In Paris’ 7th arrondissement, southeast of the Champ De Mars, sits a vast complex of majestic buildings known as the École Militaire. This sizeable institution was conceived around the middle of the 18th century after the end of the War of Austrian Succession when King Louis XV, received a proposal from Marshal Maurice de Saxe to create a school to train young cadets of the royal army. The school would go on to count among its students some of the most decorated officers and military men in French history. One of the École Militaire’s most famous students was Napoléon Bonaparte who attended in 1784. Today the splendidly decorated institution is used to train French military officers.
The War of Austrian Succession comes to a close in 1748 and France, though victorious, counts and mourns its dead. The victory has come at great cost as a great number of young men have lost their lives. Several important battles have revealed a serious lack of preparation at the level of the royal regiments. In reaction to this, the highly experienced head of one cavalry division of the French army, Marshal Maurice de Saxe, suggests that King Louis XV should create an official royal military school, the purpose of which would be to train 500 young cadets from both wealthy and less well-to-do families. Marshal de Saxe’s idea is also supported by renowned financier Joseph Pâris Duverney and the Marquise de Pompadour, the King’s official chief mistress.
To convince the King once and for all of the importance of the project, the Marshall underscores the powerful symbolic dimension of the institution, insisting that a large and impressive military school where the country’s top officers would be trained would stand as a testament to the greatness of the reign of King Louis XV.
Convinced of the project’s potential, the King entrusts architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the most prominent architect in France at the time, with drawing up the building plans. The complex is intended to be grander and more impressive than the Hôtel des Invalides, which is a complex of opulent buildings containing monuments and museums dedicated to France’s military history, as well as a hospital and home for French war veterans constructed during the reign of King Louis XIValmost a century earlier.
The architect Gabriel quickly begins working on the École Militaire project and on June 24th 1751 he reveals his plans to the King. Louis XV is impressed by what is presented to him. The size of the space is immense, the exteriors are spectacular and the decorative details combine both subtle and ornate elements. Gabriel’s plans foretell a grand edifice with 5 pavilions facing the Champ-de-Mars and made up of multiple three-story buildings separated by interior courtyards. The project is to be built on the land known as the ferme de Grenelle, which is also home to the aforementioned Hôtel des Invalides.
Work on the École Militaire begins on September 13th 1751 with the digging of the big well. Very quickly, however, works are stopped due to lack of funds in the state coffers. The numerous wars waged by Louis XV in the preceding years have left the project with no sources of money to pay for workers and materials. The architect Gabriel works to gather the funds necessary to keep the project afloat, but three years later, the project has advanced very little and they have only begun work on the service buildings. In order to avoid cancelling the school’s opening, Gabriel decides that the school will only admit a limited number of students. It is also decided that these students will be lodged in the service buildings, which have been temporarily converted into dormitories and classrooms.
In 1756, the institution finally opens its doors to 200 cadets. In spite of Louis XV’s increasingly worrying financial situation construction continues after the opening. As the Marquise de Pompadour and Joseph Pâris Duverney, first bursar of the school are unable to finance the entire project with their personal funds the project becomes bogged down by its financial challenges. Finally in 1760 the King abandons the idea of building the institution as he and Gabriel had imagined it. The architect goes back to the drawing board and conceives a pared-down version of his original proposal. It is decided that the institution will be divided between the École Militaire and the Collège Royal de la Flèche.
In 1787, just seven years after the project is completed, the school is closed. The site of the École Militaire is eventually abandoned and becomes a site of pillaging during the French revolution. It is not until nearly a century later, in 1878, that the buildings are reopened to serve their original educational purpose. The École Supérieure de Guerre as it was named still operates today.
The site of Paris’ École Militaire can be reached by taking the metro to the École Militaire subway station.