Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hotel Des Invalides

The Hotel Les Invalides, in addition to containing the remains of Napoleon also houses France's national war museum. Containing displays of material relating to all the major conflicts that France has been involved with since the Franco-Prussian wars, especially the twin horrors of the Western Front in the Great War and Nazi occupation in WWII.

As well as the usual array of military paraphernalia there were many old grainy photographs of the decimated French countryside around Flanders, Ypres, and The Somme, battle, tactics and casualty reports. The war museum is arranged chronologically, each room representing a year, allowing the visitor to gain an appreciation for the development of the conflict. The fact that the British Army had thrown everything at the Germans at the Somme I knew - what I had failed to understand was the stage the war was at when this happened, the pressures the Generals were under and the strategic significance of that fateful slice of French mud, upon which so much blood was spilled.

The walk-through of the WWII exhibition (again year-by -year) was disturbing in a quite different way. Much of that exhibition featured photos and archives about German occupation, both of the occupied zone and Petain's Vichy puppet state. Chillingly, there were many pictures of Hitler, Goering and other sinister figures smiling while visiting the Paris landmarks we had spent the previous two days enjoying. While I like some of the black and white photos of the city, and the Eiffel Tower (below), they do strangely also invoke some dark memories etched into this city's past.

Another interesting aspect of the museum was that (naturally) the history was told from a French perspective. Whilst our histories often dismiss the French capitulation with a derisory shrug, and eulogise the Dunkirk escape; the French do the opposite! In this museum, the French rear-guard action which allowed the British to flee safely is celebrated, and the huge loss of life incurred remembered. The sufferings of the French under occupation are also marked (from reprisals for Resistance action to punitive taxation).

Finally, what the French do so much better than us is to make their museums and galleries multi-lingual; accessible to all. This is one of Paris' cheaper attractions, and well worth visiting. Purchasing anything in the Euro-zone at the moment is an uphill climb against the exchange rate, so to get this much benefit without punching a huge hole in the holiday budget makes it a top-visit when in Paris.

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