His Red Eminence at War
Cardinal Richelieu, l’Éminence rouge, effectively the co-ruler of France for almost two decades, is known to readers of The Three Musketeers as an unscrupulous schemer and to modern historians as the brilliant administrator who laid the foundations of the French superpower that flowered during the reign of Louis XIV. David Parrott depicts a different figure: a minister burdened with heavy economic, social and administrative constraints who muddled through the Thirty Years’ War without much in the way of far-reaching plans and without making any fundamental changes in the military system inherited from his predecessors. If Mr. Parrott’s thesis, argued in massive, occasionally tedious detail, is right, Richelieu’s Political Testament is not a summary of the principles that guided his policies but only post factum wishful thinking and apologia; nor does the much-debated “Military Revolution” seem to have had much impact on the French way of war.
Mr. Parrott’s description of how the Richelieu ministry raised troops and planned campaigns is a dismal picture of inefficiency. Before campaigning began each year, the government attempted to develop a military budget and allocate forces and revenue among the various theaters. In practice, this blueprint was never followed. One or two corps ended up absorbing the great bulk of the available resources while the others starved, with less-favored forces, particularly those assigned to Italy, sometimes disintegrating for want of pay.
The favored armies did better, but their provision was not lavish. Soldiers’ wages were typically late and never in the full amount promised. Commanders often found it necessary to subsidize their troops from their private resources. In fact, such semi-forced loans to the Crown were taken for granted, limiting the pool from which generals and colonels could be drawn. Wealth and loyalty to the regime were better qualifications for high rank in many cases than mere military skill.
In theory, France, by far the wealthiest nation in Europe, could have paid the cost of war without great difficulty, but the creakiness of its financial system, aggravated by pervasive corruption, prevented its full resources from being brought to bear. The history of the government’s expedients is almost grotesque in places, as when special taxes to pay for maintaining troops in winter quarters were levied too late in the year to be of use for that purpose and were instead diverted to roll over government loans. More desperate and even less effective were several attempts to bulk up the army by calling out the arriére-ban, a feudal anachronism that produced a disappointing number of short-service, militarily dubious cavalry.
Shortage of money made desertion endemic. The author compares the army to a bathtub with an open drain. So long as the faucets are running, it can be kept half full, but, as soon as they stop, the water drains away. Mid-year recruitment could restore strength temporarily but not halt the outflow. In contrast to the traditional view that France maintained well over 100,000 men under arms during the war, Mr. Parrott estimates that the high point of its effective strength on any particular day did not exceed 80,000 - not spectacularly bigger than in the previous century and woefully insufficient to fight on the half dozen fronts to which France was committed.
A special problem was the unwillingness of Frenchmen to serve beyond their country’s borders. Whenever an army crossed into foreign territory, desertion rates soared. Hence, any sort of offensive required the aid of allies - Savoyards in Italy, Catalans in Spain, Protestants in Germany - who frequently were more willing to take French subsidies than to adopt strategies that furthered French goals.
The financial quandary likewise had repercussions on the quality of military leadership, not only restricting the supply of officers but undermining their work ethic. Most took it for granted that they could go on leave at will. When they did report for duty, they weren’t particular about obeying orders from Paris. In their own eyes, they were paying for the war and thus had the right to decide how it would be conducted.
The overall picture is quite dismal. As Mr. Parrott summarizes,
Much of the argument of [this] book has challenged the traditional assumption that the pressures of warfare during Richelieu’s ministry, and especially in the years after 1635 [when France became an overt belligerent in the Thirty Years’ War], stimulated the evolution of a more centralized, bureaucratic and effective military administration, itself a counterpart to changes occurring more widely in French government. Although the war fought from 1635 was unprecedented, it was sustained on a much more ad hoc, decentralized and traditional basis than has typically been suggested. There was no coordinated ministerial strategy aimed at exercising more effective control over recruitment, supply, payment or discipline; there were simply a series of - frequently contradictory - expedients undertaken in the face of crises precipitated by the size of the army and the scale of the war-effort. The ministers, bombarded with correspondence from commanders and administrators with the individual army-corps and attempting to control a war-effort extending over most of the French frontier provinces, were simply overloaded with information. The lack of orderly and established systems for the handling of this information led to arbitrary or factional decisions about the allocation of resources, failures of budgeting, regular lapses of communications and an inability to act beyond the most immediate requirements of the war-effort.
