French État-Major Organisation

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Introduction

During his reign, Louis XV never directly took part to military campaigns. A general-in-chief commanded the French army. It is easily conceivable that Louis XV, giving instructions to his general officers from Versailles, had more difficulties than Frederick II who was present with his army on the battlefields along with his officers and troops. Furthermore, since a century, thanks to Louis XIV, the aristocracy had lost his arrogance and did not oppose to the power of the king. By the same token, it had become more docile and had lost much of its initiative. The most important thing for a senior officer was to not displease the king.

In all armies of this era: France, Great Britain, Austria, etc., the general staff had significantly increased. In 1758, in Germany alone, there was a total of 181-182 general officers posted in the French army. Of these, 3 were princes of the royal blood (being more of a burden for the army than an assistance), 5 other princes, 11 dukes, 44 counts, 38 marquis, 14 chevaliers, and 6 barons. Only two cases of native French commoners reaching general rank are known: Bourcet and Chevert, and both were of great ability. The former wrote a book on mountain warfare which Napoléon I admired; the other was involved in the campaigns of 1757-1762 with distinction.

The number of generals and commissioned officers was, by all accounts, simply too high. In March 1758, there were 129 new promotions to brigadier rank in the French army in Germany, for an army with counted scarcely 30 brigades; when the minister attempted to limit the number of new brigadiers to 33, the outrage from the officer corps forced him to issue 10 new brigadiers in July of that year, making the total number of brigadiers over 43. There were also attempts, as early as 1757, to limit promotions into the ranks of the general officer corps, though this was ultimately unsuccessful. By 1758, the entire army, including the army in Germany, had 16 maréchaux de France, 172 lieutenant-generals, 176 maréchaux de camp, and 389 brigadiers for an army of less than 300,000 men, and the number continued to grow through the war, with 162 lieutenant-generals promoted in the period of 1757-1762. In the same time period, colonel promotions were so numerous that there were 900 colonels in an army of 163 regiments (probably referring to the French army in Germany since France counted more than 163 regiments in its army). Captains also increased in number, but for a different reason: all through the XVIIIth century, companies had been progressively shrinking, so that by 1740 there was one officer (of any rank) for every 11 soldiers, compared to Prussia, which had 1 officer for 29 men.

Indeed, the French Army included so many general officers that it became necessary to establish a turnover in the command posts who lasted sometimes only a day. This practice gave rise to conflicts and envy between the officers of the staff. For example, the army of the Lower-Rhine in 1757 had only 30 brigades but its staff included 44 lieutenant-generals, 61 maréchaux de camps and 86 brigadiers.

As a result of the situation in the French army's officer corps, rivalries and infighting was not uncommon, and the corps was divided into cliques and classes; this had an evil effect on the French army in war. Cases handled by the point d'honneur were all too common in the army, though most cases of honour were never prosecuted or investigated: two captains of Champagne Infanterie, Fenestre and D'Agay, were mortal enemies for 20 years, and had duelled 7 times in that period, or a duel every 3 years. When, at the battle of Vellinghausen, Fenestre's head was blown off by a cannon, killing him, his supporters noted that a piece of his skull had in fact taken out the right eye out of D'Agay. All too often, regulations were flouted with impunity, with officers stubbornly refusing to enact reforms or measures to improve the performance of their army (e.g, the Prussian drill system).

Such power struggles were present within the staff of the armies as well as within the war council of the king. The same was true for the Court where Mme de Pompadour assumed a dominant role. All these intrigues led to graces and disgraces, orders and counter-orders. In defence of the military commanders, we must say that the policies of the king were sometimes difficult to follow. The war in Europe was a useless conflict for France and only served the interests of Austria. However, Louis XV hoped that the conflict could served his views on the Polish succession. This led to a double-play and contradictory policy known as the Secret du Roi.

Privilege was also a common issue: the officers often wrote to the ministry and generals asking for privileges and promotions, some even resorting to brazen behaviour to get to their ends. In fact, the officers often forced the ministers to back down when they attempted to issue much needed reforms. In the winter of 1758-59, when many officers wanted to return to France, Minister Belle-Isle wrote to the commander, maréchal Contades that the colonels and lieutenant-colonels must remain in the army during winter quarters. Within two week, a flood of letters from courtiers and the officers themselves forced Belle-Isle to back down, and the officers returned to France. By the time campaigning was resumed in 1759, only 7 general officers, and barely a colonel or lieutenant-colonel, had remained with the army throughout winter.

