WARFARE IN THE 18TH CENTURY was generally a precise, organized affair conducted by small, tightly disciplined professional armies, with the officer corps composed of aristocrats. The participation of the common people was not welcome. The French Revolution changed all that, proving to be as much a watershed in military affairs as it was in politics.
Enthusiastic volunteer French armies rose to defend their country against Britain, Prussia, Spain, and Austria. These monarchical nations were utterly hostile to the republican government that had recently executed King Louis XVI. Their armies encircled France, but the French won great victories against them in 1792. Yet by early 1793 the initial French success had given way to a difficult and dangerous time for the revolutionary forces, as factions formed and fell into violent disagreement about the future of the nation. The republican army sustained defeats at Neerwinden in March and at Valenciennes in May, and parts of France were overrun by foreign powers. Other areas were held by revolutionaries who were antagonistic to the National Convention government in Paris. The Vendée region in the west had risen up in a bloody revolt, and Marseilles, Bordeaux, Toulon, and Lyon had installed federalist governments of their own, in opposition to what was deemed the “dictatorship of Paris.”
“La patrie en danger!”—the fatherland in danger—roared the embattled Paris revolutionaries. In April 1793, amid an atmosphere of fear and panic, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to defend the nation. Unfortunately, the committee found that France’s regular army was not up to the task. The army was composed mainly of soldiers from the old royal force, and though skilled, they were few compared to the many enemies at the borders. That army had been supplemented by the national guard—essentially a very large militia whose volunteers had joined in the first rush of revolutionary enthusiasm—but the guardsmen had begun leaving and heading home as their enlistments ended. The strength of France’s opponents increased even as its own army shrank.
Conscription had been tried before but not very successfully. Now, one member of the Committee of Public Safety had an idea. Lazare Carnot had been a military engineer in the royal army and, realizing that France needed to raise a lot of soldiers quickly, he pushed for a law that was passed on August 23, 1793. Widely known as the levée en masse, it was aimed at involving the entire citizenry in the fight to safeguard the republic.
From this moment on, until the enemies have been chased from the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men will go to combat; married men will forge weapons and transport food; women will make tents and uniforms and will serve in the hospitals; children will make bandages from old linen; old men will present themselves at public places to excite the courage of the warriors, to preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.
The goal was to raise a large national army by conscription, an unprecedented idea in Europe. Like the legionaries of the Roman Republic, the citizens of France were to present themselves for immediate service in the army. The call-up extended to all men ages 18 to 25. The early intake of recruits in late 1793 was about 300,000; by September 1794, the levée en masse had brought 1,169,000 men into the army, making it the largest in European history.
TO BRING THE DRAFTEES UP TO PAR with the regular soldiers, they were formed into amalgame, or combined units consisting of one regular battalion and two battalions of the newly recruited men. The conscripts were treated no differently from the more experienced soldiers and were provided with the same uniforms, equipment, and pay. The result was a genuine army of citizen-soldiers that was both enormous and possessed of a sense of purpose far exceeding that of the hired soldiers of France’s enemies.
It was a young army, too: By 1794 nearly four-fifths of the men were under 25. What they lacked in military skills, they made up for in youthful vigor and patriotism. As the Austrian ambassador to France explained unhappily to his government, even though the new French army was “badly organized and led” and “poorly drilled and undisciplined,” it could “resist the best armies in Europe.”
Not only did the levée en masse provide France with more men under arms, it also changed how the army could fight. With so many soldiers, the French could afford more battles more often and could lose more men than could their enemies. Tactically, a surplus of soldiers allowed the French to deploy skirmishing light infantry wholeheartedly, whereas in older-style armies, skirmishers had not been trusted fully: Since they were meant to operate independently, they had ample opportunity to desert. But citizen-soldiers changed that, because their belief in the national cause brought its own discipline.
The Committee of Public Safety had seen the levée en masse as a temporary solution to the threats that France faced during the dark days of 1793, and when the republic’s foreign enemies were turned back by this gigantic army, the citizen-soldier armies were succeeded by more professional forces. Yet the requisition law of 1793 achieved something extraordinary. By bringing together so many men, it not only forged a national army for France, it also conceived the very idea of a nation in arms. The mass mobilization of an entire country for war, which would become a hallmark of the national combatants of the world wars of the 20th century, had been born. MHQ
MARC G. DESANTIS, an attorney, is a frequent contributor to MHQ. His upcoming book, Rome Seizes the Trident, will be published by Pen & Sword.
PHOTO: French revolutionary infantry and color guard under attack during the Battle of Verona in 1805. Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection/Brown University Library
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Laws of War: Massing for La République.
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