Faced with manifold obstacles to conducting successful operations, Richelieu refused to accept the solution adopted by many other contemporary states: military entrepreneurism. Elsewhere governments made contracts with regimental proprietors who were allowed to extract profit from the wars. Albrecht von Wallenstein is of course the supreme example of the successful “owner” of an army, but he had hundreds of large and small competitors. A man who raised a regiment for the French service, by contrast, could expect to pay heavily with no reward except prestige.
The government’s alternative to turning war into a commercial venture was to fill the army’s upper ranks, to the greatest extent feasible, with clients of the ministers, above all, of Richelieu himself. (The Cardinal sprang from the noblesse d’epée and had plenty of relatives whose military ambitions he gladly indulged.) Mr. Parrott suggests that it was patronage and nepotism that saved France from being compelled to give up and accept an humiliating peace.
The most important factor in sustaining the conflict through financial inadequacy, supply failure, lack of control over the army-corps, inexperienced troops and absentee officers was the elaborate structures of clientage which underpinned the officer-corps and the military administration.
The evidence marshaled to support the author’s theses is itself as massive and intimidating as any army. Nonspecialists may be dismayed at the outset by the multitude of untranslated quotations from the French archives and are not likely to venture a serious engagement with portions of the book like Chapter 8, titled “The management of the war-effort from 1635 to 1642” but in reality a minute examination of the slightly different functions of different kinds of liaison officers between the army and the ministry.
Nonetheless, the core of the work is readily accessible to anyone with a moderate knowledge of French history and the period of the Thirty Years’ War. The two opening chapters lay out most of what the reader needs to know, the first covering the organization of France’s military establishment from the King down to the company, the second reviewing the military history of Richelieu’s period of ascendancy year-by-year from a strategic perspective. From these starting points, it is not difficult to proceed to the size of the army, military finance, recruitment, relations between the civil and military authorities, and the impact of the military on civilian society.
Because Mr. Parrott has written an analysis of Richelieu’s army rather than a military history of his term of office, many interesting topics receive limited attention. Diplomacy and grand strategy are discussed only to the extent that they were shaped by the (largely futile) quest for foreign territory that might be occupied and milked for military resources. On the other end of the scale, there is little about tactics, though a few skeptical asides question the common view that the French learned a great deal form Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus. There is also a natural tendency to concentrate on those areas where French armies were active. As a result, Italy and Catalonia receive more attention than Germany - an unusual way to look at the war.
The story ends in medias res at Richelieu’s death. It had to leave off somewhere, and the author has expended so much time and energy on Richelieu’s 18 years in office that it would be churlish to complain about his failure to press forward into the next 18 under Cardinal Mazarin. Thus we miss string of French victories beginning with the Great Condé’s triumph at Rocroi. We are also left rather puzzled: At the close of Richelieu’s life, the French military establishment is barely adequate to protect la patrie. Just after the end of Mazarin’s, it is in a position to dominate Europe.
In 1667-8 Louis XIV’s armies swept all before them and captured more fortified places in the Spanish Netherlands in a single campaign than in twenty-five years of war under the cardinal-ministers, while the planning and execution of the first months of the 1672 campaign against the Dutch offered further evidence of extraordinary organizational progress.
How and why such extraordinary progress took place are left opaque. While Mr. Parrott has seriously undermined the notion of a direct line from the Red Eminence to the Sun King, it is hard to believe that there was so sharp a discontinuity as he implies. The Cardinal, one suspects, has not yet gone down to defeat on the battlefield of historical opinion. We await a return volley from his champions.