Jun 01 2011
Contemporary views are often a useful corrective to how we see situations 200 years ago through the wrong end of the telescope. The following article, the first of two on the subject, considers a contemporary assessment of the French army.
‘It is impossible not to acknowledge, that the French Army, in its fabric and system, in its mode of levy and supply, excels every other army in Europe; and that it is clearly by this superiority of system, and by the promptitude by which it is raised and repaired, that it has at once overwhelmed and conquered the Continent.’1
Thus wrote an anonymous contributor to The Royal Military Chronicle in December 1810. At that time the Anglo-Portuguese army in the Peninsula was hemmed into a small area of Portugal behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, on the verge of being pushed into the sea by Marshal Masséna’s forces (a direct contrast to the way we now perceive Wellington’s strategic masterstroke). The Austrians had been defeated at Wagram and forced to the negotiating table. Most of Europe lay quiescent under French power and influence, except for the bands of guerrillas that roamed the Iberian Peninsula. But what were these irregulars against the might of the French army?
The question that the writer of this article on the army that had conquered Europe sought to answer was, quite simply, ‘How?’ In other words, what made the French army so superior to all others? For this writer, it was all a matter of political will. While other European powers, to greater or lesser extent, regarded their armies as a means of defence:
‘The French Government alone avow the system of conquest as the principal of their administration; and have framed their military code with a direct and even acknowledged view to this end. France is, therefore, a military government, and her military are a purposed engine and instrument of conquest.’2
Such a policy needed a new way of raising an army and maintaining its manpower; if the army was to remain effective (crucially important when a nation was set on conquest), the mode of levy had to be efficient. For the writer of the article, this was a matter of civil liberty. The norm in Europe was voluntary enlistment, with varying amounts of civil inducement. Militias, with their less rigorous demands on the individual citizen, might well use ballots. Even here, however, exceptions were made and substitution was permitted. Similarly, the Russian army relied on magistrates to fill the ranks, but the system was random and often inefficient.
France adopted a different course. When the country rid itself of the old order it:
‘availed itself of a republican enthusiasm to establish the most perfect military despotism, and on the basis of liberty has reared the conscription’.
The writer, obviously a liberal-minded man, appreciated the irony of this situation. The French had created:
‘a system, which, under the pretext of defending liberty, has comprehended the whole nation in one iron chain of servitude; and what is still worse, because tending to the perpetuity of the system, by flattering the vanity of the people has reconciled them to their slavery.’3
This last point was justified, in the writer’s opinion, by the response of those who were conscripted. They might lament the chance, or mischance, that had taken them into the army, but they did not protest against the evils of the system itself, nor did they rise against those who administered it. And those who escaped the ballot rejoiced for themselves while still urging their unfortunate neighbours to do their duty. National pride and the achievements of the French armies the length and breadth of Europe were powerful inducements to accept the ‘iron chain of servitude’.
French infantry in action at Waterloo
For the liberal Briton, viewing with contradictory feelings (in which a sneaking admiration could not be suppressed) the triumphs of the nation in arms and the system on which these triumphs were based, ‘this horrible conscription’ was:
‘an engine of as much cruelty as of efficiency; an engine which has at once enslaved France, and conquered Europe. It is certainly impossible that any regular government, or any free people, could tolerate a system of such unmixed despotism; to say all in a word, it is so purely, so simply, and so completely despotic, that nothing but the precipitate anarchy, and contradictory enthusiasm of liberty itself, could have given it birth.’4
Several final points are worth noting. As the writer of the article makes clear by linking conscription to the days of the Revolution, Napoleon did not create the system which enabled him to dominate Europe; but he refined it and used it with ruthless efficiency. It also made him somewhat careless of the lives of his soldiers, since the system guaranteed replacements. Unlike Wellington, who had to husband his resources, the most important of which was manpower. When Wellington looked at the ranks of the British army, filled with the ‘scum of the earth’, he regretted that his own force did not embrace the wide social mix which, in his opinion, brought the stability of educated men into the ranks of the French army. Yet it is doubtful whether Wellington, conservative to the core of his being, could have countenanced the intrusive bureaucracy which supported the French system – and which I shall consider in detail next month.
- The Royal Military Chronicle, December 1810 p.100
- Ibid p.100
- Ibid p.101
- Ibid p.108