The French Revolutionary Armies

Posted: January 27, 2013 in Uncategorized
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[This is a college essay of mine on the army of revolutionary France in 1793-4, the radical Jacobin period of the revolution. It didn’t get the best marks but I was quite happy with it.]

How and why was the French army revolutionised alongside the state in the first two years of the Republic?


Maurice Comte de Montgaillard, an émigré aristocrat, returned to France from England in 1793-4 to secure the fortune he had left behind. On returning to London, he wrote about his experiences in revolutionary France in wartime. Mixed in with his expressions of fear and hatred at the actions of the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety there runs a certain sense of awe at the scale of the war effort:

Requisitions, this new type of despotism, which are applied for one use only, that of defence, [apply to] all necessities, all men and all the resources of society; requisitions, after having turned the countryside and the towns upside-down, and provoked rebellions everywhere, have impressed a terror which no-one can resist.

Such were the capabilities of the revolutionary government at war. Montgaillard continues with a statistic which must itself have impressed terror on conservative readers, even though it was exaggerated: “Eight hundred and fifty thousand effective men fight under their orders.”[1] This was a vast military machine with a state to back it up that could, it seemed, reach into every town and village and take what it needed for the war effort, suppressing all rebellion through sheer terror. The revolutionary army, like the revolution itself, was something new, awesome and terrible in the eyes of its enemies.

This essay will not get ahead of itself into Napoleonic history except where necessary, or into the very significant changes brought about by the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies, but will confine itself for the most part to the time of the Republic. This is not to deny the importance of any other period or event, for instance the call for volunteers in 1791. However, the period 1793-4, in which the revolution was at its most radical, imparted awesome power to the French army. The army was an expression of the state it served- a state that had been transformed by mass popular political activity. It was backed up by a new ideology and new realities that mutually reinforced each other. This stands opposed to the view that Republican ideology was forced unsuccessfully upon an unyielding reality. In fact, revolutionary institutions and ideology were far better suited to the conduct of a war than were those of the ancien regime.

François d’Ivernois, the Geneva economist and opponent of the Republic, was much more optimistic than Montgaillard regarding the power of the French state. The backbone of his 1795 Réflections sur la Guerre is a pair of chapters in which he compares the financial situations in France and in Britain. Britain’s chapter is a description of a healthy, diverse and robust economy. The chapter on France, by contrast, describes a society “in which all power, even military power, today consists exclusively in the assignats,” which were at that time on the “Rapid march of devaluation.” This would lead to the “soon and inevitable” “complete annihilation” of the assignat and, since all military power resided in the currency, the French army would presumably be annihilated with it.[2]

His predictions are to some extent reflected in the letters of soldiers to their families in 1795. These letters should generally be approached with caution, but in such economic matters they prove quite candid. “The assignat has barely any value… everything is extremely dear,” wrote a soldier named Morel in August. Sergeant Alexis Gosse, meanwhile, sent 20 livres to his family in October 1794. By February 1795 he could send only an apology: “I would have liked, if I’d been able, to send you some money, but the assignats are worth so little that almost nobody wants them.”[3]

However, this is no more than a distant echo of what d’Ivernois wrote. The inflation crisis reflected itself not in mutinies or starvation or in the collapse of the French army, but merely in grumbling. The inflation crisis did, of course, have a serious political impact. However, the army not only survived this but, despite waxing in numerical strength, became the instrument and base of Napoleon’s dictatorship in 1799. Montgaillard’s apocalyptic tone was justified. D’Ivernois’ optimism was not.

The example of military discipline illustrates the relative strength of Republican institutions. A common eighteenth-century attitude toward the subject was expressed by Frederick the Great, who said that a soldier “must be more afraid of his officers than of the dangers to which he is exposed.” With the revolution, Lynn contends, the “coercive compliance” of unwilling conscripts and the “remunerative compliance” of mercenaries gave way to the “normative compliance” of the citizen-soldier. This meant identification with the Nation, with the army or regiment, and with the primary group, as an engine of discipline based on morality and social standing.[4]

The primary group, the immediate inner circle of each soldier to whom he was supposed to feel brotherhood and responsibility, was in fact consciously crafted in the form of the fourteen-to-sixteen-man Ordinaire. As for the army or regiment, Corporal Francois David of the Armée du Bas Rhin left us, in his letter to his mother, an indication of the kind of relationship that might exist between the highest officers and enlisted men. He described how General Desaix personally facilitated communication between David and his brother, who was in another unit. “This brave General is very attached to us,” David wrote. “Every time I meet him he asks for news of ye. All he speaks about is his wonderful mother whom he loves.”[5]

We should take this anecdote as possibly an extreme, unusual example of fraternity. It is nonetheless very informative as to the kind of relationship that might develop under the prevailing ideological and institutional conditions. The lower ranks could now effectively elect their immediate superiors; the government in Paris was selecting generals based largely on their adherence to progressive principles; there had been a wholesale flight of nobles from the army, opening up an ever-expanding number of high positions to people who had previously not been very far above Corporal David.

