Conscription


CONSCRIPTION Without an adequate source of manpower, nations could not assemble large armies. One method for obtaining the needed manpower is conscription, or the draft. Conscription is the orderly selection of people (usually men) for required military service. It is usually employed when a small standing army must be expanded because of the threat or outbreak of war.


Since prehistoric times men have been trained from youth to defend their communities against attack. Ancient Assyria was one of the first nations to use conscription. Its massed infantry was made up of conscripts. All able-bodied free males were required to serve in the armed forces of the ancient Greek city-states. The Greeks, like the Assyrians, relied on a mass infantry technique in their warfare and also employed military manpower on a large scale. When Athens became a sea power, it used conscripts to row its naval galleys. By the 3rd century BC the legions of Rome, mass infantry units staffed by citizen-conscripts, were considered invincible. After the fall of Rome rulers who wanted a fighting force usually hired professional soldiers. In the Middle Ages mounted knights dominated the battlefield, and large numbers of conscript infantrymen were no longer required.


Militias manned by local conscripts have existed at various times. Since militias arm people who are called up only in an emergency, they are established only in states that have confidence in the reliability of the population. In some societies, such as the Greek city-states and the Roman republic, militias have played an important military role.


Even today the militias of the Swiss cantons are fused into a national structure that enables Switzerland to meet its defense needs without having to have a large full-time army. Usually, however, the use of militias was limited to minor duties. The British militia, developed by the 17th century, was used only for short-term local defense.


Modern Conscription


Conscription on a modern national scale began in 1793 during the later years of the French Revolution. All males between the ages of 18 and 25 were required to register for military service. At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, conscription ended, but it was reinstituted a few years later.


During this same period, between the years 1807 and 1813, Prussia inaugurated a conscript system that became the envy and model for the rest of Europe. The Prussians got around Napoleon\'s limits on the size of their army by calling up only the allotted number of men--42,000--training them rigorously for a few months, and then releasing the majority and calling up a new group. Prussia thus built a large force of trained reserves, much as Switzerland has today, without openly defying the French emperor. After Napoleon\'s defeat the Prussians continued to use this draft system. By the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and l871, the Prussians had a large mass army of conscripts backed up by sizable reserve units. This organization contrasted sharply with France\'s small, 18th-century-style professional army (see Franco-Prussian War).


After its defeat in 1871, France returned to a more rigidly enforced universal military service. But, as in Germany and other countries, the law was not applied equally: men who were well off financially and socially managed to escape service or to enlist in the reserves. The result was that the armies of Europe came to be made up largely of men from the lower classes.


In the decades between the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Europe became an armed camp. Only in Great Britain and in the United States was conscription not adopted as law during peacetime.


Probably the severest form of draft was that enforced in Russia. At one time conscripts were required to serve 25 years. Once drafted, many of them never saw their families again. By 1860 the term of service was reduced to 15 years. After the Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Army was made up mostly of volunteers who were required to enlist for three months. Because the army dwindled to only 306,000 men, conscription was instituted, and by 1920 the Soviet armed forces had attained a peak of 5,500,000 men.


On the other side of the world, Japan adopted conscription in 1873. There the draft was selective rather than