Charles de Gaulle and the E.S.M.

After the death of Madame de Maintenon, her school continued to operate for 74 more years before finally being closed during the French Revolution in March 1793.

The school building was then used as a military hospital for several years. In 1808, Napoléon chose this building as the site of his École spéciale impériale militaire (Special Imperial Military School), which he had founded six years earlier in Fontainebleau. After the downfall of Napoléon the word impériale was deleted, and since then it has been known as the E.S.M., the École spéciale militaire. It was (and still is, at a different location) the leading French training institution for army officers, comparable to Sandhurst in the United Kingdom or West Point in the United States.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was a student at the E.S.M. in Saint-Cyr from 1909 to 1912. After his graduation he began service in the French army as a second lieutenant.

At the beginning of the Second World War, when the Germans occupied the northern half of France, the E.S.M. was moved to Aix-en-Provence, but it was dissolved by the Germans two years later when they occupied the south of France.

During the war the Germans used the school building in Saint-Cyr-l’École as a military headquarters, which led to heavy bombings by the allies. By the end of the war the school building was in ruins, along with the rest of the town. Since the old building was unusable, de Gaulle re-founded the E.S.M. at a different location.

The inscription on the monument, underneath the bust of Charles de Gaulle, reads:

Charles de Gaulle
1890 — 1970
Student, Professor and Re-founder
of the ESM of St. Cyr
Bicentenary of the Special Military School
Union for St. Cyr
8 May 2002

Books by General de Gaulle

I still haven’t read them (except for a few pages), but many years ago I bought the second and third volumes of Charles de Gaulle’s “Memoires of War” for 5.30 each from a bouquiniste at one of the many book stalls by the banks of the Seine in Paris. Of course that was 5.30 francs, which in today’s money would be all of 0.81 Euros. I suppose I couldn’t resist such a bargain, or I was looking for some lengthy reading material for my train ride back to Frankfurt, which in those days took nearly seven hours, as opposed to less than four hours today. Amazingly, I still have these books on my bookshelf and still have vague intentions of reading them, though the pages have turned quite brown over the years. Perhaps I will now feel more motivated after visiting de Gaulle’s old stomping grounds at Saint-Cyr-l’École. 

Military area, entry prohibited

The school building was re-built in the 1960s and is again a military area (“entry prohibited for unauthorized persons”) but now it is used as the Lycée militaire de Saint-Cyr, a secondary school run by the French Ministry of Defense.

In 1949 Jean Cocteau used the bombed-out ruins of the school building to shoot his film Orphée.

Location, aerial view and photo of the school building on


Abbey Notre-Dame-des-Anges

Gate of the Abbey Notre-Dame-des-Anges

Just a few minutes’ walk from the school building is this gate, which is all that remains of the abbey that was founded here in 1156. The abbey was dedicated to Saint Cyr, a Christian martyr killed by the Romans in the year 303.

Text on the Abbey Notre-Dame-des-Anges

This text panel on the wall by the old gate explains that the abbey was largely destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and the Wars of Religion (1562-1598). It was re-built in the 17th century and dedicated to Notre-Dame-des-Anges (Our Lady of the Angels), the patron saint of sailors. This might seem strange, since the nearest harbor is nearly 200 km away, but it turns out that in those days there were Venetian-style gondolas on the Grand Canal of the nearby Versailles Palace Gardens, and the gondoliers lived here in the abbey. 

Looking over the wall

Here’s a glance over the wall to see where the abbey used to be located. (Location, aerial view and photo on

Text by the gate of the former abbey

According to this text panel, the abbey was disbanded (like all other monastic orders) during the French Revolution, and the nuns were evicted in 1792. The buildings were then dismantled to be sold as construction material. In 1882 the department of Seine et Oise bought the property to use as a home for orphaned, retarded, neglected or abandoned children. In 1944 the property was badly damaged by allied bombardments, and not rebuilt until 1954. It is now used as a psychiatric center for children and adults.

My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.

See more posts on the town of Saint-Cyr-l’École.

5 thoughts on “Charles de Gaulle and the E.S.M.”

  1. Thank you Don. Very instructive! I knew the name Saint-Cyr-l’École but not its location. So much history… and Charles de Gaulle is rightly celebrated here.
    Season’s greetings!

  2. Fascinating . . . “E.S.M., the École spéciale militaire” because to me ESM is Eastman School of Music, my alma mater. Believe me I learned nothing about warfare at my ESM. On the other hand, the surrounding scenery was nowhere near as lovely.

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