He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire

Saturday, February 3rd, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Napoleon’s education in France made him French, Andrew Roberts explains (in his biography of the Emperor of the French):

His bursary grant (the equivalent of a curate’s stipend) was dated December 31, 1778, and he started at the ecclesiastical seminary run by the bishop of Autun the next day. He wasn’t to see Corsica again for almost eight years. His name appeared in the school registry as ‘M. Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte’. His headmaster, the Abbé Chardon, recalled him as ‘a thoughtful and gloomy character. He had no playmate and walked about by himself … He had ability and learned quickly … If I scolded him, he answered in a cold, almost imperious tone: “Sir, I know it.” It took Chardon only three months to teach this intelligent and determined lad, with a will to learn, to speak and read French, and even to write short passages.

Having mastered the requisite French at Autun, in April 1779, four months shy of his tenth birthday, Napoleon was admitted to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château, near Troyes in the Champagne region. His father left the next day, and as there were no school holidays they were not to see each other again for three years. Napoleon was taught by the Minim order of Franciscan friars as one of fifty royal scholars among 110 pupils. Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks, although the martial side of studies were conducted by outside instructors. Conditions were spartan: students had a straw mattress and one blanket each, though they weren’t beaten.


His eight hours of study a day included mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortifications, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music (the last three an indication that Brienne was also in part a finishing school for the noblesse). Physically tough and intellectually demanding, the school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout, Étienne Nansouty, Antoine Phélippeaux and Jean-Joseph d’Hautpoul. Charles Pichegru, the future conqueror of Holland and royalist plotter, was one of the school’s instructors.

Napoleon excelled at mathematics. ‘To be a good general you must know mathematics,’ he later observed, ‘it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.’ He was helped by his prodigious memory. ‘A singular thing about me is my memory,’ he once boasted. ‘As a boy I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers.’ Napoleon was given permission to take maths classes earlier than the prescribed age of twelve, and soon mastered geometry, algebra and trigonometry. His weakest subject was German, which he never mastered; another weak subject, surprisingly for someone who so adored ancient history, was Latin. (He was fortunate not to be examined in Latin until after 1780, by which time it was clear that he would be going into the army or navy and not the Church.) Napoleon also excelled at geography. On the very last page of his school exercise book, following a long list of British imperial possessions, he noted: ‘Sainte-Hélène: petite île.’


Napoleon borrowed many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and republican virtue. He also read Caesar, Cicero, Voltaire, Diderot and the Abbé Raynal, as well as Erasmus, Eutropius, Livy, Phaedrus, Sallust, Virgil and the first century BC Cornelius Nepos’ Lives of the Great Captains, which included chapters on Themistocles, Lysander, Alcibiades and Hannibal. One of his school nicknames — ‘the Spartan’ — might have been accorded him because of his pronounced admiration for that city-state rather than for any asceticism of character. He could recite in French whole passages from Virgil, and in class he naturally took the side of his hero Caesar against Pompey.


A contemporary recalled Napoleon withdrawing to the school library to read Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian (‘with great delight’) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (for which he had ‘little taste’).


In 1781, Napoleon received an outstanding school report from the Chevalier de Kéralio, the under-inspector of military schools who, two years later, recommended him for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris with the words, ‘Excellent health, docile expression, mild, straightforward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics … This boy would make an excellent sailor.’ His clear intellectual superiority is unlikely to have helped his popularity with his classmates, who nicknamed him La Paille-au-Nez (‘straw up the nose’), which rhymed with ‘Napoleone’ in Corsican. He was teased for not speaking refined French, for having a father who had had to certify to his nobility, for coming from a conquered nation, for having a relatively large head on a thin frame and for being poorer than most of his school contemporaries. ‘I was the poorest of my classmates,’ he told a courtier in 1811, ‘they had pocket-money, I never had any. I was proud, I was careful not to show it … I didn’t know how to smile or play like the others.’ When he spoke in later life about his schooldays, he remembered individual teachers he had liked, but few fellow pupils.


Napoleon took his final exams at Brienne on September 15, 1784. He passed easily, and late the following month he entered the École Royale Militaire in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. This was a far more socially elevated institution than Brienne. There were three changes of linen a week, good meals and more than twice as many servants, teachers and staff — including wigmakers — as students. There were also three chapel services a day, starting with 6 a.m. Mass. Although strangely the history of warfare and strategy weren’t taught, the syllabus covered much the same subjects as at Brienne, as well as musketry, military drills and horsemanship. It was in fact one of the best riding schools in Europe.


Of the 202 candidates from all of France’s military schools in 1784, a total of 136 passed their final exams and only 14 of these were invited to enter the artillery, so Napoleon had been selected for an elite group. He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire,


Napoleon took classes from the distinguished trio of Louis Monge (brother of the mathematician-chemist Gaspard), the Marquis de Laplace, who later became Napoleon’s interior minister, and Louis Domairon, who taught him the value of ‘haranguing’ troops before battles. (Shorn of its English meaning, which implies a prolonged rant, a French harangue could mean an inspiring speech, such as Shakespeare puts in Henry V’s mouth or Thucydides in the mouth of Pericles, a skill at which Napoleon was to excel on the battlefield, but not always in public assemblies.) At the École, Napoleon encountered the new thinking in French artillery practice introduced by Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval after the Seven Years War. (Defeat had been, as it is so often in history, the mother of reform.) He also studied General Comte Jacques de Guibert’s revolutionary Essai général de tactique (1770): ‘The standing armies, a burden on the people, are inadequate for the achievement of great and decisive results in war, and meanwhile the mass of the people, untrained in arms, degenerates … The hegemony over Europe will fall to that nation which becomes possessed of manly virtues and creates a national army.’ Guibert preached the importance of speed, surprise and mobility in warfare, and of abandoning large supply depots in walled cities in favour of living off the land. Another of Guibert’s principles was that high morale — esprit de corps — could overcome most problems.


