Finishing the Armies and Wars of the Sun King 1643-1715

By René Chartrand

Volume 4 is in the editing process and will be published this year thus putting the final touch to this series. Like the previous volumes, it is basically divided into two parts, the first chapters being a narrative of the strategic, geopolitical and financial challenges and ambitions that were faced by Louis XIV who reigned and transformed France and the world around it from his accession as an infant in 1643 to his passing in 1715. 

Part One

His young years were shadowed by civil wars as well as near permanent conflicts, with Spain in particular, then a decaying kingdom vainly trying to keep its eminence in Europe. Other countries were vying for that lofty position, but few had the resources, population and capacity as a unified state to fill the post. France with its population of some 20 million souls, well over double the population of its neighbours, situated in a lush and well-exploited land that already had its share of leading scientist, intellectuals, artists, financiers and a large middle class. It could become Europe’s superpower if internal peace was achieved and its vast resources used to build up its untapped might. 

Amongst the characteristics of the young king that assumed autocratic power in 1661 was his passion for order and his determination to impose it so as to realise his aim: the definite elevation of France as the greatest power in Europe. Thus, strategic links on various events that cover wide areas are made in all volume. In that regard, the other great power was the Ottoman Turk Empire and whatever it did in the East had a strategic effect on western Europe, which we observe in our series.

Even today, statesmen, diplomats and senior military officers are always somewhat reserved about the equation that affirms that no nation can be a really influential world power without very large and modern armed forces. Yet, human History since Antiquity confirms the notion. The young Sun King, admirer of Antiquity, strongly believed that the somewhat decrepit French army he inherited had to be transformed and expanded if the vision of a greater France was to be achieved. 

Part Two

This leads us into the second part of each volume, which deals specially with the “nuts and bolt” of the army in its organisation, its command systems, its qualities and faults and its material culture. This last aspect is a most important one to the author, and not only because he spent most of his professional life as curator, but also as a historian. It is important to explain why, which and how weapons and clothes were used by soldiers; it satisfies the basic instinct of curiosity all humanity shares as to what were things like in the past. History is ourselves, and so, how did military men in the days of the Sun King look like and how did they live? 

Of other important aspects on the efficiency of a modern army, the advent of a flow of regulations signed De Par Le Roy (by the King) to bring order and discipline over a force that went from a fairly informal affair dominated by nobles to a centrally managed institution imposed by the Sun King and his ministers from the 1660s. These practices were followed by all other armies. 

The amazing growth of the size of the French regular army, which reached nearly half a million men in arms by the 1690s, put tremendous pressure on its rivals to equal such a force. We found that the French cavalry alone had some 100,000 troopers, by far the highest of any other nation’s cavalry in western Europe. As readers of Vol. 3 know, the author being from a family of horsemen had a great time presenting such things as saddlery. By the late 1680s, however, there were worries that not enough Frenchmen would join the army. The Sun King came up with the first modern system of national military service by an annual draft of young villagers that, by the early 1700s, made up a notable part of the regular army. 

Into Vol. 4

Vol. 4 is certainly a very rich ground regarding geopolitical strategy in western Europe itself and, in its first part, while reviewing the extraordinary campaigns by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene in Flanders, Germany and Italy, a deeper look into the War of Spanish Succession fought in Spain is given. It was, after all, the object of the struggle as to who would be King of Spain “and the Indies” between the Sun King’s grandson of the Austrian Emperor’s brother. Most of the Spanish people supported the Sun King’s grandson and, led by excellent tacticians Berwick and Vendôme, the renewed Spanish army with many French troops triumphed. Elsewhere, inept marshals and princes were roundly defeated to the point where one can only admire the resilience of the Sun King, his armies and his nation. We have looked into the financing of wars in each volume, but in Vol. 4, we see it as a main factor for Britain’s withdrawal from the allied camp from 1711. This coincided with the advent of the brilliant and daring Marshal Villars whose victory at Denain basically sealed the end of the struggle. 

The second part of Vol. 4 reviews artillery, engineering and explores in some detail two other as yet largely unstudied topics that particularly drew our attention: 1) the militarised constabulary forces and local regular military units throughout the kingdom apart from the regular army. We found many thousands of such militarised armed and uniformed troops not only in Paris, but surely in every city and  town. 2) the militia. Every major city (except Paris) and all towns in France had Bourgeois militia units with elite Privileged Companies that were often uniformed and well armed. The men in all coastal areas were obliged to enlist in the coast-guard militia. Some of these units were in action against the enemy and usually did quite well. There seems to be so far no reliable documents on their numbers, but a conservative estimate would be at least half a million Bourgeois militiamen with up to 200,000 coast-guardsmen. The Sun King sometimes implied the importance of this national reserve and, as with everything else he did seriously, it was no empty bluff.

The French army in trenches during the siege of Tournai in late June 1667. At the right foreground, a royal servant wearing a blue livery coats hold the Sun King’s white horse. The king is hazily seen in the background standing above the trench. Painting by van der Meulen. Musée Magnin, Dijon. Author’s photo.
French attack on Aardenberg, June 1672. A large French force failed to take the town defended by only 40 Dutch soldiers and a few hundred militiamen. It was one of the few successes in an otherwise very difficult year for the Netherlands. Detail from an unsigned contemporary print. Rijksmuseum, Courtesy Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-77.104.
The Dauphin Dragoon Regiment in action on the Rhine front, c. 1712. Print after Maurice Leloir. Private collection. Author’s photo.
Artillery on the march, last third of the 17th century. Print after Molzheim. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, RI, USA. Author’s photo.

You can register interest in The Armies and Wars of the Sun King 1643-1715 Volume 4 here.