Europe nursed bitter memories of the severe depredations carried out by French armies in the Spanish Netherlands and of the bombardment of Luxembourg during the War of the Reunions (1683-1684). Great and lesser powers alike did not accept as more than temporary the peace with Louis XIV agreed at Ratisbon in 1684. However, no plans were afoot to reverse these French gains. Austria and its south German allies were preoccupied with an ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire, while the Netherlands and north German states fixed their attention on a building succession crisis in England, where a new Catholic king, James II, was at odds with a restless Protestant people. In 1686 representatives of Austria, Spain, and Sweden met with those from several minor German powers, including Bavaria and the Palatinate, in the Imperial city of Augsburg. They agreed to a vague defensive alliance, the League of Augsburg, against further French aggression in Germany. The Germans were frightened by Louis’ longstanding policy of expansion along his Rhine frontier, and his disrespect for the legal and religious rights of free Imperial cities guaranteed by France in the Peace of Westphalia (1648).
The Augsburg alliance was superseded in 1689 by the “Grand Alliance,” which added England, Savoy, Brandenburg, and the United Provinces to the coalition that fought against France from 1688 to 1697. The terms “War of the League of Augsburg” and “War of the Grand Alliance” are inaccurate for different reasons (membership in the first case, start date in the second). They are most usefully, and today more generally, subsumed under the rubric “Nine Years’ War (1688-1697).” King William’s War (1689-1697) is a local designation used mainly by American historians for the North American theater of operations that formed a lesser part of this larger European and imperial conflict.
John A. Lynn argues that Louis XIV was essentially satiated and defensive after 1675, fighting later and longer wars only or mainly to secure his frontiers rather than conquer new ones. Lynn calls the Nine Years’ War the “great miscalculation,” proposing that Louis wanted a short, defensive conflict, but that his reputation and rough diplomacy brought about a wider and longer war that he “neither desired nor expected.” This idea of a satisfied, defensive Louis was not a view held by most contemporaries or later historians. Louis feared that he might lose to aroused foreign revanchism some territorial gains made by his earlier aggressions, especially the War of the Reunions. That rightly caused worry that he might be attacked in his turn. A wise ruler interested in consolidating and defending extant gains would have pursued a moderate policy of conciliation. Louis instead chose to provoke a new crisis with an ultimatum (his “Mémoire des raisons,” issued on September 24, 1688) demanding, upon the threat of renewing war, that Europe accept as permanent all his prior gains. This was certainly a diplomatic and strategic miscalculation, but one that hardly seems benign or essentially defensive. Nor does the immediacy of Louis’ military actions, or the savage manner in which he conducted the war he started in Germany, accord with any putative defensive motivations.
With a grave succession crisis underway in England and Leopold I away campaigning against the Ottomans, Louis thought he saw a main chance: he struck violently into Germany, thereby confirming the worst fears about his ambitions. Any notion that he launched this attack from defensive motives is vitiated by the fact the French moved into Germany on September 25, 1688. That was but a single day after issuing his ultimatum and three months less a day from its proposed expiration. The ink on his Mémoire of demands and conditions for keeping peace had barely dried, nor had the document even reached the foreign capitals to which it was sent! And most tellingly, Louis invaded Germany fully six weeks before William III landed in Devon. This was all in keeping with the main pattern of his long reign and many wars: Louis would accept moderate terms only when these were forced on him by a powerful enemy coalition. Before that occurred, in 1697, not only Germany would be savaged by war. France and its empire also would be wracked by battlefield losses and by a deep internal crisis brought on by unsustainable military spending, aggravated by repeated crop failure and widespread famine, and by a global naval war.
When the immediate threat to the Habsburgs and south Germany passed upon defeat of the Ottomans at Mohacs (August 12, 1687), Germans returned to consideration of the threat from France. This seemed imminent and manifest as Louis attempted to interfere in a succession crisis in the bishopric of Cologne. Even more worrisome, the crisis in England crested that summer. Louis supported James II in the latter’s feeble bid to retain the English throne, and issued threats of war against the United Provinces should William cross the Channel in arms. But Louis could not prevent conspirators behind the so-called Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) from snatching the crown from the head of a weak ally and offering to place it on William’s ambitious head. Neither French threats nor Louis’ actual invasion of Germany stopped James II’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William, succeeding to the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland once William landed with a small army at Torbay on November 5, 1688. France’s most determined enemy would expel Louis’ ally James from Ireland by the middle of 1690. In time, William would bring together Dutch and English power and resources in pursuit of the common aim of containing and defeating Louis and France. But in the short term, the new British king’s attention was focused on gaining full political and military control over his fractured realms.
Although England and Scotland did not enter the Nine Years’ War until 1689, the most decisive stage of the conflict was William’s successful invasion of England in 1688. William’s triumph ensured that English resources would be employed against Louis XIV, and thus that Louis would be put under greater pressure than in his wars of 1667-8 and 1672-8. Initially, this benefit was lessened by the disintegration of James’s army in England in 1688 and, in large part, was counteracted by commitments in Scotland and, more particularly, Ireland, but this became far less the case from 1691.
In the meantime, the French had gained the initiative in the Low Countries, the cockpit of Europe, advancing in the Spanish Netherlands in 1690 and 1691: the French successfully besieged Mons in 1691 and Namur in 1692. This owed much to the excellent generalship of the Duke of Luxembourg, to nearby supply sources and to a large army, the largest in Western Europe since the days of Imperial Rome. From 1692, however, William was able to deploy more troops in the Low Countries, in large part because Ireland had been subjugated. Nevertheless, he was still defeated at Steenkirk (1692) and, after a hard struggle, at Neerwinden (1693). William was out-generalled and his forces out-fought, but they were engaged against the leading army in Western Europe at the peak of its capability. After Neerwinden, the French pressed on to besiege Charleroi successfully, thus gaining control of the line of the Sambre. Such gains were not only important strategically. They also ensured that the French would have more to bargain with in subsequent peace negotiations. William’s forces were not only unsuccessful in the Low Countries. Another British force, 8,000 strong under Lieutenant-General Thomas Talmash, failed in an expedition against the leading French naval base of Brest in 1694: the landing-assault at nearby Camaret Bay was badly mismanaged.
However, the commitment of Anglo-Dutch strength in the war denied Louis decisive victory, and the loss of Namur to William in 1695 shook French prestige. In addition, the British proved capable of supporting a greater military commitment than hitherto. Their commitment was larger, more sustained and more expensive than any they had mounted hitherto, and this contrasted greatly with the situation during earlier seventeenth-century conflicts. The size of the British corps in the Spanish Netherlands rose from 10,972 in 1689 to 29,100, plus 27,209 foreign troops in British pay, in 1694-7. Whereas Charles II’s army had cost £283,000 in 1684 and James II’s £620,322 per annum, between 1691 and 1697 the army and the navy each cost an annual average of £2.5 million. Having secured an Act declaring that its consent was necessary for a peacetime standing army, Parliament was willing to pay for a substantial war army.
This expenditure also produced results. The military position did not collapse, despite successive defeats. Huy was regained in 1694. Fresh forces were raised and William Blathwayt proved an effective Secretary at War. The recapture of Namur provided “the essential negotiating card needed for future peace-making”, and by the Treaty of Rijswijk of 1697 Louis restored many of his gains. Furthermore, the British played an active role in the great rearming of the 1690s, when pikes were replaced by muskets equipped by socket bayonets, and matchlock muskets were replaced by flintlocks. Whereas with the earlier plug bayonets inserted in the barrel of the musket it had been necessary to remove the bayonet before firing the musket, the socket bayonet enabled firing with the bayonet in place. The Ordnance Office displayed flexibility in this rearming, using the capacity of the Birmingham gunsmiths and thus circumventing the monopoly of their London counterparts. All the new regiments raised from 1689 were equipped with flintlocks. The Land Pattern Musket could be fired at least twice a minute and weighed one pound less than the matchlock previously used.
However, as the French were re-equipping in a similar fashion, the British did not benefit from a capability gap. Certainly the weaponry available did not play a crucial role at Steenkirk or Neerwinden. In the former, the difficulty of mounting a successful frontal attack against a prepared defence was crucial. At Neerwinden, heavy French massed attacks eventually drove William from his poorly chosen position, but only at the cost of heavier casualties. The experience gained of campaigning on the Continent was to be important for the next conflict.
The introduction of the socket bayonet increased firepower, but it did not greatly encourage attacks because bayonet drills were for a long time based on pike drills, with the weapon held high and an emphasis on receiving advances. It was not until the 1750s that a new bayonet drill, with the weapon held waist-high, made it easier to mount attacks.