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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Gender Relations


One noticeable ideological and social effect of the wars, and of Napoleon’s role in them, was a growing association between warfare and masculinity. Such a connection was nothing new in France, the newer ideals being essentially developments on earlier types such as the petit-maître. The term referred to the followers of the Prince of Condé during the Fronde des nobles of 1649 to 1653, a pack of flamboyantly-dressed young aristocrats with a reputation for prowess in combat. Over time the stereotype became more recognizably foppish; associated with superficiality and narcissism. It is not surprising that Rousseau was to draw upon a very different type, that of the rugged Spartan, which he combined with the fatherly philosopher and the earnest man of feeling to create his ideal of reconstructed masculinity.0 Under Napoleon, French military masculinity would move in a more traditional direction, the martial virtues of the French soldier being a desire for honour and glory, devotion to the fatherland, and heterosexual prowess. The latter was encouraged to the point where even rape was theoretically acceptable, the idea in those cases being that the woman would surely give in to the soldier’s overwhelming manliness and enjoy the experience.0


Though not always welcome, women had a part to play in the both the civilian and military spheres of the French Revolution. Bertaud mentions a petition received by the Legislative Assembly early in 1792, in which a group of women requested weapons and former Gardes Françaises to act as their officers.0 The famous female Revolutionary Theroigne de Mericourt called for the enlistment of female volunteers, drawing on the legends of female warriors such as Jeanne Blanchette of Beauvais.0 She appealed in these terms to the Legislative Assembly:

We are women citizens, and can never be indifferent to the fate of our

country. Your predecessors entrusted the Constitution to our hands as well

as yours. How can we guard this trust unless we have arms to defend it

against the onslaught of enemies? Legislators, we require arms, and we

come to obtain permission to carry them. Our want of physical strength is

no obstacle; courage and intrepidity will stand us in good stead; the love of

country and hatred of tyrants will make it easy for us to brave every danger.

Do not suppose that it is our intention to abandon the care of our family and household, always dear to our affections, for the sake of rushing out to meet

the enemy. No, gentlemen, we only ask to be in a position to defend ourselves. Your dare not, and society cannot, refuse us this right which nature has given us.0


For all her ardour, and the apparent enthusiasm of French women, at least for a brief period, only between eighty and one hundred femmes soldats are known to have served in arms.0 There were any number of reasons for this, but ideology played its part. Revolutionary thought, especially during the Jacobin republic, ascribed a secondary status to women. They were citizens, and therefore possessed of rights, but this was balanced by a set of responsibilities set apart from those of male citizens. Their role was to support male citizens as they fought for the nation, and to memorialize them after death.0 This is reflected in Revolutionary symbolism, with common themes including women offering up their sons for sacrifice.
Like British soldiers, French soldiers were rarely far from women, even when on campaign. They had their fair share of female camp followers, who were present for much the same reasons as their British counterparts. The great difference lies in the extent to which the presence of women in the French army was formalized and organised. Described in some depth by Elting, these female auxiliaries were concentrated in two categories; the blanchisseuses and the vivandières. The blanchisseuses can be closely compared to the army wives who followed British regiments. Their roles ran from washing and mending to helping the surgeons and even carrying ammunition during battles. Like their British counterparts, they tended to stick to a single regiment, and to marry within it. The vivandières, later known as cantinières, became a distinct group in the period. Before 1789 they acquired their status by marrying a ‘vivandièr’, one of eight enlisted soldiers per regiment holding a licence to sell food, drink, and other necessaries. The vivandière’s trademark was her tonnelet, a small keg from which she served beverages to soldiers, usually brandy. The importance of both blanchisseuses and vivandières can be seen in the regulations to which they were subject, and the privileges which they enjoyed, which from July 1804 included treatment in military hospitals. The vivandières in particular were vital to the running of the army, making up for an often inadequate logistical system.0
Under a regulation of April 1793, infantry battalions were limited to six of each, with all other ‘unnecessary’ women to be given money and sent home. This was in part a response to the upsurge in the number of wives, girlfriends, and female hangers-on accompanying armies since the National Convention voted to allow soldiers to marry without permission that same year. Those selected, known as femmes de troupe were to be given a certificate by the commanding officer, which they would present to the provost marshal, who would exchange it for an official badge. Further regulations were enacted in 1800, focussing on the vivandières. They were limited to four per battalion and two per squadron, and had to be the wives of NCOs and soldiers. A patente de vivandière gave each the right to operate, while requiring her to sell at a fair price and only to the regiment to which she was attached. Needless to say, these rules were flouted constantly. The regulations on numbers were in practice unenforceable, and vivandières tended to go where they pleased and buy and sell as they pleased. They also developed a reputation for looting, as well as buying and selling loot.0 In this respect they were no worse than British army women, and it is hard to argue that they were any less helpful. So helpful did the Army of Italy find them, indeed, that it printed blank certificates in vast numbers for wives to fill in. The descriptions written on these certificates became increasingly vague between 1793 and 1800, as the official limit on the number of ‘useful’ women caused many to describe themselves as filling both the vivandière and the blanchisseuse role. The term ‘cantiniere’ came into general use at about this time and in this context.0

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