During my family’s recent trip to Europe, I was able to spend a morning by myself at Les Invalides in Paris. I spent several delightful hours wandering around looking at the huge range of artifacts, paintings and models from French military history, culminating with a visit to Napoleon’s tomb.
L’Hôtel National des Invalides (to use the correct name of ‘Les Invalides’) is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. The building’s original purpose when Louis XIV initiated the project in 1670 was to provide accommodation and hospital care for wounded soldiers – and it still contains a hospital and retirement home.
But it is for its military museums and the burial site of some of France’s war heroes, notably Napoleon Bonaparte, that most visitors come to Les Invalides.
Musée de l’Armée
The Musée de l’Armée was created in 1905 with the merger of the Musée d’Artillerie and the Musée Historique de l’Armée. The museum’s seven main spaces and departments contain collections that span the period from antiquity through the 20th century.
I spent much of my visit in the Modern Department, covering from Louis XIV to Napoleon III, 1643-1870. I also had time for a very quick scoot through the Contemporary Department which tells the story of the French Army from 1871 to 1945.
The displays include uniforms, artifacts, paintings and computerised battle reports. They’re housed in glass cases in dramatically-lit rooms and galleries. While this lighting makes everything look splendid, one downside is the difficulty in photographing the exhibits. But here goes …
I also photographed one or two dioramas that were part of the displays.
In the museum foyer were these wonderful displays of large-scale model soldiers, all about a foot high, and clothed in real material uniforms.
Musée des Plans-Reliefs
I made a point of not missing the Musée des Plans-Reliefs in the attic space of Les Invalides, having read that it was well worth the climb. And so it was – at the top of the stairs you enter a door and find yourself a long low and very dark attic gallery, in which moodily-lit models recede into the distance in both directions.
These are all three-dimensional models of fortified cities for military purposes, known as ‘plans-relief’. The models gave particular attention to the city fortifications and topographic features such as hills, harbours, and so on.
The construction of these models dates to 1668, when initially the models were constructed in the field, by military engineers. In 1743 two central workshops were established for their construction in Béthune and Lille. A large number of models were built during and after the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-1748) to represent newly captured sites.
In 1774 the collection was nearly destroyed when its Louvre gallery was re-dedicated to paintings, but was in 1777 moved to Les Invalides.
All told, some 260 plans-reliefs were created between 1668 and 1870, representing about 150 fortified sites. The museum displays 28 plans-reliefs of fortifications along the English Channel, the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, and the Pyrenees. It also contains presentations on construction and use of the plans-reliefs.
Unfortunately whilst I was busy photographing some of these spectacular models, I forgot to record which fortifications they represented. So you’ll just have to guess …
One interesting part of the Musée des Plans-Reliefs was a display of the equipment and materials used by the model-makers. Most wargamers would be totally familiar with much of what was on display here!
Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides
In 1676, the Secretary of State for War, Marquis de Louvois, entrusted the young architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart with the construction of the chapel, which the architect of Les Invalides, Libéral Bruant, had been unable to complete.
He designed a building which combined a royal chapel, the “Dôme des Invalides”, and a veterans’ chapel. This way, the king and his soldiers could attend mass simultaneously, while entering the place of worship though different entrances, as prescribed by etiquette.
Tomb of Napoleon
One of the highlights of any visit to Les Invalides is of course to see where the body of Napoleon lies entombed. First buried on St. Helena, Napoleon’s remains were exhumed and brought to Paris in 1840 on the orders of Louis-Philippe, who wanted to return the emperor to French soil.
On entering the church, you come to a balcony surrounding a hole in the floor looking down at the tomb. Some say this is a trick to ensure that even in death Napoleon’s enemies would have to bow their heads to him. In fact I read a story somewhere that an Englishman was advised to use a small hand-mirror to view the tomb without bowing his head!
The heavy bronze door down to the crypt is forged from cannons taken at Austerlitz. Above the lintel is an extract from Napoleon’s will: “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine among the people of France whom I so much loved”.
The sarcophagus lies on a green granite pedestal and contains a nest of six coffins: one made of soft iron, another of mahogany, two others of lead, one of ebony and finally the last one of oak.