1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Conscription

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CONSCRIPTION (from Lat. con-, together, and scribere, to write), the selection, by lot or otherwise, of a proportion of the men of military age for compulsory service in the naval and military forces of their country; or, more widely, compulsory military service in any form. For a discussion of the military features of conscription and of other forms of recruiting see Army, §§ 40 ff. The present article deals with the economic and social aspects of compulsory military service, for which, generally and non-technically, the word “conscription” is used more commonly than any other. The word occurs for the first time in France in the law of the 19th Fructidor (1798), which prescribes the liability of les défenseurs conscrits to serve if required from their twentieth to twenty-fifth year of age.

There is perhaps no law on the statute-books of any nation which has exercised and is destined in the future to exercise a more far-reaching influence on the future of humanity than this little-known French act of 1798, introduced by General Jourdan to the Council of the Five Hundred, for it was the power thus conferred upon the French government which alone rendered the Napoleonic policy of conquest possible. “I can afford to expend thirty thousand men a month”; this boast of Napoleon’s, made to Metternich at Schönbrunn in 1805, has determined the trend of events from that day forward, not only on the battlefield, but also in the workshops, and forms even at the present day the chief guarantee for peace, stability and economic development upon the continent of Europe.

The idea in itself was not new. The principle that every able-bodied male is liable to be called on for the defence of the state dates from the earliest times. The essential importance of the event lies in this, that at a critical moment this law passed by an obscure body of men—absolutely in defiance of the opinion of the greatest reformer that France at that moment had discovered, Carnot, and of the feelings of a very large proportion of the whole community—became permanent by the action of causes set in motion by Napoleon, which ultimately compelled all Europe to adopt similar legislation.

To understand its full significance we must trace the line of evolution of the then existing armies of Europe.

In almost any state, in proportion as the central executive power prevailed over internal disturbance, the able-bodied males of each country ceased to have opportunities and incentives for training themselves to arms. Trade became more profitable than plunder, and men began to specialize in various directions. Wealth began to accumulate and fortresses sprang into existence for its protection, but the new fortifications required specialists for their reduction, and above all things an abundance of time. Militia forces (corresponding to the former feudal levies) neither could find the specialized labour nor would afford the time—hence the necessity arose of enlisting men who had made the use of arms their special study and were content to abide by the rules of conduct their maintenance as organized bodies imposed. But wherever Europe happened to enjoy a few years of peace, the supply of men who had trained themselves to arms naturally decreased, and the state itself was compelled to assume the task of training its recruits. This, with the exceedingly complicated nature of the weapons in use, was a very long process, and though even in the 16th century the idea of universal service was put forward by such statesmen as Machiavelli and Maurice of Nassau, practically it could not be put into force, because in the time the male population could economically give to their training, satisfactory results could not be obtained.

As Motley has pointed out in his Rise of the Dutch Republic, in the time of Alva 5000 disciplined Spaniards were a match for 20,000 and more burghers, though the latter were fighting with the courage of desperation, and were of necessity more or less inured to the horrors of warfare. But with every improvement in the nature of hand firearms this ratio of superiority of the trained soldiers tended to disappear, whilst as campaigns became fewer and shorter the difficulty of obtaining war-trained soldiers, accustomed to fighting as the Spaniards had been, always increased.

Moreover, after the peace of Westphalia—the close of the great era of religious wars—wars were made for dynastic reasons and primarily for the acquisition of territory; and since the territory was of no use without inhabitants to pay revenue, the “principle of moderation was introduced into the conduct of hostilities, altogether foreign to their nature” (Clausewitz). Men were no longer allowed to live at free quarters or to pillage towns. On the contrary, even in an enemy’s country, they had to submit to the severest restraints, and thus soldiering, being no longer remunerative, ceased to attract the more daring spirits.

Thus in the decade preceding the French Revolution soldiering had reached the very nadir of degradation all over Europe, and, though the Prussians, for instance, still retained a great relative superiority when fighting in closed bodies under the eyes of their leaders, the spirit which had led them to victory when fighting in and for their own country had entirely disappeared from their ranks when they had to face the French in their great struggle for existence.

Amongst the earliest problems of the French Revolution was the question of army reform, and compulsory service was at once proposed, and though for the time the opposition of most of the principal soldiers prevailed, ultimately a proposal was accepted by which voluntary enlistment was retained for the line, all unmarried citizens between eighteen and forty years of age constituted the militia, and the rest of the men the national guards for home defence.

The latter proved so popular that over 2,571,000 names were obtained. At once the militia was given up, and reliance was placed upon the national guard, which was called upon to furnish 169 battalions of volunteers. The result was disappointing. Only 60 incomplete battalions were furnished, and these (except for the few hundreds of enthusiasts amongst them from whom came many of the marshals, generals and colonels of the empire) were recruited from the least trustworthy sections of the community. These were the celebrated Volontaires and proved a positive scourge wherever they were quartered. It was clear that they could not meet the invaders, and the assembly decreed on the 11th of July 1792 “La patrie en danger,” and ordered every able-bodied man to consider himself liable for active service, but left it to the communes and districts to select representatives to proceed to the front. These men were called Fédérés, and seem to have been principally those whom the communes desired to get rid of.

But, though the idea of compulsion was present, the means of enforcing the law at the time were so imperfect that the result of this effort was only 60,000 men, of whom not more than half ever reached the field armies. Further, the law had announced that the liability extended only for the duration of the particular campaign, which in accordance with the prevalent idea of war was considered to terminate when winter quarters were taken up. In December, therefore, most of the men raised during the year took their discharge, and with the new year the work had to begin all over again. To fill the gaps caused by this sudden defection, and in view of the addition of Great Britain to the list of their enemies, the Convention decreed on the 20th of February 1793 a fresh compulsory levy of 500,000 men. Quotas were assigned to each department and commune, and three days’ grace was allowed to each to find their contingents by volunteering; failing this recourse was had to compulsion, all unmarried national guards between the ages of eighteen and forty being held liable. Thereupon thousands fled from their homes, and Vendée (q.v.) rose in open revolt.

Then on the 18th of March came the disaster of Neerwinden, and again the danger of invasion loomed near. In this emergency the Committee of Public Safety replaced the existing recruiting agents by special commissioners with unlimited power, and these ruthlessly hunted down those who attempted to evade their liability. Still the result was inadequate to meet the danger arising from the fall of Valenciennes and Condé. The Jacobins appeared before the Convention on the 12th of August and demanded the Levée en masse, and, using the popular outcry as a fulcrum, Carnot at length succeeded in introducing a workable scheme of compulsion, which limited the liability to service to all able-bodied men between eighteen and twenty-five, but within these limits allowed no exemptions. This became law on the 23rd of August, and it at once began to operate satisfactorily, because it was limited to a class who were neither sufficiently numerous, nor sufficiently important politically, to resist coercion. Meanwhile other factors had intervened to render military service more popular. Famine was spreading, political persecution was at its highest, and the ranks of the army became almost the only refuge where men could escape the terrors of secret denunciation. Moreover, experience in the Netherlands and the Palatinate had shown that men could live very comfortably at their enemy’s expense. All these causes combined made an immense increase in the yield of the new law, and, according to the careful estimate of the duc d’Aumâle (1867), by the 1st of January 1794 there were no less than 770,000 men under arms and available for active service. The tide of success in the north of France now definitely turned against the Allies, for they were powerless against the mobility and numbers produced by hunger and political terrorism. Bonaparte’s successes of 1796 were the highest expression of the “new French” method thus developed.

But with the respite which his victories in Italy immediately secured, a reaction against the severity of the conscription soon made itself felt, and the obvious need for internal development gave the discontented a lever for extorting concessions from the government.

To the political economists of the period it seemed a deliberate waste of productive energy to take the young merchant or clerk from his work and force a musket into his hands, whilst other men already trained were willing to renew their contract to defend the state. To regulate this question and also to define more clearly the obligations of the citizen, Jourdan introduced before the Five Hundred a report calling for a reorganization of the army. This ultimately, in the autumn of 1798, became the law of the country and remained practically unaltered as the basis of the French military organization down to 1870. The law definitely laid down the liability of every able-bodied French citizen to serve from his twentieth to his twenty-fifth year, leaving it to circumstances to determine how many classes or what proportion of each should be called up for service. Finally, after much discussion the right of exemption by payment of a substitute was conceded, and therein lay the germ of the disaster of 1870.

Meanwhile, with the assumption of the imperial title by Napoleon, the era of conquest recommenced, and as each fresh slice of territory was absorbed the French law of conscription was immediately enforced. This still further swelled the numerical preponderance against which the other nations had to contend, and each in turn was compelled to follow the French example. Prussia, however, alone pursued the idea to its logical conclusion, and in the law of 1808 definitely affirmed the principle of universal service without distinction of class or right of exemption by purchase.

Under the restrictions as to numbers imposed on Prussia by Napoleon after Tilsit, and also as a consequence of exceeding poverty, this law found only partial fulfilment, and voluntary organization had to be called into existence to meet the demand for numbers during the Wars of Liberation; but when after 1815 peace was at length assured, the system came into full operation, and it is to this that Prussia owed her phenomenal recovery from the depths of exhaustion into which the catastrophe of Jena had plunged her.

Army expenditure became the fly-wheel which steadied her disorganized finance. The troops had to be fed, clothed, equipped and housed; and the several occupations and trades involved in these processes gave profitable employment both to intellect, which was required to invent, devise and control, and to capital, which would have shirked the risks attending any but government contracts, and remained in private hoards, to the detriment of the reproductive power of the nation. The compulsory intercourse of all ranks compelled the classes to educate the masses—using the term “education” in its broadest sense. Free book-education itself had been forced on the nation as a military necessity of the moment, for without a certain degree of intellectual development in the recruits it was impossible to make soldiers of them within the short time available. But the practical value and application of the book teaching had, in sheer self-defence, to be imparted by the better-class recruits to their social inferiors, and, in the unconscious exercise of these functions as teachers of one another, all found themselves strengthened in character and universal sympathies.

The intelligence of the men reacted on the officers, who could no longer exercise authority by mere word of command, but were compelled, if they wished to survive, to teach by intelligent methods; and they were compelled to struggle for survival because outside of the army absolute ruin and destitution awaited them.

The duration of service being limited to three years, it followed that each year brought with it an influx of recruits to each battalion beyond the power of a few specialists to cope with. Hence the work had to be delegated to the captains and subalterns, who thus were compelled to become the teachers as well as the leaders of their men. The results from a military point of view were incalculable.

Perhaps the greatest benefit Prussia derived from her system during the first two generations—i.e. from 1810 to 1860—of its continuance was the insensible fusion which took place between the aristocracy and the people as a consequence of their enforced co-operation in a common task. Freed from the fear of French oppression, the court and the older men of the nobility would have swung back to the full exercise of their old feudal privileges; for as they still retained the bulk of the executive power, all the legal reforms and restrictions initiated by von Stein would have proved but paper safeguards; but the army compelled the opposing classes to understand and appreciate one another better, and the younger generation, living always with the threat of invasion impending over them, learnt by emulation from their seniors, who had led their men in battle, the true secret of command, the art of awakening the higher instincts of the men entrusted to them. If it seems to British readers that their progress was slow and that much remains to be accomplished, their starting-point at the outbreak of the French Revolution must be recalled and contrasted with that of the British army; indeed, we must go back to the time of Henry VII. to find a fair parallel.

It must be remembered too that we are speaking of Prussia only. In the other states of Germany which retained conscription with paid substitutes progress was far slower. The whole of Bavaria, Württemberg, and the districts along the Rhine had been saturated with French socialistic theories, and here the task of regeneration fell into other hands, and freedom, of a relative kind, had to be extorted by revolutionary means. To these reformers—many of them both devoted and enlightened thinkers—the armies of their own little states necessarily appeared as merely authorized oppressors of the people; and they may well be pardoned for failing to appreciate the essential differences involved in the two systems.

As the years went by, the Prussian military machine was turning out year by year an ever-increasing number of men, who by reason of the physical and moral training they had undergone were head and shoulders above the class whence they had sprung. These men soon asserted their superiority in the labour market and drove their weaker comrades to the wall. The men thus displaced, being obviously less fitted to maintain wives and families, found themselves supplanted by their stronger rivals in the affections of the women, and jealousy being thus evoked, they became as it were a nidus for revolutionary bacilli. This partly explains the temporary recrudescence of revolutionary tendencies during the ’forties and ’fifties. But the growing wealth-producing power of the nation, due to the higher average physique and power of concentration (the consequence of the military training), began to attract the attention of capitalists, and an era of railway construction set in, distributing wealth and employment about the country. This for a time relieved the congestion of the labour market, and, long before the victories of 1866 and 1870 had definitely removed the last fears of invasion, industries were beginning to spring up around the great trading centres of Germany.

With the treaty of Frankfurt the last fears of the investors vanished, and capital, hitherto dammed back by the uncertainty of land tenure, particularly in the Rhine districts, literally poured into the country, inducing an era of expansion and prosperity for which one can hardly find a parallel, even in America.

That such a period of evolution should have been attended by fluctuations lies in the nature of things. Men accustomed to deal only in hundreds find it difficult to adapt themselves to the business methods requisite to deal securely with millions, and there have been many severe crises due to over-production and speculation, which displaced large masses of workmen and brought misery to thousands of homes.

The remarkable increase of population, the direct consequence of the broader understanding of elementary hygienic principles instilled into the men during their service with the colours, brought a fresh complication into the problem. The strength of the army being definitely fixed by financial considerations, the proportion of men taken for service to the total number annually becoming liable fell off, during the ’eighties, to a very marked degree, and the men who escaped service, being as a consequence of their want of training less fitted for employment in the organized industries which were in process of evolution, swelled the ranks of the unemployed and thus afforded fresh material for the socialist propagandists to work upon. If the proportion of men escaping service rose materially above one half of the total yearly contingent of men becoming available for service, the danger lay very near that the socialist vote might soon exceed all other interests put together, thus threatening the stability of all existing institutions. To meet this danger it was determined in 1893 to increase the annual contingent whilst diminishing the duration of colour service, so that approximately two-thirds of the men available should pass through the ranks, it being held that the habit of obedience to constituted authority acquired in the army, together with the silent influence which could be exercised on the ex-soldiers and reservists by the sympathy and example of their former commanders of all ranks, formed the best possible guarantee against the undue spread of socialistic doctrine. It was never anticipated that all men who had served their two years would become partisans of constituted authority, but only that, whilst all would learn the hopelessness of armed resistance against the force which held control of the solid-drawn cartridges and artillery material, the bulk at least would recognize the substantial advantages that accrued to them personally from their previous connexion with the services, and would form a solid bulwark against the spread of subversive doctrines.

To realize the whole situation, the attitude of the leading thinkers amongst the statesmen and soldiers of Germany must be borne in mind. Socialism is to them a necessary lever to extort from capital fairer conditions for labour, capital must be fairly dealt with if the labourers’ reasonable demands are to be satisfied, and the army is the compensating lever which secures the necessary adjustments. Capital is attracted by the security of tenure ensured by a strong army, and the working classes are encouraged to put forward reasonable demands by the habits of self-respect and the sense of individuality they acquire in the army, whilst the possible danger of any abuse of the offensive power the army embodies is curbed by the fact, well known and realized by all continental soldiers, that though one may order men on to the battlefield, one cannot guarantee that they will fight when they get there unless the cause they are called on to defend appeals to the hereditary instincts of self-preservation in the race itself. It is unfortunate that sufficient attention has not yet been paid to the statistical side of this question, and concrete figures are not forthcoming to demonstrate the material benefits which have flowed from compulsory service.

Briefly, however, it may be pointed out that under modern conditions of industry the greatest national wealth-producing power resides, not as formerly in the technical skill of the individual, which machinery is gradually superseding, but in the power of continuous collective effort of organized bodies, and that physical health and the power of mental concentration are the principal qualities required by the units of such bodies. Now these are the two essential factors which modern methods of military training aim at developing, and these methods in turn evolved naturally from the conditions of service which compulsion introduced. The men who have undergone this training leave the ranks with bodies steeled to resist disease, and minds capable of prolonged concentrated effort. Hence they not only remain capable of work for a considerably longer period of time, but they also do better work throughout the whole time. It has been estimated that on the average the trained German soldier’s expectation of life is about five years better than the normal of his own class. Hence altogether about one million men are still alive and doing good work who without such training would be dead and buried; similarly there are in all some seven millions more, all doing better work day for day than they otherwise would have done.

On the whole the armies of the German states absorbed in taxation some 1500 million sterling from Waterloo (1815) up to 1906; hence if we assume the increment of wealth-producing power due to training as only two shillings a week per man, the net return on the capital invested must be regarded as enormous, and that some such economic process has been in action is sufficiently indicated by the almost incredible growth in national credit during the same period.

At the close of the Napoleonic wars, German (including Prussian) credit was actually nil, and there was hardly a town or hamlet throughout the area swept over by the French armies that was not paying heavy interest on loans raised to satisfy the rapacity of its conquerors. Many of these loans still remained unliquidated at the close of the 1870 campaign. Yet since then the credit, both of the individual states and of the empire as a whole, has risen to a point rivalling that of Great Britain, in spite of the fact that in geographical position and in material resources the country is by no means favourably situated.

These advantages have followed on the introduction of compulsory service in Germany—not because there is any inherent virtue in the principle of compulsion in itself, but because it happened that, at the moment compulsion became necessary, the idea was exactly adapted to its environment, and the driving forces necessary to ensure its permanency remained in full activity. Primarily there existed an aristocracy numerically sufficient to fill the offices of instructorship to the masses, and poverty compelled this aristocracy to accept the new responsibility. In the second place there was the knowledge of what war really means, sufficiently vivid and fresh in the minds of the masses to induce them to submit to the necessary restraints of military discipline. When these causes were no longer in full activity, there remained, as sufficient incentive to those still in the active phase of their training, the knowledge that the nation at large, and more particularly the women, fully appreciated the sacrifices that all ranks were compelled to make.

In other nations these driving forces have been absent. Thus in Russia the aristocracy was both numerically and intellectually inadequate to the tasks compulsion entailed upon it. But generally it can be seen that the success or failure of the system has been in exact proportion to the degree in which these driving forces have been available. The failure of compulsion if applied in the British Isles would be due to the fact that the principal factor of its success—the knowledge of what war must mean and the risk of immediate invasion—cannot be brought home to the people as long as the British navy retains its predominance. If the navy is adequate to prevent invasion, then compulsion is unnecessary; if it is inadequate, then the only way to make good its inadequacy is to bring home to the electors by a course of partial training the consequences which must ensue if they continue to neglect it.  (F. N. M.)