To Field an Army: A Brief History of the Military Draft

Here’s What You Need to Know: Throughout history, national governments have required young men (and sometimes young women) to relinquish their personal liberty for military service.

The call of a nation on its civilian population either to create a military force or to augment a standing army is virtually as old as civilization itself. The Latin word Legio translates literally as “conscription” and is the root of the word “legion.” From ancient times to the present day, governments have initiated military conscription in some form or other to fill the ranks of their armed forces. Often unpopular and fraught with political and social consequences, such actions have contributed immeasurably to the shaping of history.

Early Forms of Conscription

Prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, the Greek city-states instituted compulsory military service while fighting alternately with one another and with marauding Persians under King Xerxes. Two methods of conscription existed in Athens. At the height of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian generals posted the names of eligible citizens on 10 lists known as katalogoi. In earlier times, service in the army of Athens was required of all men who could pay for their own weapons and armor. With the approval of the city’s representative assembly, one general was placed in overall command and an approved number of soldiers, called hoplites, were summoned to duty. By the 4th century bc, the government had begun supplying swords, spears, and shields, thus effectively eliminating exemptions from military service caused by an inability to provide one’s own equipment. Men aged from 18 to 60 were subject to service.

The second method of conscription in Athens was equally straightforward. Lists of potential soldiers were sorted by age group, and men between certain ages were called to duty periodically. While the very notion of involuntary military service may have seemed at odds with the ideals of Athenian democracy, there was no such ambiguity among the people of Sparta, the ancient rival of Athens for Peloponnesian preeminence. The military and the city-state were the center of Spartan existence. At the age of seven, every male Spartan was sent away to military and athletic schools. These schools instilled toughness, discipline, endurance of pain, and survival skills. By the age of 20, Spartan youths already had received 13 years of military training. For the next 10 years, as Spartan soldiers, they shared their lives with their fellow soldiers. Only after they turned 30 were Spartan men allowed to live in their own houses with their own families. Even then, they continued to serve in the military. Military service finally ended at the age of 60—assuming the typical Spartan male lived that long.

During the Middle Ages, the absence of effective central government posed a challenge to the formation of large armies. Weapons were expensive, and most military forces were composed of aristocratic males complemented by mercenaries. The re-emergence of strong centralized governments and ongoing progress in weapons development, particularly firearms, facilitated the fielding of larger armies that included yeoman farmers, laborers, and civilians of lower social status. During the ensuing era of empire building, European armies grew tremendously in size and strength.

Among the first to recognize the need for a standing army (which created, in turn, a need for more troops) was Prussian King Frederick William II, better known to history as Frederick the Great. When Frederick ascended the throne in 1740, he inherited from his father a well-trained army of over 80,000 men, but one that the old king was loath to risk in battle. The new king, with his eye on expanding Prussian territory at the expense of its neighbors, had no such compunction. In the course of the next two decades, he would lead the army to victory after victory in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. Such victories came at a staggering price in human lives.

Frederick’s army, the first professional army in Europe since the Roman Legion, was constantly drilled in marching, maneuvering, and weaponry. To guarantee a steady flow of soldiers, the king encouraged militarism among the elite upper class by fostering advanced officer training at the Collegium Carolinium in Cassel and other universities. Line officers were drawn from the middle class and segregated into appropriate units based on their backgrounds as farmers, gameskeepers, or tradesmen. At the bottom of the army hierarchy were the all too aptly named entheherliche Leute, or expendable people. These soldiers, the backbone—and cannon fodd— for Frederick’s wars of conquest, were often farmhands, wandering youths, school dropouts, and homeless people dragged off the streets or farms by pitiless impressment gangs. Military recruiters, known as “sellers of souls,” used more subtle means, including knockout drops in drinks, to dragoon men into Frederick’s army. Once there, they seldom left, except by death or desertion.

Levée en Masse

The concept of modern conscription was a byproduct of the simmering conflict between social classes and the introduction of democratic ideals in revolutionary France. On August 23, 1793, France initiated the levée en masse, a general conscription of the civilian population of the country. All Frenchmen between the ages of 18 and 25 who were capable of bearing arms were immediately taken into the service. Meanwhile, the civilian population was also required to help support the revolution, which had been threatened by intervention from foreign powers seeking to abolish the republic and reestablish the monarchy.

In its declaration announcing the levée, the French National Assembly asserted, “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 linen into lint; 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.”

At the time of the levée, France was indeed at war with its European neighbors. The order required each département, or civil jurisdiction, to supply a certain number of conscripts to the army, although during the course of the levée, only about half the required number of men actually was received into the ranks. The edict was widely unpopular, and many of those eligible for service took extraordinary measures to avoid reporting for duty. Although desertion and inefficiency ran high, the effort proved just successful enough to stave off military and political disaster.

By 1798, the levée had been supplanted by the Jourdan Act, named for a deputy of the National Assembly. The first article of the Jourdan Act decreed, “Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defense of the nation.” The Jourdan Act, in turn, facilitated the growth of the French Grande Armée, the army of citizen-soldiers that Napoleon Bonaparte employed so brilliantly against the professional fighting forces of other nations en route to becoming the military scourge of Europe.

The impact of French innovation in constructing a country’s military machine was far-reaching. The ability to raise large numbers of troops during a time of national emergency was essential to the scale of the great battles that followed during the 19th and 20th centuries. Greater numbers of combatants and ever-improving technologies of killing fed the staggering casualty rolls of World Wars I and II. Subsequently, whenever manpower came into short supply, it was the draft that enabled the fighting to continue.

The Prussian System and the First World War

The next important advance in the raising of large civilian armies came from the Prussian concept of training soldiers during a short period of peacetime service, maintaining their proficiency, and keeping them subject to mobilization on short notice. Ironically, rather than proving a purely defensive measure, the Prussian system became decidedly offensive as other nations adopted the practice. The ability to quickly field a large, well-equipped, and mobile army contributed heavily to the rapid onset of World War I, as the European continent evolved into two armed camps within a matter of months.

General conscription in some form of draft existed among all the major warring powers from 1914 to 1918. During the 18 months from early 1913 through the summer of the following year, France increased the period of draftee service from two to three years, while Germany increased the size of its army by 170,000 new soldiers. Russia lengthened its service period per soldier from three years to 42 months. Although the British Empire relied on a volunteer service until 1916, during the pre-war years the nation had actively prepared for the upcoming conflict by participating heavily in the global arms race, stockpiling weapons, and enhancing its transportation infrastructure.

One of the staunchest advocates of conscription in the British government was Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was elevated in December 1916 from the positions of minister of munitions and war secretary to the leader of a coalition government. The British had suffered appalling casualties in the first two years of the Great War, and Lloyd George was convinced that national conscription was necessary. Under the provisions of the Military Service Act, all eligible males were ordered into the armed forces. Across the Empire, opposition to the measure was fierce and precipitated unrest in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.