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Clarence Rook: How Switzerland Defends Herself, 1908

To the Swiss man soldiering is a second nature, for he is caught young and the tradition gets into his blood. At the age of ten he is roped into the gymnastic class at school, and in most of the cantons is taught the elements of drill in the playground. So insistent became the military spirit a few years ago that the boys who strutted about in uniform and pretended to be grown-up soldiers had to be suppressed by special legislation. But when the boy is seventeen he is liable to service in defense of his country, and the liability is upon him until he is fifty years of age; nor even then does it cease if he be still capable of doing his military duty in any capacity---as baker, veterinary surgeon, or otherwise.The Federal forces consist of three divisions, corresponding to the divisions of the German army and its reserves. First comes the "Auszug" or "Elite"; next the "Landwehr," or "First Reserve"; then the "Landsturm," or "Second Reserve." At the age of twenty every able-bodied Swiss youth becomes a member of the Auszug, having passed through his gymnastic course. There are of course exemptions, but the onus probandi is on the side of the young man who can do nothing in cooperation with the other young defenders of his country. He may prove that he is under five feet, one and one half inches in height, but he must prove also that he has no special qualifications for particular branches of work. If he has the privilege of being born and bred of able body and proper stature in a free country, it is his duty to render himself capable of fighting in defense of that free country should necessity arise. Therefore the Swiss young man accepts the situation. It is no very onerous task after all. The young man must serve for forty-five days during his first year of liability, and that, with all allowances for preparation and return, means but a couple of months, the half of the ordinary Oxford undergraduate's Long Vacation.When we in England talk of the horrors of universal service and drag in the arguments that are drawn from the compulsory system of France and Germany, we forget the possibility of that citizen army which Switzerland has organized at small sacrifice of money and time. For myself, having seen something of the universal service of France and Germany, I discount the horrors of the system, and welcome the discipline it imposes at the turn of the nation's manhood. Switzerland, however, had made it her endeavor to safeguard her security at the smallest possible expenditure of money and time. The young Swiss of twenty must serve his five-and-forty days in the Auszug. After that he remains until he is two-and-thirty years of age in the same category; and it is his duty every other year to put in sixteen days of training. And the young workman, the student, the teacher, the artisan, the waiter who has his brief holiday from the foreign hotel---all of them regard that eight days a year as due tribute to the country of their birth.I remember the young Swiss waiter in a London restaurant who had attended me many times, and confided to me one evening that he was going for his holiday. I inquired as to how he proposed to spend his holiday. "First," he said, "I do my duty." He meant that his eight days' tribute was due; it was to be duly paid. And you would not recognize that young man as he stands at attention, goes through his drill, which he remembers as a swimmer long out of water remembers how to swim, and lies on his belly behind his native rocks with a rifle in his hands. Have you ever reflected that the Swiss waiter who serves you in a London restaurant is equally capable of serving you with a bullet if you invade his native land? He is as handy with the rifle as with the napkin. Until he reaches the age of thirty-two this service is the duty of the young Swiss man. At this stage there are no exemptions but such as are imposed by absolute physical disability or lack of the statutory five feet, one and one half inches in height, and even then the possession of special qualification for special service renders the young man liable for service. It is no excuse that a young man has brothers already in the army, or that he has a widowed mother dependent upon him. The burden, spread over a nation, becomes light enough, and the few days' hard work in camp, on the drill-ground, or upon the hillside are cheerfully borne as part of the day's work of the citizen who has a country worth defending. The Swiss are a nation of soldiers in a sense that applies to none of the European nations, with the possible exception of the hill-men of Montenegro. But the facing of the prospect of personal share in war has become a tradition, and the preparation for warfare is to the Swiss man as natural as the preparation for the cricket-pitch is to the English public-school boy.The "Auszug" or the "Elite" of the nation's youth comprises not the whole of the young manhood, as one may imagine. There are the cretins, the undersized, the invalids. But something over sixty per cent of the nation's youth pass muster, and become members of the "Auszug," and the levy recently produced 117,179 young men capable of national defense. At the same time the second line, the "Landwehr," produced 84,046. And a couple of hundred thousand from a population of three millions is no bad result.At the age of thirty-two the Swiss man is by no means quit of his military duty. It lies lightly upon him in times of peace, but he is at call "when the guns begin to shoot." And he must keep his hand in with occasional practice. For at the age of thirty-two he passes into the Landwehr, or First Reserve, and there, until he has completed his forty-fourth year, he remains, still with his duty to the State, but a duty proportioned to his age and personal interests, for a dozen years more. Those who have passed into the Landwehr have to give in every four years nine days of service. And even when he has passed his forty-fourth year the Swiss man does not cease from being a possible soldier. There is the Landsturm, or Second Reserve, and even the man of fifty knows that in time of need his name is on record, his service can be demanded. Every man indeed from seventeen to fifty is at call of the State, nor indeed is the man of more than fifty exempt if his services are not elsewhere required, or if he is not physically incapable of military service.At the various stages of life the proper exemptions are allowed; for the civil and religious business of the State must go on, even amid the clash of arms. Thus those in the employment of the State, such as railway and steamboat men, hospital officials, and so forth, reach their exemption early. Pastors, doctors, prison, postal, telegraphic officials must obviously carry on their functions undisturbed, and in time of war they would be doing their duty equally with the men in the field. Members of the Federal Council are exempt, but not all the members of the Federal Tribunal. The principle of the Swiss Confederation is that every man shall do his duty towards the defense of the State. And there is one little touch of universality which is a stroke of genius. The man who cannot, for physical reasons, shoulder a rifle or take his part in the field, must pay his scot according to his means. All those who for physical or other reasons are not admitted into the "Auszug" and "Landwehr" must pay, from twenty to thirty-two years of age, a special tax of six francs a head. And if the physicially incapable has a private income, he must pay anything up to three thousand francs yearly towards the defense of his country.It is a cheap army that the Swiss have organized, for it costs much less than two million sterling a year to keep up a fighting force of more than half a million. Rich and poor serve in the army side by side, and the Swiss system is against any sharp division between the "crack" regiment and another. The placing of the laborer and the professional man side by side makes for the welding of the nation together, and prevents those class distinctions which in Switzerland are always avoided. There is no picking and choosing in the service, as, for instance, selecting this or that arm as the more fashionable. Each man is placed where he will tell to the best advantage.The system, too, is territorial. There are eight territorial divisions. Thus the man who is called out for his temporary service finds himself shoulder to shoulder with an old schoolfellow, with a man who may be far wealthier or far poorer than himself, but a man who has to face the same drill sergeant, the same possibilities....There is the making of the citizen army.Nothing that quite corresponds to Woolwich or Sandhurst or West Point exists in Switzerland, nor is there any such thing as an army "set." Yet there are centers for military instruction, which every one who wishes to become an officer must attend for a definite period of study and practice. Thus at Thun there is a central military college for the instruction of officers of the general grade, and another for regimental officers. At various points there are these schools for departmental work, such as ambulance, artillery, rifle-shooting. But they have this difference from the military colleges of the larger nations, that they are not open continuously, but only at certain periods of the year....In the time of war or during maneuvers every citizen is expected to provide food and lodging for such a number of soldiers as his dwelling and means allow. Should he prefer not to have soldiers billeted at his house, he is obliged to pay into the army-chest a sum sufficient to provide lodging for them elsewhere. Every householder in Switzerland is informed of the number of men and horses he is expected to receive, and when the annual maneuvers are held in his district, he makes preparation accordingly. By this system the army train is made comparatively light, and the mobility of a force greatly increased as the result, for it is only on rare occasions that the troops go under canvas, being billeted, whenever possible, on the inhabitants of near-by towns.So we have a citizen army, intrenched behind its native rocks, an army which contains every element of the nation, the man of wealth and the peasant standing shoulder to shoulder. In the world there is no such nation in arms; for even in the countries such as Montenegro, where every man is a soldier by birth, not every man has another profession as well. In Switzerland there is scarcely such a being as a soldier by profession. But all men are soldiers whether with muscle and brain or with the contribution that the unfit must provide. In his work, La Confederation Helvetique, M. Marsauche says that the Swiss in effect possess the strongest and perhaps the best drilled army among nations of the second rank. At any rate the Swiss army is a cheap investment, in which every Swiss man has his little risk. No man is compelled to spend the crucial years of his life in garrison, with the futile intervals that turn the British soldier when he becomes a reservist into an unskilled laborer, and all that this implies in dirt, discomfort, and dishonor. The Swiss army is absolutely democratic, national; and of all the armies in the world it is surely not only the most efficient of the second rank, but it is the cheapest, in the cost it entails in money or in drain upon national life.

Source:From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 594-600.Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu