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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Tied in very closely to discipline and unit identity is the issue of the relationships between officers and enlisted men. This relationship can be regarded as essentially unequal, since while both officers and men were subject to discipline, the officers were tasked with organising and applying it, even if they did not do so physically. Despite this, there is little evidence of mutual antagonism between officers and men in the British army, at least not in any form that would imperil its ability to function in combat. Officers and men were bound together by a shared situation, as well as the shared collective that was the regiment. Each was also a distinct sub-division of that collective, with its own culture, ideals, and expectations, both of itself and of the other. In the British army an officer was meant to be a ‘gentleman’, a term which will be examined in greater depth in the political segment. Enlisted men expected gentlemanly behaviour from their officers, which they associated with certain virtues, giving obedience and loyalty in return.

The regiment was the army’s representative to the ordinary soldier, the means by which he accessed military identity and made himself a part of it. It became a soldier’s home and community during his time in the army, an identifiable collective of which he could make himself a part. Around eighty per cent of enlisted men would remain within the same regiment throughout the war, transfers largely being the result of amalgamations of under-strength units. This is in contrast with the officers, who socialized across regimental boundaries with fellow officers they regarded as social equals.0 Because of this, it is through the regiment as an institution that the relationship between officers and enlisted men can be most effectively examined. This relationship was driven to a considerable extent by a sense of mutual ownership, that even though officers and men came from what were regarded as different orders of humanity, the regiment was a shared enterprise in which both had a stake. This common interest gave them a shared context in which to develop a shared identity, though one in which they played very different roles.
Though officers and men alike were drawn from broad social backgrounds, as shall be shown in later chapters, once in their military roles they were very much set apart. Officers held themselves, and were held by their men in turn, to a certain set of values. Private Wheeler makes much of the ‘humanity’ of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mainwaring of the 51st light infantry regiment, with particular reference to his aversion to flogging.0 Rifleman Harris makes a very particular claim regarding the preferences of soldiers;
Nay, whatever folks may say upon the matter, I know from experience, that in our army the men like best to be officered by gentlemen, men whose education has rendered them more kind in manners than your coarse officer, sprung from obscure origin, and whose style is brutal and overbearing.0
In light of accusations of obsequiousness, this extract warrants a brief analysis. Harris relates in this case what, in his experience, soldiers liked to see in an officer. If one reads between the lines, this can also be taken as a tacit implication of how soldiers would regard an officer who would or could not live up to this ideal. Such an approach would give the line about an officer’s life being saved a chilling undertone. Though the Rifles took a somewhat less standoffish approach to the relationship between officers and enlisted men, the underlying social divide remained, meaning that this account can to some extent be considered representative of the wider army. Harris’ claim regarding a preference for ‘gentlemen’ as officers can be qualified by bearing in mind his reference to their apparent kindness, a quality similarly valued by Private Wheeler. On the surface this can be interpreted as soldiers having internalized the view, common among the better-off, that the lower orders had been rendered brutal and crude by their poverty and illiteracy.0 Harris counters this idea of the self-hating soldier later in his account:
They are a strange set, the English! and so determined and unconquerable, that they will have their way if they can. Indeed, it requires one who has authority in his face, as well as at his back, to make them respect and obey him. They see too often, in the instance of sergeant-majors, that command does not suit ignorant and coarse-minded men; and tyranny is too much used even in the brief authority which they have. A soldier, I am convinced, is driven often to insubordination by being worried by these little-minded men for the veriest trifles, about which the gentleman never thinks of tormenting him.0

For an officer to be a ‘gentleman’ in this case evidently meant an officer possessing an appearance and mind-set that would attract respect, as well as understanding how to act appropriately in their positions. Overall it can be taken that ordinary soldiers expected that their officers be good at their jobs in a professional sense on the one hand, and to be considerate of their needs and situation on the other. In terms of discipline this must have been quite tricky for the officers, needing to balance the soldiers’ desire to be protected with their desire for fair and just treatment. Based on these accounts, the existence of these qualities in officers could lead the enlisted men to trust them, a particularly important factor in the development of a professional mind-set and identity.

