Musée de la Grande Guerre

The War that Demolished a Civilization

April 7, 2021By Heidi EllisonMuseums
From the series "24 Estampes sur la Guerre" (1917), by Georges Bruyer.
From the series “24 Estampes sur la Guerre” (1917), by Georges Bruyer.

With all the troubles the world is dealing with today, from the pandemic to the environmental devastation and extreme weather events caused by climate change, not to mention violent conflicts and political extremism, it is easy to forget some of the horrors of the past. Case in point: World War I, which ended over a century ago but still carries lessons for us today. As Stephen O’Shea, author of Back to the Front, a highly informative yet entertaining book on the war on the Western Front, puts it: “The events of a century ago fundamentally altered the way we apprehend the world. The Great War effectively demolished a civilization, to be replaced, for better or worse, by one we are still struggling to define.”

The last veteran of the war died in 2012, depriving us of living witnesses. While it still comes to life now and then when yet another unexploded bomb pops up in a field or when grownups put on uniforms and play at being soldiers during war re-enactments, it is now a subject for museums. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux (a half-hour train ride from Paris), which brought it all back home, sometimes in a very visceral way.

The Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux. © Paris Update
The Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux. © Paris Update

The museum itself, located on a grassy rise in the middle of the site of the first battlefield of the Marne, is a striking sight as you approach it from the road. The long, horizontal concrete, glass and metal structure cantilevers out of the ground like a torpedo aimed at the horizon, its shiny surface gleaming in the light. The sleek modernity of the building designed by Christophe Lab contrasts with the monumental statue “Liberty in Distress,” by Frederick William MacMonnies, a gift to France from the United States, a sort of quid pro quo for the Statue of Liberty, symbolically made of pierre de Lorraine and placed at the point on the battlefield where the German advance toward Paris was halted in September 1914.

The museum’s collection, which is based on a donation from historian Jean-Pierre Verney, who amassed a WWI collection over nearly half a century, now numbers some 70,000 pieces, ranging from uniforms to actual tanks and airplanes (both put to use as weapons of war for the first time during WWI). For me, the most moving moments of the visit came at the very beginning and the very end.

The entrance to the museum is literally underneath the cantilevered building. As you approach the door, you hear explosions and other frightening sound effects of war, intensified by the disturbing feeling of the weight of the building pressing down above your head. Inside, in the lobby are posters with a photo and testimony from a number of survivors. One of the most moving was that of Abramo Pellencin, who at the age of nearly 100, admitted to still suffering from guilt and nightmares about the war, but nothing like those he experienced when he returned home from the front, when for months, he could only sleep on the ground outdoors. “I used to wake up terrified, not knowing if I was still alive,” said Pellencin, who was wounded four times.

Another personal touch comes at the end of the visit, where displays and photos of soldiers’ personal effects make life in the trenches feel even more real than the re-creations of the miserable and dangerous ditches that symbolize this nasty war. There are cards, games and musical instruments that helped while away the long, tense hours of waiting, and such objects as a pair of eyeglasses, a set of dentures and a beat-up comb, which painfully conjure the individuals who suffered through the war.

"Caved-in Trench" (1916), a drawing by Georges Bruyer. Soldiers had to work under cover of darkness to repair the trenches.
“Caved-in Trench” (1916), a drawing by Georges Bruyer. Soldiers had to work under cover of darkness to repair the trenches.

One of those soldiers out there in the trenches was the artist Georges Bruyer, whose colorful engravings and drawings are the subject of the exhibition “Graver la Guerre” (through August 22, 2021). With portraits of individual soldiers, scenes of post-battle devastation and daily life in the trenches, he captured not so much the horrors of battle, but the horrors of waiting in suspense for the battle to occur.

The most poignant moment of the visit came during a walk through a maze of realistic trenches complete with sound effects, but most movingly, the soul-searing music composed especially for this display, which really brings the horror of the war home.

Do pay a visit to this excellent museum, which fittingly (and without kitsch) honors all those who took part in the war (there is a special section on the role of women) and helps to guarantee that we won’t forget.

Note: the museum is temporarily closed due to pandemic restrictions. Check the website before making plans.

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    One Comment

    • I have visited this museum twice and thought it was an amazing learning experience as well as a very moving evocation of the war itself, the soldiers who experienced it, and an opportunity to view artifacts of the period both during and leading up to it. I would recommend it in particular to (other) Americans who only know of the war from a U.S. point of view. Understanding the context of WW1 was new for me.

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