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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Conclusion to Chapters Three and Four

The general theme of the third and fourth chapters is once again of difference developing into similarity, but there is necessarily a greater focus on difference. The evidence of these chapters has shown significant differences between the two societies, and as such between the political and social identities that British and French soldiers may have possessed. Religion played as important a role in both societies as in any other, but whereas Anglicanism played a central role in creating a British common identity, Catholicism played a far lesser role after the Revolution. British and French social structures were superficially identical, with a titled, usually landowning elite, a rising merchant element, and lower levels including professionals, artisans, and peasants. But these structures would ultimately be defined by their differences, particularly in their socio-economic basis and political access. Britain’s elite was a landowning elite, consisting of a small titled aristocracy and a much larger landed gentry, both of which based their social and political status on land ownership. Wider notions of citizenship extended right down the social scale, based on the ideal of independence through property ownership.

What ultimately set this system apart was the British adherence to primogeniture, which limited the peerage to titled aristocrats and their heirs, other children being demoted to much broader delineation of gentry. The identity of a ‘gentleman’, based on independent wealth and gentlemanly manners, was broad and open enough that it could be embraced by those both above and below it on the social scale, granting the upper end of British society a degree of flexibility that its French counterpart lacked. A substantial proportion of the French aristocracy lacked the wealth necessary to maintain their status, and were forced to compete for an insufficient number of appropriately aristocratic jobs, especially officer commissions. With access to these jobs being dependent on wealth and court connections, the result was a split between the wealthy courtiers and impoverished provincial nobility that contributed to the gradual collapse of Royal authority that culminated in the Revolution. Needless to say, the Revolution led to the creation of a new social structure, where social status was wealth, political involvement, and under Napoleon on public service in one form or another.

Though this story has primarily been of difference, there are also examples of similar outcomes to differing processes. There is evidence that soldiers were regarded with suspicion and dislike in both British and pre-Revolutionary French societies, and for much the same reasons. Soldiers in both societies were symbols of government power, which could all too often be violently oppressive. They also tended to be drawn from the lowest levels of society, causing them to be associated with brutishness and criminality. But there is also evidence that soldiers could be regarded with sympathy, and that at least some in both societies regarded soldiers as fellow members. This is evidenced on the British side by the tendency of soldiers to sympathise with rioters, as well as a public willingness to side with mistreated soldiers. The fact that French Revolutionary thought held up soldiers as fellow citizens is similar proof, but the process by which both soldiers and civilians were convinced of this points to another fundamental difference between both armies and both societies. The French army was subjected to a massive campaign of political re-education, arguably to a far greater extent than French society as a whole, for which no equivalent took place on the British side. The most obvious explanation is that whereas the National Convention regarded this process as necessary for the reliability of the army and social cohesion in a wider sense, the British state saw no such need. The strong connection between officers and the status-quo made possible by the purchases system and the relative lack and small scale of army mutinies, may have given the government confidence in the army’s loyalty.

Monarchism and Republicanism represent the most obvious context in which British and Revolutionary French society diverged. In Britain the direct political authority of the crown was undergoing a gradual process of reduction, both in theory and in practice. Nevertheless, George III played the role of supreme commander, both in a practical and symbolic sense. One of his most significant acts was to appoint his son, the Duke of York, as actual commander-in-chief, putting him in a position to make much-needed reforms based on his experience of command in Flanders. His symbolic role was to maintain the bond between the army and the crown, and by implication between both and the country as a whole. There was no obvious equivalent in Revolutionary France until the appearance of Napoleon, since the relationship between state and army was based on a different set of ideals. The idea that pervaded the Revolutionary period, and saw its most overt expression under the Jacobins, was that of universal service as a duty and symbol of citizenship. Whereas the British army was in many respects a separate institution, bound to wider society through the officer corps and the crown, the French army was intended to be fully integrated into French society. It may be argued that the length and scope of the wars in which the French army fought rendered this goal impracticable.

In both countries there is little direct evidence of how soldiers saw themselves in a social and political context. Those letters on the French side that displayed Revolutionary or patriotic enthusiasm did so in a predictable, rather formulaic fashion using rhetoric the author had doubtless heard elsewhere. Practicality and evidence leans against the widespread or consistent practice of censorship, meaning that any sentiments expressed in letters can be taken as sincere. It is entirely likely that most simply did not think in such terms, or else lacked the literary wherewithal to express them. John Cookson’s point about British soldiers being outside of society, and creating their own within the army, is illuminating in this regard. The aforementioned separation of large numbers of French soldiers from France for extended periods may have had the same effect. Many letters on both sides referred to such simple matters as family, neighbours, and even the price of food, implying that the concerns of soldiers were with home and the lives they had left behind.

Though of differing social backgrounds, British and French officers were brought together by shared ideals and identities. On the British side, this shared identity was based on the concept of the gentleman, while on the French side the unifying idea shifted from aristocratic identity to ideological adherence to a less clearly-defined ideal of professional military service. The separation of the gentlemanly and aristocratic identities served to separate the identities of the British and French officer corps even before the Revolution. Whereas British high society was granted a semblance of unity by the gentlemanly identity, French aristocratic identity was almost defined by factionalism and the conflicts it engendered. The closest equivalent to the impoverished French aristocrats who relied on the army for gainful employment was the non-landowning British gentry who provided the British army with so many of its regimental officers. While they would be hard-pressed to rise above the rank of colonel, there was no formal equivalent to the Segur laws in the period, or any apparent attempt by this group to monopolise the officer corps. These lesser gentry were brought together with the spare sons of titled aristocrats and well-off landed gentry by the all-embracing ideal of the gentleman, which prized independent wealth and gentlemanly behaviour over strict genealogical credentials.

