanish army, where the contractor was paid for every time he moved a gun. The result naturally being that Spanish artillery was constantly on the move, and hardly ever in action. The supply and transportation of rations was organized also on a contractual basis, with results which were sometimes disastrous. In 1675 Maréchal de Créqui was beaten at Consaarbruck without having succeeded in bringing a single gun into action; the post mortem revealed the fact that the artillery contractor, expecting a quiet day, had lent his horses to the commissariat to bring in a convoy. And where were the commissariat contractor’s own horses? We are not told, but I have a strong suspicion that they were out on hire to the neighbouring farmers. The whole system cried out, not for more detailed supervision from Versailles, but for the appointment of a general officer charged solely with the duties of administration in the field: and this solution seems to have occurred to no one. Each army had indeed its military Intendant, but that official was as overworked as his Home Office confrère, and was operating in a milieu unsuited to the technique of the civilian administrator. And the general, so far from regarding him as a member of his staff, usually was at daggers drawn with him, regarding the Intendant, not without reason, as a spy. In 1678 the War Minister writes to the Intendant of the army in Roussillon, “Your first duty is to let me know everything that is said, projected, and done in the army.”

At best, the general saw in the Intendant a superior sort of clerk, detailed to act as his man of business, whilst to Louvois and his successors, the Intendant was the channel through which they exercised control over the general; the situation was rich in opportunities for friction, and friction there was. Nor were the soldiers entirely to blame. In 1665 Louvois has to write to an Intendant thus: “A War Commissioner has no right to pretend to any command over troops, nor over the inhabitants of the district in which the army is operating…and if you do so, I shall be unable to uphold you.”

In 1669 the boot is on the other foot, and it is the Intendant who is energetically supported in his complaint that he has received nothing but paroles assez fâcheuses from an officer whose men’s weapons are in a bad state. Dozens of other examples could be quoted to show the difficulties of the precarious equilibrium which Louvois managed to impose on those uneasy bedfellows, the general and the Intendant.

In the sphere of higher tactics there was a latent weakness in the new model French army, which does not reveal its full danger until the second half of the personal reign. Remote and overcentralized control was the evil, and it had its birth not only in Louvois’ love of power, but in the history and character of the King himself. Two factors combined to imbue Louis XIV with the fatal notion that he could control battles and manoeuvres from his room at Versailles; firstly, his boyhood and youth had taught him the national danger, and what he felt even more deeply, the personal humiliation, which could be inflicted by semi-independent and potentially rebellious generals. If he could not reduce his commanders-in-chief to impotence as he had done his nobles, he could at least make sure that they should be ever conscious of the hand of the master. Secondly, Louis, like so many men, fancied his skill in the one sphere in which he was palpably at his worst, namely, that of a military commander; and, having a fine natural vanity, his easy successes when in command had convinced him that nothing was so easy as to be a successful soldier. Moreover, his generals, one of whose chief preoccupations was to keep the King away from the front, were constant in their flattering assurances to His Majesty that he could exercise the supreme command as easily from the palace as from his tent in the field. The soldiers thus kept the King at home in many campaigns, but at a heavy price; Louis took their flattery seriously; control from Versailles became ever stricter and more detailed until in Louis XIV’s last war, it was practically unknown for a general in the field to threaten an enemy place or even strike camp without sending off a courier to the King for his instructions. And by the time orders arrived, a change in the situation had rendered their execution impracticable. The performances of the French higher command in the 1701-12 war is a sufficient comment on the working of the theory of remote control.

But when all has been said, the reform, or rather the recreation, of the French army remains one of the most remarkable achievements of seventeenth-century France; the work of the pioneer is by its very nature imperfect, and those who look back on it tend to criticize what was left undone rather than to appreciate what was accomplished. And the accomplishment of the army created by Louvois was that it kept Louis XIV’s crown on his head in his last disastrous war, and quite possibly prevented the fall of the monarchy.


“The Army,” in W.H. Lewis’s book “The Splendid Century,”

1 thought on “Louis XIV: The French Army II

  1. The French army of the late 17th and 18th century regularly overperformed and held its own against superior enemy coalitions, even when on the offense (as they usually were). And now I know why. Very informative article!


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