French bayonet, c. 1685 351-14
The wars of Louis XIV

"Il est certain qu’il était passionné pour la gloire, et même encore plus que pour la réalité de ses conquêtes. Dans l’acquisition de l’Alsace et de la moitié de la Flandre, de toute la Franche-Comté, ce qu’il aimait le mieux était le nom qu’il se faisait".

Voltaire on Louis XIV
[It is certain that he passionately wanted glory, rather than the conquests themselves. In the acquisition of Alsace and half of Flanders, and of all of Franche-Comté, what he really liked was the name he made for himself].


From the 1660's onwards, Louis XIV aimed at expanding French territory by force of arms. He thought in this way to acquire gloire (glory). Another war aim was giving France a defensible frontier - especially "the line of the Rhine" in the East. Louis XIV did not doubt his right to "reunite" with France the territory once held by Charlemagne.

Michel Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois and Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount Turenne had created a large and efficient army that became Louis's main instrument in overawing neighboring countries.

Louvois imposed a high level of discipline of the troops - his drill master was Jean Martinet:  - so strict an officer that to this day the word martinet is used to mean a rigid disciplinarian.
Louvois also organized a commissariat department to supply the French army. Until his system of magazines and supply dumps was introduced, armies had to forage (often to loot) the surrounding area for food and supplies. Efficient supply enabled the French army to concentrate on military operations.


The armies of Louis XIV were also more modern in their weaponry. The introduction of the flintlock rifle (which used a flint to ignite the gunpowder, rather than the burning twisted cord or "match" used until then) made possible sustained fire even in wet and windy conditions, and allowed surprise at night. Because the flintlock fired in all conditions, pike men were no longer needed to protect the musketeers - particularly after the introduction of the bayonet. The bayonet let the musketeer defend himself in close-quarter fighting. The first "plug" bayonets were inserted into the musket's barrel, but Vauban perfected a socket bayonet that allowed the gun to be fired even when the bayonet was in place.


Louis XIV saw England as weak, and believed he could easily control its monarchs by bribes. The Dutch he regarded as trading rivals, seditious republicans, and heretics. Nonetheless, his first military expedition was in the Spanish Netherlands.


The War of Devolution (1667-68)

When Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, daughter of Philip IV, she formally renounced her claims to succeed as ruler of any Spanish territory. Louis insisted that this renunciation was conditional on prompt payment by Spain of Maria Theresa's dowry (500,000 gold écus) - an undertaking Spain failed to fulfill.

In 1665, Philip IV died, and was succeeded by his son by his second marriage (to Mariana of Austria), the four-year-old Charles (Carlos) II. Louis XIV announced that because the dowry had not been paid, and because the local laws of Brabant gave the children of a first marriage priority in inheritance over those of a second, Maria Theresa was the true ruler of much of the Spanish Netherlands.
[See family tree]

Louis had an army of 72,000 troops, led by two veterans of the Thirty Years War - Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount Turenne and Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé.

The French army crossed the border into the Spanish Netherlands, whose far smaller army (about 20,000) was forced to give way. They also attacked the Spanish territory of Franche Comté (left); Condé took Artois, Besançon, Dôle, and Gray in 15 days.


Turenne occupied Flanders, and Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, an expert military engineer took charge of besieging the fortified towns. Louis took personal command at the siege of Lille.

The ease and rapidity of Louis XIV's invasion so alarmed the English and the Dutch that they ended the trading war in which they were involved. In May 1668, they joined with Sweden to form the Triple Alliance against France. Equally alarmed by French aggression, Spain made peace with Portugal.

Recognizing the growing forces against him, Louis made a secret treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, in which Leopold agreed to French expansion into the Spanish Netherlands after the death of Charles II of Spain. (This death was expected to be soon, as Charles was such a sickly child).

Armed with this secret treaty, Louis made the "generous" peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (May 1668) by which he kept many of his conquests in Flanders but withdrew from Franche-Comté.


Fortification plan

The towns that Louis retained in the Spanish Netherlands - especially Lille - were expertly fortified by Vauban. These fortresses served both as defensive strong-points and as spring-boards for future invasion.


Louis XIV's expansion into the Spanish Netherlands

  France - inherited by Louis XIV

captured by 1659

  captured by 1680
  captured by 1680, given back 1713
  1713 boundary of France
  remaining Spanish
  Dutch Republic 1648


The Dutch war 1672-78

Louis did not reduce his troop strength after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, but increased it. By 1672, the French army numbered almost 120,000 men - 8,000 household troops, 86,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry.
Louis XIV's foreign minister, Arnauld de Pomponne, worked diplomatically to isolate the Netherlands. The French arranged alliances or benevolent neutrality with Charles II of England (the Treaty of Dover), the Swedes, and various German princes (including Bavaria, Münster, Cologne and Hanover).
Louis saw the Dutch both as obstacles to French expansion into the Spanish Netherlands and as trading rivals.


Late 17th century French battleship

England declared war first and the Dutch Admiral, De Ruyter, immediately launched a pre-emptive strike against the Anglo-French Fleet. At the Battle of Sole Bay (28 May 1672), the Dutch took advantage of poor communications between the English and French vessels and inflicted serious losses, which included the death of the English Admiral, Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich.

The French army was initially extremely successful and soon overran the whole Province of Utrecht. The frightened Dutch Pensionary, John de Witt sued for peace, but Louis made such exorbitant demands that he provoked a violent reaction. The Dutch opened the sluices and flooded large portions of the Netherlands to hold up the French troops.


The Dutch then removed De Witt from power (he was murdered soon afterwards) and placed the young William of Orange in power.

French success created new allies for the Dutch. Turenne had to detach troops to send against Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia, who was soon forced to make peace (June 1673).


Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter

In August 1673 the French and English fleets fought another battle against the Dutch at Texel. The French ships never properly engaged and the English fleet bore the brunt of De Ruyter's fierce attack. The Dutch ships were eventually forced to withdraw because they had exhausted their supplies of ammunition. The English fleet limped home and Charles II concluded a separate peace in the Treaty of Westminster (February 1674).


The Holy Roman Empire and Spain also allied with the Dutch in the Grand Alliance of The Hague (1674). Denmark joined the alliance and attacked Sweden - France's only remaining friend. In June 1675, Sweden sent a poorly-equipped army against Brandenburg, but it was defeated at Fehrbellin (near Berlin). However the Danes invading Sweden were defeated at the Battle of Lund (December 1676)

Despite the many forces arrayed against him, Louis XIV's vast army had some success. At Seneffe in 1674, the young William III was defeated by the veteran Condé in a battle with high casualties on both sides, but the Dutch were able to withdraw intact.
Through Vauban's expertise, Louis was able to capture the fortresses of Maastricht and Trier (important for their control of inland waterways and the river Moselle).

"When a general makes no mistakes in war, it is because he has not been at it long"

Turenne took Franch-Comté and in summer 1674 laid waste to much of the Palatinate so as to prevent the region being a source of supply for imperial troops. In January 1675, he won a victory at Türkheim that gave France control of Alsace (Elsass), but was killed by a cannon ball in July 1675.

The cost of war was producing discontent - high taxation led to revolts in Normandy and Brittany. Louis XIV made the Peace of Nijmegen (Nymegen)  - in 1678 he was confirmed by Spain in possession of Franche-Comté, but surrendered Maastricht to the Dutch.


In 1679, the Holy Roman Empire also made peace. France continued to occupy Lorraine, but the Danes and Prussians were obliged to return Stettin and their Baltic conquests to Sweden.

The Dutch War left France with a deficit of 16 million livres, but Colbert died in 1683, and Louvois believed that continued war was the route to French greatness.


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