1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Villars, Claude Louis Hector de
VILLARS, CLAUDE LOUIS HECTOR DE, Prince de Martignes, Marqius and Duc de Villars and Vicomte de Melun (1653–1734), marshal of France, one of the greatest generals of French history, was born at Moulins on the 8th of May 1653, and entered the army through the corps of pages in 1671. He served in the light cavalry in the Dutch wars, and distinguished himself by his daring and resourcefulness. But in spite of a long record of excellent service under Turenne, Condé and Luxembourg, and of his aristocratic birth, his promotion was but slow for he had incurred the enmity of the powerful Louvois, and although he had been proprietary colonel (mestre de camp) of a cavalry regiment since 1674, thirteen years elapsed before he was made a maréchal de camp. In the interval between the Dutch wars and the formation of the League of Augsburg, Villars, who combined with his military gifts the tact and subtlety of the diplomatist, was employed in an unofficial mission to the court of Bavaria, and there became the constant companion of the elector, with whom he took the field against the Turks and fought at Mohacs. He returned to France in 1690 and was given a command in the cavalry of the army in Flanders but towards the end of the Grand Alliance War he went to Vienna as ambassador. His part in the next war (see Spanish Succession War), beginning with Friedlingen (1702) and Höchstett (1703) and ending with Denain (1712), has made him immortal. For Friedlingen he received the marshalate, and for the pacification of the insurgent Cévennes the Saint-Esprit order and the title of duke. Friedlingen and Höchstett were barren victories, and the campaigns of which they formed part records of lost opportunities. Villars’s glory thus begins with the year 1709 when France, apparently helpless, was roused to a great effort of self-defence by the exorbitant demands of the Coalition. In that year he was called to command the main army opposing Eugene and Marlborough on the northern frontier. During the famine of the winter he shared the soldiers’ miserable rations. When the campaign opened the old Marshal Boufflers volunteered to serve under him, and after the terrible battle of Malplaquet (q.v.), in which he was gravely wounded, he was able to tell the king: “If it please God to give your majesty’s enemies another such victory, they are ruined.” Two more campaigns passed without a battle and with scarcely any advance on the part of the invaders, but at last Marlborough manœuvred Villars out of the famous Ne plus ultra lines, and the power of the defence seemed to be broken. But Louis made a last effort, the English contingent and its great leader were withdrawn from the enemy’s camp, and Villars, though still suffering from his Malplaquet wounds, outmanœuvred and decisively defeated Eugene in the battle of Denain. This victory saved France, though the war dragged on for another year on the Rhine, where Villars took Landau, led the stormers at Freiburg and negotiated the peace of Rastatt with Prince Eugene.
He played a conspicuous part in the politics of the Regency period as the principal opponent of Cardinal Dubois, and only the memories of Montmorency’s rebellion prevented his being made constable of France. He took the field for the last time in the War of the Polish Succession (1734), with the title “marshal-general of the king’s armies,” that Turenne alone had held before him. But he was now over eighty years of age, and the war was more diplomatic than earnest, and after opening the campaign with all the fire and restless energy of his youth he died at Turin on the 17th of June 1734.
Villars's memoirs show us a “fanfaron plein d’honneur,” as Voltaire calls him. He was indeed boastful, with the gasconading habit of his native province, and also covetous of honours and wealth. But he was an honourable man of high courage, moral and physical, and a soldier who stands above all his contemporaries and successors in the 18th century, on the same height as Marlborough and Frederick.
The memoirs, part of which was published in 1734 and afterwards several times republished in untrustworthy versions, were for the first time completely edited by the Marquis de Vogue in 1884–92.