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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The most notable differences between the two officer corps were social, a fact that coloured their relationships with their enlisted subordinates. British soldiers expected their officers to be competent, courageous, and to treat them with consideration, but did not seem to have expected any kind of camaraderie from them. If Rifleman Harris is to be believed, British soldiers both expected and understood that their officers were different from themselves, and even liked it that way. On the French side, with many officers having been enlisted men themselves, it is understandable that there would be less of a psychological barrier. Antoine

Drouot, a baker’s son who rose through the artillery ranks to major-general, was described in these terms by one of his gunners:
I say it again, général: I have never found another colonel who knew

how to talk to a soldier as you did. You were stern, I agree, but just. Never did you speak a word more loudly than another; never any oaths, never any anger. You talked to a soldier as if he was your equal. Some officers speak to soldiers as if they are the equals of the soldiers, but in my view that it’s worth nothing at all.0

This description of Drouot’s qualities as an officer, in the eyes of one of his subordinates, sounds remarkably similar to those qualities described by Wheeler and Harris. The most obvious difference is the sense of equality; Drouot spoke with his subordinates as if he regarded them as his equals, something a British officer was unlikely to do. This in itself needs qualification, as the author claims to have no use for an officer who pretends to be one of the men. The idea of a common bond based on equality was derived from enlightenment thought, and had been around for some time. Lieutenant Lamée, writing in 1742, described in terms of ‘l’esprit’ and ‘la société.’ The former is an ineffable feeling of connection, more commonly known as esprit de corps, which links men of very different backgrounds and outlooks together in a shared collective. Lamée considered equality indispensable for the development of this bond, providing a basis for men to cooperate and organise themselves. Denis Diderot echoed this seemingly counter-intuitive notion in Encyclopédie, arguing that military hierarchy as a practical necessity, as opposed to an expression of social distinction, was based upon equality.0 This idea found an unprecedented degree of expression in the French army, with Drouot standing as an example of how the idea of equality could provide a basis for mutual respect between officers and enlisted men.
Further evidence of closeness between the officer and enlisted ranks, at least in the Imperial Guard, is provided by Elzéar Blaze. He describes an incident in which some older soldiers talk him into dining with them, at his own expense:
Two weeks after my arrival, I had worked so well that I was considered

worthy of mounting guard for the first time. Once installed at the post, the old soldiers who happened to be with me made the enumeration of all the young vélites who, in a position equal to mine, had paid for their welcome by treating their comrades at a neighbouring inn. Such a one had done things in fine style; another had behaved like a pékin, he had hardly given enough to drink; one had entertained lavishly: fresh pork-chops, sealed wine, coffee, liqueurs…I then decided that I should do as the last mentioned.0

Blaze describes later what, in his experience, French soldiers tended to want from their officers. Nothing, he claims, annoys soldiers so much as to be given unclear or incorrect orders. French soldiers particularly hated having to march any further than necessary, a trial they referred to as marcher pour les capucins. The other described by Blaze was droguer, referring to a sense of uncertainty over what they are supposed to be doing. His advice was that orders should be ‘positive, well worded, and properly transmitted.’ He goes on to include a quotation from Frederick II of Prussia, regarding the best way to lead French soldiers:
If I commanded Frenchmen, I should make of them the best troops in the four quarters of the world. Overlook a few slight blunders, never annoy them unseasonably, encourage the natural gaiety of their minds, be just to them, even to scruple, do not trouble them with any trifles, such should be my secret to render them invincible.0

This desire for fair treatment and competence on the part of the ordinary French soldiers was little different from what British soldiers expected of their officers. It is also a sign of their professionalism, which may in the case of the old regular army have always existed, but in the case of the volunteers and conscripts would have to have been absorbed from their environment and training.

Conclusion to Chapters One and Two

Examining the issue of recruitment has revealed multiple similarities between the two sides. Both the British and pre-Revolutionary French armies acquired recruits by a mixture of persuasion and coercion, with the methods of both sides being remarkably similar. Both sides made use of recruiting parties to acquire recruits by persuasion, occasionally resorting to foul play. Both sides also went outside the usual channels to acquire recruits, such as the Crimps and Extra Recruiting Officers on the British side, and Racoleurs on the French side. Both were also perfectly willing to draw upon various ‘outsiders’ in order to increase their numbers. The British had the Scots and Irish from within their borders, and also recruited German mercenaries by arrangement with their respective governments. The French also made extensive use of German soldiers, both recruited from its own German-speaking regions and mercenaries. Pre-Revolutionary French armies also included Italian and Swiss troops, the latter provided by treaty.

Changes in recruiting practices were most extensive on the French side during and after the Revolutionary period. Of these, two significant and interrelated changes are in the nationality of the French soldiers and the means by which they were recruited. The Revolutionary government abandoned both direct foreign recruiting and the hiring of mercenaries, regarding such practices as ideologically inappropriate. Also, the adoption of organised conscription meant that army recruits were drawn from across the whole of France more evenly, whereas previously the army drew heavily on certain regions, usually along the borders. This is not to say that every soldier in the French army became homogenously ‘French’ overnight, for the army still drew from German, Italian, or even Spanish-speaking regions within France’s formal borders. It nevertheless meant that the human makeup, and therefore the character, of the French army underwent a significant change.

By contrast, the British never resorted to direct conscription during the period, and would not do so until the First World War. One method they did have in common with the French was the use of the ballot. Both had used this method for Militia selection, though the French abandoning it during the Revolution. The British Militia and the French Milice were in that respect similar institutions, though the latter was far less popular in its own country. They also served similar functions, existing as an armed reserve that could be used for police work, as well as providing trained recruits for the army in time of war. The Milice was replaced early in the Revolution by the more popular National Guard, which performed the same function in practice, though Napoleon disarmed it and reduced it to a reserve role, in which it existed until 1814. While the National Guard can be regarded as the direct equivalent of the British Militia, there are no obvious equivalents to similar British formations such as the Yeomanry, the Army of the Reserve, and the Volunteers. The French did not imitate this plethora of reserve units, almost certainly because organised conscription and the National Guard were considered more than sufficient between them.

The matter of officer recruitment showed changes on both sides, with the changes on the French side being consistently more radical those on the British side. The British continued with the purchase system in the infantry and cavalry, with technical services such as the artillery and engineers recruiting on the basis of professional merit. Purchase was defended on the basis that it prevented political interference in the selection of officers, and provided old or disabled officers with a pension. It was moderated through the practice of promotion by seniority, in which only the most senior willing candidate was willing to purchase, and by a system of minimum service terms in each rank, as well as by an increase in the number of non-purchase commissions. The pre-Revolutionary French army made the same distinction between purchase and merit, though purchase was officially permitted only at the company and regimental level, and for different reasons. Rather than as a means of political control, French army purchase was based on the proprietary principle, that an officer owned his unit and therefore had responsibility to maintain it along with the right to profit from it. A British officer owned only his commission, not his unit. The French army also contained a distinct type of officer, the roturier, or ‘soldier of fortune’ promoted from the ranks. There is no distinct British equivalent to the roturier, though it was perfectly possible for British officers to have risen from the ranks, especially with the increase in non-purchase commissions.

A particular distinction has been exposed between the British and French armies, both pre and post-Revolution, in the social backgrounds and ideologies of the officers. On the British side, officer recruitment and promotion remained consistently by purchase, though the proportion of purchased commissions was gradually reduced. Purchase was based ultimately on money and the preferences of the regimental colonels, meaning that non-aristocrats possessed of sufficient money could make use of it. In France this was near-impossible, due both to practical difficulties and ideological issues. As described by Blaufarb, access to officer appointments became dependant on political and social connections, along with the money necessary to facilitate these processes. As such, the officer corps became dominated by the wealthiest aristocrats, who were able to attend court at Versailles, and their clients. This will be covered in more detail in the political section, but suffice it to say that less wealthy nobles and commoners alike were squeezed out, leading to widespread resentment. The Revolution did away with this system, but left the new government in a quandary as to how to replace it. The Jacobins ultimately fixed on promotion by election from among the ranks, arguing on a practical as well as an ideological basis. This system was in turn abandoned in favour of seniority until the rise of Napoleon, who created a new system of direct appointment based on professional merit and the possession of wealth, with promotion from the ranks continuing out of necessity. This was part of a wider effort to create a politically reliable social elite, which will be examined further in the political section.

