Military emigration: from mercenaries to the foreign service
On 10 March 1500, or less than a year after the confederation of the cantons, the Valais, under Bishop Mathieu Schiner, signed its first peace treaty with the kingdom of France: "The people of the Valais promise to provide King Louis XII paid armed men from their land to be employed in his service against whomever it may be, without the king having to respond in kind".
At the time, the participation of men from the Valais in foreign conflicts occurred voluntarily in the mercenary mode, and therefore largely escaped the control of the military command. It was in the context of a civil war in the Valais in 1505 between the bishop and his former ally Georges Supersaxo that the pontifical Swiss Guard was created, and it is manned by young recruits from the Valais still today. In parallel, the civic authorities of the Sept Dizains continued to established closer relations with France, with which they now shared a border.
It was only after the defeat of the troops of the Confederation at Marignan in 1515 that the mercenary forces were turned into a foreign service in the proper sense. The Swiss capitulation led to the signing of a "Perpetual Peace" with Francis I in 1516, and then to drawing up of a treaty of defensive alliance between France and the Swiss cantons, in which the latter committed themselves to providing the former with a contingent of six to ten thousand men for her defence in case of aggression. As an ally of the confederated cantons, the Valais joined this treaty, which would be renewed eight times in subsequent centuries, making France the main ally of the Sept Dizains until the French Revolution. France was to remain the principal kingdom to recruit contingents from the Valais, but no less important was the role played by men from the Valais in the service of Savoy, not to mention the presence of troops from the Valais in the service of Spain, the Holy See, Piedmont-Sardinia, Naples, Austria, the Holy Roman Empire and the Netherlands.
The foreign service was a specifically Swiss phenomenon and also called "service capitulé" ("service of the defeated") It was formalized by contracts between Valaisan authorities and European monarchs that stipulated the number of soldiers to be recruited, the type of equipment to be supplied and their pension. It was also stipulated that they would be recruited only for defensive purposes. While the troops conceded according to the terms of the contract fought in the service of foreign powers, they remained under the jurisdiction of their own courts, conducted their own religious worship, and served under their own officers and flags. Thus they were known as "Swiss regiments" or "Valaisan battalions," forming a sort of "army within the army". The name of these combat units, however, does not mean that they were composed solely of men from the Valais, or even from Switzerland, for the contingent system could result in the majority of the combatants being of another origin than the name of the units in which they fought.
The establishment of this form of organized mercenary force can be considered both as a political and an economical instrument. The main purpose of the foreign service was diplomatic and political in that it contributed to the defence of the territory of the Valais, ensuring in particular the independence of the alpine passes that gave access to it. It also served the strategic aims of the civic authority of the Dizains, the "patriots" using it as a historical means to buttress their power against that of the bishop. After Schiner's death in Rome in 1522, the bishops of Sion were systematically excluded from all matters involving the Valais foreign service in favour of the high bailiff, who alone was authorized to sign future agreements. These strategic concerns also made sense in light of the commercial interests that were involved in the foreign service: indeed, the alliances recently made also included clauses of an economic nature, such as freedom of trade. For example, this meant that by guaranteeing troops to the king of France according to his needs, the Valaisan notables were entitled to import French salt at reduced rates, a staple that was lacking in the canton. When Kaspar Stockalper took over the control of the foreign service, he had in his hands a lucrative business that had been flourishing for a century and a half. In 1648, the Diet, which was later to name him to the office of high bailiff, granted him the monopoly on salt in the Valais, and this trade was to become one of the main pillars of his tremendous wealth.
Even if the foreign powers did not always disburse the sums they owed by contract, the money did find its way to the Dizains for the three and a half centuries during which the foreign service lasted. Among the other uses to which this money was put, the Diet of the Valais was able to buy—thanks to a pension from the House of Savoy—a cave to house its archives. The pensions also served to finance trips to France by the sons of Valaisan patriots so that they could familiarize themselves with the French language and culture.
As for the wages owed to the soldiers and officers, they were supposed to be managed by the superior officer in charge of recruitment, who received the money directly from the foreign monarch, then distributed it to the troops in the form of equipment or pensions. However, there were many complaints from officers and soldiers who never received their pay; some of these complaints were even taken up by their heirs—in vain. The situation of the soldiers in the service of Piedmont-Sardinia was emblematic of the inequality of treatment suffered by the poorest of the men who served abroad. They were recruited for three years, but many never received their pay, lived in chronic debt and suffered from homesickness, or even had to have their parents send them money from the Valais. The result was massive desertion.
The dissatisfaction of the lower classes over the foreign service was also felt in the Valais. In 1549, owing to non-payment of wages—middlemen were suspected of having appropriated them—and because of a steady rise in the price of salt, there was a peasant insurrection in the Lötschental, where the authorities of the Dizains were accused of selling human flesh. The renewal of the alliance in France was momentarily called into question. When the rebels heard that it was signed, they marched on Loèche and Sion; an episode that came to be known as the "War of the Masks".
