- The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution
If one had to pick a central concept that characterized European warfare in the nineteenth century the levée en masse would naturally come to mind. In the usual narrative, the French Revolution's ability to unleash and exploit the energies of its citizens swept away the armies of the ancien régime, who could not recover until they had, in a famous phrase, "rifled the armory of the revolution." To be sure, military historians have long pointed out the gross weaknesses of such an oversimplified view: the reliance of the French armies on the drill books and methods, and even many of the personnel of the monarchical army; the evolution of the French army under Napoleon into a bureaucratically efficient machine in which republican enthusiasm played a much diminished role; the effectiveness of militaries like the British which, once reformed, could fight the French on equal terms. Still, the idea of mass warfare characterized by a mobilization of soldiers from the entire population, and supported by nationalist ardor, remains a topic of interest to historians.
The People in Arms is a competent collection of essays on this subject. Not surprisingly, the focus is on France and secondarily Europe, although there are two essays on the idea of the levée en masse in China and Vietnam. The one American chapter, by John Whiteclay Chambers, deals more with American impressions of European events than with the American experience proper. This is unfortunate, perhaps, because the American model of mass citizen participation in warfare deserves more comparative analysis than it normally receives (some of the work of Stig Förster and his colleagues being a noteworthy exception). The Civil War, for example, seems to have had some effect on British thinking about voluntary citizen militias in the latter part of the century, and even the Revolution had its effect on European soldiers through men like Johann von Ewald.
The essays here explore different aspects of the myth of the people in arms. They highlight in different contexts the tension inherent between the [End Page 248] ideological or mythic aspects of citizen service in war, on the one hand, and the administrative requirements of raising armies adequate for particular purposes on the other. Convincingly, if unsurprisingly, the authors all conclude that myth and reality rarely coincided, and for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the technological dimension is missing in much of this book: the levée en masse requires, after all, ways of war in which weapons can be mass-produced and soldiers trained with them in relatively short periods of time. They require too forms of warfare in which sheer numbers count for a great deal, something which is not always the case.
As in all collections, some of these essays are better than others. Arthur Waldron's piece on Chinese discovery of the French revolutionary experience, and the later translation of the French socialist Jean Jaurès's book on military service is a fascinating study of how history and military concepts move between continents. By itself, in fact, it makes a merely useful edited volume something more valuable.