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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Much has been made of the social and ideological differences between Britain and France in the period running from the final decade of the eighteenth century to the first two decades of the nineteenth century, but the story of their armies was as much one of shared experience as it was of difference. While Britain was not entirely immune to political and social change in this period, it was insignificant when compared to what France experienced. That the British army changed so little in terms of its structure and ethos made it a useful point of comparison, a ‘control’ of sorts, with the French army as it developed over twenty-five years. It was inevitable that the wider social and political changes of the French Revolution would affect the identity of the French army, leading as they did to a massive change in the composition of the army’s manpower. But far from presaging the creation of a completely new Cincinnatian identity, the self-image of the French soldier gradually developed into something not so different from that of his British counterpart. To some of those looking back over subsequent centuries, this must have represented a tragic ideological failure, but it would be quite false to imply that developments in France under the Directory and later under the Consulate and Empire represented a wholesale reversal of the Revolution.

Napoleon may have ruled as a crowned head, with every apparent intention of establishing a dynasty to follow him, but the power structure he created was based on personal merit to an extent that would have been inconceivable in France under the Old Regime. His carefully delineated system of aristocratic titles and privileges were awarded entirely on this basis, in a system that was widely copied in later years and is reflected to some degree in the modern British honours system. But if Napoleon entrenched meritocracy as an ethos and ideal in the French army, then he was only doing what had been a long-standing wish in both the French and the British armies. The Cincinnatian ideal failed because it was ultimately impractical, and it was similarly for practical reasons that both armies attempted to reform themselves on meritocratic and professional lines in the last decades of the eighteenth century. The failure of the French army to reform itself coincided with the Revolution, which had the effect of removing those elements that resisted change and empowering those who sought it. Similarly, the pressures of war gave the British army no choice but to reform itself, though it was able to do so for the most part within its existing structures. What this study has shown is that both armies came by degrees to a broadly similar ideal of professionalism, albeit one that did not necessarily reflect practical realities at all times and in all places.
The first and second chapters, covering professional military identities on both sides, have revealed both commonalities and contrasts. It has been shown that both armies were rooted in the same military culture, and used broadly the same organisational system. Recruitment and training methods were largely identical, at least before the Revolution, as was military life in general. The explanations for these extensive similarities are essentially practical. Increasing interaction between European social and educated elites led to the development of a shared pool of ideas and concepts on which military officers and organizers could draw. An equally if not more significant factor in the development of European armies was regular engagement in warfare. For much of Europe’s history large-scale wars have taken place within a generation of one another, providing ample opportunity for military systems and traditions to be tested in battle.
The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods saw massive expansions in intellectual dialogue across national borders, serving to accelerate and consolidate this process of development by ensuring that both past experience and the ‘state of play’ were more widely available. The development of the regiment as an institution is an example of this, though it also illustrates another aspect of the development of British and French military identity and organisation, that the driving factor in initiating change was often practical necessity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both armies developed a habit of permanently maintaining companies in regiments, as opposed to disbanding them between wars, as the maintenance of a standing army moved from an unattainable ideal to become both a political imperative and an economic and organisational possibility. The companies thus spent so long in their given regiments that the regiments themselves became shared realities for the soldiers, allowing them to develop institutional identities in their own right. The new regimental system proved sufficiently robust to survive subsequent wars, and would change relatively little throughout the eighteenth century.
The divergence of identity took place in the Revolution itself, though certain nuances have been revealed. Far from being despised and marginalized, the former Royal army continued to exist, worked extensively in cooperation with the volunteer army, and was even expanded. Named regiments were replaced with numbered battalions, removing the existing labels but leaving the essential dynamics of unit identity intact. The amalgamation of the volunteer and regular armies and their organization in demi-brigades was an essentially pragmatic approach to the problem of maximizing combat capabilities while maintaining political reliability. The aristocratic aspect of French military identity was for a time removed, as thousands of aristocratic officers fled into exile, and it was deliberately overlaid with new ideals based on equality and citizenship. The biggest change in terms of organisation lay in recruitment, with the voluntary approach of the regular and volunteer armies replaced with a series of large-scale levies, which in time evolved into a formal system of conscription. This was in keeping with the new ideals of citizenship, specifically the principle that it was the duty of every male citizen to fight for the nation if called upon to do so.
Though the ideals surrounding the levies proved unachievable in practice, desertion and draft-dodging being commonplace, the conscription system by annual classes nonetheless proved robust, providing millions of recruits through the course of the wars. The British army, despite its similarities to the former French Royal army, did not change to anything like the same extent except in size. The British officer corps was not aristocratic to anything like the same extent as its French counterpart, drawing primarily on the loosely defined ‘gentry’ for recruits. The British army’s record of relative success, in contrast to France’s humiliation in the Seven Years War, meant that pressure for military reform was not so strong. The establishment of minimum terms of service at given ranks was particularly significant, for it allowed young officers to serve an apprenticeship of sorts at the lower officer ranks, thus making up for the lack of formal training. It is rather poignant that the Duke of York tightened up this system as part of his reform programme, just in time to help create an officer corps capable of standing up to Napoleonic meritocracy.
It is after the Jacobin phase of the Revolution, during the Directory and under Napoleon, that the identities of British and French soldiers are seen to re-converge along professional lines. The British army for its own part retained its professional identity, and even strengthened it through reforms that improved the professionalism of the gentleman officers, and also through the promotion of men from the ranks, a gesture to pragmatism in the face of combat. The French army similarly developed a professional identity, but once again came at the issue from a different direction. Years of near-constant warfare made the Cincinnatian ideal of temporary military service impossible to achieve, with the consequence that soldiers on the whole remained embodied for extended periods. The result of this was the development of a distinct military identity, which was increasingly professional at the institutional level.
This was made most apparent in the training of officers. While French officers were raised primarily from among the NCOs, and British officers tended to come from the gentry, both sets of officers were trained for their roles primarily through the apprenticeship of rising through the ranks, the only difference being that British officers started higher up the ladder than their French counterparts. The British army’s success rate in the Napoleonic wars can be taken as proof that this approach worked well enough, despite being undermined by purchase. Both sides also established military academies to provide prospective officers with formal training, and a graduate of the École Spéciale Militaire provides an insight into the mindset of Napoleon’s officers. According to Elzéar Blaze, soldiers endured the discipline and privation of army life simply for a chance to get ahead in the world.

The third and fourth chapters have also shown commonality, contrast, and a re-convergence in political identities and attitudes. It is in the political context that the greatest contrast between British and French societies can be perceived, though once again the story is of relative continuity in the former case and massive change in the latter. Both were hierarchical and undemocratic by modern standards, both dominated by broad though not entirely inaccessible ruling elites, in the form of the British gentry and the French noblesse. Both societies were faced with the growing importance of commerce, as prosperous merchants purchased lands and even titles, aspiring to the status of aristocracy, and in both societies they were able to do so. For the most part, the officers and enlisted men of both armies were drawn from the same levels and factions of their respective societies.

The difference in this context lay in the social origins of the officers, with the British drawing their officers from the lower aristocracy with little or no restriction. The French army, by contrast, was drawn into internecine squabbles as a aristocrats sought to monopolize all officer commissions for themselves, gradually forcing out the French equivalent of the British gentry. The increasing domination of the officer corps by the values and interests of a single aristocratic faction served to sabotage the reforms that, ironically enough, some of them sought to bring about. Many aristocratic officers wished to improve and professionalise the officer corps, but tied themselves in knots trying to do so without altering the culture and lifestyle to which they themselves adhered, and which they considered a vital and necessary basis for their military ethos. As a result, would-be officers who found themselves excluded or trapped in lower ranks turned to the Revolution in the hope of achieving their object.

One substantial if nuanced difference between the two armies was their attitudes to the political situation. Many NCOs of the French Royal army, who were as literate as their British counterparts, took an interest in Revolutionary politics. Many would in turn find themselves promoted, a desire that under the old system had been frustrated, in order to fill the shoes of emigrating aristocratic officers. The result was that the regular army was at least as politicized as the volunteers. Both armies, before and after amalgamation, were subjected to a widespread programme of ideological re-education by which the new government sought to inculcate the ideals of liberty, equality, and citizenship.

