The French army

France had the largest army

France had the number one army in 1700 in size as well as (perceived) quality. That the French army was the first in size was quite natural given the fact that France was quite rich and was the most populous country at the time. There is also little doubt that at a certain moment it was the best in quality. The size and quality of the French army had been created by a reform that had been started early in the seventeenth century. We start with the composition of this big army. The reform and some other things are treated at the end of this page.

Composition of the French Army

Thumb of French Household regiments
Thumb of all French infantry regiments

At the beginning of the Spanish Succession War the French Army numbered about 200,000 men and was composed as follows: 1

The French Army Reforms

The state takes control over private enterprise

Before the French army reforms started almost all armies in Europe were private property and thus a form of private enterprise. A company was owned by its captain, and a regiment was owned by its colonel. These got a lump sum from the state, and they in turn paid their men. As long as the military enterpreneurs reached their objectives, this meant that their profit depended on spending as little as possible on their units. This of course seduced these entrepreneurs to defraud the state. The principal abuses they made were either not fighting with the amount of men they were paid for, or else not paying their soldiers. Richelieu made the first and capital change to this practice. He made the 'intendants', who were already responsible for collecting taxes, also responsible for paying the wages of the soldiers. Financing the army thus became concentrated with the Secrétaire de Guerre, and even though it was not capable of completely controlling the army the first step had been made.

The next steps were taken after the victory over the Fronde. With it the absolutist monarchy triumphed, and the intendants got the free hand to collect taxes. The reforms then really got up to speed when Louis XIV took the reigns of government in his own hands in 1661. With the finances in the hands of the government the French army then became an institution fully dependent on the king, who delegated his power to the Secrétaire de Guerre. Michel le Tellier (1603-1685) and his son François Michel Marquis de Louvois (1641-1691), who followed him, were the two famous secrétaires that would give the French army a supremacy that was only broken on the fields of Blenheim.

The state takes control of logistics

The reforms instituted covered a large area of the army's organization. Primarily the secrétaires gained much success in fighting the abuses that were so common in European armies of the time. Intendants and commissaries gained all authority to organize the logistics and provisions for the army. From then on the officers were only responsible for training and tactical and operational decisions, while the king and the secretary made strategic and other more important decisions. (Later on this tendency to leave only tactical decisions to the authority of the commander would prove ruinous as it led to a risk-adverse policy whereby commanders thought more of the opinion of Versailles then of the success of the campaign.)

The provisions for the army were organized around the principal fortresses of the kingdom. As these were safe from attack and near the place were soldiers were expected to fight they were the logical places to store the enormous amounts of provisions the troops needed. The fact that this was very well organised made that the soldiers were sure of provisions and did a lot to strengthen discipline and to minimalise losses from hunger and disease. The secrétaries also took care to improve the care for the sick and wounded. The foundation of the Hotel des Invalides in 1674 for the care of those permanently injured can be seen as the crown on these reform works.

The first barracks are constructed

Another reform was the building of permanent barracks that was initiated from the end of the 17th century, even if at first this was only done in the major fortresses of the kingdom. This of course relieved the citizens from having the soldiers in their houses, but also gave more opportunity to discipline the soldiers. Discipline was further enforced by regulating the punishments, and making a small start with giving the soldiers a uniform.

But private property persisted

An older aspect of the French army that Louis XIV could not destroy was the fact that charges could be bought and sold. Even though the nobility saw themselves as having an exclusive right to command, each Frenchmen could thus buy an appointment as captain or colonel by buying a company or regiment, even though he needed the king's permission for it. Because regiments and companies were still property in this way, the king could not appoint the persons he liked as officers because he would then infringe on someone's ownership.

Appointment to grades higher than colonel was the exclusive domain of the king because it had nothing to do with private ownership. For this advancement the king instituted the famous Ordre du Tableaux whereby advancement was grounded on the years the officers had served. Only seldom did Louis pass the Ordre du Tableaux in order to make a promotion based on merit. A notable exception was that he passed Saint Simon in order to promote some more deserving officers.

