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The Arc de Triomphe’s Evolving History: Then and Now

The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (the Triumphal Arch of the Star) is one of Paris’ most famous landmarks. It commemorates those who fought and died for France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It also contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which honours those who died for France in World War I and World War II.

Below is a view of the Arc de Triomphe from across the street. There is an underground tunnel that pedestrians use to gain access to it. (You can’t fit the entire monument in one frame if you are standing on the inside of the traffic roundabout, so unfortunately we’re stuck with the picture below that contains vehicles).

The Arc is located at the centre of a large junction, the Place Charles de Gaulle, that contains twelve avenues. These wide, straight avenues radiate out from the Arc, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. The Arc and its surrounding plaza intersect with the 8th, 16th, and 17th arrondissements.

Below is an aerial view looking south-east that shows the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of a star-shaped intersection, with each of the 12 avenues acting as a point in that star. The intersection was originally shaped in this manner in 1777¹, at which point it was named the “Place d’Étoile.” The plaza and the avenues were broadened and modernized during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853-1870). It was renamed the “Place Charles de Gaulle” in 1970 to honour the French General and President, who passed away that same year.

From Pixabay.

A view of the Arc de Triomphe from the Eiffel Tower.

One of these 12 avenues is the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which contains a series of high-end stores, cafés, and theatres. In the photo above, it is the (widest) street that extends from the Arc de Triomphe towards the top of the picture. Below, back on the ground, is a view of the Arc de Triomphe where it meets the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The avenue is 1.9 km (1.2 miles) long and runs from the Place Charles de Gaulle to the Place de la Concorde. The avenue is the route for the Bastille Day military parade, and also serves as the finish for the Tour de France.

In the image below, note how the monument is positioned at an angle. The Avenue de Champs-Élysées extends from the bottom right/south-east side of the monument. The Avenue de la Grande-Armée extends from the top left/north-west side.

From Google Maps.

The Arc de Triomphe is a central point  located along the Axe Historique, a long thoroughfare that begins at the Louvre and runs for 8.5 km before ending at another arch, the Grand Arche de la Défense. The Axe Historique, and the series of monuments and buildings that are included along its route, is interesting enough that it could fill its own post. For now, I’m going to keep it simple. In the map below, the Louvre is indicated by the yellow pin on the bottom right. The Arc de Triomphe is the centre red pin. The Grand Arche de la Défense is indicated by the navy blue pin at the top left.

From Google Maps.

Below is a picture I took of the Grand Arche de la Défense while standing at the Arc de Triomphe, 4 kms away. It is located in Paris’ financial district, and was designed to be a 20th century reimagining of the Arc de Triomphe. Rather than an arch, it is actually a cube-shape. It was built in 1989 as a monument to humanitarian ideals rather than military victories.

The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon I in 1806 following his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. At this battle, which took place on December 2, 1805, Napoleon and the French army defeated the Russian and Austrian armies (led by Emperor Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, respectively)¹. Napoleon wanted to build several monuments² that would honour the military leaders and victories of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1804), the French Consulate (1799-1804), and the First French Empire (Napoleon’s reign from 1804-1814, 1815). The Arc was designed by Jean Chalgrin, and it was inspired by the Arch of Titus³ in Rome, Italy. The first stone was laid on Napoleon’s birthday on August 15, 1806. The arch would take 30 years to complete due in small part to the immensity of the task (work on the foundations alone took two), but in greater part to Napoleon’s changing fortunes. In 1810, the arch was still incomplete, but Napoleon had a gesture to make. He had a full-sized wooden replica built on the site so that he could make a triumphant march under it and into Paris with his new bride (and second wife), Marie Louise of Austria. Work stopped completely on the Arc in 1814 with Napoleon’s forced abdication and the consequent Bourbon Restoration (1814-1815; 1815-1830). Construction was later completed from 1833-1836 under the reign of Louis-Philippe I.

An up-close view of the Arc de Triomphe. (This is the most I could fit in one frame while on the inside of the traffic roundabout).

Let’s examine the features of the Arc de Triomphe in detail. There are many sculptural and bas-reliefs found on the Arc, all of them done by renowned French sculptors. The sculptures are treated as individual trophies applied to the Arc to commemorate specific military achievements****. There’s a lot of them, so bear with me as I take you on a journey through French military history of the late 18th-early 19th century. We’ll review: the two main exterior faces of the Arc (the south-east and the north-west) and the four large sculptural reliefs that can be found on them; six smaller bas-relief sculpted scenes that depict five major French victories and one military funeral (found on the two main exterior façades as well as the two minor façades that face south-west and north-east); other exterior work; as well as the interior of the monument (which features one main arch and two smaller ones).

The south-east exterior façade of the Arc de Triomphe is the most recognizable because it faces the Avenue de Champs-Élysees. Many prominent pictures have been taken from this side of the monument. It contains two of four large sculptural reliefs: Le Triomphe de 1810 is located on the left (south) pillar, Le Départ de 1792/La Marseillaise is located on the right (east) pillar. I’m going to examine these sculptural reliefs in greater detail, but first I’ll focus on the details that make up the top portion of the Arc.

We’ll examine the sculpted work located at the apex of the main arch from left to right, and then conclude with the long frieze that extends across the width of the entire façade overhead.

At the far left, on the south pillar is a bas-relief of a battle scene: La bataille d’Aboukir (the Battle of Aboukir), by sculptor Bernard Seurre. This battle took place on July 25, 1799 and was part of Napoleon’s Egypt-Syria campaign during the French Revolutionary Wars. The French defeated the Ottoman army (led by Seid Mustafa Pasha), and (temporarily) secured France’s control over Egypt. Napoleon’s victories as a Commander in the French Revolutionary Wars earned him a lot of respect, and laid a lot of groundwork for his later rise to power.

The Battle of Aboukir. From Wikipedia.

In the centre of the south-east façade, on the tympanum of the arch, are depictions of two winged female figures blowing horns. There are two identical figures on the north-west façade as well. Taken together, these four sculptures are called Les Renommées (the Renowned), and were done by sculptor James Pradier. The women are a personification of victory.

From Pixabay.

Also on the south-east façade, located to the right of the arch on the east pillar, is a second bas-relief: Les funérailles du général Marceau (the funeral of General Marceau), by P.H. Lamaire. François Séverin Marceau (1769-1796) was a highly-respected General of the French Revolutionary wars. Some of his career highlights include his participation in the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and saving a French politician (Pierre Bourbot) from insurgents during the Battle of Saumur (June 19, 1793). Marceau was mortally wounded during the Battle of Limburg (September 16-19, 1796), at the young age of twenty-seven. Everyone was eager to pay tribute to the fallen war hero, even the Austrian army (who he was fighting at the time). His funeral was held on September 20, 1796. Marceau’s ashes are located in the Panthéon.

The Funeral of General Marceau. From Wikipedia.

The frieze at the very top of the south-eastern façade, which extends the entire width of the monument, is Le Départ des Armées (the Departure of the Armies), by Sylvestre Brun, Georges Jacquot, and Charles-René Laitié . This frieze actually circles the entire top of the Arc de Triomphe. On this side, the armies are being sent off to their campaigns in Egypt and Italy. It seems fitting that this relief is found on the side of the Arc de Triomphe that faces the Avenue de Champs-Élysées, as this is where the Bastille Day military parade begins.

All photos from Wikipedia.

With the top features of the south-east façade covered, I’ll now talk about the two large sculptural reliefs that can be found mid-level on this side of the monument (there are four in total). I’ll discuss them based on the chronological order of the scenes they are depicting.

From Pixabay.

The first and most famous of the sculptural reliefs is Le Départ de 1792 (Departure of the Volunteers ) by François Rude, commonly known as La Marseillaise. This sculpture commemorates the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. On that day, political tensions between Louis XVI, the government, and the French people came to a head. The Tuileries Palace (where Louis XVI was residing with his family) was stormed by the National Guard***** of the Paris Commune and National Guard volunteers from Marseille and Brittany. The monarchy was formally ended six weeks later, and the French First Republic (1792-1804) was established.

