Departure of the soldiers, August 1914

This large mural in the entrance hall of the Gare de l’Est (East Station) in Paris shows soldiers in August 1914 saying goodbye to their families and boarding a train to go into battle at the beginning of the First World War.

The mural was painted in 1926 by an American artist named Albert Herter (1871–1950) as a gift to the French people. The young man wearing a white shirt in the center of the mural, with his arms outstretched, is the artist’s son, who was killed in combat near Château-Thierry shortly before the end of the war.

Location of the mural in the Gare de l’Est entrance hall

The name of this mural in French is Le Départ des Poilus, Août 1914, which sounds a bit strange to us 21st century folks because the word poilu literally means ‘hairy’, and none of the young men in the mural look particularly hairy. But it turns out that the word poilu was used informally in the First World War for a French infantryman, since many of them grew beards or moustaches during the war — either as a sign of masculinity or simply because shaving was impractical in the trenches.

(Another informal word for soldier in French was grognard, meaning ‘grumbler’, sort of like the American marines and infantry soldiers being called grunts in the Vietnam war.)

Commemorative plaques for World War Two victims

Also in the Gare de l’Est (just walk under the mural and turn right) are these commemorative plaques for victims of the Second World War, including Jews who were sent by train to the Nazi death camps in Germany and Poland.

My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2013. I revised the text in 2023.

See also: The Battle of the Somme.

6 thoughts on “Departure of the soldiers, August 1914”

  1. Another American son is remembered in a personal yet subtle manner - see the American son remembered by his mother in the form of a sculpture inside the ABMC cemetery.

  2. This is really interesting! I wasn’t aware at all of this painting although I did research on WWI and must have passed it many times in Gare de l’Est. I will pay attention to it at our next visit in Paris!

    1. Hi Alina, yes, have a look next week. The painting is not meant to be historically accurate, since families were not allowed on the platforms when the recruits departed in 1914. Also, the painter’s son was in the American Expeditionary Force, which didn’t arrive until 1917.

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