Although the Army has changed radically over the past 175 years, 21st-century recruits would still recognise some elements of the first military training school of 1849. VBS Library Guisanplatz

The first federal military training school

Twice a year, around 8,000 to 10,000 young men and women begin their course of instruction at Rekrutenschule (RS), the Swiss Army’s military training school. The “RS” run by the Swiss Armed Forces is nearly as old as the federal state itself. The first Rekrutenschule was conducted in Winterthur on 4 September 1849.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Although there was no formally organised Swiss army prior to 1798, the desire for a collective form of territorial defence had always been one of the chief motives for the forging of the various alliances that led, over a period of 500 years, to the formation of the Swiss federal state. Until well into the 17th century, there was no centrally organised system of military training. Young men learned the art of warfare at competitions and weaponry tournaments, or from itinerant fencing masters. Archery and crossbow skills were practiced and showcased at traditional festivals or fairs featuring target shooting competitions. Those men who went into foreign service learned “on the job”, in the field. They came home with the experience and the skills they’d gained, forming the core of the troops in their home country and sharing their knowledge.
Shooting festival in Basel, ca. 1610.
Shooting festival in Basel, ca. 1610. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
As the use of gunpowder became an increasingly significant factor on the battlefield, the utilisation of the various weapons had to be coordinated. For the first time, there was now an artillery unit which could support the infantry and the cavalry. Ensuring that all participants on the field of battle could interact seamlessly required training and practice. These exercises were organised on a regional basis. In what was known as the Trüllerei, soldiers practiced the hand movements for their weapons and engaged in drills on the corresponding commands to enable them to master the handling of the weapons in formation.
Military exercise on the Platzspitz in Zurich, 1758.
Military exercise on the Platzspitz in Zurich, 1758. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Different from canton to canton

The system of regional organisation lasted well into the 19th century. This meant the training of military personnel in Switzerland was a matter for the cantons. So there was a wide array of different systems and philosophies – and the level of training varied accordingly. In a number of cantons, training sessions were held on the town squares on individual days; in others, such as the Canton of Lucerne, recruits were required to turn up for military training on 12 Sunday afternoons. From 1815 onwards, individual cantons introduced central military training schools for their recruits. The training lasted from one to five weeks. In 1820, for the first time in Swiss history troops from several different cantons were summoned to Wohlen, in the Canton of Aargau, for a joint training camp. An average of 3,000 soldiers were involved in these drills. During the day the soldiers practiced working with the interplay of the various weapons, and in the evenings they socialised and established friendships and a sense of camaraderie. In this way, men from all over the country got to know each other. Over time, the troops developed a feeling of shared identity that transcended cantonal borders.
The first federal training camp at Wohlen, in August 1820.
The first federal training camp at Wohlen, in August 1820. Swiss National Museum
The federal constitution of 1848 specified that the first purpose of the federal government was to assert the country’s autonomy and independence from the outside world. National defence thus became a key challenge of the fledgling federal state. Provisionally, the federal government supervised the military activities of the cantons and took over the training of the special forces and the higher-level cadres. Infantry training remained a matter for the cantons for another 30 years.
Instructors training infantry recruits, ca. 1830.
Instructors training infantry recruits, ca. 1830. VBS Library Guisanplatz

The first Swiss federal “RS”

The records documenting the decision to conduct a first trial of federal training schools for the cavalry in September and October 1849 have been preserved in the Federal Archives. According to these records, on 4 September 1849, a Tuesday, 64 young men were expected to march into a federal training school for recruits in Winterthur. In those days, the recruits didn’t have to worry about the weekend watch and going out, because the “RS” only lasted until the following Friday. The recruits were “supervised” by a staff of around 30 people, including several instructors, a fencing master and a veterinarian for the horses.
A dragoon with the vet in front of a riding school, ca. 1855.
A dragoon with the vet in front of a riding school, ca. 1855. VBS Library Guisanplatz
The three days were filled with theoretical learning and practical exercises, and included many elements that are still on the curriculum for recruits today and are an integral part of their everyday military life: naming the parts of the weapons, learning the laws relating to war, marching, disassembling their weapons, roll call and “Lilö” (Lichterlöschen, or lights out) or “Tagwacht” (wake up call). In the weeks that followed, two more cavalry training schools were held, in Bière (12-15 September 1849) and Aarau (17-20 October 1849). In each case, recruits from the relevant regions were brought in together. Unlike today, the travel distances for the recruits were considerably shorter.
Training camp on the place-of-arms in Bière, 1830.
Training camp on the place-of-arms in Bière, 1830. ETH Library
While the special forces received uniform training from 1850 onwards, for the infantry the federal government merely specified how long the basic training had to last and stipulated that a final regimental exercise had to take place to close off the training. However, not all cantons adhered even to these loose specifications, and so the level of infantry training varied accordingly. Finally, the military organisation of 1874 also transferred responsibility for training of the infantry to the federal government, with regional troops being formed as before – French-speaking Swiss therefore mostly remained under French-speaking Swiss and Eastern Swiss under Eastern Swiss. These cantonal troop organisations were not finally abolished until 2004, under the “Armee XXI” reform. The duration of military training schools has also changed considerably over the past 175 years. While the trial Rekrutenschule still lasted just a few days, in the 1850s recruits spent an average of seven weeks in the barracks. From the 1930s to the 1990s, the RS typically lasted 17 weeks, from 2004 to 2017 it was 21 weeks and today it is 18 weeks, with the number of refresher courses adjusted accordingly.
Recruits undergoing training in map-reading, around 1995.
Recruits undergoing training in map-reading, around 1995. VBS/DDPS

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts