Soldier of Monarchy: Hermann-Maurice, Comte de Saxe
In the annals of the military history of the Kingdom of France (which is impressive despite what detractors say), one name that stands out is that of Hermann-Maurice, Comte de Saxe. Not only was he a brilliantly successful battlefield commander and quite possibly the greatest soldier of his time, he was easily one of the most influential war captains in the history of the world. King Frederick the Great and, later, Napoleon Bonaparte both learned a great deal from the example and the writings of the famous Maurice de Saxe.
Born at Goslar, Lower Saxony, in Germany on
October 28, 1696 he was the illegitimate son of Augustus II, aka
“Augustus the Strong” who was King of Poland and Elector of Saxony by
one of his mistresses, Countess Maria Aurora of Koenigsmarck. After only
two years he was sent to live with his father in Warsaw, Poland but the
tumultuous state of affairs that prevailed in the old Kingdom of Poland
meant that he spent most of his childhood elsewhere. His lack of
parental supervision also meant that he grew up to be a very independent
and self-reliant young man.
Before he was even a teenager he already began gaining first-hand
experience at the art of war and that at the hands of one of the
greatest captains of all time, Prince Eugene of Savoy. Along with the
Prince and his Austrian Imperial forces, Maurice de Saxe participated in
numerous successful campaigns, battles and sieges. He threw himself
into the occupation of professional soldier and was so fearless that the
Prince of Savoy had to remind him that being brave was not to be
confused with being reckless. As he served with the Allied forces in the
War of the Spanish Succession, with the Saxon military contingent, he
was able to see the leadership style and learn first hand from two of
the greatest that ever lived, his own commander Prince Eugene of Savoy
and the commander of the British forces, John Churchill, Duke of
Marlborough, a thoroughly despicable man but quite possibly the greatest
English general in history.
His greatest trial, in personal if not military terms, came soon after when the death of his father sparked the War of the Polish Succession. Loyal to his employer, the King of France, Maurice de Saxe was compelled to face both his own brother, Frederick Augustus II, and his old mentor Prince Eugene of Savoy as Saxony and Austria were on the other side in this conflict.
The young Maurice was able to prove that he had learned his lessons well and he won a string of solid victories. In 1734 he gained his greatest fame to date by his action in covering the siege of Philippsburg. His success on the battlefield more than warranted his rise to lieutenant general by the time the war was over but he was also helped by the fact that King Louis XV had taken notice of him and, even more to the point, he was good friends with the King’s mistress Madame de Pompadour who could be counted on to always speak up in his favor. However, no one should think for a moment that he owed his rising status to his connections at court. His brilliant military leadership was proven time and time again.
In 1740, with the start of the War of Austrian Succession, he first commanded an unofficial “army”, a group of French volunteers fighting for Bavaria. He planned the campaign and led the attack that succeeded in capturing the historic city of Prague and later, when France officially joined the war in 1744, he was sent to Flanders to command the royal army with the rank of Marshal of France. This was a critical period for it would see Maurice de Saxe and his French army triumph over enemies that outmatched his in every way, in training, experience and in numbers. The only thing France had which the others could not match was the mind of Maurice de Saxe himself and he ultimately prevailed over the combined armies of Austria, the Netherlands and Great Britain.
Once the peace was negotiated, Maurice de Saxe was easily the most prominent military commander in France and widely considered one of the best in the world. In thanks, the King gave him a chateaux, to which he retired but he kept his old German regiment camped on his estate where he continued to refine his training and tactics with them. Sadly, he also continued his very dissolute private life with a succession of mistresses and wild parties. When the famous marshal dropped dead on November 30, 1750 some said he had been killed in a duel while others, more credibly, said it had been after over exerting himself while “interviewing” a group of eight young actresses. Talent and good character certainly do not always travel hand-in-hand. Nonetheless, it would not be for his debauchery that Maurice de Saxe would be best known but for his matchless skill as a military commander, influencing the art of war for ages to come and influencing generations of the great captains of history.
Few would dispute that Maurice de Saxe was the most capable battlefield commander of the mid-Eighteenth Century and yet, through his writings, his influence was to be felt for many, many years to come. His book, “My Thoughts”, written in 1732, was considered the definitive work on how to train, organize and prepare an army for war. Of course, not all of his ideas held up in the long-term such as the attention he gave to weapons such as the plug-bayonet, which would soon be replaced by the more practical socket-bayonet and the pike which would be discarded altogether very quickly in the age of the musket. Still, his emphasis on close cooperation between the three main branches of the army, were well in advance of their time and would make his book ‘required reading’ for French officers under Napoleon. Alongside Napoleon and Jomini, Maurice de Saxe remains today one of the most influential military thinkers in the French history of warfare.