The Problems Tacticians Faced

Losses throughout the eighteenth century prompted serious reconsideration in all aspects of the French military. As opposed to the British, content in their Marlbourghian tactics, and the Prussians, successful using Frederick the Great’s directives, the French were without a successful or reliable tactical system.[1] Losses in Louis XIV’s wars, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years’ War prompted tacticians to search for a new method of battlefield operations. France’s strong and dynamic intellectual community provided an infrastructure for these losses and military dilemmas to be deconstructed, extrapolated, discussed, and revised.[2] In 1703, Marquis de Vauban, Marshal of France, published his Traité de l'attaque des places, in which he attempted to standardise French siege methods according to scientific and systematic procedures. Though his methods were not always successful, his approach provided a template for future tacticians.[3] Following his example, and approaching warfare by using a similar method, tacticians outlined three major problems in the French army. While other problems certainly existed, the prominence of the discussion of these three problems in the century’s major tactical works indicates that they would be paramount to the new shape of battlefield systems:  

      1. Desertion: Early Modern armies were often devastated by desertion, and the consistently plummeting numbers caused great expense and limited the effectiveness of French armies. As early as 1644, Cardinal Jules Mazarin wrote to the Vicomte du Turenne, then Marshal of France, looking for recruits and claiming that as much as two-thirds of the army had deserted.[4] This percentage had not dropped any by the eighteenth century. Military philosophes[5] concluded that ancien régime armies were susceptible to desertion because mercenaries, who were often less willing to die for France than a Frenchmen, made up so large a percentage of the army.[6] Instead they proposed that the French soldier should be like Polybius’ Roman soldiers – citizens willing and able to “stand their ground and die for their country.” [7]

      2. Lack of Decisiveness: Early Modern battles were bloody, prolonged, and indecisive affairs. Instead of decisive field battles, commanders were often forced to fight sieges that might last hours, days, or weeks, and regularly resulted in either pyrrhic victories or costly stalemates.[8] Consequently, going to war was often unproductive and ruinously costly, which was particularly worrisome for the increasingly bankrupt French monarchy.[9]

      3. The lack of a systematic approach: Despite the work of Vauban at the turn of the century, battles did not produce predictable results; risks, chances, and errors had not been reduced. Warfare, Marshal-General Maurice de Saxe complained, was without “principles and rules,” and needed to be revaluated in order to produce reliable outcomes, just as any other science might.[10] Likewise, the Marquis de Puysegur complained there was “no school where one can instruct oneself in the military art, no teacher who can teach fundamental rules . . . as if all the arts did not have certain rules and a theory founded on solid principles.” [11]

[1] Madeleine Dobie, “The Enlightenment at War,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 124, no.5 (Oct. 2009): 1851.
[2] Indeed, the military trends of the time were very much incorporated into the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, and the intellectual infrastructure (salons, book-trading circles, and intellectual journals) were put to good use by military writers. Sandra L. Powers, “Studying the Art of War: Military Books known to American Officers and Their French Counterparts during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” The Journal of Military History 70, no. 3 (July 2006). In fact, Deborah Avant suggests, the themes of the Enlightenment provided the intellectual grounding for the entire approach to new tactics.  Deborah Avant, “From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War,” International Organization 54, no.1 (Winter 2000): 43.
[3] Jamel Ostwald, Vauban under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and the Martial Vigor in the War of the Spanish Succession (Boston: Brill, 2007). Puysegur in his “Art of War” frequently notes the influence which Vauban had on siege warfare and the changes in the tactical system which resulted from Vauban’s work. Jacques fr. Chastenet de Puyseger, Art. de la guerre par principes et par règles, vol. 1 (Paris: Charles-Antoine Jombert, 1749), 2. 513.
[4] Delbruck, 229.
[5] Starkey, in his “War in the Age of Enlightenment,” uses the term “military philosophes” to encompass the tacticians, thinkers, and philosophers who applied themselves to tactical issues. While many, like Saxe and Folard, had served in the military, other contributors to the discussion, like Rousseau, participated from a civilian standpoint. Consequently, this term will be used in this paper as well, as it seems to best reflect the overlap and connection between this military debate and the contemporaneous currents of the Enlightenment. Armstrong Starkey, War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789, ed. Jeremy Black (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).
[6] Maurice de Saxe, “My Reveries upon the Art of War,” in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, ed. Major Thomas R Phillips (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943), 114.
[7] Polybius, Histories, trans. Mortimer Chambers (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), 235.
[8] It is telling that at the turn of the century the Duke of Marlborough, renowned for his decisiveness, fought 30 long and arduous sieges, but only four major battles. Jamel Ostwald, “The ‘Decisive’ Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare,” The Journal of Military History 64, no. 3 (June 2000): 653.
[9] John Landers, “The Destructiveness of Pre-Industrial Warfare: Political and Technological Determinants,” Journal of Peace Research 48, no.4 (Jul. 2005): 456.
[10] Maurice de Saxe, Memoires sur L’Art de la Guerre (Paris : George Conrad Walther, 1757), 1; Saxe, “My Reveries,” 100; Irenee Amelot de Lacroix, Rules and regulations for the field exercise and manoeuvres of the French infantry issued August 1, 1791 (Boston: T.B. Watt and Co, 1810), 1.
[11] Puysegur, vol. 1, i.

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