Military service records – Les matricules militaires
Yeah. I know. I didn’t think it would be relevant either at first.
I was well into my search for clues regarding the history of our watermill in France and had seen the link to Les matricules militaires, registers of military service, whenever I visited the website of the Sarthe departmental archives. I hadn’t actually clicked into them because I thought, ‘I don’t really want to know who was in which regiment and what medals they had won’, but while researching the Joubert family, who had been millers here during the Great War, I thought it would be a good idea to see if there was any information on when François was called up, how long he was away fighting and so on.
What I hadn’t realised was that every French male would have one of these records from the time he was first called up to do his military service at the age of 20 (compulsory military service was first introduced in 1798) and that it was updated regulary until he no longer had any obligation to serve.
Here’s a bit of background which you might find useful or interesting and for this many thanks to the excellent website Apprendre la généalogie. Obviously the site is in French; so for those of you who are building your language skills and who don’t like using Google Translate, here are the basics.
- Census: at the end of the year in which a young man turned 20 ( 19 from 1913 onwards) he would be sent a form to fill in and return to the Préfecture. So a young man born in 1815 would be part of the ‘Class of 1835’.
- The draw: the following January all the young men in his ‘class’ would be summoned to the main town of the canton wearing their conscript uniform, a yellow and blue suit and tall hat, bedecked with ribbons. The first random draw was to determine the order in which the communes would be called. There was then a second draw where each young man in alphabetical order was allocated a number.
- Those with low numbers or so-called ‘mauvais numéros‘ would go into the premier portion – they would be doing the full military service, anything up to 8 years, depending on the year! Those with a high bon numéro went into the deuxième portion, and would only need to complete 1 year or be spared military service altogether. It would be several months before the poor guys would find out where the division between the two portions would fall. (This random draw was the custom between 1804 and 1889)
- The Review Council: The next stage for our poor young conscript was to appear before le Conseil de révision, a panel made up of the local mayor, councillors, someone from the Préfecture, a recruitment officer and a doctor. In turn and stark naked, each conscript was interviewed, measured (no military service for anyone under 1m 54!) and alloted to one of 7 classes depending on his circumstances.
At this point he might have his military service deferred (eg for studies., to be reviewed annually by le Conseil de révision ), commuted to Le service auxiliaire, if his health did not permit active service (eg hospital or office work) or he was now a new soldier. Between 1802 and 1872 it was legal for the young future soldier to then dash off and find someone with a Bon numéro to swop with him and serve in his place. A contract would be signed at the notaire‘s office committing to pay a fair old sum, around 5 years of wages, to the replacement.
- Military service: No going back now. In the autumn of that year the young conscript would leave to begin the first part of his military service, which could be anything up to 28 years altogether. It was divided into 4 stages :
- Active army service
- Active army reserves
- Territorial army
- Territorial army reserves
Okay So how do you find these records?
First, go to the website of your departmental archives. (Google the name of the department and archives départementales) then click on the link for Matricules militaires.
To find the relevant record for the person you are investigating, you’ll need to know 4 things:
- The year of his classe de recrutement, Recruitment Class. ie add 20 years to his year of birth. In my case François Joubert was born in 1868, so he was in the classe of 1888.
2. Where he was living in that year to get his bureau de recrutement, because this will be where his record was opened. The Sarthe had two bureaux according to the results so I tried Le Mans as being the nearest to where he was born.
His numéro de matricule, registration number. You will find this against his name in the alphabetical list. Look for a link to Listes or Tables Alphabétiques
Flick through to find the surname of the person you are looking for. I had previously found when researching François, that he was born ‘Pierre François’, taking his father’s name as was very common for an eldest son, but being known by his middle name. He is variously recorded as either in official documents, so that’s worth bearing in mind.
François’ number was 88.
Then go to the Registres Matricules. In my case this was on the same page as the link for the alphabetical lists (see above).
Then you just need to find the register that covers that number
and flick through the pages until you find the fiche matricule you’re looking for.
Okay, I’ll come clean. When I looked up the record for François Joubert, I was in luck because the Sarthe archive has a keyword search, accès nominatif, that allows you to filter on the information you have and it took me straight to him.
But at least you know how to get there the long way, in case you’re not so lucky!
Now comes the interesting bit. The record will start with his état civil. Check all the details here to make sure it is the guy you are looking for. This really helped me because I didn’t know what François had been doing before he came to the mill. This told me that he had been working as a stable boy in Saint Mars d’Outillé.
On the top right is a description of his physical appearance (before photos were in use for ID). It’s nice to be able to imagine what he looked like.
You can see information about the draw results that he would have been part of during his conscription, and the second section down on the right gives his level of education:
The next line down shows he was one of those in the first partie or portion of the draw so will do his full military service.
Below that, we can see the progress he made through the four stages of his military service, including that he was called back to active service at the start of World War I, but only for four days, to requisition horses, (presumably because of his stable experience and having served in the mounted rifles during his military service.)
The Localités Successives Habitées, updated places he lived, section on the right above was really useful as it shows me the exact date he moved to Auvers and the mill, something I couldn’t get from the census records. Having that date has enabled me to do more targeted searches in other records.
So, lesson learned. I mustn’t ignore things just because they don’t look very interesting at first glance!
Do let me know in the comments how you are getting on with tracing the history of your own home in France and leave some tips if you come up with something that really helped you.