Authie et Mi

Armistice visit to Paris

18 November 2021

I have a Seniors’ Card for SNCF and to be honest I never make enough use of it to warrant paying out the 50€ annual fee. In part to make use of it but also having started to visit V1 sites with Victor, and it being Armistice time, I suggested a trip down to Paris to visit Mont Valérien and the Musée de l’Armée.

I hadn’t been to the Invalides in years and neither of us had ever been out to Mont Valérien. The weather was looking bright and the Covid restrictions were such that travelling would not be too much of a hardship. We would require plenty of masks with us though, as they were still required on the train and in all public buildings.

I have to say that Victor had often shown that he was far quicker with the mask than ever I was. I tended to leave it until the last moment possible whereas he would often have it on immediately.

Half eleven and already knackered !

Off we went on my usual just after eleven TGV from Arras which gets you into Paris at midday. That was the easy bit now we had to get out into the banlieu to the north-west of the city. First things first, work out the tickets and get ourselves initially to La Défense. From there we would take the suburban train out to Suresnes and walk from there.

There seemed to be an awful lot of work being carried out on the Métro lines with passageways closed and when we reached La Défense that appeared to be an ongoing brickie’s tip. The place was packed. I’m not used to so many people. But, it has to be said, with the exception of a few, everybody was masked up. I did however tell Victor to make sure that I had put mine on after one occasion when I found myself on the platform without it. To busy talking, and whilst after a while I would forget I was wearing it the opposite was also true ; once it came off outside, I’d forget I wasn’t.

It was only a short train ride out to Suresnes and you get some great views of the Eiffel Tower. The sunshine and autumnal colours of the trees adding to beauty of the panorama. Arriving at the station we couldn’t get out ! The automatic gates were refusing to play on our side so we had to cross over and get out that way.

We quickly understood where the Mont came into it, as it was quite a wee climb up to the fortress on the summit of this 161 metre hill.

Mont Valérien

Going back to the very beginnings of Christianity this large hill has been the site of numerous religious bodies and buildings. And then came the Revolution and the Empire.

Napoleon threw the Trappist Monks off the hill for being far more preoccupied with the Pope (rather than himself, I suppose). Later, during the Restoration, some religious bodies returned but the ease by which Paris had fallen in 1814 gave cause for concern and the King decided on a series of forts to cover the approaches to the city. Then, the Restoration it its turn came to an end. That didn’t change the requirements for a new defensive plan and the new Republic committed itself to creating a formidable fortress at Suresnes : on Mont Valérien.

A polygonal structure for a garrison of two thousand men and hundreds of tonnes of munitions, it was to be the most formidable of the thirteen that were being planned. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 the citadel found itself in action far sooner than Napoleon III had probably considered as he jollied off to face the Prussians at Sedan.

From September 1870 through January 1871 the garrison bombarded the Prussian lines and supported the Paris garrison in their sorties against the besieging army. Pride of place went to a 240 mm naval gun that fired off shells weighing 140 kilos.

All to no avail in the end because Paris was eventually forced to surrender. In a twist of fate, however, the fortress was the only one during the Paris uprising not to fall to the Commune and the garrison remained faithful to President Thiers at Versailles. Once again its artillery came into action ; this time shelling the city itself, with over fifteen thousand rounds. It was from here that Maréchal de Mac-Mahon set out to reclaim Paris for the Government

Time passed and the citadel returned to its status as a garrison. In 1917 a gift was made of part of its slope to the United States for the creation of one of their military cemeteries.

Mont Valérien remains a garrison to this day but none of the above is the main reason why it has become a place known to all in France. Having taken over the citadel in 1941 the Germans began using the clearing within its walls as an execution ground. It is thought that about a thousand partisans and other enemies of the state were shot here during the occupation.

On 18 June 1945 General de Gaulle held a formal ceremony honouring those who had died within the citadel’s grounds. The same year, on Armistice Day, the remains of fifteen persons (three resistants, three of the deported and nine combatants) were laid to rest in a provisional crypt created within one of the casemates. In later years ashes from the concentration camps were added as well as a person commemorating those who had died in the far east.

In 1958 a presidential decree ordered the founding of a “Mémorial de la France combattante” to honour all of those who had continued the fight against the occupiers by whatever means they could. Two years later the bodies were transferred to their present location built into the outer rampart of the citadel. A seventeenth place was left for the last of the surviving Compagnon de la Libération.

There have been other memorials added to the interior and a discovery route was created allowing visitors to pass within the walls.

The spanner in the works as far as we were concerned was Covid. I had needed to book a timed slot at the Army Museum and it was going to take us the best part of a an hour to get back into town. In theory there was supposed to have been a guided tour at 1400 hours, which is what I had aimed for. Nope. When we enquired at the office they weren’t doing one. The best they could offer was 1500 hours and that was out of the question allowing for the time it would take. Ho, hum !

