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sword of the month - january 2023
The élèves de l'école de Mars
In the summer of 1794, year II of the French Republic and the European revolutionary wars, an unusual new army of teenagers, the élèves de l'école de Mars, was being trained in the outskirts of Paris. The army had a highly ideological imprint, under the influence of the Jacobins. It was later accused of having been conceived by Robespierre as an instrument for his tyranny over the Convention. The source of the accusation was Jean-Lambert Tallien, himself under accusation by Robespierre for fomenting the excesses of Terror, and one of the leaders of the conspiracy to eliminate Robespierre on 9 Thermidor year II (27 July 1794). On that day, the young would-be Republican soldiers immediately fell in line with the Convention against the Robespierrist group.
In 1794 war was raging between Republican France and the first European coalition, redrawing alliances across almost all of Europe, while internal monarchist insurrections were being waged in the west of France by Chouans and Vendéens. France was mobilising all its resources under the motto "La patrie est en danger". An army of 800,000 men had been established to resist internal uprisings and foreign invasions. This situation had been the basis for the introduction of a revolutionary government and tribunals driving the policy of Terror.
On 13 Prairial year II (1 June 1794), Bertrand Barère, on behalf of the Comité de Salut Public, where he was (at that point) an ally of Robespierre, had criticised the bookish military training for officers as practised by the old regime, and its aristocratic ethos. He proposed to create a new revolutionary military school, whose members, aged 16 or 17, and therefore not yet eligible to enter the army, would be trained in an open-air camp in the immediate vicinity of Paris (in front of the Porte Maillot). The élèves would not come from the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie but would be chosen from sans culottes families of peasant and artisans. The purpose was to provide a preliminary military formation, and a taste inspired by Rousseau for life in the open air and physical exercise, along the lines of the Spartan educational model that Saint-Just had espoused in his Fragments d'institutions républicaines (published posthumously).The more transparent political purposewas explicitly stated: to inspire patriotism, civic duty, hatred for tyrants, the practice of fraternity, and to stimulate intelligence and cancel prejudice through high-level teaching.
The proposal was immediately adopted and almost 4,000 "élèves de l'école de Mars" were called from the whole of France to meet on 10 Messidor year II (28 June 1794) under the supervision of two members of the Convention (représentants du peuple), chosen by the Comité de Salut Public, Jean-Pascal Charles de Peyssard and Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas. Military instruction was provided by officers hand-picked by François Henriot, commander of the Parisian National Guard, member of the Club des Cordeliers, and close to the extreme left-wing Hébertistes. The élèves were kept isolated from external contacts, including family and political representatives, even though at least one visit by Robespierre was recorded. Wooden palisades and guards prevented visitors from seeing the young soldiers. Patriotic speeches were delivered to the pupils beneath a giant tent adorned with the large busts of the children-martyrs of the Republic, Bara and Viala, and a statue of the Republic, endowed with a Phrygian cap, Hercules' club and lion skin, as well as the broken chains and yoke of tyranny, flanked by two giant French roosters.
However, such propaganda seemed to have had a limited effect, according to a participant who wrote a memoir forty years later under the liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe (Hyacinthe Langlois, Souvenirs de l'École de Mars et de 1794, Rouen: Baudry, 1836). Indeed, that significant military force remained inactive when the final confrontation took place between Robespierre and his group and the rest of the Convention, with a temporary alliance between the moderates, the remnants of the Girondins, the Dantonists, the extreme left (Collot d'Herbois, Billaud Varenne) and the ultra terrorists (Tallien, Fouché, Barras). The events of 9 Thermidor not only caused the fall and execution of Robespierre and Saint-Just; they also made evident the military failure of Henriot to stop the troops loyal to the Convention Nationale by units of the Commune of Paris which supported Robespierre. When two representatives of the Convention called upon the élèves de l'école de Mars to march in support of the Convention, the latter had up to that point been kept in the dark about the struggle between political factions, and they embraced the new directives and slogans. They marched with discipline under the orders of the Convention, while Henriot was guillotined and Lebas committed suicide to escape the same fate. The élèves had in any case been given cannons but not cannonballs; they had a locked stock of rifles and powder but no bullets.
The neoclassical Jacobin painter Jacques-Louis David, member of the Convention for the Montagne and close to Robespierre, was the official organiser of celebrations and public events of the Republic as well as the designer of uniforms for public officials. He also drew the uniform and sword of the éleves de l'école de Mars.
The uniform, inspired by David's idea of the Roman legions, was composed of tight-fitting trousers and a short, knee-length tunic, theoretically cut in the fashion of an ancient classical cuirass or breastplate. A large belt, imitating a tiger's skin, carried ammunition. The colour of the uniforms appears to have been random, depending on the leftovers of fabrics available after the regular national army had been equipped for mobilisation. When the first uniforms were distributed, the élèves fought each other in order to obtain the best uniforms. To most observers, David's effort produced the effect of an operatic costume of Ottoman appearance, rather than an inspiration for classic Roman republican virtues.
The usual sword was replaced by what David considered to be a Roman type gladius, the short stabbing double-bladed sword of Roman infantry troops between the third century BC and the third century AD. David's creation seemed vaguely inspired by swords he had painted in The Oath of the Horatii in 1784, but did not correspond to any historical reconstruction by today's standards.
For comparison we have here a picture placing side by side David's vision and a standard gladius used by current re-enactors. While the Roman gladius had a pointed edge to facilitate a thrust forward, the tip of David's gladius ended at a 90° angle; it thus had limited penetration power (and apparently the contractor had produced a weak metal with an excessive use of lead for the blade). Instead of the simple Roman grip with a knobbed hilt and ridges for the fingers, David had decorated the grip with leaves and added a triple external protection, which enhanced the aesthetic impact but had doubtful military use.
The sword was held by a shoulder belt (baudrier) with a large inscription carrying the words liberté and égalité. Symbols were added to make their meaning more explicit. The hilt carried a Phrygian cap for liberty, while the baudrier exhibited a triangular stonemasons' level for equality; beneath the level, a wheat field flourished with sheaves growing all to the same height, while the single ear peering out above its peers was cut off by a gladius. This interpretation of equality was in line with the Grande Terreur of the last month before Thermidor 1794 and its frantic use of the guillotine.
Despite its loyalty to the new regime, the military school was disbanded in October at the request of the soldier-students, who reminded their superiors that their obligations ended with the autumn season as prescribed in the initial decree of the Convention nationale. The adolescents were not keen to spend a winter in inadequate tents and simply wanted to return home. Upon departure they were authorized to keep their uniforms and the gladius (which is why so many have survived until now), while the real weapons were kept by the administration.
The experiment did not create a new class of Spartan citizens or Jacobin radicals but contributed to forming some of the officers of the republican and imperial army of the following two decades, which proved so effective throughout Europe.
• Gueniffey, Patrice. La politique de la Terreur. Essai sur la violence révolutionnaire (1789-1794), Paris: Fayard, 2000.
• Langlois, Hyacinthe. Souvenirs de l'École de Mars et de 1794, Rouen: Baudry, 1836.
• Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, London: Chatto and Windus, 2006.
• Souboul, Albert. Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1989.
• Vovelle, Michel. La révolution française: images et reçit, 1789-1799, Paris: Librairie du bicenténaire de la Revolution française, 1989.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics