Officers, mid-17th century to early 18th century

During this period-with the notable exceptions of England and the United Provinces-monarchs in Europe increasingly took direct control of military affairs away from powerful noble military families and mercenary captains. As they did, better-supervised and more-professional officer corps slowly took shape on land and at sea. The progress of professionalization displacing mere class origin in selection and advancement of officers varied in terminology employed and historical timing in different kingdoms. In general, however, by the mid-17th century, men holding a commission signed by a king were known as “commission-officers.” By the early 18th century, this terminology shifted slightly to commissioned officers. That referred to any officer appointed by the crown-or the Admiralty in the case of the Royal Navy or one of five states’ admiralties of the Dutch Navy. At sea, commissioned officers included captains, commanders, and lieutenants. On land, this status comprised all ranks of field marshal and general as well as colonels in command of regiments. Below commissioned officers were warrant officers, who held rank by virtue of a warrant rather than a royal commission. These were staff or administrative appointments made by a regiment’s colonel or a ship’s captain. An exception was the small Prussian Army, wherein the “Great Elector” Friedrich-Wilhelm insisted on a veto of all officer choices made by his colonels. Warrant officer rank was most frequently awarded to Army chaplains and surgeons, and sometimes also to corporals and sergeants. Naval warrant officers included the master, quartermaster, boatswain, purser, and master carpenter. Holders of these four offices were also known as standing officers. Royal Navy warrants were issued by one of the naval boards.

The French Navy always found it difficult to recruit officers with seafaring skills. Service at sea was resisted by the aristocratic classes, who sought instead to serve in view of the king in the senior arm, the French Army. The Navy thus had only a small permanent officer corps, numbering fewer than 1,000 even if one counts the more than 600 ensigns. Most French sea officers in this period were either “roturiers” (of non-noble social origin) or “anoblis” (recently ennobled), or their sons. They learned seacraft in merchant ships or as privateers. Officers of more noble social origin acquired seamanship by serving on Mediterranean galleys of the Knights of Malta before commanding French galleys that remained part of the fleet based at Toulon. Some later rose to high rank and command of ships of sail. From the 1670s, French ensigns were trained in companies of Gardes marine set up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Many French sea officers switched over, or back, to privateering from 1695 as the Navy abandoned guerre d’escadre in favor of guerre de course. The Navy as a whole was nominally commanded by the “Admiral of France,” an ancient office that was revived in 1669 and given to a succession of the king’s illegitimate sons. Real operational command lay with activeduty admirals and two vice-admirals, one residing in Brest and the other based in Toulon. Below them were “lieutenants-general of the navy” and “chefs d’escadre,” roughly equivalent to the British rank of “commodore.”

From the time of Friedrich-Wilhelm, serfs laboring on Hohenzollern lands were recruited equally into the Prussian Army, while socially and economically privileged Junkers formed the bulk of the officer corps. Rigid social order found expression in a Junker’s desire to serve as an officer, which marked him off as socially superior to all others, and thereby reinforced rather than eroded his noble status. For a half century before 1700, Russian officers were mostly foreigners. This began to change even before Peter I imposed intense and fundamental Army reforms after ruthlessly suppressing the strel’sty. By 1675 there were many experienced Russian officers already serving in the Army; by 1695 Russians served in large numbers at all levels in new-formation units. In 1708 the majority of officers in all the tsar’s regiments were ethnic Russians or came from other of his subjects. Peter insisted on this, but also that no fewer than one third of his officers during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) must be experienced foreigners. Russian officers, too, were by then experienced in war, and were well trained in modern weapons and the new methods of warfare which Peter imported from Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United Provinces. In contrast, 15% of all Polish officers in 1650 were foreign. This number was important, however, since most Polish officers in the “National Contingent” army served a maximum of 10 years, and many did fewer than that. The Austrian Hofkriegsrat faced a much different problem, that of inherited officer commissions. It made some progress in professionalizing the officer corps when it abolished the sale of officer commissions early in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), during the presidency of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Hereditary promotions and sales of at least some commissions were standard for many middle-ranking officers and for most senior positions in most European armies of this era. Commissions were treated, and traded, as military investments. Some British Army officer commissions remained for sale well into the 19th century, until after the Crimean War. This probably reflected the position and prolonged influence of the Duke of Wellington, a man both rich and talented, who purchased a commission as lieutenant-colonel at age 23. The other problem in England, resolved only by the Glorious Revolution and complete military triumph of Protestantism across all Three Kingdoms in 1691, was the tendency of Charles II and his brother James II to appoint officers from a narrow slice of the population solely on the basis of Catholic loyalties rather than military competence. By 1688 about 10% of English officers were Catholics. Virtually all officers in Ireland under James were Catholic, following a purge of the Irish establishment by the Earl of Tyrconnel. Many Protestant officers deeply resented this assault on the property rights of their purchased commissions and deserted to William III within hours or days of his landing in England. The new king did not readily trust such men, however, and for years afterward, continued to rely on fellow Dutchmen or on German and other mercenaries. He truly trusted only those English and Scots officers who had previously served him in the Anglo-Dutch Brigade. For instance, Marlborough came under deep suspicion of divided loyalty and was imprisoned for a time. This situation changed slowly during the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). In 1706 a “Board of General Officers” was established to impose penalties or hear courts-martial of delinquent officers. This introduced a fresh element of professionalism to the British Army, even for gentlemen-officers.

