Louis XIV on Offense, 1672-1673

Lodewijk XIV crosses the Rhine near the Toll house at Lobith, 12 june 1672  *oil on canvas  *103 × 159 cm  *1672 - 1690

The crossing of the Rhine at Tolhuis (now a suburb of Nijmegen) on 12 June 1672 – painting by Adam Frans van der Meulen.

Fighting began in early May 1672, as 118,000 French infantry and 12,000 cavalry crossed into the Netherlands in three armed columns. The main French force of 50,000 was led by Marshal Turenne, accompanied personally by the king and his full court. It advanced along the left bank of the Meuse toward Maastricht, crossing the Maas north of the city on May 22. A second army, under the Great Condé, moved along the right bank. Before reaching Maastricht, Turenne crossed the river and united with Condé. A third army of more than 20,000 troops from Cologne and Münster, Louis’ minor German allies, moved from Westphalia into the northern Dutch provinces starting on May 18. The Münsterites captured several border towns. Though they were finally blocked at Groningen, they destroyed much of value in their path, tied down badly-needed Dutch defenders, and spread fear and panic among the populace. The Dutch had available just 40,000 troops in all, and most of these were badly dispersed in scattered border and town garrisons. Only 14,000 were available to the young William III (then still Prince of Orange), the newly appointed captain-general who took personal charge of the armies of the United Provinces in July 1672. Turenne and Condé bypassed Maastricht, isolating its garrison, and continued their march. They invested and captured four Dutch fortresses on the lower Rhine, threatening to move beyond the river in short order. While this campaign was under way, the Dutch called out their warfleets to strike at the Royal Navy before the English could unite with the French warfleet of 36 ships-of-the-line. De Ruyter failed to stop the union of his enemies’ fleets, however, a fact that left him outgunned and overmatched. Converting necessity into advantage, he attacked and won narrowly at Solebay in early June. That forestalled a hostile Allied descent on the Dutch coast.

Once the Dutch battlefleet returned to port, most ships’ crews were hurriedly converted into raw infantrymen and rushed to the front. While Anglo-French plans for an amphibious flanking move were blocked at sea, Maastricht still held out. Condé crossed the Rhine under fire on June 12, first fording the river to establish a beachhead, then throwing a pontoon bridge across it to quickly reinforce. Arnhem’s citizenry rioted and forced surrender of the garrison on June 15. This advance placed the interior ring of Dutch defenses at great risk, which forced William to fall back, despite receiving modest Spanish reinforcements. The States General ordered the lines of the outflanked IJssel abandoned and pulled its surviving troops back to defend Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. The French next advanced on Utrecht, which surrendered without a fight on June 23 after its citizens, too, rioted and refused the garrison any ability to prepare for the coming siege. The French celebrated with the first Catholic Mass allowed in Utrecht cathedral since the 1570s. Turenne then invested Nijmegen for six days (July 3-9). Its quick surrender allowed the garrison of 4,500 to depart with their arms and honors, but further imperiled the inner lines of defense. The Dutch now resorted to traditional, but still desperate, measures. On June 22 they opened sluices and broke dikes in front of the advancing French along the water line, while also making a desperate appeal to Louis for immediate cessation of hostilities. The Regents of Holland offered land, border cities, and payment of a large indemnity to the French king. This was playing with domestic fire, as civic populations all over Holland and Zeeland rose in furious mobs to protest stories of neglect of duty and active betrayal. Across the battle lines, Louvois argued with Louis for more war, possibly from motives of personal greed for profits to be made from contracts to feed Mars. He successfully appealed to Louis’ personal hubris and strategic avarice for even more concessions and annexations. Thinking his military victory completed, Louis inadvisedly ransomed 20,000 Dutch prisoners, thereby reinforcing his enemy’s badly depleted defenses. He thus missed a main chance for victory. Additional reinforcements came in the form of civic militia whose members rallied in large numbers to town barricades and walls, including large numbers of women. This populist uprising raised William to Stadholder in July, and led to the street murder of Jan de Witt in August. Louis’ armies were then stopped short of Amsterdam and The Hague by defenders standing behind open sluices and across flooded plains. The defense was supported by an early winter that mired the Grande Monarque’s troops, and his German allies, in frozen blood and mud.

