A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012



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Officer’s Motivations


Pre-Revolutionary French officers can be divided into two broad categories. The first and by far the larger is that of aristocratic officers, while the second far smaller category is that of roturiers, or ‘soldiers of fortune’, risen from the ranks. The motives of the first category for seeking military careers derive from their wider identity as aristocrats, an issue that will be examined in its deeper context later. Suffice to say, there existed a deep-rooted connection between aristocratic identity and military service, which brought with it very distinct conceptions of professionalism and merit. The aristocracy regarded the officer corps as a sphere to which by birth-right and ability they were distinctly suited, and on which they should have first claim. The example of Lafayette would seem to support this claim, and the upshot was that aristocratic officers tended to be enthusiastic about military service. Lafayette’s youthful enthusiasm for military service is well-documented, but the role of aristocratic identity in shaping it is not what might be expected. His autobiographies make much of his love of liberty, but none dwell much on the circumstances of his youth. In contrast to the brief but glittering image generally presented, Lafayette was not the ideal French aristocrat. An unpolished and somewhat awkward provincial, he did not fit in at Versailles, and found that he preferred his own ‘natural’ manliness to courtly graces.0 Failure to present the required image could lead to ridicule and rejection, but the fact that Lafayette was able to pursue a military career at all proves that his father’s money and name counted for far more than his two left feet.0


But if Lafayette sought to escape from adolescent alienation via the military life, others were far worse off. Whereas Lafayette merely danced badly, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord could not dance at all due to a clubbed foot. Nicknamed ‘the lame devil’, Talleyrand was disinherited by his own family, who concluded that a Talleyrand who could not fight had no business calling himself Count of Périgord. This is proof of the importance in which military careers were held by many aristocrats, though in practice just as many would-be officers sought commissions in the hope of maintaining, or escaping from, genteel poverty. This factor was behind much of the resentment felt by provincial nobles towards courtiers and even towards roturiers, whom they perceived as having acquired commissions on the basis of wealth rather than what they understand as merit.0 The possibility of gaining wealth and status was a major draw for would-be officers before and during the eighteenth century. The memoirs of Delphine de Sabran describe how in 1785 the Chevalier de Boufflers, an acquaintance of her mother, sought and gained the post of Governor of Senegal in the hope of improving his status, and also as a means of escaping or paying off his debts.0
The issue of motive for officer recruitment falls into abeyance for the first decade of the French Revolution, for the simple reason that whether by intention or in practice new officers were almost invariably promoted from the ranks. Opportunities for direct entry into the officer corps, something the Jacobins had rejected for ideological reasons, would arise again under Napoleon. Elzear Blaze describes three methods by which one might become an officer. The first, and according to Blaze the simplest and cheapest, was simply to enlist. This appears to mean joining the army in the enlisted ranks, if one had not already been called up, and then achieve promotion through merit. The second option was to join the Vélites, a formation of Imperial Guard cadets created by Napoleon in January of 1804. The third, and that taken by Blaze, was to enter the École Spéciale Militaire, founded at Fontainebleau in 1802:
The Fontainebleau Military School opened its doors for 1,200 francs a year but the crowd of young men blocked them; not everyone could enter. Those who had not the time to await their turn of admission entered the vélites; it was a harder way, one won the epaulet with greater difficulty, but one wore a uniform sooner; at eighteen that meant something. One must have been a soldier at that time to understand what magic there was in a uniform. What a vision of a glorious future there was in every young head wearing a plume for the first time! Every French soldier carried his baton of marshal of France in his cartridge-box; it was only a question of getting it out. We saw nothing difficult in that; to-day I even think that at that time we would not have allowed our ambitious dreams to be restricted in any way.0
Blaze reveals in this quotation what he believed to be the main reason why officers and enlisted men alike might choose to fight Civilians will willingly become soldiers, he claims, and endure a great deal while in uniform if they believe that service brings with it a chance for advancement, be it economic or social. This in itself raises a new issue, with regard not only to Fontainebleau but also to the Vélites. As described in the account of Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, all Vélites had to be able to receive a fixed stipend.0 Rafe Blaufarb describes this, along with the fee required to enter the école, as being part of a wider effort by Napoleon to secure the support of the wealthier and middling sections of French society. The ideological ramifications of this change will be covered in greater depth later.

Training of Enlisted Men


The training practices of the enlisted ranks would change relatively little in the course of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, in sharp contrast to those of the officers. In the regular army, the garrison routine included four hours of training every day.0 By contrast, the anonymous author of Journal of a Soldier of the Seventy-First Glasgow Regiment mentioned receiving three hours of training per day, specifically in the early morning. Baron Felix de Wimpffen, writing in 1789, claimed that infantrymen should be ready within six weeks, if trained in units of veterans. Cavalry, by contrast, needed three or four years of training, while artillery personnel needed seven or eight years.0 Since the French and British armies fought in essentially the same manner and derived from the same military tradition, at least until the Revolution, the practicalities and focus of training must have been similar if not identical, making for an essentially similar experience. One factor that can be examined was the favour in which Prussian methodology was held in the last decades of the Old Regime.


