... we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. — Samuel Johnson

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Schooldays of Napoleon


In France there were twelve royal military schools to which a certain number of sons of the poor aristocracy were admitted without payment. Marboeuf was successful in securing this benefit for Napoleon, although his father had to prove to the satisfaction of the authorities that he was without fortune and to present a certificate to the effect that his family had belonged to the nobility for at least four generations. This done, the way was made clear for the boy to begin his first serious studies in the art of warfare. As the Corsicans spoke Italian and knew very little, if anything, of the French language, it was decided that Napoleon should stay for a time with his brother Joseph at the College of Autun so that he might acquire some knowledge of the language both were henceforth to speak. To the end of his days Napoleon never learnt to spell correctly, his pronunciation was oftentimes peculiar, and his writing invariably abominable.

Charles Marie de Bonaparte, duly accompanied by Joseph, Napoleon, Uncle Fesch, and a cousin named Aurelio Varese, set off for the land of their adoption in the middle of December 1778. The good Letizia sobbed bitterly when she parted with her two sons, but there were now several other children to be cared for, which must have consoled her to some extent. The travellers passed through Tuscany, where the beautiful city of Florence left an impression on the plastic mind of the embryo soldier, and a momentary sight of the Grand Duke afforded him intense pleasure. They were fragmentary foretastes of things to come, when Napoleon's troops would overrun the land of the Medici and the scions of royal houses would appreciate a nod or a glance from the now unknown lad whose eyes opened wide with astonishment at the sights and scenes of pre-Revolutionary Europe.

On the 1st January 1779, Autun was reached, and the boys had their first experience of what it means to be hundreds of miles from home and in a country where rugged little Corsica, if mentioned at all, was sneered at, and its inhabitants regarded as scarcely better than savages. Another separation came towards the end of the following April, when Napoleon left for Brienne, now inseparably associated with his name and fame. Tradition has it that Joseph wept copiously at the moment of departure, but down his brother's cheek there coursed a solitary tear. In the opinion of the Abbe Simon, who held the important post of sub-principal of the College, this was proof that Napoleon felt the wrench none the less keenly. Joseph allowed his emotions to govern him; Napoleon controlled his heart by his will, then as always.

It may be thought peculiar that Brienne, like the other military schools, was controlled by monks. The arrangement was really not so extraordinary as it would appear. Religion, up to the time of the Revolution, had always played an important part in the State, and that great epoch-making volcano had done nothing more than rumble at the period with which we are dealing. The Superior was, of course, the head of the establishment, the various Fathers having particular subjects to teach in which they more or less excelled. Occasionally a member of the laity assisted in a subordinate capacity. Pichegru, who was to become famous in the profession of Napoleon's choice, taught the elementary class at Brienne.

The pupils lived in almost monastic seclusion. They were not allowed to leave the precincts for the whole of the six years which were allotted to them for education, and during the holidays were never quite free from lessons. 'What seems a most exacting regime in some ways was, however, neutralized to some extent by rules judiciously forgotten.

St Germain, the energetic Minister of War who had advised the King to found the military schools, had spent much time and thought in drawing up elaborate regulations for their government. The studies included geography, history, grammar, mathematics, Latin, French poetry, German, drawing, music, and eventually English. Special attention was paid, as was only natural, to the art of war, "the trade of barbarians," as Napoleon once termed it in a capricious moment. Although rich in promise the colleges fell far short of the high ideals which St Germain had hoped for them, as do so many plans for the improvement of the existing order of things.

Notwithstanding all that has been written of Napoleon's morose and sullen disposition during his student days, it must not be forgotten that the young cadet was at a decided disadvantage in making friends. The matter of language alone was a sufficient barrier to intimate intercourse at this stage of his scholastic career, and his habit of diligent study ill-accorded with the frivolous frittering away of time indulged in by so many of the King's scholars. Napoleon was a hard worker, but only in subjects which most appealed to him, such as history, geography, and mathematics, all of which had a special bearing on his future career. Latin he despised as being of no practical value to a soldier; translations he positively loathed. He early learned to eliminate the nonessential and trivial, and the easy mastery of details became almost second nature to him.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler

His patriotism for his own country burned like a consuming fire. It is related that one day Napoleon came across a portrait of Choiseul, the hated Minister of Foreign Affairs under Louis XV. who had been the main instigator of the seizure of Corsica by the French. The most insulting remarks were hurled at the painted presentment of the man he so detested. On another occasion it is said that he averred he would do the French as much harm as he possibly could. If the story is not legendary, the statement was doubtless made in a moment of anger; perhaps after some thoughtless fellow student had taunted him about the poverty of his family, or the downfall of Paoli, the Corsican patriot whom he so much admired. His hot Southern blood boiled with indignation when anything was said which gave offence, and he scarcely, if ever, endeavoured to curb his hasty temper. He went so far as to challenge a cadet to a duel. To Bourrienne alone, a lad of his own age, did he show a marked attachment, and a warm friendship was cemented between them. Napoleon did not forget his school-chum in later years, and when a General appointed him to the important position of his private secretary. In his Memoirs  Bourrienne gives us several intimate glimpses of the obscure lad who was to make Europe his footstool. He tells us that Napoleon frequently meditated on the conquest of his native island; that the unworthy part played by his father was never forgiven; that he spent much of his time in solitude. Bourrienne also confesses that in exchange for assistance in Latin the future Emperor would lend him a helping hand with his mathematics, the calculations being made with extraordinary clearness and rapidity.

"At Brienne," his schoolfellow adds, "Bonaparte was remarkable for the dark colour of his complexion, which the climate of France afterwards very much changed, as well as for his piercing and scrutinizing glance, and for the style of his conversation, both with his masters and companions. His conversation almost always gave one the idea of ill-humour, and he was certainly not very sociable. This I think may be attributed to the misfortunes of his family during his childhood, and the impressions made on his mind by the subjugation of his country."

In these trying days Napoleon's reticent disposition served him in good stead. He preferred the library of the school to the playground. While the other boys were enjoying a game Napoleon was usually poring over the pages of Plutarch, and deriving inspiration and encouragement from the deeds of old-time heroes who figure in the Lives of Illustrious Men. Greek poetry had a fascination for him not evident in many lads of his tender age. "With my sword by my side," he writes to his mother, "and Homer in my pocket, I hope to carve my way through the world." Caesar's Gallic War  was also a favourite. Although Napoleon was by no means generally popular, and certainly never inclined to be genial, the majority of the students gradually began to respect him. It is on record that he was never a sneak, preferring to bear punishment himself rather than to divulge the name of a miscreant.

The love of monks for the soil is proverbial; this may have been the reason why a small portion of ground was allotted to each student at Brienne. Whatever healthy exercise Napoleon was supposed to derive from his garden was speedily discounted. He set to work with feverish activity, transformed the desert into an oasis, planted trees and shrubs, and surrounded the whole by a palisade in true military fashion. This done, he troubled no more about agricultural pursuits but was content to sit in his bower and read with little fear of disturbance.

In the winter of 1783-4, an abnormally severe season, the anchorite had an opportunity to show his military powers. Napoleon suggested to the students that they should build a fort of snow complete in every detail. The school was then divided into two armies, Napoleon sometimes directing the assault, at others defending the fortifications. It was rough play, and several serious accidents befell the cadets, who entered into the spirit of the thing with more alacrity than the peace-loving monks approved. Day after day this mock warfare was kept up, and Napoleon was usually the hero of each encounter.

You can imagine him standing there in his picturesque costume: blue coat with red facings and white metal buttons, blue breeches, and a waistcoat of the same colour faced with white. Horace Vernet has depicted the scene in one of his many Napoleonic paintings. The young commander, erect and defiant, is directing the storming of the fort by cadets who, for the most part, have taken off their coats in order to secure a better aim. An attacking party is climbing the ramparts, some of the units with success, others with disaster. The picture has been reproduced many times, and is one of the few dealing with the early period of the Conqueror's career.

Without question these were the happiest days of Napoleon's youth. He was not a brilliant scholar, and there are no records to show that he won particular distinction beyond sharing a first prize for mathematics with Bourrienne, which goes to prove that the latter profited by the teaching of his chum. Napoleon however, was made commander of a company of cadets—which amply atoned, from his own point of view, for all the "ploughing" he underwent at examinations. The opinion of M. de Keralio, one of the inspectors of the military schools, as to Napoleon's efficiency is as follows:

"SCHOOL OF BRIENNE:State of the King's scholars eligible from their age to enter into the service or to pass to the school at Paris; to wit, M. de Buonaparte (Napoleon) ,born the 15th August, 1769, in height 4 feet 10 inches 10 lines, has finished his fourth season; of good constitution, health excellent; character submissive, honest and grateful; conduct very regular; has always distinguished himself by his application to mathematics; understands history and geography tolerably well; is indifferently skilled in merely ornamental studies and in Latin, in which he has only finished his fourth course; would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be passed on to the school at Paris."

In the light of after events this diagnosis of his character is peculiar; it may be added that he had a deep-rooted affection for those at home in the far-off little island in the Mediterranean. He took upon himself the burden of thinking for the family, and provided them with plenty of gratuitous advice not altogether without wisdom.

A few months before Napoleon placed his foot on the next stepping-stone to fame and fortune he was joined at Brienne by his brother Lucien, who had been at Autun. In a note to one of his uncles Napoleon expresses his satisfaction with the newcomer, "for a beginning," but pours out a fierce diatribe against Joseph's wish to give up his idea of becoming a priest and entering the army. In reality there were more difficulties in the way than those mentioned by the writer, and eventually the eldest son was taken home to Corsica by his father. Neither was it destined that Napoleon should become a sailor. Another inspector named Iteynaud de Monts visited the school in 1784, and decided that the promising cadet should enter the Military School of Paris, for which institution he left on the 30th October. To the certificate which was forwarded, a brief but sufficiently comprehensive note was added: "Character masterful, impetuous and headstrong." A complete contradiction of M. de Keralio's statement.

No one seeing the dwarfed figure of the lad of fifteen, as he passed through the entrance of the Ecole Militaire, would have cared to prophecy that in a few years the King's scholar would be sitting as Emperor of the French on the throne of his benefactor. Time reveals its own secrets.