The Fencing School at Joinville-le-Pont
The fencing school at Joinville-le-Pont played an important role in the rapid growth and popularity of fencing in the late 19th century. While mostly known for its Gymnastic Division and its impacts on physical education, the Fencing Division of the school was responsible for accrediting all fencing masters for the French military, standardizing their instruction methods, and placing them into every regimental salle d’armes in France for 67 years. This increased exposure to fencing raised French national pride in the art, increased its practitioners, and helped inspire interest in foreign lands.
Origin and Formation of the School
The school, the complete name of which would eventually become the Ecole Normale Militaire de Gymnastique et d'Escrime, began as two separate gymnastic-only institutions developed through the first half of the 19th Century. Normalizing gymnastic instruction in the military was proposed as early as 1799, but was finally approved by the Ministère de la guerre in 1815, thanks in large part from the lobbying by a Colonel Francisco Amorós. Three years later, Amorós’ Gymnasium was installed on the plaine de Grenelle in Paris. In 1830, it took the name Gymnase Normal, and sister schools were established around France to follow the direction of the Parisian school. The subservience of the provincial schools to the Parisian school did not last, but was reestablished in 1852 by the formal creation of the École normale militaire de gymnastique by Maréchal Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud. The final portion of the school’s name, "et de Escrime," wouldn’t be added until 1872.1
The Addition of Fencing to the School
Napoleon the Third's 1869 imperial decree was the first step towards standardizing fencing instruction in the military:
"The teaching of fencing, made obligatory and free by imperial decision on December 27, 1869, will henceforth be regulated in the daily service roster by company, squadron, or battery, for the soldiers called upon to follow this teaching, instead of being given indistinctly when the men show up at the fencing salles." 2
Napoleon's vision, however, would be delayed by both the Franco-Prussian War (and his subsequent defeat & capture on September 1, 1870) and the turmoil from the government’s reformation into the Third French Republic.
The Franco-Prussian War temporarily closed the school in 1870, though operations resumed some two years later on April 1, 1872 with the same structure as it had had before.3 Upon the reopening, the new Ministère de la guerre, Ernest Courtot de Cissey, outlined exactly how Napoleon’s imperial decree would be fulfilled. His directive included new budgets allocated for fencing equipment, upgraded salles d’armes, and instructor pay. The primary weapon for foot soldiers was to be foil with an option to train in sabre, whereas members of the cavalry received instruction in both foil and sabre.4
Finally, and most importantly for the school at Joinville, the instructors teaching throughout the military were now required to have obtained a master’s certificate from Joinville. Each regiment was allocated a specific number of soldiers they could send to Joinville for certification.5 By September of 1872, fencing was officially added to the school and it was renamed to it’s final iteration: École normale militaire de gymnastique et d’Escrime.6 The four main objectives of this new, combined school for gymnastics and fencing were:
- To teach the officers all that relates to the practice of the exercises of the body and to the physical education of the soldier;
- To train instructors likely to teach gymnastics in military schools and in the corps of artillery, engineers and colonial troops;
- To train fencing masters for teaching fencing;
- To study all the improvements to be made to the methods of teaching gymnastics and fencing, to experiment with new procedures and to propose to the Minister the appropriate measures to popularize their use in the army.7
The Fencing and Gymnastic Divisions had two separate campuses in Paris. The Gymnastics Division was quartered in the Redoute de la Faisanderie, a fortification built in 1846 in the south-east corner of the Bois de Vincennes. The Fencing Division was quartered about a kilometer away in Camp de Saint Maur, adjacent to the Lac des Minimes.8
Camp de Saint Maur consisted of approximately 40 buildings. Ten of those buildings were salle d’armes with seven to eight fencing pistes each. One separate and distinct Salle d’Honneur, inaugurated in 1887, was highly decorated with trophies, weapons, armor, and photographs of the well-known fencers and graduates of the school, including the four authors of the Manuel d’Escrime, the official treatise and instructional guide of the school.9
Other buildings included a welding workshop for repairing fencing weapons,10 shower and laundry facilities, kitchens, and dining halls. For a short time there was even a stage erected in one of the dining halls so that the fencers could provide theater and amusements for each other.11
Interactive Map of the Grounds
This 1899 map of the Bois de Vincennes12 shows both the Redoubt de la Faisanderie and Camp de Saint Maur. Images of the École Normale de Gymnastique et d'Escrime are plotted on this map according to visible landmarks, buildings, and streets.