As in many European states, the French army took an interest in the Prussian model after the Seven Years War, in which it was used so successfully. The regulations of 1764 were heavily influenced by the Prussian model.0 Jacques de Guibert, who started his military career as a thirteen-year-old boy in the company of his father, the Maréchal de Broglie’s chief of staff, was a great admirer of the Prussian model. He published his Essai général de tactique in 1770, a work that stood out in a period when military literature was abundant. In it, he called for the creation of a national army trained and organized in the Prussian fashion, which he regarded with some admiration:
This glory is to be reserved to the King of Prussia. He showed Europe the phenomenon of a large, and at the same time manoeuvrable and disciplined army. He did see that the movements of one hundred thousand men are as subject to simple calculations as ten thousand; that spirit, which did move a battalion, being once located, is more than that of a greater quantity of these spirits combined, and whether the manner. His victories have proven the goodness of his discoveries. It is cast in excess on his documents. We have copied the costume of his troops, the spectacle of the discipline, and to the defects of the constitution, but its principles were not and are not yet seen.0
This particular excerpt shows the main problem with French attempts to copy the Prussian model. Guibert believed that French society had become decadent and corrupt, drawing comparisons with the decline of the Roman Empire. The disciplined, honourable, and patriotic France he envisaged, essentially an idealized Sparta or Republican Rome, would both require and be able to employ the sort of military system employed by Prussia. With its draft system based on regional cantons and its harsh discipline, Prussia must have seemed to some, especially in a period so steeped in Romano-Hellenistic literature and thought, to be a new Sparta of sorts. But as Guibert implies, France was not Prussia, and its soldiers were not Spartans. The imposition of Prussian-style drill and discipline was deeply unpopular, largely because of the amount of corporal punishment involved. This will be examined more thoroughly in the next section on discipline.

The 1791 volunteers were well organized and trained, using the Règlement concernant l’exercice et les manoeuvres de l’infanterie published in August of 1791. A direct comparison with Dundas’ Principles of Military Movements reveals two documents that serve essentially the same purpose, and by much the same means. The contents of both manuals are much the same, focussing on the intricacies of moving, deploying, and manoeuvring troops, as well as forming of battalions. Both go into considerable depth, going so far as to prescribe the proper places for recruit and instructor to stand, as well as the order in which given movements and tasks should be taught, and even the precise positions in which soldiers should stand.0 Both also include extensive diagrams for the reader’s convenience. One way in which the Principles does stand out is the introduction, in which Dundas laid out what he regarded to be best practice, along with a measured criticism of what he saw as the inappropriately dominant role of light troops. It also includes a short chapter describing British operations in Germany during the Seven Years War.


The Règlement contains nothing like these two features, implying that the two manuals were written making somewhat different assumptions. One of the major themes of the introduction is the lack of standard practice, suggesting that Dundas wished both to remedy this problem and to convince readers of the need to remedy it. Another theme is Dundas’ belief in the superiority of Prussian military thought, which may be interpreted as Dundas using the manual to push a pro-Prussian agenda in this context. All this aside, the essential similarity of the two documents indicates that they were written in response to the same needs and as products of a shared pan-European military culture. The timing of their publication, and the overt admission that the Principles drew upon Prussian practice, support this conclusion. The French army would continue to use the Règlement throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
By the Battle of Valmy in September of 1792 the 1791 volunteers had been in service, though not all at once, for fifteen months. Of these, they had been in a position to train for nine months.0 As stated in the previous chapter, British troops were generally considered ready after six months. As a further point of comparison, Napoleon was able to create a somewhat-usable army in only three months after the disastrous Russian campaign.0 It has been suggested that there was a reduction in the ‘quality’ of volunteers in 1792 and the conscripts of 1793 compared with that of the 1790 and 1791 volunteers, in the sense that they were not as well-trained or organized. This reduction is usually attributed to political interference and propaganda, with soldiers being taught to distrust their officers and that pikes were better suited to liberty than muskets. Indeed, between 1792 and 1794 the pike was being seriously considered, by Minister of War Joseph Servan among others, as a solution to the problem of arming the many hundreds of thousands of new recruits. Even Lazare Carnot supported the suggestion, before the National Assembly in July of 1792, arguing from historical precedent for pikes as a cheap alternative to muskets that also better suited the furia francese, the idea that the natural aggression and spirit of French soldiers made them better in hand-to-hand combat than in Prussian-style linear combat. Carnot later refined his proposal to arming the entire male citizenry with pikes, both to provide an armed reserve and to prioritize muskets for the army.0
Whether pike-armed units would have been as effective as their supporters believed will never be known, as they were never actually deployed in combat. Indeed the performance of the French army in 1792, at least in hindsight, does little to suggest that there was a specific problem of quality. Once in action, Dumouriez’s and Kellerman’s armies performed well enough, with the latter bringing Brunswick to battle at Valmy. In the south, French armies not only drove back a Piedmontese incursion, but managed to capture Savoy. If the 1792 volunteers were somehow of lesser quality, then the most likely explanation would be limited time for training and a shortage of suitable instructors, the regular army being too busy to provide them. This would not have been noticeable on the front lines in any case, as fresh recruits would be fed straight into existing units as needed. Unless a unit had suffered a very high percentage of casualties, the negative effect of raw recruits on its performance would have been minimal.
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