Conscripts and Deserters – Alan Forrest

The rise of nationalism is often attributed to the French Revolution when the people of France removed the yoke of the Ancien Régime, established a republican government, and enthusiastically entered the military to defend la Patrie from counterrevolutionary forces.  However, this militant nationalism lasted only briefly as the French Revolutionary Wars progressed into Napoleonic Wars.  In order to supply the manpower needed for the large armies of the era, the First Republic and the Empire instituted a nationwide conscription policy to supply men for the armies.  These conscription policies and the French peoples reaction to them from 1792 – 1814 are the subject of Alan Forrest’s book Conscripts and Deserters.  In this study, Forrest argues that the governments of the Republic and the Empire faced enormous opposition to their conscription policies from the people of France and that this opposition increased state power as the government developed newer and broader policies to locate deserters and draft dodgers who resented, challenged, and successfully evaded conscription policies. 

           Forrest places this opposition within the framework of local tradition and demonstrates that during the Ancien Régime conscription, an always unpopular policy, was a regional affair whereby men joined local regiments under the authority of a local notable, moreover, he shows that evasion and desertion were a natural part of rural life particularly during the harvest.  Forrest also discusses the immediate impact of the revolution on the army revealing that the republican government eliminated conscription and attempted to create an all-volunteer army led by men of talent rather than aristocrats.  Inspired by patriotism and nationalism thousands of joined the army, however, this new found enthusiasm diminished by 1793 as France remained in a perpetual state of war.  Unable fill the ranks, the central governments instituted a series of recruitment drives: the levee des 300,000, a supplemental draft for the Vendeé, the levee en mass, and finally the Jourdan Law of 1798 which aimed to continually replenish the army by registering all unmarried men between the ages of 20 – 25.  The Jourdan Law lasted through the Napoleonic era and by 1814 two to three million Frenchmen had served in army.  After demonstrating the French army’s growing need for manpower, Forrest describes the roots and the extent of evasion and desertion by examining regionalism and local traditions, the deserters’ relationship with civilian society, and the deserter as a criminal and counterrevolutionary.  Following this in-depth examination of evasion and desertion, Forrest then explores the strategies employed by the state to locate, arrest, and punish dodgers and deserters.  Government tools included government commissioners, recruiting officers, the gendarmes, and mobile military columns that searched villages.  These tactics along with effective policing, a professional bureaucracy, and the habit of annual conscription weakened resistance to conscription, but government intrusions into everyday life continued to spark outrage and anger throughout France and thousands of young men continued to challenge the law and avoid military service. 

            Forrest’s study is based on archival research in France.  The author’s source base is derived from not only the state archives in Paris but also from regional archives throughout France.   This broad source bases is especially important to Forrest’s arguments that focus on the regionalism and traditionalism of rural France.  By utilizing sources, such as government documents, court testimonies, recruiting registars, and soldiers’ letters, from differing regions of France, Forrest can display the regional vagaries of France’s population towards conscription.  This is evident in his descriptions of the Vendeé, where religion played a significant role in rebellion, and the selfishness and royalist inclinations of Bordeaux.  Furthermore, this source base not only reveals the uniqueness of French regionalism but also displays the wide ranging opposition towards the government’s conscription policies.  Because of his broad archival research, Forrest is able demonstrate that though evasion and desertion were rooted differently by regions, they were a national reaction towards the intrusion of the state into what were still considered private village matters.  Finally, Forrest’s broad source base and scholarship argue against popular conceptions of the French Revolutionary Armies and Napoleonic Armies as bastions of patriotism and nationalism and instead suggests that the army consisted of reluctant soldiers. 

            While not mentioned in the author’s bibliography, Forrest’s narrative on conscription supports the arguments put forth by Eugen Weber in his work Peasants into Frenchmen which examines the process by which peasants were culturally, economically, and linguistically incorporated into the nation of France.  Weber’s study suggests that prior to the late nineteenth century peasant society remained localized and differed from the metropole in significant ways including: language, whereby only local elites and government employees learned proper French while schools taught the local dialect, and non-integration into the national economy where peasants survived as subsistence farmers trading locally for goods.  In Forrest’s study of what he terms “a peasant army,” he characterizes those men who avoided conscription or later deserted as homesick or worried about the local harvest. (7)  Furthermore, he also depicts France as regional society and shows that certain regions of the nation differed in their support of the army and in their willingness to participate in conscription.  For example, he describes the plains of the East, which often saw marching armies, as a “model of obedience and patriotic devotion” (71) while the city of Bordeax was the “capital of desertion” (81) and men from Pyrenees “took full advantage of their proximity to Spain.” (83)  Thus, Forrest, like Weber, displays a regionalized and rural society full of small farming communities that resisted government intrusion into their local communities; moreover, they both show that the expansion of the state played a crucial role in the molding of peasants into Frenchman. 

            Conscripts and Deserters is a work of social history which attempts to explain how ordinary people lived and the techniques they developed to cope with their lives.  Forrest achieves this goal by examining the relationship between the French people and the state and the strategies developed by young men, their families, and communities do evade conscription in the French army.  Forrest details why young men evaded conscription: fear of death, future employment prospects, homesickness, the harvest, or missing one’s sweetheart, and then shows how they attempted to evade the French authorities.  This usually involved a physician’s excuse, self-mutilation, hiding in the wilderness, becoming a migrant worker, disappearing into larger cities, or emigrating to another country.  Furthermore, Forrest exhibits that the entirety of rural society was involved in hiding and helping young men evade conscription from the town mayor to the local physician to an individual’s parents.  This in turn led to the development of strategies by the state to find and locate conscripts including bribing prostitutes, innkeepers, and barkeepers, developing mobile columns of soldiers that swept entire villages, and, in rare cases, entering full churches on holidays.  All of these examples demonstrate how members of society developed differing approaches to manage with the problems of in their lives.  

            Overall, the argument put forth by Forrest is convincing because he clearly shows that contrary to popular belief the people of France did not rally to the flag in waves of militant nationalism during the French Revolutionary Wars or the Napoleonic Wars, but remained tied to the traditionalism and localism that existed during the Ancien Regime.  However, while convincing, there are shortcomings that need to be address.  The major problem is that author is writing for a very particular and specialized audience which has read deeply on the subject of the French Revolution.  If the reader approaches the book without prior knowledge to insurrection in the Vendeé, the rebelliousness of the Pyrenees, or Napoleon’s rise to power, the actions and developments by the state appear obscure.  Furthermore, because the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically and because the author chooses to use the French Revolutionary calendar, the reader is unable to differentiate between the policies implemented by the republic and those implemented by Napoleon.  Finally, this edition of Forrest’s study, which seems aimed at an English speaking audience, leaves all of his quotations untranslated in the original French.  All of these characteristics show that this book is aimed at the specialist of the French Revolution. 

            Though written for the specialist, there are other deficiencies in Forrest’s scholarship.  First, while Forrest presents a full picture of conscription in the rural regions of France, he rarely addresses the urban areas except to discuss the royalist stronghold of Bordeaux.  Though France was a peasant society at this time, 20 percent of the population lived in urban areas and the author fails to address whether urban centers were resistant to conscription or if the state used similar strategies to locate and arrest deserters in French cities.  Secondly, Forrest notes that almost three million men, or about 42 percent of male population, were incorporated in the French army during the period examined, but he never discusses why so many fought in the armies.  Though the focus of his work is on desertion, Forrest should still address the reasons and motives why so many participated.  Finally, Forrest seems to contradict himself at times as well.  He states that “the later years [of conscription] were relatively untroubled by violence,” (42) but states that in 1806 officers encountered armed opposition from villagers and that village riots broke out as late as 1814.  This contradictory evidence seems to reveal that the growth of state power to capture deserters and the pacification of the population was not as effective as Forrest seems to suggest.

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