Departure of the Conscripts in 1807, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1808 / Musée Carnavalet via Wikimedia Commons
When faced, in 1793, with the prospect of defeat, the National Convention issued an appeal for a levée en masse, which, theoretically, placed the entire population at the disposal of France’s war machine. Thus was born the modern idea of the nation in arms. This concept has proved to have an enduring legacy, and has been adapted to suit a wide variety of contexts and time periods. This article explores the birth, development and transmission of the levée en masse. It seeks to understand why the concept survived beyond the 1790s and how it remained a compelling instrument of mass mobilisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Creation of the Levée en Masse
The first four years of the French Revolution created turmoil in the nation’s armies, and were characterised by revolt, mutiny, counter-revolution, and largescale emigration within the aristocratic officercorps.1 The catastrophic defeat of General at Neerwinden in March 1793 seemed to nullify the effects of previous army reform and brought back the spectre of foreign invasion.2 The levée en masse of 23 August 1793 was the French Convention’s direct response to this looming crisis. It ambitiously declared that:
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.3
The battle of Jena 1806. A contemporary German painting depicting the battle of Jena between the Grande Armée led by Napoleon (No. 1) and the Prussian-Saxon army on 14 October 1806 during which the Prussian army suffered a decisive defeat. At the same time Marshal Davoût (1770–1823) defeated the Prussian army at Auerstedt. The caption reads: “Schlacht bey Jena, den 14. 8br. 1806. in der Welt merkwürdig ist. Die französische Armée unter dem Commando S. M. des Kaisers und Königs Napoleon, der Grosse, grief die preußische Armée an. Nach einer hizigen Schlacht beeder Seiten, da das Schlachtfeld mit Toden bedeckt, war die preußische Armée in Unordnung, erhielten die Franzosen den Sieg. Dieser Sieg verschafte der triumphierenden Armée 28,000 Gefangene. 200 Kanonen. 30 Fahnen. nº1, S. M. der Kaiser und König Napoleon. 2, S. M. Fridrich Wilhelm König von Preußen. 3, die preus. Retiraden. 4, die Gefangene. 5, die franz. Armée. 6, die preuß. Armée. 7, Jena. 8, der Herzog v. Braunschweig bles. g, Gen. Rüchel bles. 10, die Armée des M. Limes au flanc. 11, der franz. General Debily [?] tod. / Schulze, Friedrich (ed.): Die Franzosenzeit in deutschen Landen 1806–1815: In Wort und Bild der Mitlebenden, Leipzig 1908, vol. 1: 1806–1812, after p. 48
At its most apparent and superficial level, this compelling and extraordinary legislation sought to assemble recruits for an army of 750,000 men, and to create a logistic framework of sufficient magnitude to support such an unprecedented military establishment.4 Although these tangible goals were of fundamental importance, this mass mobilisation was to be much more than a mere drive to extract manpower and strategic resources from the French population.
Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, French general and minister of war, served under the elector Palatine, the elector of Bavaria, the Prussian and the Danish king, and fought for Hungary against the Turks; from 1775–1777 minister of war under Louis XVI. After his efforts to introduce Prussian discipline into the French army met with strong opposition, he resigned from office. / Wikimedia Commons
Compulsory military service, or at least the sovereign’s right to compel his subjects to enlist in the armed forces, was nothing new in either French or European history. Indeed, the ancien régime monarchy’s imperfect recruitment and militia system had enabled 5 Despite the apparent achievements of armies during the grand siècle, by the late eighteenth century it was felt that fundamental reforms were necessary.6 Military analysts like and the counts of Guibert (Charles Benoît, 1715–1786), and , affirmed that institutional reorganisation, or the introduction of Prussian-style tactics and discipline, was insufficient to break the stagnation into which venality, poor leadership and ill-trained troops had plunged the royal army-of-the-line.7 A new military ‘spirit’ had to be instilled into the nation at large.to field some of the largest armies of the early modern period.
These writers, inspired by classical antiquity, believed that, through education and training, the subjects of the king could be transformed into citizen soldiers. Universal military service in an enlightened polity placed the entire population of the nation at the disposal of the state, thus providing a potentially inexhaustible source of manpower. It was further hoped that these troops, who were patriotic, intelligent and highly-motivated, would be able to decisively influence the outcome of any battle. This proposal was certainly inspired by the Enlightenment’s broader strategy of defining a new civic identity, which would expand participation in public administration and thus create a more benign system of governance.8
The levée en masse was the culmination of this long-standing call for the creation of a new military culture. The Constituent Assembly had already introduced the principle of merit in the promotion system of officers. There had also been experiments in creating volunteer legions and a more humane code of military discipline. Despite the publicity accorded to these innovations, their efficacy on the battlefield failed to materialise.9 The fall of the Constitutional Monarchy and the radicalisation of Republican politics gradually allowed the Jacobins to urge more far-reaching reforms.10 They felt that previous attempts had not gone far enough in bringing the spirit and energy of the 1789 Revolution to the army. They viewed with suspicion bordering on obsession the remaining noble officers and white-uniformed veterans of the old royal army. They were certain that battlefield failures were due to a refusal, on the part of traditional elements within the military, to push forward reforms. Only by imbuing the army with revolutionary zeal could this situation be reversed.
The Jacobins claimed the levée en masse was not an instrument of state coercion, but an extraordinary recruitment measure intended to harness the French people’s pre-existing enthusiasm, patriotic fervour and ideological commitment to the Revolution.11 The levée was a complex formula in which political ideology was transformed into a secret weapon which would ultimately result in the Revolution’s triumph over ancien régime despotism.
The dissymmetry between the physical realty and the ideological claims of the levée has been the subject of significant debate and controversy. Although many historians dispute the actual numbers of the army created in 1793, few would dispute that this force, of roughly 600,000 men, was the backbone of France’s subsequent successes and eventual military breakthrough in 1796.12 It is worth recalling, however, that the levée did not make provision for a system of annual conscription. This innovation was introduced by the Jourdan law of 12 January 1798, which replenished, on a yearly basis, the ranks of the French army. The Napoleonic Grande Armée was to be a composite force, made-up of veterans of the 1793 levée and fresh recruits.13
[LEFT]: Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian general and military theorist (Vom Kriege, 3 vol., 1832–1834), was one of the military reformers associated with
[RIGHT]: Antoine-Henri Jomini, general and military theorist (Précis de l’art de la guerre, 2 vols., 1838), of Swiss origin, General of the French army, from 1813 in Russian service, founder of the Military Academy in Saint Petersburg. / Wikimedia Commons
Also of interest is the earnest manner in which both supporters and enemies of the Revolution perceived the threat posed by this new ideologico-military apparatus. Theorists of modern warfare of future renown, such as 14 They defined these new phenomena as wars of opinion, or national wars, in a quest to create rigid typologies, which would finally uncover the essential nature of ‘War’ and thus unlock the secrets of ultimate victory. It was the highly persuasive nature of the levéewhich allowed for its slow diffusion and adoption, not only in , but in the wider world. What is certainly less clear is whether the actual experience of campaigning, or fighting in battle, was transformed by such claims.15and Baron accepted, without much reservation, the effectiveness of France’s innovations.
Studies on desertion and resistance to conscription show how fragile the credibility of the levéecould be when confronted with the hostility of peasant archaism and other regional particularisms.16 It is also uncertain whether the citizen soldier represented a qualitative leap in the actual experience of soldiering. Depressingly, the enduring efficacy and professionalism of mercenaries would seem to work against this assumption. Indeed, the troops of ancien régimeprinces resisted the onslaught of France’s revolutionary forces for the better part of a decade.
The Dissemination of the Levée en Masse throughout Europe
[LEFT]: Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein, politician, 1773–1777 studied law at Göttingen, 1780 entered Prussian civil service, 1786 journey to England, 1804–1808 with a brief interruption Prussian minister. In his Nassau Memorandum (“Nassauer Denkschrift”) of 1807 he advocated local self-government. 1807–1808 “Prussian reforms” (abolishment of serfdom, 1807; municipal reform, 1808; edict of 24 November / 16 December 1808); he also furthered the progress of military reforms, 1808–1812 after Napoleon declared him an enemy of France, Stein lived as an refugee in Brno, Opava and Prague. 1812–1813 while in Russian service he initiated the Prussian-Russian alliance. / Koch, Georg: Der Freiherr vom Stein: Von Staat, Volk und Bildung, Kassel 1931
[CENTER]: Gerhard Johann David (from 1802) von Scharnhorst, Prussian general and military reformer, first in Hanoverian, from 1801 in Prussian service; 1807 appointed head of the Military Reorganisation Committee by King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770–1840); he was mainly responsible for the Prussian military reforms (abolishment of corporal punishment, 1808; introduction of universal military service, 1814). / Friedrich (ed.): Die Franzosenzeit in deutschen Landen 1806–1815: In Wort und Bild der Mitlebenden, Leipzig 1908, vol. 1: 1806–1812