The changes in officer recruitment can be explained in part by practical necessity. Both armies expanded significantly in the period, the French to a far greater extent than the British, meaning that greater and greater numbers of officers were needed. Such a situation would challenge any military system, and the British army proved flexible enough to expand without the kind of extensive reform to which the French army was subjected. The more extreme of these reforms, such as the Jacobin policy of officer election, were motivated to a great extent by ideology. They were also a possible answer to a dangerous shortage of capable and politically reliable officers. It should also be remembered that election was limited to candidates with military experience, and under the amalgamation the promotion system was rigged in favour of the regulars. This can be taken as further evidence that a pragmatic desire for competent officers was one of the French government’s primary concerns.

Similarities arise once again over the question of motives. Both sides offered reduced terms of service in order to attract more volunteers and to make conscripts less likely to abscond or desert. Contemporary accounts have provided some insight into the reasons why some soldiers chose the military life. Rifleman Harris joined the Rifles for the uniform and prestige, having transferred to the regulars from the Militia in search of action. Private Wheeler was similarly attracted to the Rifles, but chose to follow his comrades in search of action. ‘Thomas’ joined in order to flee social disgrace, and many others mention a sense of restlessness. Ascertaining willingness is more difficult on the French side because of conscription, whereas membership in a volunteer army implies that the soldier joined of his own free will, even if he wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic about it. Coercion was by nature an under-the-table practice, making it difficult to ascertain how widespread it was. Another factor that must be borne in mind is the nature of the memoir as a source, specifically the question of whether a soldier would admit any unwillingness on his or anyone else’s part. The tendency, described by Neil Ramsey, of memoirs to seek sympathy from readers with tales of suffering and distress implies that a coerced or tricked soldier would not shrink from mentioning it.0 On this basis, it seems fair to take at face value Captain Coignet’s claim that he underwent conscription with minimal ill-feeling.

The evaluation of British and French training systems again shows similarity. Both sides used variations on the linear tactics common to the Horse and Musket era, necessitating a training system based primarily on repetitive drill. Both systems were influenced by that of the Prussian army, which had been so successful in the wars of the eighteenth century. Both systems are also similar in that they involved little or no formal training for officers, beyond a small number of elite institutions, many of which catered only to officers of the technical services. For officer training, the British relied primarily on an apprenticeship approach within regiments, reinforced by minimum service terms. In France, formal officer training was abandoned altogether by the Jacobins, and reinstated by Napoleon in his École Spéciale Militaire. The Napoleonic wars also saw the appearance of operational training on a large scale, the most extensive example being the camps at Boulogne.

The British placed greater emphasis on training, the process generally taking six months according to Holmes. By contrast, French conscripts received as little as two or three weeks of training.0 This can be explained by the simple and overwhelming need to arm and train vast numbers of soldiers as quickly as possible. After the disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon was able to assemble a new army in three months. The overt French rejection of the Prussian style of training marks a deviation from what had been a shared norm, as do the reasons underlying it. The backlash against Prussian doctrine was more pronounced in the sphere of discipline, but it carried over into training, and as a result into French battle tactics. The continued use of linear tactics, in conjunction with the newer and more Revolutionary light warfare, shows that this rejection was not total. The French merely objected to the Prussian style of linear warfare and what it entailed, not linear warfare in its entirety.

Evaluating the sphere of discipline has shown both similarities and differences, the latter deriving from differences in culture and ethos. Corporal punishment was common in the British army, as well as in the pre-Revolutionary French army, though limited to the enlisted ranks. The officer corps of both armies were also, in theory, subject to discipline, but based on a different code of conduct and punishments. A divergence between attitudes to corporal punishment appears even before the Revolution, with the French soldiers resenting it and the British soldiers broadly accepting it. British soldiers accepted flogging in principle, seeing it as a means of keeping the serious troublemakers in order, though they resented unjust punishment. French soldiers, in sharp contrast, seem to have been strongly against any kind of corporal punishment, associating it with unpopular Prussian doctrine. Even the comparatively mild practice of beating with a sword, introduced as a means of limiting and standardizing punishment practices, caused widespread resentment.

The most likely reason for this rejection of corporal punishment, in light of the ‘Prussianization’ issue, is that it was considered un-French. The divergence becomes most apparent with the abolition of corporal punishment in 1791, the new discipline code replacing it with additional duties and confinement. The appearance of disciplinary councils, to which even officers could be held accountable, was also a significant divergence. Nevertheless, a particular similarity remains in how the British and French soldiers regarded discipline, namely that both they and their respective governments understood and accepted its necessity. The French discipline code retained the death penalty for striking an officer, and as with the British army, the worst punishments were reserved for those who endangered their units. These included falling asleep on sentry duty and abandoning one’s post in the face of the enemy. The British choice of punishment, ‘running the gauntlet’ as described by Private Wheeler, reflects this by having the entire unit take part in the punishment. French miscreants were simply shot.

The final section, covering unit identities and relationships, reveals yet more essential similarities. The basis for military identity on the British side was the regimental system, with each regiment acting as the shared social context of its members. Since soldiers tended to remain within the same regiment throughout their careers, the regiment became an identifiable collective in which a military identity could develop. It was through a regimental prism that military identity was deliberately inculcated, primarily through training, and also acquired in battle. This collective had a distinct effect on the relationships between officers and men, the shared identity creating shared yet distinct sets of values and expectations. British soldiers wanted their officers to be ‘gentlemen’ in terms of their behaviour; to behave courageously, to treat them with justice and consideration, and to allow them reasonable autonomy. That is to say, they were not to interfere in matters where it was not necessary, or simply not wanted. The pre-Revolutionary French army possessed a regimental structure essentially identical to that of the British army, aside from the more overtly venal aspect. French aristocratic officers tended to move between units as they rose through the ranks, to a greater extent than their British counterparts. This served to strengthen an already deep-rooted sense of difference between officers and enlisted men, which almost certainly fed into the events surrounding the Revolution. While there was certainly a cultural difference between British officers and enlisted men, their success rate in the period suggests that it didn’t adversely affect their performance. Similarly, the success of French forces in north America implies that a psychological separation of that kind did not necessary reduce overall effectiveness.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a major shift took place in these relationships as a result of the French Revolution, though with contrasting results. The regular army’s regiments were stripped of their names and distinctions, these being replaced with simple numbers, and under the amalgamation the regiment as a unit was replaced with the demi-brigade. To what extent this destroyed the previous regimental identities is unclear. Phipps’ mention of regulars retaining regimental paraphernalia such as buttons suggests that removing the name alone was not enough to destroy a regimental identity. The disappearance of these identities, or at least their overt expression, can be put down to combat losses, and the regular stream of replacements whose first experience would be of the new rather than the old identity. Also, while the specific traditions might have disappeared, or been superseded by new traditions, this is not to say that there were no such identities at all. The demi-brigade was around the same size as a pre-Revolution regiment, performed much the same function, and perhaps most importantly of all, its battalions were in modern parlance organic to it. That is to say that they generally remained a permanent part of the same demi-brigade. This meant that, in practice, a demi-brigade was essentially the same as a regiment in providing an identifiable collective. Napoleon’s reinstatement of the regiments, and his practice of awarding them eagles, cemented this connection. Once again, the wheel had turned full-circle.

If there was an unquestionable change it was in the relationships between officers and men. Though some Old Regime officers continued to serve through the Revolution and even the Empire, they no longer behaved like the stereotypical pre-Revolutionary aristocratic officer. Arrogance and high-handedness were no more acceptable than tyranny, and French officers did well to be without such flaws. Like their British counterparts, French soldiers expected fair treatment and competence from their officers. In particular, according to Elzéar Blaze, officers were expected not to make the men do more than was entirely necessary, and not to make them feel uncertain about what they were supposed to be doing. Most importantly of all, an well-regarded officer would treat his subordinates as if they were his equals, while not making the mistake of pretending to be their equal. French soldiers understood that their officers would be different from them, but did not want to be regarded as in some way inferior.

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