French Military Records - Les recensements militaires
07 April 2010
The French military is well documented and military conscription records going back to 1716 can provide that oft-promised wealth of information on a man. As with all documentation in France, the focus of the records' content differs from the ancien régime (pre-Revolution) to the modern era (post-Revolution, with all its republics and empires); those of the former giving more information about nobles and officers, and precious little about the ordinary soldier, while those of the latter striving to document everyone.
For those descended from male French immigrants, there is a not very strict rule of thumb concerning military service and immigration:
If they went to North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were more likely to have done so as a part of their military service. If they went during the 19th century, they were more likely to have done so in order to avoid military service, especially if they were aged twenty or younger at the time.
The military census records - les recensements militaires - are the 19th century conscription records. At times, the name of the forms changed, but their function remained the same: to register and evaluate for service young men as they reached adulthood, usually the age of twenty.* Information in these censuses can include:
- Full name
- Level of education
- Date and place of birth
- Physical description: height; the colour of hair; eyebrow and eye colours; chin, forehead and mouth shapes (very entertaining, these : "round", "average", "flat", "bulging", etc.); and any scars or distinguishing marks
- Parents' full names
- Decisions as to placement in a regiment
- Medical details, occasionally
Not bad for "wealth", eh?
The nineteenth century names for the military censuses:
- From the Revolution, through the Napoleonic Wars, until about 1815, these records were called the Listes du Tirage au sort. Each year, young men were called to report for service and were given a number indicating their ability to serve. A "bad number" -- mauvais numéro -- (in the eyes of the conscript) was one that indicated excellent soldier material. (It was permitted for a conscript to pay someone to take his place, and this is duly noted in the record.) Some departments, such as Paris and Tarn, continued to use this name, even when the function changed from every man being automatically sent into the army to some being held as reserves.
- From 1815 to 1867, the name was Listes du contingent, giving the same information.
- From 1867, they were called the registres matricules. This is the name most commonly used for them on the websites of the departmental archives.
The military census records are found in the departmental archives under the series R. The waiting period to view the records is 120 years, counted from the date of birth. (The stated reason for this long wait is the inclusion of private medical information.) The entries on individuals are chronological, according to when the young man showed up at the bureau. As with the actes d'état civil, ten-year indices, tables décennales, have been written, being an alphabetical listing of the conscripts which gives their enlistment numbers. With this number, one can find the conscript's individual entry in the registre matricule.
Thus, to find your nineteenth century French ancestor's military census record:
- You must know where he was born, for this -- and not the town of his residence -- is where he was supposed to go to the conscripts' bureau. (Those who were overseas could report to a local embassy or consulate, which would then forward a completed form to the town of birth.)
- You must know when he was born. He could report any time between his twentieth and twenty-first birthdays. If he was all ready in North America before he turned twenty, he almost certainly neither reported nor served. If he did not emigrate until he was thirty or so, there is a good chance of finding him in the registres matricules.
- Find the correct department for the town of birth. In series R of that department's archives will be the registres matricules. Many of the departmental archives are now putting online at least the tables décennales if not the entire registres, so check in the panel of links to the left.
For additional help we highly recommend the Nouveau Dictionnaire Militaire, published in 1892 and an excellent guide to military terminology of the time. It is found on the wonderful and still free Internet Archive, from which the entire book can be downloaded in PDF format.
©2010 Anne Morddel
*This was not necessarily the age of legal majority.