[RIGHT]: Count (from 1814) August Wilhelm Anton von Neidhardt (1760–1831), Prussian Generalfeldmarschall (field marshal) and military reformer. After serving in an Austrian regiment, he entered the service of the Margrave of Bayreuth-Ansbach. 1782/1783 took part in the American Revolutionary War on the British side. From 1785 in Prussian service, he was one of the leading military reformers together with (abolishment of corporal punishment, 1808; introduction of universal military service, 1814); took part in the battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815). / Cochenhausen, Friedrich von: Gneisenau: Seine Bedeutung in der Geschichte und für die Gegenwart, Berlin 1929
The subsequent military reorganisation of the principal ancien régime armies by aristocratic officials, like Reichsfreiherr 17 It is equally important to stress that these reforms were not a straightforward adoption of the revolutionary model or ethos, and that each state refashioned the idea of the nation in arms to suit its specific cultural context and political agenda. For example, Peter Paret’s important study concerning the role of General Count in the resurgence of , a figure previously viewed as an obscurantist reactionary, has shown that his improvements in light infantry tactics made a significant contribution to battlefield performance.18 Similarly, the increased use of irregular troops in the Spanish Guerrillas and the German Erhebung of 1813 represented specific regional variations on the original 1793 concept of the levée.19 Their contribution to Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, like the levée, remains a much debated issue.20, , Count , Archduke and Prince , was a direct response to a perceived French martial superiority.
An equally significant evolution lies in the manner in which autocratic monarchs, like 21 The manifesto issued by Alexander I in 1812 is a clear instance of this discursive shift:or , appealed to their subjects directly in order to associate their dynastic interests with the patriotic indignation elicited by French aggression.
The enemy has crossed our frontiers and is continuing to carry his arms into Russia, seeking to shake the foundations of this great power by his might and seductions … We now appeal to all our loyal subjects, to all estates and conditions both spiritual and temporal, to rise up with us in a united and universal stand against the enemy’s schemes and endeavours … Brave descendants of courageous Slavs! You always smashed the teeth of the lions and tigers who sought to attack you. Let everyone unite: with the Cross in your hearts and weapons in your hands no human force will defeat you.22
These words highlight the sheer conceptual malleability of the levée. Like the declaration of 1793, this manifesto clearly tries to harness the power of an entire people voluntarily rising up against an invader who threatens to visit upon them not only material destruction, but virtual cultural annihilation. However, unlike its Jacobin and secular counterpart, the defence of the fatherland is inextricably linked to the protection of Orthodox Christianity. The power of the image of the nation in arms lies in its flexibility and adaptability. It is a compelling instrument which can be utilised in extremely different contexts and in the defence of apparently conflicting ideals. Nationalism, ethnicity, religion, dynasty, state and radical ideologies, like socialism, are all elements which have found accommodation under this wide umbrella.
Indeed, the memory of the levée en masse of 1793 and the application of nationwide military mobilisation was to survive well beyond the Napoleonic wars. The sovereigns of Restoration Europe maintained semi-conscript standing armies and allowed for the gradual bourgeoisification of their officer corps. In some ways the revolutionary wars achieved what the ancien régime dynasties had been unable to accomplish in the eighteenth century,23 that is to say, the creation of a stable recruitment system to feed their standing armies on an annual basis, regardless of the regional particularisms and exemptions which continued to characterize their dominions.
During the nineteenth century the rise of romantic nationalism made the army a prime site where a sense of national/political identity could be inculcated on an apparently receptive citizenry.24 This was especially the case in states which were the product of wars of unification. The royal army was perceived by post-unification governments as one of the principal factories where Italians would be manufactured. It was believed that army service, even more than a national education curriculum, was an efficacious means of creating a common cultural identity. In 1888 the newspaper La Riforma proudly proclaimed that “today every Italian is a citizen, every citizen a soldier”.25 For the Savoy dynasty in particular, keeping a large army, well beyond both the resources and needs of their newly unified polity, was a means of reasserting their overall leadership, but also of exerting their cultural patronage over the very concept of Italianità.26 A very similar case could be made for Wilhelmine .27 Indeed, much of the political tension that existed in the newly unified Second Reich revolved around the issue of the democratic establishment’s right to influence the nature and size of the army.28 It was also felt by many elite officers that mass mobilisation remained a useful counter-balance against the growing threat of radical socialism and other extremist revolutionary ideologies. To these officials, military service could re-educate the recruit and discourage him from following such unpatriotic, subversive and dangerously internationalist doctrines.29
This vision of the army, as the privileged breeding-ground of a sense of national identity, was not the exclusive preserve of the semi-constitutional monarchies of 30 Here the armed forces were a particularly fertile ground for such experiments. This was especially the case after the universal conscription law of 1905 did away with the last remaining exemptions from national service.31 France was the country which had unleashed the legend of the levée, and was in a privileged position, as it could use this historical legacy in a more direct manner. school textbooks, and other pedagogical works, stressed the levée as the instrument through which Revolutionary France’s glorious martial past had emerged.32 They also hinted, in a far from subtle fashion, that this proud history should provide inspiration for the future. Could it not be the means of erasing the memory of the defeats of 1870 and for the recovery of the lost provinces of ?. France was equally interested in inculcating a sense of national republicanism into its citizenry.
The Decline of the Levée?
John Horne’s work on the First World War has argued that the memory of 1793 continued to exert a powerful, if ambiguous, influence on the manner in which the Third Republic tried to justify its own attempt to mobilise the entire nation in the defence of the Patrie.33 One of the most difficult issues to resolve in 1916, which had not been featured in the debates of the 1790s, was whether the male non-combatant was a legitimate participant in the nation’s armed struggle or merely an embusqué shirking his duties by avoiding the dangers of the front line.34 The experience of total and industrial warfare during the twentieth century, with its high casualty rates, long duration, and, in some cases, the appeal to a pseudoscientific racial nationalism, led to disillusionment with the image of the nation in arms. Some would argue that the gradual abandonment, on the part of , of compulsory military service is evidence of the weakening appeal of the levée.35 Such an argument, while forceful, is certainly one-sided, as it ignores the continuing appeal to popular consensus and liberal values which Western democratic states use to justify their military interventions outside their borders.
Furthermore, while it may be the case that mass mobilisation is no longer in vogue in 36 gave what was perhaps one of the most cogent redefinitions:, this is certainly not the case in the wider world. Revolutionary movements in and post-colonial African administrations have employed variations on the original theme of the levée of 1793.
It is important to emphasise that guerrilla warfare is a war of the masses, a war of the people. The Guerrilla band, as an armed nucleus, is the combative vanguard of the people. Its great force is drawn from the mass of the people themselves. The guerrilla band should not be considered inferior to the army against which it fights, simply because it has inferior firepower. … The Guerrilla fighter counts on the full support of the local people.37
Conscription map of the world 2009 / Wikimedia Commons
There is much in this language which would have been familiar to the citizen-soldiers of 1793. Still present is the idea of mass popular support, and that the people fight spontaneously rather than through coercion. The Marxist jargon and the modern vision of economic oppression might have puzzled the Jacobins, but at its core remains the message that he who fights for a just cause, with the support of the masses, will be triumphant even against insurmountable odds.
This brief survey of the transcultural impact of the levée en masse cannot account for all the variations in content, style, image and perception which have characterised its two centuries of existence. Anyone wishing to be exhaustive and comprehensive faces a dizzying and unnerving task in trying to come to grips with such a vast and complicated subject. It is surely this mercurial and unstable nature which has been at the heart of its adaptability and longevity. Above all else, it is the ability of the levée to persuade its public that it provides an effective equation through which popular sentiment is transformed into the decisive factor in the outcome of warfare that remains of fundamental importance.
Clausewitz, Carl von: On War, ed. by Anatol Rapoport, London 1968.
Guevara, Ernesto “Che”: Guerrilla Warfare, Havana 2006.
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Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Baron de: The Art of War, ed. by John-Allen Price et al., Radford, VA 2008.
Robinson, James Harvey (ed.): Readings in European History: A collection of extracts from the sources chosen with the purpose of illustrating the progress of culture in Western Europe since the German Invasions, London 1906, vol. 2.
Servan de Gerbey, Joseph Marie: Le soldat citoyen: Ou Vues patriotiques sur la manière la plus avantageuse de pourvoir à la défense du royaume, Neufchâtel 1780.
Anderson, Mathew S.: War and Society in Europe of the Old Regime 1618–1789, London 1988.
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Bertaud, Jean-Paul: The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-Soldiers to Instrument of Power, Princeton, NJ 1979.
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Forrest, Alan: The Soldiers of the French Revolution, London 1990.
Forrest, Alan: La patrie en danger: The French Revolution and the First Levée en Masse, in: Daniel Moran et al. (ed.): The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution, Cambridge 2003, pp. 8–32.
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- Bodinier, Les Gardes 2005, pp. 43–60; Scott, Line Army 1978, pp. 81–123.
- Blanning, Revolutionary Wars 1996, pp. 98–99.
- Bertaud, Citizen-Soldiers 1979, pp. 104–105.
- Ibid, pp. 113–143; Forrest, Levée en Masse 2003, pp. 8–32.
- Paret, Understanding War 1992, pp. 53–57; Anderson, War and Society 1988, pp. 111–128; Black, Military Revolution 1991; Wilson, Reich 2004, pp. 225–234; cf. Howard, War 1976, pp. 20–74; Lynn, French Army 2006, chapters 10, 11.
- Collins, Early Modern France 2009, pp. 59–70.
- Scott, Line Army, pp. 26–45; Guibert, Essai général de tactique 1780, pp. 37–97.
- Hof, The Enlightenment 1994, pp. 213–220.
- Blanning, Revolutionary Wars 1996, p. 101; Lynn, Bayonets 1996, pp. 163–182; Forrest, French Revolution 1990, pp. 89–124, 192–197; Muir, Tactics 1998, pp. 199–200.
- Forrest, Levée en Masse 2003, pp. 12–14; Bertaud, Citizen-Soldiers 1985, pp. 97–132; Brown, Army Administration 1995, pp. 65–97.
- Moran, The People in Arms 2003, pp. 1–7.
- Forrest, Napoleon’s Men 2002, pp. 8–9.
- Ibid, pp. 6–11; Bertaud, Soldats de la Révolution 1985, pp. 53–54.
- Clausewitz, On War 1968, pp. 295–296, 384–386; Jomini, Art of War 2008, pp. 16–24.
- Blanning, Revolutionary Wars 1996, pp. 86–88, 166–128; cf. Lynn, Bayonets 1996, p. 278.
- Forrest, Déserteurs 1988; Peruta, Italia Napoleonica 1996, chapters 2, 4.
- Craig, Prussian Army 1955, pp. 37–67; Rothenberg, Great Adversary 1982, pp. 134–158; Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon 2009, pp. 102–137.
- Paret, Prussian Reform 1966, pp. 140–153, 217–245.
- Esdaile, Guerrillas 2004, pp. 27–60; Moran, The People in Arms 2003, pp. 53–67; Rink, “Partheygänger” 1999.
- Heuser, Evolution of Strategy, Part III.
- “Great sacrifices will be demanded from every class of the people, for our undertaking is a great one, and the number and resources of our enemies far from insignificant. But would you not rather make these sacrifices for the fatherland and for your own rightful king than for a foreign ruler, who, as he has shown by many examples, will use you and your sons and your uttermost farthing for ends which are nothing to you? Faith in God, perseverance, and the powerful aid of our allies will bring us victory as the reward of our honest efforts”. Friedrich Wilhelm III, An Mein Volk, in Robinson, European History 1906, vol. 2, pp. 522–523.
- Lieven, Russia against Napoleon 2009, p. 217.
- Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration 1966, pp. 282–288; Holroyd, The Bourbon Army 1971, pp. 529–552; Cannadine, British Aristocracy 1990, pp. 264–280; Craig, Prussian Army, pp. 65–92; Sked, Habsburg Empire 1979, Part I.
- Paret, Nationalism, 1970, pp. 2–6; Bismarck once stated “that the army was alone the bearer of the national ideal”, see Pflanze, Bismarck 1955, pp. 548–566.
- Duggan, Francesco Crispi 2002, p. 540.
- Smith, Italy and its Monarchy 1989, pp. 75–80.
- Röhl, Wilhelm II 2004, pp. 291–294.
- Clark, Iron Kingdom 2006, pp. 559, 596–611; Chickering, Imperial Germany 2004, pp. 32–40; Craig, Prussian Army 1955, pp. 278–254.
- Paret, Nationalism 1970, pp. 2–6.
- Weber, Modernization of Rural France 1976, pp. 292–302.
- Forrest, Revolutionary War 2009, p. 153.
- Ozouf, Le Tour de la France 1996; Nora, Lavisse 1996, vol. 3, pp. 128–148, 151–184.
- Horne, Defining the Enemy 2003, pp. 112-116.
- Horne, L’impôt du sang, pp. 201–223; Smith, France and the Great War 2003, pp. 42–75.
- Levi, Patriotism 1997, pp. 185–190, 208–219; Harari, Martial Illusions 2005, pp. 43–72.
- For a non-European perspective see chapters by Waldron, Lockhart and Proch in Moran, The People in Arms 2003.
- Guevara, Guerrilla 2006, p. 16.
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