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Painting depicting the Departure of the Conscripts of 1807 by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Levée en masse (French pronunciation: ​[ləve ɑ̃ mɑs], which is, when translated into English, essentially "mass uprising" or "mass mobilization."[1] The concept originated as a French term for mass conscription during the French Revolutionary Wars, particularly for the one from 16 August 1793.[2] However, its use as a military tactic predates this by an untold number of centuries, though typically as an occasional measure of last resort as in Baldwin IV's defense of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (one of the crusader states). The term was used again in the sense in relation to enrollment into civilian militias in the war in Bosnia.[3]


The term Levée en masse denotes a short-term requisition of all able-bodied men to defend the nation and its rise as a military tactic may be viewed in connection with the political events and developing ideology in revolutionary France, particularly the new concept of the democratic as opposed to a royal subject.

Central to the understanding that developed (and was promoted by the authorities) of the Levée is the idea that the new political rights given to the mass of the French people also created new obligations to the state. As the nation now understood itself as a community of all people, its defense also was assumed to become a responsibility of all. Thus, the Levée en masse was created and understood as a means to defend the nation for the nation by the nation.

Historically, the Levée en masse heralded the age of the people's war and displaced prior restricted forms of warfare as the cabinet wars (1715–1792) when armies of professional soldiers fought without general participation of the population.

The French Revolutionary Wars

The first modern use of levée en masse occurred during the French Revolutionary Wars. Under the Ancien Régime, there had been some conscription (by ballot) to a militia, milice, to supplement the large standing army in times of war. This had proven unpopular with the peasant communities on which it fell and was one of their grievances which they expected to be addressed by the French Estates-General, when it were convened in 1789 to put the French monarchy on a sounder footing. When this led instead to the French Revolution, the milice was duly abolished by the National Assembly.

The progression of the Revolution came to produce friction between France and its European neighbors, who grew determined to invade France to restore the monarchical regime. War with Prussia and Austria was declared in April 1792. The invading forces were met in France by a mixture of what was left of the old professional army and volunteers (it was these, not the levée en masse, that won the battle of Valmy in September 1792).

By February 1793 the new regime needed more men, so the National Convention passed a decree on 24 February allowing for the a national levy of about 300,000 with each French département to supply a quota of recruits. By March 1793 France was at war with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Britain, Piedmont and the United Provinces. The introduction of recruitment for the Levy in the Vendée, a politically and religiously conservative region, added to local discontent over other revolutionary directives emanating from Paris, and on 11 March the Vendée erupted into civil war—just days after France declared war on Spain and adding further strains on the French armies' limited manpower.[4] By some accounts, only about half this number appears to have been actually raised, bringing the army strength up to about 645,000 in mid-1793, and the military situation continued to worsen.[citation needed]

In response to this desperate situation, at war with European states, and insurrection, a levée en masse was decreed by the National Convention on 23 August 1793 in ringing terms, beginning:

"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."[5]

All unmarried able-bodied men between 18 and 25 were requisitioned with immediate effect for military service. This significantly increased the number of men in the army, reaching a peak of about 1,500,000 in September 1794, although the actual fighting strength probably peaked at no more than 800,000. In addition, as the decree suggests, much of the civilian population was turned towards supporting the armies through armaments production and other war industries as well as supplying food and provisions to the front.

As Barere put it, "…all the French, both sexes, all ages are called by the nation to defend liberty".

For all the rhetoric, the levée en masse was not popular; desertion and evasion were high. But the effort was sufficient to turn the tide of the war, and there was no need for any further conscription until 1797, when a more permanent system of annual intakes was instituted. An effect of the levée en masse was the creation of a national army in France, made up of citizens, rather than an all-professional army, as was the standard practice of the time.

Its main result, protecting French borders against all enemies, surprised and shocked Europe. The levée en masse was also effective in that by putting on the field many men, even untrained, it required France's opponents to man all fortresses and expand their own standing armies, far beyond their capacity to pay professional soldiers.

The levée en masse also offered many opportunities for untrained people who could demonstrate their military proficiency, allowing the French army to build a strong officer and non-commissioned cadre.

Though not a novel idea—see for example thinkers as diverse as Platoand the lawyer and linguist Sir William Jones (who thought every adult male should be armed with a musket at public expense)—the actual practice of a levée en masse was rare before the French Revolution. The levée was a key development in modern warfare and would lead to steadily larger armies with each successive war, culminating in the enormous conflicts of World War I and World War II during the first half of the 20th century.


During and in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia it was argued that armed reaction of Bosnian Muslims to Serbian militias in Srebrenica and other places was a legitimate form of civilian levée en masse.[6]

See also


  1. Schivelbusch, W. 2004, The Culture of Defeat, London: Granta Books, p.8
  2. Perry, Marvin, Joseph R. Peden, and Theodore H. Von Laue. "The Jacobin Regime." Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present. 4th ed. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 108. Print. Sources of the Western Tradition.
  3. Christopher Catherwood, Leslie Alan Horvitz Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide - Page 279 - 2006 "A levée does not refer to an uprising by people against its own government but instead entails organized resistance against an invader. Levée en masse implies that the population takes up arms already in its possession and that this uprising.. "
  4. James Maxwell Anderson (2007). Daily Life During the French Revolution. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 205. ISBN 0-313-33683-0. 
  5. Original decree in French
  6. Antonio Cassese The Oxford companion to international criminal justice - 2009 "In the Srebrenica area, thus, the second half of 1992 was marked by the co-existence of independent municipal ... submission that the armed resistance of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica against Serb attacks was a civilian levee en masse."

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