French État-Major Uniform

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Up to the first decades of the XVIIIth century, officers of the French état-major were clad in richly embroidered civilian outfit, they distinguished themselves from other officers only by the white sash and/or the white plume of their hat. Even though we start to see blue outfits with gold braid in portrait of the XVIIth century, for example in the painting of Martin l’aîné on the capture of Ager in Catalonia in 1647 where a general officer, probably the young Prince de Condé, is represented clad this way.

It is between the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the Seven Years’ War, under Minister d’Argenson, that the basis for the standardization of the outfits of staff officers, as well as those of their troops serving them, were established. The ordinance of February 1744 marks the birth of service uniforms for the staff of the armies, and royal blue becomes the base colour of the uniforms of officers and troops attached to the staff. This first ordinance concerned lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp (equivalent to major-general), then followed the ordinances of December 1756, regulating the uniform of staff officers and of those employed as aides de camp, and the ordinance of 1757, regulating uniforms of staff officers of places.

Similarly, the first outfits of the guides assigned to the staff and the subordinates of the maréchal général des logis (equivalent to quartermaster-general) of the army, appeared in 1746. These outfits were reused for the units of fusiliers guides of the staff, created during the Seven Years’ War in 1759 and 1761. Even though these troops had a very brief existence, they adopted the royal blue uniforms of the staff.

Ordinance of February 1, 1744

The ordinance of February 1, 1744, which regulated the outfit of general officers serving in the King’s armies stipulated that: “His Majesty considering the importance that all general officers employed in his armies be promptly recognized in all occasion. His Majesty has judged necessary to regulate a uniform outfit, which would announce their character, make known the honours and obedience which are due to them, in consequence He had ordered and orders that his lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp whom He saw fit to employ in his armies in the future, would be required to wear, during the entire campaign, a single-breasted coat of the colour commonly designated as “Bleu de Roi” (royal blue), bordered with gold embroidery braid; in accordance with the sample which will be attached to the minute of the present ordinance: with the only difference between lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp being that the former will have double braids on the sleeves and pockets and that the maréchaux de camp will only have a single braid. His Majesty asks and orders the generals of his armies to execute exactly the present ordinance, and his lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp to punctually conform themselves to what is the will of His Majesty.”

Portrait of Ladislaus (Lászlo) Count Bercsényi as French commander - Source: Castle of Bibersburg and collection of Harald Skala

From this time, all general officers serving in the army could only wear the regulatory outfit. There were doubtless some tolerance, but it is reasonable to think that they were infrequent. It is the case of the Comte de Bercheny, who had just been appointed inspector-general of the hussars in December 1743, then promoted to lieutenant-general in 1744. Bercheny asked to Comte d’Argenson, the minister of war, the authorisation to continue to serve in a Hungarian uniform. This derogation was granted to him, on the condition that he would also own a uniform of maréchal de camp in case he had to serve in the staff, detached from his hussar regiments. He seized the opportunity to ask for the ribbon of the Order of Saint-Louis, a distinction that he would only obtain in 1753. The Castle of Červený Kameň in Slovakia has an undated portrait of Ignác László Bercsényi, which represents him with a royal blue hussar uniform instead of the usual sky blue uniform common to hussars. This is probably the outfit of general officer worn by Bercheny.

Ordinance of December 7, 1756

In November 1756, in a letter, Broglie proposed to the king to “regulate the uniforms of the staff of the armies and of the aides de camp in a similar way that He had done for general officers in His ordinance of February 1, 1744. And to forbid, by the same ordinance, all persons but those who are authorised, by the aforementioned ordinances, or by the uniforms of their troops, to wear an dark blue or royal blue uniform. One joins here samples of buttonholes for these uniforms, the first for the staff officers of the army, the second for the cavalry, the third for the infantry and the fourth for aides de camp. This distinction is absolutely necessary so that those who must be employed according to their charge to carry the orders of the general and those of the general officers who command each division, be recognized by those to whom they are sent.”

Than in another letter in December 1756, “It is true Sir that I have been of the opinion, as M. de Crémille, to give a distinctive mark to officers of the various staffs of the army; in consequence we have had the honour to discuss with the Comte d’Argenson and to propose him a uniform as he sees fit, the form of the costume being rather indifferent by itself, as long as it fulfills the proposed objective.”

This exchange of letters led to the ordinance of December 7, 1756.

