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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Republicanism

Though the First Republic lasted only a few years, it would have a significant effect on the structure and identity of the French army, both laying the foundations for later developments and creating situations against which future reforms would react. The abolition of the French monarchy, and the ideological re-creation of the French army, coincided with the rise of the Jacobins as a political faction. The term ‘Jacobin’ in this context is generally used to refer to the Jacobins as a wider movement, embodied in the Jacobin Club in Paris, while the term ‘Montagnard’ refers to the political faction within the National Assembly and later the Convention, led by Maximilien Robespierre. They were opposed most forcefully by the ‘Girondins,’ a group of republicans with their roots in the French provinces who in the summer of 1793 became tainted with federalism. Neither was a political party in the modern sense, but rather loose collections of smaller groups. So deep did their mutual antagonism run, that a monument by Jacques-Louis David was raised at Les Invalides to celebrate the Jacobin triumph, consisting of a Herculean figure carrying a fasces, representing the unity of France, crushing a monster representing federalism.0 This conflict would come to influence the development of the French army.


Rafe Blaufarb describes in some depth the changes wrought by the rise of the Jacobins. Previously there had been much debate on how best to reform the selection and training of army officers, the old aristocratic system being both ideologically unsuitable and, with emigration continuing at a steady pace, entirely impracticable. The Jacobins had been openly hostile to the officer corps for some time, regarding it as a nest of closet royalists, and called for its disbandment and replacement with a system of election. At the time, the National Assembly rejected these demands on practical grounds.0 Their issue was not simply with the officer corps as it existed at the time, but with the very idea of officers as a distinct organisation. Blaufarb narrows their objections to three specific issues. Firstly, merit as it was understood at the time was derived from a higher authority, be it a King, politician, or even an examination board. This was a threat to liberty, as whomsoever occupied this position could effectively control the army by controlling officer appointments. This argument has some merit in a political context, and is understandable from a psychological perspective in such uncertain times. The other arguments take a more ideological and esoteric turn. The second argument was that meritocracy invariably had the effect of dividing citizens who should be equals, while the third was that meritocracy fed and rewarded personal ambition and desire.0 With the example of Julius Caesar in antiquity, and Oliver Cromwell more recently, these arguments carried a far greater weight at the time than today.
Power allowed the Montagnards to get their way and selection of officers was abolished, as was military education. Terror was the order of the day, and election the path to higher rank within the officer corps, with the sole exception of generals. Indeed, the need for the government to control the appoint army commanders had consistent cross-party support. The implementation of an election-based system did not take place across the entire army until the Amalgamation, and while election would be predominant it would not be exclusive, with a third of promotions being based on seniority. Needless to say this was politically controversial, with both sides arguing along practical and ideological lines. The Montagnards argued for amalgamation as necessary to tidy up a chaotic and politically unreliable army, and for election as a means of protecting the rights of soldiers, while the Girondins opposed the former as an administrative nightmare in wartime and the latter for basing officer status on popularity and political reliability rather than ability. But Dubois-Crancé, the author of the amalgamation, proved equal to these complications. It was written into the new system that seniority would be defined by all military service, even pre-Revolutionary service, while promotion by seniority was applied to demi-brigades as a whole, rather than an officer’s own battalion. Blaufarb argues that since regulars would in theory dominate the one third of promotions based on seniority, and invariably be elected within their own battalion, they would in practice gain five-ninths, or fifty-five per cent, of all vacancies within a given demi-brigade.
Much has been made of Jacobin suspicion of the regular army, raising the question as to why they would arrange the system to favour regulars over the volunteers who were supposedly meant to keep them honest. It must be remembered that the Jacobins objected to the regular army’s officers, not its rank-and-file. It should also be pointed out that Dubois-Crancé’s plan did not go entirely without resistance, as Robespierre himself criticized the election setup for trying to have the best of both worlds.0 That he was overruled can be taken as evidence that he did not, in his own person, possess dictatorial power. Blaufarb adds a political dimension, raising the issue of Jacobin centralism versus Girondin federalism. Whereas the regulars were under the control of the War Ministry and drawn in practice from all over France, volunteer units were drawn from and under the control of their native Departments. This made them politically unreliable in the eyes of the Montagnards, who thought them more likely to favour federalism than the national melange from which the regulars were composed.0

Social Identity of Enlisted Men

The relationship between the soldier and the Revolution was not a simple one. On the one hand, soldiers of the Royal army played an important role in bringing-about and continuing the Revolution. The NCOs were the best-represented among the wider Revolutionary movement, being better-educated than the lower-ranked enlisted men and more resentful of their aristocratic officers.0 When Louis XVI finally summoned soldiers to Paris in July of 1789, many of them refused to fire on the Parisians, doubtless to the relief of the latter.0 Soldiers would find good promotion prospects in the National Guard, the commander of which, and one of the most famous early Revolutionaries, was the Marquis de Lafayette. The wider importance of Revolutionary soldiers derives from one of their main features, specifically their rootlessness. In the light of the evidence of the previous chapter regarding the British army, it would be hard to argue that the broadly similar French Royal army was any more socially isolated.


Even so, to be a soldier was to be disconnected, even if only in the geographical context. Despite their regional monikers, French regiments were in practice open to all comers regardless of origins. Regimental registers rarely recorded their places of birth or residence. The North and East frontier provinces are believed to have provided the majority of recruits, a tendency motivated by the relative sedentary nature of contemporary populations, as well as military expediency. Thanks to the Alps further south, it was through the northern and eastern regions that France would generally conduct military operations, whether offensive or defensive. This created a frontier mentality, and the constant presence of troops caused ordinary people to become accustomed not only to soldiers, but to military behaviour and values.0 The most immediately relevant result was that when troops were sent to other parts of France, including the area surrounding Paris, they had relatively little social connection to those places. Revolutionary soldiers were therefore able to provide a link between the Revolutionary movement as it existed in Paris and the other parts of France to which they were sent, as well as to conquered countries.0
Despite this apparent connection between the previously Royal army, further reinforced by its willingness to defend the country at least from outside invasion, there was an uncomfortable ideological divide between the Revolution and the army. One factor of this separation was obvious, specifically that the army was the army of the King, and as such had to be considered at least a possible enemy, even if in practice it was not. Another factor was that not everyone in the army of France actually spoke French. The northern and eastern regions form one end of a broad frontier between the French-speaking and German-speaking portions of Europe, the other being the river Rhine. The area had been a warzone for centuries, a bone of contention between France and its Germanic neighbours, whether the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire, the German Empire, or even the Third Reich.
The result by 1791 was that the eastern regions of France, most notably Alsace and Lorraine, included large populations of German-speakers, whom the French army hitherto been quite happy to recruit from. The army included eight line regiments formally referred-to as German, of which personnel around half were German-speakers from Alsace and Lorraine, the rest originating from smaller German states and even some Swiss cantons. Even so, German-speakers could be found in other regiments, even those that were nominally French.0 Even if the dreaded counter-Revolutionary bloodbath did not really materialise, encountering what amounted to foreign troops could only have fuelled what some studies of the Revolution call the ‘Great Fear’. Despite this, the German-speaking regions of France were drawn upon for recruits to no lesser extent than any others, suggesting that the German-speakers were sufficiently French to be called-upon to fight as citizens.
Logic dictates that the best resources for understanding the social identities of French soldiers are letters and memoirs, bearing in mind the various issues already covered. Sergeant Bourgogne reveals little or nothing of his pre-war civilian life or political opinions in his own account, while Captain Coignet described his childhood and youth before conscription in some detail, but once again revealed little of what he thought about his place in society. A study of soldiers’ letters by J P Bertaud found only fifteen examples of ideological enthusiasm out of a sample of around one hundred. One of them was written by Joseph Rousseau of Chateauroux;
You told me to have courage, and be sure that I will not lack it, and far from

being like those cowards who abandon their county I burn with love of the

Republic and I will die before abandoning it. I have taken an oath not to

abandon my flag before driving from French territory all the satellites of

crowned despots allied against us.0
The language of these letters may appear somewhat formulaic, drawing upon rhetoric the soldiers had almost certainly heard or read on a regular basis. A general similarity in style can be found in many letters, a fact Bertaud puts down to the practice of literate soldiers acting as scribes for their comrades. This almost certainly had an effect on the content, as there are certain things any person will write in a letter, but prefer not to say aloud. Nevertheless it does not follow that soldiers feared or suspected censorship, or else all available letters would be of the enthusiastic type. Also, as Bertaud points out, too many soldiers admitted to hard times, or personal ill-feeling, for there to have been an effective censorship system in place. Letters tend to suggest an attachment to home and familiar places, with many making mention of siblings, old friends, and even neighbours. Homesickness was regarded as a medical condition, referred to as mal du pays or nostalgie, for which the only effective treatment was to be sent on leave.0 Though most soldiers seem to have at least accepted military life, thoughts of home and of everyday things still predominate in their letters. Examples can be found in the letters of Jean Lasalle, specifically one dated February of 1811;
My very dear father and mother I you write this letter to you mark the state

of my health which is, God mercy, pretty good. I hope that yours is the same, and everyone else at home. I tell you we were taken from prison to prison until we left Toulon and we spent eight days in Aix in prison. I say that we need to be embarked from day to day to go to Corsica. Immediately as I arrive in the depot, I will write to you again. Then you will reply to me, for this time I will not ask. You will share this letter with those of Porterieu. You tell cadet Porterieu that I advise him to leave if there is a draft. I tell you that my bedfellow is Loupla de Leduix. I tell you that we have nine or ten comrades in Lucq; we go together. I tell you that we are living a bad life; for bread we paid eight sous per pound, for the bottle of wine we paid twelve sous.

You give my compliments to my brothers and sisters and parents and friends,

and all who ask for news of me. I embrace you with all my heart.0


Though Jean Lasalle’s letters give little or no indication of political opinion, they nevertheless provide insights that are reflected in other letters by other soldiers. Lasalle’s concerns are essentially down-to-earth, relating the movements of himself and his fellows, asking them to pass a message to a friend, and complaining about the price of bread and wine. Bearing in mind that a pre-Revolutionary line infantryman was fortunate to receive eight sous per day before stoppages, Lasalle had good cause to complain


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