Claude Louis Hector Duc de Villars

1 The Villars family

Villars' parents were Pierre Marquis de Villars and Marie Gigault de Bellefond. Pierre was on a good footing with the Prince de Conti and Mazarin and in combination with his talents this made him Lieutenant General. Further progress in the military was probably stopped by Louvois, but his civilian career got on quite well under Louis XIV. He became governor of Besançon and Douay , and after the treaty of Aachen (1668) he became ambassador to Spain and later Piemont and Denmark. In 1698 Pierre died.

2 Early Career of Villars

Claude Louis Hector Villars was born in Moulins in May 1651. Claude started his career as page at La Grande Ecurie. In 1671 he entered the musketeers. In 1672 villars became an ADC to Maréchal de Bellefonds and was in the campaign against the United Provinces. He distinguished himself in the crossing of the Rhine and participated in the sieges of Doesburg (6-22 juni 1672); Zutphen (21-25 june) and Crevecoeur (12-19 July). Due to the courage he had shown in the crossing of the Rhine Villars was made an ensign (Cornette) in Chevaux Légers de Bourgogne (Gendarmerie) by brevet of 22 July 1672. The end of the campaign saw him on his first diplomatic mission, bringing some compliments to Charles II while his father was ambassador in Madrid.

At the start of the 1673 campaign Villars caught up with the king in Brussel, and he followed him to the famous siege of Maastricht. At Maastricht Villars distinguished himself repeatedly. He next continued under the command of Turenne.

2.1 Villars gets his first regiment

In 1674 Villars distinguished himself in the battle of Seneffe and was wounded. This led the king to give him the cavalry regiment of Sieur de Courcelles, who had been killed in the battle. This is also Villars' own opinion, but one has to note that at the time bravery alone hardly mattered in getting a regiment. What mattered most were wealth and/or relations. Villars was the son of a senior officer and related to the Bellefonds family. This made him eligible to get a regiment at age 21.

2.2 Fighting as a colonel

In 1675 Villars was again in Flanders, this time under Luxembourg. In this campaign he distinguished himself while commanding in some minor combats. The beginning of 1676 saw Villars at the siege of Condé which was executed in the presence of Louis XIV. After that the Duke of Orleans started the siege of Bouchain, and Villars was with the army that covered this siege. Next came the siege of Aire where Villars commanded a brigade of 11 squadrons. After that Villars was in Schomberg's army that lifted the siege of Maastricht.

Early in 1677 Villars was with the army that besieged Valenciennes and Saint Omer. After Valenciennes was taken Villars was in the army that covered the siege of Saint Omer, and was successful in an engagement that ended William III's attempts to lift the siege. Villars himself was trusted with the negotiations for the surrender of Saint Omer. Villars then went to the detachment of Marshal Schomberg, who was on the Meuse. After some maneuvers Villars ended up in the surroundings of Strassbourg. After some advantageous engagements there he passed the Rhine under Marshall Créqui and was present at the siege of Freiburg.

In May 1678 Villars' regiment was again in the army of Marshall Créqui and was camped near Neuburg. Here Villars for the first time fought Louis of Baden (the margrave), who succeeded in overturning a French cavalry detachment. Next came Créqui's attempt to take Offenburg and later Kehl, an action in which Villars signaled himself. The war was more or less ended with the peace of Nijmegen (1678).

Villars had not risen above the rank of colonel1 and he therefore had to find another way to enter the ranks of the senior officers. What was worse was that his regiment was incorporated into Beaupré's on 15 August 1679. Villars'company was preserved in that regiment and again made a new Villars regiment on 15 January 1684.

3 Villars goes to Bavaria

In 1683 Villars was sent on his first diplomatic mission which was to convey Louis's condolences to emperor Leopold on the death of his mother. In Vienna he met Elector Max Emanuel of Bavaria who was a staunch ally of the emperor. Being of a similar age as Max Emanuel and perhaps by being both of a warlike character they seem to have gotten along very well. Because of this Louis XIV ordered Villars to follow Max Emanuel back to Munich in order to attempt to win him over to the French side. For Villars it presented an opportunity to accompany Max Emanuel on his campaign in Hungary. Here he not only observed the war against the Turks, but actually participated in the 1684 campaign. At the end of this campaign Villars was officially named ambassador extraordinary to Bavaria. The next years Villars spent in plotting against the emperor at Munich. In 1687 Max Emanuel again went to Hungary, but this time Villars had to stay behind, and therefore returned to France.

Upon his return to Versailles Villars got a most flattering welcome from Louis XIV. After letting go of his regiment, he also became Commissioner General of the Cavalry (1688) and was invited to Saint Cyr and to accompany the king to Marly. In 1688 Villars returned briefly to Bavaria, but Max Emanuel sent him away again, mainly because of the Furstemberg affair and Louis XIV's war against the empire. After traveling through Swiss Villars fell into the moat of Basel, a fact which almost cost him his life. It is difficult to determine whether his mission had any influence on Max Emanuel joining the French side in 1702 (14 years later!) apart from establishing communications. The fact that Max Emanuel continued as a loyal ally to William III right up to 1702 rather suggests the contrary.

4 Villars in the Nine Years War

4,1 At Walcourt

In 1689 Villars served in the Flanders army under Maréchal d'Humières. The beginning of the campaign saw little movement, but then the enemy under the command of the Prince of Waldeck moved to camp at Walcourt. On 25 August 1689 Maréchal d'Humières ordered a badly led attack of the positions around the town and was driven back with the loss of 2,000 men. Marlborough and Slangenburgh led the troops that achieved this. Villars is silent about his own role in the engagement.

4.2 Maréchal de Camp

On 10 March 1690 Villars got promoted to Maréchal de Camp2, meaning Villars became a senior officer. In 1690 Villars was with Marshall Boufflers, who commanded the 'middle' army in the Ardennes. It saw Villars getting the command of a detachment of about 8,500 men, with whom he entered the land of Waes together with Boufflers, an expedition that was very advantageous in terms of contributions.

In 1691 Boufflers' army went for the siege of Mons and Villars got an important role securing the approaches of the place. After taking Mons Boufflers' army was sent to bombard Liege and Villars was part of it. Having completed this Boufflers army retired to Dinant. Villars then got his first independent command, i.e. that over the troops standing between Tournay and the sea. He was however soon called to aid Luxembourg, and under his command he fought in the battle of Leuze. In 1692 Villars went to the German front, here he succeeded in capturing the duke of Würtemberg.

1693 saw Boufflers besieging Veurne with Villars commanding the cover force near Kortrijk. Early in that same year Villars became Lieutenant Géneral3 and learned that he was to serve on the German front. Here Villars was present at the pillage of Heidelberg, but apart from murder and pillage the French army did not achieve much on the German front. Villars got the government of Breisgau and Freiburg. The 1694 campaign opened with Villars crossing the Rhine at Philipsburg under Marshal de Lorges. Here they came up to Louis of Baden, who had entrenched himself at Wiesloch. After a few skirmishes the French army retreated across the Rhine without accomplishing anything. The opening of the 1695 campaign was a repeat of the previous. The French army crossed the Rhine and retreated after a few skirmishes with Louis of Baden. Villars served in Italy in the 1696 campaign. Here he was present at the siege of Valenza, but that was cut short by the diplomatic maneuvers brought about by Savoy changing sides. In 1697 Villars was to serve in Germany again, this time under Marshal de Choiseul. The French army crossed the Rhine and took position between Rastatt and Kuppenheim. Louis of Baden then advanced and dug in at some distance from the French army that dug in around Kuppenheim. To the chagrin of Villars the two armies faced each other in this position for 6 weeks without doing battle. The French army then retired and the campaign was finished by the treaty of Rijswijk (1697).

5 Villars as ambassador to Vienna

After the peace of Rijswijk in 1697 it was decided that Villars was to be ambassador4 to Vienna. With about a dozen vehicles Villars left for Vienna at the end of June 1698. His first stop was near Baden Baden to meet Generalleutnant Louis of Baden and to chat with him at the thermal baths. Next Villars had his train put on boats at Ulm and traveled downstream to Vienna. This mission Villars had to perform during the difficult period of the Partition Treaties. During the beginning of his ambassadorship it did not come to any serious negotiations, and for a while all contact between the Vienese court and Villars was suspended due to a diplomatic incident. Therefore VIllars was not engaged in any serious negotiations until the partition treaty of March 1700 became known. When this news broke he got instructions from the king with regard to which Habsburg proposals he should or should not negotiate on. All this with a view of getting Vienna to sign the partition treaty. According to himself Villars' main achievement in Vienna was that he prevented the emperor from occupying Milan and thus pressuring the Spanish government to choose for the Austrian candidate. In Vienna he also met his future adversary Prince Eugen, and France's future ally Rákóczy. It is said that he was instrumental in getting Max Emanuel on the French side as well as in inspiring Rákóczy to revolt5. The mission naturally had to end when Austria started war against Spain and France. On 26 July 1701 Villars took his official leave from the Viennese court and went to France.

6 The War of the Spanish Succession War up till 1709

After leaving Vienna Villars went to the Italian front where he (officially) served under Victor Emanuel. In his memoirs Villars is rather silent about this period that was marked by the affair of Chiari.

6.1 Marriage to demoiselle de Varangeville

By contract of 29 and 31 January 1702 Villars maried Jeanne Angelique Rocque de Varangeville. She was a 'Dame du palais de la Reine'. Her father was Jacques Rocque Seigneur de Varengeville; Oudeville; Archanville; Galleville and Noville ambassador to Venice. Her mother was Charlotte-Angelique Courtin. Villars did not write much about this in his memoirs. Jeanne brought the château de Galleville as a dowry. This was probably Villars' first prestigious dwelling.

6.2 Friedlingen

Villars' first independent command got him the mission to cross the Rhine in 1702 in order to help France's new ally Bavaria. This led to the battle of Friedlingen which Villars won. Even though this victory did not enable Villars to reach his strategic objective of aiding Bavaria it made Villars Marshal of France.

6.3 The Bavarian campaign

In 1703 Villars started early by passing the Rhine at Neuburg on 12 February. He then went north and took Kehl on 10 March. Villars then started his march to Bavaria in April. On 4 May he reached Villingen, a town he very much wanted to take but wasn't able to besiege because of a lack of food. On 8 May Villars achieved the first part of his mission by joining with the army of Max Emanuel.

Letting his army and cavalry rest he began to plan further. Villars and the elector decided on attacking Vienna, but in the end Max Emanuel did not like the plan, and so they opted for attacking Tyrol. The expedition to Tyrol was rebuffed by the population and so Villars and Max Emanuel had to opt for another strategy. Maneuvers then led to the Franco Bavarian army being victorious at the first battle of Höchstädt on 20 September 1703.

Some months before this victory Villars already had his doubts about the way the Bavarian campaign was managed. He clearly perceived that without any secure communication to France the army was bound to perish6. He also found that he did not have enough control to let the elector choose an effective strategy. He therefore asked for his dismissal from his Bavarian command7.

Villars asking his dismissal, or not accepting a prestigious appointment is a pattern in his behavior. The victory at Höchstät did not change his opinion of the Bavarian campaign, for on 1 October Villars reiterated his request to be dismissed from the command8. At the end of the campaign Villars got replaced by Marsin.

6.4 The Cevennes

In early 1704 Villars got the relatively minor assignment of replacing Marshal de Montrével and quenching the revolt of the Cevennes. He executed this task by making a clear distinction between how he treated the Protestant population in general and how he treated the armed rebels. This new policy generally convinced the population to stop their support for the armed insurgents, who became more and more isolated. One by one the leaders of the rebels were captured or negotiated. Most of these negotiations ended in them getting permission to leave France. By the end of 1704 order had been restored and Villars was recalled to Versailles.

6.5 Villars becomes a duke

Villars was a very ambitious man. The battle of Friedlingen had made him a Marshal of France, meaning he had reached the top of possible promotions in the military. Social prestige was however not only regulated by money and offices, but also by titles of nobility. In this regard Villars was however only a marquess, a title that at the time did not have any precedence over barons or counts in France. In order to be significant amongst the French nobility one had to be a duke. According to Saint Simon Mazarin stated he would create so many dukes that it would be just as shameful to be a duke as not to be a duke.

Therefore in 1703 Villars asked Chamillart to influence the king so he would be made a duke. Villars noted that Boufflers had been made a duke after loosing Namur 1695; and others had been made dukes without much significant service to show9. Of course his request to leave Bavaria kind of prevented him from becoming a duc on that account, but apparently his actions in the Cevennes were enough to merit this favor. On 21 January 1705 Louis provided Villars the ducal dignity, to be attached to a future property. Meanwhile Villars had not forgotten to remind Chamillard that he had 947,000 livres in cash and an income of 71,000 livres, without counting the income from his or his wife's estates or interest10.

Villars did not hesitate and the acquisition of Vaux-le-Vicomte on 29 August 1705 probably bought him the most splendid mansion available. King Louis then did his part when a an edict was registered in parliament on 5 September. It made the lands of Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Vicomtez de Mêlun into one new duchy under the name Vaux-Villars.

6.6 The Moselle

At the Moselle Villars saw himself opposed to Marlborough for the first time in 1705. Here he placed himself so advantageously that Marlborough opted to abandon his Moselle plan and marched to the Brabant Lines in stead.

6.7 Refuses to command in Italy

In 1706 Villars was again commanding on the Rhine. He started with the capture of Drusenheim on 2 May and continued his success with the capture of Hagenau on 11 May. All seemed set for a new siege of Landau, but then on 23 May 1706 the Flanders army was routed in the Battle of Ramillies. This led Versailles to appoint Vendome to command in Flanders, Villars to command under the Duc d'Orléans in Italy, and Marsin on the Rhine.

As discussed the tableau of the French Generals made Villars the obvious candidate to go to Italy. The appointment of another general would have been justly appreciated as a sign that Villars was out of favor. Nonetheless Villars did not want to take this major step in his career. On 27 June 1706 Villars wrote letters to the king and Chamillard. To the king he simply stated that it would be more useful to leave him in his command on the Rhine. To Chamillard he wrote that he was not well suited to simultaneously manage a prince and his court and an army. He therefore proposed to appoint Marsin in Italy11.

Of course Versailles was not pleased by this polite refusal, but after some consideration it indeed appointed Marsin to Italy. Villars continued on the Rhine, but had to detach so many troops to Flanders that he did not achieve much.

7 Villars saves France

After Villeroy, La Feuillade, Vendome, Orleans and Burgundy had all been beaten Villars finally got his chance at commanding one of France's main armies. In 1709 Villars got command of France's Flanders army and fought the battle of Malplaquet. As regards possession of the battlefield this was an alliance victory, but counting losses it was a French victory. It confirmed Villars in his command of France's main army. After England betrayed the alliance Villars fought the battle of Denain in 1712. This victory he obtained by outmaneuvering Eugen and crushing a strong alliance detachment that protected Denain. This rather minor victory could perhaps be best compared to the Schellenberg. The way in which Villars profited from it did however make it into a strategic victory of great proportions. It effectively ended the Austro Dutch ambitions to throw down France without English help and led to the peace of Utrecht in 1713. The Peace of Utrecht was not signed by Austria, and so Villars commanded the army sent to Germany. This campaign culminated in the conquest of Landau and Fribourg and Austria sueing for peace. This he personally negotiated by making peace at Rastadt.

8 Later Career

During the regency Villars seems to have stayed clear of the inner circles of government. In the war of The Polish succession he again commanded the French in Italy and got the special distinction of Maréréchal Général des Armées. He did however quarrel with the king of Sardegna and therefore asked for his recall, which he got. Villars died on 17 June 1734.

9 Generalship of Villars

Villars was one of the most successful French generals during the Spanish Succession War. He gained victories at Friedlingen and Höchstädt I, successes on the Rhine in 1707, fought advantageously at Malplaquet and scored a strategic victory at Denain in 1712. However, Villars only got a chance to command the main French army in 1709, and before that he did not face strong armies under good commanders. This in turn means that because the occasion did not present itself his service record up till 1709 does not show brilliant victories against heavy odds. As supreme commander from 1709 till 1714 he can also not be credited with a major victory in an open battle, but is credited as being the savior of France.

The reason why Villars should be credited as the savior of France is not the battle of Malplaquet nor the battle of Denain, but is the same reason why Villars should rank in the top of the list of great commanders. The French army of the early 1700's can be compared to a 21st century public service organization or a long running IT project. By the time Villars came to command the vast majority of the officers corps thought about covering their asses and not being the messenger that gets shot rather than of achieving results. Managing such an organization to achieve any goal is very difficult, and in my analysis one of the prime reasons the French army suffered such a string of disastrous reverses. The genius of Villars is that he could manage a very cynical organization in such a way that its members acted to achieve a common goal. As a consequence his maneuvers and battles succeeded while others' failed.

10 Villars as a diplomat and his character

In the field of diplomacy Villars is often credited with getting Hungary and Bavaria on the French side, a strategic success of the first magnitude. I do doubt that this is the case: It assumes that Max Emanuel and Rákóczy were not smart enough to have their own ideas, and that I doubt. I do not doubt that his campaign in the Cevennes that put down the revolt there was won more by diplomacy than generalship. However, this was a very different level of diplomacy, and perhaps had more to do with being a hônette homme. In his memoirs Villars also shows that he clearly understood that rape and pillage tactics not only led to the moral (and physical) destruction of his soldiers, but also to a guerilla environment12 where his armies could not function.

Even though Villars is always credited as a great diplomat one gets a very different picture from his memoirs. In them he figures as an overtly ambitious man who was (perhaps justly) very full of himself. One can doubt how a man who shows himself so insensitive to the impression such memoirs will make on his readers could make a good diplomat. The evidence also points to Villars being very undiplomatic. In a war where he is the only French general that achieves any success he only gets the highest command after France has been brought to dire straits by a series of disastrous defeats. As regards Villars diplomacy with the court I am therefore tempted to think that it was so bad that France had to suffer a series of disasters before its leadership could bring itself to appoint Villars. This attitude of Villars that was very direct, but also very true to himself did however also have its advantages: He refused to 'command' in a structure that contributed to the disasters of Turin and Oudenaarde/Lille. He also refused to have his army being directed from Versailles while he was in command. Finally his stubbornness secured peace at Rastatt and Baden13.

11 Career and service overview

Career

  • 1671: Joins the musketeers
  • 1672: Cornet (ensign)in the Gendarmerie
  • 1674: Cavalry Colonel
  • 1680: Ambassador to Bavaria
  • 1688: 24 Aug. Brigadier
  • 1688: 2 Sep. Commissaire Général de la Cavalerie
  • 1690: 10 March Maréchal de Camp
  • 1691: First independent command over the troops west of Tournay
  • 1691: Present at the battle of Leuze
  • 1693: Lieutenant Général (Memoirs P 413)
  • 1693: Becomes governor of Freiburg and Breisgau
  • 1698: Ambassador to Vienna
  • 1701: Reenters military
  • 1702: Field Marshal
  • 1705: Duke
  • 1709: Pair
  • 1733: Marshall General