The luxury of the officer corps was yet another problem: 182 general officers in Germany drew around 500,000 livres for 6 months of campaign service; the same amount could have gone to feed and equip 20,000 French soldiers. They also drew 900,000 food rations and 1,170,000 forage rations in that same time. In fact, the French had the most luxurious officer corps of the war. A British lieutenant-general was allotted 30 rations, but a French lieutenant-general was allotted 80 rations. Prussian major-general in wartime could only entertain 6 guests and provide 6 dishes; the French equivalent could entertain 14, and offer 13 dishes in 2 courses. And that allowance was seen by many a French general as "indecent" or too little. Servants also abounded; the duke of Fitzjames had 28. There were up to 40 servants in a regiment, and in the Gendarmerie de France there could be a valet for every 4 soldiers.

Even though the Ecole Militaires was founded in 1751, it had little effect on officer quality in the war. Officers learned what they did learn of their function from technical manuals or from the school of experience. And often that wasn't even present: the duc de Broglie, a capable general, complained of the total ignorance of most officers of their duties in the war. This complaint was echoed by Saint-Germain and Guibert.

Within the staff, besides the military officers, civilians and more particularly the supplies offices represented an important power through which the king could impose his own views. Versailles was far away from the battlefields of Hanover or Palatinate and paradoxically it was sometimes the supplies offices rather than the military commanders who exerted royal authority within an army in campaign from the staff itself and also from Versailles through the influence of great state commissioners like Pâris Duverney.

During the Seven Years' War, the administration and the organisation of the army was still similar to what Louvois had previously established. The staff of an army had several levels. First of all there was the War Council who determined the military strategy, the places to besiege, the progression of the army, the battle order, etc... The War Council included the general-in-chief of the army, the maréchal général des logis of the army and the commanding officers of the day. Then came a more administrative staff associating the officers of the War Council to the officers of the staff of the cavalry and infantry with, at his head, the major-general of the infantry to whom the staffs of the artillery and of the engineers were subordinated, and finally the quarter-master.

State Secretary of War

Equivalent to a War Minister, this office was occupied by the Comte d'Argenson from 1743 to 1757. He was disgraced after Damien's assassination attempt. However, he managed to install his nephew, the Marquis de Paulmy, at this office. Paulmy kept the office only for a few months, losing it after the French defeat at the battle of Rossbach in December 1757. The Maréchal Duc de Belle-Isle succeeded him. It was thought that his brilliant military career would establish his authority upon the officers, but he was getting old and was unable to recover from the death of his son, the Duc de Gisors, at thebattle of Krefeld. At the death of the Maréchal de Belle-Isle in 1761, the Duc de Choiseul succeeded him. He already was State Secretary to the Foreign Affairs and soon cumulated the offices of State Secretary to the Navy and of State Secretary of War. The union of all these offices into a single man allowed for reforms in the French army and for the reconstruction of the navy.

He kept these charges till 1766 when he resigned, keeping only the office of State Secretary to the Foreign Affairs.

Ranks of Senior Officers

General officers

There were several grades of general officers, in order of increasing seniority: brigadier, maréchal de camp, maréchal général, lieutenant-generals and the prestigious maréchal de France. The maréchal de France was supposed to command an entire army.

Maréchal de France

This was the highest military distinction. All generals placed by the king at the head of the army of Germany were simultaneously made Maréchal de France.

The most senior member among them had a guard unit taken from the Connétablie company.

Each Maréchal de France had a guard of 50 men, 2 sergeants, 1 drummer, 1 captain, 1 lieutenant and 1 ensign with a flag. This guard was taken from the oldest regiment of the army or of the garrison where the Maréchal de France sojourned.

Lieutenant-general

This grade was immediately subordinated to the Maréchal de France but superior to the rank of Maréchal de camp. This rank appeared under Louis XIII in 1638. In 1758, there were no less than 172 lieutenant-generals. However, all were not on active duty since the rank was attributed for life. At each campaign, the king had to address a "letter of service" to the generals to identify the lieutenant-generals who would serve under him. Without this letter, a lieutenant-general was not officially on duty. The large number of lieutenant-generals imposed a turnover, each day the general of the army chose three of them: two to command the cavalry wings and one to command the infantry corps. The most senior lieutenant-general commanded the two lines of the right wing cavalry, the second commanded the two lines of the left wing cavalry and the last one commanded the two lines of infantry in the centre. They had no pre-assigned post and could take the head of any unit within their corps. The days when they were not in command, they took a pre-assigned post on the line and marched with the corps to which they were attached according to the order of battle. When the army was on the march, they commanded a column. During a siege, they commanded a "quartier" or, if it was their day of command, they would lead the attack of several brigades.

