In the age of combative nationalism which stretched from 1789 to 1945, and which yoked Napoleon to Hitler, the making of military preparations and the act of fighting were two of the most important activities in the life of any state. War was held to be not only a legitimate but also an effective means of furthering the interests of the state, resort to which could resolve those disputes which could not be controlled by the machinery of diplomacy. Conscription provided a means whereby the state both made provision to field large numbers of trained soldiers if war came and demonstrated the extent to which it was prepared to commit its resources to such a war if the need arose. The citizen’s obligation to perform military service when required to do so was one of the distinctive characteristics of the nation states as they developed in the nineteenth century, providing a counter weight to the right to vote. In all respects the French Revolution seemed to draw a line which separated two distinct sets of attitudes towards war and military organiza tion. The so-called ‘Cabinet Wars’ of the eighteenth century are frequently portrayed as taking place outside the general confines of society; as gladiatorial combats held between bands of doughty — or dubious — professional soldiers and watched by ‘crowds seated in safety round a bloodstained arena’.1 War before it was revolutionized by the French
conscripts of 1793 thus appears as an activity which was somehow less bloody and less burdensome for the bulk of society, which was called upon to pay its taxes but not to give its personal services.