Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter II.
The Active Army and the Reserve.

“THE radical fault of our Military System is that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, it does not really represent the Armed Nation. Though the Country bears a heavy burden, it is far from obtaining from the wealth of the national resources that Nation in Arms which could be provided at a much smaller expenditure of time and energy.

“In theory the law lays down the duty of compulsory and equal service for all citizens. There are neither exceptions nor exemptions. Every man who is physically fit falls within the scope of the Military Law during the greater part of his life. According to Article 32 of the Law, every Frenchman fit for Military Service serves for 2 years in the Active Army and for 11 years in the Reserve, after which he passes into the Territorial Army for 6 years, and the Reserve of the Territorial Army for another 6. Every French citizen serves for two years in Barracks, and all are obliged to come up for training from time to time after they have left the regiment. Rich and poor, employers and employed, fall under the same obligation, share the same life as soldiers, bear the same burden.

“Surely then, this is an enormous accumulation of national power, and the most striking demonstration of equality before the Law. It is The Nation in Arms.

“To all appearance that is so, but as a matter of fact it is only a shadow of the truth. Our Military System is vitiated from the first by the prejudice which prevents the Nation from regarding any other part of the Army as really important except the Army which is actually in barracks.

“The service in barracks has been reduced from seven to five years, and subsequently, to three, and then to two. And yet Thiers’s fear of great masses of untrained men has survived. Hence there are really only 2 classes in the Active Army and, even if we leave out the whole of the Territorial Army, there are 11 classes in the Reserve. It is clear then that the Reserves form the principal part of the Army. And this is admitted, or apparently admitted, in theory, and General Langlois draws a sharp distinction between the German system and the French, because, according to him, the German Army looks to its first line as forming essentially the Army itself, whereas in France, we rely chiefly on our Reserves; and he goes so far as to say that our system is the natural outcome of our political and social life, and that we must make a point of taking full advantage of these conditions.”

But these statements fail to take account of the facts, which show plainly that the whole French system is based upon the supposed inferiority of the Reserves as compared with the Active Army. Everything conspires to strengthen this attitude, even the words “Active Army” as compared with “Reserves.”

This is the real explanation of the excessive length of the service in barracks. Two years in barracks are at least four times as much as is really necessary to teach the soldier his business before he joins the cadres of the Nation in Arms. Jaurès denies that, in expressing this opinion, he is playing up to popular prejudice or asking less from the Nation than is necessary to secure absolute efficiency in national defence.

Any political party which is too cowardly to demand from the Nation the sacrifices which are necessary to its life and its liberties is beneath contempt, and cannot survive. But I am convinced that long service in barracks is the outcome of erroneous ideas, and is part and parcel of a system which seriously undermines the defensive power of France, by diminishing the value of her reserves, which are her real Active Army.”

An examination of the Swiss system shows that the Two Years’ Service is not based upon any technical needs. Of course it would not do to adopt the Swiss System in France without modification. But it is obvious that the Swiss period of service is founded upon the conditions which are necessary to produce thoroughly efficient soldiers and, if three or four months are sufficient to give the Swiss soldier his Military Education, it is clear that two years cannot be necessary to make a French soldier. Nor let it be alleged that the training of the Swiss Army is inadequate. The German General Staff has expressed itself in terms of high praise with regard to it, and General Langlois has also expressed a very favourable opinion on its value.

Switzerland has recently increased the period of service, roughly by one third and, in carrying out this reform, an appeal was made to the patriotism of the people and to their love of national freedom and independence. But it was never suggested, even by the Military Party, that the system itself was inadequate. On the contrary the reform was pressed upon the people, and accepted, as one which would secure for the Country the independence to which it is so passionately attached.

It is true that the success of the Swiss system is largely due to the thorough preparatory training of the youth of the Nation in cadet corps, gymnastic societies and so on, and by the frequent and strenuous “repetition courses,” which every Swiss soldier goes through in the years which follow his recruit training. And one of the worst drawbacks of long service in barracks is that it makes the men stale, and anxious to avoid the vigorous subsequent training which is indispensable for the efficiency of a really live defensive system.

As a matter of fact the French authorities tacitly admit the adequacy of the Swiss recruit training of a few months. For the French recruits’ course lasts five months, and the recruit who joins in October forms part of the first line of the Army in the following March, and would take his place in the ranks if war were to break out in the Spring. A great deal too much importance is attached to the supposed result of a prolonged period of service, in producing a sort of automatic and mechanical perfection of discipline which will carry men through the most terrible ordeals and enable them to continue to advance under a hurricane of fire even when they are in widely extended order. Although there is the widest divergence of opinion among military authorities as to the real lessons to be drawn from the South African and the Russo-Japanese Wars, there is general agreement as to the uselessness of formal perfection of drill, and the importance of developing individual intelligence and initiative. Manoeuvres over varied ground are far more effective in procuring these qualities than the mechanical exercises of the drill ground, and such training can be secured without condemning men to two years of barrack life.

