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The Nobility and the Army

It is difficult to conceive how completely rank and power were absorbed in France by the noblesse. The profusion of counts and barons was always increased in France by brevet titles. Officers in their commissions of colonel or general are styled counts, as in England justices of peace are styled esquires. These titles however are only for life.

Corruption and abuses were not confined to the civil government and the courts of law; the army, too, was infected. In the ranks were to be found hired foreigners, unwilling peasants dragged from their farms, and the scum of the city slums. Thousands deserted every year. Had the discontented troops been well commanded, they might still have answered the purpose, but in the Army this was not the case. There were certainly enough officers - an average of one general for every 157 privates. But what officers they were! Dissolute and dandified generals drawing their pay and never visiting their troops, lieutenants reveling in vice, instead of drilling and caring for their commands. Noble blood, not ability, was the qualification of a commander. Counts, who had never seen a battlefield, were given military offices, and the seven-year-old Due de Frousac was a colonel. In 1780 Marshal Sgur, the minister for war, promulgated a law to the effect that none but nobles could rise to the rank of officers in the French army, a law which went not a little towards intensifying the hatred of the tiers etat for the nobility. Military promotions were divided into two classes; one, open to the first nobility only, consisted of colonelcies, provincial governments, generalships, and ended in the staff of Marshal of France; while the other, the object of the lesser nobility, terminated in a lieutenant-colonelcy, a royal lieutenancy, and occasionally, by great good luck, in the station (still subordinate) of marecbal de camp. In the former, the number of candidates was almost as limited as the number of appointments: but the latter being the objects of all the minor nobility, the sollicitations for vacancies surpassed all calculation.

A great number of men of family were unable during life to rise above the rank of captain, while others were accounted particularly fortunate if they succeeded in becoming majors. In speaking, however, of the French nobility, those of the second rank amounted to many thousands, and should be put on a level with genteel families in England out of trade. As to the sons of farmers and persons in trade, the great object of every family that could afford it was to withdraw from the service any youth belonging to them who had entered it; and the non-commissioned officers, in consequence, generally consisted of men who remained in the service because they could do nothing else. Of these, one in a hundred might reach the rank of adjutant or ensign; and a still smaller proportion might attain that of lieutenant.

The successor of Du May in the war-ministry under Louis XVI was Lieutenant General St. Germain, who like Turgot was much too candid and blunt for the court. From the moment of hia entrance on office, the nobility affected the greatest complaisance to this plebeian minister, but were not long in combining against his projects of reform. St. Germain succeeded in making an addition to the efficient force of the army, and in abolishing a number of sinecure places. He also discouraged the union of military and diplomatic offices, and put a stop to the abuse of conferring rank where no military service had been performed. He was proceeding, also, in retrenching the allowances of officers of this description, when the King, thinking that he was going on too fast, obliged him to add a second colonelcy to each regiment; a measure so much at variance with reform, as to throw universal ridicule on the minister. St. Germain ventured to propose the new-modelling of the guards, and other military appendages of royalty: but, on proposing his plan to the King, he was obliged to pass over the corps which were commanded by persons of interest; and, as these were the most expensive to the public, the absurdity of economizing by reducing the cheap corps afforded a new source of derision.

The difficulty of promotion for the tiers etat being less in the light troops and the gens d'armes, the influence of the nobility at court was such as to accomplish the systematic neglect of the former, and the extinction of the latter. The rank of assistant major being sometimes bestowed on plebeian candidates, it was abolished in toto ; and to give a finishing blow to their hopes, a regulation was issued in May 1781, to exclude wholly from the rank of officers those who could not show four degrees of nobility. Is it possible to conceive a greater instance of infatuation at a time when the court of France had sent its troops to co-operate in forming a free government in America ? No doubt can be entertained that this obnoxious edict was one of the chief causes of the disaffection of the troops at the time of the Revolution.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:18 ZULU