The military hegemony of France in Europe and in many regions overseas began on 19 May 1643 with the destruction of the Spanish Netherlands Army at Rocroi by a French army led by the 21-year-old Duke of Enghien (later Prince of Conde, the “Great Conde”). The young duke’s remarkable victory over Spain’s hardened veterans signaled the end of Spain’s military predominance (which dated from the sixteenth century) and represented the fruition of the military reorganization initiated by King Louis XIII’s premier, Armand Jean du Plessis, cardinal-duke of Richelieu.

On the foundation laid by Richelieu, talented military leaders like Conde, Turenne, Luxembourg, Vauban, Catinat, Villars, Vendome, Boufflers, and Saxe, and a succession of accomplished royal ministers, like Colbert and Louvois, built the edifice of France’s military greatness.

France was ruled during its ascendancy by the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), whose ambition and territorial designs caused many of the great wars that wracked Europe during the last decades of the seventeenth century. French hegemony was first checked by coalitions led by England and Holland and finally ended by Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), a true world war in which France lost most of its great colonial empire.

Henry IV (“le Grand”)

The end of the long period of religious-civil wars in France (Edict of Nantes, 1598) was also the end of the latest French struggle with Hapsburg Spain (Treaty of Vervins), with which France had been at war more or less continually since the beginning of the sixteenth century. The new French king, Henry IV, had triumphed over his enemies, foreign and domestic, but was shrewd enough to recognize that he had gained as much by compromise and cynical accommodation as by military prowess. The conflict with the Spanish Hapsburgs (and their Austrian cousins) was more suspended than resolved. The debilitating domestic religious question was solved temporarily by permitting the Huguenots to erect a kind of independent republic based on their centers of influence, chiefly in the south and southwest of France. But, fundamentally, the religious question had been deferred, not settled. Much depended on the king’s political skills and vision, not only for France, but for Europe.

At this time, the kingdom’s energies were directed toward re-establishing order and rebuilding the economy, as the Memoires of the Duke of Sully recount. In foreign affairs, the king conceived a fantastic project for a “United States of Europe,” a precursor of the present-day European Union. But how serious he was, and what the results of his various schemes might have been, remain subjects for conjecture: Henry IV was assassinated by a fanatic in 1610. He was succeeded by his son, Louis XIII (reigned 1610-43), who was 9 years old.

Louis XIII (“le Juste”)

Internal Conflicts

Louis’s reign was troubled by internal division, conspiracy, and conflict. In part this was due to the king’s youth and the constant jockeying for power and influence at court among regents, favorites, advisers, and councilors; in part it was due to the renewed outbreak of religious and civil wars, as the problems left unresolved at the accession of Henry IV resurfaced.

It is remarkable that, at this time, France was virtually bereft of armed forces. The “peace dividend” attendant to the accession of Henry IV was manifest in the purposeful neglect of the army and navy. In particular, Henry had allowed the ancient companies of gendarmes (regular heavy cavalry) to dwindle to nothing, since they had been arrayed against him in the civil wars. Even the royal household troops, the fabled Maison du Roi, had been cut back severely, and some units existed only as sinecures for Henry’s old comrades in arms.

Louis XIII, his favorites, and his ministers gradually rebuilt the Maison, adding new units and reinforcing the old ones, so that the Royal Army always had a well-drilled, professional core. In the dizzying succession of internal wars that beset the country until the final defeat of the Huguenots (1628), the professionalism of the Royal Army made the difference.

Louis’s enemies did not want for armed men, nor for enthusiastic amateurs to lead them, but the armies of the nobles (les grands) and the Huguenots could not stand up to the Royal Army in the field. The wars were characterized by sieges-in particular, the epic siege of the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle (1627-28). At the end of the wars, the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, stood in triumph over his enemies. Henceforward until his death (1642), he was effectively France’s ruler.


The conclusion of the internal wars allowed Richelieu to turn his attention to foreign affairs, his true metier. In Richelieu’s eyes, France’s principal enemy was the House of Hapsburg, and particularly the Spanish Hapsburgs, whose domains or dependents confronted France on all its land frontiers. Thus, from 1629 until 1659, France was almost continually at war with Spain, either at first-hand or by proxy.

These wars included the War of the Mantuan Succession (1629-32) and the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59), which just preceded open French involvement in the Thirty Years’ War (French phase, 1636-48) and continued long afterward. In this series of conflicts, France was ultimately successful, despite political divisions manifested by the various civil wars of the antiministerial Fronde (1648-53) and the treason of Conde, who threw in with the Spanish after his defeat as the leader of the Frondeurs (he served as a Spanish generalissimo until 1659).