Chapter 2: Professional Identities in the French Army

The French army as it existed before the French Revolution was little different in terms of its structure from its British counterpart at the time. Units such as a compagnie, bataillon or regiment are easily recognized, as are ranks such as colonel, capitaine, and lieutenant. This similarity derives from a shared western European military culture that can, by one standard of evidence or another, be traced as far back as the Roman Empire, or at least as far as the Franks under Charlemagne. The omnipresence of Roman literature means that a Roman influence cannot be ruled out. The largely common-sense advice of Vegetius in Epitome Rei Militari remained an object of military study as late as 1779, as seen in the Comte de Crisse’s Commentaires sur les institutions militaires de Végèce:

It is known at the time of the decadence of the discipline of the empire, that Vegetius wrote his book. He collected what he found most precious in the writings of the ancient Roman military discipline, and he formed a case of history, since the first hours of the Republic, up to him, so that those who were loads of training young people, could restore the militia by the example and the imitation of the ancient virtues. Vegetius compared that discipline that had been in the former times, and that which he knew since. Its past triumphs, and the current defects, were equally clear. He followed (as much as the little relief he had permitted him) to examine each and the others in all parts of the military science.0

French military organisation in the eighteenth century can be more credibly traced to the Renaissance, itself a transitional period between the feudal age and the era of horse and musket. During that period French armies were organised in much the same fashion as described in the previous chapter, of individual companies organised into regiments and disbanded at the end of a given war. When Louis XIII rebuilt the French army in the first half of the seventeenth century, its organisation came to be based around the regiment as an institution, much as the English and later British armies would towards the end of the century. In response to the internecine strife of the French Wars of Religion, the crown had maintained infantry companies in their regiments since 1569, as opposed to dissolving them once the actual fighting was over. In 1628, the decision was taken to keep the twelve oldest regiments in existence permanently, the new practice being to reduce the number of men and active companies in peacetime rather than to disband completely.0

The regular army in seventeenth and eighteenth century France was essentially professional, at least among the enlisted ranks. As will be shown in the relevant sections later, enlisted men tended to serve for periods of many years, meaning that the regiments provided the same conditions as their British counterparts for the development of professional identities, namely an extended period in a shared environment. French officers came to the army by different means and for different reasons, but it can nonetheless be argued that they had a professional identity, the duties and occupations of a soldier being an integral part of that self-image and social role. To be a noble was to be a soldier, but whereas an enlisted soldier was a soldier and nothing else, at least until he left the army, an aristocratic officer was an aristocrat in peacetime and a soldier while he was with the army, which in practice meant on campaign or whenever his sense of responsibility drove him to perform his duties. To modern eyes aristocratic French officers are an anachronism, a throwback to an older chivalric age. It is ironic, therefore, that the military ideals of the French Revolution would seek to apply a similarly compound identity to the whole of the male population.
Just as an aristocratic officer adopted his military role at the start of a war and set it aside at the end, so it was intended that all French men of a certain age and suitably healthy bodies would do likewise. Throughout the First Republic the Ministry of War held to the ideal of a citizen army, in which every eligible citizen would serve for the extent of a given war. This ideal was based on the armies of the Roman Republic before the Marian Reforms, in which citizens of means would serve as the famous legionaries, while those possessed of horses would provide the cavalry, and the less well-off would act as light infantry; a system itself derived of the Hoplite system practiced by the Greek city-states. A more dramatic example of Roman citizenship triumphing in battle came from the story of the Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who famously left his humble farm to serve as Dictator when Rome was threatened with invasion. Once in Rome he called up every man of military age, led them to victory at the Battle of Mons Algidus, only to disband his army and return to his farm once the danger was passed.
This argument, between those who favoured a full-time professional army and those who favoured a temporary militia, had by the Revolution been dragging on for over a century, and was not confined to France. The argument had also been made in Britain, and for much the same reasons. A professional army was a twofold threat, at once a tool of despotism, and also a source of crime and social disorder. A comment made by Lazare Carnot to the Military Committee of the French National Convention illustrates this:
It is absolutely necessary in a free land that every citizen be a soldier or that no one be a soldier. But France surrounded by ambitious and warlike nations can obviously not give up its armed forces; it is therefore necessary, following the expression of J.J Rousseau, that each citizen should be a soldier by duty, and none by profession.0
Carnot, perhaps inadvertently, reveals the dilemma faced by the Republic in matters military. A standing army is a potential threat to liberty, as evidenced by the example of Julius Caesar, and more recently of Oliver Cromwell. But all the same the country must be defended. Carnot in this case is stating that there must exist a citizen army in accordance with the Cincinnatian ideal as opposed to there being no army at all. Apparently without meaning to, he nonetheless raises the underlying problem with the Cincinnatian ideal, that as a military system it is highly impractical. Just as it was with feudal and renaissance armies before Louis XIII, any Cincinnatian army would have to be created from scratch at the beginning of every war. As it happens the Republic eventually found this ideal to be unworkable, and whether by desire or necessity ended up creating what amounted to a standing professional army, though it would take Consular and Imperial rule under Napoleon to bring this process about fully. This chapter aims to examine the practicalities of the creation and maintenance of the French army in this period, covering such aspects as recruitment and training, and in so doing examine how French professional identities changed and developed.

Recruitment of Enlisted Men

The former Royal army, which shall be referred to as the regular army in the context of the Revolution, recruited in a broadly similar fashion to its British counterpart. Individual regiments sent out recruiting parties led by officers, in a practice known as racolage. This duty was usually given to officers who had been raised from the ranks, a practice with two possible explanations. One is that the duty of recruitment was looked down upon, and considered fit only for officers of lower status. The other is that officers raised from the ranks were thought to be better suited to recruiting, perhaps because their backgrounds allowed them to understand better the civilian population among which they would be working, and that they themselves were living proof of the possibilities offered by army life. That officers of all backgrounds were expected to return from their semestre, or paid leave amounting to seven and a half months every two years, with at least two recruits implies that recruiting was not considered in any way déclassé. Like their British counterparts, French recruiters were not above getting recruits drunk, or lying about the regiments they represented. Some would even recruit wealthy-looking young men by one means or another, then ransom them back to their families. Despite a royal ordinance of 1701 it was not unknown for recruiters to resort to outright kidnapping, though the object was as likely to be the acquisition of ransom money as actual recruits. Understandably, recruiting parties were rarely welcomed in the localities where they attempted to operate, and might even face violent resistance.0
. As part of reforms carried out by the Duc de Choiseul in December of 1762, responsibility for recruitment was transferred to professional recruiters, or racoleurs, working directly for the crown.0 These were paid a bounty varying in accordance with demand for and availability of recruits, as well as their physical condition and suitability. The equivalent in the British army were the crimps, who like the racoleurs were civilians employed by officers.0 That this was considered necessary suggests that the aforementioned measures were not entirely effective on their own, and that army recruitment before the Revolution was in a difficult state. The official strength of the line infantry was one hundred and sixteen thousand men, but the actual numbers fell short by between four and five thousand.0 In the decade of 1780 to 1790 the desertion rate was approximately three thousand per year.0
Nevertheless it was evidently not overwhelming, as the army successfully incorporated twelve new light infantry battalions in 1788, and infantry regiments on average managed to maintain their strength at over one thousand one hundred men, out of a required one thousand one hundred and fifty, by the end of 1788. It is worth noting that the branch most troubled by low strength was the artillery, generally being under strength by around five hundred men out of a required one thousand four hundred and twenty.0 These comparatively severe shortages can be explained by the relatively high level of education and competence required by a technical service, in a time when education, though gradually expanding, was still hard to come by.
The Revolution, and the wars that accompanied it, led to dramatic changes. The initial policy of the Ministry of War, and of the government, was that France’s armies were no longer to be made up of long-service regulars, but of volunteers serving only for the duration of a given conflict. It was by this means that Revolutionary France’s ‘other’ army, for these purposes referred to as the volunteer army, was raised. The first call went out in the summer of 1791, acquiring around a hundred thousand new soldiers in one hundred and sixty nine new battalions.0 More volunteers were called up in 1792, though the requirements were vastly exceeded. John Lynn puts the number of new battalions at two hundred and seventy-five, as opposed to the forty-two required, which at a full strength of eight hundred men per battalion would make for around two hundred and twenty thousand men as opposed to thirty-three thousand.0 One of these was a young gardener, formerly in the employment of the Seigneur of Juzennecourt, by the name of Jacques Fricasse. He describes the process:
At this time the citizen Quilliard commanded the National Guard of

the township; he gave order that all commons gather in the capital on

August 24, 1792. In the morning, he said:

“You know the work that I have to fill out: we need several volunteers;

those who want to leave my service are free to do so. If, however, there are not enough volunteers, all fathers and boys will be forced to draw lots. If it is not your intention to leave, hey well my friends, I will do everything in my power to make it up to you by sending others in your place.”

We were therefore in the city where all the villages of the canton were assembled. First, there were few volunteers; there was a time in the afternoon when several companies of the National Guard, composed of sixty men, had not yet provided the men that he needed. Among that number was mine, and I had long been filled with a desire to serve. How many times had I heard, in the papers, the news that our French army had been pushed and beaten everywhere! I was impatient to see for myself things that I found quite impossible to believe. You say that it was innocence that made me think so, but I often thought to myself: “Is it therefore possible that I heard of misfortunes? Yes! It seemed to me that, if I had been present, the evil would not have been so great. I did not feel I would be a better soldier than my comrades, but I felt courage and I thought that, with courage, one can overcome many things.”0

The regular army actually managed to expand in this period, the line infantry acquiring around thirty-five thousand recruits in 1791 alone, despite having been forbidden in the January 24th decree to recruit from the volunteers. Aside from three new line regiments, made up originally of Parisian National Guards, the line infantry gained around fourteen thousand new soldiers in 1791 after losses. The light infantry also increased in that year, gaining two new battalions. 0 These developments debunk any suggestion that the regular army was a politically distrusted and rejected institution, doubts regarding its aristocratic officers aside. It also provides a limited insight into the motivations of its recruits. The desire to defend France, though important, cannot have been the sole motivation, or else the recruits might just as easily have joined the volunteers, their term of service being limited by a Constituent Assembly decree of December 28th 1791 that every volunteer was free to go home at campaign’s end, which was set at December 1st 1792.0
By contrast, soldiers of the regular army enlisted in engagements of eight years, with rewards of additional pay and promotion for re-enlisting.0 It is possible that some would-be soldiers chose the certainty of a regular enlistment over the uncertainty inherent in volunteering, for they could not know whether or not they would be released before the war’s end, or how long the war would persist. That the army continued to recruit successfully through 1792, gaining between twenty and twenty-five thousand men after losses and the disbandment of the Swiss and Liegeois regiments, is further evidence that recruits were not put off by long service. A better explanation is the improvements made to the conditions of service, such as the 1791 decree that soldiers who served honourably for sixteen years would receive the status of active citizenship regardless of how much tax they paid. This would have represented a major improvement in the social status of soldiers, but its importance should not be overstated, as the distinction between active and passive citizens was abolished in 1792.
Those called up under the law of January 25th 1792 had the option of enlisting in the regular army in return for a bounty of eighty livres for the infantry and one hundred and twenty livres for the cavalry and artillery. Crucially, the term of service was reduced from eight to three years, or possibly less depending on the military situation. A further decree of July of that year set formal recruitment quotas for each department, marking the beginning of a policy of conscription.0 That the regular army was permitted to take advantage of this nationwide recruitment drive strongly implies that it was valued by the War Ministry and the government. The most significant change in recruitment policy came in February of 1793, with a formal requisition of three hundred thousand unmarried and childless citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty, the numbers to be made up as local authorities saw fit.0 In that same month, the process of amalgamation was begun, combining the regular and volunteer armies as one.
So successful was the levée en masse, raising total French manpower to around three quarters of a million, that no more large-scale recruiting was carried out until early of 1799, by which time numbers had dropped to just over three hundred and twenty-five thousand. The levee had almost certainly been intended as a one-off, a harsh solution to a long-standing but hopefully temporary problem. With the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition in the summer of 1798, the problem was proving itself to be indefinite, if not permanent. The answer to this crisis lay in a system of formal conscription set down in the Loi Jourdan of 1798. Named after General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, who was its author, the Jourdan law represents Napoleonic conscription as it is generally understood, with the male population between the ages of twenty and twenty-five being liable for service. These were divided into classes by age, with recruitment focussing on the first class, or those reaching the age of twenty on the first day of Vendémiaire, or the twenty-second of September.0 One of those to be recruited in this fashion was Jean-Roch Coignet, who was called up in the summer of 1799, aged twenty-three;
On the sixth Fructidor, year VII, two gendarmes came and left me with a

way-bill and an order to start for Fontainebleau on the tenth of Fructidor. I

immediately made preparations for my departure. They (my master and

mistress) wished to hire a substitute. I thanked them with tears in my eyes.

“I promise you that I shall bring back a silver gun, or die.”0
The silver gun he refers to is most likely part of a Roman-style system of rewards created for soldiers, known as ‘arms of honour.’0 Coignet’s description mingles sorrow at his departure with apparent acceptance, as he makes no mention of not wanting to go. Considering the itinerant and by no means easy life he had known before settling with his benefactors, he may well have seen his term of service as an opportunity for adventure and self-aggrandizement. The ample evidence of affection and gratitude towards his benefactors can be taken as a reminder that a desire to rise in the world does not make one heartless. Coignet’s military service would continue right through the war, up to and including the Hundred Days. Though it would not be the grande armée until 1805, the new army nonetheless existed as a broadly continuous institution at least until the short-lived Bourbon restoration of 1814, allowing for the development of a single identity.

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