They constituted the largest part of the staff. They were also the source of most of its problem, their idleness brought about quarrels, conspiracies and embezzlements hampering military actions.

When commanding at the army or in a province under a superior, or even if employed through a "letter of service", a lieutenant-general had two aides-de-camp and a guard of 29 men, 1 drummer, 1 captain and 1 sergeant.

Maréchal de Camp

The maréchal de camp was supposed to subordinate to both senior generals, and did not have command in the field, as opposed to the these senior generals.

Once more, the great number of maréchaux de camp required a turnover to establish the maréchal de camp of the day who received his orders from the lieutenant-general and distributed them to the major-general of the infantry, the maréchal-general of the cavalry, the major-general of the dragoons, the major of the artillery, the attendant of the général des vivres, the captain of the guides, the provost of the army depending of the particular subjects of these orders. The maréchal de camp of the day also regulated camp and lodging of the army. When the army lifted camp, he went ahead, reconnoitring the country, to determine the form and the expanse of the next camp. The application of his measures were left to the maréchal des logis of the army and to the major-general of the infantry. The maréchal de camp of the day also determined the order of battle but did not command troops in combat. When they were not assuming the charge for the day, the maréchaux de camp commanded a brigade. Since the regulation of 1688, an officer promoted maréchal de camp had to sell his regiment but this was subject to exceptions.

A maréchal de camp commanding a province had 15 guards with a sergeant but without any drummer. When a maréchal de camp was in active service in the army and commanded troops, he had 30 guards with a captain and a drummer.

Maréchal des Logis

The general function of the maréchal des logis was to look at the correct behaviour of the troops under his responsibility.

The Maréchal Général des Logis des Camps et Armées du Roy was at the top of this hierarchy. He assumed this charge permanently during peace and war times. During the Seven Years' War, there were three Maréchal Général des Logis des Camps et Armées: the Baron de Lieuray, M. Charpentier d'Ennery and M. Poisson de Malvoisin.

When an army corps was formed, a maréchal des logis of the staff was assigned to it. He was responsible for the march of the troops, the establishment of the camps and the distribution of fodder. He kept a list of the troops and an order of battle. The maréchal-général des logis of the army was under the maréchal de camp. He supervised the maréchal général des logis of the gendarmerie, the maréchal-général des logis of the cavalry, who himself supervised a maréchal des logis of the cavalry, then the major-general of the infantry, the major of the artillery, the major-general of the dragoons.

During a march, the maréchal des logis of the army marched with the avant-garde. He was then accompanied by a detachment of cavalry, infantry and dragoons who would mark with small pegs the sites for each battalion and each squadron.

Brigadier

The brigadier was an officer who, according to a certificate, became superior to a colonel or to a mestre de camp. He commanded an infantry brigade of 4 to 6 battalions or a cavalry or dragoon brigade of 5 to 8 squadrons. To settle the numerous conflicts of precedence, the regulations of February 17 1753 (for the infantry) and of March 1 1757 (for the cavalry) stated that the most senior brigadier would command the brigade.

As for the lieutenant-general, the rank of brigadier was given for life. However, to assume this function at the army, a brigadier had to carry a "letter of service". Brigadiers were general officers only within the corps under their command. He could only in theory command the branch of the army he was promoted to said rank in, but in practice this was not always the case.

At the army, a turnover was established to design the brigadier responsible for the inspection of outposts and picquets. This brigadier then designed a colonel, a lieutenant-colonel and a major responsible to place the picquets, to visit the guards and to look at discipline in the camp. Only the brigadier on "picquet duty" assisted to war councils of the army. Brigadiers had no aide-de-camp to carry their orders but a major of brigade who looked at the execution of his order in his own brigade only.

Major-general

The major of the most senior infantry regiment of an army was selected as major-general of the infantry. The major of the Gardes Françaises was always selected a major-general when his regiment was with the army. The major-general received his orders from the maréchal de camp of the day and distributed them to the majors of each brigade. He visited guards at the parade and in picquets in camps. He assigned to each major of brigade the terrain for the camp of his brigade. He reported to the commander-in-chief of the army and to the general officers on the state of the posts occupied by the infantry.

