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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Politics of Soldiers

The identity of the ordinary soldier changed considerably in the space of the decade of 1790 to 1800. Many of these changes were imposed deliberately, with the alteration of military identity at least in mind if not the main motivation. The amalgame, by which the regular army and the volunteer regiments were combined, is an example, though the actual structure and organization of the French army underwent few if any real changes beyond this. Many of the most significant changes, in the context of military identity, took the form of a broad policy of reinvention, focussing on changing the image and self-image of French soldiers in accordance with the Revolution’s new ideals. Previously, the soldier was a mercenary, rogue, and plunderer. Through the Revolution, he would become a fellow citizen, and defender of liberty by force of arms. He would be taught to see himself as such, and to value himself and his place in the new society. Society would come to value him, for he would be one of them, more intimately and completely than ever before. No longer removed from society by long service, he would serve only as long as the republic needed him.

Though many of those high ideals would bend to military necessity, it cannot be said that they had no effect. With a few exceptions, soldiers have always been a part of the societies from which they are derived. As such they reflect the issues, peculiarities, and attitudes of their societies, even if they develop their own sub-culture based on shared circumstance and experience. One of the first practical contributions to this project was made in February of 1790, when soldiers were declared to have the same status of citizenship as their civilian counterparts. The distinction between active and passive citizenship was based on property ownership and the ability to pay taxes, a system not dissimilar to that which was practiced in Britain at the time. In that respect the French regular army after February 1790 became much like its British counterpart, though whereas British soldiers aspired to become the equivalent of active citizens through prosperity, French soldiers enjoyed the possibility of earning that privilege through long and good service. Just as the British Militia and Volunteers were drawn from better-off portions of society, the French National Guard was in practice dominated by active citizens.0

The Revolutionary re-education to which all French soldiers were subjected was both direct and indirect. The more direct endeavours at altering their opinions and outlook could be a speech from a superior officer or Representative, or else pamphlets or newspapers. The latter was far more common, though speeches were by no means uncommon, for the simple reason that improving reading material was far easier and cheaper to create and distribute than ideologically-adept instructors. Literacy was a serious issue for the French armies at that time, as it was for most contemporary armies. Usable figures with regard to literacy do not exist before 1830, and even then the percentage of French soldiers able to sign their own names did not rise above fifty-two per cent.0 This, it must be remembered, took place after a significant increase in overall French literacy since the Napoleonic wars. The solution to the problem for French soldiers, as with their British counterparts, was to hire or otherwise persuade a literate comrade to write letters for them. It should be noted that the French army, both line and volunteer, would have required its NCOs to be literate and numerate in order to perform their duties. For printed material such as pamphlets and newspapers to be effective, it is only necessary for a relatively small proportion of the intended audience to be literate, as the material can then be read aloud. Songs were similarly advantageous, in that that singing was an activity that soldiers could engage in by themselves once prompted to do so. The Revolutionary regimes appear to have found songs to be a particularly effective means of spreading the word, the number of published political songs rising from just over one hundred in 1789 to around seven hundred by 1794.0

The content of this ideological re-education can be seen quite clearly in the materials themselves. The songs of the volunteer and regular armies tended to be upbeat and optimistic, the sort that soldiers could sing on the march or around a campfire to raise their spirits or express their good humour. The music itself was often borrowed from popular chants or airs, especially La Marseillaise, and were produced in a standardized format with between eight and twelve stanzas containing verses of between six and eight syllables.0 Le Chant du Départ, written by Étienne Nicolas Méhul and Marie-Joseph Chénier in 1794, was a favourite of the grande armée. The verse sung by three warriors, evoking the Oath of the Horatii, shows the ideals the republic associated with soldiers;
On the iron, before God, we swear to our fathers

to our wives, to our sisters

to our representatives, to our sons, to our mothers
that we shall annihilate oppressors
Everywhere, into the deep night
by sinking the infamous royalty
the French shall give to the world
peace and liberty