France’s success in this period may be attributed almost entirely to the policies of Richelieu. He reformed and reorganized the army, eliminating some of the worst abuses of the oligarchic spoils system by subordinating the entirely aristocratic officer corps to central authority. He achieved some success in enlarging and professionalizing the native French forces and ending the Crown’s dependence on the superb but not always reliable mercenary contingents that historically had constituted the fighting core of the French army.

Richelieu also virtually founded the French navy, which had hardly existed as a permanent force before his ministry. For a brief (and remarkable) period the navy won several victories against the Spanish. The greatest French admiral of the period was the cardinal’s brilliant nephew, Maille-Breze (1619-49).

But Richelieu’s achievements did not long outlast him. His successor, Cardinal Mazarin (Giuilo Mazarini, premier 1642-61), allowed the navy to sink into decline, and it was of little military value until its true foundation as a professional service around 1669 by the great navy minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83). The army, however, retained a measure of efficiency, and its greatest moments were ahead of it.

Louis XIV (“le Roi Soleil”)

The Sun King’s reign had begun in 1643, but in fact Mazarin ruled France until he died in 1661, when Louis proclaimed that henceforth he would be his own chief minister. The next 54 years were a period of splendor and magnificence for France, not only in the arts but also in military affairs. France was at the zenith of its power.

In the military sphere, France was organized for war so thoroughly that no one power could long hope to withstand it. And Louis’s ambition for territorial aggrandizement might have startled even his more aggressive ancestors.


While Colbert reorganized the financial structure of the nation and launched an ambitious naval building program, his bitter enemy, the equally remarkable war minister Francois Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois (1641-91), reorganized the army. Louvois was assisted in this work by Turenne, who was made marshal-general in 1660 to give him authority over all his redoubtable contemporaries in the marshalate. Turenne in turn was assisted by three brilliant but largely forgotten subordinates-Martinet, Fourilles, and Du Metz-each responsible for the reorganization of a single combat arm: infantry, cavalry, and artillery, respectively. The result of this immense effort was the first truly modern army: a permanent professional force, well organized, trained to a relatively high degree of efficiency, and subordinated to a powerful minister supported by a large, proficient civilian bureaucracy.

Logistical support of field armies was facilitated by the magazine system created by the great engineer Vauban. The rationalization of logistics, combined with the centralized control and direction of the marshaled human and material resources of the nation-state, made larger armies possible. Whereas, during the Thirty Years’ War, the average field army had numbered about 19,000 men, the late-seventeenth-century wars of Louis XIV were fought by field armies two to three times larger. To compound France’s advantages in this period, the magnificent armies created by Louvois were led by perhaps the greatest galaxy of military talent ever assembled.

The Wars of Louis XIV

Louis’s wars of aggression, conducted between 1667 and 1714, involved his blatant and barely rationalized attempts to expand France’s frontiers, particularly in the northeast (Flanders) and east (along the Rhine), at the expense of the moribund Spanish Empire and the hopelessly divided, invitingly weak Holy Roman Empire. These expansionist wars began in earnest with the War of Devolution (1667-68) and the Dutch War (1672-79), in which France gained Franche-Comte and many strong places along the frontiers. France’s principal enemy was Holland, the architect of strong coalitions which alone could hope to oppose France. Indeed, in this period, France was virtually isolated diplomatically. The French armies, led by Turenne and Conde, won brilliant victories in the field, notably at Seneffe (11 August 1674), where Conde defeated a Dutch-Spanish army led by William of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, and at Sinzheim (16 June 1674), Enzheim (4 October 1674), and Turckheim (5 January 1675), in which Turenne gained a trio of remarkable victories against the coalition armies along the Rhine.

The period following the Treaty of Nijmegen (6 February 1679) was marked by French bullying along the Rhine and further French expansion as Louis’s “Chambers of Reunion” decreed several territories and towns “French” (since at one time or another they had belonged to any of several recent French territorial acquisitions). French troops promptly moved in to enforce the decisions of these courts, and the German emperor was forced to accede to this latest aggression. Louis followed up by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of worship to the Huguenots (1685). Europe was appalled, and France was much weakened by the emigration of thousands of her most industrious people.

Further French threats and aggressions along the Rhine led to the formation of the Dutch-inspired anti-French League of Augsburg, which consisted of virtually all the powers of Europe except for England (9 July 1686). But the English Revolution of 1688 led to the exile of the English king James II. When William of Orange and his wife, Mary, James’s daughter, took the English throne, England joined the League, which became the Grand Alliance (12 May 1689).

Meanwhile, the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) had broken out, and France confronted the coalition on land and sea. A new generation of French military leaders soon proved their mettle. In Flanders, the Marshal Duke of Luxembourg, Conde’s protege, won great victories over the coalition at Fleurus (1 July 1690), Steenkerke (3 August 1692), and Neerwinden (1 August 1693). In Italy, Marshal Catinat knocked Savoy out of the war after winning the decisive Battle of Marsaglia (4 October 1693). At sea. however, the French were beaten badly at Cap La Hogue (May 1692).

This war was also a true “world war.”‘ since it involved the American and Indian-subcontinent colonies of the belligerents. In America, it was known as King William s War and involved fighting between the French and English and each side s Indian allies. The Treaty of Ryswick (1697) that ended the war was unremarkable. In the complex territorial provisions. France gained Alsace and Strasbourg.

The imminent extinction of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty preoccupied Europe in the years following the Treaty of Ryswick. When Charles II. Spain’s feeble-minded, childless king, finally died in 1700. Louis advanced the claim of his grandson. Philip of Anjou, to the Spanish throne. Since the European powers could not countenance a union of Spain and France, this brought on the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714. in which France once again squared off against an all-European coalition.

In this war, France for once was decidedly deficient in military talent. Against the genius of the great allied commanders Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy. France had mostly second-rate marshals and generals (Luxembourg had died in 1695). The allies won a succession of striking victories: Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Turin (1706), and Oudenarde (1708). The French gained some successes in Italy and prevailed in Spain. The allies won the bloody Battle of Malplaquet (11 September 1709) at tremendous cost, and England retreated from the war effort in revulsion at the casualties. The French cause was helped immeasurably by the brilliant Marshal Villars. whose victories improved France’s negotiating position as the war wound down.

In 1713 and 1714. the exhausted belligerents negotiated treaties ending the war. Philip of Anjou was recognized as king of Spain, but the crowns of France and Spain were permanently separated. Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by his great-grandson. Louis XV.

Louis XV (“le Bien-Aime”)

The reign of Louis XV 1715-74 was marked by the gradual decline of the military machine created by Louvois and Turenne. The officer corps grew alarmingly, until by mid-century the proportion of officers to enlisted men was 1 to 15. Moreover, the quality of the officer corps deteriorated: many were weak, incompetent, venal, or amateurish. Inevitably, discipline suffered, and the once-proud army became the object of contempt-an ‘”unqualified mediocrity” in the eyes of many.

The reign was marked by the complete reversal of Louis XIV’s foreign policy, but France’s military commitments did not diminish appreciably, as Europe’s coalition wars continued undiminished. France was allied with recent enemies Britain. Holland, and Austria against its former ally Spain in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-20). In the War of the Polish Succession (1733-38). France supported the claim of Stanislas Leszczynski (Louis XV’s father-in-law) to the Polish crown against Saxony, Austria, and Russia. France’s most distinguished soldier during this period was James Fitzjames, duke of Berwick and marshal of France. Berwick, an illegitimate son of England’s King James II, was killed in action at the Siege of Philippsburg (12 June 1734). The Philippsburg campaign was also the last for a long-time antagonist of France, Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48)

Although a guarantor of the Pragmatic Sanction, in this war France was allied with Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Savoy, and Sweden against Austria, Russia, and Britain. France did not officially enter the war until 1744, but French “volunteers” served from 1741-a decidedly modern piece of disingenuousness.

The war marked the emergence of one of France’s greatest soldiers, Maurice, comte de Saxe (1696-1750), a German by birth-one of 300-odd illegitimate children of Augustus II “the Strong, ” elector of Saxony-a military genius and himself a prodigious womanizer. Campaigning in Flanders, the Austrian Netherlands, and Holland, Saxe won victories against the allies at Fontenoy (10 May 1745), Rocourt (11 October 1746), and Lauffeld (2 July 1747).

Saxe’s success in the Low Countries was not matched by his contemporaries in other major theaters-Italy and Germany. At sea, the British had the upper hand against the French and Spanish fleets. In North America (King George’s War), France fared miserably, incurring serious defeats by the British and British colonials and native American allies. In India, however, Dupleix was successful at Madras and in the Carnatic.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), ending the war, restored all colonial conquests to their prewar status. France gained nothing by the European provisions; essentially, the war had been a failure.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63): The Nadir

In the Seven Years’ War in Europe, France and its principal allies, Austria (the Empire) and Russia, contended against the numerically inferior forces of Prussia and Great Britain. The allied powers, operating on exterior lines, made several poorly coordinated attempts to crush King Frederick the Great of Prussia by convergent invasions of Hanover and Prussia. Initially, the French, under Marshal Louis d’Estrees, were successful against the British-Hanoverian army led by the son of King George II, William Augustus, duke of Cumberland-whom Saxe had beaten at Fontenoy (despite the splendid bravery of the British- Hanoverian infantry).

