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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Chapter 4: Political and Social Identities in the French Army

It has been shown in the previous chapter that the British army was not quite as socially or politically isolated as its position would suggest. Even so its members had comparatively little role or interest in politics, beyond expressions of loyalty to the King and to the ‘Constitution’, as the wider political arrangement was known. On the face of it this is a feature that sets the British and French armies apart, for the army of the French Republic became politically aware and interested to a degree that had never before occurred, and arguably has never occurred since. In theory, this should have made for a very different army to that of Great Britain, and one that should have had no truck with men like Napoleon Bonaparte. An army of well-informed citizens who valued liberty, so the theory went, would never suffer themselves to be commanded by a general who did not have the Republic’s best interests at heart. That Napoleon was able to bend an already damaged and demoralized system to his will, and even make himself Emperor, would appear to give the lie to this theory. But this is to over-simplify the reasons why so many French soldiers, and French civilians for that matter, were willing to accept Napoleon’s rise to power, in some cases with great enthusiasm. Certainly there was an element of the Caesarism that was so dreaded by French republicans, the unspoken and ineffable psychological bond between veteran soldiers and the General they revered.


But Caesarism was not confined entirely to the grizzled old soldier who had left his idealism behind on some forgotten battlefield. This is to argue that the republic itself was entirely innocent and undeserving of its fate. For soldiers to be more loyal to their General than to the state, the essence of Caesarism, it is not only necessary for the General to possess certain qualities, such as leadership and at least a pragmatic concern for the wellbeing of his soldiers. It also requires the state to have a negative image in the eyes of its soldiers, based on certain complaints they have against it. For the thinking soldier, able to articulate his hopes and grievances, it was possible to see Napoleon as the one who would continue and even expand the achievements of the Revolution. It was not only from military success, but from the real and tangible benefits of his regime that Napoleon derived his popular support. Even if he was not always regarded with affection, his hold over France ran so deep that it took social and economic exhaustion, combined with total military defeat, to finally dislodge him. Once again, what started as a difference between the British and French armies became in time a similarity, with the French soldier going from a liberated, politically-aware citizen to the willing agent, at least on the surface, of Napoleon’s Empire. Whether this was a tragic failure of democracy or an entirely logical development is an argument not yet decisively won.
Citizenship is particularly important to understanding the place of soldiers in the new society. If one of the duties of a citizen was to defend the body-politic from external threats, then to be a soldier was to be a citizen and, arguably, to be a citizen was to be a soldier. This concept underlay the establishment of conscription as the primary means by which soldiers were to be recruited. It is important to understand that the previous reliance on voluntary professionals did not necessarily conflict with the ideal of citizenship. If one interpreted the act of contributing to the body politic as contributing to the best one’s ability, then it stood to reason that certain citizens would contribute best as soldiers, while others would contribute in other ways. This distinction can be seen in February of 1790, when a report by the Military Committee of the Constituent Assembly led to the declaration that soldiers were to have the same rights and status as civilians. They were to be considered passive citizens, enjoying the protection of the law but having no vote, unless they could meet the taxation or property qualification necessary to be considered active citizens, putting them in essence on even footing with civilians. As an added bonus, soldiers would be considered active citizens after sixteen years of unblemished service, regardless of the aforementioned qualifications.0 This stands in sharp contrast to the Cincinnatian ideal of short service, and can be taken as evidence of political pragmatism in the Revolution’s first years. The distinction between active and passive citizenship was abolished in 1792.

Political Scene

The period following the Seven Years War had seen an upsurge in debate over France’s approach to warfare, motivated to a great extent by the country’s relatively poor showing in that conflict. Many commentators saw the army’s problems in a wider social context, blaming its failings on French society and its values.0 One recurrent suggestion was that the defence of the nation should be the responsibility of every citizen. This idea had a long pedigree, as evidenced by an incident in 1674. The instigator was Gilles du Hamel, Sieur de la Tréaumont, who attempted to organise an anti-monarchical uprising in Rouen against Louis XIV. The manifesto that was presented as evidence at his trial contained language and concepts that would not have been unfamiliar a century later:


The aim is to found a popular State which shall be invincible, flourishing

and eternally developing, through the unity and energy of all the people,

towards general prosperity and liberty. On the first day, the citizens shall be summoned to assemble, without arms, in their own parishes, to participate in discussion about their liberty and their submission, which is to say that they shall recognize no masters other than the free nobility and people.…No one shall be considered a citizen until he has reached the age of twenty-one or served three years as a soldier. Any man aged twenty-one who has not completed three years’ military service shall be required to fulfil this duty before being granted citizen’s rights.0
A certain Captain de Bontin, writing of the period from 1789 to 1790, argued that ‘le devoir de défendre la Patrie était obligatoire pour tous.’0 This idea came to the fore during the brief halcyon period at the very beginning of the French Revolution, when it seemed that France might be reformed with little or no bloodshed. This was driven in part by a belief in the Cincinnatian ideal described in previous chapters, that freeborn citizens would take up arms for a limited time in defence of their country, then return to their homes when the war was over. This would, so the theory went, ensure that soldiers were full members of the body politic, their interests aligned with its own, rather than outcasts prey to the charisma of ambitious generals. It was also thought that men fighting to defend their country as a temporary responsibility of citizenship would make better soldiers than dregs of society with nowhere else to go. Jacques Guibert, writing in 1780, thought it important that the soldiers be young, not simply for the practical reasons described in the chapters on professionalism, but also on moral grounds:
If we do take for recruiting the troops, those young people entering

