The effects of money, wealth, and monetary concerns on the French officer corps in the 18th century were both numerous and various. The rising middle class was both prevalent in this context and excluded from it; aristocrats were often more concerned with privilege than military success, and a large proportion of men becoming officers throughout the century were given this rank as a result of their wealth or status. This essay will therefore examine the effects of wealth on the officer corps with regards to morale, class privilege, and the make-up of the corps.
Louis XVI, who ruled for most of this century, was pressured by the nobility to enforce certain preventative measures in the system of promotion through the ranks of commissioned officers. During this period, the nobility experienced a growing apprehension of the rising middle class, and desired to prevent those of lower rank ascending as high as to become a commissioned officer. Therefore, Louis XVI ensured that any man must be able to convince a genealogist of having 16 quarters of inherited nobility in his blood. This meant that many non-commissioned officers became disillusioned with the military, as they were unable to progress to a higher rank, even as they saw wealthy men with less experience and knowledge entering into the army as commissioned officers. This disillusionment led to a mass desertion in 1789. During this year there was a great famine in France, and many soldiers felt greater sympathy towards civilians than they felt loyalty towards their commissioned officers.
This was because the number of roturiers who became officers by virtue of their wealth or education was so large in this period: there were an estimated 4,000 such officers at the end of the War of the Americas. Another common way into the officer corps was through the wealth or position of one’s parents. For example, if the head of corps owed a large amount of money to a financier that he could not easily repay, the financier’s son was often accepted as a commissioned officer by way of payment. Officers such as these generally lacked experience, and therefore lacked tactical ability. They were known for spending long periods of leave as courtiers or on their country properties. Because of this, they often also lacked any real authority, as it was so commonly known that they had only achieved rank because of their monetary status. Soldiers therefore had little respect for their commanding officers.
The composition of the officer corps was largely dependent on the wealth of status that the position offered. For men of nobility who did not manage their land, the two main career choices open to them were the army and the church. Of these, a military life was often preferable due to the privilege and stability it offered, often even allowing nobles a secure place at court when on leave. However, in the latter half of 1791, many commissioned officers lost their aristocratic privileges in connection with their military status as France began to move towards the atmosphere of the French Revolution, with many of the lower ranking officials finally able to stand for promotion. As a result of losing their aristocratic privileges, many nobles deserted and even emigrated during the final decade of the 18th century, to be replaced by foreign mercenaries. The composition of the officer corps became more diverse at this time, with entire battalions composed solely of German and Swiss military.
Class privilege was a defining factor in the composition of the officer corps: the 18th century saw much change with regards to the privileges of the wealthy and diversity of its composition.
- Barber, Elinor. The Bourgeoisie in 18th-Century France. Princeton University Press, 2015.
- “League of Gentlemen.” Historynet. www.historynet.com/league-of-gentlemen-officers-of-the-17th-and-18th-centuries.htm. Accessed 10 Jul. 2017.
- “The French Army 1600-1900.” Napolun. www.napolun.com/mirror/napoleonistyka.atspace.com/FRENCH_ARMY.htm#french1700. Accessed 10 Jul. 2017.