One of the most fascinating museums in Paris is one that probably turns off a lot of people just from its name—the Musee de l’Armee (Army Museum). And I totally understand that as I’m not all that interested in any nation’s military or in violent conflicts.
But France has such a long history—including centuries as the dominant power of Europe—and the French military has played a significant role in the building of the nation through the ages (and it’s downfall at certain times, including Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo that ended his rule). And because much of both World Wars were fought on French soil, visiting the Musee de l’Armee is as much a lesson in world history as it is a glimpse at the weapons, soldiers and warfare of the past half century.
(Even for those who like to joke—rudely and incorrectly—about today’s France being a nation of “surrender monkeys,” as claimed in an episode of “The Simpsons,” there’s no denying that the nation’s military past is impressive and intriguing.)
The museum itself is located in the massive Invalides complex in the 7th Arrondissement—which, in addition to the Musee de l’Armee, includes a military hospital, retirement home for veterans, two other museums, the burial sites of several French war heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb, and the gilded Dome Church.
The Musee de l’Armee was created in 1950 when several smaller military museums were merged into a single repository on the site of the former Musee de l’Artillerie. Today, the museum includes 500,000 pieces that span many centuries, exhibited in seven halls that cover nearly 130,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The most popular exhibits are those relating to World War I and World War II, including many Nazi artifacts left in Paris when the Allies liberated the city from the German invaders in August 1944. But the museum actually includes 24 artifacts that are deemed national treasures by French historians. These items include, in chronological order:
- Pig-faced basinet (1350-1380). This was a helmet design that was used for soldiers throughout Europe. The French call it the bec de passereau (sparrow’s beak) basinet, the Germans call it a hundsgugel (dog-faced basinet) while the English dubbed it the pig-faced basinet.
- Lion’s Armor (circa 1500). This elaborate parade armor (since it is missing face and leg guards, it is not believed to have been made for use on the battle field) is believed to have been created for King Francis I. Until being moved to the Musee de l’Armee, it was exhibited in the Chateau de Chantilly.
Armor of the Dauphin (1519-1550). This battlefield armor was created for the dauphin (the title given to the heir to the throne of France) of King Henry I, who later ruled France as Henry II. It is decorated with the symbol of the dauphin—the dolphin—and made of blackened iron and inlaid silver.
- Cannon depicting the Duke of Wurttemberg (late 16th/early 17th century). Although this cannon is rumored to have been created to celebrate the wedding of Frederick I, the Duke of Wurttemberg, historians say it actually was crafted to symbolize Frederick’s quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone,” which could allow him to make gold to pay off massive debts he accrued.
- Double Flintlock and Matchlock Gun (1636). This gun created for the personal soldiers of King Louis XIII and was one of the first guns in the world to have a flintlock mechanism for firing.
- Small artillery model (1676). This model was given to King Louis XIV by the parliament of Franche-Comte (a region near the Swiss border that was controlled by Spain but ceded to France in 1678). The model was crafted by Laurent Ballard.
- Battle of Cassel (1679-1680). These paintings celebrate the heroic feats of soldiers during the Battle of Cassel on April 11, 1677. They were displayed in the Hotel des Invalides to inspire the disabled veterans living in the facility.
Partisan of the Gardes de la Manche (1679). This partisan was given to the king’s guards (gardes de la manche) on the occasion of the marriage of Charles II of Spain and the niece of King Louis XIV at Fontainebleau.
- Apotheosis of Saint Louis (1702-1705). This ceiling fresco design by Charles de la Fosse symbolized the connection between the military might of France’s royal family and God.
- Grand ceremonial costume of Marshal Lannes (1804-1809). This costume is typical of the ceremonial uniforms required to be worn by high-ranking military officials at important state ceremonies.
- Pistols and accessories owned by Napoleon I (1805). These pistols, designed by Nicolas Noel-Boutet, were given as a diplomatic gift to Napoleon I. It was customary in Europe at them to give knives and firearms to heads of state as gifts.
- Napoleon I on the Throne (1806). Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this portrait of the emperor wearing the ceremonial attire that was worn at his coronation in 1804.
- Necklace of the Grand Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor (1807). Napoleon I created the Order of the Legion of Honor in 1802 to reward civil and military service to the nation. This necklace, decorated with traditional Legion of Honor symbols (including bees, eagles and oak leaves), was owned by Napoleon. It consists of 16 medallions representing the disciplines of the Order.
- Ottoman cannon captured in combat (1828-1833). This bronze cannon was captured by French forces during a campaign by France, the United Kingdom and Russia to force the Ottoman Empire to recognize the independence of Greece. The cannon bears the monogram of Ottoman leader Sultan Mahmoud II.
- Panorama of Sevastopol (1854-1856). One of the first photographs ever taken of a battle field, this panoramic image captured by Leon Mehedin shows the capture of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, which pitted the French, British and Ottoman militaries against the Russians. All of the structures shown in the photograph were destroyed during the siege of the city.
- Officer of the 23rd Dragoons on horseback. This plaster statue by artist Pierre Tourgueneff represents the uniforms worn by the officers of the 32rd Dragoon regiment of the French army. The piece was owned by Ernest Meissonier, who was a driving force behind the founding of France’s first army museum, which opened in 1896.
- Taxi of the Marne (1905). This Renault taxi cab, manufactured in 1905, took part in World War I by transporting French soldiers to Ourcq along France’s Marne River. The battle here enabled the French and English to foil a German plan to quickly take France.
- Scale model of a World War I trench (1915). This model of a frontline trench was made by a French officer while held by the Germans as a prisoner of war.
- War painting of Verdun (1917). This interpretive painting by Felix Vallotton depicts the destruction of Verdun, France, during World War I. The Battle of Verdun was the most deadly battle of the war, resulting in 280,000 German deaths and 315,000 French deaths.
- 1918 model 75 mm cannon. This piece of artillery was the main weapon of French artillery units during World War I.
- Armistice bugle (1918). This bugle was used to signal a ceasefire as German officials approached France’s 171st infantry regiment to negotiate surrender terms at the end of World War I. The inscription reads “Bugle call of victory/La Capelle/7 November 1918-21:00/Pierre Sellier Corporal in the 171st infantry regiment.”
German Enigma code machine. This machine was used in France by occupying German forces to send and received coded messages during World War II. The Enigma code was allegedly so sophisticated that it could never be broken, but actually was deciphered by Polish cryptologists before the German invasion of Poland (at which point a more sophisticated code/machine was introduced) and later by a British team lead by mathematician and logician Alan Turing.
- World War II standard of the 2nd Regiment of Dragoons. This standard signifies one of the oldest regiments of the French army, created in 1635. This particular flag was the property of Robert de Neucheze, who commanded a cavalry corps in 1940 and later French forces in Algeria and an anti-tank regiment in France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.
- AXBT Ribbon microphone used by the British Broadcasting Corporation during World War II (1944). General Charles de Gaulle used a microphone of this type to communicate with French free forces and the French resistance after escaping to England following the German occupation of France.
The Musee de l’Armee is open daily. From April 1 to October 31, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; from November 1 to March 31, it is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. However, on the first Monday of each month from January-June and October-December, only the Dome Church, Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides and the “artillery trail” are open to the public—the museum is closed. (The entire facility remains open on the first Mondays of summer months.)
Entrance to the museum is accessible through either 129 Rue de Grenelle or 6 Boulevard des Invalides (Metro: Varenne). A third entry point on Place Vauban is now closed due to heightened terror alerts in Paris.