Levée en Masse

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components of the law

LEVÉE EN MASSE The levée en masse was decreed on 23 August 1793 as an emergency measure to raise the manpower that the generals believed they needed if they were to throw off the danger of invasion and save the patrie en danger. It was a law born of military necessity rather than out of deep-seated Revolutionary conviction, as French armies faced defeat at the hands of the First Coalition and panic spread among the population of Paris. The optimism engendered by early victories at Valmy and Jemappes had given way to widespread despondency when France's opponents regrouped and war was declared on a new raft of states, including Great Britain and Holland in February 1793, quickly followed by Spain a month later. Morale disintegrated in the French ranks as officers—many of whom were filled with revulsion when the republic was declared and the king put on trial—resigned their commissions or emigrated, leaving huge holes in the command structure. The early victories gave way to a succession of defeats. By March 1793 foreign forces had invaded French soil both in the northeast and in the Pyrenees; the frontiers no longer offered protection. The suspicion spread that the government had lost control of the military situation, a suspicion that became irresistible once the general and leading Girondin Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez defected on 5 April, taking his troops with him to join the war against Revolutionary France.

Above all, it was clear that existing methods of recruitment were no longer capable of producing the mass army that the situation seemed to demand. From the earliest period of the constitutional monarchy it had been evident to France's leaders that there was a contradiction between the language of liberty in which the message of revolution was framed and the ways in which the line army of the ancien régime was recruited, which included threats and bullying, the use of drink to win over doubters, the payment of bounties to attract the poor and disaffected, the promise of pardons to criminals, and press-gangs and racolage (the practice of impressing young men, often in bars and wayside taverns when they were too drunk to resist), when other methods failed. It was not only Voltaire who believed that the soldiers recruited in such ways came from the most marginal and least-dependable groups in French society, and the eighteenth-century stage routinely portrayed soldiers as thieves, pickpockets, and vagabonds. In 1791 the state called for volunteers to come forward to defend France, trying to build on the new reputation enjoyed by the National Guard in civil society, but, though the first call was met with apparent enthusiasm, by 1792 it was clear that the voluntary principle was not sufficient to meet the requirements of the armies. Besides, too many of the volunteers saw their commitment as being a short and finite one, returning to their villages after a season's campaigning.

From the spring of 1793 the government turned instead to requisitioning, insisting that every department, and every district, provide a fixed quota of men in accordance with its population, with the aim of raising 300,000 troops. But the demands of the military were such that by August the new Jacobin administration was forced to take this idea further, insisting that all citizens must be prepared to contribute to national defense, and that all were equally at the disposal of the army until the moment of national emergency had passed. The situation, they believed, required controls on individual liberty that did not pertain in peacetime. It was in this spirit that they had passed a decree, on 26 July, to outlaw speculation and repress profiteering by army contractors, making such profiteering a capital crime. In the same spirit, less than a month later, they established the levée en masse, which can legitimately be described as the first act of total mobilization in modern history, the mobilization of the entire community in the service of the state.

components of the law

The law was unambiguous. Until France's enemies had been driven from the territory of the republic, "the French people are in permanent requisition for army service." Lest that be misunderstood, its meaning was then spelled out in greater detail, its implications for every section of society carefully itemized. The words are justly famous, and they would resonate around Europe.

The young men shall go to battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes, and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the old men shall repair to the public places, to stimulate the courage of the warriors and preach the unity of the Republic and hatred of kings.

It was a declaration worthy of the classical heroes whom the French Republic so much admired. Horses were to be requisitioned, too; national buildings were to be converted into barracks; gunsmiths and tailors were to be placed at the disposal of the nation.

But what did this mean in practice once the decree was disentangled from its rather grandiose rhetoric? No army actually needs the services of the entire population; it would continue to require the work of civilians to grow food, transport supplies, and stimulate the economy. And, as the law recognized, it would need public administration to continue; so officials were to remain at their posts. Indeed, the government's aim was quite precise—to create an army of three-quarters of a million men—and behind the heroic language of equality lay a measure geared to create a mass army on a scale France had not previously known. Of course, in practice, all would not serve; indeed, the decree specifically pointed to the group from whom personal military service would be required: "The levy shall be general. Unmarried citizens or childless widowers, from eighteen to twenty-five years, shall go first; they shall meet, without delay, at the chief town of their districts, where they shall practice manual exercise daily, while awaiting the hour of departure."

The levée en masse was not a conscription in the modern sense, whereby each annual contingent of young men has to present itself for service; for that France had to wait until 1799 and the implementation of the Loi Jourdan-Delbrel. Rather it emphasized the unity of the entire community in the sacrifice demanded for the war effort, and it maintained the myth of spontaneity, of an entire people girding itself for communal defense in the name of the republic. Service was to be personal: unlike the previous levy, and unlike the majority of the annual conscriptions to follow, there was no provision for substitution, for buying replacements to serve instead of those designated for service. Instead, military service was proclaimed to be a duty for all, a function that was inseparable from citizenship itself. This does seem to have had an effect on public opinion, because rates of desertion and draft dodging were significantly lower with this levy than in most others of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The fact that service was obligatory at least had the advantage of making it appear less inequitable; rich and poor, bourgeois and peasant fought alongside one another in the Revolutionary battalions.


The levée en masse succeeded where previous recruitments had failed, in that it gave France the large-scale citizen-army that the Convention demanded to repel invading forces. It contributed to a change in France's military fortunes, too, because the nation-in-arms that the Jacobins created not only drove foreign troops out of French territory but also began the process of imperial conquest that, under the Directory and Consulate, laid the foundations of a French imperium across much of continental Europe.

But how far did it change the face of battle, as the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously claimed, or inaugurate a new era in European warfare? It did expand the scale of war, as mass armies were pitted against one another and others responded to the challenge of the nation-in-arms by recruiting greater numbers of men into their military. Casualties inevitably rose, and it is arguable that soldiers' lives became devalued as troops became more expendable. During the Napoleonic campaigns France would lose over 900,000 men, and, even before Moscow, Napoleon was not noted for avoiding casualties in pursuit of his goals. On the other hand, the mass armies did not of themselves bring about significant changes in technology or military strategy. The advances in light artillery, for instance, were inherited from Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval and other reformers under the ancien régime.

What the levée en masse did do was contribute to the mythology of the Revolutionary armies among future generations. It was a myth that inspired nineteenth-century French republicans—in 1830 and 1848, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), even in the call to arms on the eve of World War I in 1914. And its impact was not limited to France alone. It would reappear in revolutions and liberation movements of later centuries, wherever the ideals of 1789 evoked enthusiasm or where French cultural influence remained strong—in the Soviet Union in 1917, in China after 1945, throughout much of Latin America during the nineteenth century, in Algeria in 1958, and in Vietnam during the long years of struggle against first France, then the United States.

See alsoArmies; France; French Revolution; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Napoleon; Nationalism.


Bertaud, Jean-Paul. The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-Soldiers to Instrument of Power. Translated by R. R. Palmer. Princeton, N.J., 1988.

Blaufarb, Rafe. The French Army, 1750–1820: Careers, Talent, Merit. Manchester, U.K., 2002.

Forrest, Alan. Conscripts and Deserters: The Army and French Society during the Revolution and Empire. New York, 1989.

Lynn, John A. The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791–94. Urbana-Champaign, Ill., 1984.

Moran, Daniel, and Arthur Waldron, eds. The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Paret, Peter. Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

Alan Forrest