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Military Museum World Tour: Musée de l'Armée

By: Peter Suciu

Beyond the Art Museums in The City of Lights

Paris, the City of Lights, is known for the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, and Notre Dame Cathedral, but it is also home to one of the finest military museums in Europe, the Musée de l'Armée.

Today, the French army gets a bad rap, thanks in no small part to its infamous defeat at the hands of the Germans during the Blitzkrieg campaign in the Second World War. There was the downfall of the Emperor Napoleon, the loss to the Prussians and the other German states in the Franco-Prussian War, and various post-World War II colonial disasters, including those in French Indo-China, and, of course Algeria. This all makes it is easy to poke fun at the French, but to do so would overlook the might of the empires created by Napoleon and the Third Republic; the latter rivaled even the might of the British Empire.

Likewise, while many bookworm scholars quickly point out that France faced near disaster in the First World War, the fact is that the Germans failed to take Paris and ended up on the losing end of a war of attrition. This might not have been France's greatest military moment, but it was hardly its darkest hour.

Visitors to Paris can partake in France's military highlights at the Musée de l'Armée, a massive museum that features one of the most impressive collections of militaria in the world. Originally built as a hospital and as a home for disabled soldiers by King Louis XIV, the collection is housed in the former Palace Les Invalides. Today it features a collection that spans every era of human warfare from antiquity to the modern day.

Interestingly, the museum was originally established following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War as the Museum of Artillery, and this was expanded greatly in 1878 to include various artifacts from France's colonial empire. A separate Army museum had also been created in 1896, but the two museums were merged in 1905, and it is spread over an area that spans some 12,000 meters and includes more than 500,000 artifacts. Simply put, this is one of the most impressive military museums in the world, and will impress anyone with an interest in military history – even those not impressed by France's own military heritage.

The museum is open every day of the year, except for the first Monday of every month, and is closed on major holidays including Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and the first of May and the first of November. Admission is charged. The official site: http://www.invalides.org/

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Originally built as a hospital, today the Musée de l'Armée is one of Europe's largest military museums

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The museum is also the final resting place and tomb of the Emperor Napoleon I

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The Musée de l'Armée features one of the largest collections of medieval arms and armor in the world, including these late Middle Age examples of full suits of armor

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A full army could practically be suited up in armor, while the museum reportedly has thousands more pieces still in storage and waiting for restoration

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A selection of uniforms from the French colonial period following the founding of the Third Republic

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The museum's collection is far from limited to French history, and here are some of the numerous examples of late 19th century uniforms from around Europe, including those of the nation's "German enemies"

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Some excellent examples of First World War era headgear including early steel helmets

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While the museum lacks the numerous airplanes and tanks of London's Imperial War Museum, it does feature some interesting vehicles including this World War I era Renault FT modèle 1917 tank

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A variety of World War I era small arms, showcasing the various machineguns - weapons that truly changed the face of modern warfare

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Who says military museums are dull and drab? The French Musée de l'Armée is as colorful as the art museums, highlighted by colorful uniforms such as this Zoauve style kit

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A classic example of a French Marine Infantry uniform. This unit served as the backbone of the French military around the world during the years leading up to the First World War, when the French Army was constitutionally bound not to fight in overseas colonial wars

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During France's darkest days in the Second World War, the Free French continued the fight throughout the world, and here is a surviving example of the type of Model 1931 sun helmet used by the French Free forces in some of those conflicts, notably Syria and North Africa

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The museum also brings out the big guns, such as this WWII era Howitzer!

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The unique uniform of the Moroccan "Goumier" troops who fought for the Free French in World War II, it featured traditional clothing with British "Tommy" style helmet and American Lend-Lease equipment including M1 rifle

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An extremely rare surviving example of the German made FG-42 light machinegun, which was developed for the paratroopers

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While the rest of the plane is probably long gone, the museum is home to a B-17 ball turret from the underside of the Flying Fortress

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at petersuciu@gmail.com.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.