The process of professionalization of the officer corps was much further and earlier advanced in France under Louvois and Louis XIV than in any other country of the time. The traditional independence of noble officers in France was severely eroded after the failure of their effort to retain privileges of their class, and the active treason of several senior commanders during the rebellion of the Fronde. Fresh standards were then imposed on even the most senior officers. The most important reform was to partly open the French officer “corps” (the word did not actually yet apply in its modern sense) to entry by men of low birth but real ability, though an old refusal of French nobles to serve under or to obey men who were regarded as social inferiors, even if they were also of noble birth, was slowly overcome. In 1675 Louis issued an “ordre de tableau” setting up a seniority list for French maréchals (of whom 51 were created between 1643 and 1715) to eliminate conflicts of command authority based on social rather than military rank.

This was part of a larger professionalization and reform undertaken by Louis and Louvois that established the modern system of ranks. Nobles still dominated the top commands: only 1 out of every 15 French generals who served under Louis XIV was of non-noble birth. The upper-class origin of most senior officers and many middle ranks was reflected in an aristocratic code of values and conduct that required displays of conspicuous courage under fire, and encouraged frequent dueling in peacetime, a practice that survived multiple royal bans. At its height, the French Army under Louis XIV had over 20,000 officers. Most were drawn from roughly 50,000 noble families of France. Others came from recently ennobled bourgeoisie, who eagerly served in the many new line regiments Louis raised during his long wars. These men paid to equip and support a new regiment in return for the privilege of its colonelcy. This led to extensive patronage networks organized around colonelcies. That trend was reinforced by the king’s insistence on state service by the old nobility, who built their own client networks in the regiments. Even among aristocratic officers, by the end of this period, an emerging professionalism ensured higher levels of political loyalty to the king than in past wars. Enhanced professionalism also cut back on otherwise endemic officer quarrels, dueling, and absenteeism.

Louvois found a way around purchased commissions by introducing two new, non-purchasable appointments (officially, these were not yet considered ranks): major and lieutenant-colonel. Even so, independent wealth remained key to an officer’s rise in station since he was expected to partly equip and maintain his company or regiment. To recover these costs, a colonel or captain fully expected to milk his regiment through creative accounts. Commissions from royal agents were issued to raise, command, and supply troops, partly replacing the system of purchase of companies and regiments by noblemen, though success in this regard was largely confined to the elite Gardes du Corps.

A young officer’s education also changed markedly in this era in France. Before the reforms made by Louvois, all training was received on-the-job, in active duty with one’s regiment. Louvois changed this in several ways. He designated certain musketeer units as training locales for young officers, especially for future staff officers. Thus, in 1679, when an artillery school was founded, it was attached to the “Fusiliers du Roi,” originally a musketeer regiment that was renamed the “Royal-Artillerie” in 1693. This change in the artillery was a vast improvement on civilian contractors hired by the French Army until 1672 to handle the big guns. Contractors had been paid for each cannon they brought into action on a battlefield or during a siege, which was no proper basis for sustaining a professional corps of cannoneers. In 1682 Louvois set up nine training companies for officer-cadets in various frontier towns. These trained young men in arms, drill, and riding, as well as in dancing, fencing, and other social skills deemed crucial (in most armies, into the early 20th century) to officer status. Cadets also studied mathematics, geography, and map reading, and those who chose to do so indulged art, music, and literature. The next year, officers in training for whom very high expectations were held were attached to the Régiment du Roi, and from 1684 to other regiments of Louis’ household (“Maison du Roi”) regiments. Similarly, a “Ritterakademie” was established for officers of the Prussian Army, though its curriculum was not as advanced in this era as in the French academies.


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