After education, conscription. War had been made more frequent, more homicidal, and more costly by the Revolution: the levy en masse in 1793 established the rule that war should be no longer the sport of princes using mercenaries, but a struggle of nations involving every class—though it was some time before the other governments followed the French in allowing commoners to become officers, even marshals. Rousseau had already laid down the principle that universal service was a logical corollary of universal suffrage: he who would vote should serve. Facing the European monarchies in a struggle to preserve its republic, France, which, before Louis XIV, had been a medley of proud regions with no national spirit binding the whole, was united in 1793 by a common fear. Its response was national and decisive. A large army, calling all men, became necessary; conscription began; and when masses of Frenchmen, inspired as armies had rarely been before, began to defeat the professional soldiers of the feudal monarchies, these countries too enforced conscription, and war became a conflict of masses competing in massacre. The glory of nationalism replaced the pride of dynasties as the tonic of war.
In 1803, faced with the rupture of the Peace of Amiens, and anticipating war with another coalition, Napoleon issued a new law of conscription: all males between twenty and twenty-five years of age were made subject to the draft. Many were exempted: young married men, seminarians, widowers or divorcés with children, anyone who had a brother already taken, and the eldest of three orphans. Moreover, a draftee could pay a substitute to take his place. At first this seemed to Napoleon to be unjust; then he allowed it, chiefly on the ground that advanced students should be left to continue their studies to fit themselves for administrative posts.34
This annual insistence that it is dulce et decorum pro patria mori was borne patiently by the French people in the ecstasy of Napoleon’s victories; but when defeats began (1808), and left thousands of families grieving, resistance grew, evaders and deserters multiplied. By 1814 Napoleon had recruited 2,613,000 Frenchmen for his armies;35 approximately a million of these died of wounds or disease;36 add half a million enlisted or conscripted from foreign countries allied or subject to France. In 1809 Napoleon asked Czar Alexander to mediate between France and England, saying that a general peace would allow an end to conscription; that hope passed. As defeated enemies seemed to rise from their graves for new coalitions and campaigns, Napoleon kept many conscripts beyond their statutory five-year terms, and called up annual classes before their time, until in 1813 he summoned the class of 1815.37 At last the patience of French parents gave way, and the cry of “Down with conscription!” rose everywhere in France.
By such methods grew the Grande Armée, which was Napoleon’s love and pride. He fostered its spirit by giving each regiment its own colorful standard, which some brave youth would carry into the battle to lead and inspire its men; if he fell, another youth would rush up, pick up the flag, and carry it on. Usually this banner became the visible soul of the regiment; almost always it survived to display its remnants in victory parades, and at last to hang as a tattered but sacred trophy in the church of the Invalides. Nearly every regiment had its distinctive uniform and name, once famous from Brest to Nice, from Antwerp to Bordeaux: Grenadiers, Hussars, Chasseurs, Lancers, Dragoons … Above all there were the 92,000 men who formed the Imperial Guard, kept in protective reserve around the Emperor until some crisis called for their lives. Any conscript could rise to membership in the Guard, and even to wield a baton as one of the eighteen marshals of Napoleonic France.
The results of the wars were endless—biological, economic, political, and moral. The old figure of 1,700,000 Frenchmen dead in those campaigns38 has been reduced by later calculations to a million men;39 even so these presumably premature deaths may have weakened France for a generation, until her wombs made up the loss. Economically the wars, and the stimulus of blockaded ports and military needs, accelerated the growth of industry. Politically they strengthened the unification of regional governments and loyalties under a central rule. Morally the constant conflicts habituated Europe to the enlargement of wars, and to a code of slaughter unknown since the barbarian invasions. At the fronts, and then in the capitals, the rulers laid aside the Ten Commandments. “War justifies everything,” Napoleon wrote to General Berthier in 1809;40 “nothing has ever been established except by the sword”;41 and “in the last analysis there must be a military quality in government”;42 without an army there is no state.
To accustom the French people to this martial ethic Napoleon appealed to their love of glory. La gloire became a national fever generating enthusiastic concord and obedience; so Napoleon could say that “the wars of the Revolution have ennobled the entire French nation.”43 For ten years, with the help of the Allies, he kept his people in this hypnotic trance. Let Alfred de Musset, who was there, describe the mood of France in 1810:
It was in this air of the spotless sky, where shone so much glory, where glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed. They well knew that they were destined to the hecatomb, but they regarded Murat as invincible, and the Emperor had been seen to cross a bridge where so many bullets whistled that they wondered was he immune to death. And even if one must die, what did it matter? Death itself was so beautiful, so noble, so illustrious, in his battle-scarred purple! It borrowed the color of hope; it reaped so many ripening harvests, that it became young, and there was no more old age. All the cradles of France, as well as its tombs, were armed with shield and buckler; there were no more old men; there were corpses or demi-gods.44
Meanwhile, at the front, Napoleon’s soldiers stole and gambled, and drank their fears to sleep; his generals stole according to their station; Masséna amassed millions, and Soult was not far behind. Amiable Josephine, kindly Joseph, brave Lucien, and uncle Cardinal Fesch profited by investing in firms that were selling shoddy goods to French troops. Napoleon colored his war bulletins with exaggeration and concealment, bled the treasuries of defeated nations, appropriated their art, and pondered ways to effect the moral regeneration of France.