Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Greatest Soldier of His Time

La Bataille des Dunes by Charles-Philippe Larivière.
Galerie des Batailles, Palace of Versailles.
Pointing the way with his sword is Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne, Maréchal de France
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In yesterday's post about the Battle of Waterloo, I mentioned that Marshal Michel Ney was one of my favorites amongst Napoléon's marshals. (The other being Louis-Nicholas Davout.)

A friend of mine on Facebook asked the following question -"No love for de la Tour d'Auvergne?"

And then another friend commented on the post that he was pretty much ignorant of European military history from, as he put it, "Agincourt to the Marne."


That's quite a stretch of history. The Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415, the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. That's 499 years and it's an awful lot of history to keep track of. At first I kind of scoffed at my friend's seeming ignorance. Then I had to stop and think, "Just how much do I know of that half-millennium?"

Honestly, not as much as I should.


I have some rudimentary knowledge of the English War of the Roses, the English Civil War, the 30-Years War and some knowledge of the many conflicts (one might say the never ending conflict) between England and France. But until you get up to the time of Frederick the Great, I'm not as knowledgeable as I'd like to be.

So I am setting out, today, to remedy that ignorance. If you like, you can come along. The journey will be by no means arduous, there will be no reading assignments or homework, that's for sure! But maybe we'll all learn something about warfare.

You can amaze people at cocktail parties, be the hit of the water cooler crowd. You shall tell these tales to your grandchildren and, to quote Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks (commander of XXX Corps) prior to Operation Market-Garden,

mightily bored they'll be...

Well, let's hope not.

What better place to start this series with
Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne, often called simply Turenne (11 September 1611, Sedan, Ardennes – 27 July 1675) was the most illustrious member of the La Tour d'Auvergne family. He achieved military fame and became a Marshal of France. He was one of six marshals who have been made Marshal General of France. W
 Turenne had the respect and admiration of Napoléon himself.

After Turenne's death in battle in 1675, he was buried in St. Denis, with the French kings of old. When the French Revolution was raging, the revolutionaries dug up the monarchs and reburied them in a mass grave, little more than a pit.


The remains of Turenne were respected and did not suffer the ignominious fate of his sovereigns. The revolutionaries preserved his remains at the Jardin des Plantes (in Paris) until 22 September 1800. At that time, Napoléon had them removed to the church of the Invalides at Paris, where they still rest. I have been there. There are a number of great French soldiers interred there.

Paris - Les Invalides - Tombeau de Turenne
by Thesupermat CC

Turenne began his soldiering career in the Eighty Years War (also known as the Dutch War of Independence) which is the name given to the struggle by the 17 provinces of the Netherlands to get out from under the thumb of Philip II of Spain.

Philip II is the same guy who launched the Spanish Armada. He was married to Queen Mary of England for four years and technically speaking he was the king of England and Ireland during that period. But the English weren't having that. Not at all.

Another tidbit regarding Philip II, the Philippines is named after him. (There's a pretty good article about him over at Wikipedia.)

While I had no knowledge that this conflict was known as the Eighty Years War, I did have some knowledge of the fighting between the Dutch and Spain. There was a twelve year truce during that long conflict which ended in 1619, when the Thirty Years War broke out.

Turenne fought in that conflict as well.
Another historical tidbit that I was aware of was that Philip II of Spain was a Hapsburg. That particular family ruled the Austrian Empire for a very long time. The last Hapsburg emperor was deposed by the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

While the long series of wars between the English and the French are fairly well-known, think the Hundred Years War and the battles of Crécy and Agincourt, one thing which often goes unremarked is the long hatred between the Bourbon kings of France and the Hapsburgs. (Austria and France went at it tooth and nail all during the reign of Napoléon!)

So Turenne began his career fighting for the Dutch and then later for the French.
In 1630 Turenne left the Netherlands and entered the service of France, motivated not only by the prospect of military advancement but also by his mother's desire to show the loyalty of the Bouillon dominions to the French crown. W
The Thirty Years War began as a contest of religion and gradually devolved into a continuation of the enmity between France and the Hapsburgs. It was a violent, nasty war with both sides employing mercenaries. It did happen that the folks who hired these fighting men would run out of money. Then the mercenaries would leave the army and cut a swath of terror and destruction over the land. Many German states lost between a third and two-thirds of their population during this series of bloody battles and vicious sieges. It was a devastating war.

