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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Social Identity of Officers


One commonly-cited feature of the relationship between the first Republic and its army is paranoia towards officers. A degree of suspicion was entirely understandable, as the majority of the army’s officers were aristocrats and therefore judged to be of questionable reliability. That so many officers resigned their commissions and fled abroad only served to confirm those suspicions. On June of 1791 the Constituent Assembly voted down a motion to dismiss all officers, deciding instead to have them take a new oath of loyalty, which the majority of officers chose to take. The oath was modified after the Royal family’s escape attempt on June 21st, and around one thousand five hundred officers refused to swear it, their refusal being taken as resignation, and most left the country.0 The situation for pre-Revolutionary officers grew gradually worse over the following years as emigration continued, with multiple resolutions being proposed in the assembly for their wholesale expulsion. Attempts to undermine their authority were made at multiple levels, ranging from the Ministry of War down to the armies themselves. Ministers of War Jean-Nicholas Pache and Jean-Baptiste Noel Bouchotte both worked to undermine the authority of army officers during their respective tenures, going so far as to circulate radical newspapers among the troops to that effect.0 The représentants en mission, sent by the National Convention to the armies, tended to behave in a similar fashion. Saint-Just himself performed this role in Alsace in late 1793 and in Belgium in 1794. While opposing some of the more extreme measures proposed by his subordinates, including mass executions, he had a considerable number of officers and at least one general shot for a variety of offences.0 On the whole, nearly six hundred generals were cashiered in 1792 and the first half of 1793.0

The self-image the French officer corps changed in many ways along with its membership. Like their British counterparts, French officers of the regular army were recruited from a recognizable social group, the nobility, and in the last years of the Ancien Regime they were more consciously and specifically aristocratic in their self-image and values. This had not always been the case. As with the British army, it had hitherto been possible for non-nobles to rise from the ranks. These ‘soldiers of fortune’ made up around ten per cent of the officer corps. Despite their rank they were still essentially sergeants in terms of the duties they performed and their status vis-à-vis the noble-born officers. Of almost two hundred lieutenant-generals, only nine had no titles. Of nearly a thousand maréchaux de camp and brigadiers, only around one fifth had no titles, though they tended to be lower aristocrats. Purchase of rank was so widespread, despite only captaincies and colonelcies being officially venal, that regiments were being run like businesses in order to recoup the expenses.0


The French aristocracy itself was by no means an exclusive class, or even a ‘caste’ as it is sometimes erroneously called. The purchase of titles was as widespread as that of military rank, a longstanding source of income for the French Crown. The result was that anyone with enough money to buy a title and maintain the requisite lifestyle could in effect become a noble. The problem of aristocratic domination of the officer corps reached its nadir with the Ségur Ordnance of 1781, under which a would-be officer would henceforth require a coat of arms with sixteen quarterings, that is to say four generations of aristocratic status, to be eligible for a commission. The precise definition was that the claimant’s family should have ‘lived nobly’, which generally meant not being employed in commerce.0 This not only shut out the proto-middle class and those who might otherwise have risen from the ranks, but also the comparatively low-level country gentry would had previously made up the bulk of the officer corps. Many who could show the requisite four generations were nevertheless excluded because they had not been presented at court. This latter complication represented a bar in practice, for the connections and money of a courtier could be very career-enhancing, but also in practice. Under a 1761 edict, no officer who had not been presented could attain the rank of colonel.0
The result was that for the last years of the Old Regime the officer corps was dominated by the noblesse de race, who had sought the Ségur Ordnance in the first place. The law’s purpose was to have all officers come from families with a military tradition, in theory an assurance of quality, but also a means of monopolizing access to officer commissions. French aristocrats were subject to the principle of dérogeance, under which they could lose both rank and title if they were caught engaging in professions thought unsuitable for a nobleman.0 The privilege of serving as an officer was jealously guarded, a respectable source of income that few nobles could afford to pass up. The Baron de Besenval opined in his memoirs that the chance of any young nobleman attaining a commission was one in a hundred.0 Needless to say, the so-called ‘soldiers of fortune’ who had risen from the ranks, found their hopes of advancement dashed. The Ségur Ordnance was actually only the culmination of a much longer process. An earlier example is the case of a certain Lieutenant Lantier, the son of a Marseilles merchant forced from his position by his colonel, the Marquis de Crenolle. The Marquis’ dismissal letter, sent to Lantier while he was at home, reveals something of the mind-set behind these actions;