the age of puberty, it would be quite unnecessary to examine their

morals. It is very difficult that they have been able to be corrupted;

but we may be forced to take for recruits citizens a bit more advanced

in age; then it is necessary to attach knowledge of the life that they

will be leading. We conceive what danger there is in taking libertines,

that their derangements, their debts, and perhaps their bad actions may

determine their commitment. Perhaps they may hope for impunity for

their past errors, perhaps they reckon on it still for future errors. We

must watch these dangerous men: very often they are mutinous,

argumentative, difficult to discipline, and always give a bad example

and pervert their comrades. The causes which contributed greatly to

the grandeur of the Romans, were the feelings that they had for

themselves, those they had of others, and their love for the fatherland.0



Military officers were willing to consider conscription as a means of acquiring sufficient numbers of the right kind of men, but with one major difference. It was generally considered among officers that the army must maintain its numbers at all times. This argument was based on military necessity, it being impractical to train whole new armies at the beginning of every war. Guibert himself argued that around two-hundred thousand would be needed for small wars, while two hundred and eighty thousand would be needed for larger wars.0 His view on conscription intertwined to a great extent with his expressed opinion on what sort of people should be recruited as soldiers, as well as how society should go about producing them. Guibert, like many in his time, drew his inspiration from the perceived virtues of the Roman Republic;
The pride a Roman gained with his education, this superb view that he had of the dignity of its name, the view that the others had themselves, contributed often to their conquests and their superiority over other nations. The name Roman subjects the imagination; it was a title under which they bend; even the hatred that they bore for that people, draws its origin from the respect and terror that it inspired. It would be an even greater advantage for a people, that it has this haughty idea of itself. He is happy to subjugate the spirits before fighting the body. The Romans had added much to the feelings that they had themselves, by making the necessary virtues of constancy and valour; they had united to love themselves, their families, their homeland, all that is most dear among men, and they had rendered the different duties most sacred, encompassing all in the one love of the homeland. This love produced these great prodigies of virtue, whose immortal actions dazzle our weak eyes, and so many great men whose antique virtues we can barely conceive. Commerce and luxury have carried the ancients, as since in modern times, many great blows to this passion that is necessary for the great things. The conquests and triumphs of Rome were known as the primary cause of the downfall. The hearts were corrupted, the arms were softened, and one feared a state too painful for the effeminate citizens. Today the commerce and luxury have produced mercenary soldiers, and the debasement of a profession insufficiently lucrative in a time when everything is priced in the weight of gold; but are we not able to revive among the French people the passion necessary for the military?
What was the love of the homeland in the former? A superstitious mixture of religion, respect, esteem for the orders of the Republic, of tenderness for his family and his fellow citizens, and pride in keeping with the glory of the motherland. Why are we not susceptible to the same feelings? Are they able to strengthen the hearts of our families, and extend the territory of the state? Can not the whole of France be the homeland of a Frenchman? The honour, the divinity of our ancient chivalry, which can once more be a great motive among us, is not another thing, but under another name, the love of the ancient homeland. That we remember the infinite acts done by our military, and the attachments of the French to their country and their King.0
This extract establishes certain themes that would become important in the relationship between the civilian and military spheres during the First Republic. An ideological and philosophical attraction to the ‘antique virtues’ of ancient Greece and Rome was well-established among Europe’s educated elite by the end of the eighteenth century. Belief in the cultural superiority of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds had existed ever since the Renaissance, under which it was commonplace to compare contemporary European societies to the glories of the past, and to wonder how those ancient virtues could be applied to the present.
Central to this process was the question of how ancient Rome had risen to such glory, and just as importantly how it had managed to lose it. Edward Gibbon, in his seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire blamed Rome’s fall on Christianity, arguing that it sapped Roman fighting spirit with pacifism and a focus on the esoteric. Guibert agrees, though he instead ascribes it to the wealth and ease that was the Empire’s reward. The comparative ease and safety of making money, he claims, became preferable to the danger and hardship of the military life. Guibert’s vision was of a small, self-contained state within the Italian peninsula, never so large or far-flung that its dutiful citizen-soldiers are insufficient to defend it, and never so wealthy as to allow the moral corruption Guibert describes. He applies this ideal to contemporary France in two particular contexts. One is to have the army be made up of young men serving as a temporary obligation of citizenship, as opposed to the long-service professionals he labels ‘mercenaries’. The second refers to the means by which his ideal young citizen-soldiers will be created. Guibert’s answer is the inculcation of national pride and other appropriate virtues through education. The Republic would embrace both of these concepts to a greater or lesser degree.

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