Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 3, by Valentin Boulan)

Liberty guiding the people - French revolutionary wars and ideology

Chapter Two: ‘Dedicated body and soul to the cause they served ’

According to Robben, fighting motivations can be divided into two broad categories: the original motivations to enlist, determined by the pre-war context as discussed in Chapter One, and the incentive to actually fight on in battle, on which the next two chapters will focus . As previously mentioned, some historians of the Revolutionary wars have strongly emphasised the ideological motivations of French soldiers, claiming that they fought out of Revolutionary spirit and patriotism, which distinguished the citizen army of France from other armies of the period, for whom warfare was simply a profession. Such idealist, partial accounts have been determined by two factors, namely the exaggerated importance of ‘patriotism and the bayonet’ in official accounts dispatched to satisfy the much feared Committee of Public Safety, and the romantic bias of historians themselves . This chapter will look at how far such claim remained accurate over the course of the wars. However first of all, the ideologies referred to are problematic concepts which have been used in various ways, and should be defined for the sake of clarity. Whilst patriotism shall essentially be defined as the devotion to the best interest of one’s country, Revolutionary ideology as referred to within this article describes the ideas of individual freedom, equality, anti-despotism and republicanism which emerged in the second half of the 18th century.

Since this article largely relies on troop personal writings, it is important to point out that not all letters should be regarded as equally objective in assessing ideological commitment, and to distinguish between those which can be taken at face value, and those evidently written for public purpose. For example, the letters of Mabiez de Rouville to his hometown of Trévoux present seemingly exaggerated versions of events. For instance, he recalls an occasion when the Eustache company’s flag bearer refused to capitulate when surrounded by enemies, fighting them off with his flag pole before running to safety and survival, despite being shot ten times . Furthermore, his tendency to rate the number of patriots in the towns and regions he travels through appears equally unrepresentative. Indeed, by almost always describing places as either completely dedicated to the Revolution, like the town of Bourg, or completely hostile like the region of Jura which he wholly dismissed as having ‘more than twelve thousand souls and not twenty patriots’, De Rouville’s letters appeared written to provoke a reaction, whether one of patriotic optimism or a desire to harshly repress inhabitants in certain areas .

Similarly, when lieutenant Antoine Chatelain wrote to the municipal council of his hometown, the way he expressed himself clearly indicated that his letter was aimed for a wide public, as he claimed that when on the battlefield, he was ‘no more frightened that (he) was when (he) went to sing mass at Saint-Lazare’ . That is because many of these letters were written to municipal councils or local Jacobin clubs, and were aimed to be printed in political newspapers or read in public in order to enhance civilian morale. Furthermore, most letters of this kind originated from higher ranks within the army, especially officers, and hence cannot be regarded as reflective of a majority opinion within the army. Therefore, while they may be useful in a study of propaganda, the use of such public letters to assess the ideological commitment of French soldiers is problematic, and tells us little about troop motivations.

Nonetheless, much evidence in regular soldiers’ personal writing suggests that troops believed they were fighting for a righteous cause, which illustrates the importance of revolutionary ideology and patriotism as motivational factors. Most dramatically, this is shown by the countless stories recalling demonstrations of a soldier’s commitment on the battlefield. For instance, Bricard’s diary provides a detailed account of how during a battle in 1793, a soldier called Morel, from the 5th Paris battalion, kept on singing the Marseillaise once his legs got chopped off by a cannonball . A virtually identical anecdote was recalled by sergeant Petitbon, describing how a corporal whose leg was also blown off claimed he did not regret his leg, since he had lost it for his country, crying ‘Vive la République’ before passing away . Similarly, Fricasse’s diary also provides many cases of troop expressions of their ideological commitment. For example, during the siege of Charleroi, a dying soldier cried that he was proud to shed his blood for the Republic and for liberty, an account which is confirmed by Marchal Soult, who also stressed the enthusiastic patriotism and republicanism of the army of Sambre-Et-Meuse for the Revolution .

Whilst these are spectacular examples which should not necessarily be regarded as representative of army norms, their frequent mention in personal writings in the first years of fighting, is far too regular for them to be held as worthless anecdotes. Indeed, most letters at the time suggests that although perhaps not all troops acted in such heroic ways, these were however described with a tone of approval which implied a shared revolutionary and patriotic enthusiasm.

In addition, and this particularly applies to the early years of conflict when generals had less power and autonomy from the government, troops did not hesitate to turn against one another because of conflicting ideological views. Certainly in many cases, soldiers themselves accused their leaders of betraying the ideals of the Revolution, which often led to arrests by the state’s feared political commissaries. Most famously, when General Dumouriez joined the Austrian enemy in March 1793 and returned to his army days later in the hope to convince troops to march on Paris and restore the monarchy, he hardly received any support . Although the writings of soldiers from before the event suggests he was a very popular, even admired leader, once he’d betrayed Revolution, the vast majority of his troops fled, an account confirmed in Bricard’s diary .

