An Ancien ‘Military’ Régime: Nationalism in the French Revolutionary Army

In the study of the French Revolution, the common narrative pushed by the “nation-in-arms” school attributes the success of the French army to their numerical superiority and enthusiasm of its soldiers due to the righteousness of their cause. However, the analysis is not universally accepted by all historians. In his essay “Evolution or Revolution on the Battlefield?”, Jordan R. Hayworth challenges this traditional interpretation by suggesting that factors such as evolutionary military tactics, disciplined soldiers, and effective commanders played a far more decisive role than soldier morale in the the victories of the French Army. Meanwhile, T.C.W. Blanning in his book, “The French Revolutionary Wars” takes a more nuanced analysis, suggesting that both morale and Hayworth’s factors could have both played important roles in the success of the army. In fact, he even argues that soldier morale may be the underlying cause of many of the the factors Hayworth cites, and thus even if morale didn’t play a direct correlation with fighting proficiency, it impacted the French army in many other ways. Through an analysis of the works of Hayworth and Blanning, I will argue that although Blanning’s analysis of multiple variables creates an effective framework for studying the French army’s success, pitting Hayworth’s skepticism against Blanning’s arguments exposes some areas where Blanning may over attribute the role of soldier morale in the French army’s successes during the French Revolution.

The primary evidence Blanning presents to demonstrate the direct effect of soldier morale upon the success of the French military is largely anecdotal, focusing primarily on the battle of Valmy. It was this battle, that the military commander Kellermann, famously led his severely outnumbered army into battle with a resounding cry of “Vive la nation!” and “scared” the Prussians into stopping in their tracks. And while this cherry-picked example is a great story, this one impressive display of morale is not enough to assert that morale was the primary direct factor in the French successes across numerous battles. Blanning recognizes this and offers evidence that suggests other possible factors at play in the French victory at Valmy. He writes, “On the slopes in front of them [the Prussians] stood not the demoralised rabble they had been led to expect, but rank upon rank of well-disciplined and well-armed soldiers, commanded by men who clearly knew what they were about.” Blanning uses this opportunity to explore the Prussian’s surprise as to the numbers of French army, and how they were falsely misled by the emigres (not necessarily intentionally) to believe that “the Revolution was confined to a dwindling band of fanatics in the capital and that elsewhere the good people of France were only waiting for the arrival of the allies to declare their loyalty to the Crown”, when in reality, the French had a much larger force ready at their disposal than expected. Blanning’s assertion that the Prussians were unprepared to be fighting such a well-armed army with such effective leadership fits directly with the argument Hayworth puts forward in stressing “the role of training and discipline in creating a viable combat force from an army of ‘citizen-soldiers’”.

Regardless of whether it was the higher than expected numbers or better disciplined numbers that shocked the Prussians, the fact remains that the lack of information of the side of the Prussians severely contributed to their decision to stop their attack. The Battle of Valmy is not some stunning example of how the patriotism in the hearts of the French soldier made them fight with the strength of two Prussians, rather it just exemplifies the lack of preparation on the side of the allies. Blanning writes later, “Lack of numbers was also due to a lack of focus…In 1792 their [Austria and Prussia’s] attention was directed as much at Poland as it was at France for the equally volatile situation there involved their interests more directly.” Blanning uses this to suggest that the events in Poland heavily distracted Austria and subsequently Prussia from putting their full force in dealing with the French problem in its early stages. Along with fighting France “with one eye on events in the east and with one hand tied behind their backs”, the Polish situation had another important effect of the allies; it divided them. The situation in Poland pitted Austria and Prussia on opposite sides, both vying to grab a larger slice of the partitioned Poland. This invigorated decades-old animosity between the two states, an animosity that found its way even to the lowest levels of the armies in France. At one point there was even a question as to whether Prussia would switch to allying with France. This animosity caused distrust within the allied army, greatly reducing its effectiveness as Austrians and Prussians would not cooperate to the greatest extent.

One thing that Hayworth does, largely due to his background as a historian, is he effectively looks at and analyzes multiple battles in great detail when creating his case. What one notices when reading his piece is that two years after the 1792 Battle of Valmy, in 1794, once the allies realized the magnitude of the threat that France posed and directed their efforts in this direction, they were able to defeat the allies in numerous battles and put up a strong resistance. Hayworth does not paint the French army as an unstoppable force that was incapable of defeat, but rather presents the full story of the French campaign in both its ups and downs. Blanning briefly notes this as well writing that “The belief that it was revolutionary elan that brought victory also seems problematic when one considers the inconsistent pattern of success… campaigns of 1792. 1793 and 1794…were anything but constant, being rather a bewildering zigzag of success and failure.” The two authors both agree that this evidence contradicts the assertion that the revolutionary spirit was the sole contributor in the French successes, as it is nonsensical to believe that the somehow the soldier’s revolutionary spirit waxed and waned from day to day, leading to the non-constant battle outcomes.

In fact, through the four battles that the Sambre and Meuse Army fought in 1794, what we see is that the French started off losing the first battle and then getting consecutively better. This would seem quite odd if you were to buy that the morale of the soldier led to the victory of the French. Typically, soldier morale tends to start at an high with enthusiastic soldiers wanting to fight for a cause but then decreases as wars drag on. It is thus quite odd that the French seemed to be getting better after every battle. The much more plausible explanation that Hayworth presents is that the increasing success was due to evolutionary methodologies where after each battle, the originally inept French volunteer army became more experienced and the commanders learned from mistakes in previous battles in order to improve. The early volunteer section of the army was a highly unorganized force. Even at the romanticized Battle of Valmy, General Biron said of them, “The volunteers of the most recent levy are more trouble than they are worth. All the generals to whom I wish to allocate them are afraid of them rather than keen to have them.” This largely civilian force only became an effective force due to the training and experience they got over time.

Despite their initial setbacks in the later campaigns, the French army did eventually triumph. Even Hayworth, while touting the importance of the advanced French military tactics, admits that the French superiority in numbers did heavily impact their military victories. And while it would incorrect to claim that nationalism did not play a role in recruiting soldiers, its role is often grossly overstated. In 1791 and 1792, often only a third to a half of “volunteers” ever actually reported for duty. While the volunteers boosted numbers on paper, their effect on the actual fighting force of the army was much smaller than commonly thought. However, what changed was in August of 1793, the French government mandated universal conscription, creating the largest military force Europe had ever seen. Within one year, the size of the army was nearly triple what it had been in February of 1793. Unlike at Valmy where they were outnumbered, the French now had the ability to overpower the allies with numbers, such as what they did at the Battle of the Ourthe (once again, the allies underestimated the size of the French army, pointing to how unorganized they were). However, this mass recruitment was not in the same vein as is not the same vein as the glorified “volunteer corps” of 1792; it was caused by forced conscription rather than revolutionary zeal in the citizenry. Given the political climate of the Terror in 1794, soldiers and especially commanders feared for their life if they comply or even if they were ineffective. A citizen-soldier is not really that different from a slave-soldier when they’re mandated to fight under the threat of the guillotine.

Furthermore, this propagated myth of the citizen-soldier vs the slave-soldier, seems suspiciously like a case of self-aggrandizing on the part of the post-war French. To write off the allies as demoralized soldiers that did not put up a fight, is absurd. While, the war started with France on the defensive, by the end, the French were the aggressors, and to think the allies would not fight valiantly to repel the invaders is naive. As Hayworth wrote, “Expectations of victory against demoralized ‘slave-soldiers’ proved illusory against reality on the battlefield”. Thinking that the French won due to their passion highly disservices the allies and is likely the product of revisionist history aiming to sell the Revolutionary Wars as the triumph of the French moral superiority.

After thorough analysis of both Blanning and Hayworth’s writing on the topic, it becomes clear that while nationalism played a role in the French successes during the Revolutionary Wars, the events cannot be studied in their entirety without looking at the many other variables at play. By using this framework, Blanning and Hayworth both reject the very deterministic model of warfare where the victor is decided solely by the side with numerical superiority without regard for the more complex tactics at play on the battlefield. Where Hayworth contends with Blanning is that he does not try to seek out nationalism as the root cause for many of the France’s advantages in the war, but rather prefers to analyze more nuanced factors such as military tactics and disciplined soldiers. This does bring to light some of the areas such as recruitment of soldiers, relative morale of the French and the allies, and army discipline where Blanning may over attribute the role of nationalism. Together, Blanning’s and Hayworth’s approaches to recognizing the multiple factors at play during the wars is an important tool for how we study history. It’s important to recognize that the ‘nation-in-arms’ school came about in the late 1860s in response to the defeat of the French by the Prussians as very Marxist solution to reforming the military. While it is nice to reminisce that your victories were won through sheer will and motivation, this is dangerous as it could have dedicated efforts towards revitalizing the revolutionary spirit instead of the evolutionary military reforms that were needed at the time. Understanding the nation-in-arms school of thought can also play an important role in the origins of the heightened militarism in the late 19th century that ultimately culminated in the First World War.


Blanning, T. C. W. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787–1802. London: Arnold, 1996.

Boulan, Valentin. 2013. “Motivating The Citizen Soldiers: French Troops And The Revolutionary Wars 1792–1802”. Undergraduate, University of Bristol.

Hayworth, J. R. “Evolution or Revolution on the Battlefield? The Army of the Sambre and Meuse in 1794.” War in History 21, no. 2 (2014): 170–92. doi:10.1177/0968344513505402.