In contrast the British soldiers of the period appear to have focussed their loyalty on the King, the army, and the country as a whole. Officers regarded themselves as apolitical defenders of the status quo, which could mean defending the crown from the ambitions of the political elite. Ordinary soldiers meanwhile showed themselves to be unimpressed by radical politics. The British army’s attitude stands in sharp contrast to that of the French army, which found itself faced with a very difficult question; to whom should it be loyal? Should they be loyal to the King? Or to his ministers? Or to the National Assembly, which ostensibly acted in the name of the King? The French line army held together under circumstances where it could have been forgiven for fracturing or simply ceasing to function, while the new volunteer army served honourably, and both were successfully amalgamated. Even without the bulk of its pre-Revolutionary officer corps, the French army proved itself at least as resilient as its British counterpart, and able to adapt to new circumstances.
Considering the essential similarities between the two armies, the question invariably arises as to why the British army did not become seriously mutinous in the period, in contrast even to the Royal Navy. The fall of the Bastille was initiated by Parisian civilians, later supported by sympathetic Gardes Francaises. In sharp contrast, British troops were more than willing to gun down anti-Catholic rioters during the Gordon Riots a decade earlier. It cannot be argued that the British soldiers were brainwashed automatons or ignorant dupes, for the British army had its fair share of literate NCOs and soldiers, while British society on the whole was initially supportive of the Revolution. It can be argued that French aggression removed the possibility of a copycat British Revolution because of the human tendency to pull together in the face of an outside threat. This was certainly the case later, once Napoleon had emerged as a credible tyrant figure in the popular mindset, but it does not cover the earlier period when French Revolutionary politics still had some credibility. The only apparent explanation is that British soldiers simply did not feel as aggrieved as their French counterparts. If not enthusiastically loyal to King George III, they evidently did not see him or the system he represented as so much of a problem as to warrant removal. At a more personal level, British soldiers simply did not see Revolution as a worthwhile solution to their problems. The Duke of York’s reforms, which led to noticeable improvements in their living conditions, almost certainly encouraged this attitude.
The evidence of chapters five and six reflect a similar pattern. The Scottish Highlanders and the Irish are similar in the context of their relationship with the organisations in which they found themselves operating as soldiers. Both were essentially outsiders, a part of the body politic in the legal sense but nonetheless separated in ways not easily defined. Both derived from specific geographical areas, namely the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, and held to distinctive cultures and identities. Both were drawn upon by the British and French armies, both of them in the British case, for essentially practical reasons. Of these, the primary reason was the simple fact that they were available in useful numbers. A contrast nonetheless arises as to the means by which they were acquired. The Highlands were regarded as a full and formal part of the United Kingdom, meaning that Highlanders were recruited in a manner not much different to how their English and lowland Scottish counterparts were recruited.
Ireland was similarly considered a part of Great Britain, and the tripartite monarchy of England, Scotland, and Ireland that preceded it, meaning that those Irish who wished to fight for France made themselves exiles in so doing. The exception to this was the exchange of French soldiers and Irish recruits between James II and Louis XVI in 1690, which can be regarded as a legal transaction between sovereigns. The bulk of the Irish in French service arrived shortly afterwards as the army-in-exile of James II, an influx that helped to maintain the Irish character of the Irish brigade with the dissolution of the army-in-exile and the gradual drying-up of the flow of exiles. Despite this difference, the Irish soldiers were able to join the French body politic by the traditional means of swearing allegiance to the person of the King, as well as through inter-marriage.
The second major reason as identified in these chapters was that both the Highlanders and the Irish were as willing as they were available. The Highlanders had a certain cultural predisposition towards the military life, though this was highly exaggerated both at the time and in centuries since. The basis for the idea of the Highlander as a natural warrior comes from a history of internecine warfare between the Highland clans, a feature hardly unique and traceable to any number of historical causes. But even if the basis of the myth of the Highland warrior is hard to substantiate, it cannot be denied that large numbers of Scottish Highlanders saw fit to become soldiers, whether in the army of Scotland, or of Great Britain, or any other. That their chiefs might order or coerce them to do so is not sufficient as an explanation, for the powers of Highland chiefs over their clansmen were in practice little different to those held by English or Irish landowners over their own tenants.
Despite a common cultural background, the Irish did not undergo the same internecine conflict as the Highlanders, for the most part due to tighter central control by Anglo-Irish authorities from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In spite of this, the Irish proved just as willing to become soldiers, whether in the British army in or those of Britain’s Catholic neighbours. The most likely explanation for the willingness of the Highlanders and the Irish to become soldiers, despite their outsider status, boils down to a desire to escape from poverty. As for how these groups could have developed a reputation for military prowess, or at least sufficient competence to make them worth recruiting, the simple answer is that they kept on winning. As with Napoleon’s own career, a sufficiently consistent run of victories allowed for setbacks to be ignored and a myth to develop.
Despite these similarities in circumstance and motivation, certain contrasts have also been identified. The Highlanders were more distinctive in their appearance than the Irish, due to the part-imposed and part-accepted custom of wearing one version or another of Highland dress. This tendency almost certainly contributed to the mythology that surrounds Highland culture in the civil and military contexts to this day. The Irish were considerably less noticeable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Soldiers of both the Irish Brigade and the Irish Legion wore uniforms little different to those of their French comrades, save in colour, though the symbols they employed were distinctive. The Irish Brigade fought as line infantry, much as the Highlanders in British service did, while the Irish Legion began its life as a cadre of officers meant to organise Irish recruits in the event of a French landing in Ireland. When this landing failed to materialize, the Irish Legion was converted into a line regiment and used as such until its effective destruction in 1814. Once again, what might seem to have been an ideological project was essentially pragmatic, its primary role in Napoleon’s eyes being to serve his military purposes. If it could help pull off an invasion of Ireland and thus weaken Britain, then he would create and support it. If such an invasion was not practical, then he would put it to other uses, regardless of the feelings of its members.
This study has shown a pattern of practical reform motivated by a pragmatic desire to improve the performance of both armies in warfare, both in and out of combat. It has also shown a parallel development of military identity, with the British army broadly continuing on its previous course, while the French army diverged then re-converged. The French developed a new military identity remarkable similar to that of the British, in spite of social and political changes that altered beyond recognition the social character of its manpower. The similarities of Anglo-French military culture were deep-rooted indeed, allowing for the survival of a wider pan-European military community. At the same time it must be recognized that despite developing a similar psychological approach to military life as their British counterparts, French soldiers were not in any way immune to the effects of the Revolution. They absorbed the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as wholeheartedly as any other segment of the French population, and yet this did not prevent them from dealing with military life, and from having much the same expectations of their leaders and of one-another, as the British soldiers they fought so many times. In short, the two armies can be characterised as much by their similarities as by their differences; the products of shared experience and shared culture.

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