As well as shown on the battlefield, the ideological commitment of troops was often stated in letters to friends and family explaining what motivated them to soldier on. Of course, in assessing such rhetoric, one must carefully avoid simplistically interpreting the linguistic trends of late 18th century France the letters reflect, such as the very popular use of the word Citoyen (citizen) as any sort of demonstration of Revolutionary spirit. Nonetheless, the recurrent awareness of the ideological and political importance of success, and the will to triumph troops expressed in personal writing cannot be disregarded as propaganda, nor overlooked as futile exceptions. Writing to his parents in 1794, Jacques Tuzest passionately explains that he fought because only once ‘tyrants’ were beaten would the Republic know true equality and liberty . Similarly, another soldier named Bourgognaux wrote in the same year ‘Our cause is just, we will support it as we always have done until the last shed of blood’. This Revolutionary élan of the French troops also showed in the writing of the enemy. Evidently surprised, a Prussian soldier from 1792 described the French army as ‘dedicated body and soul to the cause they served’, adding that almost all those he spoke to knew what they were fighting for and were willing to die for the patrie, concluding that ‘They knew no alternative other than liberty or death’. Hence, it may be argued that the ideological commitment of troops was not only noticeable on the battlefield, but also in personal writing.

Of course, it is unsurprising that Revolutionary spirit was important in motivating troops given the strong ideological conditioning the army were exposed to through internal propaganda. One of the ways in which this was implemented was again through the strong, recurrent influence of sociétés populaires on troops in the early years of war. Indeed at the beginning when France was still fighting on her own soil, it was common for soldiers to leave the army to join the local sans-culotte groups to take part in debates which often continued back at the camps . In many cases, as for the army of the Alps, troops even took the initiative to create their own society, so that debates would remain entirely within the army and could also continue outside the national territory. In addition, Jacobin newspapers such as ‘Le Père Duschesne’ or ‘L’Antifédéraliste’ were received by the army and read out in camps, promoting revolutionary ideas through patriotic rhetoric, sometimes expressed in the form of forged soldier letters, as mentioned above.

Another way in which propaganda ideologically motivated troops was through rituals to persuade troops of the sacred nature of their quest. The importance of these events, striking in the regularity with which all French armies organised them, cannot be overlooked and can be divided into two types of ceremonies. On the one hand, Revolutionary themed celebrations, such as the anniversaries of Louis XVI’s execution or the establishment of the Republic, as well as cult of Reason and that of Revolutionary martyrs like Marat and Chalier, were common practices to the armies of the Rhin, the Sambre-et-Meuse and the Pyrénées, and aimed to convince troops that they were fighting for a worthy cause, whilst providing them with inspiring figures. On the other hand, hostile demonstrations against anti-revolutionary groups and institutions, such as the nobility, monarchy and religion helped remind troops who the enemies were, and why victory was the only acceptable outcome.

Finally, the government also played a direct part. By regularly sending officials and politicians from the Convention to give motivational speeches and ‘educate’ troops, and commissaries to punish soldiers regarded as unpatriotic, as regularly cited in soldier diaries and letters, the Committee of Public Safety played a similar, yet more authoritative role than Jacobin groups. Additionally, other techniques such as the commissioning of revolutionary themed and patriotic chants to occupy troops also played an important part in the conditioning of troops under the supervision of the state . In fact, it has been estimated that between 1792 and 1794 alone, as many as 1616 political songs were written ! Hence, the importance of patriotism and Revolutionary values within the French army in early years is comprehensible, given the intensity with which propaganda encouraged the development of such spirit. Interestingly, the great variety in which such propaganda took place, appealing both to intellect and emotion through written, spoken, symbolic and even sung forms, stands against the claim made by some historians that propaganda exclusively affected a minority of literate, educated soldiers.

However, it would be misleading to assume that such ideological commitment was consistent throughout the ten years of warfare, and much evidence seems to suggest that whilst the role of ideology in motivating troops did not weaken, its very nature did evolve. That Revolutionary values and patriotism played a central role in the early years of the conflict, as argued above, is indisputable. Nonetheless, it is evident that as fighting went on and armies underwent a process of professionalization and increasing segregation from continental France, a conflicting ideology developed. Although challenging to define, this new approach, characterised by a severe loss of trust for a Revolutionary government regarded as corrupt, contrastingly promoted military honour, pride and a total, blind obedience and loyalty to the army and its leadership. This contradicted the aim of a true civilian army, by stressing the importance of hierarchy rather than the equality of citizen soldiers regardless of their rank, as had been attempted in the early years of the wars . Since the importance of serving one’s nation remained core to such ideology, through which the soldier was regarded as the perfect patriot making the ultimate sacrifice, this dogma will for the sake of this article be labelled as Patriotic Militarism.

