So I'm staking out a position here where the mass conscript armies of 1914 aren't going to be traced back to the world-historical moment of the French Revolution, but rather to a series of events beginning with the Battle of Kӧniggratz. The reason for that is that they don't. The Prussians admittedly kept conscription through the first half of the Nineteenth Century, but if we look at the facts, as opposed to the "Prussians are awesome" stuff, we're talking about a traditional garrison army that took fewer than half of those eligible and furloughed many of those, and we're pretty much tea-leaving to find a difference between the Prussian military institutions of 1780 and 1830. (Even Christopher Clark, sad to say.)
Besides, the whole point of the "Prussians are awesome" thing is the time of blood and iron. Something significant happened between 1866 and 1872, and it wasn't just the battlefield deaths of many good young men, or the unification of Germany or the Third Republic or the French Indemnity. In 1866, four nations of central Europe put almost one-and-a-half million young men in the field and kept them there for seven weeks. Fewer than 70,000 in all died. The rest, they lived. And surely that would be significant in its own right even were these days not the birth of the mass conscript armies that would soon be taking all of the male youth of Europe in precisely one of the most dynamic eras of human economic history.
Why is all of this obscure? Well, we're in a weird place where we start with the Levée en masse and then agree to ignore the French so that we can talk about the evolution of the Prussian-type ideal liberal national state. The old argument is that true universal conscription is only possible in the liberal national state that has its origins in the French Revolution but which was perfected in Prussia. So conscript armies are just something that happens at the end of history. No need for further examination.
Except that it is a biggie. Just a few years before 1872, there weren't mass conscript armies, and only our obsession with the awesomeness of Prussia obscures this. And, today, there aren't conscript armies again, for the most part, and it's completely unsurprising that there aren't. Britain even tried to bring in conscription after WWII out of some sense that the nation had been doing nit wrong, and managed to prove what the critics had been saying for years. National Service didn't work!
Or, maybe, it worked for the fifty years between 1872 and 1918. But if that's true, if that's the historical conjuncture, then it's up to us military historians to explain what the hell happened. We have big wars, and also a humungous depression, and also the Lebel Rifle and its descendants. It seems like these are not historical events of equal weight, that the Long Depression must be bigger and deeper than the other two. I'm inclined to agree, but also to suggest that the Rifle might be a symptom of the depression, or rather of its causes, and use it as a probe to understand this period of dynamic change..
So what about the extraordinary resurgence of "volunteers" and "militias" that culminated with the Prussian Landwehr going to battle in 1866? Back to the story of 1813, again, which is of Germany awakening and chasing out the French with a truly popular army. It's politics. Here, I could do what Daniel Klang taught me to do and look at the Paris of 1848. Apparently, this is when the Revolutionary era ended. Specifically, when Louis Philippe's Civic Guard declined to fire on the mobs to save the July Monarchy, they acted in the tradition born of the Revolution in which governments lacked presumptive legitimacy and there was a point when their armed forces would refuse to kill for them. A few months later, the Guards did fire, to preserve de Tocqueville's "Parliament of Notables." In the moment when rural constituencies demonstrated that they were perfectly willing to return France's natural ruling class to the assembly, the Revolutionary era ended. (de Tocqueville's interpretation; My interpretation.) Volunteer militias could now (again) become the middle-class counterbalance to the unrestrained violence of the lower class. There's a lot that could be said about this, but most of it is bog-standard historiography, so, in the interest of being at least a little different, I'm going to take it in a slightly different direction, starting with the war of the Sonderbund.
But first, talking about the corrupting effects on democracy of local notable dominance makes me, at least, think about Boss Hawg. So, badly recorded but worth some attention, here's Boss Hawg to lighten up this here front page: