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Levee en Masse

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Levee en Masse

At the end of the 18th century, France was in the throes of the French Revolution. Faced with enemies on all sides, they desperately needed to protect themselves. The solution was levée en masse ('mass levy'): the conscription of hundreds of thousands of French people into compulsory military service. This move by the French government shocked their opponents and changed the nature of warfare for centuries.

Levée en Masse definition and date

Here is a simple explanation of what the Levée en Masse was:

Levée en Masse:

Levée en masse was a decree made by the National Convention in France on 23rd August 1793 that ensured the mass conscription of the French people, either into military service or to help in the war effort.

Levée en Masse and The French Revolution

By 1793, the French Revolution had been happening for four years. At this point, France was still not politically stable, and there were many threats, both internal and external, that worried the National Convention. Political infighting between different factions in government was a particular concern. It meant that different agendas and ideologies were all jostling for power.

In addition to this, the French Revolution had not been popular in the rest of Europe. By 1793, France was facing several invasions and threats from an anti-French Coalition that had formed. These conflicts that prompted the Levée en Masse are commonly known as the Wars of the First Coalition. Here is a brief timeline of the conflicts France was involved in leading up to the Levée en Masse:

Date:Event:
1792, SpringFrance declared war on Austria and Prussia.
1792, AprilThe Flanders Campaign began - this was part of the Wars of the First Coalition and involved a campaign against France by Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel.
1793, JanuarySpain and Portugal entered the anti-French coalition.
1793, February France declared war on Great Britain and the Dutch Republic.

Why Levée en Masse was decreed?

There were three main causes of the Levée en Masse; Protection, the economy and politics.

Protection

The biggest cause of the Levée en masse was, of course, the need to protect France from all the threats that it faced.

In 1793, the French Army was a mix of older, professional soldiers and volunteers with little training. It was not a small army. Due, however, to the number of internal and external conflicts with which France had to contend, it was spread very thinly.

In addition, the army was stagnating. There had been many, many cases of desertion in the previous few years. In addition to this, the army was plagued by poor leadership and badly trained troops.

Indeed, throughout the 18th century, some French military analysts had written about the need to create a new military culture in France. Joseph Servan, the Comte de Guibert, and the Comte de Saint Germain had written about the benefits of creating 'citizen soldiers'. They essentially advocated training and educating citizens to be soldiers that could be called up to serve at a moment's notice.

Economy

It is also worth noting here that France's economy was not in the best shape. In 1793, the country was struggling with food shortages. This bred discontent and created another problem for the Convention to deal with.

By pushing more people into the production of goods for the war effort, it was hoped that this would stimulate the economy.

Politics

There is also a political angle to consider with the Levée en masse. At the time of the Levée, the National Convention was dominated by more militant revolutionaries, known as Jacobins. For them, the Levée was a way of drawing together an entire nation in the revolutionary spirit against their tyrannical enemies.

french army uniform the french revolution studysmarterThis depicts some of the uniforms worn by French soldiers in this period. (Image via Wikipedia)

The First Levée

Before the decree of a Levée en masse on 23rd August 1793, the government enacted a smaller Levée in February 1793, to gather another 300,000 troops for the French Army. Each département would supply a particular percentage of the 300,000 through recruiting volunteers.

The Levée was a partial success; they managed to gain around 150,000 volunteers for the army, which certainly helped. However, they also ran into issues with regional enaction of the Levée and resistance from certain areas.

Inefficient Bureaucracy

In the spring of 1793, the French Republic had been established for less than a year. To recruit another 300,000 men to the army was a massive task that required a modern, efficient bureaucratic machine which France simply did not have at this point. In many areas, particularly those that were more rural, the printing and circulating of decrees was quite new and had not been perfected, leading to many people being confused about certain aspects of the law and how it should be carried out.

For the same reasons, there were no documents that listed those who were eligible to serve. In addition, migrant and seasonal workers presented difficulty as they didn't belong to any particular region.

There was often miscommunication between local officials and the army; this led to issues such as recruits not knowing where to assemble or where they were going once they had joined the army and being turned away from battalions that were already filled.

Revolts

The first Levée raised discontent in some areas of France. It acted as a catalyst for smaller grievances that had been building over time - mainly with the orders they were receiving from the new government in Paris.

The Vendée:

The Vendée was a traditionally conservative area of France, both in religion and politics. Discontent had been brewing there for a while, due to dissatisfaction with various laws coming from the government in Paris.

The first Levée was one of the events that caused the War in the Vendée, a counter-revolutionary conflict that took place from 1793 to 1796. Those in the Vendée formed their own army as a protest against conscription, naming themselves 'The Catholic Army'.

Their revolt was unsuccessful; the revolt is known especially for the brutal violence that those in the Vendée suffered from the Republic - 20,000 to 50,000 people were massacred from January to May 1794 by the French Republic.

Levée en Masse Decree

On 23rd August 1793, after calls from many in the National Convention, Levée en masse was decreed.

Here is an overview of what the decree entailed:

  • All single, able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 25 were immediately conscripted into the army.
  • Men who were married and/or had children were not immediately conscripted but were encouraged to volunteer.
  • Anyone who could not fight (women, children, the elderly, etc.) should be engaged in an activity that would help the war effort - making tents, clothes, working in hospitals, repairing buildings, and forging weapons were just some of the jobs they were to be employed in.
  • National buildings were turned into barracks and public places into armament workshops.
  • Arms were turned over to the army for their exclusive use.
  • Horses were requisitioned for cavalry officers and to pull artillery. (Horses for agriculture were exempt)

Eighteen Representatives-on-Mission were entrusted with the execution of the decree around the country - ensuring those who were eligible were conscripted, recruiting volunteers, and liaising with the military. They also made sure the army had a good supply of food and armaments.

Language of the Decree:

It is interesting here to examine the language that was used in the decree. Consider the following quote, it is from the first line of the Levée en masse decree:

"From this moment and until all enemies are driven from the territory of the Republic all French persons are placed in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men will go to battle, married men will forge arms and transport provisions; women will make tents and clothing and serve in the hospitals; children will shred old linen; old men will have themselves carried to public places to arouse the courage of warriors and preach the hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."

Notice the language that is being used; it is charged with revolutionary sentiment, intended to stir up people's patriotism to encourage them to join the army or join in with the war effort. It makes sure to include every section of society and every type of person.

Levée en Masse Combatants

Levée en Masse combatants who joined the French Army due to the Levée en masse were mostly from the peasant classes. This is because there were exceptions to the Levée for some groups of people.

Exceptions for Jobs and Skills

A common exception was for those who held jobs in government or administration. Since they required the skills of reading, writing and occasionally numeracy, these workers were not easily replaceable.

Replacements

The Republic also allowed the exception of replacement for the Levée. This meant that a richer man could pay a poorer man to do his military service for him. In this way, many richer men could be exempt from the Levée.

The poor did not like this. They felt that this went against all the values of equality and liberty that the Republic had been founded on.

levee en masse painting french revolution studysmarter'Departure of the Conscripts' - Louis Leopold Boilly, 1807. (Image via Wikipedia)

Levée en Masse Significance

Despite high levels of desertion and evasion, the Levée succeeded in recruiting and training an army of around 750,000 in only a year. There was no need for any further conscription until 1797.

The Levée en masse shocked France's European neighbours. The Levée meant that France could raise troops on a much bigger scale than any of the other countries in Europe. The huge expansion of the French army forced their enemies to man border fortresses and expand their armies. This was very difficult for the other armies of Europe as they relied on paid professional soldiers or mercenaries. They struggled to match the size of the French army by these means.

The Levée en masse also allowed many untrained, common people to build a career in the army. This was beneficial as it meant the French army developed a strong officer and non-commissioned officer corps.

Historiography of the Levée en Masse

The Levée en masse as a means of mass conscription set a precedent that was then repeated through future centuries. It presented the framework for a new type of army - one that could be bigger than any that preceded it, allowing a country to fight comfortably on multiple fronts and deal with multiple issues at the same time.

A good example of when a policy similar to Levée en masse was used in more recent history is during the two World Wars.

In June 1916, during the First World War, the UK Government passed the Military Service Act, which conscripted all men between the ages of 18 to 41.

Similarly, in May 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the UK government passed the Military Training Act, which conscripted single men between the ages of 20 and 22. Some 240,000 registered for service.

Let's look at some historians' views on the Levée en masse:

Critiquing the Levée:

It is easy to slip into viewing the Levée en masse as a great, patriotic coming-together of the French people. Historian Gunther Rothenberg is quick to dispel this idea. He points out the high number of desertions and evasions from the Levée as well as recruiting deficits, which reached as high as 79% in some areas.

Social Context:

Jean-Paul Bertaud has written extensively about the French Revolution and the Levée en masse. As well as giving a very detailed account of the Levée, Bertaud analyses its social context. He explores how the Levée contributed to class antagonism between rich and poor; he also comments on the propaganda that came from the Levée - recruits assembling in town halls whilst drums and pipes played 'La Marseillaise' to evoke national pride and promote the feeling of the country as one.

The Success of the Levee:

Alan Forrest analyses exactly why the Levée was so successful. Rather than pointing to the Republican propaganda that the Levée embodied, he suggests that the improvement of bureaucracy and administrative processes were a more important factor in the success of the Levée.

References:

Bertaud, Jean-Paul: The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-Soldiers to Instrument of Power, Princeton, NJ 1979

Forrest, Alan: The Soldiers of the French Revolution, London 1990.

Rothenberg, Gunther E. “The Origins, Causes, and Extension of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988)

Levee en Masse - Key takeaways

  • The Levée en Masse was the mass conscription of French citizens into the French army in order to help protect France from foreign invasion and stimulate the economy. The main decree was made on 23rd August 1793, but a smaller one occurred in February 1793.
  • The first levy aimed to recruit 300,000 soldiers, but only managed to gain 150,000. This was due to inefficient bureaucracy and discontent from the French people - the Vendee uprising was triggered by this attempt at recruitment.
  • The second, main decree conscripted all single men between the ages of 18-25 into the army. It also encouraged women, children and the elderly to help out with the war effort by producing goods or giving medical aid.
  • There were exceptions to conscription - either for holding a particular administrative job, or having a replacement - someone who'd be paid to do your military service for you.
  • The Levée en Masse was very significant as it showed that France was able to raise troops on a scale never seen before in Europe. It strengthened the structure of France's army and allowed many ordinary people to build a career in the army.

Frequently Asked Questions about Levee en Masse

Levee en Masse was the mass conscription of the french people to serve in the war effort for France in 1793.

Levee en Masse was caused by anxiety in the government that France could not protect itself from the threats it was facing from other countries in Europe. Therefore, they wanted to conscript more soldiers so France would be protected.

The French Army was greatly increased by Levee en Masse, to a degree that actually shocked other European countries. It was the formation of the first national army in France that changed the way they could fight - with such a large army, they could fight more battles and afford to lose more men.

Levee en Masse was the term used to describe the mass conscription of men for the French army in 1793.

Levee en Masse literally translates to 'mass levy'. It refers to the mass conscription of men for the French army that occurred in 1793.

Final Levee en Masse Quiz

Question

When was the decree for Levée en Masse  put into action?

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Answer

23rd August 1793

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Question

Which of these was the biggest cause for the Levée en Masse?

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Answer

Protection of France against external threats

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Question

How many troops were ordered to be conscripted in the first Levée en Masse?

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Answer

300,000

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Question

How many soldiers were actually conscripted in the first Levée en Masse?

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Answer

150,000

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Question

Which region broke out in revolt, partly due to the Levée en Masse?

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Answer

The Vendee

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Question

Which of these was not a service mentioned in the Levée en Masse decree?

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Answer

Providing music and other entertainment for the troops to boost morale

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Question

Besides the conscription, what did the decree aim to do?

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Answer

Instil a renewed sense of patriotism and revolutionary spirit in the French people

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Question

Which of these was not a valid exemption from conscription?

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Answer

Ill health

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Question

How many men did the Levée en Masse succeed in recruiting in one year?

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Answer

750,000

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Question

When else in history has conscription like the Levée en Masse  been used?

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Answer

During the two World Wars

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Question

Why might the Levee en Masse not be considered a success?

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Answer

There were high levels of desertion and evasion.

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Question

When was the first levy?

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Answer

February 1793

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Question

When was the official Levée en Masse decree made?

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Answer

23rd August 1793

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Question

How did the Levée en Masse strengthen France's army in the long term?

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Answer

It gave the army a strong officer corps

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Question

The Levée en Masse meant that France did not need to recruit any more soldiers until...

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Answer

1797

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