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Researching a Conscript


1802 Chasseur à Cheval

The Jourdan Act of 1798 introduced military conscription in a system that lasted for nearly two centuries. The municipal authorities were responsible for training the conscripts, under the authority of the departmental and military administrations.

Each municipality had to establish and maintain a census of all young French men who had reached the age of twenty, and who were residents of the municipality at the time that they had their twentieth birthday. Those who had been convicted of serious crimes were excluded.

These municipal military censuses or conscription lists were sent to the canton. At the canton, new lists were made and included the results of the medical exam, whether the conscript passed or was exempt. Other reasons for exemption included the man being the only male still living on and able to work a farm.

The cantonal lists were sent to the departmental military headquarters and combined into a new list, from which the quota of able men for any given year (termed classe) was taken. The departmental list will give the name of the regimental unit to which the conscript was sent.

Research of a man during the Napoleonic Wars is more difficult than at any other time that the Jourdan Act was in effect. It was a time of constant war and older and older men were called up as the wars wore on. So, do not limit your search to just the year when your man turned twenty, as he may have been called up at a later age. Additionally, there were more and more times in a single year when men were called up. In 1813 and 1814, when things were quite desperate for the Empire, more than half a million men were called up. However, at this time, and up to 1872, a man could be replaced by someone else, if he could find or pay someone to do so. A few key changes over the years include: 

  • Briefly, from 1815 to 1818, the military was voluntary.
  • When conscription was restored by St. Cyr in 1818, military service was set at six years.
  • This increased to eight years in 1824.
  • It went down to seven years in 1832.
  • In 1855, it became possible simply to buy one's way out of military service and not serve at all, but...
  • This was cancelled in 1858.
  • In 1868 the length of service was set at five years in the active army and four years in the army reserves.
  • In 1889, most exemptions are abolished but the term of service is reduced to three years.
  • In 1905, all but health exemptions are abolished and service is set at two years.
  • In 1913, the term of service raised to three years.
  • In August, 1914, all men who were able were mobilized and were to serve until hostilities ended.
  • In 1923, the term of service was reduced to eighteen months.
  • In 1928, the number of conscripts was to be half the military strength and the term of service to be twelve months.
  • In 1936, the term of service was again two years.

Searching the years from 1815 to 1905, the ideal is to search the lists in the following order:

  • Cantonal lists of conscription
  • Departmental lists of those called up (in 1880, the cantonal and departmental lists were merged and there is only one register to search)
  • Meeting minutes of the review board (these can contain correspondence, requests to be enrolled in a different town, and much more)
  • From 1867, registration numbers were assigned and are listed in registers; (conscripts were called up in number order until the quota was filled, so a high number was better than a low one.)

The conscript records contain much of personal description, always bluntly delivered:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Parents' names
  • Occupation
  • Place of residence
  • Grounds for exemption
  • Illness or infirmity
  • Physical description
  • Level of education
  • Name of substitute, if any (there may also be a copy of a notarial acte of the substitution)
  • Military assignment

From this last, one is then equipped to go to the records of the Service Historique de la Défense to know more about the man's service record and, possibly, his pension.

In 1905, the quota aspect of the system was abandoned and the research methods change slightly, to the following order:

  • The departmental/cantonal conscription list
  • Meeting minutes of the review board
  • In some cases, the files studied by the review board survive
  • The registers of registration numbers

Military records show a strange way of thinking and a strange way of organizing. This research requires much bouncing back and forth between lists and registers but once the person's record is found, it is well worth it. Nice way to spend the last days of the year.

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy