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Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army, 1610–1715 Review


There are some excellent high quality works on the French army throughout its illustrious history. Swords around a Throne is a monumental work for the army of Napoleon, Napoleon III receives The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, there are excellent works on the Fall of France such as Case Red: The Collapse of France and To Lose a Battle: France 1940 - and then there is the army of the Sun King Louis XIV, with the magnificent work Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army, 1610-1715 by John A. Lynn. All of them have dramatically different styles, and what defines Giant is the focus on the structural evolution of the army, and its relationship to both Bourbon absolutism and the the creation of modern France. Its analysis of the French military is an impressive work of research in every way, and helps to dramatically improve a scholarly understanding of the Bourbon's state military-financial-political structure. If it lacks for the amusing anecdotes and tactical operational focus of other books, this is simply because it is a classic of studies of the French army in broader perspective than just its campaigns and operations - an excellent and fitting book for an era more defined by finance and staying power than military dash.

The musketeers of France have been rendered forever famous by authors such as Dumas

The musketeers of France have been rendered forever famous by authors such as Dumas

The introduction to the book lays out the fundamental contours of the historiographical context surrounding the French army, before moving onto the greatest contemporary debate: the military revolution. This theory holds that the development of modern fortifications and gunpowder weapons drove army sizes up massively, centralizing state power and driving the need for modern bureaucratic states. Lynn's focus is on testing this, and he arrives at the conclusion that it is overstated in the French case.

After this, the nature of military development and the different phases of Europeans armies, stretching from feudal to modern volunteer armies, is covered, and the differing amounts of intensity of warfare in the period - showing the first half of the 17th century to have been extraordinarily bloody, including inside France, while the second half remained very bloody but the war shifted to French borders, helping to mark a movement towards a somewhat more peaceful Europe. A brief overview of French wars in the period is followed up by discussing the nature of the French financial apparatus, by far its greatest Achilles heel.

Army growth comes next. The French army expanded massively in size over the course of the 17th century, from a few tens of thousands in the early 17th century to nearly 400,000 at the end - although the later figures are somewhat dogged by different accounting mechanisms during the War of Spanish Succession. Why the armies expanded in such a way can be difficult to determine precisely, since Lynn discounts fortifications being the reason for why large attrition armies rather than maneuver armies became de rigeur, but the argument advanced is that they were a response to the Sun King's international ambitions, while the large peace time armies were needed to garrison the extensive fortification belts.

The French army's size ballooned rapidly over the course of the 17th century

The French army's size ballooned rapidly over the course of the 17th century

Administration, administration! As vital a the subject may be, it can be a dreadful bore to work one's way through such a lengthy topic - and Lynn certainly devotes a lot to it, in a multi-level analysis spanning from the central administration with the war ministers down to intendants and commissaires de guerre, and various traditional venal offices. French military administration had a vital split, in that officers commanded and led troops while civilians paid and supplied them, which resulted in a very different structure compared to today. French military administration evolved only gradually, and was mostly dedicated to the task of supervising contractors who were directly tasked with supplying troops.

Logistics were a question of unparalleled importance in the 17th century, with the most vital needs for troops being food and fodder. Although there was some toying around with direct supply during the financial breakdown of the Spanish War, it employed contractors called munitionnaires for supplying troops. This was, despite the complaints of troops, a difficult and risky business, given the dangers of war and the vagaries of royal finance. Meat and bread were the essential rations of the army, and huge supplies of grain were built up in magazines to supply troops. The army was tethered to these, for while fodder was supplied by armies in the field - with foraging requiring huge amounts of cavalry troops being dedicated to it - only magazines could provide a reliable supply of bread, as Lynn argues convincingly against arguments in favor of the ability of 17th century armies to live fully off the land, presented by Martin van Creveld in his book Supplying War. When troops moved around, they were supplied in etapes by French civilians, alternatively buying food with their own pay, inhabitants being required to simply provide food, or food being purchased by the state for them either through reimbursing communities or contractors being charged with supplies. Despite massive problems with the various systems, as well as the eternal threat of poor behavior by soldiers, gradually over time the contractor method won out, and the system of etapes became less ruinous for the population.

Other supplies were essential as well - housing, clothing, pay, and weapons. Part of the reason for why such huge armies could be fielded was that pay declined over the course of the 17th century, making large armies cheaper. Troops received either campaign rations or field rations, with cost for supplies and food taken out of pay. Officers would sometimes have phony men on the ranks to try to pocket money for them, but this practice was brutally curbed over the course of the century. Housing was like etapes: an imposition on the civilian population which would have not preferred to bear it and sometimes bought or begged for exemption, and who were required to supply certain needs for the soldiers like their bed, pot, bowl, place by the fire, and candle, the utensile, as well as the risk of poor soldier behavior, but like the etapes gradually improved over time and represented an inflow of money from soldier expenditures as well. Over time, it was transformed into yet another tax for the army. The army started off the century without uniforms, but gradually over time regiments standardized, and after the Dutch War started to enter into general mass usage. Continued problems existed however, with officers extravagantly dressing. Weapons present a similar story to uniforms, with an only gradual process of standardization.

There was another tax that the French population paid for its armies - the tax of violence. During the Thirty Years' War, and particularly the Spanish War, French soldiers ran amok, looting, raping, deserting, murdering - generally in the absence of centralized authority, and particularly pay. As the ability to pay and upkeep troops improved, this was curbed under the personal reign of Louis XIV, so that French subjects no longer had to fear their own armies quite as much. Instead, enemy subjects were themselves subjected to "contributions," ultimately very regularized, which went a long way to paying for the war, and which dictated strategy and operations in enabling armies to be positioned on foreign soils to pay for themselves, while building defensive lines to keep French territory safe.

One of the crucial ways that the monarchy, with its comparatively limited state powers and insufficient resources, was able to pay for its massive army was through the willing contributions of the nobility. Here, regimental commanders were vital, as these aristocrats covered the shortfall between central government expenditures and the needs on the ground. The system can be described as semi-contractual, since regimental commanders purchased their commands and paid upkeep, but they did not have the autonomy of real independent commanders like was the case in Germany in the Thirty Years' War. Costs were tremendous, and barred poorer nobility from serving and impoverished much of the aristocracy: this was part of the reason for fraud, as officers attempted to survive.

Aristocrats were willing to shoulder this burden out of a culture which required them to pursue glory and reputation on the field of arms, a drive which the crown effectively yoked to its own interests. Some officers did benefit for exemplary service or their ability to loot and plunder, but most did not. Instead, it was the cultural aspects of aristocratic expectations which drove them, including to foolhardy things such as dueling, banned but universally expected of nobles. Birth and money were generally required to rise, although non-nobles could become captains or colonels through buying their companies or regiments, particularly common during the desperate years of the War of Spanish Succession. Patronage was important for officers, who could try to staff their units with officers who were friends and loyal supporters from their home area, an important reason why the French government spent much effort on officer promotion at the lowest level. Merit could raise one to officer status, and accelerate one's climb, and officers often learned their trade as military apprentices in companies, as soldiers, and briefly in cadet companies until these were disbanded. These officers would be absent from their units much of the year, despite the best attempts to prevent absenteeism by the crown, partly to recruit new soldiers during winter months, partly to carry on their aristocratic and social lives back home.

After this, the book examines the various ranks of the high command, including generals, governors, and the king. As with other areas of the French military, aristocratic culture led to severe splits between royal authority and independent aristocratic spirit, as generals and commanders ignored royal orders: this would gradually be reduced through seniority systems and the royal take over of over promotion, particularly after the Dutch War. The result was war directed from Paris, the cabinet war of the 18th century. As elsewhere in the army, bravery was encouraged, with marshals themselves sometimes leading assaults even at key moments.

The rank and file of the army is examined in great detail, showing a whole range of statistics - their height and physical stature, social origins and geographic provenance, the composition of mercenary units, female camp followers - vital for a whole range of operations, but whose numbers declined over the course of the 17th century, producing a new, more masculine army culture - and the occasional female soldiers who snuck into the army.

Recruitment was carried out ostensibly by officers of their units, but also very often by recruiters. Enlistment was theoretically for life, although soldiers were often demobilized after wars, and some were released over time: not during wars however. Recruiting standards were loose, on both sides, with recruiters misleading and even kidnapping potential soldiers, and not caring about official height and age requirements. The government ignored complaints about mislead or forced recruits. Bounties were used to encourage signing up, and a militia system created as a form of conscription - although it eventually became simply another tax.

