Military history of France

In July 1453, a French army crushed its English opponents at the Battle of Castillon, the last major engagement of the Hundred Years War. The decisive victory at Castillon showcased the power of artillery against charging masses of infantry and allowed the French to capture Bordeaux a few months later. The English subsequently lost their major remaining possessions on the European continent.

The military history of France encompasses an immense panorama of conflicts and struggles extending for more than 2,000 years across areas including modern France, the European continent, and a variety of regions throughout the world.

According to historian Niall Ferguson: "of the 125 major European wars fought since 1495, the French have participated in 50 – more than Austria (47) and England (43). Out of 168 battles fought since 387BC, they have won 109, lost 49 and drawn 10."

The first major recorded wars in the territory of modern-day France itself revolved around the Gallo-Roman conflict that predominated from 60 BC to 50 BC. The Romans eventually emerged victorious through the campaigns of Julius Caesar. After the decline of the Roman Empire, a Germanic tribe known as the Franks took control of Gaul by defeating competing tribes. The "land of Francia," from which France gets its name, had high points of expansion under kings Clovis I and Charlemagne, who established the nucleus of the future French state. In the Middle Ages, rivalries with England prompted major conflicts such as the Norman Conquest and the Hundred Years' War. With an increasingly centralized monarchy, the first standing army since Roman times, and the use of artillery, France expelled the English from its territory and came out of the Middle Ages as the most powerful nation in Europe, only to lose that status to the Holy Roman Empire and Spain following defeat in the Italian Wars. The Wars of Religion crippled France in the late 16th century, but a major victory over Spain in the Thirty Years' War made France the most powerful nation on the continent once more. In parallel, France developed its first colonial empire in Asia, Africa, and in the Americas. Under Louis XIV France achieved military supremacy over its rivals, but escalating conflicts against increasingly powerful enemy coalitions checked French ambitions and left the kingdom bankrupt at the opening of the 18th century.

Resurgent French armies secured victories in dynastic conflicts against the Spanish, Polish, and Austrian crowns. At the same time, France was fending off attacks on its colonies. As the 18th century advanced, global competition with Great Britain led to the Seven Years' War, where France lost its North American holdings. Consolation came in the form of dominance in Europe and the American Revolutionary War, where extensive French aid in the form of money and arms, and the direct participation of its army and navy led to America's independence. Internal political upheaval eventually led to 23 years of nearly continuous conflict in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. France reached the zenith of its power during this period, dominating the European continent in an unprecedented fashion under Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1815, however, it had been restored to the same borders it controlled before the Revolution. The rest of the 19th century witnessed the growth of the Second French colonial empire as well as French interventions in Belgium, Spain, and Mexico. Other major wars were fought against Russia in the Crimea, Austria in Italy, and Prussia within France itself.

Following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Franco–German rivalry erupted again in the First World War. France and its allies were victorious this time. Social, political, and economic upheaval in the wake of the conflict led to the Second World War, in which the Allies were defeated in the Battle of France and the French government signed an armistice with Germany. The Allies, including the Free French Forces led by a government in exile, eventually emerged victorious over the Axis Powers. As a result, France secured an occupation zone in Germany and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The imperative of avoiding a third Franco-German conflict on the scale of the first two world wars paved the way for European integration starting in the 1950s. France became a nuclear power and, since the late 20th century, has cooperated closely with NATO and its European partners.

Selected article

Lombardy in 1522. The location of the battle is indicated.
The Battle of Bicocca was fought on April 27, 1522, during the Italian War of 1521–26. A combined French and Venetian force under Odet de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated by an Spanish-Imperial and Papal army under the overall command of Prospero Colonna. Lautrec then withdrew from Lombardy, leaving the Duchy of Milan in Imperial hands. Having been driven from Milan by an Imperial advance in late 1521, Lautrec had regrouped, attempting to strike at Colonna's lines of communication. When the Swiss mercenaries in French service did not receive their pay, however, they demanded an immediate battle, and Lautrec was forced to attack Colonna's fortified position in the park of Bicocca, north of Milan. The Swiss pikemen advanced over open fields under heavy artillery fire to assault the Imperial positions, but were halted at a sunken road backed by earthworks. Having suffered massive casualties from the fire of Spanish arquebusiers, the Swiss retreated. Meanwhile, an attempt by French cavalry to flank Colonna's position proved equally ineffective. The Swiss, unwilling to fight further, marched off to their cantons a few days later, and Lautrec retreated into Venetian territory with the remnants of his army. The battle is noted chiefly for marking the end of the Swiss dominance among the infantry of the Italian Wars, and of the Swiss method of assaults by massed columns of pikemen without support from other troops.

Selected image

Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry
Credit: Peter Paul Rubens

Ivry was the most important battle in the French Wars of Religion; victory there allowed the Protestant Henry IV to ascend to the French throne and establish the Bourbon dynasty, although he converted to Catholicism to soften the political transition.

Unit of the month


The 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment (French: 1er régiment étranger de génie) (1er REG) is a Military engineer regiment in the French Foreign Legion. It is a part of the 6th Light Armoured Brigade. The regiment is station in Laudon.

It was created on 1 October, 1939 as the 6th Foreign Infantry Regiment. The manpower came from 3 battalions of the 1st Foreign Infantry Regiment and one from 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment. It was disbanded 1 January 1942 and its soldiers were transeferred into the 1st Foreign Regiment and Foreign Legion depots. (More...)

Selected biography

Sir Jean de Carrouges IV was a fourteenth century French knight who governed estates in Normandy as a vassal of Count Pierre d'Alençon and served under Admiral Jean de Vienne in several campaigns against the English and the forces of the Ottoman Empire. He became infamous in medieval France for fighting in the last judicial duel permitted by the French king and the Parlement of Paris. The combat was decreed in 1386 to contest charges of rape Carrouges had brought against his neighbour and erstwhile friend Jacques Le Gris on behalf of his wife Marguerite. It was attended by much of the highest French nobility of the time led by King Charles VI and his family, including a number of royal dukes. It was also attended by thousands of ordinary Parisians and in the ensuing decades was chronicled by such notable medieval historians as Jean Froissart, Jean Juvénal des Ursins and Jehan de Waurin. Described in the chronicles as a rash and temperamental man, Carrouges was also a fierce and brave warrior whose death in battle came after a forty-year military career in which he served in Normandy, Scotland and Hungary with distinction and success. He was also heavily involved in court politics, initially at the seat of his overlord Count Pierre of Alençon at Argentan, but later in the politics of the Royal household at Paris, to which he was attached as a chevalier d'honneur and Royal bodyguard in the years following the judicial duel. During his life he conducted a long trail of legal and financial dealings which infuriated his contemporaries and may have invited violence against himself and his family. The truth of the events which led him into public mortal combat in the Paris suburbs may never be known, but the legend is still debated and discussed 600 years later.

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Isle of FranceLouis de Brancas de Forcalquier de CéresteChristian Louis de Montmorency-LuxembourgNicolas de Neufville, Duc de VilleroiHenri de La Ferté-SenneterreJean Baptiste Budes de GuébriantPhilippe de La Mothe-HoudancourtCharles de La Porte de MeillerayeJean-Baptiste Louis Andrault de MaulévrierUrbain de Maillé-BrézéUlrich Friedrich Waldemar von LöwendahlEmmanuel Félicité de Durfort de DurasHenri de SchombergPaul de La Barthe de ThermesJacques d'Albon de Saint-AndréOperation BrochetOpération CorseOperation HirondelleRobert NivelleLouis Vincent Le Blond de Saint-HilaireBattle of VerdunSecond Battle of the MarneMartha DesrumeauxBattle of Bapaume (1871)Battle of LutterbergBattle of FreibergAlbert Severin RocheSiege of GroningenSecond Battle of Orleans (1870)Georges Loustaunau-LacauClaude d'AnnebautPhilippe de CulantJean de LescunJacques de TrivulceCharles II d'Amboise de ChaumontRobert Stuart d'AubignyGaspard I de ColignyThomas de Foix-LescunRobert III de La MarckGaspard de SaulxCharles de Choiseul-PraslinAntoine III de GramontJean de GassionArmand-Nompar de Caumont, duc de la ForceJacques Henri de Durfort de DurasGuy Aldonce de Durfort de LorgesRené de Froulay de TesséPierre de Montesquiou d'ArtagnanAlain Emmanuel de CoëtlogonCharles-Armand de Gontaut, duc de BironGaspard de Clermont-TonnerreLouis Antoine de GontautLouis Charles César Le Tellier, duc d'EstréesHubert de Brienne, Comte de ConflansJean Isidore HarispeMarie-Madeleine FourcadeBattle of ZeelandMarcel-Bruno GensoulBattle of Foz de ArouceMiles VI de NoyersRobert IV de La MarckJean de BaudricourtGaston Pierre de LévisImbert de La PlâtièreRobert of Torigni
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