maandag, januari 25, 2010
Nec Pluribus Impar (22.I.2010)
First of all, I would like to express my thanks to the jury members of the 2008 thesis prize for their unanimous and flattering evaluation of my research. It goes without saying that I feel very honoured by this recognition of my efforts as a student two years ago.
The work in question is a kind of a life-time project. I came to the War of the Spanish Succession at a rather early age. I used to drive past one of its battlefield by bike every day on my way to school. First as a child, then as a teenager. The plains of the countryside around Oudenaarde were once filled with 170 000 soldiers from across Europe. From the plains of Normandy to the hills of Hessen-Kassel, from the Scottish highlands to the strait of Messina.
Every nation of the European Commonwealth had its representatives in the pompous armed clash of July 11th 1708.
Without realizing it at first, this presence in itself accounted for the most relevant characteristic of the whole War of the Spanish Succession. It was a pan-European affair. Not the military outcome as such, but more the representation in public opinion of the ever recurring encounters of the European “Société des Princes”. Through their generals, princes and diplomats.
I. Soit par une bonne guerre...
1. When the interested reader looks at the memorial remains of the war, he cannot avoid the monumental Marlborough by Sir Winston Churchill. This literary classic has overemphasized the importance of the British –or, larger- the Maritime interest in the Spanish Succession. When we look at Oudenaarde, Blenheim, or Ramillies, the story is better-fed at the coalition side than at the French one.
This unsatisfactory gap in knowledge led me to the Sorbonne, the Service Historique de la Défense and the Archives Diplomatiques in Paris. To the remains of the grand strategy of “Louis XIV, le plus grand roi du monde”, to cite Lucien Bély’s biography.
Again, I was warned beforehand by books as authoritative as Martin Van Crevelds Supplying War and Guy Rowlands’ work on The Dynastic state and the French Army.
(1) Siege and battle were not decisive;
(2) The army was not the birthplace of the modern state (as André Corvisier told us), but an arena for competing noble and administrative family-strategies;
For example, if we take the 1708 campaign, with the big victory of Eugene and Marlborough at Oudenaarde and at the siege of Lille, the factual account in the archives does not learn us anything new. Yes, control of Belgium meant control of the Scheldt to Antwerp and of the coastal zone to Ostend. And Yes, the French army was divided and lost terrain.
2. But why was the French army divided ? Because it was a meeting place for competing court networks. The brilliant Mémoires of Saint-Simon give us the account of the mutual hatred between the Duke of Vendôme, grandchild of one of Henri IV’s bastards, and the Duke of Burgundy, destined heir to the French throne. They use military facts as a means of propaganda to block the other’s aspirations at court.
3. But on a higher level, the French system was not as inefficient as anglo-saxon authors suggested. Louis XIV and his adviser Chamlay firmly held the reins for the Flemish theatre. Thanks to Vauban’s fortifications, the coalition army did not rush to Versailles, as Prince Eugene portrayed in front of his troops.
The reasons are to be found in earlier campaigns. French intelligence on the terrain was excellent. “Le point faible de la monarchie française se trouve entre Bruxelles et Paris”. Contrary to what has been suggested, the failures of the battle of Oudenarde are not the result of logistical, but of personal errors. And they are not uncommon on a battlefield.
If we have a closer look at the previous campaign, that of 1707, this becomes even clearer. In a year labelled by sir David Chandler as “Frustration in Flanders”, the Duke of Vendôme had succeeded in keeping the enemy from any military engagement. By manoeuvring over muddy roads, through narrow enclosures and past the strategic streams. In other words, Basil Liddel Hart’s indirect strategy prevails over the Clausewitzian shock doctrine.
II. ... soit par traités.
1. If war does not decide the Spanish Succession, it’s time to call in the diplomats. As Ragnhild Hatton demonstrated in her brilliant essay Louis XIV and his fellow monarchs, international relations in the late 17th and early 18th century operate on a horizontal basis. To achieve the ambitions of his master, the engineer Vauban saw two means: “Soit par traités, soit par une bonne guerre”.
Historians have overestimated the latter component. Louis XIV was not any more belligerent or ambitious than Leopold I of Austria of King-stadholder William III. It is nonsense to attribute blame to either of the parties for beginning the war.
2. Louis spent as much time directing his diplomacy as he was directing the war. The Great Alliance of The Hague against him was a very fragile one. French diplomacy tried incessantly to bribe one of the partners out of the compound.
During the winter of 1707-1708, Colbert de Torcy, the secrétaire d’État des affaires étrangères, sent Nicolas Mesnager to the Dutch Republic. Disguised as a horse salesman, he confronts the Regents to the blunt political reality. After six years of Duthc bloodshed and heavy financial efforts, Spain is still under French control. Why not partition the inheritance of the late Charles II in such a way that the European Balance is preserved ?
The Dutch Regents, however, refused stubbornly... and felt betrayed... when Great Britain accepted similar French proposals three years later. Mesnager’s negotiation plan was the blueprint for the Treaty of Utrecht (1713, which approaches its 300th birthday). Legal equality, commerce and balance of power were the leading principles behind the restoration of Peace in Europe after 100 years of uninterrupted fighting.
Nicolas Mesnager could make his career thanks to the chances offered by the wartime clandestine relations. There were no formal diplomatic ties between France and the Republic. So no nobleman occupied the post of ambassador. To a roturier like Mesnager, who was a salesman from Rouen, the doors would probably have remained closed. However, 80 million livres Tournois extracted from the Spanish colonies in America... every single year. The importance of commercial questions was such that a expert held the key to the establishment of a European peace.
To conclude: why choose Nec Pluribus Impar ? as a title for this work ? Those three words were cast on the heavy metal guns with which the French bombarded the Grand Place in Brussels in 1695 or devastated the castle of Heidelberg in the Nine Years’ War. One can still read them on the inner courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. The king, who was not comparable to many, as the Petite Académie used to state, was not an ever-victorious general. He was not the universal monarch of Europe. What did he want?
Arbitre de l’Europe ? Yes.
Hegemon ? No.
Louis was born barely two years after the Spanish armies reached the outskirts of Paris in 1636. The vulnerable point of the French monarchy was the North. When the Sun King dies in 1715, he enlarged the territory he inherited from his father and buttressed it with Vauban’s fortifications. His ambition was not natural frontiers, as Gaston Zeller already demonstrated in the 1930’s, but security. Through the sword, but most of all through the diplomatic feather.
Did he succeed ? From Richelieu to Mesnager, the guns kept on brawling. Between the Peace of Utrecht and 1743, there was nothing but silence on the northern frontier.
I thank you for your attention.
(tekst van afgelopen vrijdag, aanvaarding thesisprijs Werkgroep 18de eeuw)
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