This particular song also grants a verse to Joseph Bara and Agricol Viala, the much-lionized child martyrs of the Revolutionary wars. Those two in particular came to represent the new ideals of France, specifically the beauty and vitality of youth as well as a neo-Spartan willingness to die for the good of the people. In the case of Bara, this can be seen in his artistic renditions. David’s The Death of Joseph Bara displays him in true Romantic style, with an idealized naked body, both youthful and delicate enough to arouse the pity of victimhood, yet masculine and noble enough to evoke a sense of warriorhood and martyrdom, almost the Dying Gaul of the French Revolution. Bara in death fitted and exemplified two ideals, one of the patriotic youth, the other of the patriotic soldier, willing to serve the republic and die rather than deny it.0 Revolutionary martyrdom took on a darker aspect after 1793, as the much hoped-for mass defections and sympathetic uprisings among France’s enemies failed to materialize. To some, the soldiers and subjects of foreign states were the willing slaves of tyrants, deserving of ruthless extermination. Though there is occasional mention of prisoners being killed, this did not become general policy or practice.0 The Convention went so far as to order the execution of all British and Hanoverian prisoners, but the armies simply avoided this unpleasant duty by exchanging the men condemned as quickly as possible.0

An indication of the attitudes of the government and of many ordinary Parisians towards the officers and generals of the regular army can be found in the treatment of Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine. Like Lafayette and Dumouriez, Custine was an aristocrat who supported the Revolution in its early, idealistic days. Also like them, his motivations for doing so cannot be explained by frustrated ambition or rejection, for like them, he had enjoyed a successful career beforehand. Like Dumouriez, Custine held the rank of maréchal de camp, the equivalent of a brigadier general, and whereas the former had served as Commandant of Cherbourg from 1779, Custine had been governor of Toulon. Like Lafayette he had served in the American War of Independence, as a colonel under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau. Such was hardly the career of a social or military outcast. Nor can his adherence to the Revolution be explained by self-preservation, or else he would have made a greater effort to avoid what he must have known might be his fate. Custine’s career in the service of the republic was initially a spectacular success. Commanding the Army of the Vosges, his offensive of September and October 1792 captured Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and even Frankfurt. However, the presence of a Prussian army caused him to abandon Frankfurt and return to Landau. In the military thinking that had characterized the Cabinet Wars, such a response was by no means unusual, let alone worthy of suspicion. It nonetheless damaged his standing, both with the National Convention and the Paris mob, who came gradually to suspect him of treason. His unwillingness to take the offensive in the north, and apparent inability to prevent the Austrians from capturing the border town of Condé-sur-l’Escaut, led to accusations of conspiracy.
The Convention seems to have regarded the conviction of Custine to be a political imperative of the utmost importance. If the relevant edition of the radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne is any indication, its editor Jacques Hébert was entirely convinced of Custine’s guilt:
You have just done something worthy of me by denouncing Custine.

You have brought into broad daylight his plots and his treason. If we had

Waited a few more days to recall him freedom would have been f*****d. This infamous rascal, after having had the French in Frankfurt massacred,after having abandoned Mainz, after having allowed Valenciennes to be encircled, after having delivered Condé, only awaited the right moment to lead his army into a slaughter and to deliver the coup de grace to the republic by sacrificing its last resources. Fortunately, the bugger has been put to the side. His crimes have been proved, let his head promptly fall under the national razor, but let his not be the only one! Let all the scoundrels who compose his headquarters also be shortened. Pursue, denounce without rest the infamous Tourville, who was the right arm of Lameth, and who will deliver Maubeuge if we leave him in command. Make known the swindler Lapallière, and especially the ci-devant marquis de Verigni, known in all the gaming houses under the name of Debrulis. Tell the Sans Culottes in the army that this rat has emigrated twice. Don’t forget Leveneur, the intimate friend of Lafayette, and the henchman of Custine. Don’t allow these bandits a moments rest until they've been chased and punished as traitors.0

Hébert, as one of the most famous enragés, can be taken to represent the more extreme end of public opinion at that time. While this extract is illuminating with regard to a certain sector of opinion, it is important not to regard such opinion as being the arbiter of public policy, another common caricature. A more likely explanation would be the fact that Hébert’s supporters effectively controlled the Ministry of War until his arrest in March of 1794, a Ministry with which Custine had been in conflict.0 As for the origins of these attitudes, the most obvious explanation is that the Hébertists and similar parties sincerely regarded the aristocratic officers as irredeemable traitors whose immediate execution was an absolute necessity for the safety of the Revolution. Any reverse or failure, whether real or imagined, was regarded as evidence of their true nature, and further reason for them to face the guillotine. The Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre was actually relatively humane in its approach to that particular issue, merely dismissing the bulk of the officers with whom it found fault. The fact that Custine actually turned up for his trial, instead of fleeing as Dumouriez had done, is proof that he did not seriously expect to be condemned.

