Sunday, April 6, 2014

La Grande Guerre

The town of Meaux lies just 41 kilometers northeast of Paris, on the River Marne. Inside the old defensive walls you will find a beautiful cathedral, winding streets, and a nice collection of shops and cafes.  Today it is famous for its Brie de Meaux cheese and its mustard, but in 1914 and 1918 it was a pivotal site in what the French call "La Grande Guerre". The two Battles of the Marne were separated by practically the entire length of the war, and both times halted the German advance on Paris.

Just a few kilometers outside Meaux, on a hill overlooking the pastoral green fields and the river, a seven-storey high monument pays tribute to those who lost their lives here. Sculpted by Frederick MacMonnies, it was erected here in 1932 as a gift from America.

It's not surprising, then, that this is the site that was selected for an extraordinary museum that opened on 11 November 2011: Le Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux. Designed by architect Christophe Lab, it is set against the hill, jutting out almost like some elongated bunker watching over the city below. Matthew's been reading a lot about WWI lately, so we decided to spend a day checking it out.

Trains run all the time to Meaux from the Gare de l'Est, surely Paris' most beautiful train station. One reason I love it so much is that as you enter, you can look up and see this vast painting, almost a mural, by American artist Albert Herter. Titled "le Départ des Poilus" (The Departure of the Soldiers), it shows a troop train with eager young soldiers heading to the eastern  front. Among them, in the center with flowers stuck in the end of his rifle, is Herter's own son, who died just days before the Armistice was signed in 1918.

At the heart of the museum, and really its inspiration, is a remarkable man, Jean-Pierre Verney, a French photographer. He's in his late sixties now, but as a small child in the 1950s, he would visit his grandparents (his grandmother was German), who lived along what was part of the Eastern Front at Supir, known as the Chemin des Dames. Here, he would tag along with the old veterans who came to retrace their WWI experiences, he listened to their stories, and he became obsessed by this war. And then he began collecting, small items at first, then more and more -- uniforms, documents, paintings, weapons -- until today it totals more than 50,000 objects, a huge number of which are in the museum. Verney wanted the collection, as he put it, " express the emotions, lassitude, anger, pride, separation, and many of the event’s many well- or little-known aspects”.

 As a way to set the scene for the visitor, we sat first in a small screening room, where a time-travel sequence of movie images and stills took us back and back and back, through historical highlights like the moon landings, all the way to 1871, where the seeds of the Great War were planted.

This was, of course, the Franco-Prussian War, when France lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, and immediately began plotting how to get it back.

In a series of small, intimate display cases in little galleries, we learned how French school children, after this war, were taught about patriotism and performed weapons drills, eventually developing recruits for a permanent army, which perhaps would take its revenge on the Germans.

Of course, as this wonderful photograph shows, most of the key players in the looming disaster were all related to each other -- they were either born to, or married with, the children of Queen Victoria. Cousins vs cousins vs cousins!

These early, small galleries do a nice job of leading you through the events that led up to the War -- the Triple Entente of Russia, France and England you see here, lining up against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy.

Until, with the fateful events in Sarajevo, and carried away by national fervor on all sides, the inevitable chain of events unfolded, and, as this English cartoon depicted, led to the unleashing of the "dogs of war."

At this point you leave those smaller galleries, and find yourself, literally, walking alongside soldiers of all the nations as they marched out and into battle.

As we emerged we were astonished to be in an immense space, maybe the size of two aircraft hangars, filled with weapons, vehicles, airplanes, and, of course, trenches. It really took your breath away.

There was a full-sized French trench...

...and a full-sized German trench...

...and in between what the French call "le no man's land".

You could take a peek at the inside of the radio communication quarters inside the trench.

In a side gallery were displays of some of the equipment the soldiers would have needed in the trenches -- barbed wire and cutters... well as many of the personal items the soldiers would have had with them, like these cameras and photos in frames...

...these German pipes and tobacco...

...musical instruments the men made out of scrap wood...

...and my favorite, these canes, carved out of whatever material was lying around, some of them really ornate!

Moving back out into the central gallery, we were caught by surprise and amazement by this "pigeonnier" -- a mobile pigeon roost, one of many that travelled around the battlefields with their cargoes of carrier pigeons, still at this time the best and most reliable way of sending messages. Apparently, there were 300,000 birds used during 1918 alone!

Other large vehicles and equipment included this mobile kitchen...

...a 120mm French Bange Canon... FT 17 Renault tank, heaving itself up through the floor, as though it were clambering up and over trenches...

...and this splendid French Spad XIII biplane, by 1917 part of a growing fleet of aircraft that were changing the face of the War.

Another series of galleries showed the role women played, from working in munitions factories... offering their nursing skills all along the front...

...and following some serious advertising for the various nurses uniforms that were available!

Speaking of uniforms, there are over 200 complete uniforms in Verney's collection from 35 different nations!  Here are just a few...

...a Scottish soldier in his "camouflage" kilt, with maybe just a hint of his clan tartan on the rib of his stockings...

...naval uniforms worn during the brutal battles at sea...

...special layers of fleece for French soldiers during the bitter winters in the trenches...

...and this smart uniform worn by fighters who came from Senegal. Soldiers came pouring into Europe from all the colonies to support "their side". The Senegalese were reputed to be among the fiercest and bravest.

Verney has also collected many works of art that bring the drama and destruction of the war to life. The Belgian artist Dermonde here illustrates a zeppelin bombarding the town of Anvers in August 1914.

Here, artist R. Mayer depicts vividly France entering Alsace (at last!) in 1915, the German insignia post toppling to the ground.

And this bleak look at the lonely look-outs in the trenches, by the French painter Pierre Petit-Gérard. One hopes they have their extra fleece on under their greatcoats!

 Posters played their part in recruiting. This is an English version of the "Uncle Sam Needs You" poster that made its appearance in 1917.

Posters also helped boost support from people at home. This poster particularly caught our eye because we have an original one hanging in our living room in Inverness!
At the far bottom end of the central gallery a large contingent of soldiers signals the arrival of the American doughboys into the conflict in April 1917. Less than six months later, more than 116,500 of them had died.

The cannons finally fell silent on 11 November 1918, known in Europe as Armistice Day, and honored in the United Kingdom every year since with a two minute moment of silence at 11 am. In all, 75 million fought in the Great War, over 9 million died and more than 21 million were wounded. In just about every town in France there is a War Memorial to those who died. On All Soul's Day, the names are read aloud and those present murmur "mort pour la patrie".

This new museum doesn't go into any specific battles, it gives you the numbers, but it doesn't overtly talk of sacrifice or bravery. What so impressed us was how it overwhelms and infuses you with the atmosphere of the War and its time. For me, there was one alcove, in particular, showing a video of trench warfare in Flanders that ended with this soft-focus shot of a field of poppies that made me think of the Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae's 1915 poem, written in memory of a friend who died at Ypres.  Here's the first verse:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below."

À bientôt!

 (and apologies for the long post -- it was a truly memorable day!)


  1. Thanks for the great post Janet - I think I'll take my nephew to check it out!

  2. Wow! The dioramas of the trenches are especially amazing.

  3. You made me feel as if I was there with you, thank you! Susan

  4. What a remarkable experience—very profound. Jean-Pierre Verney has done an enormous service with his collecting. The lifesize trenches sound particularly evocative. Gregory recommends the book The War That Ended Peace (can't recall author, famous historian). He sends his best regards. hugs, Lyons

  5. That was amazing thank you x