Similarly, there were a major-general of the cavalry and a major-general of the dragoons. They assumed, within their respective arms, the same functions than the major-general of the infantry. The brigades of the Maison du Roi and of the Gendarmerie du Roi each had their own major-general.

The Major of the most senior regiment of a brigade was selected as the major of brigade. He received his orders from the major-general and distributed them to the majors and aide-majors of each battalion. During marches, majors of brigade followed the maréchal de camp of the day, they were alternately on "picket duty".

Provost-general of the army

The provost of the army assumed a function of police as well as one of justice. He arrested anybody being in breach of the regulations. He was also responsible of the enemy prisoners, of the discipline of the civilians accompanying the army, of the establishment of prices for food, of the perception of taxes on wine and beer sales...

Vaguemestre Général

The vaguemestre-général was responsible of the good behaviour of all trains attached to the army. He accompanied the maréchal des logis of the army when he reconnoitred the marches.

In each infantry, cavalry or dragoon brigade, the brigadier chose a vaguemestre among his maréchaux des logis and his sergeants to look after the baggage. Similarly, each regiment designed a vaguemestre among his junior officers to receive orders from the vaguemestre of the brigade.

Aide de camp

Senior officers had aides-de camp, to help them in their duties. These aides-de-camp were also part of the staff.

  • each Maréchal de France had 4 aides-de-camp (1 colonel, 1 lieutenant-colonel, 2 captains);
  • each lieutenant-general had 2 aides-de-camp (2 captains);
  • each maréchal de camp had 1 aide-de-camp (1 captain).

A senior officer could have more aides-de-camp than allowed by the regulations, however they were not paid by the king.

Captain of the guides

In these days, there was not yet a permanent unit of scout attached to the staff. However, the staff of the army included a Capitaine des guides (captain of the scouts) responsible to recruit mounted or dismounted scouts to serve in the army. Even though this function was filled by an officer, it was not a regular military rank and it lasted only the time of a campaign. The scout companies raised were temporary and were recruited among the local population with a good knowledge of the country. However, as the company moved away from the country and roads known to these scouts, the captain had to look for new ones. Recruitment of foreign civilians, sometimes by force, did not allow to entrust them with certain important missions. Therefore, it became necessary to create small military units composed of enlisted foreigners. These scout units were often likened to light troops. However, they were not destined to combats but rather to the service of the staff under the command of the maréchal général des logis of the army. They were charged to carry urgent orders to the various posts of the army, to carry letters from one place to another, to reconnoitre the roads with the light troops, to lead columns and detachments, to prepare the passage ways and the terrain for the camps. During the Seven Years' War two scout companies were officially raised: the Fusiliers-Guides de Plinchamp in December 1756, then the Fusiliers-Guides de Metzenius in February 1761.

Engineer-in-chief

Engineers were always part of the staff of the army or of the corps to whom they were attached.

Chief of the artillery brigade

The chiefs of the various brigades of the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie were part of the army staff. However, they remained subordinated to the major-general of the infantry since artillery was in fact considered an infantry regiment ranking 47th.

Administrative officers

Intendant

Along the military officers, there were, within the staff, a whole administrative hierarchy responsible for the supply, control and payment of the troops. This was the function of the intendant of the army. He did not take part to the war council and did not intervene in the military strategy. However, he had an important role in the general progress of campaigns. The intendant was usually a Maitre des requêtes or a Commissaire ordonnateur. In the latter case, he could not exercise any judicial role. No text fixed the expanse of the power of the intendants or of the royal commissioners. Their responsibilities varied according to the missions or to their own personality. The intendant represented the king at the army. He always acted according to the king's instructions. This was not always the case for the generals... The intendant had to make sure that the king's orders were respected by the military as well as by the civilians attached to the army ( commissioners, controllers, clerks, treasurers, etc.).

Among the main roles of the intendant, he was charged with:

  • justice and military police;
  • finance through the control of the treasurers' accounting (the intendant was the only one that could order to raise contributions from conquered countries and determine the use of these contributions;
  • supplies, conclusion of agreements for the purchase of grain and fodder;
  • military hospitals;
  • diplomacy, negotiation, treaty.

