Towards a new Republic-Nation-Army triad
The test of the Franco-Prussian War not only shed a cruel and revealing light on France’s defensive failings and the French people’s lack of battle-readiness. It also served as a catalyst for the changes which the country had up until then hesitated to introduce, disaster making the transformations already under discussion before the war inevitable.
The defeat at Sedan, on 1 September 1870, led to the collapse of the imperial regime. The illusion of efficiency of an army of old soldiers was dramatically called into question. On 26 January 1871, the young Republic, born on 4 September the previous year and which resumed the fighting, called for an armistice. The new armies created by Gambetta, war and interior minister in the provisional Government of National Defence, to which volunteers flocked to enlist, had been unable to avert disaster. The myth of a people invincible when defending a just cause, even if ill-prepared – a myth which the Republicans had taken to its pinnacle with the Niel Law – crumbled. They were forgetting that the French Revolution had taken advantage of an (albeit short) interval between the first wave of volunteers and the declaration of war. Ten months of training had enabled those of 1791 to put on a good show alongside their comrades in the regular army, and at Valmy the Republic-Nation-Army triad was founded. Even the mass mobilisation of August 1793 had nothing of the spontaneous uprising which the Parisian sans-culottes dreamed of. Similarly, the Gardes Mobiles had not been very experienced when they were thrown into the crucible and the francs-tireurs had been unable to check the German advance.
Meeting between Napoleon III and Bismarck, on 2 September 1870 at Donchery, after the Battle of Sedan, after Wilhelm Camphausen, 1878
New, stronger links between the French people and military affairs
The army was not held responsible for these disasters by the conservatives, who formed the majority in the new French parliament. They lashed out at “imperial excesses”, in a climate of expiation which foreshadowed that of summer 1940 and affected conservatives of every stripe, even if they drew different conclusions. Quite apart from being the instrument of a distant and as yet improbable revenge, the army was conceived as the receptacle of values forgotten by a society held responsible for the decline – the obsession of those years of “contemplation” – and “apocalypse” of the Commune. It must become the backbone of a society in need of discipline, “masculinisation” and regeneration..
Léon Gambetta. Sources : SHD
In this “republic without republicans”, the conservatives were tormented by remorse at having escaped and allowed the sons of the elites to escape their common duty. This repentance favoured the association of a belief in order with a belief in the nation, and a transfer of sacrality to the army, whose values must be disseminated throughout society. Up until that time, however, the conscription system, which affected only a small number of young men, had not allowed this to happen. There were lessons to be learned from the Prussian victory not only by the conservatives, but by their republican opponents, who were convinced that the true victor of Sedan was the Prussian education system. It was up to French schools to prepare the future victors, and sheer force of numbers did not mean there should be no investment in war technology. Now no longer improvising, Gambetta, in a speech in Bordeaux on 26 June 1871, said: “The day when it will be clearly understood that we have no greater, more urgent work to do [...] that we have but one task – to educate the people, to disseminate education and science in a torrent – that day will be a landmark on the road to our regeneration; but twofold action is required, involving the development of both the mind and the body [...] I don’t want these men only to think and to reason; I want them to be able to act and to fight. Everywhere, gymnasts and soldiers should be placed alongside schoolteachers, so that our children, our soldiers, our fellow citizens are all able to hold a sword, handle a rifle, go on long marches, sleep under the stars and valiantly endure all of the motherland’s hardships. These two types of education must be promoted in tandem, for otherwise you shall have a literate population, but not a patriotic one [...] In a word, let us be truthful and let it be perfectly clear to everyone: in France, when a citizen is born, he is born a soldier, and anyone who shrinks from the twin duties of civic and military education should be mercilessly deprived of their rights as citizens and voters.”
Adolphe Thiers. Source : SHD
These considerations of politicians – except for Thiers, who remained true to his positions – were aligned with French people’s perceptions in some departments, but not all. After 1814-15, a harsh occupation had caused a swing in favour of conscription in some areas that had been against it. After 1871, the experience – new to some, revived for others, and admirably described in certain short stories by Maupassant – transformed French people’s relationship with military affairs.
The advent of compulsory military service
Military, ideological and societal reasons militated in favour of compulsory military service, unthinkable just a few months earlier.
The entrance to the Bouviers Battery, Guyancourt, Yvelines. Source: GNU Free Documentation License
Two other organic laws were passed with a view to adapting to the military revolution, centred on the speed at which troops were mobilised then transported to the field of battle. The law of 24 July 1873 created 18 army corps corresponding to 18 military regions, the 19th being Algeria. The law of 13 March 1875 concerned officers, of which there were now a permanent number, established by law.