In support of this view Jaurès quotes General Langlois’ condemnation of the present system in failing to give practical training to the troops, owing to the want of adequate training grounds, which can only he secured for a fortnight every year alter the crops have been cut. General Langlois contends that the training will never be satisfactory and adequate until the Nation allows the troops to get nine months in the year in camps of exercise provided for that purpose; the other three months being amply sufficient for close order drill. In his view the present system[1] is a delusion and a snare as regards practical training for war.

The logical deduction from (General Langlois’ criticisms would be one year’s service. For it would be impossible to enact a second period of nine mouths’ continuous training in camps of exercise, with the tremendous physical and moral strain which such training would involve. But the general would refuse to accept the logical consequence of his criticism, for that would mean the recognition of the failure of the old long service barrack system and the necessity of a radical reform. But is it not just this radical reform which is wanted ? We must abandon the fallacy of regarding the “active” army, serving 2 years in barracks, as the really important one, and we must recognize in the vast trained reserves the real military strength of the Country.

Under the present system a man practically drops his military duty when he has finished his two years’ service; and when he comes up, in his thousands, to do his 28 days’ reserve training he is regarded as an unmitigated nuisance by the then occupants of the barracks, who often take advantage of his temporary intrusion into their routine to foist upon him all the “fatigues” and non-military duties which they can shuffle off their own shoulders. Hence there is an appalling waste of time and energy, and the reservists are only too well aware of the fact. They are quite prepared to make any sacrifice for some useful purpose, but they feel disgusted and discouraged at having their time wasted in this way.

Jaurès points out that the reduction of the three years’ period of service to two years leaves these grave faults unremedied, thus falsifying the hopes of those who had thought that if there was not so much time to spend on the soldier’s training it would be more profitably employed. He contends that the two years’ service retains the same fault as the three years’ course in a somewhat less degree. For, as the recruit training of the soldier is finished in five months, and he then joins the first year’s men and would be called out with them for active service in time of war, there is an enormous waste of time in the second year, which is really quite unnecessary and leads to many soldiers being taken away from their military duties and put to all sorts of civil work in order to fill up the time. For it is impossible to work the men at the high pressure which an intensive military training requires for anything like two years at a stretch.

Hence military service, under the present system, provides a somewhat lazy education for the “Active Army” and has a depressing and deadening influence on the reserves.

“The only way to solve the difficulty and to provide vigorous, sustained and serious military education is to do away with the fetish of the barrack system and to look upon it simply as a means to give the recruit the foundation of his military training in the course of a few months. After that the units organized on a territorial basis would be called up periodically to go through a thoroughly practical field training.”

Turning to enquire why the present system of long service in barracks has been maintained in spite of its any obvious and admitted drawbacks, and its failure to produce in time of peace vigorous and efficient fighting units, Jaurès finds the explanation in the influence of routine and tradition. For generations past all the armies of the Great Powers have been “barrack-armies.” It never entered into anyone’s head to think of a standing army as anything else but an army living permanently in barracks. Even the adoption of the principle of the armed nation, implying enormous numbers of men trained for national defence, has not dissipated the obsession of the old ideas, and the modern army has come to be modelled on the old regime in this respect. Hence, “we have, consciously or unconsciously, come to look upon the small portion of the Army which happens to be in barracks as the whole; we have mistaken the school of training for the Army itself; we have taken the scaffolding for the solid framework which is to carry the whole building.”

New ideas only succeed by a series of compromises with tradition and prejudice, and the present military system,[2] which is the latest stage in the process of evolution which has been going on for the last thirty years, is hampered and confined by a. habit of mind which belongs to the past. This mental attitude finds its support, too, in the spirit of caste and of the vested interests of a class, which clings to the idea of commanding great masses of men segregated from the nation in a world of its own, with its own laws, its own pomp and circumstance, rather than of accepting their position as the leading citizens in an armed nation.

“Just as those who have been brought up under the traditions of a monarchical system can only recognize the majesty of force if it is concentrated in a family or in a man and are inclined to look upon the sovereignty of a democracy as something vague, dull and unsubstantial, so those who have grown up under the old military traditions can only think of the strength of an army as embodied in a concentrated, autonomous system, living its own life apart from the nation. And the more political and social necessity compels this army to throw open its gates to the nation, the more these people cling to the idea that its strength lies in those aspects of the old regime which made it a thing special and apart. But they are very much mistaken. Just as there is no power more majestic than that of the national will embodied in law, so there is no army more powerful and more capable of endowing its leaders with moral authority and prestige, if they are in harmony with it, than an army which is the aimed nation itself, inspired with the determination to defend its independence and organized for the purpose.”

As a matter of fact the “barracks-army” is, in Jaurès’s opinion, a serious obstacle to the effective organization of the defensive system of France, and has, in effect, deprived the Country of half of its fighting forces by the exaggerated importance which has been attached to this “active” Army, to the detriment of the “Reserves,”

1. He was writing before 1910 — Editors.

2. He is speaking of the two years’ service which had not been extended when he wrote. — Editors.