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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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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