To the English-speaking world, Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, is—if remembered at all these days—one of those French generals in the latter part of Louis XIV’s reign who had the privilege of being defeated by the Duke of Marlborough. But, given the Churchillian record of Marlborough, one might add that there is no shame in this. Indeed, Vendôme, before the defeat of Oudenarde in 1708, was regarded as a formidable commander by contemporaries. Charismatic, familiar with his troops, a raiser of morale and a fearless leader who plunged into the thick of actions over a career lasting forty-plus years, Vendôme was taken with his less talented soldier brother, the Grand Prieur de France, to be the Castor and Pollux of their age. Fadi El Hage, however, does not set out to write either a hagiography of the duc, nor to condemn his failings. He has, instead, written a well-balanced biography that makes a real effort to understand what drove Vendôme to become not only a leading French commander but also Philip V of Spain’s principal military officer in his last years alive. He has also considered carefully the appalling health problems from which Vendôme suffered from the late 1690s: notably, infection with syphilis that ruined his nervous system and his kidneys and sapped his vitality. For El Hage (and this reviewer), the key to understanding Vendôme was his descent from the illegitimate son of Henri IV, César (also duc de Vendôme): the grandson saw military command as the avenue to finally joining the ranks of the princes du sang, and Louis XIV saw him as the piquet in this respect for elevating his own bastard sons, the duc du Maine and comte de Toulouse, into a special rank just below the princes du sang. Unfortunately, as one of his rivals, the maréchal de Tessé, observed with his usual acuity, Vendôme’s temperament and deteriorating health meant he was just not up to the task of managing a campaign over a vast theatre with field armies that had become much larger from the 1690s. He was possessed of excessive self-confidence and obstinacy, failing to apply himself sufficiently either to the grinding task of logistical organization or supervising subordinates with a firm grip. Contemporaries unaware of the health strains he was under in the War of the Spanish Succession, and revolted in some cases by his personal hygiene, gluttony and homosexuality, attributed his deficiencies as a commander to intellectual, moral and physical laziness. Uncharitable this interpretation might have been, but whatever the cause the effect was the same: he reacted sluggishly to campaign developments, yet then behaved in the face of operational and tactical challenges with impetuousness and hubris, an indication of a desire to minimize thought and to campaign with gut instinct and a coup d’oeil. El Hage even goes so far as to attribute the Bourbon loss of Italy in 1706–07 to Vendôme, even though he had departed before the fatal siege of Turin to retrieve the situation on the disastrous Flanders front. The Bourbon empire in Europe, so short-lived in 1700–08, was brought down by Vendôme’s legacy in the Italian front and his failure in the Oudenarde campaign in 1708. Thought-provoking this might be, but it requires an awful lot more archival evidence to be convincing and to enable a comprehensive biography of Vendôme’s interests and actions to be written. El Hage also believes Vendôme was right to press for the siege of Turin in 1705 to smash the Savoyard state. Here, though, we see the underlying flaw in this book: for all its merits as an enjoyable read peppered with sound evaluations of many moments and aspects of Vendôme’s life, El Hage has simply not drilled down into the campaigns Vendôme fought, at least not far enough to understand the enormous logistical and strategic problems that plagued the French state during the 1690s and 1700s. Surprisingly for an author steeped in the war archives, the biography has few archival references (and none from the Minutier Central). The reliance upon contemporary memoirs and other published primary sources—and upon the extremely suspect papers of the chevalier de Bellerive—is overwhelming, and material drawn from them is presented too often as fact without doubt. Moreover, for a biography of a military figure, which concentrates a good deal upon his campaigns, it is frustrating that there are no maps and no plans of battles—nor is there an index. There are also some glaring omissions. Vendôme was the Général des galères between 1694 and 1712, which were administered in some way through a close member of his entourage, the dramatist Campistron, yet they barely even get a mention. Nor do we learn very much about his brother, the Grand Prieur. This book, while a good starting point for anyone wishing to undertake serious research into the maison de Bourbon-Vendôme or the duc himself, bears the hallmarks of being written for swift publication: Vendôme’s world is insufficiently explored, the wider war efforts and deeper campaign problems as they connected with Vendôme lack sufficient consideration, and El Hage’s grasp of the upper reaches of European society is shaky. The Bavarian candidate for the Spanish throne in the 1690s was not the brother but the son of the Elector; the prince de Vaudémont, possibly the most cosmopolitan and international aristocrat of his age, is made to sound like a minor figure on the European stage; and the briefest glance at a family tree would have prevented the sexist assertion that one of the men for whom Vendôme was supposedly a stalking horse, the comte de Toulouse, had no legitimate descendants: the maison de France descends from Toulouse through his granddaughter. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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