From Volunteers to Conscripts: the French Republican Army 1789-1794-Part Two

For Part One go here

Following widespread popular indignation in the aftermath the Mutiny at Nancy in 1790 [1], the National Assembly decided to completely overhaul the much despised military disciplinary code. This was a drawn-out reform which took over a year to be carried and was further amended between 1792 and 1793, in the wake of the overthrow of the monarchy. The Terror brought further changes in 1794.

These reforms had two aims. First, they broke the absolute power of the officer corps. Second, they attempted to give the soldiers a fairer trial in case of court martial.
For minor breaches of discipline (fautes contre la discipline) like drunkenness and disobedience, corporal punishment was strictly forbidden and to be replaced by extra work and confinement. Officers who attempted the old beating by the flat of the sword were to be stripped of their rank, cashiered with dishonor and sent to jail for three years.

Major breaches against the discipline were to be judged by civil courts (if the soldier committed a civil offense) and court martial. The reform of the court martial system was clumsy and drawn out but broke the complete authority of the officer corps.
Each army was assigned one or, in case of very large armies such as L’Armee du Nord et Moselle, two tribunaux criminels militaires (military criminal courts) whose three judges were to be chosen by the Executive Council and ratified by the Committee of Public Safety. These judges and the persecutors could not be serving with or employed by the military.
The jury varied in composition but was generally composed of four civilians from where the court sat, two officers, two NCO’s and one or two common soldiers.

It may not seem much, but this was a momentous reform. This legislation recognized the soldier’s claim to fair and equal justice as promised by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was also an extremely powerful propaganda tool and morale booster: Volunteers of 1791 and 1792 often remarked the difference between themselves and their Austrian and especially Prussian enemies in enthusiastic tones.

The Volunteers of 1792, with their ragged appearance and radical tendencies, proved to be  inspirational material for English and German satirists.

Judging from the records, it appears these courts operated in remarkably fair fashion and were often quite lenient when privates and NCO’s were concerned. The well studied records of L’Armee du Nord et Moselle show the majority of men charged with abandoning their posts in front of the enemy were usually handed light sentences and simply returned to their units. The usual motivation given is these volunteers were inexperienced and poorly trained and hence should be given a second chance to redeem themselves.
The officers, especially generals, however, could not expect such leniency. Already suspect because of their noble background [2], no matter how flimsy, they were subjected to extra scrutiny which bordered on full blown paranoia after La Fayette and Dumouriez [3] both defected to the Austrians. The all-powerful and feared Representatives on Mission kept a close eye on generals and were anything but lenient.
Count Adame-Philippe Custine, despite his good record in restoring discipline to L’Armee du Nord et Moselle, doomed himself by his timid conduit on campaign against the Austrians. He was summoned to Paris to answer charges of cowardice and treachery, found guilty and sent to the guillotine despite being defended by Robespierre himself.

However, there was one type of crime Republican authorities always struggled to contain and which proved to be the bane of all French armies up until Waterloo: pillage.
Pillage was taken for granted in wartime and was usually tolerated on a small scale. However large scale pillage had the effect of dissolving discipline and, much worse for the Republican authorities which desperately wanted to present themselves as liberators, turned people against whoever the pillagers were serving for.
French soldiers usually pillaged out of need, not simple greed or rapine. Republican armies were invariably badly supplied and the massive increase in numbers in 1792, when war openly broke out, caused whatever logistic system existed to collapse almost completely.
The National Assembly first and the Convention later took extraordinary steps to stop pillaging, going as far as granting generals “extraordinary powers” to skip the military judicial system and dish out punishment to pillagers.
However the opposition of the Representatives on Mission (to whom summary discipline often smacked of Ancien Regime) and, much more critically, the enormous numbers of soldiers which took part in this hateful practice, meant justice was dished out in irregular fashion and had often more of a propaganda value, to show people the Republican Armies took their pains at heart.

An anti-Jacobin print from Germany, it shows Republican soldiers carrying away women.

However, where Republican authorities proved to be truly a step ahead of their rivals was in motivating their troops.
The incredible results the half-naked and poorly equipped Volunteers of 1791 and 1792 obtained against the splendid Austrian armies and impeccably drilled Prussians was as much the result of military competence on part of their leaders as of their enthusiasm and, after the first crisis, high morale.
The National Convention went to incredible lengths to change the image of the common soldier in France. If during the Ancien Regime he was seen as either an ignorant peasant or the product of urban misery, the Republican soldier was a completely different breed. He was a citizen who had chosen to leave his home and the relative comfort of a civilian life behind to endure hardships and risk his life for La Patrie out of his own free will.
This point was driven home at every possible occasion and the contrast with the conscripts serving in the Prussian army and the mercenaries employed by almost all of France’s enemies was played up continuously, or at least until conscription was introduced in France as well.
The soldiers themselves appear to have believed at least in part the propaganda emanating from the National Assembly and the Convention. However, and much more critically, the majority of the Volunteers of 1791 and 1792 appears to have been driven by genuine patriotism and Republican fervor.