The school was divided into its two divisions, one for gymnastics–which formed two companies, and the other for fencing–which formed a third company. By 1893, the gymnastic student body consisted of about 135 individuals and the fencing division consisted of an additional 100. The latter had to have been endorsed by their superiors and have already attained the rank of Prévôt d’Armes.13 The fencing course these students attended lasted eleven months, starting in November and ending in October of the following year. All students attending courses at Joinville had to be prepared for physical exertion and be in good health:
"It is advisable to avoid, as much as possible, men suffering from palpitations of the heart, those who have, in their antecedents, a somewhat serious breast affection, those whom the laxity of the inguinal ring predisposes to hernias, those for whom varicose veins in the lower limbs and testicular cord (varicocele) make gymnastics dangerous, and finally those who have previously been affected by fracture and especially sprain." 14
Four masters from the school (Roller, Hottelet, Berges, Boulange 15) were instrumental in drafting the Manuel d’Escrime, first published in 1877 under the authority of the minister of war, Jean Auguste Berthaut.16 The Manuel d’Escrime was the definitive and standard instructional text for the school, written for aspiring teachers in that it details not only fencing techniques for pointe and contre pointe, but also the order and manner for how technique is to be taught. The manual includes further details on how fencers should salute, recommendations for assaults, and student and instructor deportment.
The Manuel d’Escrime was published five times–1877, 1889, 1890, 1893, and 1905–and provided the foundation for its successor, the Reglement d’Escrime.17 The Règlement d’Escrime was first published in 1908 and was translated into English and endorsed by the Amateur Fencers League of America.18
Command Structure & Instructors
Both divisions of the Joinville school were under the direction of the Ministère de la guerre and commanded by one Commandant. At the head of each of the Gymnastic and Fencing Divisions was a Capitaine Instructeur. Below them were Lieutenant Instructeurs in charge of the companies (two for gymnastics, one for fencing) and then the Adjutants in charge of the sections.19 The Fencing Division's Adjutants, who were themselves Maître d’Armes, were the highest authority for fencing instruction at the school, though still subordinate to their superiors in the military hierarchy.
All these high ranking officers, assisted by their support staff of nurses, armorers, treasurers, etc. comprised the fixed cadre for the school, in that they did not return to their original regiments at the end of the course and instead held permanent positions at the school.20
The student body attending for only the duration of the fencing course comprised the division's mobile cadre. From this mobile cadre, the most capable students were chosen to remain for a second term as Moniteurs. The most capable of these Moniteurs would, in the same fashion, be chosen to remain for a third term as Chefs d’Salle. Fencing instruction was imparted and supervised by order of hierarchy: Adjutants instructed the Chefs de Salle, Chefs instructed Moniteurs, and Moniteurs instructed students. Additionally, members of the Gymnastic division would line up in the salle d’armes of the Fencing Division four times per week for instruction.21
Promotion to Maître d’Armes
A general competition was held at the conclusion of every course year. The examination commission was chaired by a senior military official and assisted by the school’s Commandant as well as the Fencing Division’s Capitaine Instructeur, Lieutenant Instructeur, and Adjutants.22 This competition determined which top students would stay on as Moniteurs for their second year, and which top Moniteurs would remain for a third year as Chefs de Salle. Promotion to Maitre d’Armes was only available to the Chefs de Salle,23 who had in multiple competitions over three year demonstrated remarkable skill and aptitude for teaching. The number of available Maitre d’Armes brevets was fixed by the Ministère de la guerre according to the needs of the regiments, but usually fifteen to twenty brevets were awarded per year.24
A handful of awards and medals were also given out at the end-of-year competition. Separate medals were awarded for the officers, monitors, non-commissioned officers, as well as the group of corporals, brigadiers, and student soldiers.25
The existence of the school of Joinville, a place to train soldiers in gymnastics and fencing, was predicated on the military (and the country) being at peace. In the event of mobilization the school’s dissolution was prescribed and inevitable. This occurred between 1914 and 1916 during World War One and again in 1939 for World War Two, the latter affecting permanent changes for the school.
After the decisive German victory in the Battle of France and the Armistice of 1940 (which split France into occupied and “free” territories) the school split and relocated into two parts: The Gymnastic Division was relocated to Fort Carré in Antibes as the Collège National d'Athlètes, and the Fencing Division was moved to Pau as the Ecole Nationale d'Instruction militaire et Sportive. After the liberation of France, the schools swapped locations and the Ecole Militaire d'Escrime et de Sports de Combat was established in Antibes and Ecole Nationale d'Entraînement Physique Militaire was established in Pau. Many of the former instructors of the Joinville school remained as instructors in these new programs.26
Impact & Influence
A Surge of Instructon
"Having been drilled so thoroughly in the principles of the science, its graduates were capable of imparting their instruction to others in such a manner that very soon there was an efficient number of thoroughly competent instructors for the army as well as for the civil institutions." 27
After 67 years in operation, it could be estimated that the Fencing Division at Joinville awarded between 900 and 1,300 Maître d’Armes brevets out of 6,000 total graduates. Those Maître d’Armes then returned to their own regiments to train their fellow soldiers according to the methods they learned at the school. This resulted in a general exposure, if not proficiency, in fencing among the majority of soldiers in the French military. This no doubt contributed to the simultaneous increase in civilian fencing clubs, schools, and societies to accommodate those soldiers returning from service.
The Joinville methods also spread to neighboring institutions. Foreign governments would occasionally send officers responsible for similar instruction in their own militaries to the school at Joinville. In 1889, for example, representatives from the Military Gymnastics Institute in Stockholm and the Military Gymnastics School in Copenhagen were among those who attended the school.28
Admiration & Pride
The entire school at Joinville became a point of French national pride. The dramatic public feats demonstrated by both the Gymnastic and Fencing Divisions were depicted on commercial goods and countless postcards. Adjutants and school graduates, noted for having attended the school, often competed in competitions across France and internationally.
In 1891, for example, four Joinville fencing masters went to London at the request of the English government to participate in a fencing competition under the patronage of the Duke of Cambridge. The four men impressed the Duke so much by their talent and deportment that he instructed the French attache to convey his congratulations to them.29
Inspiring Fencing in America
Many graduates of the school at Joinville would become important figures for fencing in America. They were sought after and hired by large athletic clubs, universities, and institutions across the country. Their installation at such organizations as West Point, the New York Athletic Club, the Boston Athletic Association, Yale, Harvard, and others established the Joinville method, and French fencing, in early American fencing salles.
Louis Rondelle received his Maître d’Armes diploma from Joinville and was second in competition amongst his graduating class. He arrived in New York in December 1881 and would become the instructor at the Knickerbocker Fencing Club, the Manhattan Athletic club,30 the Boston Athletic Association,31 and the Harvard Fencing Club.32 In 1892 he wrote Foil and Sabre: A Grammar of Fencing which became widely circulated, cited, and an authoritative English-language treatise that also contained rules for governing amateur competitions.
Louis Tronchet famously defeated Regis Senac for the American championship title on March 28th, 1887 at Cosmopolitan Hall in New York City.33 In 1888, he was hired by the San Francisco Olympic club where he served as Maître d’Armes for 15 years. During his tenure, Tronchet rallied the public's interest in fencing by organizing and participating in many public exhibitions, including two on the deck of the visiting French battleship Dubourdieu. The most memorable event he participated in was the Circus Maximus, held at the Mechanics Pavilion from April 17th to 29th, 1893. Tronchet and his fencers reenacted roman gladiatorial combat which culminated in a dramatic and choreographed 240-move bout between Tronchet and Emilio Lastreto which ended with Tronchet's final blow piercing a blood pack hidden in Lastreto's costume.34
Louis Vauthier joined the French army at the age of 18 and graduated from the school at Joinville with a Maître d’Armes diploma. In 1890, he opened his own fencing school in Paris which he ran for three years before emigrating to the United States in 1893 to teach at the New York Fencers Club.35 Maitre Vauthier’s most notable contribution to fencing in the United States, however, was teaching at West Point Military Academy. He first taught there on a part-time basis starting in 1903, then accepted a full-time appointment the following year.36 He held the fencing master position until 1916 when he was succeeded by Jean M. Gelas.37 He remained at West Point as an instructor in French until his retirement on April 30, 1942 at the age of 79 after 37 years of continuous service. On that day, the Corps of Cadets passed in review for their beloved teacher.38
"I would like to add a very personal note. I commanded the fencing dicision at Joinville when I was Captain-Commandant. The time I spent there was one of the most enjoyable of my life. I always think about it and talk about it often."
Lieutenant-Colonel Dérué, 1899. 39
Exhibition research, layout, copy, and photography by Benjamin Bowles. All rights reserved. This exhibition or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of Fencing Arms & Artifacts except for the use of brief quotations and with attribution.