Friday, November 8, 2013

France in the Kabinettskriege Period

Map of France 1675-1726
Dear Reader,

Throughout the Kabinettskriege period, France was the largest single state in western Europe. The French had not suffered the same type of economic and demographic drain from the Thirty Years' War as the German states. In addition, by virtue of the unified nature of the French state, it could afford to raise much larger armies than the smaller, dis-unified states of Germany. Also, as a result of the nature of Absolutism in France, afford to maintain a much larger standing army in peacetime than the English, making mobilization for war much quicker. This has led scholars to refer to France, in the early modern period, as, "The eight hundred pound gorilla of Europe." Why then, in the course of the Kabinettskriege period, did the French lose much of their empire overseas, and not win ground in Europe?

The French Victory at Ticonderoga-1758

Explanation One: The French haven't the Nature for War. 

To this day, in English and American circles, the French are accused of cowardice, effeminacy, and laziness. A common joke is that the French "salute" is raising your hands in surrender. In Last of the Mohicans, there is a scene where a British general expresses these exact views. It should not come to as a surprise to anyone that this is completely anachronistic. During the Kabinettskriege era, the French had an excellent military-one that often terrified their opponents.

During the early part of the Kabinettskriege period, the French military under Louis XVI threatened to destroy the balance of power in Europe. Some of the largest battles of the Kabinettskriege period occurred during the War of the League of Augsburg, and the War of Spanish Succession. (See a timeline of the period here.)

While the English choose to focus on this period of history as a time when John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was winning his spectacular victories against the French, the truth is that both sides achieved victories, which is one of the reasons why the war dragged on for almost fifteen years.  During this period, the French were repeatedly able to raise large, well trained armies, which required large alliances of minor powers to stop.

In the middle of the Kabinettskriege period, the French were able to defeat the British again and again during the War of Austrian Succession. British histories of this period choose to focus on the successes in North America, the success against the Jacobite rebellion, or indecisive win at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. The truth is that the French won three out of the four major field battles of this war: Fontenoy, Rocoux, and Lauffeld. In the absence of a large force of Austrians to protect the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium,) the French turned battlefield success into strategic gains time and time again. At the end of the war, the French were forced to give back these conquests to have their own overseas losses returned to them.

Finally, as we have already seen repeatedly on this blog, the French were able to defeat the British in the global Eight Years' War which surrounded the American War of Independence. Thus, we have clear evidence of French capability in the early, middle and late Kabinettskriege era.

Having thoroughly disproved the notion that the French soldiers or armies were somehow inferior, we must move on to-

English Cannons at the Siege of Louisbourg (1745) 

Explanation Two: The French had different objectives during the Kabinettskriege era

This idea indicates that the French somehow valued their overseas colonies less than the British during the course of the eighteenth century. Sadly, this idea is also not true.

Unlike the British, the French did not benefit from being unconnected to continental Europe. They had no defensive moat to complicate invasions. The only moat they had was the French army. While the French repeatedly tried to invade Britain throughout the course of the Kabinettskriege era, they also had to defend French borders from British amphibious raids, and the armies of continental Europe-something that the British histories of the Kabinettskriege era spend little time discussing. While the French usually had some sort of ally for their European wars, their allies rarely gave them hard physical support, in the way that the British and Western German states supported each-other throughout the Kabinettskriege era. The British population of North America also greatly outweighed the French speaking population, which allowed the British to raise numerous militia type forces to assist in combating the French. While the French also raised militias, they were very small compared to the British militias.

Why didn't the French send more support to America, and carve out an overseas empire during the eighteenth century? I can only answer that they sure didn't do it for lack of trying. They simply had their hands full.  That leads us to:

Victor-Francois, Duc de Broglie
Explanation 3: Poor Higher Command

While the French often had excellent commanders, such as the gentleman above, they also suffered from a number of poor commanders, particularly in the European theater of Seven Years' War. Since these often mediocre generals commanded, as we have seen above, a large portion of the French military, their poor decisions had an out of proportion effect. To a lesser extent, they also suffered from "victors' disease" from the War of Austrian Succession. They had successfully defeated the British on the continent during the last three battles of the War of Austrian Succession, so there was no reason to improve the army in the intervening years before the Seven Years' War. This, combined with continental obligations, caused the French to lose their overseas empire in Canada during the Seven Years' War, which was the only truly decisive conflict of the Kabinettskriege era.

Sorry-this one ran WAYYY long. I'm thinking about doing posts like this (but shorter) for each of the main European nations in the Kabinettskriege era. Do you like this plan? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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  1. Very interesting. I agree with the diagnosis of "Victor's Disease", this struck the French again in 1919. I think I need to consider some of your other points.

  2. Pierre, glad you enjoyed the post! Feel free to let me know what you think after you've had time to consider.

  3. Alex - I'm still thinking, I've had a busy week including presenting a paper on artillery fortifications c.1700. I have acquired at a reasonable cost, a copy of Jon Manchip White's 1962 biography of Maurice de Saxe, I think I will read this before replying.