The fate of Jean Houchard, who had been Custine’s subordinate, provides a potential explanation for the Committee’s state of mind in this context. In sharp contrast to the aristocratic Custine, Houchard’s background was far more ideologically acceptable. One of those officers of fortune so disadvantaged under the old regime, Houchard achieved the rank of Captain only after twenty four years of service.0 Houchard was exactly the sort of general the National Convention was looking for, one who could be trusted to serve both France and the Republic. He even managed to win a battle at Hondschoote in September of 1793, defeating a Coalition army under the Duke of York and Field Marshal von Freitag, but failed to prevent their escape. An important factor in understanding the Convention’s willingness to blame Houchard and other generals exclusively for failure was its attitude towards the ordinary soldier. Houchard himself had expressed the idea that the French soldier was inherently good, being courageous, virtuous, and self-sacrificing. Officers, by contrast, were invariably corrupt and untrustworthy, and defeats could always be explained by their incompetence or disloyalty.0 But Houchard represented an even bigger problem for the Convention, and the Committee of Public Safety, and not simply because he was the sort of sans-culotte general they had so lionized. He had received his orders from Lazare Carnot, who had only recently joined the Committee, and his plan had been personally approved by him.0 The question unavoidably arose as to where the buck was to stop, and it could not be with the Committee.
Newspapers like Le Père Duchesne made quite clear to the soldiers what was expected of them in the new state:
Finally we're rising up en masse to hunt the f*****g bear of the north that’s ravaging our frontiers and to make all the crowned brigands dance the carmagnole. I gave this good advice a long time ago to the Sans Culottes, and if we'd followed it Mainz, Condé and Valenciennes would still be ours, and the traitor Custine would have been forced to march when seeing himself caught between two fires. But it’s not enough to rise up: the final blows must be delivered, and in two weeks assure our liberty by crushing under our thumbs all of the despots. D****t, it’s impossible that five or six million men shouldn’t be able to bring down these hordes of slaves who never would have been able to set foot on the territory of the republic if we hadn’t been betrayed by the scoundrels who commanded our armies up till now. Yes, d****t, if a million men would serve as reinforcements for the army of the North, then

soon Mainz, Condé, and Valenciennes will be returned to us; and soon our troops will again take Belgium and Holland, not to make free those Flemish oafs who prefer their reliquaries and their wooden saints to freedom, but to make them pay restitution for the provisions that the wretched Dumouriez abandoned to them; not to unite Holland to France, but to make the monopolists of Amsterdam pay the costs of the war, and to make them exchange all our assignats against tons of gold.0

Repeated exposure to such sentiments would require considerable education and no small force of will to resist, assuming any of them were even inclined to. As mentioned before, such material represented the more extreme end of printed opinion. A marked contrast to this approach was Lazare Carnot’s Soirée du camp, first published in July of 1794, a newspaper with some claim to have been made by a soldier for soldiers, Carnot being a captain of engineers. Carnot matched Hébert on his own turf, albeit posthumously, using the same literary device of presenting the narrative through a fictional character. But whereas old man Duchesne was a brutally honest and foul-mouthed man of the people, retired sergeant Va-de-bon-coeur was a good-humoured soldier’s soldier. This approach was entirely deliberate, seeking to speak to and engage with the ordinary French soldiers in a manner and with concepts they could understand. The Soirée proved not only an effective morale-booster for the regular army, at which it was aimed, but a means of tidying up any political misunderstandings. The first edition denounced Hébert for his defamations of the regular army, asserting that in so doing he was spreading counterRevolution;
From time to time he was amusing, that Père Duchesne; he sometimes

made me laugh as much as anyone. But that’s because at the beginning I

didn’t have doubts that he wanted to spread counterRevolution and blacken the reputation of the French soldier. But that was one of his ways of taking us all back to the Ancien Régime. How many times, once I had begun to see clearly, did his papers lacerate my heart! For I’d as soon swallow a barrel of gunflints as see the soldier’s good name reviled.

The thirteenth edition gave Robespierre the same treatment shortly after his downfall, claiming that his tyranny was the result of ‘hypocrisy’ and seduction of the people.0 That Carnot and his colleagues made the effort to do so indicates a certain understanding both of human nature and of the soldier’s particular mind-set, and offers an insight into the fate of Custine. For over a year French soldiers had been taught to regard Robespierre as a virtuous and incorruptible leader, only to be told that he was actually a vicious tyrant who had sent fellow Revolutionaries to the guillotine. Such a bombshell must have made many French soldiers wonder as to the righteousness of their cause. How could they tell between virtuous leaders and would-be tyrants? If the incorruptible Robespierre had betrayed their trust, who could they trust? Carnot’s touch in this case was to reassure the soldiers, promising them that the fault was Robespierre’s alone and not that of the Revolution. It was a necessary gesture, but the stage was nonetheless set for the rise of one who could make soldiers trust him.

The question inevitably arises as to the role of Napoleon Bonaparte, and how he was able to make a nation seemingly committed to the ideals of liberty and equality follow him into a war that would spread across the world, and even make him its Emperor in the process. To understand why French soldiers regarded Napoleon with such apparent loyalty, to the point where it took total and utter defeat to finally dislodge him from power, it is necessary to look at what the French army had become by that point. Amalgamation was accepted in principle in 1793, taking place in January of 1794.0 The result was that the two French armies were finally combined into one institution, allowing their respective identities to combine also. This process contributed significantly to the professionalization of French military identity, combining both the existing professionalism of the regular army with the new-found professionalism of the volunteer army.0 The ultimate cause of the professionalization, however, was the simple fact that the two armies had been fighting almost constantly since 1792, and the Cincinnatian approach of dismissing the volunteers at the end of each campaign season had been abandoned since the 1793 decree of permanent requisition.0 The result was the common situation as described in the chapter on professional identities, leading to a common identity. In his own account, Elzéar Blaze deflates the image of Napoleon as being treated with near-fanatical loyalty by almost if not all of his soldiers;
We returned to our companies paraphrasing the colonel’s speech, and this is what we heard murmured in the ranks:

“Let him give me my discharge, and I’ll cheer him as much as they please!”

“We have no bread; when my stomach is empty, I can not cheer.”

“I had enlisted for six months, and here I’ve been twenty years in the army; I shall cheer when I am sent away.”

“There is six months’ pay due us, why does he not give it to us?”

“Don’t you know why? I’ll tell you: it is because, in the meantime, all Those who are killed are as good as paid, etc., etc.”

The Emperor came; the colonel and a few officers shouted at the tops of their voices, and the rest remained silent. I have never heard French soldiers frankly cry: Vive l’Empereur!” except in 1814 and 1815, when they were told to shout: “Vive le Roi!” I must say that then they shouted themselves hoarse: why? Because the soldier is essentially a frondeur, be it that he wishes from time to time to indemnify himself for his sheeplike obedience, or that he is secretly envious of those who command him, as a servant is of his master, and the pupil of his instructor.0
The complaints of French soldiers against their Emperor have no apparent political content, focussing instead on the practical issues of food, pay, and term of service. Blaze nonetheless expressed confidence in Napoleon as a leader, which he put down to a belief that Napoleon would bring victory.0
Having lived an essentially military life, Napoleon came to believe that the secret of his success lay in those military values he had absorbed from a young age, and that France needed those same values in order to succeed. Napoleon continued the Revolutionary policy of using the army for ideological education, altering its content to fit this new direction. Even his methods were the same, using proclamations and bulletins to keep the troops updated on the successful course of the war. One proclamation, dated 29 September 1805, shows how he liked to do it;

Soldiers, the war of the Third Coalition has started. The Austrian army has

crossed the Inn, violated the treaties, attacked and chased our ally from its capital…Even you had to rush in forced marches to the defence of our


But already you have crossed the Rhine: we will not stop until we will have

assured the independence of the Germanic corps, assisted our allies, and

confounded the pride of the unjust aggressors.

We will never make peace without guarantee: our generosity will never

again deceive our politics.

