Swiss in French Service
The Swiss connection to the French king that had begun in
the fifteenth century grew even closer under Louis XIV; he employed them not
only as regiments in the army, but also as his household guard. There were two
units protecting the king, the Cent Suisses (literally the 100 Swiss), who were
his bodyguards, together with the Gardes du Corps, of French birth; the Gardes
Suisses, together with the Gardes Françaises, were responsible for guarding the
palaces. There were also eleven Swiss regiments which served valiantly in every
war, adapting to the technological changes swiftly—dropping the traditional
Swiss pike for the musket and bayonet even though this meant accommodating
themselves to a minor role in the larger armies of the 18th century.
Swiss regiments were often employed where Frenchmen were
reluctant to serve. For example, they helped garrison the fortress of
Louisbourg on the God-forsaken coast of Nova Scotia. This was a location
beloved of fishermen, who could dry their catch on the rocky shores, but no one
else. Even before the siege by American colonial troops in 1745, the garrison
was mutinous, but it fought well enough that if reinforcements had been able to
arrive by sea, the fortress would not have fallen. It was, after all, the
French Gibraltar in the Americas; and it was recovered in the peace treaty!
The Swiss Guards could probably have thwarted the most
violent excesses of the French Revolution if King Louis XVI had been willing to
approve the timely use of force against the mobs raging through Paris and other
cities. However, the gentle king was reluctant to allow the army to fire on
Frenchmen. In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable: on July 14, 1789, a
Parisian mob, believing that a counter-revolution was underway, marched on the
Bastille, once the east gate of the city, but later converted into a
seldom-used prison. Its military function had long since disappeared except as
a gunpowder depot and housing for some eighty invalid soldiers. The prisoners,
it turned out, were not victims of royal anger, but a handful of common
criminals, religious dissidents and prominent malcontents; moreover, it could
hold only about fifty inmates.
The Bastille’s evil reputation as a prison spoke more to
popular dislike of royal absolutism than actual mistreatment—visitors were
frequent, card games were allowed and there was even a billiard table. The food
may have been more plentiful than tasty, but notables incarcerated there had
fared well. Confinement itself, the isolation from the lively world outside,
that was what made the Bastille feared; that and the knowledge that the king
could imprison anyone for any length of time, without any judicial process (the
infamous lettres de cachet)—the fact that this rarely occurred does not seem to
have bothered anyone, certainly not to anyone who had ever heard the Marquis de
Sade shouting down from the tower walks that the governor was intent on
massacring all the prisoners. It was taken apparently as a matter of course
that a governor would allow such behaviour; as was well-known, the Old Regime
was not very well organised.
The Parisians’ march on the Bastille was merely the
culmination of a process that had begun days before. As Simon Schama described
the events in Citizens, crowds celebrating the removal of the unpopular
minister, Necker, had got out of control. The first attempt by the authorities
to disperse the mob in the centre of Paris had failed, the cavalrymen
retreating to the Tuileries—at that time joined to the Louvre to make one vast
palace. The crowd then grew in size and began looting shops selling guns,
swords and knifes, then bakeries, and finally tearing holes in the wall
surrounding the city in hopes of attracting tax-free food from the country. It
was at this moment, Schama says, that Paris was lost to the monarchy.
Still, it did not look hopeless to contemporaries. Although
the king was informed that the French troops could not be relied upon, his
German and Swiss units might be. This estimate was soon outdated—80,000
citizens marched on the Invalides, the military hospital and arsenal across the
Seine. There they seized 30,000 muskets and the powder that had not been sent
to the Bastille. The foreign troops encamped only a few hundred yards away made
no move to stop them.
The government, at last realising that the Parisian mob was
dangerous, dispatched Swiss troops to hold the key points in the city.
Thirty-two went to the Bastille, a number that could have held the fortress
until help arrived, if the government had been willing to do so. A crowd of about
a thousand gathered in front of the Bastille, warning the commander that they
intended to arm themselves from the weapons stored there and that he might as
The commander, Bernard-René de Launay (1740-89), had been
born in the Bastille when his father had commanded the garrison there. His
force—if it could be called that—consisted of about eighty aged veterans, some
invalids. The Swiss reinforcements would be sufficient as long as the mob
lacked artillery. Therefore, he refused to open the magazines as the leaders of
the mob demanded.
