Switzerland has had compulsory military training and service since the thirteenth century. Originally maintained by the separate cantons, her citizen army has been gradually brought under the control of the federal government. Central military authorities were first appointed in 1807, and since 1874 the army has been substantially federalized as it is today. The cantons, however, still have the appointment of officers, subject to federal regulations, together with many important obligations as to the organization of troops and the furnishings and upkeep of personal equipment.
The effect of compulsory military service, both upon the individual character of the Swiss and upon the destinies of the Swiss republic, are too well known to need detailed repetition. Completely surrounded by first-class powers, Switzerland has for centuries maintained her independence, her democratic institutions, and her self-respect. Her army has never undergone the test of modern’warfare, a fact which may be attributed largely to her efficient preparedness, but at the outbreak of the European war she mobilized 200,000 men in ten days, and has an available second line of defense of a quarter of a million more. This with a population of 3,750,000.
Under the Swiss law every male citizen is liable for service from the beginning of the year in which he reaches the age of 20 until the end of the year in which he is 48. So much stress has been laid upon the calisthentic and military instruction given boys in the schools that there is an impression that this is part of the military law, but such is not the case. This military drill, together with the formation of cadet corps, boys’ rifle clubs, etc., is encouraged in every way, but it is not part of the legal military system. It is the natural outgrowth of a system which instills into the mind of every man that he is to be trained to defend his country.
There are practically no exemptions in Switzerland except for physical disability. Every exempted person pays a military tax until he is 40. Criminals are debarred from the army, service being a privilege as well as a duty.
Between the ages of 20 and 32 the Swiss soldier is enrolled in the Elite. His first year’s instruction, the main course, is 65 days of training for infantry, 75 days for artillery, and 90 days for cavalry, During the remainder of his service in the Elite he is liable to be called out for a repetition course of 11 days each year, but not for more than for seven courses if infantry, or eight if cavalry, in the eleven years.
Besides this field training, the soldier is obliged to do a considerable amount of target shooting each year. It is in connection with this that there appears the most distinctive feature of the Swiss system. After the first course of instruction each soldier is allowed to take his rifle home, being responsible, of course, for its upkeep. The effect of this is that at the age when most healthy lads long for a gun of some kind the Swiss boy is given a modern army rifle, with some free ammunition and opportunity to get more at less than cost. His required target practice may be done in connection with some organized rifle club, and prizes of all kinds are offered for competitions.
The result of all this is that rifle shooting is the national sport of Switzerland, and the Swiss are a nation of expert marksmen. Out of eighteen international rifle shooting matches from 1897 to 1914, including Camp Perry, U. S. A., in 1913, the Swiss have won seventeen. They have not lost a match since 1898.
It was at the opening of the Jungfrau railroad that the celebrated conversation with the Kaiser occurred. Thirty thousand troops had been paraded before the German Emperor. “All very well,” remarked the Kaiser to the Swiss officer in command, “but suppose I should lead sixty thousand Germans against them.” ‘In that case, your Majesty,” was the reply, “we should each have to shoot twice.”
Who can say what the realization that this was no empty boast has saved Switzerland?
At the age of 33 the Swiss soldier passes into the first reserve, or Landwehr, in which he remains until he is 40. During this period he is called out once for an eleven-day repetition course. From 41 to 48 he is in the second reserve or Landwehr.
The Swiss system, the outgrowth of centuries of experience, is such a complete answer to many objections made to compulsory service, and is so far ahead of the bungling attempts of our own nation “to provide for the common defense,” that there is small wonder that it evokes considerable enthusiasm among those who have made it a study. Nevertheless there are certain features which might be improved and others as to which it is doubtful if they will bear transplanting.
In the first place, the first training period is too short, even after the thorough preparatory training given by the schools. This is the testimony of the Swiss officers themselves, who have said that, with all allowance for the spirit and physique of the Swiss, the minimum training necessary to prepare a soldier is: Infantry 200 days; cavalry 12 months; artillery 300 days. In the second place, it is doubtful whether the plan of allowing each man to keep his rifle at home would be feasible with our heterogeneous, migratory, and undisciplined population. If not, the plans for encouragement of rifle shooting, as well as for mobilization, would have to be considerably modified. Nevertheless, the adoption of any system founded upon the principle of universal military service would be such a long step in advance that it would be well not to be too captious as to whether it is fully adequate at the start. The country would soon get over its first shock of immersion, find its liberties still unendangered, realize that it was beginning to feel its own strength, and, freed from a lot of sentimental folly, would revise its ideas from a practical standpoint.