This enthusiasm and fervor led one of the most enduring legends about the French Revolution “The Myth of the Bayonet”. According to this tale, French armies of the period had no need for sophisticated drilling and tactics since their Revolutionary fervor and patriotism was enough to propel them into irresistible bayonet charges against the enemy.
The reality was, of course, very different: French soldiers were remarkably well drilled (considering most of them had no prior military experience and very little time to learn the tricks of the trade) and their generals adopted revolutionary strategies and innovative tactics.
The myth was born partly as the result of national pride (the French have always exalted the elàn or Furia Francese of their troops and their ability to carry positions at bayonet point regardless of casualties) and partly as the result of some military myths common in the second half of the XVIII century.
While French military theorists like Gribeavaul [4] were laying the basis for the revolutionary use of mobile firepower, embodied in the elite Republican and then Imperial Horse Artillery, the great Russian general, Alexander Suvorov, was sweeping all before him by the use of massed infantry columns using bayonets as their chief weapon. Or at least this was what public opinion was believing.
Obviously Republican propagandists were ready and willing to use Suvorov’s superhuman reputation as a background for their own kind of invincibility by fusing him with the national myth of the dashing French soldier.

However the French were soon to learn there was much more to the Suvorov myth than massed infantry charges. In 1799 and 1800 the old general faced French armies in Italy and Switzerland, proving to be an unbeatable opponent and defeating all comers, finally executing a supremely masterly retreat through Switzerland (where he’s still fondly remembered as a liberator and true gentleman) when he was abandoned by his allies.

It is only fitting Suvorov’s Italian and Swiss campaigns coincided with the definitive fall of the French Republic as established by the Revolution of 1789. Napoleon Bonaparte, having left his army in Egypt, returned to France in September 1799 and staged a coup with the help of his brother, Luciano, and the Directors Sieyès and Ducos on 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire, Year VIII in the Republican calendar). The Republic, already agonizing, was given the quietus and the Bayonets of the Republic were replaced by Imperial Armies marching under the Napoleon’s Eagle.

[1] During this episode three regiments garrisoning Nancy mutinied over pay issues in August 1790. It was a particular disturbing episode for the Crown because one of the regiments was Swiss and hence deemed absolutely reliable. General François-Claude de Bouillé led a mixed force of regular army units and National Guards and managed to stamp out the mutiny only after fierce fighting which left hundreds dead.  The French mutineers were handed out light sentences, from reassignment to another unit to discharge with dishonor. The Swiss mutineers, however, were judged according to their own military code and sentenced to heavy penalties, including death by torture. Public opinion, given the recent Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, was appalled by this abuse.

[2] To access military schools under the Ancien Regime, applicants had to provide patents of nobility. While this was no problem for the scions of well known military families, others had to go to quite extraordinary lengths to procure these patents. A young Napoleon Bonaparte traveled to Florence in 1784 to obtain a certificate from the Grand Duchy proving his decent from a minor noble house from Fucecchio before entering the Ecole Militaire in Paris.

[3] The Marquis of La Fayette, one of the leading figures in the early stages of the Revolution, saw his star starting to wane in the aftermath of Louis XVI’s attempted flight from France and the Champs du Mars Massacre. His timid conduit against the Austrians and his hatred for the most radical parties sealed his fate. He attempted to flee to The Netherlands (to find passage to the United States, where he was sure to be granted asylum) only to find his way blocked by Austrian troops. He delivered himself to them and was imprisoned for five years until his release was secured as part of the Treaty of Campo Formio.
Dumouriez, after being defeated by the Austrian general Saxe-Coburg at Neerwinden, attempted to save himself by marching on Paris and overthrowing the Republican government and reinstating the monarchy. His soldiers refused to follow him and hence fled (together with the future King Louis-Philippe) to Austrian-controlled territory. He eventually settled in England where he died in 1823.

[4] Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval was a French military officer whose studies revolutionized the use of artillery on the battlefield. While artillery pieces had previously been mostly immobile, Gribevaul not only redesigned them to make them more mobile, but also introduced a set of tactics to exploit this newly acquired mobility. French Republican and Imperial troops used them to devastating effects.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: