Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Intendance Militaire

Was the Intendance as realyl as bad as many post-1870 commentators suggest? or was it a victim of circumstance?

The Intendance Militaire handled the French army’s commissariat from 1817. It was the civil administration branch of the French army, and as well as feeding and clothing the army, it was responsible for providing the medical service (Service de Santé Militaire), veterinary services (Corps de Veterinaires), military justice (Justice Militaire), and moving the army’s baggage and rations (via the Train des Équipages).[1]  British observers were invariably full of praise for the Intendance, not only for its organisation but also its apparent efficiency in providing shelter, food and transport for the army; French soldiers were thought ‘not to want for anything’.[2] The perceived superiority of the French Intendance became important because of the press-campaign by W. H. Russell et al, and letters home from the front, which exposed apparent failures of the British commissariat, compared with the French, during the Siege of Sebastopol. The perceived failures of the British system led John Roebuck MP to call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the management of the campaign, which ultimately led to the fall of Lord Aberdeen’s Government in January 1855.


However, the Intendance was disliked by the rest of the army: its officers were perceived to  have 'airs and graces' and were civilians in uniforms not soldiers but, importantly, were to be accorded the same amount of respect as if they were (but they were not allowed to wear moustaches!).
The reform-minded Artillery Captain Charles Thoumas suggested bitterly that paperwork was the patron saint of the French army:

Oh! Saint Paperwork! Patron of the French Army, welfare of the Intendants, foster mother of accountants, the despair of real soldiers! I have spent forty-five years with the army, we were going to lower your importance, and bring your size back to more modest proportions, and you are still growing... as you devour time, money and men![3]

Other French soldiers agreed with Thoumas: the Intendance had ‘many serious defects’ which were well known but never discussed. It was thought to work moderately well in peacetime but certainly not under the pressures of active service.[4] Sergeant Charles Mismer (6th Dragoons) wrote:
          During the entire campaign, the Intendance continued to place importance on paperwork and   accounting, as meticulous as in garrison. For a trifle of no value, such as a pistol ramrod, or      replacing a stirrup leather, I do not know how many statements, covered with several              individual signatures, all controlling each other![5]

The long-standing friction bwetween the Line and the Intednance would finally explode after 1871 when the Intednance was blamed for all the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War, yet unlike its cousin the Corps d'Etat Major,was not disbanded or reformed.

The Intendance had struggled to supply the army in its short campaign in Spain (1822-1823) when the Army had to rely on civilian merchants to feed it; it also struggled in the Greek Campaign (1829) and in Algeria (1830+).
The Intendance was perhaps a victim of circumstances beyond its control in the Crimean campaign: it does not appear to have recovered after the bulk of its stores were destroyed in the catastrophic fire at Varna on 10th August 1854. This made the Intendance more reliant on civilian merchants from Marseilles, Toulon and even London to make good the losses. [6] The situation was not helped by a bread famine in France in 1854. The poor harvest meant that grain prices rose dramatically, leading to widespread rural starvation and depopulation. Furthermore due to increasing prices and lack of availability of bread, French merchants would have been less able to support the army.[7] Finally, because the Intendance Militaire was considsered beloved of paperwork  and overly bureaucratic, the whole French supply chain became choked and slowed down leading to chaos at the front line.[8] 

The official report by the Minister of War, Maréchal Vaillant, in to the conduct of Intendance in the Crimea was considered to be a ‘white wash’ by reform-minded French officers and disguised the fact that the Intendance had come close to or had in fact broken down during the winter of 1854-1855.[9] The breakdown of the French Intendance was unknown to British observers and the Intendance remained the admired ‘perfect model’ upon which the British army based its commissariat reforms as late as 1870.[10] This was despite many British commentators quoting reformers in the French army who stated that the Intendance was a complete shambles.[11] The break down of the Intendance was partly due to circumstances beyond its control and its highly bureaucratic nature but also because it was designed to support a ‘small, professional’ army  (the French army had a theoretical maximum strength of 300,000 in 1851) in short, limited, campaigns. Furthermore, the Intendance was considerably over stretched as the French army was engaged or deployed in the Crimean Peninsula, the Baltic, Algeria, Rome and in various colonial conflicts.[12]

Whilst the Intendance was certainly a bureaucratic nightmare, its major failing in feeding the troops at the front in winter 1854-1855 was due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances: a bread famine, loss of the flour and bread stores in Varnan; loss of the mobile bread ovens and the high price of grain due to the bread famine. That it was considerably over-stretched did not help.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, despite the Intendance having broken down, French soldiers were not so badly affected as their British allies simply because they were better able to survive on campaign: their ability to forage for food and fuel combined with their communal messing arrangements meant that even if rations did not appear, French soldiers might go hungry but not starve.[13] Because of this, the French army would have appeared in a better condition than it really was. The French historian Alain Gouttman has suggested that it was this factor, the ability of the French soldier to look after himself in the field, with each soldier looking out for each other, which ‘saved’ the French army in the Crimea from the incompetence of the Intendance.[14]

[1] Mismer, Souvenirs, p. 124.
[2] A. Gouttman, La Guerre de Crimée 1853-1856. La Première Guerre Moderne (Paris: Éditions Perrin, 2006), pp. 288-290.

[1] De Marcy, ‘Henri de Bouillé’, p. 81.
[2] Dr. F. R. de Trehonnais, ‘On the past and present of French agriculture’, Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts,vol. VI (November 1857-November 1858), pp. 279-281.
[3] Bertin, ‘Les 6eme Dragons’, pp. 491-492; Thoumas, Mes Souvenirs, p. 9.
[4] Anon, L’Intendance Militiare en Crimée. Campagnes de 1854, 1855 et 1856 (Lyon: E.  B. Labaume, 1864).
[5] Third Report, p. 71; ‘Army Intendance’, The Saturday Review of Politics, vol. XXIII (1867), pp. 167-169; ‘The Administration of the Army’, The Quarterly Review, vol. CXXIX (July – October 1870), pp. 146-149.
[6]C. M. Clode, Military Forces of the Crown (London: John Murray, 1869), vol. II pp.572-578.
[7] P. Griffith, Military Thought in the French Army 1815-1852 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), chapter 2; B. Giovanangeli, ed, Campagnes du Second Empire (B. G. Éditions, 2010), pp. 15-63.

[1] C-A Thoumas, Mes Souvenirs de Crimée (Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1892), pp. 14-15.
[2] General J. B. A. Montaudon, Souvenirs Militaires: Afrique, Crimée, Italie (Paris: Charles Delagrave, 1898), p. 224 and pp.239- 231; General F. de Wimpffen, Le Situation de France et les reformes neccessaires (Paris: A. Le Chevalier, 1873), p. 90; Thoumas, Mes Souvenirs de Crimée, pp. 14-15; W. Serman, ed, Colonel Denfert Rocherau. Lettres d’un Officier Republicain (1842-1871) (Vincennes: Service Historique de l’Armée du Terre, 1990),p. 205.
[3] C. Mismer, Souvenirs d’un Dragon en Crimée: avril 1854-juillet 1856 (Paris: Hachette, 1887), p. 118.

[1] H. Ortholan, L’Armée du Second Empire (Saint Cloud: Éditions Napoleon III, 2010), p. 181; P. Griffith, Military thought in the French Army, 1815-1851 (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1989), p. 153.
[2] C. F. Campbell, Letters from Camp, (London: Richard Bentley & Co, 1894), p. 54; ‘Letter from the East’, Daily News (7 July 1854).

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