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Alfred Dreyfus and his family
An alsatian at the Ecole Polytechnique
A serious student
Alfred Dreyfus was an unhappy boarder at the Sainte-Barbe and Chaptal secondary schools, and he ended up studying for his high school diploma (which he received in 1876) at the home of his sister Henriette. However, he proved to be talented. Later in life, a linguist praised his "amazingly clear, precise and grammatically correct language," but his results in the hard sciences gave him the chance to try for the Ecole Polytechnique. In the intensive pre-admission preparatory classes held at Saint-Barbe, he encountered 197 Catholic students, 24 Protestants and 2 Orthodox students, all hoping to obtain admission either to Saint-Cyr, the Ecole Centrale or the Ecole Polytechnique. His minority status would later deter him from joining the alumni association of "Barbistes," whose ranks included Generals de Boisdeffre, Chanoine and Zurlinden.
Among the nine Jewish students, only Camille Léon, the son of the Receiver General, was preparing for the Saint-Cyr entrance exam. The eight others, including four from Alsace and one from Lorraine, all had their sights set on the Ecole Polytechnique (or "X," as it is commonly referred to). With an average score that rose from 12.74 to 14.6 (out of 20) in his first year, Alfred Dreyfus had every hope of succeeding.
A hard-working Polytechnician
In the fall of 1878, Dreyfus was admitted on his first attempt. He was in 182nd place among the 236 accepted to this school that had been founded in 1794, and which had been given military status in 1804. With the ambitious motto of "For the Country, the sciences, and glory," "X" trained scientists such as the mathematician Henri Poincaré (class of 1873), but its main output was members of the military. The army was the main employer of Polytechnique graduates, many of whom entered the artillery, a learned branch which accommodated only 11% of the 28,000 active officers. Graduating 128th in his class, Alfred Dreyfus then spent two years in the Ecole Polytechnique's graduate school, the École d'Application in Fontainebleau, as a second lieutenant artillery student. Once again, he improved his graduation ranking, coming out 32nd out of 95; although there was "nothing specific to point out," his record noted that he "could make a good officer."