Towards a new Republic-Nation-Army triad

La foule devant le Corps législatif au matin du 4 septembre 1870, Jacques Guiaud, 1871. Musée Carnavalet

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.

Corps 1

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.


Napoléon III et Bismarck

Meeting between Napoleon III and Bismarck, on 2 September 1870 at Donchery, after the Battle of Sedan, after Wilhelm Camphausen, 1878


Finally, in addition to the trauma of foreign war came that of civil war, when the uprising of the Paris Commune broke out.


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.

A parliamentary committee was set up on 17 May 1871, even before the end of the Commune. Comprised of 45 members from across the political spectrum except for the far left, its job was to draw up a bill to restructure the armed forces. By 19 August it had released the first part of its report, and the full document was published on 12 March 1872. The sub-committee on recruitment voted all but unanimously in favour of doing away with the existing “substitution” system (under which the wealthy could pay a fee instead of performing military service). Thus, by the law of 27 July 1872, military service became universal, for the first time ever.

But the conservatives, though firm supporters of majority rule, remained convinced of the merits of long-term conscription. In addition, they did not believe in putting obstacles in the way of the sons of the elites pursuing their studies and embarking on a career. The law of 1872 was therefore a patchwork of subtle compromises, which instituted a kind of “mix-and-match” system. The lot system was maintained, but now those who drew the “losing” numbers had to complete five years of service, while those who drew the “winning” numbers were required to do only one year of service, or just six months if they completed a prior military training course. Conditional enlistment of one year, agreed before lots were drawn, was reserved for holders of the baccalauréat (high-school diploma), who had to pay the sum of 1 500 francs, and thereby avoided having to do five years of service with no possibility of being substituted. Special dispensation for household breadwinners, future ministers of the three religious denominations covered by the Concordat and those planning a career in teaching, and deferment for students up to the age of 24 and farmers considered indispensable to the running of a farm, “softened” the suppression of the substitution system, even if the law remained unequal.

But all formed a reserve which, for the first time, existed other than just on paper. All spent four years in it, during which time they completed two 28-day periods of manoeuvres, then five years in the territoriale (territorial army) and finally six years in the réserve de la territoriale (territorial reserve), which roughly equated with the Prussian Landwehr and Landsturm. The law provided for a force of 500 000 men, but all were called up in the event of war.

It broke with the previous system, representing a shift from the “blood tax” to civic duty, however versatile it may have been. This change enabled the military to restore the original intentions of conscription, and France to become an army nation once more. Affecting every Frenchman, albeit unequally, this new system of military service was set to be the ultimate tool of acculturation to the centralising Nation State and the vector of civilisation which none of the leaders of the preceding period had dreamed conscription would become. A barracks-building programme, launched in 1873, was improved by the law of 17 July 1874, inspired by the military engineer and general, Séré de Rivières. Located across rural France, and no longer only at its borders, the barracks contributed to familiarising the French people with military affairs.



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.

The republicans, then in the minority, voted for the law of 1872, despite being supporters of a three-year service period, because they were aware of the disastrous consequences of their political one-upmanship when voting the Niel Law. They pledged, once they came to power, to “republicanise” it, so that the army could better play its role as the Republic’s second school and an instrument for accomplishing national unity. In their view, this meant democratising military service by making it shorter, so as to require as many young people as possible to do it and to make it acceptable to them. This was the object of the “three years law” of 1889, the first republican law of recruitment.

Dr Annie Crépin, lecturer in history, qualified to direct research