Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 2, by Valentin Boulan)

Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 2, by Valentin Boulan)

Chapter One: ‘Aux armes citoyens!’ – Myth or Reality ?

The formation of the Revolutionary army was a complex process, which took over a year and several enrolment campaigns to finalise. This progression can be divided into two main stages, with the first mobilisation campaign in 1792, and a second phase in 1793, culminating with the Levée en Masse, called by the government in August. These were encouraged by spontaneous popular initiatives, as well as the support of local Jacobin societies, or sociétés populaires, the political discussion clubs which proliferated during the Revolution. This chapter will demonstrate that the formation of a citizen army was a popular process, and highlight some of the reasons for mobilisation.

Some historians have argued that the idea of Revolutionary army was largely opposed by people in France. In Citizen, his controversially critical account of the French Revolution, Schama points to the many examples when the mobilisation decree of August 1793, which had claimed that all who were physically fit should enlist, led to a multitude of self-mutilation cases, such as young men removing their own teeth, essential to bite cartridges open in battle . Furthermore, the significant increase in the number of weddings during the Levée en Masse, which allowed married men to be excused from joining, seems to support this thesis.

In addition, the Levée sparked numbers of grievances from all social circles, which further strengthens the argument of the uprisings’ unpopularity. Many for instance argued that the rich would find a way around sending their sons to the army, which was confirmed as in some cases, bourgeois families paid poor men to replace their sons, whilst the practice of bullying orphans, the unemployed and other reclusive members of societies was also widespread, particularly in small towns . Furthermore, many peasants worried that sending their sons would make running the family farm more difficult, while the young complained of the unfairness that only men aged 18-25 had to go. The latter specifically angered the youth of Chaumart in the Haute-Marne, who refused to go altogether because they believed that the Levée was against the principle of true equality the Revolution encouraged . Needless to say, it was also completely rejected in pro-royalist regions, and in some places like Lyon even prevented the formation of an army which would have been 6400 men strong . Therefore, it may seem like the formation of the revolutionary army was an unpopular decision only driven by the political elites.

Schama’s argument is useful in that it demystifies some of the exaggeratedly enthusiastic accounts of popular rise, and reminds us that not all people were either republican or royalist fanatics. Nevertheless, it is flawed in many aspects. Most importantly, it depicts the inaccurate picture that an overwhelming majority of troops were enlisted against their own will through fear in order to fit the overall argument of his book, which only highlights the darkest episodes of French Revolution and, as pointed by Hobsbawm, focuses too much on the Terror . Most problematically, Schama seems to present a contradictory thesis, on the one hand claiming that propaganda had a major motivational impact, whist suggesting that most people were reluctant to join because they disagreed with revolutionary doctrine.

Perhaps more credible an argument in dismissing the view that the Revolutionary army was a product of popular enthusiasm is the idea that many enlisted because they believed the war would be short lived, or that their involvement would not be very demanding. This particularly showed in the early stages of war. For instance, in his diary Bricard admits that when shoes and equipment were first distributed to troops, he and others were reluctant to accept them as it represented a commitment to the army, which could prevent them from what they thought would be a quick return home . Similarly, in 1793 Claude Ponset de Tossiat wrote to his mother not to worry about ‘the war which is soon to finish’ . This was undoubtedly a widespread belief among troops, particularly given the early successes of the army. For example, Etienne Meunier, a barrel-maker’s son from Grand-Charonnes near Paris, was so impressed by the early victories over Vendean rebels he wrote to his family that he hoped to be back by early spring . This feeling was also shared by those fighting foreign troops, such as Barthélémy Lemain who wrote during the winder of 1793 that so many deserters crossed over from the enemy to join French forces he believed the war would finish by the end of the year .

