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A Career in the French Army 1792-1814

This is the story of one Frenchman's career in what became the 21eme Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne. Through it we see the story of tens of thousands of Frenchmen like Jean who rose through the ranks of the meritocratic French army of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. Jean was also one of the lucky few to survive throughout all those years of war.

Jean Joseph Menetrier was born on the 1st June 1773 in the commune of Crotenay, situated in the canton of Champagnole in the Jura department of France. His father was Jean Baptiste Menetrier and mother Nicole Dole.

With France plunged into war in April 1792 against Austria, in response to Prussia's entry into the war, the Legislative Assembly declared a state of emergency on 11 July with the decree "La Patrie en Danger". This called on every Frenchman to fight.

Described as being 1.66m tall with grey eyes, a long nose and chestnut brown hair. Jean Joseph joined the 8th Volunteer Batallion of the Jura, in the summer of 1792 at the age of 19. This means he was a fédéré.

Who were the fédérés?

The term derives from the Fete de la Federation, the annual celebration during the revolutionary era on the anniversary of the Bastille's fall on 14th July 1789.

In 1792, the term fédérés refers to the volunteer troops described by many historians as mostly militant revolutionaries and republicans. They were called fédérés because when the Legislative Assembly passed a law to set up a camp for 20,000 National Guards from the provinces, their arrival was to coincide with the 1792 Fete de la Federation on 14th July. The fédérés that arrived in Paris earlier in the Summer of 1792 would be powerful influences in the radical sections of the capital and contributed to the storming of the Tuileries on the 10th August.

So, Jean Joseph joined his local fédéré battalion, and whilst the revolutionary ardour varied in the fédérés depending on the department, Jean Joseph was probably amongst a radical group of revolutionaries. He may well have been a young radical himself. Being from the Jura department, which was on the Eastern border of France, it's likely he and many others joined to defend their Fatherland and their local community, which was threatened with invasion. It was quickly realised that these new volunteer units would be ineffective without some sort of experienced core to help the new troops. Just prior to the battle of Valmy, it was decided to form demi-brigades, each made up of one regular battalion from a pre-revolutionary regiment combined with two battalions of volunteers. Jean Joseph's battalion arrived with the 21eme on 25th August 1792, just 2 weeks after the Tuileries had been stormed and the monarchy overthrown. The regiment was at that time in Besancon, the site of a formidable Vauban citadel.

Right: The Departure of the Volunteer by Watteau de L'Isle, c. 1792. A sentimental depiction of the patriotic sacrifice needed to save the Revolution from foreign invasion. Compare this painting with the Departure of Volunteers done during the Empire when the theme of patriotic sacrifice was again taken up under Napoleon in his efforts to build an ever larger army.

Whatever his motivations may have been, Jean Joseph would be one of the patriots to remain in the ranks right through the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. He was promoted to Caporal on 13th February 1795. It's recorded he was taken as a prisoner of war on 29th October 1795 before the fortress of Mainz and on 9th February 1796 he returned.

Whatever the situation of his return, Jean Joseph continued to serve, being moved to different battalions as the organisation of the regiment changed over time. He was raised to Sergent on 1st October 1801. On the 1st June 1808, Jean Joseph was transferred to the 5th Battalion, which was the depot battalion, first in the 1er Compagnie and then the 3e Compagnie in 1809.

1809 was also the year that Jean Joseph's son was born, Emile Louis Desire Menetrier, born in Binche in the department of Jemappes on 3rd April 1809. The mother's name is hard to make out in the matricules but I believe the second name is Jumous. Two years later, Emile was admitted into the regiment as an Enfant de Troupe.

What was an Enfant de Troupe?:

Enfants de Troupe were either the children of serving soldiers and officers, regimental orphans, or the children of retired veterans. They'd be given a military upbringing, after which they would be given the chance to sign up. Each company had two children on military pay, each at least two years old and the issue of a legitimate marriage between a soldier and a woman attached to the corps as a laundress or sutleress. These children would live on the fringes of the regimental depot and receive clothing, lodging, bread and a heating fuel allowance. Their garments were cut in a military fashion by the regimental tailors using the off-cuts of uniform manufacture.

The children would be under the care of an officer of the regiment, two sergeants and four caporals. These supervisors would be from among the most instructed, distinguished men available. They were specially charged with teaching the children to read, write, calculate, swim, run, etc. They were in charge of their military instruction and provided moral guidance. Additionally, each of the regimental master craftsmen was obliged to always have at least two children as apprentices. Other children would be taught to play musical instruments by members of the regimental band.

When the regiment went to war, the regimental children would remain with the depot. The minimum age for children to accompany the regiment as musicians was set at 14 years. At this age, children who had made good progress in music were able to join the regimental band and serve on full pay; but they were not allowed to serve as drummers. When the boys reached 16 they were allowed to sign up and serve as soldiers on full pay, 2 years earlier than usually permitted.

So, Madame Jumous must have been a vivandiere or blanchisseuse of the regiment. Emile was admitted as an Enfant de Troupe on 5th June 1811 and is listed as part of the depot battalion, as you can see from his record in the regimenta matricules below.

Jean Joseph served in the depot battalion of the 21eme for the rest of his career after 1807. Exactly what his duties were between 1808 and 1812 aren't clear at the moment. Was he in the depot companies or fulfilling other duties at the depot? Perhaps even teaching the regimental children? As a Sergent, he may also have been accompanying the capitaine de recrutement, we'll get to that. On 28th February 1812 he was raised to the rank of Sous Lieutenant.

As a Sous Lieutenant, Jean Joseph served as an officier de recrutement for the depot.

What was an officier de recruitement?

Recruitment to the army was through local conscription by department. In order to ensure the conscripts were suitable for service and, more importantly, they arrived at the regimental depot safely and promptly, the post of capitaine de recrutement, or recruitment captain, was created. It was stipulated in a May 1802 decree that each regiment would send a captain and a sufficient number of lieutenants and NCOs to conduct conscripts to the regiment. The captain and his officers would reside in the departmental capital from where the regiment's conscripts were drawn. Depending on the size of the department, there would be at least one officer or NCO per arrondissement (an administrative subdivision). The composition of the part would be chosen by the Colonel and NCOs were replaced every year. In a decree on 31st July 1806, it was stipulated a single infantry regiment would provide the recruitment part for each department.

So Jean Joseph Menetrier was now required to travel to the departments that the 21e recruited from and it was his job to assist the capitaine de recruitment in getting the conscripts to the depot. We know from the archival records that in the latter half of 1813, he was in the Bouches-de-l'Escaut, or "Mouths of the Scheldt" in English. This area is now part of the modern day Netherlands.

As I continue to research, currently it seems that Jean Joseph left the regiment after Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, as he does not appear amongst the depot battalion's officers in a June 1814 entry. He likely took the opportunity to retire and take his then 6 year old son with him.

We hope you've enjoyed reading about the career of this fascinating soldier!

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