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In the path of an oncoming army: civilians in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2013 is in full swing, welcoming thinkers and writers from across the globe to our wonderful city of Oxford. We’re delighted to have over thirty Oxford University Press authors participating in the Festival this year! OUPblog will be bringing you a selection of blog posts from these authors so that  even if you can’t join us in Oxford this year, you won’t miss out on all the action. Don’t forget you can also follow @oxfordlitfest and check the event schedule here.

Mike Rapport will be giving a free talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday 23 March 2013 at 1.15 p.m. to talk about The Napoleonic Wars. The Very Short Introductions ’soapbox’ talks will be running twice a day during the festival.

By Mike Rapport


Modern wars, someone once wrote, are fought by civilians as well as by armed forces. In fact, it is of course a truism to say that civilians are always affected by warfare in all periods of the past — as the families left behind, by the economic hardship, by the horrors of destruction, plunder, requisitioning, siege warfare, hunger, and worse. The involvement of civilians in modern wars, however, became more intense because, with the advent of ‘total war’, belligerent states began to mobilise the entire population and material resources of the country. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were an early example of the ways in which a modern war could grind millions of people up in its brutal cogs, whether as conscripts in the firing lines of Europe’s mass armies and navies, or as civilians caught in the path of the oncoming battalions and trapped in the crossfire of the fighting itself. At the Oxford Literary Festival on 24 March, I will be speaking about the non-combatants who, in one way or another, found themselves entangled in the wars.

Civilians were of course victims. Four years ago Karen Hagemann published a fine article on the civilian experience of the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the largest battle in European history before 1914. The local people started as horrified onlookers, as maimed, sick French troops retreated into the city to find treatment in makeshift military hospitals But soon the fighting arrived on their streets and doorsteps and they themselves became the victims. First, they suffered economically with the pillaging and requisitioning of tools, furniture, food and livestock. Then they found themselves under fire, huddling in churches and cellars to shelter — sometimes in vain — from the bursting shells, or they fled the carnage, carrying what they could on carts and wheelbarrows and dragging their terrified children along with them.

Yet this was a ‘people’s war’ not only because the conflict may have killed at least one million civilians (and very likely many, many more). It was also a ‘people’s war’ because the civilian population of all the belligerents mobilized behind the war effort. Economies were reoriented into supplying armies and navies, while the recruiting-sergeant and press-gang became all-too-familiar sights across Europe. In revolutionary France in 1793, the ‘mass levy’ of the entire population for the war effort gave men, women and children explicit roles to play in the mobilisation of all the nation’s resources for the sole purpose of fighting the war. Yet civilians also voluntarily engaged in the prosecution of the conflict. In France in the 1790s, communities collected money and valuables and presented them to the government as ‘patriotic donations’. Women played a pivotal role: in Germany, a ‘Women’s Association for the Good of the Fatherland’ raised money and collected valuables for the Prussian war effort against France in 1813: it boasted some 600 branches by 1815. In Britain, women raised subscriptions for the wounded, the widowed and collected materials and clothing for the troops: there were, again, hundreds of such organisations. In Spain, men and women joined bands of guerrillas to fight and plunder the French, although in many cases such actions appear to have been little different from banditry, since Spaniards suffered from these depredations too.

Yet it all shows that people were not simply coerced. They were stirred by propaganda fed to them by governments and by a media trying to convince them that the war was, variously, a struggle for survival, for liberty, for religion, for monarchy, or for the Emperor. The people themselves played a role in shaping the propaganda, in defining what the war was about. With an expansion in literacy in the eighteenth century, such popular support would have been impossible without an interaction between public opinion and governments. In the varieties and intensity of the civilian experience, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are a chilling anticipation of the ‘total wars’ of the twentieth century.

Dr Mike Rapport is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Stirling. He is the author of Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France: The Treatment of Foreigners 1789-1799 (OUP, 2000), The Shape of the World: Britain, France and the Struggle for Empire (Atlantic, 2006), 1848, Year of Revolution (Little, Brown, 2008), and The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013).

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Image Credit: Victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813 [Public Domain} via Wikimedia Commons

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