After my glorious military career of one year, nine months and thirteen days as a draftee in the American Army (including fifty-one weeks in Vietnam), I am not exactly what you would call a military buff. In fact I never thought I would voluntarily set foot in an army museum, and probably won’t again, but I must admit that the Army Museum in the Invalides in Paris is well worth seeing, especially since it has recently been redesigned and modernized.
The Invalides, as the name implies, is a building that was originally built as a home for disabled army veterans, and part of one wing of the building is still used for this purpose. But the rest is devoted to Napoléon’s tomb and — especially — the Army Museum.
The museum consists of several departments in various wings of this huge building. One of the largest is the “modern” department, covering the years from 1643 to 1870 under the title “From Louis XIV to Napoleon III”.
The museography here is superb. Most exhibits are shown under subdued light. Everything is clearly labeled and nicely organized. There are text panels in French and English, and the texts are much more balanced and objective that I would have expected from an army museum.
My only slight quibble is that the items on display are not of any great interest to an unreconstructed civilian like me. There are thousands of swords, for instance. It seems that every kind of officer in every epoch of French history had a special kind of sword, and they are all on display here.
The same goes for rifles, though in the case of rifles I doubt if there are more than eight or nine hundred different types in the museum, since rifles do not have such a long history as swords do.
Then there are the generals. All armies have generals, and before the invention of photography all generals liked to get dressed up in their fanciest uniforms and have their portraits painted. As a random example, here is a portrait of the (no doubt illustrious) general Bernard-Georges-François Frère (1764-1828), as portrayed for posterity by a painter named Nicolas Gosse in 1808.
Another big department of the Army Museum is entitled “The Two World Wars”, but it actually starts in 1871 with the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian war. Several large paintings show soldiers dying in agony on the battlefields in that war. A text panel explains that this sort of painting was popular among French civilians but not in military circles.
The agony resumed in the First World War, shown for example in this exhibit of the overcoat of a French officer who died in the trenches. A century later, the mud of the trenches is still on his coat.
The army started using bicycles and automobiles more or less simultaneously in the early twentieth century, though it took a long time before they completely replaced the traditional horses. The Clément company manufactured both bicycles and automobiles for the army, as shown in this advertisement.
A portrayal of this period of history would not be complete without reference to the French colonies, which still existed in many parts of the world. There is even an exhibit on the infamous (but at the time very popular) Colonial Exhibition of 1931. The Palais de la Porte Dorée, which now houses the Museum of the History of Immigration, was built especially for the Colonial Exposition.
There are also detailed exhibits on the Second World War, including the German occupation of France and Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower.
This large photo shows what was left of a French railroad yard after the bombings of the Second World War.
Location, aerial view and photos of Les Invalides in monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Musée des plans-reliefs in the Invalides.