France’s Military Structure – Louis XIV

France’s suffering in the Thirty Years’ War had been more financial than otherwise, since the war was not fought on its soil. Still, the superior performance of professionals had been proven and, after a bit of its own civil war, the government began taking serious measures to upgrade the military. This began at roughly the same time a new monarch came to the throne, Louis XIV. He had the assistance of two able administrators who completely reworked the nature of France’s military structure. In 1668 Michel le Tellier was appointed to the post of secretary of state for military affairs; he was aided and ultimately succeeded in this position by his son, Francois Michel Tellier, better known as the Marquis de Louvois, who orchestrated the transformation of the army into a truly royal force, and became the first great civilian minister of war in any country. One of his major accomplishments (though not completely fulfilled) was to address the corruption among army officers. It was not uncommon to list more manpower in one’s unit than actually existed, in order to be provided with more money and supplies. Limited inspection visits made this easy, even though it could prove dangerous in wartime when one expected to field an army of a certain size when such numbers did not exist. Further, having responsible soldiers (rather than the traditional prison recruits) became a priority. Advancement became possible through merit and not just birth or purchase of a commission.

Up-to-strength units received the best possible training and supplies. In order to accomplish the second item, the ministry developed a system of supply magazines. Regular food on campaign meant no need to pillage, which both maintained positive civil relations and gave soldiers fewer opportunities to leave camp, something that usually resulted in unmilitary activities and behavior. What Gustavus had tried to implement, regular food and pay, became established and successful policy under the French regime, which did much to expand the army significantly as well as increase the number of talented officers through the merit system. Other countries had to follow suit or be completely at France’s mercy.

The infantry made up about one-fourth of the French army. Foot soldiers were organized by the turn of the century into battalions of thirteen companies of 40–50 men each, armed with matchlocks or flintlocks. The transition from the older, heavier, less dependable weapon had not completely taken place by 1700. Indeed, in the French army it almost did not take place at all. For some reason King Louis XIV disliked flintlocks, even for a time ordering they be abandoned, but luckily for him cooler heads convinced him otherwise. The flintlock offered an increased rate of fire, two to three shots per minute as opposed to two shots in three minutes with the matchlock. Without the need to worry about a long, burning fuse, soldiers needed less space to reload, so they could be lined up in tighter formations, increasing the firepower. There was another area in which the French had not advanced, and that was their rejection of the paper cartridge, carrying both powder and ball. Most other European armies had adopted the paper cartridge used by Gustavus. The French continued to deploy their men in five or six ranks, better for resisting attacks but not designed to put as much lead in the air as fewer ranks would have allowed.

Two new things appeared among the French infantry under Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century. One was the socket bayonet invented by the fortification-engineering genius Sebastian Vauban, which led to the death of the pike. Earlier attempts at using bayonets resulted in the plug type, which was stuck in the barrel and therefore prevented the weapon from firing. A ring bayonet merely slipped over the barrel and easily fell off. Vauban’s device slipped over a lug that held the bayonet in place once it was rotated. With the bayonet’s ability to provide the sharp points that charging horses did not want to encounter, the pikeman was removed from the field by 1700. Thus, everyone on the line now had a musket, increasing firepower even more. The second was the introduction of the grenadiers, who along with their standard weaponry of flintlock, bayonet, sword, and hatchet carried 12–15 grenades. These were hollow iron shells filled with gunpowder, which had first appeared in the Middle Ages. In 1667 four men from each infantry company were trained in throwing grenades and termed “grenadiers”; four years later one company of grenadiers was assigned to each battalion. Physically large and strong, they became an elite soldiery designated for difficult assignments.

French cavalry was divided into three classes. Louis XIV’s time witnessed the introduction of cavalerie légère or light cavalry, which used to be the heavy cavalry. It was renamed because the new cavalrymen did not wear heavy armor as previously. In 1690 came the introduction of modern light cavalry, the hussars. The third class was the dragoons, or mounted infantry. Each carried a musket, pistol, saber, and shovel. The shovel meant that he could entrench himself just like regular infantry, but with his horse he could also be used in long-distance service such as transport escort. Regular cavalry were equipped with a sword with a three-foot straight blade, two flintlock pistols carried in saddle holsters, and a shorter musket called a carbine. Just as the grenadiers became elite infantry, Louis’s army introduced elite cavalrymen in the form of carabiniers who were given rifled carbines. In October 1690 they were formed into their own company. In late 1693 these companies were grouped into a new unit called Royal Carabiniers, 100 companies strong—a sort of elite reserve cavalry division.

In spite of the return of power tactics with the cavalry of Gustavus Adolphus’s Swedes, the French retained many of the older practices. The French cavalry was not used for shock, as Gustavus had used his, but as mobile musketeers. Just as in the older cavalry, they attacked in the caracole, using pistols or carbines. The main difference was that the horsemen now fired in volleys of three ranks, expanding their firepower somewhat. The French tended to mass their cavalry on the wings with the infantry arrayed in the center. Nothing special is indicated in the early seventeenth-century sources about French artillery, an interesting omission, since artillery became one of the French specialties by the middle of the eighteenth century.

As for French generals, the great ones by this time had passed on. Marshal Count Turenne was the class of his era and certainly Marlborough was glad to have served under his command and picked up some lessons. His immediate predecessor (and rival during the French civil wars) was Louis de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé, also known as “The Great Condé.” Both had risen to high command near the end of the Thirty Years War and had also fought in the various conflicts with the Dutch. The master of siege warfare, both offensive and defensive, was Sebastian Vauban, but he was far more an engineer and master of siegecraft than a combat commander. Still, Louis’s army was not without some talent, although his generals tend to be overshadowed by Marlborough and Eugene. Some, like the dukes of Tallard, Villeroi, and Bourgogne were political appointees with little to recommend them, but some, the duc de Villars and duc de Vendôme in particular, had real talent.

marquis de Louvois, (1641–1691)

Né François Le Tellier. Successor to his father, Michel Le Tellier, as principal military and strategic adviser to Louis XIV. He was the main transformer of the French Army into an instrument of royal authority and foreign policy. In part, he accomplished this by helping his father and Louis establish the Régiment du Roi in 1663 as a model for all French infantry regiments. He also founded the Royal-Artillerie in 1673 as a professional and concentrated artillery arm. These reforms had influence on military developments far beyond France

Following a pattern set by his father, with whom he understudied from 1662 to 1670, Louvois lobbied hard for bullying wars as the main basis of French foreign policy. He did so not least as a means of creating opportunities to concentrate more power and wealth in his own hands. He was centrally involved in reorganization of the French Army away from private regiments and mercenaries to a more professional officer corps and to regular units raised from the king’s subjects. He exercised such strict control over officers, however, that tactical and operational mediocrity was often the result. In logistics he found a calling, notably fully developing the magazine system left in rudimentary form by his father. Among Louvois’ more important innovations was to introduce portable ovens to bake bread during halt days while a French army was on the move. At the onset of the Dutch War (1672-1678), Louvois accumulated in forward magazines enough grain to provide the advancing armies with 200,000 rations per day for up to six months-an unheard of achievement in European warfare since the fall of Rome. This effort is widely regarded by historians as his finest. It ensured Louis XIV early military success that would not be replicated in later, longer wars fought without Louvois at his side. For this material accomplishment, regardless of Louvois’ many and deep moral flaws, he is properly regarded by historians as the first great civilian “minister of war.”

Louis XIV drilled himself as a form of childhood play, and continued to play at war as a man, and then as king. He believed that discipline, rather than bloody mayhem, was what won battles and insisted on constant drill, at least twice per week, even for garrison units. His regiments drilled through the winter and during the rare summers when they were not in the field. Early in his reign, Michel Le Tellier and Louvois helped Louis found a special regiment, the Régiment du Roi (1663), to model and demonstrate proper drill to the rest of the French Army. This regiment, and then all French drill, was overseen from 1667 by inspectors-general.

One of Louvois’ most crucial reforms was to institute musketry drill, upon discovering that many French infantrymen, especially peasant conscripts, went into battle not knowing how to load or discharge their main weapon. The French emphasis on drill thereafter grew so fierce that the intendant responsible for drill in the French Army, Colonel Jean Martinet, original colonel of the Régiment du Roi, became so infamous for fussy, even merciless insistence on the smallest detail of uniform discipline and drill that his name entered the universal military lexicon as a pejorative for inflexible drill instructors.

As for his moral failings, they were many and great. For instance, during Turenne’s march through the Palatinate in 1674, Louvois demanded that the harshest methods be used against German villagers who resisted by any means, or who refused to pay contributions. During the War of the Reunions (1683-1684), he again displayed a penchant for personal cruelty and brutality in punishing villagers. He once ordered fully 20 villages be bombarded and burned in retaliation for the loss of two French barns. Although he was patron to Vauban, the two disagreed about whether to use bombardment as an alternative to siege warfare. John A. Lynn, the leading modern historian of the French Army, maintains that Louvois took a savage approach to war and that, for him, bombardment of towns with mortars during the 1680s “became something of a blood lust.” Nor did his none-too-gentle master in Versailles voice any objection. In 1688 Louvois began to raise new provincial militia to supplement the regular regiments. These were gainfully employed when Louis started the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) that fall. Louvois planned the 1688-1689 devastation of the Palatinate (1688-1689) on a map, reveling yet again in the destruction of German towns and cities, and even individual chateaux. His death on July 16, 1691, removed from inner policy circles a baleful and brutish influence on Louis XIV, a monarch who needed little encouragement to indulge his own vices and a pronounced preference for war over diplomacy.

2 thoughts on “France’s Military Structure – Louis XIV

  1. Hi! I like this article, I think it is very useful. But I am curious about how recruited men to the French army in the age of Louis XIV because as I heard about it he started enforced the peasants to be infantry soldiers but not so high proportion than later in the 19th century but all region had to sent people into his army.


  2. The problems of recruiting good soldiers in such numbers became overwhelming, so the quality of the men declined as the numbers increased. In 1685 the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes created a crisis in the army. Soldiers were used to ‘convert’ the Huguenots, but not all soldiers were Catholics. Marshal Vauban later estimated that some 600 of the best officers and 12,000 good, experienced soldiers fled to Holland, Germany or England, where their services were eagerly accepted. Not only did they bring with them the latest techniques, which they taught their former enemies, but they proved to be implacable opponents of the French army. Among the refugees was Marshal Schomberg who went to the British army. (On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the 1689 crisis in Ireland eventually brought at least 12,000 bitter Irish Catholics to the French army and a most talented officer in the Duke of Berwick, who was made a Marshal of France in 1703.)

    Louvois was meanwhile faced with an increasingly persistent recruiting problem. To solve it, he introduced a militia draft in 1688 which was really the first step towards what we know as conscription in modern armies. Some 25,000 men were called up-usually one per parish-and put into the 30 new Provincial Militia regiments for full-time service. It was still peacetime; but war soon came, and many did not return home until 1697. In the meantime, the parishes had to keep their quotas up and the draft became an annual event. The army became enormous after 1689-probably as many as 450,000 including militiamen by 1694-but this was quickly reduced to 288,000 a couple of years later. The militia regiments had served well, but were not as disciplined as the regular troops, and tended to loot.

    The War of Spanish Succession (or Queen Anne’s War) saw the French army facing the same manpower problem. In 1701, 55,000 militiamen were called up so that the army could boast some 220,000 men a year later. But this was to be the hardest war of Louis’ reign: French armies suffered many defeats and terrible losses. Recruiting sergeants took almost anyone who could walk with a musket, but it was still not enough. Militiamen were incorporated into regular units in the field, while more men were taken away from their villages back home. Some fled the conscriptions; but 260,000 men marched away to the front after drawing the fateful black slip of paper in the village square. Total strength may have gone as high as 400,000 men in the last decade of the reign.

    Although the accuracy of some of the above figures is probably impossible to judge with certainty, they give an idea of how far Louis XIV had managed to mobilise France. Such a large standing army had not been seen since Roman times and was not to be seen again in France until the advent of Napoleon. By comparison, the Austrian army was 100,000 strong in 1705 and the British army stood at a peak of 75,000 in 1710.


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