“The Great Conde” – sounds like a magician, doesn’t he? – Well he was.
The student of history has rarely heard his name, and indeed many people have forgotten or simply never heard of Louis II de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien and Prince de Conde – for my money one of the best, and definitely one of the coolest generals in history. Now “Cool” isn’t exactly a word we tend to use when we describe military commanders, but this guy exuded cool, and I think it’s time to put one of my favourite commanders of all time back on the world stage with a little introduction.
So Louis was a Bourbon ‘Prince of the Blood’ in the 17th century, which pretty much gave him the right to command an army without a single piece of training or combat experience; a recipe which usually ends in disaster, but not so him. At the tender age of just twenty-one he was fighting the Spanish on France’s northern borders as his colleague – and soon to be friend, nemesis and friend once more, Marshal Turenne fought the Austrians along the Rhine.
Spain was the dominant power in Europe, with a military machine which was unbeaten and considered unbeatable, and yet at the battle of Rocroi, the 21 year-old trounced the greatest army in the world off of the field in a battle still studied at Sandhurst and West Point military colleges today as one of the greatest battles in history. Here the young Conde showed all the elements which would categorise his career; the eye and the timing – that thing the French call coup de oeil – for the perfect moment for a charge, that precise feeling or instinct which cannot be taught, and then a mad and unstoppable charge into the fray. At the end of this gory day, he asked the Spanish prisoners how large their army had been, to which one Spaniard replied to him to count the prisoners and the dead, for that was all.
Cut next to his second great battle at Freiburg, where coming upon the enemy behind thick entrenchments and on a steep hill, Conde saw his men beaten back time and again. Advancing to the front, he now produced his marshal’s baton and hurled it into the enemy entrenchments, ordering his men to go and get it back…they did. At Allerheim, his third great battle, he was stabbed twice, shot, had all of his aides killed around him, three horses shot from under him, three more wounded and over twenty sword cuts across his cuirass, and still he came away with the victory, having joined in the last great charge to sweep the enemy from the field.
At Lens – ‘the second Rocroi’ – he was hugely outnumbered again by the Spanish, and yet drew them into the open field and crushed them from both flanks at once, again being in the madness of the charge and the thickest of the fighting. Amazingly, soon after this, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason, and soon after his release, began to wage a war of revenge against France and the Cardinal Mazarin, wrecking the army of Marshal Hocquincourt and only being stopped by Turenne – a man who throughout Freiburg and Allerheim had grown to be his second in command and close friend.
Now one of history’s most exciting duels was about to take place; the mad and dashing Conde against his best friend, the exact, cunning and brilliant Turenne. The two best generals in the world were in opposing camps and facing each other for control of France. Turenne cornered him with his back to the gates of Paris, which were barred to stop the fight tearing through the streets, and Conde, though outnumbered, fought one of the most brilliant actions of his career; the battle of Faubourg St Antoine. It was a brutal street fight in which the Prince led every counter-attack, was in the thickest of every fight and even turned and cut down three would-be assassins who attempted to murder him in the confusion of the fight, before plunging back into the fray.
Pushed back to the very gates of Paris, Conde stood and fought like a demon as the walls above became crowded with the citizens of Paris who now began to cheer for his epic stand. Spying the ladies of Paris swooning over him, the handsome young Prince even found the time to strip off and roll around in the grass to dry the blood and sweat from his body, which now sent his admirers into raptures and soon had the Paris mob opening the gates and allowing him to escape from certain destruction – what a guy!
Now Conde and Turenne fought with everything they had across the plains of Northern France and Flanders in an epic battle of Bull Vs. Matador – of the wild, unstoppable onslaught of Conde against the scientific genius of Turenne. This was ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ of all military history! Turenne won a brilliant victory at Arras, Conde swept his enemy away in another mad charge at Valenciennes, and finally came the decider; the battle of the Dunes outside of Dunkirk, where Turenne was victorious once more, but not before Conde had cut his way into the opposing army and then cut his way out again, swinging an enemy soldier up behind him on his saddle (a la Nathan Bedford-Forrest at Shiloh) to protect himself against a hail of bullets.
The war ended and the two greatest generals of the age became friends once more, but Conde had not had the last of his victories yet. Now aged, crippled with gout and with good living, the Prince fought his toughest battle yet at Seneffe against a mighty army of the Dutch and Spanish – 60,000 men in all. Any commander in history would have backed down, pulled away or called for reinforcements, but not Conde – with a mad charge he now tried to surround the enemy with his much smaller army, leading attack after attack and breaking them by his sheer will alone until they were routed from the field with crippling casualties, the old Prince having to be pulled by his son from under the carcass of his fallen horse.
Returning to Paris, Conde was greeted by King Louis XIV at the top of a grand staircase adorned with the captured flags and banners of the enemy. Hobbling with the gout and his wounds, Conde called up apologising for his slowness, but King Louis replied that when one was as laden down by laurels as was Conde, that he could not be expected to move so fast.
Conde’s last action was to be against the outstanding Austrian Field Marshal Raimondo Montecuccoli in a campaign in which neither could gain the advantage, and both made life so hard for the other that they both retired that year, having yielded no advantage to the other.
This is the Great Conde – a man whose enemies as often as not ran from his name alone. He was a Murat, a Lasalle, a Prince Rupert, a Tarleton and a Bedford-Forrest all in one – and that was just with the cavalry. One of the maddest SOB’s who ever cried ‘Charge!’ – and yet he could lay a siege like a master, lead infantry to perfection and could quote Caesar’s Commentaries verbatim. In his career, he only truly lost three battles, and all of which to Turenne who is rightfully adjudged amongst the greatest generals of history and the greatest French general of all time save Napoleon himself.
Conde is, perhaps, the single most dashing, heroic, rambunctious madman to be found in the annals of history, and for this reason he ranks for me as not just one of the greatest generals of all time, but the most fun to write about as well. I have covered a swathe of the man, his battles and his career in the fifth volume of my epic seven-book series which is currently under production, and every moment with him is fun and pure devilment.
We know Turenne was better but we do not care…it all comes down to ‘cool’ in the end.
N.B. – For more information on my upcoming books, please ‘Like’ Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author on Facebook or at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/rickydphillipsauthor – and why not join the conversation on the LinkedIn ‘British Military History’ group – the biggest and still fastest-growing military history forum on the web.