National Guard (France)

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Philippe Lenoir, (1785-1867), French painter, in his National Guard uniform. By Horace Vernet (1789-1863)

The National Guard (French: la Garde nationale) was the name given at the time of the French Revolution to the militias formed in each city, in imitation of the National Guard created in Paris. It was a part-time military force separate from the regular army. Initially under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, then briefly under the Marquis de Mandat, it was strongly identified until the summer of 1792 with the middle class and their support for constitutional monarchy. The National Guard had some impact on the Revolution, but was disarmed by Napoleon except for its recall in 1809 and 1814 to help defend France. Reestablished after his exile, it continued to play a significant role in each French revolution of the 19th century.

Creation[edit]

Mr Hepp, commander of the National Guard of Strasbourg in 1790

With disorder and theft spreading in Paris, the citizens of the city met and agreed to create a militia made up of the middle-class to ensure the maintenance of law and order and the defence of the Constitution. La Fayette was elected to the post of commander in chief of the militia on July 15, and it was named the National Guard. Each city of France set up its own National Guard. When the French Guards mutinied and were disbanded during the same month, the majority of the former royal regiment's rank and file became the cadre of the Paris National Guard.

Organization[edit]

The officers of the National Guard were elected. Under the law of October 14, 1791, all active citizens and their children over 18 years were obliged to join the National Guard. Their role was the maintenance of law and order and, if necessary, the defense of the territory. The citizens kept their weapons and their uniforms at home, and set forth with them when required. The initially multi-coloured uniforms of the various provincial National Guard units were standardized in 1791, using as a model the dark blue coats with red collars, white lapels and cuffs worn by the Paris National Guard since its creation.[1] This combination of colours matched those of the revolutionary tricolour.

Role during the Revolution[edit]

Soldiers of the Garde nationale of Quimper escorting royalist rebels in Brittany (1792). Painting by Jules Girardet.

The former Guet royal had held responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in Paris from 1254 to 1791, when the National Guard took over this role. In fact, the last commander of the Guet royal (Chevalier du Guet), de La Rothière, was elected to head the National Guard in 1791. In the summer of 1792, the fundamental character of the guard changed. The fédérés were admitted to the guard and the subsequent takeover of the guard by Antoine Joseph Santerre when Mandat was murdered in the first hours of the insurrection of the 10 August placed a radical revolutionary at the head of the Guard. After the abolition of the monarchy (September 21, 1792), the National Guard fought for the Revolution and it had an important role in forcing the wishes of the capital on the French National Assembly which was obliged to give way in front of the force of the "patriotic" bayonets.

After 9 Thermidor, year II (July 27, 1794), the new government of the Thermidorian Reaction placed the National Guard under the control of more conservative leadership. Part of the National Guard then attempted to overthrow the Directory during the royalist insurrection on the 13 Vendémiaire, year IV (October 5, 1795), but were defeated by forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of 13 Vendémiaire. The Paris National Guard thereafter ceased to play a significant political role.

The Empire[edit]

Napoleon did not believe that the middle-class National Guard would be able to maintain order and suppress riots. Therefore he created a Municipal Guard of Paris, a full-time gendarmerie which was strongly militarized. However, he did not abolish the National Guard, but was content to partially disarm it. He kept the force in reserve and mobilized it for the defense of French territory in 1809 and 1814. In Paris during this period the National Guard comprised twelve thousand bourgeois property owners, serving part-time and equipped at their own expense, whose prime function was to guard public buildings on a roster basis.[2]

With the invasion of France by allied Austrian, Prussian, Russian and British armies in 1814, the National Guard was suddenly called on to provide support for regular Imperial forces. Existing National Guard units, such as those of Paris, were deployed as defense corps in their areas of recruitment. Mass conscription was extended to age groups previously exempt from military service, in order to provide more manpower for the expanded National Guard. Students and volunteers from gamekeepers and other professional groups formed separate units within the National Guard. Clothing and equipment was often in short supply and even the Paris National Guard was obliged to provide pikes as substitute weapons for some of its new recruits.[3]

Six thousand national guardsmen took part in the Battle of Paris in 1814. Following the occupation of the city by the allied armies, the National Guard was expanded to 35,000 men and became the primary force for maintaining order.[4]

The Restoration[edit]

Under the Restoration in 1814, the National Guard was maintained by Louis XVIII. Initially the Guard, purged of its Napoleonic leadership, maintained good relations with the restored monarchy. The future Charles X served as its Colonel-General, reviewed the force regularly and intervened to veto its proposed disbandment on the grounds of economy by the Conseil Municipal of Paris.[5] However by 1827, the middle-class men who still composed the Guard had come to feel a degree of hostility towards the reactionary monarchy. Following hostile cries at a review on 29 April Charles X dissolved the Guard the following day, on the grounds of offensive behaviour towards the crown.[6] He neglected to disarm the disbanded force, and its muskets resurfaced in 1830 during the July Revolution.

National Guard following 1831[edit]

A company of the Legion on the Champ de Mars in Paris (1836).
French Garde Nationale soldier with Tabatière rifle, 1870.

A new National Guard was established in 1831 following the July Revolution in 1830. It played a major role in suppressing the Paris rising of June 1832 against the government of King Louis-Phillipe. However the same National Guard fought in the Revolution of 1848 in favor of the republicans.

Second Empire[edit]

Napoleon III confined the National Guard during the Second Empire to subordinate tasks in order to reduce its liberal and republican influence. During the Franco-Prussian War the Government of National Defense of 1870 called on the Guard to undertake a major role in defending Paris against the invading Prussia army. During the uprising of the Paris Commune, from March to May 1871, the National Guard in Paris was expanded to include all able-bodied citizens capable of carrying weapons. Following the Commune's defeat by the French Army, the National Guard was suppressed.

End of the National Guard[edit]

Following the establishment of the Third Republic the National Guard was formally disbanded on 14 March 1872. With the adoption of universal conscription the role of the National Guard was largely replaced by the creation of territorial regiments, recruited from older men who had completed their period of full-time military service. These reserve units were embodied only in times of general mobilization but remained an integral part of the regular army. For all of its historical importance as an embodiment of "the nation in arms" at the time of the Revolution of 1789, the National Guard was seen as having too limited a military value to be restored.

Sources[edit]

  • Jean Tulard, Jean-François Fayard, Alfred Fierro, Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française, 1789–1799, Éditions Robert Laffont, collection Bouquins, Paris, 1987. ISBN 2-7028-2076-X
  1. ^ Philip Haythornthwaite, page 87 "Uniforms of the French Revolutionary Wars, ISBN0 7137 0936 7
  2. ^ Philip Mansel, page 4 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  3. ^ E.G. Hourtouille, page 127 "1814 The Campaign for France", ISBN 2-915239-56-8
  4. ^ Philip Mansel, page 13 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  5. ^ Philip Mansel, page 217 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4
  6. ^ Philip Mansel, page 218 "Paris Between Empires - Monarchy and Revolution 1814-1852, ISBN0-312-30857-4

External links[edit]