The Great War Museum (Le Musée de la Grande Guerre) was inaugurated at 11 am 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 Armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies. Those interested in World War I should try to get to Compiègne in Picardy to see the rather eerie place and Memorial of the Armistice where the war formally ended and where the Armistice was signed - in an old railway carriage.
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, 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.
Outside stands 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.
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 fiercely fought, 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 with explanations are in French, English, and German, and 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 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.
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 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 using 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.
United States of America Involvement in World War I
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?
- 35 countries involved in the fighting
- Over 70 million men mobilized
- Over 9 million soldiers dead, including 1,412,000 from France
- Over 13 million civilians dead from the Armenian genocide, famine, Spanish ‘flu, apart from war victims
Route 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
There 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
How to Get To Meaux
Meaux is 42 kilometers (26 miles) east of Paris.
- By car Take the A4 motorway from Paris and follow the signs to Meaux. There is a free car park at the museum.
- By train Trains from the Gare de l’Est take 30 minutes to Meaux railway station. From the station take bus line M6
Attractions in the Area
From Meaux, there are three trips which I recommend. Stay overnight and make this a good weekend or a 2 to 3-day excursion from Paris.
- Reims, the capital of Champagne is an easy drive on the motorway. It has one of France's most beautiful cathedrals, famous as the place where former Kings of France were crowned, museums and good restaurants. Read more in my Guide to Reims. And check out the top attractions in Reims which include the Museum of the Surrender where World War II ended on May 7th, 1945 at 2.41am.
- The medieval city of Troyes has a wonderful labyrinth of old cobbled streets full of half-timbered houses, old churches, and attractions. It also has two of the prettiest hotels in France, and one of France's biggest Outlet and Discount Shopping Centers.
- Nearer Paris, the Chateau of Fontainebleau is set in a spectacular forest, once the hunting ground for the French monarchs, now a delightful day out.