In studying the motives of pre-Revolutionary French soldiers compared to their British counterparts, two issues arise. One is the tendency of the French troops to be recruited from certain parts of France, while the other is the significant number of foreign or theoretically foreign troops. The bulk of French recruits came from the pre-Revolution provinces making up the northern and eastern frontiers, such as Flanders, Artois, Picardy, Champagne, Lorraine, Alsace, and Franche-Comté. In 1789 these made up one fifth of France’s population, yet provided one third of the non-Swiss infantry, half the cavalry, and three quarters of the artillery. This imbalance was by no means unique to France, as the British army recruited extensively in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The most obvious reason for this tendency is geographical, those provinces being close to the borders and therefore more accustomed to the presence of soldiers and the possibility of invasion. By contrast, there existed a strong anti-military sentiment in the southern provinces, especially in the west, despite a close proximity to Spain. Spain’s relative quiescence, at least when compared to France’s strategic rival Austria, along with Prussia and the Netherlands to the east, may have contributed to this mind-set.
The factor of foreign regiments should not be overstated. Aside from the Swiss, there existed only twelve foreign regiments, of which only eight per cent of personnel were actually ‘foreign’ in the sense of having been born outside of France’s borders, compared to seventy-nine French. Of the eight German regiments, around half of the men actually hailed from Alsace and Lorraine, the rest coming from the smaller German states and certain Swiss cantons. Germany had a centuries-old reputation as a provider of mercenaries, dating back to the days of the Landsknechts. The Landgrafschaft Hesse-Kassel provided a contingent of five thousand troops to aid King George II against the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and even more extensive support in the American War of Independence thirty years later. Of the three Irish regiments, the remnants of the famous Irish Brigade, around three quarters of the personnel were foreign-born, though only a small number came from the British Isles. Around one third of all foreigners in French service actually served in ‘French’ regiments, further complicating any attempt to ascertain the ‘ethnic’ character of the regular army. 0 The eleven Swiss regiments were provided through capitulation treaties between the individual Swiss cantons and the French crown, an arrangement that had existed since 1515.0 This state of affairs came temporarily to an end with a Decree of the National Assembly dated July 21st 1791, in which all ‘foreign’ regiments, that is to say those which were named and identified as such, were to be considered French and treated no differently to other French regiments.0 The exception was the Swiss, who were simply dismissed, though like other étrangers they would find themselves in French service again before long.
The issue of motive takes on a new meaning following the Revolution. While the line army was able to continue recruiting, the bulk of French manpower expansion in 1791 and 1792 was done through calls for volunteers. The sheer number of volunteers, and the extent to which the public response outstripped official requirement, has commonly been ascribed to an explosion of patriotic sentiment. More recent scholarship, such as that of John Lynn and Alan Forrest, has taken a more down-to-earth approach. It would be ungenerous to arbitrarily discount the possibility of genuine patriotic feeling, even on such a scale, but it must be qualified against the practical realities of trying to acquire vast numbers of usable fighting men quickly. According to Forrest the success of volunteer recruiting varied substantially by region, with some being vastly oversubscribed and others consistently underperforming. This may be in part explained by local mindset influenced by geography, as the departments with the best responses tended to be in the east, with the aforementioned tradition of military recruitment and close proximity of traditional enemies, while Forrest identifies the most difficult areas as being the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and Britanny, all but the former of which were well away from France’s borders. A common response to this problem was drawing of lots, as mentioned by Jacques Fricasse. Another was the scrutin révolutionnaire, in which ordinary people were required to nominate those they thought most suitable from among themselves. Needless to say, those selected tended to be outsiders, convicts, or the merely unpopular.0 Civic authorities also resorted to offering bounties, and allowing ‘volunteers’ to provide substitutes at their own expense was broadly tolerated.
The initial success of these methods was undeniable, with French army manpower approximately tripling to four hundred and fifty thousand by November of 1792, of which around three hundred-thousand can be categorized as volunteers. But this success proved brief, as by February of the next year French manpower had dropped to around two hundred and ninety thousand, a loss of one hundred and sixty thousand, or thirty-six per cent.0 Considering the short time frame, desertion represents the only plausible explanation. This would imply that French morale was at low ebb, which stands at odds with the run of French successes since the Battle of Valmy in September of 1792. The answer lies in the mind set, and all too human nature, of many of the volunteers. As Forrest points out, the 1791 volunteers were enlisting at a time when France was not actually at war, implying that many volunteers were motivated by a chance to prove their patriotism or enjoy a brief adventure.0
The same cannot be said of the 1792 recruits, who were called up once the war was underway, but this does not preclude them believing in a short war, at the end of which they would be allowed to go home. Evidence of this attitude can be found in the account of Louis Bricard, who volunteered in September of 1792:
On the 17th, shoes were given to a whole army; I did not want to take them,
for the reason that, if I took some effects of the Nation, I would be
committed to the army, and therefore, I could not leave at the end of the campaign.0
Bricard’s concern can be interpreted in two ways. One is that he genuinely felt that to accept military supplies, which were the property of the nation, was to take on the responsibility of defending it as an enlisted soldier, rather than as a free citizen. There is an apparent hole in this logic, namely that in order to fight he would have to be provided with a weapon, unless he regarded government-issue shoes as a luxury rather than a necessity. The other possibility is that Bricard feared that accepting the shoes would be conveniently interpreted as proof that he had enlisted.