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Immigrants Evading French Military Service in the 1800s - Who Can Blame Them?

Call to report

Following on from our last post about a young man who emigrated from France after he was ordered to report for his compulsory military service, we wish to explain why this was not at all uncommon.

Conscription into the modern, post-revolutionary French Army began with the Jourdan law in 1798 and continued for two hundred years until it was suspended by President Chirac in 1996. We will not discuss here the pros and cons of compulsory military service or the morality of war or nationalism; we will describe here only the length of military service from the Revolution up to the First World War. To our mind, it certainly can help to explain why a young man would kiss his country and family good bye and take his chances in a new world.

1792-1802 - French Revolutionary Wars

  • 1798 - From the age of twenty, all men were required to serve in the army for five years. At any time from the age of eighteen to thirty, a man could volunteer. In order not to strip a town of all its able young men, the tirage au sort, a kind of draw,was introduced. With this draw, every one hundred conscripts of a canton were assigned a number. The first thirty-five were called up immediately. Thus began the discussions among young men of having a "good number" or a "bad number".

1803-1815 - Napoleonic Wars

  • 1804 - It became possible for the wealthy or ennobled to pay for someone to replace them in the call-up.
  • 1813 - After the loss of nearly half a million men in the campaign in Russia, the Army called up men under the age of twenty.
  • 1818 - The Revolutionary conscription law was abolished (in 1814) and a Restoration conscription law put in its place, using the same draw or tirage au sort system. The term of service was extended to six years in the infantry, eight years in other regiments, both to be followed by six years in the territorial army.
  • 1824 - The term of service was eight years.
  • 1832 - The term of service was lowered to seven years.
  • 1855 to 1858 - For up to three thousand francs, now paid as a tax, a man could buy his way out of conscription.
  • 1868 - The term of service was five years in the active army, plus four years in the reserves.

1870-1871 - The Franco-Prussian War

  • 1872 - The Cissey law continued the draw system, with two possible terms of service: five years or between six to twelve months, depending upon one's number, to be followed by four years in the reserves, then by eleven years in the territorial army. The full length of military obligation was twenty years.
  • 1889 - By the "Law of Three Years" the term of service was reduced to three years in the active army, to be followed by seven years in the reserves and fifteen years in the territorial army. Many types of exemptions were abolished. The full length of military obligation was twenty-five years.
  • 1905 - The draw was abolished. The replacement options were abolished, as were most of the exemptions. From this point, every man had to do some sort of service to his country for two years, followed by eleven years in the reserves and fifteen years in the territorial army.
  • 1912 - The draw was reinstated, to be used as needed. The term of service was three years in the active army and seven years in the reserves. For the new Senegalese recruits, the term of service was four years.
  • 1913 - The term of service was raised to three years, for all men from the age of twenty. The draw was abolished again.

1914-1918 - World War One

There were exemptions or various sorts (not surprisingly, Napoleon was very concerned about the conscript's height). As noted, there were, at times, options to send replacements or to buy one's way out. There were variations as to how the laws were applied. Nevertheless, it can be seen that during the years from 1872 to 1889, the burden of military service was particularly onerous and a good reason to some to leave France forever.

Check your genealogies. If a male immigrant arrived from France -- especially in the second half of the nineteenth century -- and was aged twenty, he was almost certainly running from his French military service.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy