Charles Louis Auguste Fouquet, duc de Belle-Isle (22 September 1684 – 26 January 1761) was a French general and statesman.
Born in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Belle-Isle was the grandson of Nicolas Fouquet, who served as Superintendent of Finances under Louis XIV. His family was in disgrace because of Fouquet’s brash ambition in the eyes of Louis XIV. Determined to blot out his family’s prior disgrace, he entered the army at an early age and was made proprietary colonel of a dragoon regiment in 1708. He rose during the War of the Spanish Succession to the rank of brigadier, and in March 1718 to that of Maréchal de Camp. He was present at the capture of Fuenterrabía in 1718 and of San Sebastián in 1719 during the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720.)
Aided by the rise of Cardinal Fleury, Belle-Isle was made lieutenant-général, and grew in influence over French military policy. In the War of the Polish Succession he commanded a corps under the orders of Marshal Berwick, capturing Trier and Traben-Trarbach and taking part in the Siege of Philippsburg in 1734. When peace was made in 1736, Louis XV gave Belle-Isle the governments of three important fortresses: Metz, Toul, and Verdun offices that he would hold until his death. This was in recognition of both his military services and of his taking part in the negotiations for the cession of Lorraine.
Belle-Isle’s military and political reputation was now at its height, and he was one of the government’s principal advisers on military and diplomatic affairs. In 1741 he was sent on diplomatic mission to Frankfurt, Germany as French Plenipotentiary to carry out, in the interests of France, a grand scheme of political reorganization in the moribund empire, and especially to obtain the election of Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria as emperor. The long tradition of Franco-Austrian rivalry had crystallized around Belle-Isle, who had emerged as the leader of the bellicose bloc of French policy makers towards the House of Austria. In the eventful year of 1741, he was at the masthead of French interventionist policy in Germany—characterized by scholar Richard Lodge as a “scheme for the humiliation of the House of Austria,”—and of the beginnings of the War of the Austrian Succession. French aggression was in large part made possible by the precedent set by the Frederick II of Prussia and his conquest of Silesia—often referred to as the Rape of Silesia. France’s initial victories—including the election of Charles Albert to Holy Roman Emperor—were short lived, and by 1943 the war was proving to be very disappointing for France, as Belle-Isle’s military command in Germany was full of setbacks and losses. His aggressive strategy towards Austria was predicated on the swift defeat of an impotent and disorganized Austria, along with the lynchpin that was Franco-Prussian alliance.
Belle-Isle was named Maréchal de France in 1741 and received control of a large army, with which it is said that he promised to make peace in three months under the walls of Vienna. The truth of this story is open to question, for no one knew better than Belle-Isle the limitations imposed upon commanders by the military and political circumstances of the times. He was, according to one scholar, “the most important single influence on French policy in the crucial year of 1741.” However, the circumstances in which he found himself severely limited his efforts both as a general and as a statesman. Following his initial victories, Belle-Isle suffered regression and defeat. His aggressive policies had proved disastrous, however the daring French retreat from Prague would distinguish Belle-Isle’s military brilliance and bravery. In ten days he led 14,000 men—5000 men stayed in the city under the command of François de Chevert —into and across the Bohemian Forest whilst being harassed by the enemy’s light cavalry and suffering great hardships. But by never allowing himself to be cut off, he was able to reach the relative safety of Eger, after losing 1500 men. His subordinate, François de Chevert, and his 5000 men, defended Prague so well that the Austrians allowed them to leave the city through an honourable capitulation. The means by which this was obtained supposedly included Chevert threatening to burn down the city. The campaign, however, had discredited Belle-Isle; he was ridiculed in Paris and Fleury is said to have turned against him, and. To complete his misfortunes, he was taken prisoner by the English in going from Cassel to Berlin through Hanover.
He was forced to remain a year in England, in spite of the demands of Louis XV and the Emperor Charles VII. During the French campaigns of 1746-47, Belle-Isle was in command of the Army at Piedmont on the Alpine frontier. His troops conquered Antibes and Nice, only to suffer a decisive defeat at the Battle of Assietta. The disastrous battle would claim the life of Belle-Isle’s younger brother, the soldier and diplomatist, the Chevalier de Belle-Isle, who fought bravely as a French commander in the battle. Following the defeat, French forces were weakened and demoralized. However, Belle-Isle still managed to repel an invasion of Provence by Austrian and Italian forces and push the fighting back into the plain of Lombardy. At the peace, having thus retrieved his military reputation from the disasters of 1942-43, Belle-Isle was made a Peer of France in 1748. King Louis XV would make him Secretary of State for War in 1758, a position Belle-Isle would hold until his death in 1761.
During his three years as Secretary of War, Belle-Isle undertook many reforms. Most Important was the development of a French military school for officers, seeing as the officer corps was shown to be inadequate during the wars of the past few decades. This included the suppression of the proprietary colonelcies of nobles who were too young to command; and he instituted an Order of Merit. These reforms of the officer corps were similar to the structure of the Prussian army in that it attempted to place merit and honour above the blind appointments of nobility. The successfulness of his reforms is debated, because by this time the Seven Years' War was in progress. According to one scholar, Walter L. Dorn, Belle-Isle’s efforts came “too late to make a difference” in the war and the continuing decline of French military power.
Belle-Isle was a close friend of Count Saint-Germain and in 1760 allowed him to travel to The Hague in order to secure a peace treaty, obtain funding for France, and set up a whole separate company to manage France's treasury. The French Foreign Minister, Duc de Choiseul, was strongly against this and tried to have Count Saint-Germain arrested.
Belle-Isle held an interest in literature throughout his life, and was elected a member of the French National Academy in 1740; so he founded the National Academy of Metz in 1760. Also, Belle-Isle is regarded today as a builder-ruler. As benefactor of the city, he initiated during his dukedom the modernization of the centre of Metz in a context of Enlightenment. Belle-Isle awarded royal architect Jacques-François Blondel for the embellishment of the town square and the construction of the city hall, the parliament, and the guardhouse lodging. He also decided the edification of the royal Governor and Intendant palaces and the opera house of Metz, describing it as "one of the most beautiful France's opera-theater" at his time. Just before his death, he stated: "The city of Metz is my mistress." However, his dukedom over Metz would end with his death because his only son, the Comte de Gisors, had been killed on June 23, 1758 in the Battle of Krefeld. A commemorative plate honors him today on the forecourt of the opera house of Metz.
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Marc-René de Voyer, marquis de Paulmy
|Secretary of State for War
3 March 1758 – 27 January 1761
Étienne François, duc de Choiseul
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