The water line held, but just barely. It would not have without help from an unusually cold winter and hard resistance by an aroused population well-organized into civic militias. By early spring, 1673, all routes into Holland were blocked to the French by ice, barricades, and brave resistance. Over the winter the Dutch had also raised important allies, as Brandenburg and the Austrians joined the fight. German troops advanced on Cologne. This relieved some of the military pressure on the Dutch by forcing Turenne and 40,000 French troops (including 18,000 horse) to relocate from the Netherlands to the new front in the Rhineland. In fighting along the Rhine frontier throughout the winter of 1672-1673, Turenne drove the Imperials and Brandenburgers back into north Germany. He later drove Brandenburg out of the fight, forcing Friedrich- Wilhelm to sign the Treaty of Vassem (June 6, 1673) by savaging and scorching his lands. The Dutch tried to take advantage of this dispersal of French forces by attacking toward Charleroi, but were repulsed. In May 1673, Louis personally returned to the campaign and the quest for “la gloire” that had driven him since his early years. He accompanied one army marching up the Meuse while two more French armies attacked the United Provinces from other directions, one led by Condé and the other by Turenne. Louis ordered Vauban to besiege Maastricht, rather than bypass it. The town and its key fortified bridge duly fell on July 1. Turenne spent the summer trying to interpose his troops between an Imperial army led by the nimble Montecuccoli and a Dutch army under William, but failed to prevent an Allied juncture at Bonn. The Dutch once more flooded their country in front of the enemy, bogging him down. And once again the war widened politically and militarily, as Louis’ intransigence and aggression allowed William to deftly assemble the first of several coalitions he would lead against France over the next three decades. Meanwhile, de Ruyter waged a brilliant defensive campaign at sea, winning twice at Zeeland in June.

The United Provinces had allied by late summer 1673, with Austria, Charles IV (dispossessed Duke of Lorraine), and a number of smaller German states. For the French this shifted the balance of forces-and the major threat-to Germany, which became the main theater of operations. Employing interior lines, French troops were disengaged from the fight with the Dutch and sent to reinforce the king’s army in Germany. Condé observed the Spanish, who would soon align openly with the Dutch but had yet to formally join the Allies (Spain finally joined the coalition in August). Meanwhile, a French army of 18,000 ransacked the electorate of Trier, whose bishop had joined the Allied coalition. Louis led a third French army into Lorraine. There, he improved defenses at Nancy and repressed incipient popular disquiet over his new war with the Emperor. He next moved into Alsace, forcing contributions and enforcing his will. The new coalition was too powerful to allow him to do the same elsewhere, so Louis finally offered to accept more modest terms. But it was now too late to end the war, or even prevent its further expansion. William went on the offensive in the north, capturing whole a French garrison of 3,000 at Naarden and retaking Utrecht. Cologne also fell to Imperial and Dutch troops. Active fighting broke out between Spain and France in mid-October, and now Brandenburg rejoined the fight. Louis was severely isolated when the United Provinces wisely ended the Third Anglo-Dutch War, agreeing to the Treaty of Westminster (February 9/19, 1674) with England. The breakdown of Louis’ keystone alliance with England was a decisive diplomatic defeat for France. Münster was forced out of the war two months after England defected. On May 28 the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire declared war on France. The French abandoned their position on the IJssel that same month. As they withdrew from Arnhem and other towns, crowds of Orangists desecrated Catholic churches and hung out the colors of their prince and Stadholder.

A pattern was now set that would repeat over the four decades that remained to Louis XIV. Royal hubris had prolonged a war of aggression that shifted into a defensive war as the king was faced by a grand coalition provoked into existence by his overbearing ambitions. Each coalition then transitioned from fear to its own hubris of power and diplomatic intransigence, delaying peace and prolonging the suffering and desolation of war.


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