A breeding ground for army officers
Between 1870 and 1914, about 75% of École Polytechnique alumni were recruited by the army's so-called scholarly arms (artillery, military engineering). As a result, thousands of them served as officers from 1914 to 1918, and hundreds of them died for France. Some of these officers rose to the army's highest ranks. During the Great War, the French army was led by four different generals, three of whom were École Polytechnique alumni: Joffre (from the 1869 intake of students), Nivelle (1876 intake), then Foch (1871 intake). Foch and Joffre were awarded the title of Maréchal de France, as were General Fayolle (1873 intake) and General Maunoury (1867 intake).
The class of 1905 in uniform in the courtyard of the Ecole Polytechnique (1908) by Jules DavidÉcole Polytechnique
Approximately 900 École Polytechnique alumni died during World War I. Here are some of them.
Two young aviators go down in the same plane
Two aviators, Henry de Ponton d’Amecourt (1911 intake) and Georges Martinot (1914 intake), died for France on September 26, 1916. Both of them were killed in the same plane. Henry de Ponton commanded the F211 squadron in the Somme. The 211 is highly specialized, being used exclusively to spot enemy batteries and take them out using large caliber batteries.
German Fokker crushed to the ground (c. 1917) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
Henry de Ponton and Georges Martinot completed numerous perilous missions together. On September 26, Henry de Ponton d’Amecourt set off on another one with Martinot. They went deep into German-occupied territory and pinpointed a number of batteries. However, they were attacked by several German planes. The fighting was brief and their plane crashed to the east of Rancourt (Somme), a few hundred meters from the French front line.
Three former students die in the same village on the same day
Augustin Emile Clerc (1898 intake), Pierre Henri Collier (1898 intake), André Marie Houette (1912 intake) died for France in the same village on April 22, 1915. The three alumni lost their lives in Ypres (Boezinge, specifically) on the same day, April 22, 1915 (April 23 in the case of Houette). They were victims of the first gas attack in history.
Artillery caisson having exploded behind the Bois Noir (Alsace) (1917-08-16) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
The first gas attack in history
"On April 22, 1915 the troops of the 45th division and 87th territorial division were poisoned by the first gas cloud. Since then, victims of these abominable practices of war continue to die each day in noncombat situations."
Houette, who was responsible for the telephone service, did not want to leave his post and likely died from asphyxiation. He was reported as "deceased—killed by the enemy." Clerc: "Presumed killed." Collier: "Presumed deceased."
Bust of Jean Nony at the Ecole Polytechnique museum. Student of the class of 1914 he was killed in Verdun in 1916.
Machine gun nest on the French side of the front line (c. 1915) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
Killed in a church bombing
Abel Marie Fournier (1874 intake) was a sailor killed not at sea, but on land. The frigate commander died for France on March 29, 1918, while on a land-based mission in Paris. The cause of death was a long-range bombing. During their final offensive of the Great War, the Germans bombed Paris using three giant cannons stationed in Saint-Gobain Forest, 90 miles to the north of the capital. Nicknamed the Pariser Kanonen, they weighed 750 tonnes and were 112 to 116 feet (34 to 36 meters) long. The shells weighed more than 275 pounds (125 kg) and were used with 330 to 440 pounds (150 to 200 kg) of powder, depending on the distance of the target. One of these cannons fired a shell blind on March 29, 1918. It hit Saint-Gervais church during the Good Friday evening prayer service, causing the deaths of 91 people, including 52 women. The event had a ripple effect as far away as the US. Between March 23 and August 9, 1918, a total of 183 projectiles killed 256 people and injured another 620 in Paris.
Panorama of the village of Ville-en-Woëvre (Meuse) taken from the top of the church, towards Braquis (1915-07-01) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
Killed at the factory
Hubert Ernest Thouvenin (1874 intake), the director of a production facility making poisonous shells in Aubervilliers, died for France on June 27, 1917. He died in hospital in Paris on June 27, 1917, from the consequences of an illness brought about in the course of his work (due to gas). He was assigned to the facilities that were dedicated to this dangerous work in July 1915. Three specialists, Colonel Thouvenin, assisted by Captain Schmidt and Lieutenant Pargond, were given responsibility for setting up the facilities: one at the fort in Aubervilliers for making poisonous shells and one at the fort in Vincennes for incendiary and tear-gas shells.
Preparing a mortar shot in a trench by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
A French politician dies in a German ambulance
Pierre-Leroy Beaulieu (1890 intake), a member of the French National Assembly died for France on January 13, 1915. As well as being a professor at the École des Sciences Politiques (from 1899) and the author of several books on political and economic issues, he was also a vineyard owner. On May 6, 1906, he was elected to represent Hérault at the National Assembly, winning outright in the first round, and was subsequently re-elected on May 8, 1910. Serving as an Artillery Captain during World War I, he suffered a head injury on January 13, 1915, during fighting in northern Soissons and died on January 17 in a German ambulance.
French soldier preparing to throw a grenade from a trench. (c. 1915) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
Two brothers killed in the Somme in 1916
Jean Noir (1901 intake; 1880-1916) and Philippe Octave Noir (1902 intake) were sons of Octave Marie Léon Noir (1872 intake; 1851-1925). Jean Noir, Artillery Captain in a colonial regiment, was killed on June 29, 1916, in Cappy (Somme).
Philippe Octave Noir, adjutant to a commander of infantry, was killed on October 6, 1916, to the east of Morval (Somme). In peacetime, he was a priest and theology teacher at a small seminary.
On the front in a trench of La Fosse Froide in Champagne, General Chrétien, Swiss colonel Loriol, colonel Torquat (1917-08-27) by Louis Alphée RenaudÉcole Polytechnique
Shot for being in disguise
Erich Beutom (1895 intake): died for France on January 7, 1915. After being transferred at his request to a newly created armored car section (December 15, 1914) he showed great courage in the reconnaissance missions he undertook. While trapped in Douai with Théry—attorney at Douai Court of Appeals and city councillor—they sought refuge in Hénin-Beaumont, where they tried to hide by disguising themselves as women, in the aim of making it back across the French front line. However, they were arrested by a sentry and sentenced to death on January 6, 1915—the Germans initially described them as spies, and then as soldiers disguised as civilians. The sentence was carried out on January 7.
Postcard depicting German prisoners on the French side of the front. (c. 1915) by R. GUILLEMINOTÉcole Polytechnique
Torpedoed by a submarine
Séraphin Pierre Marcel Gloriaud (1910 intake), a marine engineer, died for France on June 19, 1917, off the coast of Tunisia. On June 19, 1917, the submarine Ariane had surfaced just north of Cape Bon (the northeastern tip of Tunisia) when it was hit by two torpedoes launched by the submarine UC-27. Only nine of the crew survived the attack. “Séraphin Pierre Marcel Gloriaud, second marine engineer. Having boarded the Ariane to perform testing, he did not hesitate to stay on board voluntarily when the submarine was summoned to engage in an operation of war.”
Killed by a marine shell
On October 1, 1912, Albert Arthur Bijot (class of 1892) took command of the torpedo boat Bélier, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Light Squadron. In March 1917, he took command of the torpedo boat Bouclier. On May 20, 1917, he was killed by a shell that hit the wheelhouse during an engagement with German destroyers off the coast of Dunkirk, between Nieuwpoort and Zuydcoote.
French and German wooden crosses in a cemetery in the countryside during the First World War. (1915) by Narcisse Alfred Gabriel Louis ChauvineauÉcole Polytechnique
A heavy toll for the École Polytechnique
Some school years were hit particularly hard, notably those that graduated in 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, and 1913, which lost more than 20% of their numbers.
More than 100 years after the end of the war, today's Europeans continue to remember this traumatic period and wish more than ever to remain at peace. In the present day, the École Polytechnique prepares engineers, scientists, and senior officials for careers primarily in the civilian sector. About 5% of them choose a military career, either as engineers or officers.
Historical Resources Center/Mus'X