The Napoleonic Wars consumed the lives of between 2.5 million and 3.5 million soldiers, most unwilling draftees. Although defeated, discredited, and exiled after years of brutal conflict, the self-anointed emperor responsible for those deaths today is honored – lionized, actually – in Paris. His tomb is located in the Hotel Les Invalides surrounded by commemorations of his many great but costly victories.
Aggressive war and mass slaughter obviously look better through the mists of time. And conscription, which Napoleon used to terrorize a continent, is still routinely employed by nations today.
Today millions of people can be dispatched by a few bombs launched from half the world away. A couple people sitting in a missile silo can unleash hell and more by turning a couple keys. However, the tragic propensity of mankind to engage in war obviously goes back to humanity’s beginning. The horror and cruelty of ancient conflict is almost unimaginable. It was mass killing at its most personal. Massacres required many hands and took much time and effort.
As political control fractured European warfare eventually turned into the far more restricted game of kings. Unless you were unlucky enough to live near a battlefield, you probably wouldn’t be bothered. Indeed, you might not even notice that a war was going on. And reliance on mercenaries helped keep casualties down. They wasted neither their time nor effort, and certainly not their lives, on silly notions like patriotism and loyalty. Protracted conflicts could still be costly, but the numbers of combatants involved look shockingly small compared to modern wars.
However, the French revolutionary wars and rise of Napoleon moved the supposedly civilized world back toward the older, more brutal era. This change also heralded a shift to militaries that were both professional and mass. Which required a universal draft.
As the emperor Napoleon carpeted Europe with corpses to Moscow and back, France filled the ranks of La Grande Armee through conscription, The other great continental powers, most notably the kingdoms of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, also drafted men into military service to meet France on the battlefield. A century later the greatest war machines – Wilhelmine Germany, Czarist Russia, French Republic, Austro-Hungary, and even the liberal democracies of America and United Kingdom – fielded considerable armies through a modern levee en masse. The draft, reaching ever further into diminishing manpower pools, was the only way for the combatants’ armies to replace the massive casualties that ravaged an entire generation of young men….[ ]