Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 4, by Valentin Boulan)

Motivating the citizen soldiers: French troops and the Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802 (Part 4, by Valentin Boulan)

Chapter Three: On the importance of Group Dynamics

Studies about troop motivations have often been subject to a heated two sided debate, concerned by whether broad ideas or group dynamics within regiments themselves played a greater role in galvanising soldiers. Debates about understanding the German army’s actions during the Holocaust, for instance, have been divided in such a way. On the one hand, historians like Goldhagen and Dressen have argued that the Einsatzgruppen, the German extermination troops in Eastern Europe, were driven by a strong commitment to Nazism and anti-Semitic beliefs, and essentially took part in massacres against Jewish populations because they agreed with the ideological motives behind such crimes . However in recent years, an opposing school of thought has developed with Browning, who rather claims that German troops were ‘Ordinary Men’ whose actions were determined by the context they were put in within the battalion. Consequently, he argues that fear of punishment, the banalization of the killing process of civilians, respect for an apparently legitimate figure of authority (as suggested by Milgram’s notorious psychological study) and solidarity with one’s comrade were the determinant factors to troops carrying out their shameful orders, not commitment to Nazism .

Similarly, many studies about the American military failure in Vietnam agree that the lack of motivation of troops was central to the debacle. However, there has been a split between those who argued that this was caused by a lack of support for the ideological motives behind US involvement, and those who point to poor army management, due to incompetent leadership and a far too regular rotation system which prevented the development of strong ties among soldiers . Strangely, such debate is largely absent from the historiography of the Revolutionary wars, and very few historians have paid attention to the impact of attitudes and rapports between soldiers themselves, and their impact on troop motivations. This final chapter will focus on this very task.

One of the main driving factors of French Revolutionary troops was the rapid, indiscriminate promotion system which characterised the army, and meant that many were motivated by personal ambition. Indeed, by 1794, an estimated 49% of serving officers had been volunteers from 1791-2, whilst in 1793 alone 32 officers were directly promoted from lieutenant or captain to major general . Furthermore, whilst under the Ancien Régime positions of high authority were exclusive to the aristocracy, leadership qualities after 1792 were not determined by pre-war social status, which meant ambition was a socially widespread occurrence. Equally, age was not regarded as an important feature to determine soldiers’ ability, as shown by the fact that by 1794, more than half of generals had yet to reach the age of 45, and by 1797 36% of infantry sous-lieutenants were not yet 35! This is coherent since the Convention had purged much of the old military educated, noble class, which created a need for new competent leaders. The importance of military promotion, hence, unsurprisingly transpires through many soldier letters. ‘I shan’t conceal from you’, Louis Godeau wrote to his parents when he heard he may be allowed to return home, ‘that in some ways I should prefer to stay with my unit, where I have realistic ambitions for the future, coming back to see you from time to time’ . This ambition was most abruptly expressed by Citizen Pascal Blazy’s very short letter to his wife, to whom he only wrote ‘My Dear Wife, I was made corporal five months back. Your good friend Pascal Blazy, a corporal!’ Hence, whilst in previous French armies soldiers were often deprived both in pay and status, the Revolutionary army arguably offered a more meritocratic system, which motivated troops to better themselves in order to achieve their personal goals and attain a higher status and a more comfortable life within the army.

Another important troop motivation within the army was leadership. This is most obvious from Bricard’s diary, who belonged to the Northern army which witnessed the betrayal of Dumouriez, as well as the dismissal of many other leaders of suspected anti-republicanism, and nearly fell into chaos in 1793 as mutinies increasingly broke out and morale dramatically declined . In The Face of Battle, Keegan argues that the presence of the English king at Agincourt, and the leadership of public school officers during WWI were effective because of the moral effect they had on troops, who respected them and fought for them . This suggests that leadership from socially higher individuals is desirable, an idea which tied with the lack of experience of French leaders previously highlighted, has led many historians to argue that French generals and officers were incompetent and not respected by fellow soldiers as legitimate authority figures, because they regarded them as equals, both in rank and knowledge . On the other hand, it can be argued that success despite the great material disadvantage of the French army, coupled by the fact that leaders were chosen on merit rather than class stands as evidence that the French leaders of 1792 were at least as capable as their predecessors.

In addition, lower rank leaders were usually popular because they were often directly elected by their troops. Certainly, the law of 21st February 1793 had ruled that two-thirds of promotions from sergeant to lieutenant colonel should be decided from the vote of battalion members, which meant the troops were led by men they personally appreciated . Consequently, the wars witnessed the emergence of a new, exemplary type of leadership, as officers benefited from a new set of relationships with their men, with whom they shared both similar social backgrounds and exposition to danger and deprivation on the battlefield. Hence, unlike military leaders under the Ancien Régime, they no longer lived in a separate world, and popular practices such as the improvement of pay and distribution of alcohol to reward troops after important victories became more common, reflecting the new, more personal bonds between soldiers of different ranks .

