Marshal Saxe and others of the younger generals were excellent commanders, and Fontenoy was a victory of the first magnitude. The administration, however, was corrupt and inefficient, and the general reputation of the French armies fell so low that Frederick the Great once refused an important command to one of his generals on the ground that his experience had been gained only against French troops.
Under Louis XVI. things improved somewhat; the American War and the successes of Lafayette and Rochambeau revived a more warlike spirit. Instruction was more carefully attended to, and a good system of drill and tactics was elaborated at the camp of St Omer. Attempts were made to reform the administration. Artillery and engineer schools had come into existence, and the intellectual activity of the best officers was remarkable (see Max Jähns, Gesch. der Kriegswissenschaften, vol. iii. passim). But the Revolution soon broke over France, and the history of the royal army was henceforward carried on by that revolutionary army, which, under a new flag, was destined to raise the military fame of France to its greatest height.
84. If Louis was the creator of the royal army, Carnot was so of the revolutionary army. At the outbreak of the Revolution the royal army consisted of 224 infantry battalions, 7 regiments of artillery, and 62 regiments of cavalry, numbering about 173,000 in all, but capable of augmentation on war strength to 210,000. To this might be added about 60,000 militia (see Chuquet, Première invasion prussienne).
The first step of the Constituent Assembly was the abrogation of an edict of 1781 whereby men of non-noble birth had been denied commissioned rank (1790). Thus, when many of the officers emigrated along with their fellows of the noblesse, trained non-commissioned officers, who would already have been officers save for this edict, were available to fill their places. The general scheme of reform (see Conscription) was less satisfactory, but the formation of a National Guard, comprising in theory the whole military population, was a step of the highest importance. At this time the titles of regiments were abandoned in favour of numbers, and the costly and dangerous Maison du Roi abolished. But voluntary enlistment soon failed; the old corps, which kept up their discipline, were depleted, and the men went to the volunteers, where work was less exacting and promotion more rapid. ”Aussi fut-on,” says a French writer, ”réduit bientôt à forcer l’engagement volontaire et à imposer le choix du corps.” The “first invasion” (July 1792) put an end to half-measures, and the country was declared “in danger.” Even these measures, however, were purely designed to meet the emergency, and, after Valmy, enthusiasm waned to such a degree that, of a paper strength of 800,000 men (December 1792), only 112,000 of the line and 290,000 volunteers were actually present. The disasters of the following spring once more called for extreme energy, and 300,000 national guards were sent to the line, a step which was followed by a compulsory levée en masse; one million men were thus assembled to deal with the manifold dangers of civil and foreign war. France was saved by mere numbers and the driving energy of the Terrorists, not by discipline and organization. The latter was chaotic, and almost every element of success was wanting to the tumultuary levies of the year 1793 save a ferocious energy born of liberty and the guillotine. But under the Terrorist régime the army became the rallying-point of the nation, and when Lazare Carnot (q.v.) became minister of war a better organization and discipline began to appear. The amalgamation of the old army and the volunteers, which had been commenced but imperfectly carried out, was effected on a different and more thorough principle. The infantry was organized in demi-brigades of three battalions (usually one of the old army to two of volunteers). A permanent organization in divisions of all arms was introduced, and the ablest officers selected for the commands. Arsenals and manufactories of warlike stores were created, schools of instruction were re-established; the republican forces were transformed from hordes to armies, well disciplined, organized and equipped. Later measures followed the same lines, and the artillery and engineers, which in 1790 were admittedly the best in Europe and which owing to the roturier element in their officer cadres had not been disorganized by the emigration, steadily improved. The infantry, and in a less degree the cavalry, became good and trustworthy soldiers, and the glorious campaigns of 1794, 1795 and 1796, which were the direct result of Carnot’s administration, bore witness to the potentialities of the essentially modern system. But, great as was the triumph of 1796-97, the exhaustion of years of continuous warfare had made itself felt: the armies were reduced to mere skeletons, and no sufficient means existed of replenishing them, till in 1798 the conscription was introduced. From that time the whole male population of France was practically at her ruler’s disposal; and Napoleon had full scope for his genius in organizing these masses. His principal improvements were effected in the interval between the peace of Amiens and the war with the third coalition, while threatening the invasion of England. His armies were collected in large camps on the coasts of the Channel, and there received that organization which, with minor variations, they retained during all his campaigns, and which has since been copied by all European nations. The divisions had already given place to the army corps, and Napoleon completed the work of his predecessors. He withdrew the whole of the cavalry and a portion of the artillery from the divisions, and thus formed “corps troops” and cavalry and artillery reserves for the whole army. The grade of marshal of France was revived at Napoleon’s coronation. At the same time, the operation of Jourdan’s law, acquiesced in during times of national danger and even during peace, soon found opposition when the conscripts realized that long foreign wars were to be their lot. It was not the actual losses of the field armies, great as these undoubtedly were, which led Napoleon in the full tide of his career to adopt the fatal practice of “anticipating” the conscription, but the steady increase in the number of réfractaires, men who refused to come up for service. To hunt these men down, no less than forty thousand picked soldiers were engaged within the borders of France, and the actual French element in the armies of Napoleon grew less and less with every extension of the empire. Thus, in the Grand Army of 1809, about one-third of the corps of all arms were purely German, and in 1812 the army which invaded Russia, 467,000 strong, included 280,000 foreigners. In other words, the million of men produced by the original conscription of 1793 had dwindled to about half that number (counting the various subsidiary armies in Spain, &c.), and one hundred thousand of the best and sturdiest Frenchmen were engaged in a sort of civil war in France itself. The conscription was “anticipated” even in 1806, the conscripts for 1807 being called up before their time. As the later wars of the Empire closed one by one the foreign sources of recruiting, the conscription became more terrible every year, with the result that more réfractaires and more trusted soldiers to hunt them down were kept in non-effective employment. Finally the capacity for resistance was exhausted, and the army, from the marshals downward, showed that it had had enough.
85. One of the first acts of the Restoration was to abolish the conscription, but it had again to be resorted to within three years. In 1818 the annual contingent was fixed at 40,000, and the period of service at six years; in 1824 the contingent was increased to 60,000, and in 1832 to 80,000. Of this, however, a part only, according to the requirements of the service, were enrolled; the remainder were sent home on leave or furlough. Up to 1855 certain exemptions were authorized, and substitution or exchange of lots amongst young men who had drawn was permitted, but the individual drawn was obliged either to serve personally or find a substitute. The long series of Algerian wars produced further changes, and in 1855 the law of “dotation” or exemption by payment was passed, and put an end to personal substitution. The state now undertook to provide substitutes for all who paid a fixed sum, and did so by high bounties to volunteers or to soldiers for re-engaging. Although the price of exemption was fixed as high as £92, on an average 23,000 were claimed annually, and in 1859 as many as 42,000 were granted. Thus gradually the conscription became