The ensuing chaos was witnessed in part by Thomas Jefferson,
then in Paris as the American ambassador. He described the storming of the
Bastille, remarking that there were so many different stories of the event that
none of them could be believed. What is clear is that the ropes to the
drawbridge were cut during the negotiations. That allowed the mob to stream
across. When someone began firing, the confusion turned into a battle royal,
that is, royalist troops versus Parisians who were becoming republicans. Though
the rioters managed to break into the courtyard, they made little further
headway against the handful of Swiss troops until a unit of the Gardes
Françaises arrived with two cannon. This elite unit had been plagued by
desertions for months; now, in the critical moment, it went over completely to
the people. The garrison, already out of water and realising that no rescue was
coming, then reconsidered its situation and surrendered. As the troops tried to
march away, however, the mob fell on them, lynching the commander and several
soldiers. Most of the Swiss Guards, having taken off their uniforms, were
mistaken for prisoners and ‘liberated’.
Few realised that the Bastille was already on a list of
fortresses to be demolished, to be converted into a public park. As the
Parisians tore down the impressive building and carried away its bricks for
private use, Louis XVI travelled from Versailles to Paris, with a tricolour
ribbon on his chest to indicate his adherence to the revolutionary cause. Only
a few months later a mob of women protesting the cost of bread (an event that
should have been expected, considering the disorders in the countryside) made
the royal family prisoners.
In June 1791 the king made an attempt to flee the country,
to join counter-revolutionaries in the Holy Roman Empire. At a checkpoint near
the border, however, he stuck his head out of the carriage window to ask what
the delay was about. Since his profile was on every coin in France, he was
easily recognised. As the armies of Prussia and Austria, supported by troops
raised by exiled officers, pressed into northeastern France, the National
Assembly became persuaded that unless the king and the remaining nobles and
royal officials were dealt with, the Revolution would fail. However, the king
was still protected by his bodyguard and the Revolutionary Army was at the
By August 1792 the situation of the king was critical. Armed
volunteers from around France were streaming toward Paris, singing La
Marseillaise and looking for royalists to murder. One group ran in with the
Irish regiment commanded by Theobald Dillon (1745-92), the last of the line of
exiles to serve the French king; the Irish mistook the militia for Austrian
troops supposed to be hurrying to rescue Louis XVI’s queen, who was the
daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Dillon became separated from his men, was
captured, then murdered and mutilated. Word of this atrocity spread to all the
foreign troops, especially to the Swiss, who were now Louis XVI’s last hope.
On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, the
foremost royal residence in Paris. The palace was defended by 900 red-coated
Swiss troops, but running out of ammunition, the best they could do was to
delay the mob sufficiently until the royal family escaped. As the immense
building was consumed by flames, the defenders who managed to stagger outside
were massacred. Over six hundred died; about two hundred perished in prison or
were later executed.
In retrospect, we can see that the Swiss mercenaries had not
expected to be slaughtered in the brutal manner that soon became normal for
‘the terror’. It was, as Schama remarked, the logical consummation of the
revolution that had begun in 1789; bloodshed was not a by-product of the
revolution, but provided the energy that moved it forward. Soon afterwards the
National Assembly dismissed all Swiss troops and sent them home. The king was
thenceforth helpless. Louis XVI thus lost his head twice—once in making poor decisions,
the second time to the guillotine.
Swiss in Prussian Service
Because Prussia was a traditional French ally, King
Frederick I (1701-13, elector of Brandenburg since 1688) was able to hire Swiss
to be his household guard. Prussia being much colder than France, they may have
shivered in their silk and satin uniforms, but they looked impressive; and
Frederick I wanted to make an impression. After all, he was the first of his
dynasty to acquire the title of king, and kings had to maintain a certain style.