You are well-off and young, and you will not be without an occupation as long as you devote yourself to the kind of life which was followed by your ancestors – it is a perfectly acceptable one when it is pursued honourably. However, by desiring to serve in the army you are out of your sphere; go back to your former condition, and you will be happy. I know, Monsieur, that high birth is the result of chance and that it should not be the object of vainglorious pride. But birth brings privileges and rights which cannot be violated without disturbing the public order.0
So hard was it to gain a commission, and so desperate were nobles to be soldiers, that considerable numbers took the next best option and served in the ranks. These soldats-gentilshommes appeared in the regular army throughout the eighteenth century, numbering around one per cent of the army in the first half of the century, though dropping to around a fifth of that by 1763. It is unclear whether this reduction was in absolute terms or merely a case of embarrassed nobles concealing their identities. For a noble to endure the life of a common soldier, including having to take orders from social inferiors, would have required a strong motivation, the most likely being honour, money, or both. An example of how these could combine can be found in the Garde du Corps, a cavalry formation of the Maison Militaire made up entirely of nobles. This formation existed in part to provide employment for young nobles, but also acted as a means of keeping spare officers on the payroll.0 This desire for dignity extended to the soldats-gentilshommes in the army also, reflected in a noted preference for the cavalry, in which forty per cent of enlisted nobles enlisted despite it making up only one fifth of the army. Enlisted nobles would find themselves under suspicion during the Revolution, though not to the same extent as the officers.0
The Revolution would put the aristocratic officers of the regular army in a difficult position. Many officers supported the early Revolution, as did a considerable number of civilian aristocrats, seeing it as a force for national and military regeneration. The immediate problem was that the military aspect did not take the forms they had hoped for. Military reform had long been the subject of debate, but those involved tended to be officers of aristocratic backgrounds who saw their own role and that of the army as a whole in terms of their class. When the Maréchal de Ségur instituted his infamous règlement¸ he was himself a member of the committee established by the Maréchal de Contades in 1780 to examine the needs and possibilities of reform. Though it has been suggested that Ségur instituted the law for which he is named under protest, the committee raised no objection to it. To French officers at that time, ‘equality’ only applied within their own fraternity, and then as a principle of meritocratic improvement.0
The hope of many officers from the lower aristocracy was that the new spirit of equality might lead to the removal of the Ségur law and related handicaps, allowing them the opportunities they craved. Instead of which, they would find themselves the subjects of suspicion and hatred because of their relationship with the monarchy as an institution. Despite favouring the Revolution, few if any aristocratic officers were anti-monarchy, and neither, initially, was the Revolution itself. Their relationship with the monarchy was based on a personal oath of loyalty sworn by all officers. This connection, both with the existing monarchy and the ideal of monarchy ran very deep, as evidenced by the veneration of supposedly ideal kings of the past, such as Saint-Louis, Henri IV, and Louis XII, the so-called ‘father of the people’.0 Ségur for his own part professed a desire for liberty, but in a form compatible with monarchy, as well as ‘our position and our manners.’0
The real problem, in the eyes both of Revolutionaries and aristocratic officers, was how the personal oath to the King was to square with the new requirement of loyalty to the nation as a whole. In the beginning most officers saw no conflict, no doubt on the basis that the nation and the person of the King were spiritually one and the same, while others, both officers and some of the more extreme Revolutionaries, argued otherwise. The extent to which there was any conflict depended on the extent to which the King was seen as being opposed to the Revolution or the interests of the state. The attempted escape of the Royal family in 1791 was the major flashpoint, for if the King thought it honourable or at least necessary to take flight, then should not his officers do otherwise?
Many officers who had remained in spite of the dismantling of aristocratic privileges thought so, and increasing numbers of them emigrated. Others stayed on, even after the dethronement and execution of the King, concluding that France was France no matter who ruled it. The fate of the émigrés was not a happy one, and many soon found themselves in a state as bad as, if not worse than, what they had left behind. Whereas in France they were increasingly regarded as fundamentally disloyal for favouring the King over the nation, once abroad their loyalties were questioned because they had taken so long to leave. An unspoken but definite hierarchy existed among the émigrés, with those who had left earlier regarding themselves as superior to those who left later on.0 Far from gaining equality with the high nobles, the émigrés found themselves both subjugated and despised by those of them who had emigrated earlier, yet with nowhere else to go.0
The result of the emigrations was a plethora of officer billets left vacant, proverbial shoes that had to be filled immediately if the army was to function. The Republic’s answer was to promote men from the ranks, a move that was both pragmatic and ideologically sound. If all citizens were equal, then all soldiers should as equal citizens be promoted on the basis of merit, however that was to be defined. Aristocratic officers tended to define merit on the basis of honourable behaviour, which they equated with military and aristocratic virtues. The Revolution brought with it the concept, almost an ideology, of vertu. The difference between honneur and vertu was described by Montesquieu, in his Spirit of the Laws. He regarded honour as being a governing principle specific to monarchies, a relationship of give-and-take between the monarch and the aristocracy.
This by its very nature led to social distinctions, a means by which the monarch rewarded those who served him. Vertu by contrast was the necessary principle by which republics had to be governed if they were to function. Virtue in that context meant selfless service to the state and its people, putting the good of the whole over that of the individual.0 It was for this reason that while the republic loudly celebrated the martial prowess considered innate to the French character, it tended to be uncertain about honour as a concept, as well as the related concept of gloire. Honour was by its very nature a violation of equality, and the pursuit of glory could be indicative of dangerously un-republican selfishness. Despite this the desire for honour and glory proved impossible to stamp out, and for those who considered classical virtue to be incompatible with the French character, it was a more suitable focus.0
The sheer demand for officers nonetheless demanded pragmatism, and the bulk of the Grande Armée’s officers after the amalgamation would rise from the enlisted ranks. J P Bertaud provides extensive information on the social backgrounds of these officers, who first made their appearance in the Volunteers. In 1791, around one third of company-level officers, that is to say with the rank of captain or lower, had undergone military service in the past. These individuals had generally served in the line army, many of them as sergeants, leaving when their non-noble birth let them rise no further. Some indeed transferred back to the line upon achieving officer rank, perhaps wanting to enjoy their new-found status in the company of their old regiments.0 Bertaud notes that the officers of the 1792 volunteers tended to be of lower rank, many having served as privates or corporals in the line army, and that they had less experience, with captains and lieutenants having between one and six years of service before 1789.0
These individuals appear to have gone far, as by 1794 eighty-six per cent of chefs de brigade had served before 1789. Of chefs de brigade, forty-one per cent had been NCOs and forty-six per cent could claim thirteen or more years of service, as could forty-three per cent of chefs de bataillon. Bertaud places the greatest proportion of professionals in the cavalry, where eighty per cent of all officers had served before 1789 and sixty per cent of captains had thirteen years of service before that date. The artillery was not far behind, with eighty-four per cent of captains and seventy-three per cent of lieutenants having served before 1789.0 These figures clearly show an officer corps dominated by long-service veterans, implying an institution that had to a great extent lost its distinctive social identity, becoming closer in its attitudes to the enlisted ranks from which it was drawn. At the same time the identity of the enlisted ranks drew closer to that of the officers, the two being bound together through the shared pursuit of honour and glory in their country’s cause.


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