In 1783 a French foreign office report stated that if France continued down its long line of defeat after defeat, it would soon become “a power of secondary rank limited to Continental Europe”. Indeed, France in the years before the revolution could be considered a failure in war and all things having to do with the military. In 1763 The Seven Years’ War ended, depriving France of much of its colonial holdings in Canada and India. On the continent, the war saw an inferior Prussian army of 22,000 defeat a French army of 34,000. France’s support of the American Revolution beginning in 1778 ended in success for the Americans, but in bankruptcy for the French. Every French initiative during the conflict ended in failure. In 1779 a British fleet of 30 ships turned back a French fleet twice that size bound for an invasion of England. Attacks on the island of Jersey in 1779 and 1781, as well as an attempted siege if Gibraltar in 1783, likewise ended in failure.
Why was the most populous, culturally influential, and richest nation in Europe losing battle after battle? Perhaps a more interesting question would be how did this nation in decline rise to conquer all of continental Europe a few decades later? Yet more interesting is the answer. France under Louis XV and Louis XVI had already made the reforms necessary to transform the French army in to a force that was technologically the same as the one Napoleon used to conquer Europe; all that was needed were changes in its management and a revolutionary spirit. In other words, France during The Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution wielded the same technological weapon as it did during the Napoleonic Wars. All that had changed was the motivation and the leadership. In a century that counted only sixteen years when the European continent was completely at peace, there were great changes taking place throughout the militaries of the great powers in the 18th century, including France’s. Three major changes were made in France’s military in the years directly preceding the French Revolution: the introduction of light infantry, the restructuring of large armies in to divisions, and the revolution in artillery technology.
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light infantry was first used by Austria to stop Fredrick of Prussia when he invaded the Hapsburg Empire in 1740. As is often in the case in new developments in the art of war, necessity was the mother of invention in this case. Austria had been caught by surprise and forced to scrape together retired veterans and arm them with only the basics. This lightly armed, more mobile soldier, highly trained in the use of his only weapon, the rifle, amassed an impressive record in battle and soon became standard to any army. The French were introduced to light infantry during their attack on Savoy in 1743. Soon the French saw the need for light infantry in its own armies.
They acted as “skirmishers” who stayed out in front of their army while it was marching forward, and stayed behind when it was in retreat. Often skirmishers were decisive in deciding when and where on the landscape the main armies would fight. While light infantry was being introduced to protect the main army to and from its destinations, the main armies themselves were being restructured. Previously the army, however many soldiers had been amassed to fight in it, had acted as a single unit no matter what. With the massive growth in the size of armies at this time, however, new organization was needed. In 1787 the French adopted a style of organizing its army in to self-sufficient units called “divisions”.
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The division became the basic administrative unit, in which up to 12,000 infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, together with engineers, and other ancillary groups, were organized under a single commander and his staff. In theory several different divisions (often there were three) would march in separate columns less than a days march from one another. This made a large army more manageable. Then when the time came to engage the enemy, the commander could send messages easily to the other divisions to converge on a particular point, or perhaps establish a flank. These changes were accompanied by the creation, for the first time, of a powerful and yet still fully mobile field artillery. In the time of Louis XIV and before, artillery had mainly been used in long sieges, in which there was time to bring up heavy guns and slowly wear down a stationary enemy. Under Louis XV, efforts were made to create shorter barreled, lighter artillery that could be used specifically against troops in the field.
Calibers, carriages, and equipment were all standardized and made interchangeable. At the same time gun founders in France demonstrated that with more accurate casting, they could reduce the amount of gunpowder needed per blast by fifty percent. This made it possible to slim down the barrels, because the concussion caused by the powder was less. All these advances made for smaller, lighter, highly effective artillery. In the 1750’s and 1760’s the average weight of a French field gun dropped from 1,300 pounds to just 600. This enabled artillery pieces to be pulled by only three horses and manned by only eight men. More importantly, this meant that artillery could now keep up with the more mobile, faster moving armies.
With these changes taking place, why did the French army remain so incompetent? The answer lies in the leadership and the motivation of the troops. With the growth of the absolute monarchy grew the idea that only nobles should be in charge of France’s army. By 1751 proof of nobility was required to attend the best military school in the country, the Ecole Militaire. In 1772 it was required to attend the artillery schools, and in 1776 the engineering schools. By 1789 nobility comprised 90 percent of all officers in France. Even worse, was that the system had nothing to do with merit. “With or without merit it was traditional that a young court noble, after a few years as a nominal captain, for form’s sake, should be appointed colonel and have a regiment”. Noble birth, especially high noble birth, was the single most important factor in promotion and appointment.
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A court noble could expect to become a general officer by age 39, a provincial noble by age 58, regardless of their talent. With this system little could be done to promote professionalism. Officers preferred to stay at home and enjoy their luxuries rather than spend any time with their troops. On the battlefield this translated in to many French armies with incompetent leaders. The other problem with the army was that its troops cared little for the causes that it fought for. The military under Louis XV and XVI was largely a tool for the government to protect its own personal interests with.
Soldiers were only kept in line with harsh discipline. The light infantry skirmishers that could have been so useful were often not deployed because their commanders feared that it would be too easy for them to desert. In a typical year a combat unit could expect to lose roughly 20 percent of its strength to desertion and illness. This is not surprising considering how badly the soldiers were treated. The army was recruited from the lowest walks of life, and was usually cajoled, forced, tricked, or drunk in to service. This is a far call from the days of Napoleon, when his presence alone once inspired his armies to march an incredible 500 miles in 15 days. The ideals of the revolution had created a sense of strong commitment to France and its cause among the army. Frenchmen for the first time believed that the reason their leaders were fighting was the same reason why they were.
The government had truly earned the right to ask for the ordinary French citizen’s life in battle. Napoleon also did away with the poor aristocratic system of promotion based on nobility, and instead promoted on the sole basis of merit. Now the ordinary man with enough talent could expect to be promoted through the ranks without limit. Along with glory on the battlefield came money, status, recognition, and command. Not to be forgotten when assessing why the revolutionary French army enjoyed such successes is the sheer genius of Napoleon himself. Hitler’s lightning fast blitzkrieg that conquered France in weeks was a direct descendent of Napoleon’s own tactics. No longer did cumbersome armies play a defensive role in the fear of expending wasted resources and losing men to defection.
The Term Paper on Was Napoleon Bonaparte The Saviour Or The Destroyer Of The Ideals Of The French Revolution
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Napoleon’s highly mobile armies actively sought out and destroyed its enemies. The light cavalry, divisions, and mobile field artillery of Louis XV and Louis XVI were all essential ingredients to this mighty war machine. All that was needed was a change in the leadership, and a cause to fight for. The declining power that had lost battle after battle to technologically and numerically inferior enemies in the late 18th century, form 1807 to 1812 could call itself the undisputed ruler of all Europe.
Adelman, Jonathan R.. Revolution, Armies, and War, A Political History. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1985. Lefebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution. Pinceton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988..