The Revolutionary Wars, beginning in April 1792 when France declared war on Austria, were an inevitable consequence of the French Revolution, which generated ideas of democracy and individual freedom, threatening the rest of Europe’s autocratic states. Although France would be in a relatively continuous state of war up to the end of Napoléon Bonaparte’s reign, it is generally accepted that the Revolutionary conflicts ended in 1802, with the signature of the Treaty of Amiens concluding a decade of fighting against most of the continent.
Perhaps the most notorious event of the decade was the Levée en Masse of August 1793, when the French government called upon the whole population to serve the war effort, and most particularly on all unmarried men aged 18-25 to enlist. Staggering in its scale, the Levée raised an estimated 300,000-400,000 ‘volunteers’, which would suffice to last a whole 6 years without any more conscriptions . This, added to the remaining professional army and the estimated 300,000 troops raised in Paris and the provinces in the previous months, constituted the core of the Revolutionary army. It also arguably gave birth to the notion of ‘total war’ which characterizes modern warfare . Of course, a lot has been written about late 18th-early 19th century French history, and the rapid socio-economic changes it underwent . However, the aim of this article is to offer a different focus, away from the traditional histories of international politics and the impact of great men, by focusing on the citizen soldiers themselves.
To study such a topic is valuable for several reasons. Firstly, it provides an evident contribution to our understanding of the French Revolution period by looking at what French commoners within the army thought of the Revolution and how far they supported it, which feeds debates about whether the Revolution can be regarded as a global, classless movement. Most importantly, it also adds to our understanding of the Revolutionary War period, which has paradoxically often been relegated to occupy a minor part of extensive works on Revolutionary France, and has indeed been relatively neglected in comparison to the impressive amount of literature available both on the Revolution itself, and about the Napoleonic era.
Furthermore, the study of Revolutionary troops also provides an insight as to why people fight more generally, offering a valuable contribution to the body of research on soldier behaviours in battle which has mostly focused on 20th century warfare. For instance, Keegan’s ‘The Face of Battle’, which attempted to draw general patterns looking at war across different periods and Browning’s ‘Ordinary Men’ on German troops’ participation in the Holocaust, are some of the remarkable works which have corrected criticisms dismissing military history as an old school discipline, which contributes little to our understanding of broad social changes. Such works, needless to say, have partly influenced this article through their approach to troop motivations and their focus on ordinary troops.
As far as methodology is concerned, this article will primarily rely on diaries and letters written by French soldiers at the time. Although sources have been identified both in archives and within secondary material, the two most useful remain the diaries written by Jacques Fricasse, a farmer from a village in the Haute Marne and Louis Joseph Bricard, an upholsterer from Paris, incredibly valuable for they both served during the whole 10 years of warfare and recorded their thoughts and experiences in detail throughout.
But before going further, it may be worth highlighting the implications of using such sources, and the advantages which justify such methodological choice. Indeed, it may be argued that the circumstances in which both the letters and diaries were written often left little space and time for their authors to fully develop the arguments and thoughts behind the opinions they expressed. This problem was sometimes worsened, in some letters like those of Charles Lefel by the difficulties of expression caused by a low level of literacy, which at times makes the interpretation work challenging . Moreover, the diaries often focus on recalling troop movements and particular dates, whilst many letters addressed to family members discuss personal matters like family finances, much of which contributes little to our understanding of their motivations and raises questions with regards to their usefulness.
Furthermore, the biggest controversy with regards to these sources is that of representativeness. Needless to say, it is impossible to study all French troops of the time through their writing, simply because not all of them wrote. Although it is tricky to assess literacy rates of the time, it has been estimated that by 1830, only 52% of troops were able to sign their name, which, one may speculate, means that at the time the wars broke out it is likely that less than half of French soldiers were able to write . This suggests that studying soldiers through their writings condemns historians to carry out a study of literate soldiers exclusively, with evident consequences with regards to how far conclusions can be taken. However this is not totally accurate, and it should be pointed out that whilst not all troops were literate, the psychological importance of writing meant that in many cases, educated soldiers within regiments helped their companions and acted as intermediaries to enable them to keep in touch with friends and families, and it became common practice for soldiers to pay for their services, which effectively meant that most regiments had several public writers .
