Officer training in the Old Regime consisted for the most part of an aristocratic education. To be a soldier, ideally an officer, was an essential and integral aspect of contemporary aristocratic identity, especially in France. The importance of the ability and professionalism of officers had been understood even before the Revolution, as described by the Baron de Besenval:
Every time I have seen troops and found them good, I saw that the cause
was the talents of the colonel, or the lieutenant-colonel, major, captain, sometimes a lower officer. Often, seeing the same regiment again, I no
longer found it to be anything because the one who was its moving spirit
was no longer there. In the same way the corps that did not have officers
of merit were pitiful.0
Contrary to the apparent image, eighteenth century aristocrats had relatively little in common with their medieval forebears apart from an interest in fighting. The French noblesse entertained elaborate pretensions to exclusivity, but in practice it was anything but. It acquired a significant number of new members throughout the eighteenth century, not only far more so than its British counterpart, but from a wider range of backgrounds. This will be examined in more depth in the chapter on social identities, but in this case the aristocratic interest in warfare can be regarded as an example of identity politics, with nobles desperately seeking military careers in order to affirm their aristocratic identity and the distinctiveness of the class to which they belonged.
This made the training that a young aristocrat received as part of his education all the more important. His education was the responsibility of his parents or guardians, at least in terms of organisation, meaning that what he learned at home was whatever they considered suitable. The problem with such a system is as apparent in the context of producing competent officers as it is in trying to understand what they actually learnt. Despite this, even reformist officers in the final years of the old regime regarded the family as playing an important role in the raising and training of good officers. A military family, it was believed, would instil the appropriate values and habits, providing a young noble with all that he needed to become an officer. It must be remembered in this context that the case for formal officer training in the modern sense had not been proven from an eighteenth century perspective. Armies had gotten by, albeit with some difficulties, without the institutions that today would be considered indispensable. In the eighteenth century, all that was needed to become a good officer was to want it and to be willing to work for it.0
The École Militaire, later renamed the École de Cadets-Gentilshommes in 1777, should not be thought of as a military academy in the modern sense. The écoles were essentially secondary or high schools with a military ethos, surviving in modern France as the Lycees militaires. Napoleon entered the École de Cadets-Gentilshommes at the age of fifteen, famously graduating after one year to be commissioned at sixteen, after entering the Brienne military school at the age of nine.0 The institution represented an attempt by the government to address what was seen as the increasing domination of the officer corps by the wealthy, be they well-connected courtiers or successful commoners. Its purpose as implied by its title was to train cadets-gentilshommes, that is to say young aristocrats who could prove four generations of noble birth.
The education provided at the école was remarkably modern, including mathematics and technical drawing along with more traditional subjects such as history and languages. The école also provided its alumni with financial support, amounting to two hundred livres per year until they reached the rank of captain, as well as emergency grants, and found placements for cadets as they graduated. All in all this allowed financially and socially disadvantaged cadets to pursue military careers that might otherwise have been denied them. So committed was the école to this purpose that fee-paying cadets were not admitted. 0 The existence of the école could superficially imply the beginnings of a process of professionalization, until it is remembered that few of its graduates rose above the rank of captain, at least before the Revolution.
The Revolution brought about major changes in the practice and ethos of officer training. The principle of merit based on birth was effectively abandoned with the abolition of hereditary noble status on 19th June 1790, leaving nothing to replace it.0 Arguments over how best to do so dragged on for several years, and were coloured by wider political and ideological changes. The Jacobins soon turned against the officer corps, denouncing it on an ideological basis and calling for the election of officers. As emigration left the army with a dangerous and growing shortage of officers, the National Assembly was forced to look elsewhere. A new law of 2nd August 1791 drew upon the sons of ‘active’ citizens, in a time when that distinction was still in place, and upon those spare officers that remained. Ironically enough, this meant drawing upon former members of the Maison Militaire du Roi, which had existed in part for that purpose.0 When the Convention took power on 21st September 1792, both the selection and training of officers was abandoned. From then on, all officers were to be promoted from the ranks, and by election. Indeed, all military education for the infantry and cavalry was banned in September of 1793, for fear that it would create a military mindset separate to the popular will.0
The first major deviation from this policy would come from Napoleon, in his order of 11 Floréal an X (May 1st 1802), in which he created the École Spéciale Militaire. This institution was more like a modern military academy in that it catered to the undergraduate level, that is to say ages eighteen and over, and in terms of its curriculum. According to Elzéar Blaze, the school catered to six hundred cadets of the aforesaid age. His account goes on to describe the daily routine and curriculum:
At five in the morning, the drum awoke us. The courses in history,
geography, mathematics, drawing and fortifications kept us busy from hour to hour; change of work was our relaxation and, to vary our pleasures, four hours of drill, cleverly arranged, divided our day in a most agreeable manner; so that on going to bed, we had our heads full of the heroes of Greece and Rome, of rivers and mountains, of angles and tangents, of trenches and bastions. All these things were a bit mixed in our minds, the drill alone was positive; our shoulders, our knees, and our hands prevented us from mixing it with the rest. 0
A reveille at five o’clock is identical to that described by Thomas Pococke, which suggests that the Fontainebleau cadets were roused at the same time as the enlisted men. Blaze claims that the food was also the same as that of the ordinary soldiers, the meals being of bread and soup with ‘dainties’ forbidden. This did not stop determined young cadets from smuggling more appetizing fare into their quarters by whatever means they could invent. The curriculum described here shows a distinct technical influence, which may have derived from the older technical schools created in previous decades to serve the artillery and engineers. It displays some similarities to that of the Vélites as described in Sergeant Bourgogne’s account. The Vélites were trained at Saint Germain-en-Laye and Ecouen before transferring to Fontainebleau, their curriculum including writing, arithmetic, drawing, and gymnastics.0 After a period of between one and four years, in which they would ideally be attached to Imperial Guard units on campaign, Vélites might transfer to Fontainebleau for officer training, or else join the regular army as sub-lieutenants, or even enter the enlisted ranks of the Imperial Guard as Bourgogne himself did.
This combination of practical experience and professional training made the Vélites among the most capable officers in the French army.0 Blaze mentions taking part in manoeuvres involving cannon while overseen by artillery officers, which raises one of two possibilities. One is that Fontainebleau alumni might be sent to serve in the artillery upon receiving their commissions. This is not necessarily at odds with the artillery’s existing practices, as Napoleon himself entered the artillery as a sub-lieutenant, albeit at a younger age, whereupon he received the extensive technical training the artillery required. The training described by Blaze, including advanced mathematics, geography, and the actual handling of artillery pieces, would have left alumni of the École with a firm grounding in the necessary skills, making them easier and quicker to train. Another possibility is that the technical aspects were intended as cross-training, meant to create officers who could build fortifications in the absence of engineers or handle cannon in the absence of artillery personnel. This would have come in very useful in 1809, when Napoleon temporarily revived the practice of attaching artillery companies to line battalions to supplement their firepower.0 Either way, the fact that the École engaged in cross-training marks it as a professional and remarkably modern institution by the standards of the time.