His successor, Frederick William, immediately sent the Swiss
guards home. He also sold the royal zoo, reassigned to the army the trumpeters
and drummers who had announced his father’s appearances, and reduced the
salaries of all officers of the state (including military officers). He could
have avoided this belt-tightening (a metaphor which accurately reflects a
similar reduction in expenditures for royal meals) had he been willing to
continue accepting foreign subsidies. But subsidies meant sending Prussian
units to Italy, the Balkans and other foreign war zones. Frederick William
wanted his troops at home, where he could make them into the best army in
Europe. He continued to recruit mercenaries, even Catholic soldiers (for whom
he provided chaplains and churches), but all recruits would be placed in units
of the regular army, not in national formations.
Frederick William was tolerant in religious matters, giving
refuge to 12,000 Salzburg Protestants who were told to convert to Catholicism
or leave Austria, just as his father had welcomed many Huguenots who had
received a similar warning from Louis XIV in 1685. What Frederick William would
not tolerate was Calvinist Predestination (which was the dominant religious
doctrine in Geneva), because he feared his recruits might conclude that they
were predestined to desert. He settled the Salzburg Protestants in a distant
province along what is today the Lithuanian coastline, a region that had been
devastated and almost depopulated by war. Since any army proceeding from
Livonia into Poland would have to pass through that region, it was not an
altogether generous gesture.
Swiss in British Service
Swiss were not common in British units, except those in the
Prince of Orange’s Swiss Guards (Regiment Zwitserse Gardes), who accompanied
William of Orange during his invasion of England in 1688.
Colonel Henry Bouquet, painting by John Wollaston, c. 1759.
Henry Bouquet, whom we met earlier, was a Swiss of Huguenot
ancestry, consequently a man not only willing to fight French Catholics, but
eager to do so. During the War of the Austrian Succession he served in the army
of the Prince of Savoy, writing an account of his adventures that caught the
eye of the Prince of Orange, who recruited him for his guards. He quickly rose
to become the commander. In 1755 the British government, embarrassed by the
defeat of Braddock’s expedition, began to raise regiments of Americans.
Realising that there was rich potential for recruiting among the
German-speaking citizens of Pennsylvania—if they had German-speaking officers
to lead them—someone suggested that Bouquet and a friend, Frederick Haldimand
(1718-91), should be offered command of two battalions of the Royal American
Regiment. Bouquet arrived in Philadelphia in 1756 and quickly enlisted over
five hundred ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ into the unit.
Bouquet led the expedition that reached Fort Duquesne only
to find its smouldering ruins. He had barely fortified Fort Pitt before Indians
surrounded the place and demanded his surrender. Knowing that the Indians would
never dare to attack, he said no. Eventually, he earned immortal infamy
responding to the chiefs’ demand for gifts before they would consent to peace
negotiations by sending some fine handkerchiefs from the smallpox hospital.
This probably had no impact on the epidemic that was sweeping North America.
The very existence of a smallpox hospital in Fort Pitt’s moat proves that the
disease was already on the frontier.
For the next eight years Bouquet would be among the most
important British officers on the frontier. So valued were his contributions
that Parliament waived the rule forbidding foreigners the rank of brigadier
general in promoting him.
The lesson of these wars seemed to be that European armies
could not be beaten except when geography and poor leadership combined to make
their virtues into disadvantages. However, since guerrilla forces usually
cannot win a campaign without becoming a regular army, they are still at a disadvantage
because regular soldiers require long training in specialised formations and
modern weapons. Professional soldiers are superior to recruits or volunteers,
and experienced mercenaries are the best of the professionals.
The use of irregular forces as scouts and to screen the main
force from ambush and harassment was common even in Europe, where armies often
surrounded themselves with a swarm of irregulars—Cossacks and Croatians being
the best because they did not speak the local languages and despised unarmed
peasants and villagers as less than real men. The same was true in America.
Indians who could not afford to absorb casualties were kept away from redcoats
and colonials on the march by a screen of friendly warriors who hated the
Indian tribes opposing them