A visit to Les Invalides, Paris

On our most recent trip to Paris, my beloved noted there was an exhibition exploring Napoleon’s Strategy at Les Invalides and expressed a desire to go and see it. I’d visited years ago but my beloved had never been. It’s well worth a visit, whether or not you’re a history buff. We started at the top of the main building and worked our way through some but not all of the exhibitions, so, we’ve unfinished business.

Introduction

Le Musée de L’Armée was created in 1905 when the collections from the Artillery and Army’s History museums merged to create one of the largest museums of military art and history. It contains some of the world’s most prestigious collections, including those of old weapons and armour, plus some unique collections such as those of small artillery models and 19th-century items relating to Napoleon I and the marshals of the French Empire. Obviously, the collection’s location within a military monument such the Hôtel National des Invalides lends it even greater character. There are few military museums that offer such a large collection of works and cover such a wide range of historical eras.

Its seven main spaces are divided into themed or chronological departments, as follows:-

  • Main Courtyard and its artillery collection.
  • Old department: armour and weapons from the 13 – 17th centuries.
  • Modern department: Louis XIV to Napoleon III, 1643 – 1870.
  • Special Rooms, such as those containing the relief maps and toy soldiers.
  • Dôme des Invalides: tomb of Napoleon I.
  • Contemporary department: 1871 – 1945.
  • Charles de Gaulle Monument.
  • Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides.

Special Rooms

Scale Models

On the top floor, in fact in the attic, you’ll find scale models of fortified sites which were constructed from 1668 onwards on the initiative of Louvois, Louis XIV’s Minister of War. These strategic tools provided an accurate representation of towns and surrounding countryside within artillery range. They were thus used to plan changes to military fortifications or to simulate sieges. I can just see the King’s ministers moving around the model armies found on a lower floor.

The collection comprises 100 relief maps on a 1/600 scale, covering key fortifications overlooking the Channel, Atlantic Coast, Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. It’s a fascinating collection and they’re all beautifully made and maintained.

Historical Figurines

The 5000 or so pieces on display represents all the different types of historical figurines, and the diversity of the Army Museum’s collection, which is made up of around 140,000 pieces in total. The displays, arranged in parade formations, comprise:

  • 18th century card figurines made by and for adults using stiff cardboard
  • Tinplate figurines produced during the second half of the 19th century
  • Lead figurines produced as children’s toys
  • 20th century plastic soldiers

 Artillery models

The one thousand piece collection of scale artillery models is one of the largest in the world. The exhibition starts with royal and princely pieces and continues with models bearing private coats of arms which, for the most part, were given as honorific gifts. It also features models of weaponry designs that were never actually adopted but were developed with a view to improving the specific technical elements of artillery pieces.  Some of the models are all that remain of artillery pieces that have otherwise disappeared. There’s also a display of scale models of 18th and 19th century French artillery.

The Modern Collection

The collection aims to bring history to life by showing the military, political, social and industrial history of France through the ages in a number of themed spaces. Using interactive media – my favourite bit – relive the great battles, learn about soldiers’ lives, follow developments in technologies and tactics, and get to know the figures who shaped this period.

The collection is both large and diverse with uniforms, weapons, equipment from various French and foreign regiments, arms, horse harnesses, orders and decorations, emblems, historical figurines and musical instruments are displayed alongside the personal effects of illustrious figures, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and his marshals. Plus, there’s a large collection of paintings recording key events during the period.

Temporary Exhibition – Napoleon: The Strategist

The exhibition celebrates Napoleon’s skill as a military strategist. There’s more than 200 works from French and European collections which are used to paint a fascinating picture of his meteoric rise from humble soldier. Again, I particularly liked the immersive interactive aspects where you could analyse and recreate his most famous battles.

Over the lunch-period there was a re-enactment, I’m not sure of what, in the Cour d’Honneur which included a band where inability to play a musical instrument clearly didn’t prevent you from joining in!

Footnote

We popped into the Cathedral and tried out the catering facilities, provided by Angelina’s, of hot chocolate fame, where they made me a delicious vegan sandwich. We only spent half a day there and it merits at least a day, if not more. But, if you’re a history buff, it’s well worth it!

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