The memorial at Mont Valérien

Not everything was lost however as we could still visit the crypt. Whilst Victor remained outside looking at the decorative plaques I wandered in and chatted with the lady sitting at a desk. She was very helpful and explained that the tombs in front of me were in fact the graves. I hadn’t fully understood that I was standing in the crypt — mainly because to my mind you descend into a crypt as opposed to it being at the base of a wall.

Anyway I went back outside to get Victor and at this stage realised that once again I had been chatting without my mask on. That rectified, we resumed our visit. Only a short time before, Hubert Germain, the last of those Companions of the Liberation had passed away and had been interred in that seventeenth place in the centre of the group.

Outside, along the front of the citadel everything is dominated by a Cross of Lorraine and beneath it the entrance to the crypt and the flame of resistance. It is actually all very simple and looks like a parade ground with a fancy wall on one side.

Displayed on both sides of the Cross are sixteen sculptures, representing the original sixteen graves. Each of them was created by a different artist. Some of them are frankly weird and thankfully there are explanations because I would never have achieved the necessary enlightenment to guess that Casabianca by Georges Saupique represented the Free French Naval Force fighting the tentacles of the octopus trying to crush them.

Casabianca was a submarine that managed on 27 November 1942 to escape from the port of Toulon as the Germans took over the remainder of France. It went on to take part in numerous missions along the southern coast and Corsica. The remaining vessels in the port were scuttled.

Others were simpler to understand and all represented involvement by French Forces during the war.

« Cassino  » by Ulysse Gemignani

An important position in the German line of defence in Italy, Monte Cassino would eventually fall to the Allies in May 1944. The sculpture shows the mountains which surround Monte Cassino, the German eagle begins to falter, held in a vice like grip by the French, who had crossed the impassable mountains to get behind the Germans.

« Narvik » by Robert Juvin

On 28th May 1940 French and Polish forces seized the town of Narvik as part of the Allied operations in Norway that had begun in April. Despite their successes, however, the situation elsewhere in Europe and in particular in France forced their withdrawal.

Here a drakkar is depicted, pierced by arrows but still afloat, the French Expeditionary Corps having completed all of its missions returns with its banner held high.

Not being able to go on a tour we made a quick wander around the outside of the citadel but you can’t see anything and ultimately, although on a grander scale than Arras, the story was going to be very similar and Arras is only up the road and easily visited.

We set off back down towards the station and in doing so caught site of the American Cemetery — up until that moment I hadn’t made the connection between Suresnes and the citadel because everybody goes to Mont Valérien, which is in Suresnes.

Well, we were there so it would be silly not to visit.

Suresnes American Cemetery

Originally created during the Great War the cemetery now contains fallen from both world wars, though the 1,559 dead from the first greatly outnumber the 23 unknown personnel from the second.

The chapel commemorates 974 Americans who were missing in action. A few have since been recovered and their names are marked by a rosette.

Back into Paris

The first problem on getting back to the station was that the ticket machine was out of order, which poses the question of : so how do you buy a ticket to get onto the platform ? Luckily there was a guy working at it and he had it sorted before our train got in.

We came out of the Métro near to Les Invalides and then promptly got a bit lost as to which direction to walk in. When you reach the building, with its great dome over Napoleon’s tomb you would wonder how it can be so difficult to find but in the narrow streets behind it you simply can’t see it. Much easier coming up the esplanade from the river.

Through security, masks on, we headed for the dome. There we were checked for our Covid Passes and given a ticket to show elsewhere in the complex – which was a bit pointless because producing the certificate on your phone was hardly a chore.

I have visited the tomb numerous times over the years but the thing that constantly surprises me is its size. In photos you really don’t appreciate just how big the thing is. The obligatory photos of Victor and tomb taken we headed for the Army Museum next door.

I think that the last time I was at the museum was with Oleg and I don’t remember visiting much and the Napoleonic section was very much as it had always been – a bit dusty. Time, however, was not on our side and as Victor is more interested in the Second World War I suggested that it would be best to start there.

We then found that to get to 1939 you had to pass via 1914 and onwards. Gosh ! I don’t know when they updated the displays but this was really good. More things to look at than we had time for. If you were really into the weapons and uniforms you could be forever taking photographs.

We pressed on and reached 1939. Again, there is a lot to see and read about. At some stage in the future we will just have to go back and do it again, only properly, because the two hours we had before they closed wasn’t enough to even skim the surface and there is still all the other stuff to look at.

It was actually quite warm still on leaving so we walked down to the river and into the Place de la Concorde before catching the Métro back up to the Gare du Nord where Victor paid the meal before catching the TGV back to Arras and home.

Despite the non-visit at Mont Valérien it had been a pretty successful day.

Posted : 18 November 2021

Covid, Paris