French Heavy Cavalry Organisation

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Armies >> French Army >> French Heavy Cavalry Organisation


The cavalry of the Ancien Régime (Old Regime) had long been known as cavalerie légère (light cavalry) to differentiate it from the gendarmerie, the sole units considered as heavy cavalry. It is only in 1791 that the cavalerie légère regiments were designated as cavalry regiment.

Louis XII created the rank of colonel général de la cavalerie légère et étrangère (colonel general of the light and foreign cavalry). In 1565, under Charles IX, this rank became a crown office. It was accompanied by extraordinary privileges, allowing its holder to inspect the discipline and administration of the entire cavalry and to approve every appointment.

The final organisation of this arm took form during the reign of Louis XIV. This organisation was designed by Turenne who had been appointed Colonel général de la cavalerie. This rank survived in the cavalry due to the strong personality of its holder while it disappeared in the infantry with the Duc d' Épernon.

Before 1788, the chief of a cavalry regiment was known as mestre de camp this rank was then renamed colonel.

N.B.: in regiments were the "nominal mestre de camp" was the king (or the queen, the dauphin or a princes de sang), the effective commander of the regiment was exceptionally designated as a mestre de camp-lieutenant.

The regiments

The regular regiments, those who did not belong to the King's Household Cavalry, were divided into three categories:

  1. the royal regiments wearing the name of the king, the queen, the princes or of the general officers of the arm. At the head of this category came the three staff regiments : Colonel Général, Mestre de camp Général and Commissaire général.
  2. the noble regiments, those commanded by officers other than the royal princes and the general officers. Their name often changed since they wore the name of their commander or more precisely, of their owner
  3. the provincial regiments raised by certain provinces.

At the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, in 1757, the French cavalerie légère consisted of 60 regiments. Among them, 54 counted two squadrons. Each of these squadrons consisting of 4 companies of 40 maîtres for a total of 17,280 horse. The regiment Colonel Général had exceptionally 3 squadrons of 4 companies of 40 men for a total of 480 horse. The regiment of the Carabiniers de Monseigneur le comte de Provence consisted of 5 brigades of 2 squadrons each, a squadron counting the usual 4 companies for a total of 1,600 maîtres, the equivalent of 5 regular cavalry regiments. Finally, the 4 foreign cavalry regiments (Royal-Allemand, Wurtemberg, Nassau-Sarrebruck and Fitz-James) were organised along the lines of the French regiments, thus totalling 1,280 horse in 8 squadrons. Thus, considering the paper strength, cavalry totaled 129 squadrons and 20,640 troopers. Adding the 3 officers of each company: the captain, the lieutenant and the quartermaster; this total increases to 22,188 horse, not including staff officers of each regiment.

The reform of December 1761 saw the creation of 5 additional regiments: Royal Lorraine, Royal Picardie, Royal Champagne, Royal Navarre, Royal Normandie by the amalgamation of older regiments. These new units were not provincial regiments but royal regiments. This reform marked the final outcome of the royal control on the cavalry, a process started under Louis XIV to reduce the influence of the princes who represented a constant threat to his power (i.e. the Frondre, the Condés, Orléans, etc). This reform was also the result of the global pauperization of the French nobility. In the middle of the XVIIIth century there were two categories of nobility in France: the great nobility, close to the Court, who benefited from pensions and other financial advantages; and the small nobility, much more numerous, who lived in lowly circumstances and had difficulties to make ends meet. The upkeep of a regiment of cavalry by a colonel or a mestre de camp, as well as maintenance of a company by a captain had become financially unaffordable, thus explaining the disappearance of the so called "gentlemen's regiments" and of the financial duties of the captains.

After 1762, the cavalry counted only royal regiments and regiments belonging to the princes of the blood.

Venality of charges

All charges were venal. One bought a regiment as he would have bought an estate. In these days, rank and fortune were more important than military value. It was the period of the colonels à bavette. For example, in 1758, the Royal-Carabiniers were given to the Comte de Provence who was only three years old. Despite a first attempt by Choiseul, in 1760, to abolish venality of charges, it was still possible to hear a high born young colonel tells to his lieutenant-colonel : “Let's know the difference between a man like you and a man like me”, and the scathing answer of the officer: “A man like you, sir, is made with 40,000 écus, and a man like me with 40 years of service!”

