The French Army of the Thirty Years' War:
Line Infantry

By Curt Johnson

Establishment in 1643

On 15 May 1643, when Louis XIV ascended the throne, the French army had 166 infantry regiments, of which 141 were native French and 25 were foreign. The total strength of the infantry (less garrison troops not organized in regiments) was 192,860. Of this number 151,860 (78.7%) were native French (i.e., enrolled in native French regiments), and 41,000 (21.3%) were foreign. There were 200 companies of foot in garrisons, a total of 26,000 men; this number added to the total of infantry in regiments gives a grand total effective strength of 218,860.

The regiment was an administrative unit. There were a variety of organizations, as follows:
National French

1 rgt. of guards (Gardes françaises) of 30 x 200-man cos. (6,000 men);
16 rgts., ea. of 30 x 50-man cos. (1,500 men ea.);
106 rgts., ea. of 20 x 50-man cos. (1,000 men ea.);
1 rgt. of 18 x 50-man cos. (900 men);
1 rgt. of 15 x 80-man cos. (1,200 men);
6 rgts., ea. of 12 x 80-man cos. (960 men ea.); and
10 rgts., ea. of 10 x 80-man cos. (800 men ea.).


Swiss: 7 rgts. w/alto. 83 x 200-man cos., viz., Gardes suisses (20 cos.), Molondin (10), Watteville (10), Am Buechel (10), Praromann (12), Rhoon (9), and Roll (12);
Irish: 4 rgts. w/alto. 50 x 100-man cos., viz., Coosle (10), Fitz William (10), Beling (10), and Wall (20);
Scots: 4 rgts. w/alto. 62 x 100-man cos., viz., Douglas (30), Gardes ecossaises (12), Lundy (10), and Fullerton (10);
German: 8 rgts. w/alto. 107 x 100-man cos., viz., Roqueservières allemand (20), Zillard (10), Rasilly allemand (10), Kolhas (20), Schombeck (15), Notaf (10), Ehm (10), and Axtein (12);
Liègeois: 1 rgt. (Guiche étranger) of 20 x 100-man cos. (2,000 men); and
Italian: 1 rgt. (Mazarin italien) of 10 x 50-man cos. (500 men).
French Infantry Strength, 1633-1643
Date Total Strength* Total Number of
Number of Foreign
Regiments in Total
1633 102,000 72 7
1635 210,000 149 26
1636+ 219,000 151 26
1637 232,000 166 18
1637 (December) 238,000 185 16
1638 (December) 231,000 180 24
1642 (February) 227,000 174 25
1643 (15 May) 218,000 166 25
* Includes infantry in garrison
+ Not counting infantry in garrison, there were 193,000 men, of which 172,000 were foot and 21,000 were horse. Thus, 89% were foot and 11% were horse.

Source: Belhomme, 2.

Organization for Combat

The tactical unit was the battalion, a temporary unit composed usually of a single regiment but also formed by subdividing large regiments or consolidating small regiments. The organization for combat of the French infantry at the Battle of Rocroi (1643) provides examples of how battalions were formed from regiments. At Rocroi, 22 regiments (17 French and 5 foreign) were formed into 18 battalions. Four battalions were formed by halving two large regiments; nine battalions were formed from a single regiment each; four battalions were formed by consolidating two regiments each; and one battalion was formed by consolidating three regiments. (It should be evident from the foregoing that there is no correspondence--other than coincidental--between the modern definition of the term battalion and the mid-17th Century application.)

The notoriously conservative French retained the handy but outmoded arquebus as the principal infantry firearm rather longer than most other western European powers. It is said that in French units the arquebus was finally supplanted by the musket in 1627 (Lacolle, 385). However, there is evidence that wheellock arquebuses were retained for a period. Guillaume de Saulx-Tavannes stated (Mémoires [1635], quoted in Louisy, 112) that "the more muskets he could have in the [infantry] regiments, the better," since few pikemen could sustain the first fire unless their own musketeers fired accurately in return. However, he continued, "several wheellock arquebusiers are necessary in order to fire from behind the first ranks and when it is raining." One is reminded immediately of the ghastly push of pike at Ceresoles (1544), in which each side unknown to the other hid a rank of arquebusiers and pistoleers behind the first rank of pikemen in order to fire point-blank into the enemy's column opposite. The slaughter on that occasion was enormous.

French musketeer of the period of the Thirty Years' War, from Lostelneau, Le mareschal de bataille (1647). The culotte-style pantaloons would appear to have been unique to the French infantry.

According to Gaya's Traité des armes et machines de guerre (1678), the standard infantry musket had a maximum range of 240 meters and an effective range of 60 meters. By modern standards, the rate of fire was tortuously slow, which necessitated deep formations if fire was to be sustained. Brantome stated that the arquebus could not be loaded and fired "more than one time in eight or ten minutes" (quoted in Louisy, 112). The musket rest was done away with in 1635 (Lacolle, 385). The French were the first to experiment with the bayonet, the weapon that eventually rendered the pike redundant. According to Belhomme (2: 392), the primitive plug bayonet was first employed in 1642 in the Army of Flanders. These bayonets were hafted weapons, about two-feet long. The blade was one-foot long and was fastened to a wooden haft, also one-foot long, which could be plugged into the muzzle of the musket. Puységur, a contemporary, described French soldiers using plug bayonets in 1647, and his description of the weapon is identical to Belhomme's. But it is clear from these and other accounts that the plug bayonet was not employed to any great extent until the 1670s.

Early plug bayonet and poignard (knife) from Gaya's Traite des armes (1678)

The early plug bayonet was employed defensively, but within a couple of decades the offensive possibilities of the weapon were recognized. The French infantry is generally considered to have made history's first bayonet charge at Marsaglia (4 October 1693). Since some controversy attaches to this distinction, it may be best to cite authority. Broglie, 150, citing Rousset, 4: 524, states:
Les charges, commandées par les officiers, l'epée à la main, et faites, d'apres l'ordre exprès du maréchal [Catinat], "au pas de course, la baionette au bout du fusil et sans tirer un coup," furent remarquables et exécutees avec une vigueur qui décida du sort de la journée.
Another source accords the honor to the French Guards at Neerwinden (29 July 1693), just a few months earlier (Eugene Francois de St. Hilaire, Histoire d'Espagne, 433).
Infantry armor is said to have been last worn at the Battle of the Dunes (1658) (Revol, 215).

Depth of Tactical Formations

A company of French infantry arrayed for parade, as depicted in Allain M. Mallett's Les travaux de Mars (1672)

Under Henry IV the French abandoned the deep, block-like infantry formations of the Civil Wars and adopted the ten-deep formation of the Dutch. The principal cause of the change was the reports of French Protestant noblemen who had served in the Dutch War under Maurice of Nassau. During the reign of Louis XIII the depth of infantry formations was reduced yet further, and eight ranks seem to have been the norm. La Barre Duparcq, 51, states that French battalions formed six-deep at the beginning of Louis XIV's reign (1643), but this is contradicted by other evidence.
Revol states that Turenne favored a reduction in depth from ten to six ranks (p. 215). This would appear to have been implemented by 1658. Puységur, 1: facing p. 58, states that French battalions in the time of Turenne and Condé formed eight-deep. Since he referred specifically to grenadier companies in connection with this formation, it appears that he meant the period subsequent to 1667. Lacolle, 385, states that the French Guards formed ten-deep until 1671, when they adopted the formation in six ranks.
The seeming confusion or contradictions among the authorities may indicate that in fact a variety of depths were employed by tactical formations, tending definitively toward a six-deep formation by the time of the Dutch Wars. The great variance reported indicates that, for drill at least, the depth of formations was largely governed by the whims of lieutenant-colonels.
On 1 June 1766, an ordinance prescribed three ranks; still later formation in two ranks was adopted.


Although according to Susane hand grenades were first used at the Siege of Arles in 1536, it was not until 1667 that the first regular companies of grenadiers were formed in French infantry regiments. In the early days the grenadiers were distinguished by the shoulder knots or ribbons reserved for elite troops; these, and the special equipment of the grenadier, were all that distinguished them from the line musketeers.


Dussieux, Armée, 2: 182, quotes Frémont d'Ablancourt to the effect that the German regiment of Clérac, uniformed in gray, with lining of a contrasting color, was the first French infantry regiment uniformed. This was apparently sometime in the period 1659-1668 and was done in imitation of the uniforms of the English troops that served under Schomberg in Portugal during that period. These were distingués les uns les autres par la doublure de leurs habits, qui etaient des couleurs differentes. In 1668, Louvois directed that all the foreign infantry regiments should be uniformed. The French infantry followed in 1670, most regiments in the soon-to-be-familiar gray-white coat, with facings of red, blue, white, etc.


Belhomme, Lt. Col. Histoire de l'infanterie en France. Vols. 1, 2. Paris, n.d.

Broglie, Emmanuel, prince de. Catinat, l'homme et la vie, 1637-1712. Paris, 1902.

Dussieux, Louis Etienne. L'armée en France: Histoire et organisation depuis le temps anciens jusqu'a nos jours. Vol. 2 [of 3]. Versailles: L. Bernard, 1884. Recommended, although incorrect in many particulars; covers the period from Henry IV to the Revolution.

Gaya, Louis de. Traité des armes. Paris, 1678.

La Barre Duparcq, Édouard de. Elements of Military Art and History. Tran. G. W. Cullum. New York, 1863.

Lacolle, Capt. Noel Aldegonde Jules. Les gardes-françaises: leur histoire, 1563-1789. Paris, 1901. The best accessible history of this famous regiment.

Lostelneau, Le Sieur de. Le maréscal de bataille: contenant le maniment des armes ... divers ordres de bataille. Paris, 1647.

Louisy, Paul. L'armée depuis le moyen age jusqu'a la Révolution. Paris, 1887.

Puységur, Jacques François de Chastenet, marquis de. Art de la guerre. Vol. 1. Paris, 1749.

Revol, Joseph Fortune. Histoire de l'armée francaise. Paris, 1929.

Rousset, C. Histoire de Louvois. 4 vols. Paris, 1862-63.


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Copyright © Curt Johnson 1993, 2007


This page was created 12 November 2007; revised 19 November 2007.