For a very long time, in the West at least, much of the history we have been taught has been military history: the dates of wars, the names of kings and generals, the stories of battles fought over territory, people and values. In schools, books and museums, we learn that the most important events of the past are violent conflicts (although, of course, only certain violent conflicts) and the most important people are the ones who led them.
This is particularly true in France, which has seen five Republics, not to mention two Emperors and a pesky monarchy, in the last 2.5 centuries alone. But I’ve always been wary of military history, because so much of it focuses on people in power (usually wealthy men) and glosses over the experiences of the disenfranchised and the colonised.
For years I have found the gold-encrusted dome that looks out over the Rive Gauche one of the most beautiful sights on the Paris landscape. The dome of the Invalides, which is in fact Napoleon I’s tomb, is an architectural gem that I have written about before. But the museum attached to it, the Musée de l’Armée, had been sitting on my ‘to-visit’ list for almost ten years. I just never seemed to have the mental energy for it.
However, on a recent crisp winter’s morning, I was feeling particularly fortified. So I headed to the monumental building that stretches out from the dome towards the river, a stone’s throw from the Musée Rodin, to explore the enormous Musée de l’Armée.
A series of sombre stone corridors surrounding a large courtyard near the Ecole Militaire, Invalides was first commissioned by Louis XIV as a place for injured or retired soldiers to recuperate, and the building feels as though it’s always had a para-military purpose. The museum has occupied the site since 1903, with sections devoted to royal, medieval and oriental military histories, as well as later galleries on the World Wars, the Resistance and the Historial du Général de Gaulle. I found the older rooms the most intriguing, especially the Arsenal, a hall of hundreds upon hundreds of suits of armour, standing like a silent army in wait. There are canons, jousting equipment, 15th-century Japanese armour and cabinet after cabinet of weapons ranging from the rustic to the jewel-encrusted.
I wasn’t surprised, but I was still disappointed to see how much the museum’s 20th-century rooms focused on the Second World War, when France was occupied, and not at all on the wars of decolonisation in Indochina and Algeria, when France was occupier. And the Musée de l’Armée still tells a very top-down kind of history. But strolling past the many hundreds of swords, helmets, muskets and uniforms, all of which had been worn and held by actual individuals, I found myself thinking about how the history of war is nonetheless a history of humanity. Perhaps that’s why it’s such an intoxicating story to tell.