It is not to be supposed for a moment, of course, that this was an army of bleeding hearts. In particular a view of political principle as connoting leniency, indiscipline and mercy does not stand up to the evidence. Gaspard Gilbert wrote to his sister: “We entered the city, weapons in hand, without firing one rifle-shot; they have been turned into Republicans, they have been made like us. My sister, we went into a village, they [the locals] turned on us, we made fire and blood, all the village burned.”[6] This was in the Armée Du Bas-Rhin, and repression on this front was modest compared to that meted out in Toulon or in the Vendée.

Nor were violent measures against the rank-and-file dispensed with. Crimes by soldiers could still be punished by bloody public executions- in particular political crimes such as profiteering, passing supplies to the enemy or abandoning forts. Royalists were likewise to be executed. Looting from peasants was punished far more harshly than looting from the rich,[7] but of course when supply lines were thin the armies lived off the land.[8] There was a general shift in patterns of compliance, as Lynn argues, so that violent methods were used on soldiers as punishment for transgressions of Republican virtue, or used on enemies in order to coerce. No longer was violence used to enforce discipline in the ranks or to terrify men into battle.[9]

As Lynn points out, there had been a shift from coercive to normative compliance. In the heady atmosphere of a state embroiled in Great Fears and revolutionary upheaval, and threatened by the Brunswick manifesto, no doubt many soldiers were excited, eager and motivated. Minister of War Lazare Carnot took no chances, however, allocating 80,000 livres for patriotic songbooks and 435,000 for political newspapers.[10] Soldiers had full political rights; they could form clubs within their units, join clubs local to their stations and even agitate in political campaigns. This was to be an army of enthusiastic, politicized citizens rather than terrified conscripts or cynical mercenaries.

The point that this was not simply a more liberal army is a vital one, and it is this point which arguably makes one aspect of Forrest’s Soldiers of the French Revolution problematic. In his introduction he first outlines a conflict which is a recurring theme throughout the book: “The forces for change […] were not entirely ideological,” he writes, “By 1789, highly practical reasons for reforming and restructuring the army were apparent.”

This conflict which Forrest sets up between the practical and the ideological is one of the main touchstones of his analysis, and it seems to suggest that ideology simply dropped from the sky, rather than springing from practical realities as a solution to problems. The purpose of the Convention’s reforms, he writes, “was only partly to create a more effective military machine. It was also to mold a fighting force that would reflect the character of a revolutionary society.”[11] Forrest presents these as separate projects. While he acknowledges that sometimes the two- the practical and the ideological- were in accord, in general he assumes an essential conflict.

“There had always been an element of conflict between ideas of liberty and participation and those of discipline and obedience,” Forrest tells us, in a statement which is not in itself problematic. However, it becomes so when he picks up this thread in a later chapter: “if discipline won- and there is little doubt that it did- doubts must surely be cast on the effectiveness of the Jacobin campaign to raise the political consciousness of the soldiers.”[12] There is an assumption here that political education must lead to indiscipline- even though Forrest himself, along with Lynn, Thoral and others, emphasizes the role of political education in maintaining discipline. This is Lynn’s model of “normative compliance.”

This assumption of a conflict flies in the face of most of the evidence presented by the book, in fact. Forrest describes how better medical care, a pension system and a generally higher status in society for soldiers forged a more effective fighting force. He relates the spectacular recruitment figures and the effects of political education within the armies. He describes the shift in emphasis as regards coercion and discipline. He mouths the view of a growing minority of military thinkers in the period leading up to the revolution that “an effective army must also be one that could muster a degree of conviction and commitment.”[13] The powerful state, backed up by the popular movement, could serve the army in ways the vested interests, wastefulness, particularism and unpopularity of the ancien regime could not. The overwhelming majority of the evidence points to the fact that revolutionary institutions and ideology were the most effective for victory.

To qualify, there was sometimes a conflict between the technical and the ideological. General Maximilien Foy, for instance, complained that the popular Bulletin was placing far too much emphasis on bayonet charges as opposed to the role of artillery.[14] It was in accordance with revolutionary prejudices to value the arme blanche of a mass of men over the role of complicated machinery which only a small number of well-trained technicians could use. It was not, however, in accordance with reality, or at least the extent suggested by the Bulletin was not.

A conflict between the ideological and the technical, however, is distinct from one between ideology and matters of discipline. Discipline, both personal and collective, was a cornerstone of Republican “virtue.”  Expressed in Montgaillard’s text, quoted at the start of this essay, is a sense that under the Republic the state was imposing discipline on the nation. Robespierre, Saint-Just or Carnot would not have disputed this. There is little to suggest that the Republic was or aimed to be liberal or individualistic. Its centrally-appointed generals were usually political appointees rather than “technocrats,” but this, ideally at least, made them ascetic, self-sacrificing, sober, upright and exemplary characters like General Bouchotte as he is described by Forrest.[15] This, rather than individualism and popular dissent, was the aesthetic and the reality for which the revolutionaries aimed.

In the words of Saint-Just, the Republic certainly aimed that its “military system” be “impetuous” in contrast to France’s enemies, whose armies were “clumsy, cold and slow.”[16] This does not imply any lack of discipline or any orientation toward actively encouraging dissension in the ranks; rather it means an army that has a momentum and forces upon its enemies a war of rapid movement and decisive battles. This idea of an “impetuous” army expresses very well the ways in which the Revolutionary Wars changed the character of warfare.

With technology that was much the same as under the ancien régime (and in some ways a step backwards), innovation manifested itself in the size of the armies and in the “new military economy” this allowed. Soldiers were plentiful and therefore expendable,[17] and, moreover, the Republic to a huge extent managed to convince those who faced death to accept it with little complaint. This led to a trend toward massive, decisive battles as opposed to a more “aristocratic” strategy that was heavy on manoeuvre and which saw limited engagements with few casualties.[18] The testimony of soldiers’ letters gives an impression of swift, decisive battles; this replaced the old staples of aristocratic strategy: sieges, marches and counter-marches.[19]

Thoral also stresses the demonization of the enemy as “slaves” who “tremble at the approach of us brave Republicans.”[20] The war was presented as one of “good versus evil, light versus darkness, modernity versus archaism.”[21] General Turreau, who made his name leading the “infernal columns” in the Vendée, described his enemies in such terms.

This was the very kind of delirium and enthusiasm which, in the ages of shadows and ignorance, carried our first crosses to the burning plains of Africa and Asia. The defenders of the altar and the throne seemed to have taken our ancestors for their models. Their banners were decorated with devices that recalled the high deeds of chivalry.[22]

Thoral’s book in particular contains a wealth of quotations from soldiers in which they express truly bloodthirsty attitudes toward enemies, foreign and domestic.[23] However, Turreau’s Mémoires contain glowing passages in which he praises the bravery, organisation and “all the characteristics of heroism” which the Vendéans display, placing them “among the first ranks of warrior-peoples.”[24] This attitude may be explained as Turreau’s way of talking up his own achievement, but this fails to explain why he did not opt for a simple demonization like so many of his contemporaries. Turreau, one of the names most associated with vicious repression in the Vendée, provides us with an unlikely counterpoint to the norm.

The way in which mass popular enthusiasm reflected itself in arme blanche tactics has been noted above. The French association with bayonet charges, noted by Voltaire and others long before the Revolution, was elevated to the position of a military doctrine. Amid a crisis in the supply of arms and ammunition, a necessity- of emphasizing pikes and hand-to-hand combat- was elevated into a supreme virtue which was largely, but nowhere near entirely, reflective of reality.[25]

Of course, we should not take the widespread promotion of this doctrine at face value. “If the enemy wants to cross the Meuse,” declared one General to his soldiers early in 1793, “Close your ranks, lower your bayonets, sing the hymn of the ‘Marseillaise,’ and you will win.” Further to points raised above, these are anti-technical but not anti-disciplinary sentiments. However, these were the words of General Dumouriez, and they were spoken just months before he defected to the enemy.[26]

This illustrates how serious misgivings could be hidden beneath a mask of false optimism and principle. It is in this light that we should read the letters of soldiers to their families. Dumouriez’s comments disturb our impression of an “enthusiastic” army. They remind us that some of the loudest mouthpieces of such a military doctrine might have been lying, for a variety of reasons. This speaks of conformity rather than real belief.

However, the fact that cynics or doubters were outwardly conforming to Republican principles illustrates the points made by Thoral that any limited, formal practise of warfare “had no place in societies whose political life was more democratic” than had previously been the case.[27] Even if this was not always expressed with utmost sincerity, it nonetheless had to be expressed.

The disagreements with Forrest raised above may appear to be differences merely of emphasis. However, they illustrate the danger of adopting a stereotypical view of revolutionary events. This view is of revolutionaries trying to force a narrow dogma onto a “real world” that is stubbornly resistant, and it is to this view that Forrest is subscribing when he sets up a duality between the practical and the ideological. However, the facts we have regarding the Revolutionary Wars do not provide enough material with which to tell such a story.

The democratisation of the army- and we must remember that democracy does not by any means preclude organisation or discipline, quite the opposite- was the foundation on which a spectacularly successful army and a military revolution were built. Indeed, the total overhaul of the army, against all the inertia present in any deep-seated regime, would not have occurred were there not urgently practical considerations, from the arming of the troops to the survival of the state. This army was something new, awesome and very formidable, as Montgaillard recognized, and as such it transcended the economics of d’Ivernois.



Primary Sources

  1. Bouscaryol, René (ed.), Cent Lettres Des Soldats de l’An II (Aux Amateurs de Livres, 1987)
  2. Ivernois, Francois de, Réflections sur la Guerre, en réponse aux Réflexions sur la Paix, Adressées à Mr. Pitt et aux Francais (London, May 1795). Available in Trinity College Dublin Library, Early Printed Books department.
  3. Montgaillard, Maurice Comte de, Etat de la France Au Mois de Mai, 1794 (London, Harlow, 1794). Available in Trinity College Dublin Library, Early Printed Books department.
  4. Turreau, Général Louis Marie, Mémoires pour server a l’Histoire de la Guerre de la Vendée, (Paris, 1824, 1st Edition 1795). Available in Trinity College Dublin Library, Early Printed Books department.

Secondary Sources

  1. Forrest, Alan, Soldiers of the French Revolution (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1990)
  2. Hobsbawm, EJ, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (Cardinal, 1991, 1962)
  3. Lynn, John A, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (Westview Press, 1996, 1984)
  4. Roberts, JM, The French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1978)

Thoral, Marie-Cécile, trans. Godfrey Rogers, From Valmy to Waterloo, France at War, 1792-1815

[1] M. Le Conte de Montgaillard, Etat de la France Au Mois de Mai, 1794, (London, Harlow, 1794), 44-5. Available in Trinity College Dublin Library, Early Printed Books department. In fact the French army’s total strength lay closer to 750,000 at the time, though this was nenetheless a staggering number- Alan Forrest, Soldiers of the French Revolution (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1990), 82

[2] M. D’Ivernois, Réflections sur la Guerre, en réponse aux Réflections sur la Paix, Adressées à Mr. Pitt qu’aux Francais (London, May 1795), 2

[3] René Bouscayrol (ed.), Cent Lettres des Soldats de l’An II (Aux Amateurs de Livres, 1987), 126, 145

[4] John A. Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-1794 (Westview Press, 1996, University of Illinois Press, 1984), 24, 164

[5] Bouscaryol, 140-1

[6] Bouscaryol, 143

[7] Forrest, 118

[8] EJ Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (Cardinal, 1991, 1962), 95-6

[9] Lynn, 282

[10] Forrest, 111

[11] Forrest, 13, 29

[12] Forrest, 56, 124

[13] Forrest, 33

[14] Lynn, 192

[15] Forrest, 53

[16] Hobsbawm, 101

[17] Thoral, 209

[18] Thoral, 16-7

[19] Bouscaryol, 99, 120, 143, Thoral, 16

[20] Bouscaryol, 106

[21] Thoral, 211

[22] Général Louis-Marie Turreau, Mémoires pour servir a l’Histoire de la Guerre de la Vendée (Paris, 1824, 1795), 58-9

[23] Thoral, p. 40-1, 110-1

[24] Turreau, 19

[25] Lynn, 185-191

[26] Lynn, 192

[27] Thoral, 208

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