The intendant had a determining role in the army. His hierarchical rank was almost the same as the one of the commander-in-chief and this did not go without problems. To make clear the importance that he gave to the intendants, the king enacted a regulation on April 4 1664, allowing them to march in all occasions at the left of the commander of the corps to which they were attached. They were also allowed to choose their accomodation immediately after the commander. The king could depend on the loyalty of his administration, even though their honesty was not flawless, more than on the one of his military officers.

The designated intendant constituted an administration to help him in the management of all the administrative tasks that he was responsible for.

War commissioners

After the intendant came the war commissioners who were subordinated to him and who applied the regulations and control them.

The war commissioners were also called provincial commissioners or ordinary commissioners depending if they were serving in a province or at the army. Similarly, the Commissaire Ordonnateur was a war commissioner who received this grade in recognition of his services. He received superior wages and fodder.

War commissioners had to be registered by a Maréchal de France to whom they had to swear oath. Their charges were venal and hereditary. Each Maréchal de France, upon nomination, had the privilege to designate a war commissioner whose office was not hereditary and ended at his death. Venality of charges was thus present in this function as well and money sometimes replaced competence.

The war commissioners were charged with police, troop discipline, enforcement of military regulations, quantity and quality of the distributed supplies, repairs and fortification of the places, construction of the ovens, lodging of the officers and soldiers, guard and conservation of food supplies (wheat, flour, oatmeal, medicines...), distribution at the end of each march, administration of the hospitals...

Their power was so great that they could decide the interdiction of an officer, the suspension of his wages, even his arrest. This power was not without enticing the envy of the nobility. So by a regulation of August 1715 the king, who had granted hereditary nobility to the royal commissioners, revoked all nobility granted for military charges to those who were not noble before 1689.

Commissioned officers

The commissioned officers, known in French as officiers particuliers, were supposed to maintain the various regiments of the French army, and had the following ranks (increasing seniority): sous-lieutenant (cornette in the cavalry), lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, and colonel; the first two ranks were known as officiers subalternes, and the remainder were officers supérieurs. The captains and colonels were the ones who were assigned to owning and running the regiment, with the colonel owning the regiment, and the captains the companies; the government itself did not "own" the regiments directly, as in later times. As a result, captaincies and colonelcies were bought with ministerial approval, and the sums could be high; a vieux or petit vieux infantry regiment could cost as much as 75,000 livres, and a cavalry regiment up to 100,000 livres, the price the chevalier de Ray paid for the colonelcy of the Cuirassiers du Roy. Company prices also varied considerably, with the baron de Castelnau paying 7,000 livres for a company of the Royal-Carabiniers regiment in 1760.

The other commissioned officers did not officially purchase any position, but still had to obtain the colonel's and ministries approval, and this often led to the exchange of money. For example, the Colonel of the Piémont regiment in March of 1759 selling positions in his regiments, with lieutenants going for 1,000 écus, and captains with 2,000 écus.

The functions of the officers in a regiment were as follows:

  1. colonel: he was supposed to run the regiment as a unit, and was the owner and proprietor of the regiment. In practice, the lieutenant-colonel often ran the regiment in the colonel's stead.
  2. lieutenant-colonel: the second in command, but was often better versed at the functions of the colonel than the colonel himself.
  3. major: the administrative head of the regiment, and theoretically the one responsible for supervising the training of the troops.
  4. captain: commanded and practically owned a company in the regiment.

The officer corps was mostly filled by the noblesse d'épée, though there were occasionally cases of officiers de fortune, who rose up from the lower ranks into the officer corps, and occasionally the general corps. Legally, there could be up to 6 or 7 of them in a cavalry or infantry regiment, and up to 22 in an artillery regiment. There was in fact a higher proportion of commoners in the foreign regiments as opposed to the native French units, and many a foreigner became general officers: Saint-Germain, an important general in the war, was of Spanish origin.

References

This article incorporates entire sections directly translated from the article “État-major de l'armée française” by Jean-Louis Vial in his website Nec Pluribus Impar with his kind authorization.

Other sources

Funcken, Liliane and Fred; Les uniformes de la guerre en dentelle

Kennett, Lee; The French Armies in the Seven Year's War: A Study in Military Organisation and Administration, N.C., 1967

Rohan Chabot, Alix de; Le Maréchal de Belle Isle ou la revanche de Foucquet, Perrin, Paris, 2005

Acknowledgment

User:Ibrahim90 for the initial version of this article.

Jean-Louis Vial for his authorization to integrate his own article into this one.