A similar point can be made about local militias, which were not originally meant to fight against the dreaded professional, foreign enemies, but rather to combat royalists in their respective regions. Looking at militias like Versailles’, Cobb argues that in wealthy areas, armies were largely made up of entrepreneurs and rich merchants who sought to satisfy their amour propre by serving in a part time, undemanding occupation which gave the impression of good citizenship, whilst the poor and unemployed in places like Lille were driven by the luxuries of the army, such as good pay and gastronomic spoil .Whilst this does not propose that people were against the formation of a Revolutionary army, it downplays the idea of popular enthusiasm and suggests that joining the army was less committed and significant a revolutionary act than citizen soldiers had intended at the time of enlisting, as they thought it would be a short term devotion with limited risk.

On the other hand, the rapid formation of local armies both in 1792 and 1793 suggests a somewhat different account. For example, following the invasion of Eastern France in July 1792, the call for volunteer in this region met great success, even though this was the second call for troops in a year. Consequently, when Marchal Victor de Broglie demanded 2800 emergency troops from the Meuse, so many men volunteered that a fifth battalion had to be created. Similarly, the Vosges provided 6400 troop to form 6 new battalions in less than 8 days, whilst the Haute Saone provided as many as 8 battalions in a staggering 4 days ! Finally on the 22nd July alone, the city of Nancy, under the enthusiastic encouragement of its mayor enlisted 400 citizens, the total mobilisation for this region reaching 4000, when only 2500 had been needed . This suggests that in some cases, particularly when invasion was a very real danger, people were understandably far from opposed to the formation of an army to protect them.

Likewise, the quick and sometimes even spontaneous formations of revolutionary armies in numerous regions in the months before and during the Levée en masse show that there was popular fervour for the 1793 uprising as well. For example in Châtellerault, where the enrollment decree came on the evening of September 8th 1793, battalions were ready for action by the 10th, their flags reading ‘The French people standing up against tyrants’ . This patriotic enthusiasm was perhaps even stronger in the Parisian regions, where the Pont-Neuf Section did not even wait for a decree before opening registers on 31st May, its list being completed in 4 days only. Equally, the neighbouring Finistère Section also began recruitment early, and on the 9th demanded if it could enrol the numerous candidates from the nearby communes of Ivry, Gentilly, Villejuif and Choisy . This is perhaps even more significant, since it shows that areas not directly threatened by invasion also wished to help, which implies patriotism and revolutionary enthusiasm were also important.

It is also important to part with the myth that the Levée en Masse was the result of an oppressive government imposition from Paris upon the provinces. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that political elites were actually reluctant to call the Levée, due to the controversy surrounding the concept of citizen army, and who was to control it in particular . Indeed, the foundation of such a powerful institution was feared by many. On the one hand, the government feared for Republican unity, given the important cultural differences between French regions, and the empowering effect that the military would give sociétés populaires in the provinces, since the army was to be constituted of a cluster of local regiments. In addition, it was also feared that armies would be uncontrollable due to the influence of politically ambitious generals . Hence, Robespierre opposed the idea, and was instead favourable to the formation of two armies, one for Paris and one for the provinces, whose role was to fight internal enemies exclusively. Importantly, he did not see it as a replacement to the regular army, constructed to fight external wars .

By contrast, opposition to the government in the National Assembly feared that Robespierre would exploit the army for his own political benefit, and the potential totalitarian danger of such power. Therefore the Girondists, and Danton in particular, regarded the Revolutionary army as an essential tool to fight external enemies only.
Perhaps in order to understand the government call, one should rather look at the influence of popular pressure on the Convention throughout 1793, especially that from sociétes populaires. For example, early in that year, patriots from the Herault department presented the Convention with the draft of a law to establish an armed and paid force of 5000 to protect their department and march to the northern parts of the Republic if necessary as early as April, although the idea of Revolutionary army was still being discussed in Paris. Most significantly, in some cases sociétes organised themselves and came together in order to strengthen the call for citizen armies. Indeed in June, as many as 70 sociétes from the Midi region assembled in Valence to discuss how to combat federalism and foreign enemies, concluding that the creation of an army was the most desirable outcome, and pressure should be put on the Convention to achieve just that . The occasion came on June 24th, and popular pressure peaked as civilian crowds came to Paris for the official celebration of the Jacobin constitution .

This shared desire for an army coming from all regions is understandable, given the context of royalist uprisings scattered across French cities like Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon and Toulon, which pushed sociétes to argue the need to defend both themselves and the revolution. Hence, since many in the government and high positions of political responsibility were reluctant to the idea of Revolutionary army, it can be argued that the decision was caused not only by the desperate military situation of Austrian and Prussian invasion (north) and Spanish invasion (south), but also by the concerted effort of sociétes populaires to call for mobilisation.

To claim that the military uprisings of 1792-3 were imposed on conscripts is also questionable because of the positive propagandist context of the time, which contrasts with the climate of fear Schama describes. Of course, this was in part caused by the global Cultural Revolution which saw the rise and widespread impact of political literature and art, such as David’s famous anti counter-revolution paintings . Furthermore, the rhetoric of pro-mobilisation politicians in this period contributed to the euphoria surrounding enlisting campaigns. For instance, when Poulard enthusiastically claimed to the National Assembly that ‘If you ask for one hundred thousand men, perhaps you will not find them. (But) if you ask for millions of republicans, you will see them rise to crush the enemies of liberty’, he received great support . The role of euphoric propaganda was particularly important in smaller towns, where young men were impressed by the glamour of the military uniform and the patriotic rhetoric of their mayors and political commissaries, often standing on large stages under the flags of the Republic. For instance, in Remiremont in the Vosges, the mayor’s speech in which he claimed that ‘The first who shall enrol under the French people’s flag will be the privileged soul deserving of the Patrie’ had a great impact, and the quota was soon completed .

This was further strengthened by the newspapers and leaflets of sociétes populaires which spread the words of politicians, generals and army administrators through political writings, essential in creating a pro-mobilisation atmosphere by emphasising the need to defend the patrie, as well as liberté and égalité, the hatred of despots and the need to support troops . This, for instance, showed in the account of Jacques Fricasse, who admits in his diary that he was encouraged to enlist by the constant coverage of the wars in the French press, and political news in particular . This suggests that a large part of conscripts were indeed highly ideologically motivated to serve.

Needless to say, it is correct that many opposed conscription, including outside royalist regions. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that most people opposed it, or to define the Revolutionary army as an urban institution, since armies were, in their compositions, reflective of the social diversity of France which by then remained rural in majority . The formation of a Revolutionary army was popular in two ways. Firstly, it was popular in that it was influenced by what may be defined as the people. Crucially, since the policy was largely pushed by sociétes populaires propaganda and political pressure both in Paris and the provinces, it cannot be argued that the decision was one led by the government and the political elites alone. Indeed whilst earlier political clubs were dominated by the bourgeoisie, by 1793 these represented a wider social spectrum, ranging from small tradesmen, artisans and shopkeepers to clerks, members of the legal professional and doctors, but also factory workers and an increasingly significant support from the poor and rural areas also .

Uprisings both in 1792-3 were also popular in that they were mostly received with enthusiasm, although important geographic variations should be acknowledged, most notably between royalist regions and the South, and those in the East and the capital, more exposed to invasion and propaganda respectively. Of course, one should bear in mind that this does not mean that all troops responded to a call to protect Revolutionary principles, although arguably war against internal royalist enemies suggests so, but rather that the need to defend one’s town and nation was key, as best shown by the increasing pace of uprisings in the East after the 1792 invasions. Hence, it may be argued that whilst fear (as argued by Schama) and Revolutionary ideology were important, patriotism and the desire to protect France remained the driving force of uprising. This chapter provided a socio-political background to the formation of Revolutionary armies, highlighting its popular nature and tracing its original motivations. The next two chapters will assess the evolution of these motivations within the context of the campaigning armies.

End of Part 2


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