Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter VII.
Scheme for a New System. Covering Troops. The Problem of Cadres in France and Switzerland.

OF all military systems the Swiss system is undoubtedly the one which comes nearest to the ideal of a democratic and popular army. By reducing the time spent in barracks to a minimum, by arranging as far as possible that men shall go through their training in the immediate neighbourhood of their homes, by organizing the entire nation in territorial units, the Swiss have managed, more successfully than any other people, to enable the individual to fulfil his military obligations with the least possible disturbance of his civil life. We do not however maintain that the Swiss military system could be adopted in France without modification. There are features in that system which are the result of the past history of the nation, depending for their successful working on a state of public opinion which clues not exist in countries whose citizens have not been taught, as the Swiss have, to see the necessity and the advantage of universal military service designed, not for the benefit of a class or for the creation of a spirit of aggression, but for the preservation of national security and the free development of social justice.

It would not, for example, be advisable to transplant to French soil the Swiss method of dealing with boys who have left school. For schoolboys between the ages of 10 and 14, (at which latter age compulsory schooling ceases), the Swiss law prescribes physical exercises as a preparation for military training: the school teachers who have qualified in this branch at the normal schools and during their period of military service act as instructors. This is an admirable arrangement, and we propose the adoption, in France, of a similar system. On the other hand, the cadet training of boys who are no longer at school — i.e. of boys of from 14 to 20 years of age — is, in Switzerland left to the initiative of private agencies, and no compulsion is applied. Now the fact that such a system gives good results in Switzerland does not at all imply that it would give equally good results elsewhere. Swiss military institutions are the outcome of the past history, and the expression of the present public opinion, of the country.

For centuries past, the Swiss have cherished traditions of democracy, of decentralization, of national and local independence. Their social and political conditions have created and kept alive in them a keen sense of the value and importance of military efficiency, in the individual and in the community. Rifle shooting is practised as a recreation to an extent unknown in other countries. In such an atmosphere voluntary cadet training may well produce good results.

In France, on the other hand, where none of these conditions exist, and where private associations are so likely to be unduly influenced by political party feeling, the cadet training of boys who have left school should, like the preliminary training of schoolboys, be organized by the State on a compulsory basis. We propose, therefore, that boys from the age of 13 onwards, whatever class they may belong to, whether they are still at school or not, shall belong to cadet corps, organized by the State ,through the agency of the territorial units in the different localities and that they shall receive, at the hands of official instructors, such training in drill, gymnastics, and rifle shooting as shall he suitable to their age and degree of proficiency. We propose that there shall be one day of drill per month. Neglect, on the part of parents, to send their boys to the training centre at the appointed time should be punished by fines. Boys guilty of breach of discipline, of repeated failure to attend, of refusal to profit by instruction, should be liable to an increased amount of barrack training on reaching the military age and should be shut out from employment by the State in any capacity.

The military training which, under the system here advocated, would be given to boys in the primary schools and in cadet corps would lead up to the more systematic training which each man would undergo on reaching the age of 2o. We propose that every man on reaching that age should go through six months’ continuous training, such training to be given at suitable centres, at the most suitable time of the year, either in barracks or, preferably, in training camps. The men thus assembled for their recruit training would naturally not form a permanent unit. At the conclusion of each course of training the men would take their places in the territorial units, as members of which they had, during their boyhood, received their preliminary training.

The active army would consist of all men between the ages of 21 and 31. During their boyhood they would have received preliminary training at school and in the cadet corps attached to their territorial units: at the age of 20 they would have gone through a continuous period recruit training lasting for six months: and during the thirteen years of their active service as members of the army they would be called out eight times for repetition courses, lasting alternately eleven or twenty-one days; the shorter periods being devoted to company and regimental training, the longer periods to combined manoeuvres.

The chief argument put forward against the system here proposed is to the effect that it does not provide a body of troops, sufficiently large and sufficiently well trained, to guard the Eastern frontier against invasion. The difficulty is largely an imaginary one. (i) As regards military efficiency, the result of the preliminary training here proposed would be that the recruits assembled in the frontier districts for their six months’ training would have more military experience than the majority of our soldiers have under the existing system. (ii) As regards numbers, the existing system provides for the maintenance in the frontier districts of about 100,000 troops. It is impossible seriously to argue that, for the provision of such a force, it is necessary to keep 400,000 men in barracks, or that no other method of providing such a force can be arrived at. It would be possible, by offering proper inducements in the way of pay and conditions of service, to induce a sufficient number of men voluntarily to prolong their term of service, and so to provide whatever force may be necessary for the defence of the frontier. It would also be possible, by arranging that all the recruits from all parts of the country should go through their six months’ training in the frontier districts, to develop and extend the existing system by which the men who are stationed on the Eastern frontier are drawn from other parts of the country. The periods of recruit training could be arranged in such a way that there would at all times be a defensive force of 100,000 men stationed on or near the frontier: and the necessity- and the duty — of defending the frontier against attack would thus be brought vividly before the mind of the entire population.

The mobilization and concentration on the frontier of the troops destined to guard against invasion will be appreciably more rapid if the Swiss system of allowing men to keep their arms and equipment at their own homes is adopted in France. We do not propose the immediate adoption of this system in France for the country as a whole. It would be a-mistake to give any ground for the suspicion that, under the pretence of providing for rapid mobilization and national defence, we are aiming a facilitating revolutionary action on the part of the masses. The military system here advocated ought to be examined on its merits, from the single standpoint of its ability to provide for national defence against attack. It is, as as a matter of fact, highly improbable that the system of allowing men to keep their weapons in their own homes would have any such social effects as are frequently apprehended. When strikes or riots take place, talk about using weapons is harmless enough, especially when the weapons are not available. If the weapons were available, to talk about using them would be quite another matter: the talkers would run a serious risk of being taken at their word. Men who fire on their fellow citizens must either be in a state of uncontrollable excitement, or they must be acting in obedience to orders which cannot be disregarded. When soldiers fire into a crowd, it is, so to speak, their function to act as murderers: yet they shrink from doing it, and the repugnance they feel grows more intense as time goes on. Moreover their action arouses not merely fear and anger, but a feeling or horror. If working men were to misuse the weapons entrusted to them for the defence of the country, they would arouse a moral reaction on the part of their fellow citizens which would wreck their cause. Their own leaders, realizing their material and moral responsibility, would undoubtedly strain every nerve to prevent any such action: and, if such action took place, it would expose the perpetrators of it to the bitter hostility, not only of other classes of the people, but of numbers of their own fellow workers. Those of the workers who were animated by revolutionary ideas would not be the only people possessed of weapons. The middle classes of all grades, and the more conservative working men, would form a compact body, exasperated by anger and fear, unanimous in their determination to crush those who had first resorted to such murderous action The knowledge that such consequences would follow would certainly suffice to prevent such action from being taken.

This view is fully borne out by experience of the conditions existing in Switzerland. Industry in Switzerland, as compared with agriculture, is more highly developed than in France. Industrial and working-class towns are growing day by day. The population is being continually increased by the addition of men differing in race and in temperament. Strikes of extreme bitterness, leading to open conflict with the troops, are by no means unknown. Industrial disturbances have led to the soldiers using their rifles against strikers: they have never led to the use, by the working men, of their rifles against the soldiers. I have asked Swiss socialists whether the capitalist classes were not afraid of such action on the part of working men: and the reply has been — “Nobody has ever thought of such a thing. Such a recourse to violence would be madness, and the men who resorted to it would ruin their own cause.”

Those who disagree with the views here expressed may argue that Swiss soldiers, although they keep their rifles in their own homes, do not keep the cartridges which they would need on mobilization , and that the action of the Government in not allowing them to do so is dictated by tear of revolutionary action. This view is untenable in view of the fact that most Swiss citizens have in their possession cartridges which they have obtained, and not used, at the rifle ranges, and of the further fact that they are allowed to buy as many cartridges as they like from the official dealers. The action of the Government in no longer supplying them with cartridges to be kept at home with their rifles was taken in accordance, with the wishes of the citizens themselves, in order to guard against the risk of accident.

Thus, though we do not put forward — as regards the whole of France — proposals which might enable our opponents to misrepresent our aims, it is clear that the adoption — as regards the frontier districts — of the Swiss system of allowing men to keep their arms and equipment in their own homes would not involve any danger of civil disturbance: and it would materially increase the rapidity with which the citizens of those districts could be mobilized and concentrated for the defence of the frontier.

The question of the relative proportion of the recruits which is to be allocated to the different arms presents some obvious difficulties which are, however, easily capable of solution. Broadly speaking four-fifths of the military forces in a modern army consist of infantry. It is therefore easy and natural to make the basis of recruitment for four-fifths of the national army a purely territorial one. A given area will supply the recruits for a division, and these again will be subdivided into areas from which recruits will be drawn for any given unit — a regiment, battalion, or company.

The recruitment for the special arms is obviously not quite so simple, and it may be necessary to take a somewhat elastic view of the strict territorial basis which should be absolutely adhered to as regards the infantry. Clearly, some of the special arms, especially the artillery and the engineers, will have to be recruited mainly in industrial centres where there is a considerable population with experience of mechanism. It will therefore, no doubt, be necessary to take a larger area as the basis of recruitment in the case of the artillery and the engineers, and the basis may not correspond exactly to the infantry areas. But every effort will be made to adhere as closely as possible to the territorial principle, so that the military life may be modelled as closely as possible on the normal life of the nation, so that mobilization may be as rapid as possible.

Jaurès draws attention to the fact that the arrangements for the recruitment of the cavalry in Switzerland have given to that arm something of the character of middle-class superiority, based upon the fact that all those who wish to belong to the cavalry, even as privates, must give evidence that they can purchase, or at least maintain, a horse. A slight clement of class distinction is thus introduced, and it is quite impossible for the proletariat to find its way into this corps d'elite.

Jaurès takes strong exception to these conditions, as militating against that basis of complete equality in the face of the national needs which he regards as the foundation of a truly democratic military system. Instead of insisting that a cavalry recruit should furnish or maintain his own horse, therefore, he proposes that, under his scheme, the best and most active among the recruits should be posted to the cavalry, always on the strictly territorial basis, the State defraying all the cost incidental to this more expensive branch of the service.

Turning to the important question of providing training cadres for the enormous numbers forthcoming under a system of universal compulsory training in a short service army such as he has in view, Jaurès proposes a compromise between the French system, which provides permanent professional officers and N.C.O’s for nearly the whole army, and the Swiss system which provides only a very exiguous proportion of professional officers, reducing their functions almost entirely to the task of supervising the training of the recruits. The whole instructional corps of the Swiss Army amounts to only 240, and they are the only professional soldiers. The same proportion would limit the French professional officers and N.C.O’s to 2,400, which would obviously be totally inadequate. But the fact is that the Swiss professional soldiers do not form cadres at all; they are instructors pure and simple, and never hold any command.

The cadres are provided from quite a different source by a very complete and elaborate system, which is based upon three principles: (i) that no one has the right to refuse to be an officer, (ii) that all rise from the ranks and (iii) that each step in promotion depends upon the attain ment of a higher standard of military competence and technical knowledge, preceded in every case by a special course of training.

The fact that no citizen may refuse to undertake the duty of officer may give rise to the impression that the Swiss are often anxious to escape this burden. “Nothing of this kind, fortunately, can be said against the Swiss army. If men had to be compelled by law to accept commissions, they would show themselves, as officers, lacking both in zeal and in initiative: and in the case of a nation not animated by the general willingness to serve the State, the law would be a dead letter. The forces of national indifference and inertia would prevent such a law from attaining its object. Switzerland has enacted, and maintains, this legal obligation because the goodwill of the vast majority of her citizens can be confidently counted on: in other words the law is merely a precaution against individual and temporary shortcomings. As a matter of fact, men accept promotion to officer’s rank of their own free will.

“The second characteristic of the Swiss system is, that ‘unity of origin’ is almost complete among the officers. It may be said that all officers rise from the ranks, and are promoted step by step from the humblest position .... The third distinguishing trait is that, at each fresh step in promotion, a fresh educational effort is demanded from the citizen thus promoted; not as in France, where the whole educational effort is too often concentrated upon the first years of the officer’s career.”

Jaurès deals very fully and minutely with the system by which Switzerland provides for promotion from the lowest ranks, i.e. from that of private to that of colonel, the highest rank attainable in peace time. It does not seem necessary to deal with these arrangements in detail[1] here. Suffice it to say that they represent a progressive course of military education, in which practical training goes hand in hand with thorough instruction in theory and in which every step is checked by examination at the hands of the professional Instructors, the whole demanding from the citizen chosen, or applying for, the successive promotions the sacrifice of a large amount of time and a very assiduous devotion to his military duties during the periodic “schools” through which he has to pass. Let us take an instance of the serious nature of the demands made upon the Swiss citizen who wishes to attain the rank of a commissioned officer. The school for promotion to corporal follows immediately after the recruit training for the infantry, and lasts 20 days, during which he goes through a course of practical and theoretical instruction in everything relating to platoon work, outpost and picket duty and musketry. To secure promotion to commissioned rank in the infantry, the candidate who has been passed as an N.C.O. has to go through a “ school “ or course of 84 days, followed immediately after promotion by a musketry school lasting 28 days, which is also attended, during the first ten days, by captains and other officers of higher rank, so that the latter may have the opportunity of studying the control and the effect of infantry fire in all the developments of modern arms of precision. Promotion in the special arms is based upon the same system, but with a considerable increase in the period of the various courses; for instance, the “school” for promotion from N.C.O. to lieutenant in the artillery lasts 105 days, and in every case these schools and preparatory courses are additional to the regular training prescribed for each branch of the service, so that the officer promoted has constant opportunity of practising what he has learnt during this period of instruction for promotion.

Jaurès draws attention to the important fact that, although the Swiss Army is otherwise based and organized on the most democratic system, there is no election of officers by the people.

“It may be said that promotions are managed, directly or indirectly, by the Government authorities; and the actual people, the actual democracy, have only a very indirect and remote influence on the selection or advancement of officers.”

“What, then, is the professional value of these officers who give but a small portion of their time to military theory and practice, and whose life is almost wholly taken up with a trade, a profession, or some other civil occupation? It is always very difficult to pronounce a judgment upon the value of an army which has seen no fighting for a very long time. The task is especially difficult for a foreigner, who cannot form a personal and direct opinion by associating with Swiss officers. Without such daily familiarity and friendly talk, it is difficult to estimate their state of mind — their taste for work and for military problems whether, again, they wear their uniform from a noble care for Swiss independence, or through vulgar bourgeois vanity, or such snobbery as is common enough in democracies. I have heard Swiss Socialists speak without much esteem of their officers. They say that, apart from a small number of very honourable exceptions, the general bulk of them are second-rate. But this judgment may be inspired by party-spirit, especially at a time when they were irritated by the display of coarse militarism and mean patriotism which was so noisy in Switzerland during the Referendum on the new Army Act.[2] All that can really be said with some real confidence, is this: that, at the grand manoeuvres and at the mobilization-tests, the Swiss army has shown remarkable qualities which have struck all impartial observers.[3] This has been admitted by both French and German experts, even those who were least disposed to extol the militia system; and these established qualities of the Swiss army would seem clearly to prove that the officers reach a serious standard of efficiency. Moreover, I can add from personal knowledge that it is impossible to read the Revue Militaire Suisse (which has been published in the French-speaking cantons since 1888) without being struck by its living spirit ... What especially strikes a Frenchman, accustomed to the pall of silence which hangs over our army and the censure which paralyses all initiative among our officers, is the liberty of thought and action which these Swiss officers enjoy. They are formed into associations, which meet freely and publicly — often in the churches, which, in Switzerland, are used for so many functions of social life. These officers’ associations advertise their meetings in the papers, and arrange their own programme. They intervene, by way of approval or disapproval or amendment, in the military proposals of the Government authorities. They address public and collective petitions. They call upon the authorities to consider certain questions or reforms; and, when a bill is brought forward, they discuss it in a spirit free alike from revolt and from servility.”

Jaurès finally notes a dual tendency among the body of Swiss officers, the one towards a more conservative military policy, based upon a recognition of the efficiency of the German system, the other towards a still more democratic organisation of the Swiss army which would give the cantons some voice in the appointment of the higher officers who are placed in command of the divisions or brigades raised by them. He looks to the Socialist party to strengthen the latter tendency. In time, he sees in the active spirit of the Swiss people and their keen interest in improving the training and efficiency of their officers a proof that the principle of a militia force, raised upon the popular basis of compulsory universal training, is by no means incompatible with a constant improvement in military organisation and efficiency. On the other hand he does not by any means propose to accept the Swiss system bodily for France.

1. They are fully described in “A Territorial Army in Being: A Practical Study of the Swiss Militia” by the British Military attaché at Berne. Murray, 1908 — Editor

2. In 1907, a Referendum was held on a proposition to increase the time of training for the Swiss Army by something rather less than 20 per cent. (which, of course, entailed a corresponding increase in the budget). The question was hotly contested, but the proposal was carried by a substantial majority of the electorate.-Editor.

3. The rapidity and ease with which Switzerland mobilized all her active forces in August, 1914 was noted by all critics; and it has more than once been suggested that this accounts for Germany’s decision to attcak through Belgium rather than through Switzerland. — Editors.