During revolutions or civil wars, countries usually suffer enormous economic losses along with much civil unrest. These things would seem to make it impossible for a nation to operate a huge army and go on major wars of conquest.

But France did that in the Napoleonic Wars, and conquered almost all the other European Empires. How? Did France somehow not suffer economically? Did France somehow recover very quickly in time for the Coalition Wars?

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    They funded the war by plundering conquered countries, basically.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 8:20

5 Answers 5


The French revolution was truly revolutionary, it replaced the monarchy with a regime based on popular support. A king had to hire mercenaries, the revolutionary regime could draft patriotic citizens in a levee en masse.

(Sure, not all draftees were entirely enthusiastic. But it made a notable difference.)

In some parts of Europe, anti-monarchist patriots were inclined to support the republican/revoutionary French. In others, they were merely inclined to not give their utmost in the support of their king.

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    This explains how a large army is formed/drafted. This does not answer how a large army could be maintained and operated. That requires food, cannons, ammo, powder, and many horse convoys to supply it all. That in turn would require money, and I do not see how France after the chaos of the revolution would have the available funds.
    – DrZ214
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 5:23
  • @DrZ214. Even though your question is correct, the importance of this answer is that the concept of nation begun. Under this concept people no longer worked or fought by money, they were forced to defend the country. As result they needed less money to work or fight. I'll also add more information, industrial revolution was already ongoing, giving a huge surplus of products.
    – Santiago
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 12:46
  • @DrZ214 not only men were requisitioned, and not only for the army. Horses were pressed into war horses and draft horses. Those men not conscripted into the army were put to work in armories and factories. This is how a European nation could field millions of soldiers for the first time in history, and how Napoleon could boast about being able to lose tens of thousands of men (a typical pre-Napoleonic national army) per month, indefinitely. Commented May 5, 2017 at 6:26

The French Revolution was more empowering than debilitating. Put another way, it awoke a sleeping giant.

At the time of the Revolution, France was the second most populous country in Europe (after Russia), and potentially the richest and strongest. The reason it failed to live up to this potential was the burdens placed on the French people by the various King Louis, especially the last one (XVI), and his wife, the extravagant Marie Antoinette.

The French Revolution eliminated these monarchs (and an oppressive nobility that ruled side-by-side with them) and thus freed a lot of resources for other purposes, including war. The Frenchmen were empowered by their newly-won freedoms, and their citizen-soldiers, led by a relative handful of veterans, fought bravely and well for many of the same reasons as newly empowered American revolutionaries some ten to fifteen years earlier, when led by many of these same professional soldiers, including one Marquis de Lafayette.

Put another way, the French had a natural quantitative superiority of resources against one or more coalition powers, and the French Revolution ensured that the quality of these resources would be at least equal, if not superior to the others.

  • Thanks but can you say anything about the supply of bread or food during/after the Revolution? I was under the impression that it was scarce and was a factor in civil unrest. Also, the only economic burden on the people AFAIK was taxes. If these were lowered or removed, it would seem to make it all the more difficult for a centralized state to operate major foreign wars for over a decade.
    – DrZ214
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 8:33
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    @DrZ214: "Taxes were high" meant that large amounts of labor and materials had earlier been diverted to the king or nobles at places like Versailles. The "elimination" of those people meant that these resources could be re-diverted to military or civilian uses. Also, the hardships were easier to bear when a few people weren't living "high off the hog." France was a "poor" country not because it was fundamentally poor (as in eastern Europe) but because the "top" had "skimmed off" most of the wealth.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 8:43
  • 2
    Great answer Tom. You could mention Gribeauval's artillery reforms as well, including the standardization of ammunition as well as the guns and limbers themselves; the remounting of the barrels for better balance and speed on rough terrain; and the introduction of horse artillery. The introduction of a merit-based officer corps had a tremendous effect on troop effectiveness and morale also. "Every French soldier carried a marshal's baton in his backpack; just in case." Commented May 4, 2017 at 20:32

The French Convention decreed a levée en masse on 23 August 1793 to resist the anti-French coalition:

From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

This state of total war marks a historic turning point. Never before in history had all men, women, children, and elderly in an entire country been requisitioned for war. This caught the coalition completely off guard. Armies until then - and for years to come still, in the rest of Europe - were the affair of professionals (and mercenaries). France overwhelmed the rest of Europe to the point where they had to expand their troop counts far beyond their ability to pay professional soldiers

At least a few historians (e.g. J.M. Roberts) emphasize the introduction of total war by France as one of the major breaks with the past that opened the modern era.

  • 1
    Right but how was the levee en masse maintained? If they didn't pay them directly, how were they fed? Did the central authorities forcibly requisition food? That doesn't sound sustainable for 15 years.
    – DrZ214
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 14:43
  • FYI the wiki article I and others have linked to answers some of your questions. Drafting ceased after the coalition was repelled, and later reinstated until the Bourbon restoration. Napoleon, a keen administrator, introduced a number of changes to how the military were organized back then, e.g. he created the Ecole Polytechnique to have well trained military officers around. Food, horses, weapons, etc. were requisitioned with compensation if memory serves. Central authorities managed it all much like they would during later total wars. It was very modern indeed. Commented May 24, 2017 at 14:58
  • It's worth emphasizing a bit more how modern France was at the time in comparison with the coalition against it. Where countries in the latter group were waging war like that had done so for centuries before, with a small professional force plus mercenaries and cursory logistics (recall that it was still customary then to allow troops to sack cities for a few days as part of their payment), France was mass-drafting and had efficient supply lines. Troops were disciplined, too: they didn't sack so much best I'm aware, though France did confiscate tons of goods across Europe to pay for its wars. Commented May 24, 2017 at 15:14

The introduction of conscription was a direct result of the dissolution of the monarchy. All the other monarchies saw France as a threat to their way of order, as they feared similar uprisings. In March 1793, France was at war with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Britain, Piedmont and the United Provinces. A professional army was woefully inadequate for this, in terms of both manpower, and having to pay for it.

Desertion was fairly common but the sheer number of eligible males who were conscripted and slowly trained while fighting alongside veterans resulted in a huge, competent army of both NCO and COs.

However support grew due to the popular overthrow of the monarchy, the subsequent success in defending France, and the Napoleonic wars which leveraged this somewhat-bloodened army (and the spoils of war).

More directly to your question - the original text of the levee en masse gives some insight as to how this was accomplished (for example, the conversion of national buildings into barracks, etc.)


  • 1
    Napoleon to Metternich "You cannot stop me. I can spend 30,000 men a month."
    – AllInOne
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 14:56
  • @AllInOne: That is more than 15 years later, in the 1809 time frame rather than the 1792 time frame. Commented May 4, 2017 at 20:22
  • Not an answer to the question asked: How did France maintain and operate such an army?" The levee en masse was simply how they raised it. Commented May 4, 2017 at 23:46
  • Conscription was also used to maintain/replenish troops, but I think you're mincing words, and if you read the question, I addressed his points (e.g. "countries usually suffer enormous economic losses along with much civil unrest")
    – Hefewe1zen
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 11:17

Complex question.

  • Resources.
    France was large, rich and Populous country. Around 40 million to Austria's 20 million or Prussia's 10 Million, Russian was about the same 40 million, but well behind in wealth. And France was richer than these countries. And once France had established an empire, French advantages increased.

  • Politics and Diplomacy.
    For a lot of the period France was only opposed to 1 major land power. Even in the Early period, Russia, Prussia were much more concerned with the partition of Poland than dealing with france.

  • the Revolution - patriotism.
    Initially the revolutionary armies were able to be mobilised essentially by patriotism, and calling for volunteers was responded to in very large numbers, the revolution mobilised more of the French society, this did not last and conscription replaced volunteers. But in critical period the volunteers and enthusiasm

  • The Empire.
    Once the Revolutionary armies occupied areas, Netherlands, Rhineland, Italy much of the costs of supporting the armies was able to be imposed on the Empire. as much as half the military expenditure of France came from the Empire.

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