Built in 1670 by Louis XIV, L’Hôtel des Invalides was actually built as a home for war veterans- especially those who had been wounded in battle (hence `invalides’); today this ornate golden-domed building houses two of Paris’ major sights: the Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Musée de L’Armée.
Entering des Invalides, we first went to Napoleon’s tomb- a fairly imposing structure housed in a (to me, at least) rather dingy hall. Set in red porphyry, laid on a slab of green granite and consisting of seven coffins set one inside the other, the tomb’s at the centre of the room, atop a high pedestal which stands in a well. All around the room- on its walls- are friezes depicting Napoleon’s many deeds, with the emperor himself represented in each as the Emperor of Rome (?! A bit of a puzzle). Also around the room are the tombs of Napoleon’s marshals, including Foch.
Napoleon’s tomb doesn’t take much time to see, but the Musée de L’Armée does- if you want to do any sort of justice to it. Probably the largest and most impressive military museum in the world, it spreads out over two floors of des Invalides. On the ground floor is a gigantic collection of weaponry- dating from prehistoric arrowheads to swords, muskets, shields, armour, ensigns, uniforms, helmets, etc from across time and space- Mughal India, Turkey, Japan, Europe and elsewhere. There’s a massive medieval arsenal too, and in the central courtyards, cannons stand, with shells and cannonballs too.
On the first floor are pieces from World War I- paintings, photographs, uniforms, guns (including the famous Vickers gun), gas masks, and replicas of the vehicles used. Other displays include epaulettes, decorations and maps (including the original map used by Foch and Weynard in the French campaign- it’s been stitched and repaired across the middle). There’s also part of the fuselage of a Zeppelin; a bit of shrapnel; tiny tokens- crucifixes, daggers, etc made by soldiers at the front, most of them crafted from shell and other handy material. A lot of it really gave me gooseflesh.
Some items are of particular significance- the bugle used to blow the Armistice; the pens used to sign it; a muddy trench coat from Verdun; the original uniform worn by General Gallieni (who used taxis to take his troops to the front at the Battle of the Marne; these taxis, one of which stands at the entrance of the museum, later came to be known as Marne taxis).