Soldiers, your Emperor is in your midst. You are only the advance guard of

the great people; if it is necessary, all of it will rise up on hearing my voice to confound and dissolve this new league woven by the hatred and the gold of


But, soldiers, we have forced marches to do, some fatigues and privations of

all kinds to endure; no matter what obstacles oppose us, we will vanquish

them, and we will not rest until we have planted our eagles on the territory

of the enemy.0

Napoleon also continued the Revolutionary practice of holding fetes, with the additional purpose of rewarding the deserving and encouraging the rest. Rewards could be anything from a few words of praise to a title, or the greatest reward of all, the Legion of Honour. The Legion of Honour itself is a specific example of how this wider process sought to bind military and civic identities together, for it could be awarded for military or civic merit regardless of social background.0 It was also a tacit acknowledgement that virtue was not its own reward.
This is not to say that the ideals of the Revolution faded from the military mind-set. Napoleon’s own image was tied inextricably with that of the Revolution, for it was upon certain Revolutionary ideals that he based his legitimacy and mission as a ruler. To the soldiers themselves, the most important factor in their bond was that if not actually one of them, Napoleon was someone they could believe they understood, and who understood them in turn. This was the product of the shared circumstance, and why so many of them called him the petit caporal. To the soldiers he came to represent the possibilities and opportunities of the new era. Compared to such tangible and life-enhancing rewards, the high-minded ideals and concepts of men like Robespierre and even Carnot must have seemed distant and even alienating. They could not be perfect citizens possessed of vertu, but they could be good soldiers possessed of honneur. In that respect if in no other, the wheel had turned full circle. Montesquieu had described the difference between monarchies and republics as being a question of honour and virtue, with monarchies being based on honour, a relationship of service and reward between subjects and their monarch, and republics being based on virtue, in which the citizen gained personal satisfaction through service to the state.0 If one follows this analogy, then Napoleon became a monarch the moment he became First Consul. Whereas the republic could offer only impersonal ideals, service to Napoleon offered the ineffable joy of personal loyalty, and plenty of more tangible rewards.
Though one may conclude from this that virtue was abandoned in favour of self-centred notions of honour and personal profit, this would be over-simplistic. Montesquieu’s analysis comes in for criticism from Owen Connolly, in the process of criticizing John Lynn’s conclusions regarding the evolution of French military ideology and identity. He argues that Spirit of the Laws is not a suitable basis for understanding French military honour and virtue in the period, as Montesquieu was himself a lawyer by trade and his work was focussed on these issues in the political rather than the military context. He goes on to argue that honneur and vertu were not so different, quoting a letter in which both were described as being a quality or attitude that made a soldier do what he had to do.0 In criticizing Montesquieu’s definitions of honour and virtue, Connolly points to the definitions of Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu, providing a basis for comparison. Clausewitz describes a specifically military conception of virtue in his seminal work On War;
An Army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire,

which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger

disputes the ground inch by inch, which, proud in the feeling of its

victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence

in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of defeat; an Army with

all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like

the muscles of an athlete; an Army which looks upon all its toils as the

means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which

is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one

idea, namely the HONOUR OF ITS ARMS;—Such an Army is imbued

with the true military spirit.0
Clausewitz’s conception of virtue ties neatly into the aforementioned conception of honneur as doing one’s duty well. Existing in a military context, it has little to say for the wider social context covered by vertu. Nor does it cover the concept of gloire, implying personal or collective achievement and reward. One way in which it does tie into vertu is that a virtuous soldier is motivated by his sense of integrity as a soldier, just as a virtuous citizen-soldier needs no reward but the gratitude and validation of his fellow citizens. So then arises the question; was the French army ultimately motivated by virtue, or by honour and glory? To argue that soldiers were interested only in physical rewards, be they baubles or titles and privileges, would be mean-spirited.. It cannot be denied that such things were rarely if ever refused, but to focus on the material value of rewards is to misunderstand their meaning. Does a soldier consider a medal in terms of its monetary value, or as a physical symbol of his having achieved military virtue? Ultimately, a more accurate and nuanced answer would be that the French army developed a vertu of its own, which included notions of honneur and gloire, but also of valeur, discipline and even service. In Napoleon’s army, all these motives were acceptable.

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