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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As with recruitment and training, the disciplinary code of the French royal army was not much different to that of its pre-Napoleonic British counterpart, and for much the same reasons. Corporal punishment was prescribed for almost all offences, a feature in common with the Prussian army and possibly a result of Prussian influences. Officers had the authority to strike the men at will, usually with hands or canes, while more elaborate punishments included running the gauntlet, sitting astride the ‘wooden horse’, and even branding. More serious offences such as insubordination or assaulting an officer could be punished by life imprisonment or death. Curiously the most hated of all punishments was the Prussian practice of beating a soldier with the flat of a sword across the bottom, a punishment that harmed a soldier’s self-esteem more than it did his body. Introduced in 1776 by Saint-Germain, ironically as a means of limiting and legislating corporal punishment, beatings with the sword were regarded as symbolic of the ‘Prussianizing’ of the army, the imposition of foreign and unfamiliar ideas on people not suited to them.0 Desertion was the most common offence tried by formal procedures, eighty per cent of deserters were punished by running the gauntlet, and they also risked having their enlistment extended by eight years. The former punishment could be avoided if the deserter returned voluntarily, but the latter would still be applied.

One punishment not seen in the British army was that of being made a galley slave, as such vessels were still employed in the Mediterranean. A soldier might be sent to the galleys for multiple desertions or desertion while on guard duty, while any soldier convicted of stealing would be sent to the galleys for life. The use of the gauntlet, and the crimes for which it or the galleys might be applied, shows the same consideration for collective identity and duty thereof as existed in the British army and navy. Crimes against one’s comrades, or the regiment as a whole, were to be most severely punished. To desert or fall asleep while on guard duty was to put one’s comrades at risk, especially in wartime. Desertion for any reason, unless acceptable extenuating circumstances could be proven, represented a breach of faith with the collective. The old rule about not exposing one’s comrades, no matter what reward was offered or collective punishment threatened, applied as strongly in the French army as it did in any other. 0
In what should now be a clear pattern, the Revolution led to changes in the army’s approach to discipline and the manner in which it was to be carried out. However, its effect on the French army in practice in the early years of the Revolution remains a source of controversy. Much has been made of the tendency of the Jacobins, and their Representatives-on-mission, to undermine relations between officers and the enlisted ranks. But this took place in a time where French armies knew success and failure seemingly in equal measure. Jean-Paul Bertaud has challenged the image of the volunteers as lacking in discipline. In The Army of the French Revolution he draws attention to the murder of Theobald Dillon near Lille in April of 1792, which took place during a general rout. The first French unit to return during the rout was the 2nd battalion of volunteers, accompanied by the Esterhazy Hussars. Bertaud

quotes a Lieutenant Simon, an officer in a line unit, writing in the same year:

We have here several battalions of volunteers. They are much better

instructed and disciplined than our regiments; if they remain for a year they

will be excellent troops, and if the Nation understands its own interests it

will put them into regiments and keep them as long as it can.0

The Romantic ideals of the late eighteenth century prized freedom and what was seen as untamed nature over discipline and refinement.0 The new France was to be a people made up of citizens, and citizenship by its very nature implied both rights and responsibilities. One of these duties, at least in the case of male citizens, was to serve in the army. Citizens performing military service would therefore have their rights temporarily curtailed for the sake of military discipline. As military service was intended as a compulsory duty of citizenship, discipline would therefore have to be as fair and considerate as was practicable. This meant that new means of motivating and disciplining the men, practically a whole new ethos, would have to be found. This new ethos would be based on patriotism and a distinct sense of military obligation. Theobald ‘Wolfe’ Tone described this ideal in his memoirs, along with an example of how a soldier could be motivated by an affront, real or implied, to his personal integrity:
Would it have a good effect to explode corporal punishment altogether in

the Irish army, and substitute a discharge with infamy for great faults, and confinement and hard diet for lesser ones? I believe there is no corporal punishment in the French army, and I would wish to create a spirit in our soldiers, a high point of honour, like that of the French. When one of their Generals (Marshal Richelieu) was besieging a town, he was tormented with the drunkenness of his army. He gave out, in orders, that any soldier who was seen drunk should not be suffered to mount the assault, and there was not a man to be seen in liquor afterwards. Drunkenness then induced a suspicion of cowardice, which kept them effectually sober.0

That Tone mentions less palatable meals as a punishment suggests that food played a significant role in the maintenance of morale. Elzéar Blaze was inclined to agree, mentioning many times the importance of food in his account. In one particular incident late in the Russian campaign, when discipline all but collapsed, Blaze describes soldiers ignoring stricken treasury vans as there was no food available for purchase.0 This might have been due to a certain self-restraint on the part of the soldiers, but the mind-focussing effect of hunger, to the point where nothing matters beyond the acquisition of food, is a more likely explanation.
The process of reform began in 1790, with corporal punishment being replaced by additional duties and limited periods of confinement in more serious cases. This approach continued throughout the period. In the Imperial Guard, where discipline was intended to be considerably harsher than in the regular army, punishments could include confinement to the guard room or to barracks for minor offences, while more serious offences might be punished by solitary confinement, with repeat offenders suffering the worst punishment imaginable, that of being demoted to the regulars.0 One noteworthy innovation was the conseil de discipline, a development on the conseil de guerre of the pre-Revolutionary army. Made up of seven officers, its role was to provide oversight of all disciplinary measures made by officers, with the power to strike down or even extend a soldier’s punishment. A real sign of the change in ethos was that soldiers had the right to file complaints to the conseil about the conduct of their officers, something utterly unthinkable under the old regime. The new penal code unveiled on September 30th was, in contrast to this idealism, every bit as rigorous as that of the old army.
The death penalty was extended to any soldier who failed to take his post, abandoned it in the face of the enemy, fell asleep on guard in the face of the enemy, or gave information to the enemy. Desertion in wartime could be punished by anything from ten to twenty years imprisonment. Some matters, including pillage, were left to judgement of commanding generals. It should be borne in mind that these punishments applied to offences occurring in or near combat situations, when they might endanger the safety of the entire unit. Perhaps the most shocking, or to some more satisfying, aspect was that officers were to receive no exemptions. The penal code was further extended in 1793, with particular attention being given to the relationship between officers and enlisted men. Any officer who struck an enlisted man was to be stripped of his rank and imprisoned for three years, but this was balanced by it remaining a capital crime for an enlisted man to strike an officer.0 This willingness to maintain the authority of the officer corps stands in defiance of the widespread distrust of officers stemming from the emigrations, and is proof both of the government’s pragmatism and its understanding of the need for military hierarchy and discipline. Subjecting officers to a recognizable code of discipline would have been a significant contribution to the professionalization of the officer corps, as well as improving its standing in the eyes of the enlisted ranks.

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