French Military Technical Schools
‘The French, in the three and a half centuries between about 1500 and 1850, developed all, or nearly all, the basic forms of modern technical education. And in the course of time, from Russia across western Europe and the United States to Japan, all countries modeled their technical schools on those of France. So, in the gradual transfer of technical training from an apprenticeship system where one learned a calling on the job to one where one learned much of his technical profession in a school, France played the dominant role.’-The Development of Technical Education in France, 1500-1850 by Frederick Artz, vii.
While both civilian and military technical education developed on parallel courses, and military technical education included naval technical schools, only the establishment and development of French artillery and engineer schools will be mentioned here.
Both the French artillery and engineer schools were, by reputation and in reality, the best in Europe, including Great Britain. In the United States in 1802, the United States Military Academy was founded as an engineer and artillery school, based on the French military technical schools.
The excellent engineering school at Mezieres (Ecole de Mezieres) was founded in 1749. The Royal Corps of Engineers, like the Topographical Engineers, was an initially an officers-only organization. The ‘topos’ were trained at the Ecole des ingenieurs geographes.
The elite miner companies, engineer troops who were experts in the underground warfare during siege operations, belonged to the artillery and were commanded by artillery officers, Gribeauval having done this during his career. The two branches, the artillery and engineers, were related, both being considered ‘savant arms’ having to be highly educated and technically proficient.
In October 1793 the engineers were ‘converted’ from an organization of staff officers to a combat arm with the creation of twelve battalions of sapeurs du genie which were combat engineers (it would be twenty years later that the British engineer arm, after much professional argument, created the Sappers and Miners which greatly improved the engineer arm, making it a combat arm instead merely a staff organization of officers only). The miners at the same time were transferred to the engineers from the artillery. The Corps des ingenieurs des mines was officially organized in 1783.
‘The Ecole des mines and the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees take rank as the first well-organized school of civil engineering in the modern world’ (Artz, 110). The French engineering schools ‘stood first in Europe’ in advanced technical education (Artz, 111).
The equivalent civilian technical school for engineering was the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees (Bridges and Roads Service) which was founded in 1716. It did not reach a level of proficiency until the Revolution, when the school ‘became one of the more advanced technical school where qualified students of the Ecole Polytechnique went after graduating from the latter school. Graduates of this excellent school were detailed to the engineer service when necessary.
In some respects the graduates of the Ponts and Chaussees were more skilled than there military counterparts from Mezieres (Janis Langins, Conserving the Enlightenment, 94-97). The recognized intellectual and educational expertise, as well as the skill level, of the military engineers earned them the title ‘Jesuits of the Army.’
The Revolution caused educational upheaval with the proposals to abolish these bastions of royalist favor and incivisme. However, cooler heads prevailed and not only were the schools maintained, they were improved from mere ecoles to ecoles d’application. In 1802 Napoleon conducted a thorough reorganization of the advanced technical schools for both the engineers and artillery establishing the enlarged Ecole du genie et d’artillerie at Metz.
‘The artillery schools of ancient regime France were the first institutions in Europe where students received a scientific education.’-Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution, 57.
The first French artillery school was founded at Douai in 1689-some sources give the year as 1679. By contrast, the British artillery school at Woolwich was founded in 1741 and the Austrian artillery school at Budweis in 1744. Prussia did not establish an artillery school until 1791 and it was abolished in 1807. Russia established artillery instruction in their Cadet Schools, but it was ‘suspended’ by Tsar Paul I in 1800, and no formal artillery instruction took place in a technical school environment until after the disastrous defeats of 1805-1807. Both French émigré general Langeron and Sir Robert Wilson remarked on the low-level of education of Russian officers in general and artillery officers in particular.
The school at Douai, which also housed an important arsenal, was divided into two sections and transferred to Strasbourg and Metz. The instruction included artillery theory and practice, mathematics, siege methods, fortification, drawing, fencing and dancing.
The regulations of 1720 specified the type of artillery officer that was needed: ‘There are officers who devote themselves entirely to mechanical details, others regard such details as beneath their notice. Both types are deficient. The latter must be made to realize that mechanics is an absolute necessity; the officer should know the language of the workman so as to make the workman understand, and on occasion to instruct him. On the other hand, those absorbed only in mechanical details must know that a knowledge of them alone, without a wider view, does not raise them above the level of a cannon founder, a powder maker, or a workman…The artillery officer who knows his profession must not be ignorant of details, but he must know them, as in building an architect must know more than a mere stone mason.’ (Artz, Technical Education, 96-97.)
Reforms and improvements in the artillery education system in 1720 produced proficient artillery schools at Grenoble, Strasbourg, La Fere, Metz, and Perpignan and an advanced artillery school was opened at La Fere in 1756. La Fere offered ‘the first comprehensive training in artillery practice in Europe.’ (Artz, Technical Education, 97.) These sites were co-located with regular army garrisons and the artillery curriculum, for a six-day work week, consisted of three days of practical training which included artillery employment, the construction of fortifications, bridge building and mining. The three days of theoretical training included the study of geometry, algebra, conic sections, trigonometry, mechanics, fortifications, methods of artillery employment in the attack and defense as well as drawing, both freehand and mechanical (Artz, 97). The skill in drawing was exceptional, as seen in both Dideror’s Encyclopedie and in Gribeauval’s Tables of Construction the latter being disseminated before publication in 1792 (three years after Gribeauval’s death) to the arsenals for uniform construction purposes.
Before the Revolution, each artillery regiment was also an artillery school, and Napoleon was an excellent product of this system. In 1791 these schools were consolidated in a central Ecole d’artillerie at Chalons
The level of technical instruction was very high, with math instructors and examiners such as Bernard Forest de Belidor (one of the noted instructors at La Fere), Pierre Simon Laplace, Jean-Louis Lombard, Gaspard Monge, and Edme Jean Antoine du Puget to name a few.
Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval revamped and improved the curriculum in the artillery schools after the Seven Years’ War when he was overhauling the French artillery arm and introducing a field artillery system into the French army. He kept the resident artillery instructors and the study of calculus was introduced into the artillery curriculum, along with basic geometry and algebra. The artillery students were also taught physics and chemistry as well as rational mechanics, hydraulics, and the ‘principles of machines.’ Further technical drawing, applied mathematics and ballistic science were also taught. The intensive training emphasized both theory and practice and also taught mathematical analysis.
Students were also ‘particularly enjoined to draw artillery equipment ‘with a great deal of exactitude and care, so that they are rendered in the most exact proportions.’’ (Alder, Engineering, 73). ‘The artillery school curriculum also included a full year of prescribed drawing assignments coordinated with mathematical theory.’ (Alder, Engineering, 73).The drawings from the period, are exact and were used for the production of gun tubes, gun carriages, and ancillary vehicles. And they were designed and made to be interchangeable so that the parts of a vehicle or gun carriage could be assembled from different armories and foundries and all would fit when assembled.
‘In short, the artillerists’ education highlighted the corps’ status as expert managers of battlefield firepower and industrial production.’ (Alder, Engineering, 75). The artillery officers produced could, as Napoleon stated succinctly, ‘If there is no one to make gunpowder for cannon, I can fabricate it; gun carriages I know how to construct. If it is necessary to cast cannon, I can cast them; if it is necessary to teach the details of drill, I can do that.’
In conclusion, France was the leader in technical schools and technical instruction during the period, and the ecoles were constantly being improved and updated, both in the level of instruction and in the overall quality of the graduates. By 1789 French engineers and artillery officers were among the best, if not the best in Europe and the upheavals of the French Revolution did not denigrate those standards as was clearly demonstrated on the battlefields and sieges of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.