Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Evolution of the French Carabins

Reader Doran Davis asked for information on the French Carabins in a previous comment following my post on the Gardes Francaises. I provided him with a quick answer, which was to refer him to Dur Ecu's excellent blog and an article already posted there. However, after going back and re-reading Doran's question, I believe that there is a misconception in his question that requires some additional response.

In his original question, Doran asked, "The Carabiniers from the 1550s through 1679, when Louis XIV disbanded these regiments. Can you lead me to any more further information regarding them during this timeframe?! The rest of the existence for these Carabiniers for the French are well documented."

First, the units that I believe Doran is inquiring about were the Carabins, not Caribiniers. The Caribiniers, at least in the later SYW and Napoleonic context, were true heavy battle cavalry with cuirass. They really don't have a parallel in the early history of the French Cavalry. The Carabins are quite a different breed. They were first introduced in the French army (per G. Gush) during the Late Italian Wars as Argoulets in imitation of the Stradiots used in great quantities during that conflict. The Argoulets were originally mounted crossbowmen, but their crossbows were soon replaced by the arquebus and, again according to Gush, in 1529 they began to be known as Arquebusiers a Cheval.

Originally, these Arquebusiers a Cheval were formed in detachments or "sections" attached to support the Gendarmes. According to Gush, it was not until the French Wars of Religion that they became known as Carabins a Cheval, or simply Carabins. They continued in their primary role of supporting the Gendarmes through the wars of Religion and into the reign of Henry of Navarre (Henry IV). When Henry IV began building the "regular" French army of both Catholic and Protestant troops in 1597, his table of organization for the cavalry called for a force of 4,000 Gendarmes, now half-armoured pistoliers, with each regiment being supported by a "section" of Carabins. These Carabins did not function as mounted infantry, as the Dragoons did, but actually operated in support of the charging or caracoling Gendarmes with short-range arquebus fire. George Gush's article on the French Army from his published work on "Renaissance Armies" can be found online here.

According to Dur Ecu's excellent article, the Carabins usually operated in sections of 25 to 50 troopers attached to the units of Gendarmes and Cheveau-Légeres through the latter stages of the Religious/Civil Wars to function in the role of "light cavalry", that is, screening the flanks, shooting in support of their parent unit's actions, pursuing broken units, etc. It also became popular for some princes and generals to raise bodies of Carabins for their personal guards. This is how the legendary 1st Company of Mousquetaires of the Maison were originally raised under Henry IV as a bodyguard.

So, if I may assume that these are the troops that Doran is asking about (and they are included on most army lists for rules of the period), the next question would be how to actually use them in a wargame? I will confess here and now to being ignorant of many, if not most, of the newer sets of Renaissance wargaming rules. I still personally play George Gush's excellent rules as published by WRG, although I am working on some modifications to eliminate individual figure removal and simplify some other points in the rules. I am using Bob Bryant's "Might of Arms" Ancients rules as a guideline for this, as these rules have been successfully converted to game the TYW and ECW, and are, in fact, very similar to the "old" WRG system in many regards. Under Gush, it is possible (and suggested in the army lists) for the Carabins to be formed in sub-units, or detachments, of 5 figures that must remain with one normal move of their parent unit. They work very well in this capacity and, at least in my opinion, realistically replicate the function of the Carabins through Henry IV's reign. I have also played Dave Millward's old "Musketeer" rules and they function essentially the same there.

Under Louis XIII however, the Carabins were formed into their own separate corps of "light cavalry" with their own chief, the Mestre de camp général des carabins de France. According to conflicting sources, this could have happened on 1609 or 1621. Whichever date is correct, what is known is that the Carabins grew, both in strength and importance, and by 1643 there were 12 regiments in total and the Carabins are believed to have equaled the native Gendarmes in number. They also began to play a different role on the battlefield, more as traditional light cavalry, sometimes being stationed ahead of the flank cavalry as a screening force, sometimes as the far end of the flanking force for sweeping moves to the enemy's rear. Both Turenne and Condé made use of the Carabins in their fast-moving campaigns. I do have Carabins as detachments in my 15mm version of Condé's army from Rocroi on.

According to Dur Ecu, the Carabins are last mentioned in an official ordinance in 1665 and by 1684 had passed into history. While their brief chapter in France's military history only lasted about 150 years, during that time they were the only true native French "light" cavalry.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I wanted to thank you for your grand response! You were quite forthcoming with the information that I was seeking. I knew only about a few scattered references and those that were in the Osprey books that were quite limited for that time period. I wasn't sure what the Marschal d'Albert was or how he had been influenced by the Spanish in creating those Carabins. I'd be even more grateful if there are other great websites or blogs that you're aware of? My interest for wargaming and reenacting covers a few diverse time eras. The information for the era of Louis XIV is a bit vague. The many different regiments that were created and then disbanded, encompased many cycles of these activities. Do you know where I might be able to obtain some of this information?
I really appreciate your blog and the efforts that you and many others do make here and in other places for this era to be understood.