The year 1648 saw the end of the Thirty Years War with the Peace of Westphalia, which was actually a number of treaties negotiated and signed over a period of years. All while people were dying. (And we think our politicians are bad!)

When I was a lad, we learned that the Peace of Westphalia marked the birth of the modern state and the rise of national armies.

These armies were meticulously drilled and trained and cost a great deal of money. So warfare after the Thirty Years War became something of a chess match. The armies were far too precious to risk in actual combat. Though bloody battles did occur from time to time.

This was the age of Vauban and the Sun King (Louis XIV). Massive fortresses sprang up over the land. Magazines and supply limited the movement of armies. Campaigns ended when the weather got bad in the fall. Again, the preservation of one's army was important. Lose it and it took too long to raise another. Not to mention the cost involved.

Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707)
Artist unknown
Louis XIV, King of France
by Claude Lefèbvre
Les collections du château de Versailles

Turenne proved to be a master of this sort of warfare. Though he could pitch in with a passion when combat proved necessary. I loved this bit from Wikipedia about the great marshal -
In his personal character Turenne showed little more than the nature of a simple and honorable soldier, endowed with much tact; but in the world of politics and intellect he seemed almost helpless in the hands of a skillful intriguer or casuist. His morals, if not beyond reproach, were at least more austere than those prevalent in the age in which he lived. He operated essentially as a commander of regular armies. He spent his life with the troops; he knew how to win their affection; he tempered a severe discipline with rare generosity, and his men loved him as a comrade no less than they admired him as a commander. Thus, though Condé's genius appeared far more versatile, Turenne's genius best represents the art of war in the 17th century. For the small, costly, and highly trained regular armies, and for the dynastic warfare of the age of Louis XIV, Turenne functioned as the ideal army leader. W
What better epitaph for a soldier?

An interesting note about the battle shown in the opening painting -
A complex political situation resulted in both French and English forces fighting for both sides. When France's Louis XIV formed an alliance with Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the exiled Charles II of England allied himself with Philip IV of Spain. Charles set up his headquarters in Bruges. The Spanish supplied only enough money to form five regiments. This was a disappointment for the Royalists, who had hoped to be able to form an army large enough to contemplate an invasion of the English Commonwealth. A renewal of a 1657 treaty between Cromwell and Louis XIV provided 6,000 Commonwealth infantry and a fleet to aid Turenne. Along with English forces, French forces fought on both sides with Condé, a French Prince of the blood, leading a contingent of French rebels of the Fronde. W
The English were fighting with the French and against the French. I guess it's okay though, even the French were fighting against the French! That's what it was like back in those days of dynastic struggle. A general could switch sides and no one thought much about it in the upper levels of government.

I'm betting the poor enlisted swine didn't have the same privilege!

A fascinating period of warfare which I need to delve into further. I will keep you (ahem) posted as things move along. But for now, a salute across the centuries to a master commander -

Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne
Vicomte de Turenne

Maréchal de France

Statue at Versailles
Photo by Augustin Pajou CC

8 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Spent a bit of time studying the period in ARRRMYYYY Training Sir, but mostly to learn about the nation state and beginnings of the modern army. You summarized that nicely by the way. Didn't know about the casualty levels though.
    Looking forward to the next piece.

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    1. Thanks Juvat. I learn something every time I do a historical post. They're fun to do as well.

      (I know, I know. I have odd ideas about "fun.")

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  2. Excellent, thank you!! Don't leave out the Admirals in future installments ;-)

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  3. Just a hint, it wasn't purely French again French. It was normandian/Protestant French against papist French, the love thy brother again..
    Some of the motivations are just not obvious, but this also carried thru to the conflicts in the new lands.

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    1. Ah, but what constitutes being French? In those days the regions of France were still rather unique as to customs and language. So yes, you make a good point, though my comment was meant to be somewhat tongue in cheek.

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  4. Well done, Sarge. You're gettin' me larned up!

    And while all that yerapeein' upscuddlin' was going on, the civilians were busy developing the progenitors of the cattle I raise today in Nebraska. I feel a bovine historical post coming on. Anyone ever hear about the great navy cattle drive of 1863?

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    1. Well, well do tell. You've sparked my interest with this naval cattle drive.

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