REVIEW – The Armies and the Wars of the Sun King 1643 – 1715 Volume 1: The Guard of Louis XIV

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By René Chartrand 
Published by Helion

Cover of 'The Armies and Wars of the Sun King 1643 - 1715'
By René Chartrand
Helion, £29.95 (hbk)

During the second half of the 17th century, France underwent a military transformation of such magnitude that in the space of a generation it overturned the supremacy of Spain to become the pre- eminent power in Europe.

The growth of the French military machine was a major influence on Britain during this period – British regiments fought alongside French against the Spanish, then against the Dutch. Then, during the Williamite War towards the end of the period, British soldiers fought against the French, while French soldiers fought alongside the Jacobites.

Given this, it is surprising that there is relatively little about the armies of Louis XIV available in English. Much of what is available is by just two authors, René Chartrand being one.

This is the first in a planned four-volume history of the army of Louis XIV by Chartrand for Helion’s ever-expanding Century of the Soldier series.

This series is growing beyond the familiar territory of the British Civil Wars, and has recently involved a partial switch to the second-half of the 17th century, the period of European history dominated by Louis XIV.

The author should already be known to students of the French armies of the 17th and 18th centuries, and just the prospect of a new title by Chartrand is something to get enthusiastic about. Volume 1 of The Armies and Wars of the Sun King certainly does not disappoint.

The volume comprises three main sections. In the first, the author outlines the first 25 years of Louis’ reign, including the Thirty Years War, the Battle of Rocroi (surely one of the most important battles in European history), the Fronde civil wars, and further successes against Spain. It culminates in 1668 with the final capture of Spanish Flanders and Franche-Comté.

The transformation of the army of Louis XIV into the finest in Europe was only possible through the combined efforts of two exceptionally talented ministers: Colbert and Louvois. The role of both is considered in the second section, where the author surveys the command of the army, providing mini-biographies of its leaders (including the Grand Condé, Turenne, Vauban, and the Duke of Berwick, a cousin of Marlborough).

The final 65 pages of the book cover the elite of Louis’ army, the guard regiments. Each is described in turn, including uniforms, weapons, and colours, together with a chronological list of its ‘battle honours’: battles, sieges, and campaigns (although for those not familiar with French military history, an indication of which was a siege and which a battle would have been useful). The volume concludes with three appendices, including an outline of the Spanish Army of the 17th century.

As well as being expertly written, the book is lavishly illustrated with 32 colour plates and 167 black-and-white illustrations. If Mark Allen’s Armies and Enemies of Louis XIV (number 36 in the series and reviewed in May 2019’s MHM) provided an appetiser to the subject, then this is a sumptuous main course. The only disappointment is that Volume 2, which focuses on the infantry, is not due to be published until December.

Review by David Flintham

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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