Finally, leaders gave their troops a sense of identity and pride. This is most observable from the evolution of army flags in this period, on which the original Revolutionary slogans were eventually replaced by names of famous victories and generals, despite government orders. The association of specific battles with generals transpires through soldier writings. For instance, whereas in the early stages of war victories were depicted as the triumph of armies from particular geographic locations, when Fricasse discussed a victory over Austrian troops in Berg, he described it as the success of General Moreau, rather than that of the troops he commanded . This meant that although as the army became professionalised, hierarchy became more distinct as it had been under the Ancien Régime, the popularity of leaders remained high, not only because of the propaganda explicated in Chapter Two, but also because they were regarded as having worked their way up and proved their worth. Therefore, it can be argued that troops were motivated by the admiration and unprecedented close relationships they had with their leaders.

As well as between troops and leaders, the close bonds within the primary group, that is the men within battalions themselves, also played a vital part in motivating troops to fight. This is confirmed by many recent studies or warfare. Focusing on the US army during WWII, Stephen Ambrose for instance argues that unit cohesion, teamwork, the development of a sense of family in the squad and platoon, are the qualities most combat veterans point to when asked how they survived and won . This has been supported by Janowitz and Shils’ study of surrender, which suggests that troops either capitulated because they had failed to be accepted by the primary group, or because they had taken part in ‘some token or carefully scripted ritual of resistance to satisfy group honour before surrender’ .

One of the reasons why primary bonds were so strong within the Revolutionary army, in particular, rests with the way in which uprisings were organised. As these were regionally based, they assembled men of close geographic areas, and sometimes even the same towns. This is particularly important bearing in mind the vast regional differences which still characterised France by the late 18th century, and hence had a strong bonding effect, helping new members to settle more easily and giving them buddies to fight for on the battlefield. Writing to his parents after enrolling, Chanal, a shoemaker from the Vosges confirmed this, explaining that making friends from his own region helped his integration, concluding ‘Military service is not as dreadful as I’d been given to believe’, adding ‘I could even get to like it’ . Furthermore, it was very common for men to enlist either with friends or relatives, which gave them yet another reason to fight. Indeed, in his diary Bricard, who had joined the army with his brother and would eventually come across two of his cousins in another regiment, admits that in battle, all his attention was on his brother, who served on the same artillery piece . The importance of pre-war ties is also well illustrated in Fricasse’s diary, which recalls that when a soldier in the Austrian army realised his brother fought for the French, he went over to fight for the other side !

Whilst pre-war ties were important, particularly in the early years, the conditions of army life cemented bonds between all troops, who relied on one another to keep up morale, prevent loneliness and keep themselves occupied. Certainly, the dullness of everyday life, usually consisting of being in camp, guarding and endless marching was often filled by discussions, games, chanting and storytelling, as well as rituals like ‘greasing the marmite’, tradition whereby new recruits would offer their fellow soldiers alcoholic drinks on their first night with the troops . Describing his fellow’s reactions to a dreary day in camp, a soldier named Noel writes ‘Instead of complaining in the tent when it rains, all of us sing together as loud as we can; this makes a noise to drive the clouds away ’. The routine of army life, which grouped troops into small, intimate battalions ranging from 14-16, also meant that soldiers had to work together to prepare food or build shelter when necessary, whilst sharing collective tents for 7 or 8 which, undoubtedly, further contributed to strengthen unit bonds . Therefore, since troops found and developed strong ties with their army comrades, the importance of the primary group as a motivational factor within the French army cannot be overlooked.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that coercion, the fear of retribution and punishment for disobeying orders was also a consistent factor in driving French troops to fight. As previously mentioned, this was ruthlessly enforced by commissaries sent by the Convention in the early years, as officers faced the paradoxical task of maintaining order among soldiers regarded as free citizens. This, as well as the government policy of encouraging soldiers to denounce any suspect misbehaviour following the treason of Dumouriez in the spring of 1793, created a climate of fear and suspicion within the army, which intimidated men into conformity .

Furthermore, executions both of nobles and troops found to be traitors were often carried out in front of the army, and had a double effect to punish the guilty while deterring others. In his diary, Bricard recalls an occasion when a young man yet to turn 18 was executed for stealing money from an old lady in an occupied city, and how it left all the soldiers who had to witness the event in tears . This shows both the psychological impact of witnessing punishment, and the harsh sentences for misbehaving troops. As the paranoia of 1793 diminished and loyalty from troops and leadership grew, it became less necessarily to scare soldiers into obedience, and by 1794-5 mutinies and desertions became rare. Instead, this was replaced by the strong level of authority and obedience expected from a professional army in action, which characterised the army from the second part of the Revolutionary wars to the end of the Napoleonic era.

Therefore, as well as the impact of ideas, there was a variety of factors within the army itself which acted as motivating factors for troops, such as the a rapid, meritocratic promotion system for career driven, competent soldiers. Furthermore, the strong ties developed between soldiers of all ranks encouraged troops to fight both for their battalion buddies and their respected leaders. This is important since studies of troop cohesion have suggested that strong primary group ties without strong hierarchical ties may have a negative effect on motivation, and encourage disobedience . Finally, coercion also played a part, largely caused by the strict punishment system in place in the early years of war. Although the army very much evolved throughout the wars, these all remained consistent characteristics, and contributed to the esprit de corps which kept the army together in spite of the trauma of battle and poor living conditions.

End of Part 4


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