The charge of Mestre de camp was very expansive. Therefore, it was accessible only to the rich aristocracy. Autheville des Amourettes in his Essais sur la Cavalerie gives the cost of each regiment at the time of the Seven Years' War. Regiments like Du Roy, Royal-Roussillon or Royal-Cravate were estimated at 100,000 livres while those of Lusignan or Chabrillan were worth only 22,500 livres. It must be noted that the foreign regiments, including their companies, were not sold.

The captain owned the company that he commanded. The regulation of January 10 1719 fixed the price of a company of French Cavalry belonging to the État Major or considered as a Royal Regiment to 10,000 livres while the price of other companies was established at 8,000 livres.

The charges of lieutenant-colonel and of major were not sold. They were usually given by the king to deserving captains who were not rich enough to acquire the charge of colonel. In such a system, it is not surprising that some talented individuals without a fortune and without any influence at the court abandoned the military career.


The captain was the only one entitled to recruit troopers. However, he often delegated this task to lower ranking officers or even to common trooper. Officers on leave were also asked to bring back some recruits. They were sometimes assisted in this task by relatives and friends who looked for young man “of good constitution and morality” fit for the service of the king. Enticing posters were stuck on the walls, promising “good enlistment, total freedom, forty sols for daily spendings till they joined the garrison, leave after eight years and all kind of satisfactions... Those who will get handsome men will be well rewarded.”

As this last sentence makes it clear, real contractors were also involved in the recruitment process. If recruitment was quite easy in peacetime, it was much tougher during wars and all the resources of the recruiting agents were necessary to increase manpower and to compensate for the losses. Well dressed, curled, powdered, often wearing a staggering tricorne, the recruiting agent tried hard to convince his naïve auditors with pints of ale and fantastic promises. Every possible means was good even force...

Recruits assembled by this incredible system were worth far less than those recruited in peacetime, several of them deserting even before reaching the barracks.

The captain was also responsible for supplying the horses.

War cartels and ransoms

One of the main characteristics of the wars of the first part of the XVIIIth century was that there were no camp for prisoners of war. Therefore, prisoners could not be kept for long, armies already had sufficient difficulties to supply themselves without weighing themselves down with a large number of additional mouths to feed. It was thus common practice to exchange these prisoners for other soldiers captured by the enemy or for monetary sums called cartels or ransoms.

This ransoms were given special care and detailed in conventions or war cartels signed between belligerents fixing the value of each prisoner according to his rank for military personnel and to his function for administrative personnel. Each party comitted itself to return prisoners within very brief delays. For example, in a cartel signed in 1742 between the Comte de Broglie and Count Browne, this delay was established at 15 days. The amount of the ransom could correspond to a pre-established amount according to the rank of the prisoner or calculated to be equal of their monthly pay. Some personnel was exempted from ransom: postmasters, post clerks, postmen, doctors, apothecaries, surgeons, hospital servants, lackeys, esquires, provost, constables… Furthermore, the sojourn of a prisoner at the hospital was charged to them.

As another example, according to a convention signed with Great Britain on June 18 1743, a trooper could be bought back for 4 livres; a sergeant for 10; a captain for 70; a colonel for 600; a brigadier for 900; a maréchal de camp for 1,500; a lieutenant-general for 15,000; and a maréchal for 50,000 livres.

The captain had the obligation to pay the ransom for his troopers. When he refused to do so, another captain could buy back the abandoned troopers, becoming their owner by the same token.

Exchange of prisoners usually began by exchanging men of equal ranks, then, for exchange of men of different ranks, rates of compensation were established. For example, a captain could be exchanged for 6 privates; a lieutenant for 3 privates…

General officers were liberated on parole, awaiting the payment of their ransom. If they failed to pay this ransom, they were reputed to be without honour. Upon liberation such an officer, such an officer could be asked to resign to serve on the present theatre of operation for the duration of the campaign or of the war. Such officers were usually reassigned to duties behind the lines.

Composition and Organisation of a Regiment

In the days of Turenne, the organisation of the cavalry was still backward compared to the one of the infantry.

In 1654, the cavalry adopted the squadron of 2 companies composed of 46 maîtres (troopers), mostly noble men.

In 1668, one of the first brigadier-general of the cavalry, Fourilles, organised and regulated this arm.

At the death of Louis XIV, in 1715, only 24 regiments remained. By 1724, they had been increased to 59 regiments, of 2 squadrons (each of 4 companies). A company consisted of 32 cavalrymen, including the officers. In each company, 4 trooper were armed with a rifled carbine.

The general reform of 1749 considerably decreased the numerical strength of the cavalry but a regulation of 1755 brought the strength of each company to 40 maîtres.

At the beginning of the Seven Years' War, each regiment consisted of:

  • staff
    • 1 mestre de camp
    • 1 lieutenant-colonel
    • 1 major
    • 1 aide-major
    • 1 chaplain
    • 1 surgeon.
  • 2 squadrons each of:
    • 4 companies composed, since the regulation of December 1, 1755, of :
      • 1 captain
      • 1 lieutenant
      • 1 maréchal des logis
      • 1 fourrier (quartermaster)
      • 1 cornet (standard bearer: a new rank added by the regulations of September 8 1756 and of January 5 1757 to the exception of the Colonel's company of the Colonel Général Regiment and the Mestre de camp's company of the Mestre de camp Général Regiment which already had a cornet prior to these regulations)
      • 2 brigadiers
      • 36 troopers (including 4 carabiniers)
      • 1 trumpeter (in 1 or two companies the trumpeter was replaced by a kettle-drummer)

During a battle the standard bearer was placed in the middle of the first rank of his squadron.

The regulation of February 25 1758 added a "fourrier" to each company. Therefore, each squadron had a strength of 196 cavalrymen.

Exceptionally, the Colonel Général Regiment consisted of 3 squadrons while the Carabiniers Regiment counted 5 brigades of 2 squadrons each for a total of 1,400 maîtres. The total strength of the heavy cavalry was of 19.200 maîtres.

After the battle of Rossbach in December 1757 and even more after the battle of Minden in August 1759, where the elite of the French Cavalry under the Marquis de Poyanne was utterly repulsed by the Anglo-Hanoverian Infantry, the Ministry decided to reinforce each regiment. The reform of December 1st 1761 thus increased the strength of each regiment to 4 squadrons but simultaneously reduced the total number of regiment to 30. The Carabiniers Regiment kept its 10 squadrons.

In practice, a regiment was rarely at full strength. In 1757, among the 84 squadrons which were part of the Army of Westphalia, M. de Cornillon who was major-general of the infantry counted 140 maîtres per squadron.


The real master of the art of horse-riding in France was François Robichon de la Guérinière, esquire of Louis XV. After the publication of L'École de cavalerie in 1712 and of Éléments de cavalerie (1740) by La Guérinière, the Comte Drummont de Belfort published the first regulation for exercises in 1748: Essai sur la cavalerie légère. He is said to have been the instigator of military horse-riding as spectacularly illustrated by Seydlitz and Zieten in Prussia.

During peacetime, French cavalry was not barracked, cavalrymen were scattered by company among the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages where they spent happy days with few constraints, few training and horses submitted to the same conditions. A regiment spent one year in garrison and two in quarters. The hastily improvised instruction camps of the years preceding the Seven Yeras' War were clearly insufficient to remedy the situation.

The regulation of 1755 on cavalry exercises and on cavalry schools was essentially addressing movements and formation into squadrons. It mentioned the publication of a more complete regulation in the near future but this improved regulation had to wait until May 1 1765... There were some military cavalry schools: École de Versailles, École de Lunéville, École des Chevaux Légers who produced illustrious authors such as Bohan, Mottin de la Balme, d'Auvergne and many officers who joined the ranks of the cavalry regiments, bringing with them their knowledge, but there was no common cavalry doctrine, each regiment following its own instruction according to the views of its mestre de camp. There was no manege...


French Heavy Cavalry Tactic is now covered in its own specific article.


Funcken, Liliane and Fred, Les uniformes de la guerre en dentelle

Rohan Chabot, Alix de, Le Maréchal de Belle Isle ou la revanche de Foucquet, Perrin, Paris, 2005


Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar for most of the content of this article