French Generals

Rank and active duty

To the contemporary observer the reasons why general A commanded in Flanders and general B in Italy were probably so obvious that he would not write them down. This overview of French generals therefore starts with a tableau I created. A tableau gives an overview of how generals rank among each other. In order to understand this tableau one should note that on 1 January 1703 the first 5 officers ranked as field marshals according to the dates of their appointments. All others rank by the date of their appointment as lieutenant general.

Tableau of French Senior officers as they ranked on 1 January 1703
English equivalentGeneralLt-GeneralMaj-generalBrig-General
NameMaréchal de FranceLt-GeneralMaréchal de CampBrigadier General
Boufflers 1693 27 March 168116771675
Catinat 1693 27 March 1688168016771
Villeroy 1693 27 March216771674116671
Vendome 16943 168816781677
Villars 1702 16931689?
Chamilly4 1703 14 January 1678?1673
Rosen5 1703 14 January 168216771674
Vauban 1703 14 January 168816761674
D'Huxelles6 1703 14 January 168816831677
Tessé7 1703 14 January 169216881684
Montrevel8 1703 14 January 169316881677
Tallard 1703 14 January 1693?1675?
Berwick 1706 February 1693N/AN/A
De Gacé9 1708 18 February 1693??
Harcourt10 1703 14 January 169416881683
Montesquiou11 1709 20 Sep. 169616911689
Marsin 1703 14 January 170116931688
Bezons12 1709 5 May 1702169316881
La Feuillade1724 170417031702

Having done this we can make an overview of the most important fronts and fill in who commanded them each year. What we then see is that Versailles simply started by taking the tableau and comparing it to the armies that would take the field. So 1701 started out by appointing the three oldest field marshals to the three most important armies. In 1702 we then see number four (Vendome) getting into the picture for high command because number three gets captured. After number two resigns late in 1702 number five (Villars) gets an independent command in 1703. This may seem a ridiculous way of appointing, but is in fact the logical consequence of appointing someone in a rank. Any general not appointed to an active command and passed by his junior would interpret it as an insult and the end of his active career.

This way Versailles had little choice in whom it could appoint to lead the armies in the field. After the results of 1701 and 1702 it probably concluded that with regard to the generals at hand this was a very undesirable situation. In January 1703 a massive round of promotions also created a lot of field marshals. It's been stated often that the reason for this promotion was to inspire the officers to apply themselves better. With regard to the above it seems to me that it could just as well have to do with Versailles wanting to have more options in appointing commanders. In stead of having a lot of lieutenant generals that ranked by the date of their appointments, Versailles now had a lot of field marshals who had been appointed on the same date. Passing one of them for active command would still be sensitive, but not that insulting. This is also what happened: in 1703 Tallard and Montrevel came into supreme command passing five others.

Fronts by importance and commanders
Flanders ItalyGermanyBavariaCévennes
1701BoufflersCatinat/VilleroyVilleroy--
1702BoufflersVilleroy/VendomeCatinat (Villars)--
1703Boufflers/VilleroyVendomeVillars/Tallard VillarsMontrevel
1704VilleroyVendomeTallardMarsinMontrevel/Villars

Good or bad generals?

A lot of writers comment that while Louis XIV was very lucky to have such brilliant generals as Condé, Turenne and Luxemburg at the beginning of his reign, he had bad luck by having a lot of mediocre generals in the Succession war. Viewing this as a matter of bad luck is however too simple a way of looking at it. At the time Louis XIV still had his great generals he had appointed senior officers who were less capable and by the time of this war these ranked highest. One can therefore say that while the command was in capable hands Louis had neglected to ensure that future generations of commanders would be just as capable.

At the time of the Spanish Succession the army therefore had a lot of mediocre senior officers. In a long and costly process these more mediocre generals first had to prove themselves incapable before others got a chance. Generals like Vendome, Villars and Berwick could then be appointed and these did prove themselves to be capable of supreme command. Furthermore this process was not advanced by the way Versailles meddled into the way its generals fought. Favoritism also continued to play its role. Giving too much second chances and appointing La Feuillade to command at his age are examples of favoritism and have nothing to do with bad luck.

One can add to this that the French army was much less well organized in 1700 than in the previous era of war ministers father and son Louvois. This means that the effectiveness of the troops commanded by e.g. Tallard was probably lower than those commanded by Turenne. This and the officer appointments made during Louis' reign may also have had effects throughout the whole chain of command. One can thus wonder in how far the general degradation of the army influenced the performance of its generals. The effectiveness of the French army itself might thus be responsible for some of the 'mistakes' its generals made.

My hypothesis would thus be that one cannot conclude that that Louis had bad luck in the commanders he had during the Spanish Succession War. Primarily because his appointment policy was responsible for having a lot mediocre generals at the top. Secondly because he did have good generals and the performance of all generals might have been influenced by the army they had to fight with.

Notes

1) Or before
2) La Roque says May 1693, but I suspect that to be a typo. Furthermore Michaud says that while he was appointed in 1693 he received the baton only in 1695
3) I did not find any source that mentions Vendome was ever appointed Maréchal de France. Laroque and Michaud do not mention it either. Vendome was however appointed as General of the Galleys this year and that's probably why he was perceived as ranking as a maréchal de France.
4) Noël Bouton marquis de Chamilly (1636-1715). Chamilly was the supposed addressee of the Lettres portugaises.
5) Conrad de Rosen comte de Bolweiler (ca. 1628-1715)
6) Nicolas du Blé marquis d'Huxelles (ca. 1652-1730)
7) René de Froulay comte de Tessé (ca. ?-1723)
8) Nicolas Auguste de la Baume marquis de Montrevel (1645-1716)
9) Charles August Goyon de Matignon comte de Gacé (?-1729)
10) Henri duc d'Harcourt (ca. 1655-1718)
11) Pierre de Montesquiou (ca 1640-1725)
12) Jacques Bazin seignieur de Bezons (ca 1650-1733)