It happened today - March 17, 2016

On March 17 of 1677 France captured Valenciennes in the Franco-Dutch War. Would you please stop it? I mean seriously. Just stop it.

It’s another of those events that doesn’t really jump out of the pages of history. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when it happened, its unpleasantness was mostly localized. But this is one of those wars that help make Europe’s ancien regime, and the various excuses put forward for war in general, seem at once pitiful and vicious.

In case you missed it, France and the Netherlands had been allies for about a century, despite being religious and economic rivals. But then the Dutch suddenly signed an alliance with England in 1668, after fighting them twice in 16 years (Sweden was also involved, in one of those “Triple Alliances” you don’t want to have to memorize). So French King Louis XIV decided to attack the Netherlands, on the general theory that attacking all and sundry was both moral and prudent.

He convinced the English to back the war, partly because its Stuart king Charles II was on the French take to avoid having to listen to Parliament. And he got the Dutch “ally” Sweden to threaten to wallop Brandenburg-Prussia if it tried to help the Netherlands. Clearly with friends like this you don’t need enemies.

In the chaos of European dynastic, religious and just plain stupid war you probably will pick up a coalition of friends, mind you. And sure enough, Prussia-Brandenburg did come in anyway, joined by “the Austrian Hapsburg lands” that would later coalesce, sort of, into Austria-Hungary or something equally feeble, and also Spain for some reason if indeed anyone really needed one.

So they marched around betraying each other and killing people until they decided to stop for a bit, and signed the Treaty of Nijmegen under which Spain lost the Franche-Comté and a few cities in Flanders and Hainaut to France, while France gave the Dutch Republic Maastricht and the Principality of Orange. So I can’t even tell who won and, apparently, they couldn’t either.

It didn’t matter. Europe went on having wars like “the War of the Reunions” (I know you’re not always glad to see old classmates but really) and those the Americans derided as “King William’s War” and “Queen Anne’s War” and “the War of Jenkin’s Ear”. It really is like that Monty Python sketch about the complexities of European politics except, as noted, if you happened to be there and died a grisly death.

Wars like the Franco-Dutch war could easily create the impression that all war is futile, at once silly and brutally cynical. But it’s not. I’m no pacifist, as regular readers are well aware. I don’t glorify war. I just say it’s necessary to be ready at all times to fight in defence of liberty and decency given how often people start wars for utterly worthless reasons.

Like whatever that business was about Hainault and Maastricht which wasn’t even why they started it to begin with, that turned innocent bystanders as well as soldiers in places like Valenciennes into mangled corpses.