“His Majesty having by his ordinance of February 1, 1744, regulated the uniform that his general officers employed in his armies must wear to be more easily recognized by everyone who are under their orders: and judging that it is also important for the good of his service that the general officers of the army and the aides de camp be known by those to whom they are in the case to daily carry the orders of the general and of the general officers of the day or who command divisions; His Majesty has ordered and orders that the officers that he will see fit to employ in the future in the staff of his armies, or to whom He will permit to accompany as aides de camp the general officers who will serve in the said armies will be required to wear during the entire campaign single-breasted coats of the colour commonly designated as royal blue, line with a fabric of the same colour, those will be garnished with gilt copper buttons and gold embroidery buttonholes, according to the samples which will remain annexed to the minute of the present ordinance, namely: one for the officers of the staff of the army, a second for those of the staff of the cavalry, a third for the staff of the infantry and a fourth for the aides de camp who will only have copper buttons without embroideries. His Majesty willing that there will be only eight buttonholes on the front of the coat of the staff officers on each side up to the height of the pocket, two on each sleeve, and three to each pocket and that the staff officers who will be in chief, can wear on their coat a border of embroidery in the same manner as the buttonholes, unless they are general officers, in which case they will wear the uniform assigned to their grade.

His Majesty defends to all person, whatever his quality and condition, to wear in the armies coats of the said royal blue colour, if they are not authorised to do so by the present ordinance or bu the uniforms of the troops to which they will be attached.”

We no more have the models of buttonholes attached to the ordinance of 1756, but as for the braid, the buttonholes of the staff officers or the buttons of general officers, it is more than probable that they are of the same model which was reused for the ordinance of 1775.

These outfits are not related to grades but rather to functions and are thus ephemeral. For this reason, unfortunately, very few known representations exist. There is a drawing by Carmontelle representing the Comte de Coigny as aide-maréchal général des logis of the army; despite the absence of colour, it is interesting for the arrangement of the buttonholes on the coat, the pockets and cuffs. Two representations of a uniform of aide-major général of the armies exist, both depicting Jean-Charles Ledesmé, Baron de Saint-Élix. The first, realised in colour by Carmontelle and the second, a sculpture in terracotta, measuring about 1.93 m. which has been realised by François Lucas in 1762 and is kept at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse.

But the imprecise texts of these ordinances did not prevent some sartorial encroachments as the Marquis du Muy mentions in 1766: “...Would not His Majesty see fit to fix the uniform of the general officers of his troops. The necessity is demonstrated by the great diversity among the 540 lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp who exist today, no two have similar uniform. Some by vanity have enriched it by enlarging it and putting glitters, frizzing and puffs; others by thrift have reduced it width, others have added a trim which better edges, but which were not in the model, others have formed smaller trims because they consider the larger ones too expensive; others have added reversed collars, others have put straight ones; others have put red waistcoats, others yellow waistcoats a colour very easy to soil and giving little contrast to gold. All at last show, even at an advanced age, the levity that one would like to impute only to the youth of the nation.”

Later ordinances

In the ordinance of 1767, the article dedicated to the outfits of the staff is brief, and it it simply repeats the one of the preceding ordinances.

The ordinance of September 2, 1775, on the uniforms of general officers and others employed in the armies and places shows a much greater precision allowing a complete standardization with several plates as models. Inventories of successions demonstrate that, prior to 1775, a “small uniform” already existed, even though it was absent from regulations.

Uniforms worn at the time of the Seven Years’ War

Up to the publication of the ordinance of 1775 and according to the numerous contemporaneous paintings, we can note that the evolution of the cut of the uniform of general officers between 1744 and 1775 followed the evolution in other corps with a tighter coat, narrower cuffs, the advent of the collar. However, we must be cautious, several portraits of general officers of the XVIIIth century kept in museums have been realised during the XIXth century, often with an personal interpretation of the uniform worn. Therefore, these portraits must be ignored. Here follows a non-exhaustive list of the main contemporaneous iconographic sources consulted.

First of all, there are the paintings of Lenfant, whom the king asked to paint the great episodes of the War of the Austrian Succession. This wonderful series, kept at Versailles, shows a gallery of general officers dressed according to the ordinance of 1744 where we can also see their equipage.

Lieutenant général – Detail of a painting (Siege of Freiburg in 1744) by Lenfant – Collections du Château de Versailles
Maréchal de Camp – Detail of a painting (Siege of Tournai in 1745) by Lenfant – Collections du Château de Versailles

Here follows a non-exhaustive list of contemporaneous portraits.

Portrait César Gabriel de Choiseul-Chevigny, Marquis de Choiseul, Duc de Praslin in the uniform of a lieutenant-general. Painted by A. Roslin, 1762 – Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

The portrait of César Gabriel de Choiseul-Chevigny, Marquis de Choiseul, Duc de Praslin painted by A. Roslin, in 1762, and kept at the National Museum in Stockholm, he wears a uniform of lieutenant-general and we can see that the braid is sown on the folds of the coat behind.