We know very little about what moved the men to leave the Valais temporarily or permanently in the service of foreign powers during this period. Only few letters from soldiers and officers have been preserved to shed light on their motivation. In any case, their number has very likely been overestimated. During the entire period of the Ancien Régime—that is, before Napoleon's rise to power—we may suppose that less than 1% of Valaisan men of age were enrolled in the foreign service. The departure of sons of poor families en masse therefore seems to be a myth. There are even cases in which parents hid their sons when the recruiter came.
While the soldiers and some officers sometimes seem to have served as currency in transactions made primarily between notables, the important families of the Upper and Lower Valais found opportunities to enrich themselves or pursue careers in the foreign service. This was especially the case in the 18th century, when the kings stopped laying off their troops at the end of a conflict but kept them on call until the next mobilization. Thus the foreign service became a form of permanent emigration, offering the prospect of a promising career for the sons of the major families. The most famous of the units from the Valais, the Courten Regiment, was a perfect example in this respect: it existed over a century, being from 1690 until 1792 in the hands of the same family, out of which six colonels came, even though it did not see action during the last thirty years of its existence and was reduced to garrison life. Owing to this longevity, the regiment included in its ranks Valaisans who were born outside of the canton. Because of its long history, it may be said that the Courten Regiment signed both the peak and the decline of the foreign service in the Valais.
The foreign service ebbed as a result of the counter-revolutionary wars. It picked up again during the Restoration, especially in 1826, when 726 men joined the 3rd Swiss Regiment in the service of Naples. Being no longer lucrative and sharply criticized by the liberals and radicals of the Lower Valais, the foreign service was extensively curtailed by the Federal Constitution in 1848, which forbade the cantons to negotiate military capitulations. It was formally terminated in 1859, when enrolment in foreign regiments was forbidden. Some of the last champions of the conservative cause could be found in the service for Naples and the Roman pontiff, like Colonel Eugène Allet, commander of the pontifical Zouaves, and the two Valais generals who served the Holy See: Guillaume de Kalbermatten and Raphaël de Courten, commander of the troops of Pius IX, whom he defended until the fall of Rome by joint Italian troops on 20 September 1870. The capitulation of the pope's army marked the end of the temporal rule of Pius IX beyond the borders of the Holy See. After that date, the Swiss Guard remained the only unit stationed in the Vatican.
The image of the foreign service was a negative one for many decades; a page of history that had to be turned in a state that sought to become modern and liberal. Yet it was rehabilitated at the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of Nationalism, some considering that the figure of the mercenary embodied the patriotic values of courage, loyalty and virility that correspond to the image that they wanted give of Switzerland.
Louiselle GALLY-DE RIEDMATTEN, Du sang contre de l’or: le service étranger en Valais sous l'Ancien Régime. Doctoral thesis defended at the University of Bern under the direction of Professor André Holenstein in February 2014, 848 pp. (Typescript deposited at the Multimedia Library of the Valais and at the Valais Archives). Being prepared for publication.
Louiselle GALLY-DE RIEDMATTEN, "Le soldat valaisan au service de l’Empereur Napoléon: un service étranger différent (1806-1811)", in Vallesia, 59 (2004), pp. 1-196.
Thomas ANTONIETTI, "Die Handlanger des Krieges und ihre noblen Unternehmer. Eine ethnographische Betrachtung der Walliser Solddienste im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert", in T. ANTONIETTI & M.-C. MORAND (ed.), Valais d’émigration, Sion, 1991, pp. 27-74.
Hans STEFFEN, "Der Solddienst zur Zeit Stockalpers (17. Jahrhundert)", in T. ANTONIETTI & M.-C. MORAND (ed.), Valais d’émigration, Sion, 1991, pp. 13-25.
Pierre-Alain PUTALLAZ, "Le service étranger vu à travers l'étude des enfants du grand bailli Michel Dufour", in Vallesia, 58 (2003), pp. 1-230
Eugène DE COURTEN, "Valaisans au service de causes perdues: Naples 1861–Rome 1870", in Annales valaisannes, 13 (1965), pp. 325-372.
Louis CARLEN, "Vom Fremdendienst in die Behörde Walliser Offiziere in Ämtern im 19. Jahrhundert", in Blätter aus der Walliser Geschichte, 32 (2000), pp. 209-216
Patrick WILLISCH, "Das Wallis in Bewegung. Ein Forschungsbericht zur Migrationsgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert", in Blätter aus der Walliser Geschichte, 48 (2016), pp. 85-172.
Philippe HENRY, "Service étranger", in Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse.