Sunday, June 23, 2019

Marquis de Louvois and the Reformation of the Royal French Army

Louvois had been credited into building a formidable fighting force that realized the imperial dreams and ambitions of his King Louis XIV.

Early Life

Born on January 18, 1641, the Marquis de Louvois was the son Michel le Tellier, the Secretary of State of War. He studied under the supervision of his father in a Jesuit college in Clermont. He earned a reputation as a mischievous child who always caused problems to his father.

In 1655, in hope of shaping his son, Michel le Tellier entered Louvois to the war ministry to work with him and learn the administration of an office and military. Eventually, Louvois learned discipline and became an active assistant to his father. In 1662, Louvois earned the title of Marquis by marrying the daughter of the Marquis de Courtenvaux – Anne de Souvre. In 1663, he helped his father and his sovereign King Louis XIV in establishing the model King’s Regiment. Louvois caught the King’s attention with the help of his father who gradually promoted his talents. Eventually in 1666, with his father being assigned as Chancelor, he succeeded in becoming the Secretary of State for War. His father though continued to exercise influence over the office and both shaped a modern military force.
Marquis de Louvois
Feudal Royal French Army

Prior to Louvois and his father, faced serious challenges to make it into an efficient fighting force. French society mirrored the French military hierarchy. Then its logistics limited military operations. Many units lack competent staff to operate properly. Louvois faced gargantuan challenges.

The ranks of the French army suffered from social stratification that mirrored France’s society. France had a strict social hierarchy dominated by nobility. Highly decentralized, in many cases in French history, nobles held greater power than the King himself. Very powerful, they dominated military affairs. Military officers filled by men not due to talent and skills nor even experience, but by social ranking and money. Nobles bought commission as officers in the army. Moreover, some special units had incompetent heads that led in ineffective attacks. This resulted to low morale as troops lacked the drive to exceed expectations with a promotion as a reward in sight.

More than incompetent, reckless, and sometimes abusive officers, soldiers also suffered from lack of supplies. Lack of ammunition and supplies brought military operations to a halt hampering French advances in its most turbulent war of the 17th century – the Thirty Years’ War. At that time, the army relied on contracted traders and merchants to provide supplies. Distribution of supplies also relied on the colonels of the different units of the army coming from the nobility who corrupted the supplies leaving troops with few to no supplies. During the time of Michel de Tellier’s tenure, the war ministry implemented to the letter the contracts given to suppliers.

More changes implemented with Michel de Tellier. He made a study of the requirements of the French army in terms of supply. He also changed the personnel in charge of distribution of supplies from the colonel to new royal agents called general de vivres. He also began to establish temporary magazines containing supplies needed by an army along the marching routes during a campaign. Such as the case during the offensive to the Low Countries in 1648. Le Tellier established magazines in Metz, Nancy, and Pont-a-Mousson. He also used rivers to transport supplies. In the end, Marshal Turenne, who led the army, successfully conducted the offensive.

Louvois’ Reforms

Louvois continued the reforms made by his father. This ranged from logistics, promotion, training, among others. His reforms led to the creation of a modern royal army envied by Europe and then beyond.

Reforms in logistics continued. From temporary magazines, Louvois upgraded them to permanent magazines. By using the previous studies of his father, he successfully stored supplies for 200,000 troops up to 6 months. The army also placed additional permanent magazines placed along routes of the army. He also laid out portable ovens from which bread supplied the army only 2 days march behind.

The unfair promotions in the French army also faced the reforms of Louvois. Though he failed to stop the selling of commission which also gave the government income, he found a way around it. He created parallel ranks that equaled those sold in authority but different in title. In doing so, sold commissions like general and colonel remain, but an equivalent position not sold like major, lieutenant colonel, and brigadier general appeared. These positions placed non-noble birth with experience and skills necessary for the position. They assumed several duties which nobles failed to do such as in the case of majors who provided administrative and logistic duties and lieutenant colonel who assumed the duties of regiment commander during the absence of colonel that always occurred.

To supply the military with competent officials, Louvois established schools and special units to achieve this. In 1663, the establishment of the Regiment du Roi became a model for the training of the French military. From the regiment, the drills and tactics spread to the French military. In 1679 he contributed to the establishment of the Royal-Artillerie (Royal Artillery School). In 1682, he formed a special unit that equaled to the modern age’s officer corps called Cadet Companies. It initially began with 9 companies composed of competent men regardless of birth. The units then received excellent education and training ranging from military arts to mathematics and geography as well as cultural pursuits such as dancing, painting, etc.
Les Invalides
Louvois also had other reforms covering various issues. The use of flintlock and bayonets began during his tenure as war minister. He also improved the welfare of soldiers both active and retired. The establishment of the hotel des invalids gave retired veterans a home. It also served as a hospital for wounded and sick soldiers. Today, the building housed the tomb of France’s greatest military leader – Napoleon Bonaparte.

Along with Louis, Louvois supported the works of later Marshal Sebastien Vauban. Vauban designed modern forts meant to withstand modern artillery which became the bases of string of forts built in the frontiers of the Kingdom. Thus, this contributed to the defense of the country against foreign invasion.

Numerous Louvois’ reforms though, he also earned as a reputation as a ruthless commander. He wanted to promote a new tactic meant to replace long siege. He suggested the bombardment of cities and towns. He believed it to be easier, quicker, and a profound impact to the will to fight of France’s enemies. Such as the infamous destruction of the Palatinate during the War of the League of Augsburg or the War of the Grand Alliance that saw the ruin of major cities of Worms, Speyer, Heidelberg, and Mannheim. 

From 1688, Louvois conducted the War with great efficiency. However, he failed to see the conclusion of the conflict with his passing on July 16, 1691.

Summing Up

Louvois changed the Royal French Army into a model army from which Europe copied. Though many wished the army defeated in Europe, many of Louvois' reform became worthy of emulation. Though the selling of positions within the army remained endemic, his brilliance came with his solution to bypass the inefficient leadership of the military. He also promoted the welfare of his troops by improving the flow of supplies. This shaped the soldiers that delivered victory to the great generals of France such as Marshall Turenne, Marshall Luxembourg, and Prince de Conde. He also supported innovations from great minds like the siege and fortification expert Marshall Vauban. Louvois earned his mark in the eventful reign of King Louis XIV and of military history as a whole.

See also:
Rise and Fall of Louis XIV
Who were the Le Telliers?


“Le Tellier, Michel (1603-1685).” Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Edited by Cathal Nolan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

“Officers.” Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Edited by Cathal Nolan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Watson, Samuel. “Louvois, Francois le Tellier, Marquis de (1639-91).” International Encyclopedia of Military History. Edited by James C. Bradford. New York, New York: Routledge, 2006.

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