Two portraits of Comte Maurice de Courten (1692-1766) have been preserved. On the first one, he wears the uniform of maréchal de camp, interesting because of the breastplate which he wears over the coat. On the second portrait, he is depicted as a lieutenant-general, the author, as for the preceding portrait remains unknown. The latter portrait is kept History Museum of Valais. His relative, Antoine Pancrace Ignace, Comte de Courten (1720-1789), who succeeded him at the head of the Swiss Courten Regiment was promoted to maréchal de camp in 1770; on this occasion, he had himself represented mounted on a horse which was a rare practice (private coll.).

There is also the portrait of Louis de Cardevac, Marquis d'Havrincourt, lieutenant-general (1707-1767) represented as lieutenant-general in 1758 (private coll.).

The members of the Le Pelletier family brilliantly distinguished themselves in the artillery service as early as the reign of Louis XIII., they have given several artillery officers and some of them have been promoted general officers. We know a portrait of Louis Auguste, Chevalier de Pelletier, and another of Michel Laurent, Chevalier le Pelletier (1697-1765), the latter depicted as lieutenant-general by Tischbein in 1741.

The portrait of Christian Frédéric, Comte de Waldner de Freundstein (1712-1783), painted in 1761, depicts him in a uniform of maréchal de camp, he would be promoted to lieutenant-general in 1762.

Karl Christian Wilhelm, Comte von Closen-Heidenburg in uniform of maréchal de camps

The portrait of Karl Christian Wilhelm von Closen-Heidenburg also painted by Tischbein depicts him in a uniform of maréchal de camp, promoted in 1761, he was colonel-commandant of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment.

Always by Tischbein, there is a portrait of Chevert in an outfit of lieutenant-general.

To conclude, there is a portrait of the Marquis de Monteynard painted by Bourchenu (private coll – Castle of Touvet).
We also have several drawings by Carmontelle depicting the Comte de Lusace, the Comte de Castella and the Comte de Waldener as lieutenant-generals and the Comte de Poudenx in maréchal de camp, as well as a representation of an aide maréchal général des logis of the army, the Comte de Coigny, or the one of an aide-major général of the army, the Comte de Saint Elix.

Lieutenant général Comte de Lusace by Carmontelle
Lieutenant général Comte de Waldener by Carmontelle
Maréchal de Camp Comte de Poudenx by Carmontelle
Unknown Maréchal de Camp by Carmontelle
Aide Major-General Baron de Saint-Élix by Carmontelle

The coat lining was white as shown in the paintings of Lenfant, Le Paon or Blarenberghe. The coat is usually worn without turnbacks, but there are a few representations showing turnbacks, as Lenfant’s painting depicting the Maréchal de Saxe or Le Paon’s portrait of the Prince de Condé. From 1775, the lining had to be blue.

Concerning the scrollwork braid, the sample which had been attached to the minute of the ordinance of 1744, have been lost. However, numerous contemporaneous paintings, as well as the drawings of scrollwork braids of the uniform of lieutenant-general by Saint Aubin published in his work on the on the art of the embroiderer, edited in 1770, gives us a representation of the model of the braid. The same pattern of braid has been repeated, this time with very precise measurements, in the ordinance of 1775. In 1766, the Marquis du Muy had noted “…others have added a trim which better edges, but which was not in the model..." This is what we find in one of the portrait.

Uniforms are made up at the expense of the general officer and its richness often reflects his fortune. The study of these portraits reveals that, for the early uniforms, the scrollwork braids were very wide with clearly separated scrolls allowing to see the coat as background. On the contrary, over the decades and particularly after 1775, the braid whose size was now regulated, was much narrower with tighter scrolls which did not allow to see the coat as background. Collars constituted the other evolution noticeable in the portraits. Up to the 1750s, there was no collar and the braid edging the front of the collarless coat often stop at the neck. After this period, the braid edging continued around the neck or bordered the entire coat. Then the general adoption of the collar in military outfits spread to the uniforms of general officers, and the scrollwork braid edged the collar. The cut of the cuffs also evolved: in the 1740s, cuffs were still wide turnbacks slit underneath, in Lenfant’s paintings, the braid is sewn along the edge of the cuff and along the underneath cut. Then cuffs became narrower and were not slit anymore, the braid then simply edged the cuff.

Officially after 1775, the waistcoat was red bordered with a scrollwork braid.
Before this ordinance, waistcoats were often scarlet, yellow or chamois-coloured. The braid is sewn on the waistcoat. It was often in a scrollwork of various patterns as the waistcoat of the Marquis de Monteynard. On certain paintings dating from the middle of the XVIIIth century, the pattern can be seen distinctly and it looks very similar to the model of the ordinance of 1775 which tends to indicate that, like the braid, a standardized button model was annexed to the ordinance of 1744.

Even in the earliest uniforms, red breeches seems to have been the norm for general officers, but there are a few examples of chamois-coloured breeches.



Jean-Louis Vial for the initial version of this article