This process can be understood by various factors, some of which shall be highlighted in the final chapter. However, perhaps the main explanation rests with the growing political and economic independence of the French armies over the course of the wars. An important step in this process was the development of army newspapers controlled by generals, which combined with the decreasing influence of state commissaries led to the central loss of control the government had feared since 1792. This ideological shift is visible in two ways. Primarily, it showed in the evidently deteriorating importance of Revolutionary doctrine within the army over time. Whilst this is difficult to assess from letters, it is most observable in the diaries of Fricasse and Bricard, who in the early years dedicate a lot of writing to the righteousness of Revolutionary struggle, such as freeing people abroad and protecting liberty and equality at home. On the contrary as time goes, little space is devoted to such rhetoric, which is also the case in Petitbon’s diary of 1796-7 which mainly focuses on the patriotism of troops and their leaders.

This change also showed in how the ‘other’ (i.e. the enemy or foreign occupied people) was discussed. Whilst in early years, notorious Revolutionary figures such as Camille Desmoulins had argued that foreign troops and people were enslaved men who should be freed by the enlightened French troops, this idea of moral duty disappeared from writing as fighting went on, suggesting that the ideological purpose of the wars had changed . Ultimately, the justifications for war became less centred on Revolution and increasingly focused on the strategic and economic needs of France. Hence, since the original aims of war were to secure France’s natural frontiers and protect the Revolution, which arguably had been achieved by 1794, later conflicts such as the Egyptian and the Italian campaigns cannot be regarded as Revolutionary by nature . In fact, it is interesting to notice that soldiers in Egypt themselves were openly told that they were fighting to secure French commercial interest and destroy English presence in North Africa in a bid to obtain peace . Although it was the claimed objective to protect the Republic, by then Revolution clearly was no longer central to troop motivations.

Rather, it is evident that the cult of soldiers became very central to army celebrations, contributing to the emergence of Patriotic Militarism and the decline of Revolutionary ideology observed above. Particularly, this showed in the increasing focus on the army’s high leadership and its ability. This was most famously achieved by Napoléon Bonaparte through the creation on his own newspapers, the Courrier de l’Armée d’Italie and La France vue de l’Armée d’Italie, as well as 6 more papers established between 1797-8 alone (!), which encouraged patriotism and more importantly presented biased, self praising views best illustrated by the name ‘Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux’ (Journal of Bonaparte and virtuous men) one of them carried .

Though Bonaparte remains the most notorious example, other generals also were subject to this cult, particularly those killed in action. For example, both Fricasse and Bricard’s diaries dedicate much time to admired leaders such as Hoche, Moreaux and Kleber, both diaries for instance recalling emotional celebrations of Hoche, following his death in 1797 . This cult of the soldier was not exclusive to generals, and anonymous soldiers were likewise often praised, as in the letter published to the army of Egypt in October 1799, regretting the loss of a young, unknown soldier called Desnoyer and encouraging troops to fight on as bravely as he had . Some of these cults to the unknown and courageous were sometimes expressed towards groups and regiments like the martyrs of Granville, celebrated in a military parade on 23rd July, 1794 . Hence, given the effect Revolutionary propaganda had on troops in the early years, the rise of a militarist ideology is unsurprising considering the growing autonomy of armies, and the emphasis of their propaganda on military duty and obedience.

Historians of the Revolutionary wars tend to be divided on how far ideology played a part in troop motivation, some arguing that Revolutionary spirit and patriotism were driving forces whilst others claim the role of ideology decreased over time as armies distanced themselves from France. However, this is a non-argument, since the armies continued to be politically exposed throughout the period, whether from government, sociétes populaires or army leadership. Hence, it appears evident that ideology was indeed a significant motivational factor throughout the Revolutionary wars. Nonetheless, to simply define such ideology as Revolutionary spirit would be misleading and reductionist, as this was mainly influential in the early years. Instead, as fighting went on, the French armies progressively turned to a different ideology revolving around the cult of the military itself, here described as Patriotic Militarism. This switch, particularly observable in soldier diaries was also characterised by changing war aims, such as the focus on peace and economic prosperity, rather than spreading Revolutionary ideas. Of course, this process is tricky to trace chronologically, and certainly varied depending on the profile of each army and their leaderships.

Hence, two factors can be branded as recurrent ideological motivations throughout the period. The first may be identified with the concept of ‘just war’ often discussed by military historians, originally in the name of Revolutionary principles of individual freedom, and later from the claim of fighting to achieve peace in Europe . Secondly, the idea of patriotism, the longevity of which is explicable in the subjectivity of such concept as serving the best interest of one’s nation. The final chapter will assess the role of group dynamics within the army as motivation factors.

End of Part 3

One thought on “Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 3, by Valentin Boulan)

  1. Pingback: Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 2, by Valentin Boulan) | PublisHistory Blog

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