Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter XVI

“The end brings me back to my starting-point: the great misfortune of the French democracy is its unwillingness to make up its mind. It does not venture to reorganize its army on the bold lines which are not only suggested, but demanded, by the logic of democratic principles.” French military writers themselves often halt between two opinions in this matter.

Extremists (e.g. General Bonnat) wish to increase the barrack-training to three years and to stake everything on the first-line army. All, will be decided (they say) in the first great battle of the war, or at least in the one or two great battles which may follow close upon this first.

Let us repudiate this pessimistic doctrine with all our might. Let us, as democrats, refuse to believe that the final fate of three million fighting-men can be decided by the first great battle, unless there has been, in peace time, a culpable lack of preparation for the greatest eventualities. National defence, if backed up by true national feeling both before the war and during the war, cannot collapse so hopelessly as this.

But (argues a more moderate opponent like General Foch) wars are now becoming national only in the sense that they are fought for national self-interest, for trade advantages: wars are now becoming “more interested and less interesting.” This, however, is an exaggeration, to say the least. The great Franco-British war of 1792-1815 was to a great extent a war of rival interests; but it was still more a war of ideals. The British had reason to believe that they were face to face with a would-be universal empire which threatened not only their commerce, but their pride and their liberty as well; and even so, there was a strong anti-war party in the country The Russo-Japanese war, again, was economic; but it was far more than this.

In the heroic valour of the Japanese there was more mysticism than greed: their patriotism showed a sort of religious self-sacrifice. “No doubt, Britons and Germans are jealous, watch each other, and try to hinder each other, But it would be difficult for these passions of economic, rivalry to spread so far or so deep as to create a really national war. The disproportion between the advantages procured by any particular treaty of commerce imposed by force, and the immense sacrifices which modern war, involves even for the victors, would prevent a purely commercial war from becoming wholly national. Consider also the growing repugnance of many minds in all nations to violent solutions of this kind. Consider the daily increasing will of the proletariat in every country to avoid international conflicts, and the growing certainty among them that each nation would gain more, economically, by equitable and peaceable arrangements. All these factors can have but one result; war might break out between the commercial interests of London and Hamburg, but it could not be a truly national war.”

“If General Foch, and the officers whose teacher he is, will think the matter over, they will see that we have come to a critical moment for their conscience and their intellect. It is absurd and retrograde to attribute a thoroughly and essentially national character to war kindled by the greed of rival capitalist groups. Our officers themselves must take a definite side in this great social and moral drama which the age is unrolling. They must not only realise in their minds, but also proclaim in public, that a policy which sets two nations by the ears for the sake of Colonial competition or stock-exchange speculations, is an infamous and fatal policy. They must proclaim publicly, as officers, that troops cannot be expected to fight with the necessary dash, when they are dragged to butchery for such an ignoble traffic as this. There are only two possibilities of truly national war nowadays. If a nation which wants peace, and which proves its wish for peace — a nation which has no thought of aggression or robbery — is assailed by predatory and adventurous governments in quest of some colossal plunder or some startling diversion from their domestic difficulties, then we get a truly national war. Or, again, if a people were to carry out at home, without armed proselytism, some great social reform which should provoke the fears of neighbouring oligarchies, and should impel them to attempt to quench this revolution in blood. Then, but in no other cases, can we call a war really national.”

The first point, therefore, of army reform is the diplomatic point; no war must be declared unless arbitration has first been offered; thus alone can you get that national conviction of self-defence which will make the family-man as eager a fighter as the first-line youngster.

Under these circumstances, our strategy must be as predominantly defensive as our diplomacy.

With this conviction of an entirely just cause, and with men trained from boyhood upwards in all the most scientific possibilities of defensive warfare on a great scale, we can better utilize the million reservists who, by our present system, are separated by so unnecessary a gulf from the younger men.[1] We must organize recruiting and mobilization on as close a territorial system as possible, so as tocall out our reservists at the shortest possible notice. With these vast masses of men we can confront the invader, falling back where necessary upon carefully prepared positions in the rear, and again fresh positions behind those. Thus the enemy, always and everywhere, will have to lose heavily in attacking prepared positions, while his own communications are extending, and our main forces are massing behind to seize the first opportunity of striking heavily back. In face of a nation with self-control enough to adopt this resolute and calculated defensive, any predatory policy of adventure would run enormous risks.

If the people really apply themselves to this problem the people will victoriously solve it. Here, if anywhere is a truly national ideal. The best way of protecting every region of France is to protect France herself. Our army, in order to secure full liberty for decisive manoeuvres and for the victory which shall at last free us, may be obliged to abandon some part of our territory for a. time. Yet this would be better, in the long run, even for the districts thus abandoned, than to cling so closely to the frontier as to lose all chance of a great victory. In a truly democratic and popular France, in which army affairs were understood by the general public, it would be possible to appeal to the highest intelligence of the nation. How are we to break the shock of the enemy’s onset? We must have two millions of French citizens in the very first line; and this enormous mass must have free play to combine for attack when the time comes. As soon as our General Staff, animated by a thoroughly republican, popular, and national spirit, has understood this, then they will persuade all their fellow-citizens to let France have full liberty of manoeuvre.[2] The enemy would then have to move slowly and cautiously; for the country would have made full preparations against invasion; and he would therefore meet the resistance which would most embarass him. He would then have to reckon neither with a limited resistance nor, on the other hand, with a compact and motionless resistance of our whole forces. He would find us resisting, not only in full force, but also with a suppleness of movement which would add to his difficulties as much as our vast numbers would add to them.”

“We must have a new system with more elasticity and freedom and life than the present: only thus can we command the real interest of the people. We must have a system which develops all citizens better, both physically ,.and morally; it must give us, a fuller and more vigorous guarantee of national independence; it must give us firmer certainty, and a fresh pledge, of the people’s will for peace. Remember that governments will be far less ready to dream of adventurous foreign policies, if the mobilization of the army is the mobilization of the nation itself. France must adopt this policy, and thus take a step forward beyond all other nations, seeing that she can do so without risk for such a system would rather strengthen than weaken her defensive force. Then the other nations will have to follow suit. Germany in especial — whatever may be her political and social reasons for putting nearly all her force and hope into her first-line army — will be compelled, in her turn, to organize and to wield masses of soldiers no less vast than the masses manoeuvred by democratic France. She may begin by laughing at us; but, sooner or later, she will have to take us seriously and then (as her own general Falkenhaus puts it) she will be obliged to deepen the sources of her army and to depend more seriously upon the older men. Then, Germany in turn will gain greater defensive power against invasion, and less power of aggressive militarism. This will bring to Europe a new era; it will bring hopes of justice and peace which will help the French proletariat to understand the sense, the interest, and the necessity of our proposals: Meanwhile we labour with passion, but with perseverance to realize this scheme since it forms part of the vast plan of social reform which, in these days, must be in the thoughts of all good citizens, of all good Frenchmen.”


1. We hear from officers back from the front that, on the defensive side of present trench-warfare, the older man are doing better, if anything, than the younger. — Editor.

2. i.e. to abandon territory, if necessary, for a time in order to fight at better advantage in the long run. It must be remembered that the vast majority of Frenchmen, before this war, were unwilling to think of any but offensive operations. — Editor.