He took his final examinations early, coming forty-second out of fifty-eight candidates — not so poor a result as it may seem given that he sat the exams after only one year rather than the normal two or three. He could now dedicate himself to his military career, and to the serious financial problems Carlo had left. Napoleon later admitted that these ‘influenced my state of mind and made me grave before my time’.


At sixteen he was one of the youngest officers, and the only Corsican to hold an artillery commission in the French army. Napoleon always recalled his years at Valence as impecunious — his room had only a bed, table and armchair — and sometimes he had to skip meals in order to afford books, which he continued to read with the same voracious appetite as before.


By late May 1788 Napoleon was stationed at the School of Artillery at Auxonne in eastern France, not far from Dijon. Here, as when he was stationed with his regiment at Valence, he ate only once a day, at 3 p.m., thereby saving enough money from his officer’s salary to send some home to his mother; the rest he spent on books. He changed his clothes once every eight days. He was determined to continue his exhaustive autodidactic reading programme and his voluminous notebooks from Auxonne are full of the history, geography, religion and customs of all the most prominent peoples of the ancient world, including the Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians. They cover modern artillery improvements and regimental discipline, but also mention Plato’s Republic, Achilles and (inevitably) Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.


  1. Bruce says:

    I think Napoleon’s letters are the best guide to his mind. Many great historians have written his life, but you are either Napoleon or you are not. The collection I’ve read:

    Napoleon’s Letters (Prion Lost Treasures)
    by J. M. Thompson (Author)

    It’s in good 1930′s English. Not much military stuff, considering, just a brilliant polymath and incredibly high-powered executive making one important decision after another, seducing the most beautiful woman in Poland, facing victory and defeat implacably.

  2. Jim says:

    I am unbelievably jealous, literally beyond words.

  3. Phileas Frogg says:

    And yet again, autodidactic education appears and begs the question: “Chicken or Egg?”

    I tend to think that autodidactic education doesn’t produce great men/thinkers, rather that great men/thinkers are inclined towards autodidactic practices. The curious and roaming mind makes demands on the world which the incurious and static mind does not.

  4. VXXC says:

    You can’t ignore the influence of Bourcet on Napoleon:

    Another of these inter-war thinkers who influenced the development of Napoleon’s corps d’armée system, was Jean de Bourcet. Bourcet’s Principes de la guerre des montagnes emphasized the necessity of dispersal to force the enemy to cover many different points, and he called for marching in order of battle. The dispersal of forces during the march was to be followed by a rapid concentration of forces at the decisive point before the enemy could do the same. This allowed the attacker to begin with a significant advantage during the ensuing battle. [13] The following excerpt from Bourcet’s writings could very well describe a Napoleonic campaign:

    …a general will do well to divide his army into a number of comparatively small bodies, …which … is indispensable and safe provided the general who adopts it makes such arrangements that he can reunite his forces the moment that becomes necessary. He must therefore make his dispositions so that the enemy cannot interpose between fractions into which his army is divided…

    A general who intends to take the offensive should assemble his army in three positions, distant not more than a march from one another, for in this way, while he will threaten all points accessible from any portion of the 25 or 30 miles thus held, he will be able suddenly to collect his whole army either in the centre or on either wing. The enemy will then be tempted to post troops to defend each of the threatened avenues of approach, and the attempt to be strong at all points will make him weak at each separate portion.

    However carefully the enemy may have prepared his communications between several parts of his army, …in case of an attack at any point he will not be able to concentrate his troops there in time, if only the attacking general has concealed his plan and his first movements. The attacking general will usually be able to steal a march, …while the defender requires time to receive warning, time to issue orders, and time for the march of the troops to the point attacked.

  5. Phileas Frogg says:


    Astonishing. It’s like reading a summary of Napoleon’s Italian campaign, almost to perfection. I had no idea of this Bourcet fellow, but it’s clear he had an impression upon, “the little corporal.”

  6. VXXC says:

    I forget where I came across the influence of Bourcet upon Napoleon, but I am glad I did.

    I’ve just spent a few $ on this gem, and I’m looking forward to it. It is difficult to exceed the writing of BH Liddell Hart. His Colonel Lawrence* is similarly brilliant.

    The Sword and the Pen Selections From the Worlds Greatest Military Writings — Sir Basil Liddell Hart

    *FFS don’t use Lawrence of Arabia the movie as history. It’s a crime against all involved and totally untruthful.

  7. Buckethead says:

    I very much enjoyed Hart’s biography of Sherman.

  8. VXXC says:

    Sherman: Soldier, Realist, Patriot. BH Lidell Hart.

    A brilliant exposition of Sherman’s campaigns and how to win large wars. His mature thinking of dual objectives for multiple columns “put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma and either horn is worth a battle” wrongfooted the foe. Meanwhile Grant’s constant pressure on Lee in Virginia prevented any pivot south to face Sherman, if it were even possible for Lee to do so.

    After the war President Grant and his strong right arm General of the Army Sherman, the highest military leader at the time, attempted to reform the Army procurement system so the next war the Army would be better equipped. These two were thwarted in this effort. Washington was probably never capable of reform, certainly if that duo failed.

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