Paris is one of the main gateways for many long distance visitors to the Western Front. The city has several sites of Great War interest which are worth a visit if you are in town.
In 1914 and 1918 Paris was not far from the front during the Marne battles. It was also subject to air raids and in the spring of 1918 shelling by the so-called "Big Berthas". At all times it was a major hub of activity, with various headquarters, base hospitals etc. being stationed in the city.
The following description consists of what I have discovered to date on numerous trips into town. It is far from definitive and I would be keen to hear of other sites. I had not previously known about many of them, and only came across them by accident when driving around. I recommend using the Metro or buses instead: a street plan will show which Metro stops to use. Like many popular tourist guides, I will describe the sites by the quarter or "arrondissement" in which they are found.
The 5th Arrondissement
The most famous tourist landmark of the 5th Arrondissement is the Pantheon, a massive late 18th century church that reminds me of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. Its function since 1791 has been as a necropolis for "the ashes of the great men of the era of French liberty". Above the main entrance is written: "Aux Grands Hommes, La Patrie Reconnaissante". Only the French Government can take the decision to honour someone by interring them at the Pantheon, and this can happen years or decades after they died.
|The tombs of the "Grands Hommes"are in the crypt. Two are of interest
to Great War enthusiasts. One is that of Paul Painleve (1863 - 1933),
a politician and accomplished mathematician, who was appointed Minister of
War in March 1917. From September to November 1917 he served as President
du Conseil - sort of a Prime Minister or Chief Executive to the President
of the Republic. He was interred here on 4 November 1933.
The other is that of the Deputy Jean Jaures (1859 - 1914). He was a politician who saw socialism as the only means of preventing war and oppression, and who opposed the centralisation of power in the apparatus of the state, the army and the legal system. He was a powerful and popular orator, and a major supporter of causes such as the miners of Carmaux and the defence of Captain Dreyfus. In 1904 he became the first political director of the newspaper "l'Humanité", and in 1905 he participated in the creation of the SFIO (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière).
Shortly before 1914, Jaures was instrumental in convening a European Socialist Congress to oppose the drift towards war. He was assassinated by a pro-war faction whilst sitting in the Café du Croissant, rue Monmartre, on 31 July 1914. The decision to begin the General Mobilisation was taken by the French Government the next day. In 1919 his assassin was, I believe, acquitted of his murder, and this decision made 100,000 protesters take to the streets of Paris. Soon after the socialists came to power, Jaures' remains were conveyed to the Pantheon by a cortege of 70 miners on 23 November 1924.
Within the main space of the building itself are several other memorials related to the Great War. There is a tastefully understated Monument aux Morts Innconnus, another work by the sculptor Paul Landowski.
At the far end of the nave, and surrounding two doorways, is a Memorial to the writers who died in the Great War. This lists approximately 250 writers who died on the battlefield or whilst serving "under the flag of France". I recognised many of the names. Alain-Fournier, Appolinaire and Charles Peguy are probably the best known for their writing and poetry. There were others whose names I recognised from visits to the battlefields but had not realised were writers: J. van Vollenhoeven, G. de Gironde and E. Driant. The latter was the Deputy, Lt-Colonel Emile Driant, who was killed at the Bois des Caures, Verdun on 22 February 1916, and who had written about 20 novels in the same vein as Jules Verne. Foreigners who had served under the French flag are also honoured. I noted the Foreign Legionnaires Alan Seeger and H. Farnsworth, and the Lafayette Squadron pilots V.E. Chapman, E. Genet, G.R. Lufbery and K.Y. Rockwell.
The final memorial that I had come to see was that to a 22 year old fighter pilot of the Great War. This was the inscription to Captain Georges Guynemer who is almost certainly the youngest person individually commemorated in the Pantheon. I was surprised to find that of all the millions of men who fought for France, Guynemer is the only one commemorated here solely for his achievements as a warrior. Guynemer's body was not found since his original grave was destroyed by shellfire. However, I once saw, in a biography of the pilot, a photograph of President Poincare "admitting his spirit into the Pantheon". The inscription says (and I am going from memory here) that he "was the greatest example of the fighting spirit of the French armed forces". I think it is appropriate that Guynemer and the "morts innconnus" have been honoured in the Pantheon instead of the legions of generals and professional soldiers.
Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.
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