Most importantly, letters and diaries are a great base for researching soldier motivations because they present a remarkable honesty difficult to obtain from sources of this period. Whilst much of politically motivated writings of the time focus, as shall be highlighted later, on the bravery and will to sacrifice of soldiers, it is evident that these releases were more concerned by keeping morale up in the public sphere through times of unprecedented crisis, rather than portray an accurate representation of soldiers’ opinions for the sake of historical accuracy . Similarly, some of the writings from after the period, particularly by significant political and military figures were undoubtedly aimed at rewriting history in order to glorify their authors, and again tell us little about commoners in the army, their experiences and motivations. Instead focusing on the impact and talents of a single character, these books such as Napoléon Bonaparte’s Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1823) have been dismissed as a ‘Drum and trumpet’ approach, only focusing on exceptional cases and often providing questionable accounts .
By contrast, letters from soldiers to loved ones and personal diaries were subject to little censorship in comparison to identical sources from later conflicts such as WWI . In addition, these possess an advantage over memoirs written years later in that they present the raw emotions and thoughts of soldiers in the immediate moment, without the impact of time and external factors like personal and public memory, romanticism and nostalgia, which render them valuable by their authenticity and validity. Therefore, the writing of the soldiers, characterised by a ‘sincérité rare’ and aimed to remain private and unpublished, can be regarded as more objective and an antidote to misleading documents of the time, which makes them an appealing method of research .
Structurally, this article will be divided into several parts, each focusing on different central points and debates aiming to explain what motivated French troops, and how these motivations changed over time. Although a full chapter could be dedicated to the civil war against monarchy supporters at home, this essay will focus on French combat motivations in fighting against foreign armies. This is because domestic conflicts can be explored in their own right, and it would be too ambitious to explore conflicts at home and abroad, in depth, in one article. Another chapter was to focus on the personal gains of taking part in the wars, such as opportunities of pillaging, travelling and the potential rewards for soldiers once they returned home. However, looking at soldier letters and diaries, it became promptly evident that the notoriously poor living conditions within the French armies, particularly in terms of accommodation, nutrition and general hygiene, meant that overall the disadvantages of army life undeniably outweighed the advantages. This suggests that the original argument is not a credible explanation to troop motivations.
The opening chapter will focus on the rise of the Revolutionary army, looking at the motives and driving forces behind the creations of local militias as well as the Levée en Masse, in an attempt to determine whether these movements can be regarded as reflective of popular will. Consequently, this will rely less on soldier letters and diaries than other chapters, as these tend to discuss war as it was happening, rather than reflect on why soldiers enlisted in the first place. The second chapter will put to scrutiny the claim made by many historians, such as Joboul and Jaurès, that Revolutionary élan and ideology were the major driving forces to motivate soldiers, and discuss the role of ideas throughout the wars. In doing so, it will carefully attempt to avoid treating the Revolutionary wars in the exclusive, romantic tone too often used by historians of this period. Finally, the last chapter will be dedicated to the importance of group dynamics in pushing troops to soldier on, looking at concepts such as solidarity and the impact of leadership, which have been largely ignored from studies of the French armies.
This article does not argue that the entire French army was eager to fight, as the significant amount of recorded desertions and mutinies in this period remind us . However, despite unpreparedness and long term deprivation, the army managed not to regress into complete chaos, and this article argues that this was mainly because of motivations within the army. Therefore, this ambitious project will put to scrutiny the motivations of the French Revolutionary armies, and provide an explanation of why soldiers originally enlisted, and why they continued to fight despite being at such a dramatic material and strategic disadvantage.