Discipline was maintained harshly, typically through corporal punishment and executions. Louis XIV was obsessed with discipline, and discipline improved as better pay meant that troops could legitimately be held accountable for their actions. There was also an increase in institutional structures of discipline, such as military police with the maréchaussée, and the institution of military courts. Desertion would continue to be a problem, and the punishments for men - almost to a man not cowards, but in bad circumstances - who deserted were ferocious, if they were caught.

Troops however, had other motivations beyond just fierce punishment. There is the eternal loyalty of soldiers to their comrades in small units, fighting for their friends, but there was also hope for plunder, and if pay declined, the state promised to take care of veterans - most famously with the construction of the hotel of the invalides, to provide a retirement home for soldiers too old and infirm to serve anymore. The medical service was gradually improved, funds advanced to take care of captured soldiers, and prisoners exchanged more often. There was traditional loyalty to a soldier's home and to the King, as well as religious motivation by the clergy, rewards even if there were not yet medals for common soldiers: Lynn rejects however, the idea of patriotism as a rallying factor, and argues instead that if anything the army made the spirit of France, and not the other way around.

Weapons and armaments complete the book's content, with a discussion of infantry arms with the shift from pikes, grenades, and matchlocks to bayonets and muskets, the tactical organization of French units, and battle organizations with how French units operated in battle as well as the relative weight of firepower and cold steel. The French adopted Dutch infantry musketry drill, a revolution in the firepower that musketeers could lay down, before ultimately superseding it with their own improved drill - itself later on bested by the English! This chapter goes for both cavalry and infantry, although cavalry weapons remained much the same.. For artillery, it discusses the calibers and reform of the artillery, new reforms such as attempts at cutting artillery weight, and the drive to make ever larger and more powerful guns for siege warfare which conflicted with this.

Drill is also covered, showing how the degree of drill and training of troops spiraled upwards. This was a new type of drill, constantly done over and over again, in contrast to previous centuries where training was a one-off affair for new weapons and not repeated constantly like in the 17th century, when drill and discipline became tightly linked. Cavalry continued to be a vital part of the battlefield, and well conducted cavalry charges were decisive at many points. Battle formations, with the increasing extension of the line and reduction of the square formations and pikemen, are matched with the description of partisans battles, the dispatch of troops for special missions such as raiding, foraging, and intelligence gathering. These were countered by villagers, on both sides, and these villagers received their own retribution in the form of retaliation by armies. The end result of these changes was to produce an army which stressed forbearance, discipline, and a test of wills, a European innovation which contrasted markedly with other martial cultures around the world.

An example of one of Vauban's sieges, showing the careful use of surrounding and approach trenches to enable troops to get close to attack a fortress.

An example of one of Vauban's sieges, showing the careful use of surrounding and approach trenches to enable troops to get close to attack a fortress.

But sieges were the dominant form of war in the age of Louis XIV, since Louis XIV preferred a defensive, cautious style of warfare, and here the most important figure of the century is without doubt the great French engineer and siege artist Vauban, who refined the building of bastioned fortresses to a high art. Defensively, it covers Louis' strategy, the focus of defenses on providing secure terrain and supporting armies during offensive operation, and the nature of the fortifications themselves with their potent artillery and defenses (and how they were maintained and paid for, and their governance) as well as which ones were maintained as internal fortifications were reduced. After this, it pushes onto Vauban's careful and methodical style of siege warfare, highly scientific and methodical, guaranteed to succeed, and conserving the lives of men - but expensive, so much that only one could be conducted at a time, and relatively slow. This led to siege operations sometimes opting for more bloody mass assaults, buying time at the price of lives. Sieges required large observation armies to protect besieging forces from attack by enemy relief armies. Linear defensive lines, with some exceptions, were not normally intended for regular battles, but as part of the effort to protect territory from raiders and contributions.

The epilogue takes the chance to expound at greater length on the author's key point: that the evolution of the French army was gradual in the 17th century, that its structure represented a mixture of state and private interests, which enabled the state to not have to grow and centralize to the same amount which would have been required to support the massively expanded army on its own, and that although it does reflect the word "absolutism," it was an absolutism with limits. And this absolutism could rely upon popular support, as it was local militias that put down rebellions, not the army - which was directed against foreign enemies, not principally internal foes. The army's role in this was providing the legitimacy and authority of the state, not in being the direct tool itself. The army enabled consolidation by victory in the Fronde, the army defined much of France's elite and society, and the army secured the frontiers of France: its history is one which is vital to understand France, and one which always is in need of more research.

What is the conclusion which Giant arrives at? That the French army's evolution does not fit the idea of a military revolution: by contrast, its evolution was, well evolutionary. It did not dramatically change in a single swoop, but it rather slowly, cautiously, even excessively conservatively at the end of the century, developed its tactics and operations. Furthermore, structurally the state did not develop nearly as much as one would have thought: the French government remained relatively small and if its revenues and powers did grow markedly, these were nowhere near as rapid as the explosion of the army's size. Instead, the French state was able to devolve a significant amount of the cost of this massively expanded military and the horrendously expensive wars it fought: captains and colonels provided much of the funds for their regiments and companies. Louis XIV's state was not an all-powerful government, but it relied rather on harness private interests for funding and warfighting.

This theme runs throughout the book. It does a splendid job of connecting the military and financial sides, be it in terms of the "contributions" leveled on the enemy, which dictated that if possible French armies be quartered on foreign soils where they could sustain themselves with foreign resources, or the fortifications and barriers designed to ensure that French populations could not be levied themselves in such a way. Lynn cogently connects the decline in size of the French army from the Nine Years' War to the War of Spanish Succession based on the army's inability to maintain itself at length on foreign soil as it had done before, preventing the French from making their enemies pay for the French army.

There could have been interesting comparisons to establish the funding and structures of absolutism. Much work has been done on the French navy, and has shown a similarly ramshackle financial structure - but one where captains and commodores could hardly themselves pay to support and build the king's battlefleet on the sea: captains in the galley fleet for example, no longer owned their vessels starting from the 1660s onwards. The financial resources for building, repairing, outfitting, and operating a ship of the line would have been beyond the capability of any but the richest man. Instead, the state had to supply the entirety of the financial resources needed by the fleet. In a sense, could it be the French battlefleet which expressed the received idea of absolutism - of an all-powerful government with complete domination over its military, without private interest rearing its head, the modern military as opposed to the half affair of the army? But with the corollary that for the period, with the governmental structure and financial limitations of the French government, that this meant that it was fragile in a way the army did not, since it lacked the mixture of private and government resources which sustained the army and enabled it to continue to exist even when central coffers ran dry. By contrast to the battlefleet, private resources were mobilized for the guerre de course, which showed greater resiliency vis-a-vis the conventional battlefield. A short comparison between these arms of the Bourbon state could have put in a spotlight the advantages which the army's structure entailed.

Compared to books on later periods, it is far more difficult to know how soldiers thought, and what they fought for, in a society with a far less literary population and less production of texts. Given the limited resources available, Lynn should be congratulated for the impressive effort which he made in attempting to understand the motivation of the average French soldier. Pay, comradeship, loyalty to the king, coercive discipline - our understanding of them is just a shadow of our knowledge of why nobles fought, but based on the far more limited resources, admirable, particularly for showing that nationalism was not the binding glue of the French army as can be projected back too easily.

If there are any areas where additional effort could have been well spent, it is the actual military operations of the army, which receive scant detail. While the book is very much focused on structural elements of the French army, rather than upon conventional military history, it would still have been very useful to study to illustrate some of the elements involved, such as the desire to camp on foreign soil, logistics and supplies, command culture, and tactics. The book is almost entirely mute for studying the army in the field as a chapter in of itself, beyond general principles, and it lacks for maps and illustrations. But it did have good reasons for neglecting this, and so it shouldn't be considered too much of a deficiency.

A truly brilliant book which does much to correct the historiographical image of the French army, with a roving, questing eye for detail which is synthesized into core concepts about the French army and society, showing the critical role of a mixture of state and private resources, the nature of command authority, and the relationship of the army to broader society. Another book on the military operations proper of Louis XIV's army is probably a necessary companion, but this is a clear classic and excellent scholarly book which magnificently shows the inner workings of the French army of the Grand siècle.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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