In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern French Armies

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • French Army and Europe
  • Pre-Louis XIV
  • The Wars of Louis XIV
  • French Forces in North America
  • The Seven Years’ War
  • Reform Post-1750
  • The American Revolution
  • The Effect of American Revolutionary Participation
  • The French Revolution
  • Soldiers
  • Noble Officer Corps
  • Fortifications/Engineering
  • Atrocity or Limited War
  • Government and Politics
  • War and Philosophy
  • Violence and Protest

Military History Early Modern French Armies
Julia Osman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0103


Historians who study the early modern French army are interested in a variety of different aspects of it in addition to traditional operational histories. Over the past several decades, the historiographical trend has included inquiries that explore the relationships between the French army and French culture, society, state-building, and colonialism, as well as its connections to Europe and the world in general. To accommodate these connections, this article is organized chronologically and thematically. It begins by looking at works that examine warfare in Europe as a whole from the religious wars that rocked all of Europe in the 16th century to the French Revolutionary wars of the late 18th century. This early modern period, situated between these two wars, stands out as a time when monarchs and officers attempted to restrict military activity to professional armies rather than involve civilian combatants whose personal investment in the outcome of a war had led to extreme violence and prolonged conflict. To explore this period of seemingly “limited” warfare, this article first moves chronologically, beginning with works on the more disjointed army that existed in France before the rule of Louis XIV (1562–1653), how the army became centralized during the reign of Louis XIV (1660–1715), and the status of the French army in the North American colonies (1500–1763) as well as during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), a conflict that proved to be a watershed for the French army. The following section presents information on reform in the French army following the Seven Years’ War (1750–1789), then French activity during the American Revolution (1775–1783), and finally the transition that took place in the army during the French Revolution (1787–1794). Following this roughly chronological account, the article turns to specific elements of the French army: soldiers; the French officer corps, made up almost exclusively of members of the French nobility; artillery, engineering, and French fortifications. Finally, the article considers thematic approaches to the French army that consider its relationship to atrocity, politics, philosophy (and the Enlightenment), and finally protest. Each of these subject areas will likely contain a mixture of operational histories, cultural histories, and social histories as well as “hybrid histories” that combine methodologies, as different French historians approach the same topic using a variety of methods. By looking at the French army from these different angles, the reader will be better able to untangle the many cultural, social, political, and theoretical elements that made up the French army or affected its performance on the battlefield.

Primary Sources

For those interested in pursuing primary research in French history, several resources are available. The Service Historique de la Défense, based in Vincennes, France, just outside of Paris, oversees the major archives for French military services. Information on their location, hours, indexes, and means of requesting materials is available in French and English. In the United States, the library of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., houses an impressive array of rare books on the French army, including original editions and some manuscripts, from the 17th through the 18th centuries. A good online source would also be Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a database available through most major university research libraries. For published primary sources, Louvois 2007 is one of the best (and most recently republished) sources on the military under Louis XIV, when the army became more centralized under the king’s authority. Saxe 1971 (first published in 1757) presents a critical perspective on the French army through the eyes of one of its most celebrated generals. The authors Servan de Gerbey 1780 (first published in 1757) and Guibert 1977 were active duty officers and men of letters, applying Enlightenment ideas to army organization. Laclos 1786, also a marriage of Enlightenment and military thinking, represents a transition in how French engineers approached fortifications. The Encyclopédie Militaire (1770–1772), separate from Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie, served as a reference for army officers. Noailles 1791 shows some accommodation, regarding tactics and training, to the new approach in the army beginning in the French Revolution. Powers 2006 also provides a useful bibliography for those interested in pursuing primary research on the 18th-century French and British armies.

  • Comte de Noailles. Instruction pour les gardes nationales, arrêtée par le comité militaire, et imprimée par ordre de l’Assemblée national du premier janvier 1791. Paris: de l’Imprimerie Nationale, 1791.

    The Comte de Noailles, a high-ranking noble in the French army and friend of Lafayette, here presents his methods of organizing and training the relatively new National Guard, born the day after the fall of the Bastille in July 1789.

  • Encyclopédie Militaire, par une Société d’Anciens Officiers et de Gens de Lettres. Paris: Valade, 1770–1772.

    This was a periodical that lasted from 1770 to 1772, with articles on important military personnel, military history (including relevant stories from the ancient Greeks and Romans), and recommended reading.

  • Guibert, Jacques-Antoine Hippolyte, comte de. “Essai Général de Tactique.” In Écrits militaires. Edited by Henri Ménard. Paris: Copernic, 1977.

    This is one of the most famous French military treatises. It contains vivid descriptions of a French citizen army before it became a reality as well as a lengthy section on tactics, weighing in on the debate of the time between ordre profond and ordre mince.

  • Laclos, Choderlos. Lettre à Messieurs de l’Académie Française sur l’éloge de M. le Maréchal de Vauban, proposé pour sujet du prix d’éloquence de l’année 1787. Paris: Chez Durand, 1786.

    Laclos, a French artillery officer perhaps most famous as the author of Dangerous Liaisons argues here that French engineers must move beyond the shadow of Vauban and explore new methods of fortification.

  • Louvois, marquis de. Lettres de Louvois à Louis XIV, 1679–1691. Edited and translated by Nicole Salat and Thierry Sarmant. Paris: Société de l’histoire de la France, 2007.

    This is a collection of letters between the marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s minister of war, and the king himself.

  • Powers, Sandra. “Studying the Art of War: Military Books Known to American Officers and Their French Counterparts during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of Military History 70 (July 2006): 781–814.

    DOI: 10.1353/jmh.2006.0187

    Powers provides lists and contexts for much of the reading of the 18th-century military elite. She provides not only titles and summaries, but also where to find these works.

  • Saxe, Maurice, comte de. Reveries, or Memoirs upon the Art of War. Translated by Unknown. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971.

    First published in 1757. Maurice de Saxe is one of the most heralded generals of the old regime. In this book, he uses ancient Romans as a yardstick for measuring the French army in its effectiveness, especially in the recruiting and training of soldiers.

  • Servan de Gerbey. Le soldat citoyen. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: s.n., 1780.

    Often misattributed to Guibert, Le soldat citoyen was one of the more important military treatises at the end of the old regime that foreshadowed the drastic changes in the army that occurred in the French Revolution. Available at Google books.

  • Service Historique de la Défense. Vincennes, France.

    This is the website for the major French military archives. The website is available in French and English, and you can use it to make reservations, ask for research assistance, or browse call numbers.

  • Society of the Cincinnati. Washington, DC.

    This is the catalog for the Society of the Cincinnati archive and library. In addition to documents on the history of the society and the American Revolution, there is a substantial collection of 17th- and 18th-century rare books and letters.

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