There was however a notable exception to this, and this was the office of lieutenant-colonel. The lieutenant-colonel commanded when the colonel was not present, and except for the campaigning season this was often the case. Here Louis XIV made an exception to the rule that the longest serving officer was the first to get promoted1a. In fact the position of lieutenant-colonel was often given to officers of merit. When the office of Brigadier-general was invented it was then ruled that lieutenant-colonels could become brigadiers without being colonels first. In this way Vauban and Catinat became senior officers without ever having been colonels.

The French army at the beginning of the war

Tactical and technical aspects

In tactical aspects the French army had been leading for a long time. Jean de Martinet seems to have been the man responsible for a lot of innovations by the French army: the first grenadier company in 1670, the first use of the Bayonet in 1671 and inventing the pontoon bridge. By 1700 however The French Army was not that innovative. It refused to introduce the flint-lock musket much too long, and therefore was at a disadvantage in fire-power against the infantry of the seapowers. Also its cavalry hung on to the pistol instead of relying on the saber.

The demobilization after the Peace of Rijswijk

The demobilization after the Peace of Rijswijk brought down the strength of the French army to the number of units mentioned above. There was however also a reduction of the men per company. In a letter to Chamillart written during the War Villars mentioned that after the peace a lot of old soldiers of the Dauphin regiment had been dismissed and young and well built young men had been retained1b. I do not yet know if this was an incident or a trend that caused a general drop in the quality of units.

The mobilization for the War of the Spanish Succession

The French Army had to be brought back to strength in late 17002. This was begun by an order of 26 January 1701, which ordered the levy of 57 new battalions which would be manned by levying 1 man in each parish. These new battalions would be added to the oldest 57 regiments that had only one battalion3. This could have led to excellent results by bringing recruits to veteran units. In January 1702 King Louis did however make a serious mistake by ordering the levy of a hundred new regiments of 1 battalion each, which had to be raised by the officers commissioned for them at their own expense. This order brought about the ruin of the infantry:

The decision to raise new regiments in stead of simply enlarging the existing companies meant that 7,000 officers had to be appointed in a very short time and that the regiments had to compete for soldiers. It was unthinkable to simply promote a lot of sergeants and this meant that a crowd of well-born noblemen without much experience joined the officer corps. Furthermore Officers and soldiers of the old regiments deserted to the new ones for money and their moves were soon affirmed by amnesties. This made that the experienced old regiments lost manpower and part of their cohesion. The new colonels and other officers where meanwhile often inexperienced or even tended to abuse their power by stealing and fraud. One of the nastiest effects was that the regular soldiers tended to be up to their duties after a campaign4, but this did not go for the officers.

For the cavalry an order of 26 January 1701 stated that within 2.5 months each cavalry and dragoon company should be augmented with 10 riders. Also 120 companies of cavalry and 60 companies of dragoons were to be levied by the state for forming new regiments. Next to that it was announced that all who wanted to levy cavalry and dragoon regiments at their own expense were to be received would be well received5.

The Command

Regarding the command one can say that whereas previously the French army had very good commanders like Luxembourg and Turenne, the same cannot be said of most commanders in the succession war. Together with Versailles' attempts to direct the army from a distance, this led the French army to a series of disasters in this war.


1) See Batailles Françaises part V by Hardy de Périni
1a) Histoire de la Milice Françoise tome I page 235 for the post of lieutenant-colonel.
1b) See the page about the Regiment du Dauphin
2) Histoire de la Milice Françoise tome I page 255 for the mobilization.
3) Mémoires du marquis de Sourches under 27 January 1701 for raising the 57 battalions.
4) It is accepted that drafted soldiers will also get competent enough after one campaign.
5) Mémoires du marquis de Sourches under 24-25 January 1701 for the cavalry mobilization.