As is widely known, France was the country to beat in the late Seventeenth Century. The policy of Louis XIV, the Sun King, was to aim for European hegemony, and France was a sufficiently centralised and powerful nation to achieve such hegemony. This idea, of course, needs nuancing. After all, France did not actually achieve such a dominant position in Europe, and it needs rather more of an explanation than the growing commercial power of Britain, the existing commercial power of the Dutch, the brilliance of Marlborough and Eugene, the un-beat-ability of William of Orange and so on.
There is a theory in strategic geography (hence the link to the post on that subject a week or two ago) that there is a ‘heartland’ which makes certain states unbeatable in war. This, in my view, links to Paul Kennedy’s idea of ‘flank’ powers, Britain and Russia, in the early modern period. The idea is that there is a centre of power and resource in a nation or state which is untouchable by their enemies and, hence, renders the power in question incapable of being knocked out by military campaigning.
Further to this, there is the idea of logistic geography, by which is meant that supply line from this resource heartland to campaign theatres are fairly straightforward. Military resources, such as gunpowder, food, fodder, cannon, and siege materials and so on, can be transferred to the front with reasonable alacrity. While the demands of warfare might stretch these lines, in general, they hold and are sufficiently effective to supply the needs of the armies in the field.
France is often held to be such a state in the early modern period. Spain, as I have discussed recently, was not such a state. None of her possessions as a composite monarchy were either that safe from external intervention or resource centres. Thus, while many Spanish soldiers came from Italy, her possessions there were vulnerable to French intervention. Similarly, Catalonia was vulnerable to France, as were her Rhineland possessions and the Spanish Road to the equally vulnerable Low Countries. Her naval power, of course, had declined considerably, and her overseas possessions were being penetrated by British and Dutch merchants.
By contrast, France is often held to be the winner strategically. She could intervene, using internal lines of communication, in any of the vulnerable Spanish territories. Yet France did not seem to exploit these advantages to their full, despite Louis XIV’s ambitions and direction.
As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading an interesting piece of work on this subject:
Rowlands, G., 'Moving Mars: The Logistical Geography of Louis XIV’s France', French History 25, no. 4 (2011), 492-514.
Rowlands makes the case that France was not in such a great position as might be thought. Firstly, after the chaos of the Thirty Years War and the impact of the early Enlightenment, few states wanted their armies to live off the land. This meant that supply had to be ensured from the homeland, and magazines needed to be established and protected at points where access to both supply areas in the rear and theatres of operation were accessible.
Rowlands argues that France did not have a strategic heartland where the resources for war could be mobilized and distributed to the fronts. France had multiple resource centres – around Paris, the Lyonnais, the area between Rochefort and Lorient, and southern Provence (p. 497). Communications between these areas (which were rich in different resources) could be difficult. The Massif Central was a geographical problem, roads, in general, could be poor, France’s rivers generally run in unhelpful directions to move munitions to the theatres, the regions were poorly integrated and France suffered from local particularism, perhaps a little more substantially than Britain and the Dutch.
In addition to this, French ministers, including the King, at least early in the reign, seemed rather blasé about the difficulties. They seemed to have adopted the view that they ordered things to be done in the King’s name, and it would be so. It took a while for a magazine structure to be grafted onto the hodgepodge system that had evolved. This partially solved the problems in the north, with Lille and Metz. In the south, however, neglect and lack of investment caused problems on the Italian front. The depots were inadequate and, at least in part, in the wrong place. At times there was inadequate storage for the gathered supplies. At others, the demands of the army went un-met. The south-west was even worse, actually often being supplied and supported by the depots (such as they were) in the south-east. France was geared to war in the north and north east, not the south (p. 507).
Delivery systems were another problem. The state could not supply vehicles and animals in sufficient numbers for the requirements, and so private contractors were required. These too had problems in acquiring vehicles and animals, and, indeed, boats on rivers which did run in helpful directions. The locations of arsenals were also a problem, as they were compromises between places of production and the requirements of the operational armies, and so transport was required over long distances both from production areas to arsenals and thence to the theatres of operation.
France, then, at this time was a ‘lumbering giant’ (p. 509) rather than a supple, flexible and nimble strategic power. There were chronic problems with supply and manufacture of munitions. The Franche-Comte was a vital supply source for iron, but it supplied not only the Italian front but Spain as well. Unsurprisingly, there were transportation delays due to distance, weather and competing demands from different fronts. Gunpowder was another problem, with at one point 300,000 pounds being sent from the north to the south by road. Rowlands estimates that this took 500 carts months to deliver, indicating a severe supply crisis (and I wonder as to the quality of the received product).
France, then, was by no means an integrated logistical entity. Perhaps, given the problems of geography, production and supply, it could never have been, but the high command never really seems to have appreciated the problems nor acted to adjust strategy to compensate for them. Defensive warfare could be conducted effectively when armies were supported by their magazines. Small, incremental, offensive operations were achievable, but major offensives, as envisaged by Louis XIV were beyond the state’s capacity.
Maybe the giant of the Grand Siècle was not quite so imposing after all.