If military service had become a rite of passage for young men in much of Europe well before the mutual slaughter began in the summer of 1914, neither its ubiquity nor its meaning to those it embraced were foregone conclusions. To be sure, the fundamental challenge offered by the declaration of the levée en masse in revolutionary France in 1793 represented an important first step, as did monarchical Prussia’s turn in 1813 to the near-general conscription of those men considered young and fit enough to join the fight. Indeed, Prussia’s response to the Napoleonic challenge intertwined military service, citizenship, and manhood in the gendered construction of a nation at war that bore a striking resemblance to those ideals manifest in the mobilizations of 1914. Nonetheless, near-universal manhood conscription took many more decades to predominate on the continent, (never mind the United Kingdom, which did not resort to it until 1916).
An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.