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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

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Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby Senarmont198 » February 1st, 2016, 1:49 pm

One of the essential books to have and read, and one that undoubtedly influenced Napoleon in his operations, is Pierre Bourcet's Principes de la Guerre de Montagnes which Bourcet wrote for the use of his students at the staff college at Grenoble. It was a manuscript and not published until later. It can be found on Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=A2kDA ... es&f=false

And in Annex Number one of the book, page 252, it reads specifically that Choiseul had the school established under the directorship of Bourcet in 1764. Its purpose was to train staff officers.

Bourcet was the premier staff officer and chief of staff of his day, and he had been chief of staff, among others, to Marshal de Broglie in the Seven Years' War who was the most successful French general of that war, and much of that credit goes to Bourcet.

The staff college at Grenoble is mentioned in Spenser Wilkinson's The French Army Before Napoleon, Robert Quimby's The Background of Napoleonic Warfare, and Col Elting's Swords Around A Throne. So, it appears that they are correct in their mention of the Grenoble staff college.

Choiseul was instrumental in the French Army's substantial reform movement after the disastrous performance in the Seven Years' War and it was Choiseul who assigned expert officers to conduct the needed reforms, such as Bourcet with the staff officers and Gribeauval with the artillery.

It should be noted that Grenoble was also the home of one of the French Army's excellent artillery schools, but there was no engineer school there. The Royal Army's engineer school, the Ecole du Genie, was located at Mezieres while the advanced artillery school was at La Fere (from which artillery school Gribeauval had graduated). Later, the engineers and artillery schools were combined into the Artillery and Engineer School of Application at Metz. La Fere, however, continued to be the artillery training center. In 1802 the Ecole d'Application de l'Artillerie and du Genie was formed by combining the original engineer school and the Chalons Artillery School. But, there was no engineer school at Grenoble.

There is a very interesting and useful book by Frederick Artz, The Development of Technical Education in France 1500-1850 which covers both civilian and military technical education highlighting engineering, artillery, and naval engineering school which were founded in France, and which clearly demonstrates that the French ‘developed all, or nearly all, the basic forms of modern technical education. Further, the volume illustrates that ‘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.’ In point of fact, both the British and Austrian artillery schools, for example, were modeled on the excellent artillery schools in France, the first one being founded in 1679 at Douai, which predates all others in Europe.
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » February 1st, 2016, 2:45 pm

As Wilkinson presented his lectures in 1914, the fact that Quimby and Elting copied his claims demonstrates nothing.

Wilkinson would thus appear to have copied the claims made on p.252 in Appendix 1 of the printed version of Principes de la guerre de montagne, Bourcet's 1775 script with appendices presumably by Arvers, a Lt-Col in the French War Ministry, who we are also told in a note just before the text starts: "has restored the sense of certain passages, which have been altered by the omission or corruption of certain words". Interesting, then, when we look at the claim on p.252 that there is no footnote or other reference to this claim about a specific staff college.

The claim is that Choiseul established a college at Grenoble in 1764 under Bourcet to train officers destined for the etat-major (staff). The course was to last four years; the first involved learning to reconnoitre the local fortifications and terrain; the second was to learn the offensive and defensive keypoints; the third was learning about marches, troops and food logistics;the fourth was devoted to operational planning. It lasted until 1771, just after Choiseul fell from power as Minister of War (from 1764). It is then claimed that Bourcet wrote the manuscript for Principes for his students, although he manuscript is dated by the publisher to 1775. :!:

There is no doubt that Bourcet was the Director of Engineering at Grenoble in 1763 - The Etat Militaire de France (1758-63) actually lists Bourcet there https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4eZ ... at&f=false . It is of course worth repeating what I said in the Berthier thread about the recent book by Lalliere: Bourcet was in charged on 1st April 1766 with "the direction of officers engaged in reconnaissance of the land". Why would that be necessary if he were already running a staff college teaching that?

The strange thing is that "On p.402, the author mentions that on 1st April 1764, Bourcet proposed in a letter to Choiseul to set up a corps of officers de l'etat major", so Bourcet has proposed this something, while Choiseul himself produced "le Règlement concernant les officiers de l’état major de l’École royale militaire et leurs fonctions, arrêté de Mr le duc de Choiseul" in about 1769. The ERM was founded in Paris in 1750 as a cadet school for poorer pupils.

While Wilkinson is off the hook, he has certainly unquestioning copied Arvers, who has apparently fiddled with the text and is unable to provide a single source to back this claim about a staff college. We do know that Bourcet was the Director of Engineering at Grenoble artillery school. He appears to have made a proposal about training staff officers, but little seems to have been done for two years, when he is authorised to train officers involved in topography and reconnaissance, including Berthier. However, the only regulations related to "staff" are published by Choiseul in 1769 and relate to the Ecole royale militaire's directing staff, not an army staff. The Principes manuscript is written in 1775, although the Appendix does note that Bourcet presented special copies of it and his 7YW memoires to "Napoleon 1er" (p.255).

So, the reality is still that there is no evidence that any special college existed and it is a figment of Arvers' imagination copied by Wilkinson, Hittle, Elting etc.
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » February 1st, 2016, 3:24 pm

Call me a cynic, but it seems that in 1769, Choiseul authorised two manuals for the Ecole Royale Militaire:
l’Exposition du plan des études pour les Élèves de l’École royale militaire
le Règlement concernant les officiers de l’état major de l’École royale militaire et leurs fonctions

It is also worth noting that it is claimed that Napoleon "must" have read Bourcet's manuscript. Napoleon was a pupil at the ERM from 1784-5 after Brienne, but never attended Grenoble.
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » February 1st, 2016, 7:25 pm

Well, I was almost right and this seems to be another case of the mangling of source material and misuse of names/roles. It is interesting that a lot of the nonsense inhabiting Napoleonic history seems to date from the time of the Second Empire and the aftermath of the defeat at Sedan, while, like other nations, French historians seem to have come to their senses in the 15 years prior to WW1, when they felt they could just write history based on the source materials.

So, over on Gallica, I found this short booklet from 1911: L'etat-major by Leon Hennet with a foreword by Chuquet http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6 ... ble%201764 in which he discusses the development of the French staff. It is worth bearing in mind that in the wake of the defeat in the Succession War, Austria had conducted a major overhaul of her army, greatly extending the powers of the chief of staff in 1757 and establishing a permanent General staff the following year. These reforms were consolidated after the 7YW in the 1767 regulations. France had sided with Prussia in the Succession war and done well, but changing horses in 1756, had been completely defeated at Rossbach in 1757, prompting the start of reform pressures there too.

Grandpre, an aide-marechal des logis, was already pressing for the establishment of a staff corps in November 1762 (p.26) followed by Carlet de la Rozier, who in 1763, presented a "Memoir sur la formation de l'etat-major", in which he proposed two staff schools with a curriculum of 1) reconnaissances of the terrain, 2) marches, 3) food supplies and 4) the office work. It also proposed that the officers be at three rank levels. This memoir was among several unsigned ones with similar ideas. At the same time, France was developing its peacetime administration of the army by dividing up into 15 divisions [that org mangled to suggest the field army had divisional staffs], which was approved in August 1763. Here we find Bourcet and Surlaville offering the set-up for these provincial commands, Bourcet focusing on the artillery, engineers and local reconnaissance and Surlaville doing the rest (p.30pp).Article 11 then talks about the four components of the staff, but doesn't tie them to specific functions, allocating them as required. While the prevailing mood was for a permanent staff, the comments invioted from senior commanders were about the provincial organisation and Choiseul's request to Bourcet was responded to in June 1765 with "Memoire sur la necessite de former des officiers a la connaissance militaire d'un pays" (military knowledge of a country". So, here we are, back with the topographical requirements (pp.34-41)! Three officers were initially appointed to this topographical staff in 1765 and then a full corps was created in 1766 headed by Bourcet, who had devised it, as Choiseul had laid out in a memoir to the King. And so, going back to p.2, here we are in 1766 with Bourcet heading up a group of officers employed "for the reconnaissance of the country" and making "voyages de l'etat-major" (long range reconnaissances). The five functions for his groups are set out in a 1768 memoir on p.62, from which we can see that there are 5 functions and the "classes" are actually small groups of a few officers. In 1769, these men were duly spread around the new division commands. A formal "corps de l'etat major" was only created in 1770 (Bourcet himself had been seconded to Corsica to look at the state of the fortifications on the newly-acquired island) in four components (pp.68-9), something much abused in trying to tie this into Thiebault's 1800 manual. This small unit, based in Grenoble as Bourcet was there, was disbanded in 1771 as a financial measure.

Bourcet himself (and an interesting parallel with Gribeauval) had initially joined the artillery (p.42), but by 1741 was already an engineer. Having also worked in secret correspondence with smaller Italian states, he was also in 1744 an aide-marechal des logis. In 1757, the artillery and engineers still formed one unit within an army. In 1759, he starts work on delineating the border between France and Piedmont-Sardinia, which also gets him involved in diplomatic missions to the P-S court in 1760. By 1762, he is in Versailles doing more secret correspondence. The end of the 7YW saw him back in Grenoble working on the delineation of the border.

It was only in 1783 that Louis XVI ordered the creation of a permanent staff corps (whose members included Berthier) under its own director, which was established on the same basis as the Austrian version under its first Director, Lacy. Under the French director, a General, its staff comprised of aides-marechaux des logis with rank from captain up to colonel, adjoints capitaines and 6 ingenieurs geographes (this last group including Berthier). (p2)

So, in a nutshell, Bourcet was a topographical engineer, who had a small group of officers with him in Grenoble, engaged in frontier cartography and other preparations for war. There is no "school", there is no "staff manual", the 1775 Memoir was written simply after this little group was disbanded.
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby Andrew » February 1st, 2016, 10:06 pm

Dave, fascinating background; thank you for your research. I am still interested to know how the general staff developed and/or were educated/trained during Napoleon's time, ie. taking the story forward from where you leave off above. Do you have this information?

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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » February 1st, 2016, 10:41 pm

I don't think there is very much, which is why the mythology has had the space to grow up. However, on a TMP thread http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=227831 Deleted Name on 21st April gives links to Berthier's 1796 Instructions and an article on the Napoleon Series, which references a wide range of works. I think de Philip is the one most used and Colin of course.
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby Andrew » February 2nd, 2016, 5:49 pm

Dave,

many thanks for the link which I have just browsed; very useful. Now I've just got to find the time to pursue this! So much to do, so little time...

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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » February 9th, 2016, 8:48 pm

This book from 1809 has popped up on the NSF https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=FQ0CrOnEmikC

Gone a bit quiet on other fronts! :shock:
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Re: Pierre Bourcet and the Staff College at Grenoble

Postby DaveH » May 13th, 2016, 6:48 pm

Silly me - I missed an obvious point about the reliability of the Appendix:

"The Principes manuscript is written in 1775, although the Appendix does note that Bourcet presented special copies of it and his 7YW memoires to "Napoleon 1er" (p.255)."

Erm, except Bourcet died in 1780. :roll:
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