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  • The French Army 1750-1820: Careers, Talent, Merit
  • Douglas Porch
The French Army 1750–1820: Careers, Talent, Merit. By Rafe Blaufarb (New York, Manchester University Press, 2002) 227 pp. $69.95

The tradeoffs between the efficiency and combat performance of military forces and their political loyalty, a challenge for any country, posed an especially acute test for France during the tumultuous years of the Revolution and Empire. The French army was totally transformed between 1789 and 1815. However, historians have also recognized for [End Page 298] some time that military transformation in the French army predated the Revolution. In fact, 1789 caught France in the throes of a bitter organizational debate as military reformers attempted to renovate the patchwork of socially exclusive court regiments and privately subscribed line units into a state-controlled, centrally funded, unitary force led by an officer corps selected on the basis of "merit." The petite noblesse, who stood appalled as a cash-strapped Bourbon monarchy auctioned off regiments to affluent bourgeois parvenus and dispensed senior military commands to a court-connected noblesse presentée, positively reveled in the promise of military regeneration offered by the Revolution. Alas, as Blaufarb notes, successive Revolutionary governments proved reluctant to entrust the future of the Revolution to a nobility that political rhetoric had condemned as adversaries of progress and foes of the nation.

Aristocratic reformers of the ancient régime interpreted "merit" to mean a social and moral commitment, a system of reciprocity whereby military service to the state was rewarded by distinctions and honors from a grateful leader. The turmoil of the Revolution and the obsession of successive governments with the political loyalty of the officer corps meant that no stable system of officer selection and promotion could be established, until Napoleon incorporated Bourbon notions of "merit" into a military organization able to conquer Europe.

The French Army 1750-1820 is an interesting, well-researched, and clearly written account of late eighteenth-century mentalités. The Revolution's struggle to fill the officer corps with politically reliable substitutes for defecting aristocrats, and the tensions that it created in the officer corps, though familiar, is well told. Many may disagree with Blaufarb's conclusion that the turmoil of the Revolution served to depoliticize the officer corps, and that the tradition of La Grande Muette was well established by the end of the Directory. On the contrary, the author suggests that by 1799, French officers were on their way to developing a "stab-in-the-back" myth that was waylaid only by Napoleonic victories. Nevertheless, his point that, ultimately, Napoleon's "careers open to talent" reconciled pre-1789 notions of the reciprocity between service and reward with the Revolutionary concept of an officer corps opened to the socially mobile offers an original perspective on the Napoleonic synthesis.

Unfortunately, while the book has a unifying theme, it lacks focus. The subtitle is misleading. Careers are not really discussed, and distinctions between talent, competence, professionalism, and merit are not clearly drawn. Nor does Blaufarb make clear how "merit" as "character" that developed in the bosom of the military family differs from, or contributes to, "professionalism." Rather, merit as Blaufarb defines it is ultimately a social contract between the officer and his sovereign as distinct from "personal qualities which would secure advancement" (200). From this perspective, military education is discussed as an "entitlement" rather than as a way of familiarizing the future officer with the rudiments of his profession. From Blaufarb's standpoint, the era of the French [End Page 299] Revolution and Napoleon seems to have retarded, rather than advanced, the professionalism of the French forces. The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from the book is that the debate about "merit" is really about job security, privilege, and entitlement, not professionalism.

Douglas Porch
Naval Postgraduate School