Service

  • 1672: In his first campaign against the Dutch
  • 1672: Present at the siege of Doesburg
  • 1672: Present at the siege of Crèvecoeur (Near 's Hertogenbosch)
  • 1673: Present at the siege of Maastricht
  • 1674: Present at the battle of Seneffe
  • 1674: Present at the siege of Saint Omer
  • 1677: Present at the siege of Freiburg
  • 1684: At Max Emanuel's side in the Hungarian campaign
  • 1684: Present at the battle of Walcourt
  • 1687: Present at the battle of Mohacs
  • 1691: Present at the siege of Mons
  • 1693: Present at taking the castle of Heidelberg and the burning of the town
  • 1696: Present at the failed siege of Valenza
  • 1701: Reenters the military
  • 1702: Gains marshall wand at Friedlingen
  • 1703: Crosses the Rhine and the Black forest in 1703 and wins the first battle of Höchstädt Did not get along that well with Max-Emanuel and was therefore replaced by Marsin.
  • 1704: Pacifies the Cevennes with force and diplomacy
  • 1705: Commander on the Rhine
  • 1707: Invades Southern Germany
  • 1708: Fights Eugen in the Dauphiné
  • 1709: Command of the Flanders army and in battle of Malplaquet
  • 1712: Victorious at Denain

12 Sources

12.1 Villars' memoirs

Villars kept a large archive of his correspondence and wrote his memoirs. These then appeared in print in a rather unlucky manner. The first part was a rather faithful rendition of what Villars wrote till 1700, known as the Villars memoirs 1734 edition. The publisher then lost access to the manuscript and therefore he published in 1735 a three volume edition which contained the first volume based on the original manuscript, and volumes 2 and 3; created by somebody else.

In 1784 Louis Pierre Anquetil then published a complete set of memoirs. The Anquetil edition was more closely based on the original, but e.g. changed Villars' third person perspective to a first person perspective. Thus for the period after 1701 it kind of contained Villars' memoirs, but for the period before 1701 it mutilated them. Therefore new editions published in the early nineteenth century contained the 1735 edition till 1700 and Anquetil's work for the later period.

It was only in 1884 that the Marquis de Vogüé published the original work for the Société de l'Histoire de France. Just like the others all 5 volumes of the Mémoires du Maréchal de Villars publiés d'après le manuscrit original can be downloaded freely, but one has to look around a bit.

12.2 Biographies

A rather old description of Villars' life is in the Chronologie historique-militaire, V 2, published in 1760. In 1857 the Histoire du Maréchal de Villars was published.

13 Notes

1) See Villars memoirs under 1677 and 1679 (or page 319 and 325 of the edition mentioned on the sources page)
2) Europische Mercurius for March 1690.
3) See Villars memoirs under 1693 (or page 413)
4) See Villars memoirs under 1698 (or page 448) where he explains that he was in fact a special envoy
5) But compare his memoirs under 1698 (or page 9) where Villars explicitly denies this.
6) E.g. Villars to Chamillart 16 June 1703: 'Je crois monsieur, devoir encore prendre la liberté de vous réprésenter ce que j'ai l'honneur de mander au Roi, sur la nécessité indispensable d'établir une communication solide,..'
7) Both can be found in Villars'letter to Chamillart on 8 September 1703: ...mais d'être bien avec lui (the elector of Bavaria) ou mal, d'y être estimé ou méprisé, est absolument inutile pour l'obliger à prendre de bons partis;' and 'je vous demande pardon de la liberté avec laquelle je vous parle; mais je desire absolument mon congé'
8) Villars to Chamillart 1 October 1703: '..je vous demande, monsieur, des ordres positifs & mon congé,'
9) Villars to Chamillart on 16 May 1703 for asking to be made a duke.
10) Villars' memoirs for these amounts
11) Letters by Villars to the king and Chamillard of 27 June 1706. Both published in the appendix of Pelet volume 6: 'si parmi tous nos généraux il y en a un moins propre qu'un autre à suivre aveuglément le projet d'un prédécesseur, et sous l'autorité d'un prince qui a déjà de grandes connaissances de guerre, obligé d'ailleurs à ménager sa cour, et en même temps de gouverner l'armée; si, dis-je monsieur, vous voulez jeter les yeux sur le moins propre à un pareil emploi, je vous avoue naturellement que c'est moi.'
12) In his memoirs of 1703 he mentions that because of earlier visits of the French army to Southern Germany everyone in 10 miles of the French army had fled before it, a circumstance that greatly hindered his supply situation.
13) I hope to add some source for these three last statements later on