The makeup of the French officer corps changed dramatically in the space of three years, going from being effectively dominated by aristocrats to at least a semblance of a meritocracy. The officer corps of the French army as it existed from the reign of Louis XIII, was essentially an aristocratic club, though the social composition could change significantly in wartime as ‘soldiers of fortune’ were promoted from the ranks to make up the numbers. These made up around ten per cent of all officers, and were tolerated primarily because of their minority status and their niche role in directly supervising the troops.0 Aristocratic officers broadly fitted the contemporary stereotype in terms of their recruitment, in that they received little if any of what would today, or even under Napoleon, be regarded as formal training. The memoirs of the Marquis de Lafayette, that most lionized of the liberal aristocrats, make little mention of either recruiting or training. Lafayette claims to have been sent to a college in Paris, the College du Plessis, at the age of twelve, later entering the renowned Mousquetaires Noirs, though not being called upon to join his regiment except during reviews, before his marriage at the age of sixteen.0 This meant that he was essentially an absentee officer while still at school. Absenteeism was common among aristocratic officers in the period, and can be considered one of their major failings in professionalism. This can be traced to the mind-set that underlay their particular military identity, in which being an officer was only one of many aspects of aristocratic life. Officers who were aristocrats had other things they needed to be doing, such as tending to their estates and business interests, or spending time at court. In one incident in 1782, a number of colonels and jeunes gens présentés were delayed in returning to their regiments, as Marie Antoinette needed men of suitable rank for a ball she was giving in honour of Emperor Paul I of Russia.0
What to a modern professional mind-set would seem like a dereliction of duty, to an aristocratic officer would be simply the way things were done. The result was that aristocratic officers, at least those who were habitually absent, tended to neglect their duties, including the training of the troops. The Baron de Besenval found fault with this in a letter to the Minister of War in 1786:
Why, in a country where the officers are, so to speak, only like temporary sojourners in their regiments, since they only put in an appearance, why, I say, do we rely on such men for the instruction of the troops, and why do we give up the means for employing subjects who, by their talents and ambition, would ensure the success of so important an object?0
Another problem raised here is that Lafayette would have de jure been a member of his regiment between the ages of twelve and sixteen, between the years of 1769 and 1773. The problem of underage officers was also widespread in the British army at that time, an issue the Duke of York tried and for the most part succeeded in resolving in his reforms. Stories of nursery ensigns and schoolboy captains seem to have been as true of the French as they were of the British officer corps.
The highest-ranking nobles tended to start their sons in the myriad units that made up the Maison Militaire du Roi, most likely because of the social prestige involved and because the King had direct control over appointments, making the necessary influence-peddling much easier. Like most European armies at the time, the French army allowed the purchase of commissions, a colonelcy of an infantry regiment going for between twenty-five and seventy-five thousand livres, while a cavalry regiment could put a would-be colonel back by anything up to 120,000 livres. Officially only company and regimental commands could be purchased, but venality was essentially tolerated in other ranks.0 Serious inroads into venality would not be made until 1776, when the Comte de Saint-Germain, Louis XVI’s Minister of War at the time, instituted a policy of reducing all prices by one quarter at every sale, meaning that the price would be gone by the fourth sale. Venality was finally abolished in the infantry by the National Assembly in February of 1790, though it lingered in the cavalry.0
During the Revolutionary period, new ways had to be found to provide the armies of France with the officers they needed. Alexandre de Lameth argued before the military committee in 1790 for a compound system combining seniority for ranks up to that of captain, along with two thirds of lieutenant-colonels and colonels and half of generals, the rest being provided by Royal nomination. This was intended to defend against the tripartite evils of favouritism, patronage, and executive power.0 The committee’s debates would prove sterile, as the authority of the officer corps collapsed in the face of mutiny and social upheaval. In a wider sense the aristocratic officers represented both a political and a practical difficulty, the former in that they had taken personal oaths of loyalty to the King, the latter in that the said oaths, and other issues besides, were causing large numbers of them to resign their commissions and flee abroad. These émigrés were never quite the threat they were sometimes made out to be, at least outside France. The most immediate problem as far as the army was concerned was their increasing absence, meaning that new officers would have to be found to replace them. The émigrés were probably no great loss in themselves, for the Revolutionary army managed quite well without them. All the same, they had to be replaced, and quickly, if any kind of command structure was to be maintained.
The regular and volunteer armies each had their own way of solving the problem.
Among the regulars, the answer was to promote Non-Commissioned Officers as they had always done, except this time on a much larger scale. Six hundred infantry NCOs were promoted to the officer ranks in 1791 alone, and over two thousand in 1792 as the flow of emigrations became a torrent. Many of Napoleon’s most famous followers began their careers in this fashion, such as Joachim Murat, who rose to the rank of sub-lieutenant in 1791, before his involvement in the 13 Vendémiaire incident, which gained him Napoleon’s attention and began his rise to even greater heights. André Masséna, who would also acquire a Marshal’s baton, started as a private in the Royal Italian regiment and attained officer rank after returning to the army in 1791. By 1793 more than half of the regular army’s officers had been promoted from the ranks. By contrast, the preferred method in the volunteer army was to elect officers and NCOs. This practice broadly suited the new ideals of the Revolution, putting aside haughtiness and hierarchy in favour of fellowship and trust.
In the case of the volunteers of 1790 and 1791 there was a mitigating factor, in that no officer or NCO could be elected without previous experience in the army or the National Guard. This factor was of vital importance, ensuring that reasonably competent individuals would be chosen, and is proof of a degree of pragmatism in the War Ministry and government at the time.0 Many regulars actually deserted in order to take advantage of this policy, and significant numbers of regular officers were formally attached to volunteer battalions to ensure that they were properly trained and organised. Such was their importance that the Constituent Assembly added an exception on March 18th to its decree of January 24th 1792, allowing regular officers or NCOs serving as adjutants or sergeant-majors to remain with the volunteer units to which they had been attached until the end of the year. This was an extension to their decree of December 28 1791, which gave all line officers except lieutenant-colonels until April 1st to return to their regiments.0