Defeated at Hastenbeck (26 July 1757), Cumberland was trapped at KlosterZeven (Zeven) and forced to concede Hanover to the French. The Convention of Kloster-Zeven was the worst British surrender until Dunkirk (1940), not excepting Yorktown. D’Estrees’ replacement, the Marshal-Duke Louis de Richelieu, failed to cooperate with Charles de Rohan, prince de Soubise, and the prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen at the head of the Franco-Reichs army. Despite great numerical superiority, the allies were defeated badly by Frederick at Rossbach (5 November 1757).

The great victory at Rossbach eliminated one of two French armies committed to German) and effectively allowed Frederick to concentrate his energies on the Austrians and Russians. Henceforth, the French were opposed on the Rhine front by the gifted Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. Louis, marquis de Contades. was defeated by Ferdinand at Minden (1 August 1759) and the French were driven back to the Rhine. Subsequently, Ferdinand contended successfully against the French (1760-62), finally driving them across the Rhine.

In the New World, the French, led by the brilliant Louis Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon. were initially successful (French and Indian War), but Montcalm was defeated by James Wolfe at Quebec (13 September 1759), and the British conquest of Canada was completed within a year. Both Montcalm and Wolfe died in the battle that decided the fate of a continent.

In India, weak French forces were led by Count Thomas Arthur Lally, a distinguished veteran of Irish descent, who was beaten as much by the ineptitude and machinations of his officers as by the genius of the British soldier Sir Eyre Coote. Lally lost India and went to the scaffold for it, a miscarriage of justice memorialized by Voltaire in Fragments of India.

The French navy was no match for the British at sea. British naval superiority contributed to the relative isolation of French colonial forces and the disparity in strategic mobility, numbers, and resources wherever the two powers confronted one another.

The Treaty of Paris (1763) marked the political and military humiliation of France and the ascendancy of Britain in Europe and overseas. France lost most of its North American and Caribbean empire, including Canada, and French India was practically dismantled. In Europe, France had sunk so low that it was almost eclipsed by a resurgent Spain, led by King Charles III (reigned 1759-88).

Military Reform and Rebirth

France had always been a congenial environment for military thinkers-and not a few eccentrics. Among the great theorists of the eighteenth century were Jean Charles, chevalier de Folard (1669-1752), and Marshal Saxe, whose Mes reveries is still read and admired today. During the Seven Years’ War, the innovative Marshal-Duke Victor-Francois de Broglie, victor over Brunswick at Bergen (13 April 1759), had introduced the all-arms division organization, a necessary precursor of the larger Napoleonic army corps.

Thus, despite the stagnation and enervation so pronounced at midcentury, it is not surprising that the French armed forces were reformed and modernized during the reign of Louis XVI 1774-92 . The principal agent of reform was the war minister. Claude Louis, comte de St. Germain (1707-78), who was assisted in his work by Jacques Antoine Hippolyte. comte de Guibert (1743-90; tactics and doctrine), Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715-89; artillery materiel and organization), and Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807; tactics and infantry organization).

Although the old army was swept away in the Revolution (1789), these reformers were directly responsible for creating the professional core of the successful Revolutionary armies. However, the fine quality of the reformed French army was already evident in 1780 in the small but magnificent expeditionary corps that Rochambeau led to America and that played such an important part in the Yorktown campaign.

Bibliography Aumale, H. E. P. L. 1867. Les institutions militaires de France: Louvois-Carnot- Saint Cyr. Paris: Levy. Dollinger, P. 1966. Histoire universelle des armees. Vol. 2. Paris: Laffont. Kennett, L. 1967. The French armies in the Seven Years’ War. Durham, N. C.: Duke Univ. Press. Susane, L. A. V. V. 1974. Histoire de la cavalerie frangaise. 3 vols. Paris: Hetzel. . 1874. Histoire de Vartillerie frangaise. Paris: Hetzel. . 1876. Histoire de Vinfanterie frangaise. 5 vols. Paris: Dumaine. Weygand, M. 1953. Histoire de Varmee frangaise. Paris: Flammarion.


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