A Remarkable Collection
The Great War Museum (Le Musee de la Grande Guerre) was inaugurated at 11am on Friday November 11th, 2011, an auspicious time and day. It marks the celebrations of remembrance for the end of World War I on Friday November 11th, 1945, when the Armistic was signed between Germany and the Allies. The huge collection, a diverse mix of almost 50,000 objects and documents, was collected by one man, a self-taught private collector and expert on World War I, Jean-Pierre Verney. Starting his collection in the late 1960s, Verney’s aim was to tell the stories of the people of the time. It was acquired by the local government of Meaux in 2005 and is one of the largest such collections in Europe.
The Great War in a New Light
Apart from the insight it gives into the lives of those caught up in the conflict, the Great War Museum shows how rapidly life and conditions changed between the first Battle of the Marne in 1914, which was more like the set piece of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the second Battle of the Marne four years later, when technical advances had changed warfare out of all recognition. It was, in every sense, the end of the old order and the beginning of the world as we know it today.
The museum is in front of the American monument Liberty in Distress by Frederick MacMonnies, erected in memory of the soldiers who fell at the two battles of the Marne. It was presented to France by the United States in 1932.
Why Meaux?The Battle of the Marne was one of the opening campaigns in World War I. It was fought in September 1914 in the countryside around Meaux, on a front stretching from Senlis to Verdun. It was a fiercely fought conflict, particularly during the Battle of the Ourcq. Today, the municipalities of Pays de Meaux and its surroundings (Barcy, Chambry, Chauconin-Neufmontiers, Varreddes, Villeroy, Etrépilly and others) still remember with their cemeteries full of war graves.
What to See
The museum is designed as a journey through time. All the explanations are in French, English and German, so the museum is easy to navigate and understand. You start in another world –- in the far-off days of the late 19th century and the 1870 Franco Prussian war, and move through to 1914. It's an evocative look at a very different era, of life in the days of grand houses and servants, sparse school rooms and factories run by men who faced daily dangers from unprotected machinery -- and no social security at all.
The second section, from the 1914 to the 1918 Battles of the Marne, is grouped around the ‘grand nef’. The great nave reconstructs the battlefield with a French trench, German trench and in between the feared no-man’s-land. An impressive show of ranks upon ranks of aircraft and tanks takes you through its heart.
The final section takes you from 1918 to 1939 with all its illusions of victory, all the grand hopes and slowly revealed failures that led to World War II.
Choose Your Route
There are two routes through the museum. The first takes 90 minutes; the second takes either a half or a full day. It’s worth making time for the long visit (and you can skip parts.) There is so much to see here and it’s very well laid out, and thought-provoking. And it’s not just static; you can smell the trenches, use the interactive screens, walk past the series of room settings placing the war in context, watch archive films and 3D layouts, and hear the sounds of battle.
Themes take up a large part of the museum, ranging from the new warfare taking advantage of technological developments that changed the face of the fighting to the decisive role women played in the conflict. There’s a section on daily life in the trenches, and a sobering and somber section called Bodies and Souls, illustrating how the extreme violence of the war led to vital scientific and medical advances. The prostheses and other equipment designed for the war disabled were pretty primitive. Associations sprung up, like the Union des Blessés de la Face et de la Tête (Union of Face and Head Wound Sufferers) created in 1921 by three veterans with severe facial injuries who were determined to help their disfigured comrades.
There’s also a good section on the United States of America. The American Expeditionary Force was vital in the final victory and the story is covered in a special section which has a recreation of an American camp.
A more lighthearted section deals with everyday objects from the front and the home front. Starting out as a way to combat boredom and to make life easier with items like lighters and oil lamps, the objects quickly developed into ‘trench art’, real works of art such as the delightful mandolins made out of Adrian helmets.
Did you know?
Practical InformationRoute de Varreddes
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 60 32 14 18
Adult 10 euros; students under 26 years, senior citizens over 65 years, war veterans, members of the military 7 euros; under 18 years old 5 euros; free for children under 8 years, teachers and museum curators
Family ticket: 2 adults and 2 children under 18 years old 25 euros
Audio tours are in French, English or German
May to September daily except Tuesday 9.30am-6.30pm; October to April daily except Tuesday from 10am-5.30pm
Closed Tuesday, January 1st, May 1st, December 25th
The Museum has a café for light snacks and drinks, and a good book and gift shop
Battlefields TourThere is a two to two-and-a-half hour Battlefields tour that you can take, going from the Monument to the Dead in Meaux and taking in various sites to end back in Meaux.
Reservations: Seine-et-Marne Tourisme
Tel.:00 33 (0)1 60 39 60 49
Information on the Battlefields Tour
Service Patrimoine-Art et Hitoire
19 rue Bossuet
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 64 33 24 23 or 00 33 (0)1 64 33 02 26