The social mobility this represented should not be exaggerated, but it gave the upper echelons of British society a flexibility and unity that its French counterpart lacked. The Revolution led to the replacement of the French aristocracy in the officer corps by a variety of different groups, leading to a shift in ideals and identity. Before the amalgamation, the emigrating officers of the regular army were replaced by non-commissioned officers, who under the old system could barely have hoped to rise any higher. The officers of the volunteers were provided by election, which in practice meant that they were members of non-aristocratic local elites, though time and casualties would cause these to be replaced by other volunteers who had gained the confidence of their fellows by one means or another. The result was an officer corps of varied background and interest, held together by common circumstance and a Revolutionary fervour gradually eroding under the pressure of war and political turmoil. Of these two specific groups, it was the regulars who would ultimately have come to dominate the officer corps, as the post-amalgamation election system was rigged to favour them. Despite Napoleon’s policy of drawing and training officers from the better-off levels of French society, this group would continue to dominate the officer corps by virtue of sheer numbers.

One sphere in which both sides displayed consistent similarity is in gender relations. Both armies were accompanied by large numbers of women, who played much the same roles on both sides. The only real difference was that the French army developed a policy of employing some of these women on a formal basis, in the form of the blanchisseuses and the cantinieres. There is evidence that, despite being in close proximity to and associated with field armies, army women and children were not regarded as legitimate targets. There is evidence that captured women and children were sent back under a flag of truce, though this was motivated as much by a desire to avoid the expense and inconvenience of supporting them as any humanitarian instinct. Their presence militates against any claim that eighteenth century army life was a purely male sphere, though there is a curious similarity between the two armies in that regard. Common to both sides was the idea that the army should indeed be a male-only sphere, and that the presence of women was in one way or another ‘unhealthy’. On the British side, this derived from seventeenth-century neo-classicism, specifically the republican ideal of public service as a virtuous male act from which women were necessarily excluded. On the French side, it derived from a similar tendency in Rousseauian thought, that citizenship was embodied in the male citizen and that the role of women was to support and facilitate their duties as such. This in turn marks a difference in the relationship between military identity and masculinity. British soldiers were arguably lacking in masculinity because they lacked independence, while French soldiers were regarded in their own society as unquestionably masculine, since fighting was a duty of male citizenship.

The political lives of British and French soldiers showed both similarity and difference. The British army came across as a largely apolitical and essentially loyal institution, in sharp contrast to the French army during the Revolution, though less so after it. The Despard plot is a rare example of soldiers becoming involved in a political conspiracy, revealing more about the misfortune of one man than about the political opinions of soldiers, if indeed they had any. That the Royal Navy was more overtly mutinous can be explained by the overt practice of pressganging, for which the army had no equivalent, and the Duke of York’s timely reforms. British soldiers were on the whole loyal, to the point of being willing to testify in sedition trials and even infiltrate seditious groups, but that does not mean they were the mindless automatons some of their detractors made them out to be. They tended to sympathise with rioters, making them of questionable reliability in a police role, and militia members in some cases actually became involved in riots. There were also concerns over the loyalty of the Volunteer soldiers, who were not under government control, though the only example of widespread disloyalty was on the part of Irish volunteers in the 1798 rebellion. Despite this, there was no British equivalent to the French programme of ideological re-education. On the whole, the connection between the British army and politics was tenuous to non-existent, the connection being maintained by the officer corps, the War Office, and the crown.

The French army was very different in this regard, with the government making a concerted effort to tie the army to the nation as a whole, and as such to itself. The re-education programme, the widespread distribution of newspapers, and the sending of representatives-on-mission to the armies were all aspects of this. But like the British army, the French army was not universally obedient to authority, be it royal or Revolutionary. Representatives were on certain occasions threatened or even detained by soldiers who objected to their behaviour, especially if a well-liked or trusted officer had fallen foul of them. Also, the declaration by the National Convention to kill all British and Hanoverian prisoners appears to have been quietly ignored by the soldiers themselves, and no apparent effort was made to enforce it.

The issue of Napoleon’s role is essentially a French issue, as there was clearly no British equivalent. The question is ultimately why so many French soldiers supported Napoleon, or at least went along with his project. A negligible proportion of French soldiers deserted during his tenure, and it can be argued that the army never deserted him, even if the marshals eventually did. It is worth pointing out that his support in the army was not exactly fanatical, as evidenced by Elzear Blaze’s reminiscence of disgruntled soldiers refusing to cheer. Yet in 1799 it was willing to let him take power as First Consul, and even declare himself Emperor. Evidently something had changed by 1799, the result of years of war and political unrest followed by an unpopular government. The fact that the French army had been embodied for such a long period, with many of its members having been away from civilian society for many years, must have contributed to a sense of separation, and to the development of a separate military identity. Napoleon helped to cement this new identity by creating a new and recognizably modern system of officer selection and training, with fees and stipend requirements limiting entry to those of the middle and upper levels of society. This was part of the development of a new and much wider ideal of public service in return for status and wealth. At the same time it was possible for soldiers in the enlisted ranks to aspire to promotion, if only because the new system could not provide enough officers on its own.




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