This relief was used during the first few months of World War I to inspire French citizens to enlist in the army and/or buy war bonds. Look closely at the sword being brandished by the warrior angel in the picture below. Does it look different from the rest of the sculpted figures? Like it’s composed of different, newer material? Allegedly, the original sword snapped clean off the relief during World War I on February 21, 1916, the day that the Battle of Verdun began. The Battle of Verdun was fought between the French and the Germans on the Western Front in north-eastern France, and was the longest campaign of the war; it lasted until December 18, 1916. Tarps were put up to hide the sight of the broken sword, in case superstitious onlookers took it as a bad omen. Although the Battle of Verdun resulted in a French victory, it came at a cost: nine villages were destroyed; 250,000 people died; and at least half a million people were wounded.

From Pixabay.

The second relief is Le Triomphe de 1810 by Jean-Pierre Cortot, which celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Schönbrunn between France and Austria at the Schönbrunn palace (near Vienna) on October 14, 1809. In the relief, Napoleon is being crowned by the Goddess of Victory. This treaty was signed after the Austrian army lost to Napoleon and his combined French and Bavarian forces during the Battle of Wagram, which was fought from July 5-6, 1809. This battle was part of the War of the Fifth Coalition, which saw the Allied forces of Austria, Britain, Spain, and Portugal united against Napoleon. Although a peace was signed with Austria, the other three countries would remain at war with Napoleon, leading to the later War of the Sixth Coalition. But, for now, Napoleon was victorious. The Emperor of Austria, Francis I, married his daughter Marie Louise to Napoleon. Napoleon had the wooden Arc de Triomphe set up in 1810 to celebrate his return to Paris from this victory and wedding.

A close-up of a sculpted figure with what looks to be a castle tower on her head.

Now we’ll talk about the second main exterior façade of the Arc de Triomphe, the one that faces north-west and the Avenue de la Grand-Armée. There are two more large sculptural reliefs located on the pillars here. La Paix de 1815 is on the left (north) pillar, and La Résistance de 1814 is on the right (west) pillar. I’ll talk about these sculptures in greater detail shortly but, first, I’ll discuss the other items located towards the top of the Arc. Again, I’ll cover them from left to right.

From Pixabay.

At the far left, on the north pillar is a third bas-relief: La prise d’Alexandrie (The Fall of Alexandria), by J.E. Chapponière. This battle, fought on July 3, 1798, was also part of Napoleon’s Egypt-Syria campaign during the French Revolutionary Wars. In fact, it precedes the previously discussed Battle of Aboukir (the first bas-relief we discussed) by nearly a year. During this battle, Napoleon fought and eliminated most of the Egyptian army. This victory effectively sealed his conquest of Egypt.

The Fall of Alexandria. From Wikipedia.

In the centre of the north-west façade, on the tympanum of the arch, are two more winged female figures. They are a continuation of Les Renommées (the Renowned), by James Pradier.

From Pixabay.

At the far right, on the west pillar is a fourth bas-relief: Le passage du pont Arcole (The Battle of Arcole), by J.J. Feuchère. This battle was fought between French and Austrian forces 25 kms southeast of Verona, Italy from November 15-17, 1796. It was part of the War of the First Coalition that took place during the French Revolutionary Wars. Trying to inspire his men to attack, Napoleon grabbed a flag and stood in the open about 55 paces from a bridge that divided the French from their enemy. It was a bold move, standing right in the line of fire, and he could have been killed (several members of his staff were shot, and one of them did die). Depictions of the scene, such as this relief, often show Napoleon standing on the bridge itself. The victorious French then went on to seize Venice.

The Battle of Arcole. From Wikipedia.

The frieze at the very top of the north-west façade is a continuation of the one we discussed on the south-east. This time, the armies are returning from Egypt and Italy in La retour des armées, by Louis Caillouette, François Rude, and Bernard Gabriel Seurre.

All photos from Wikipedia.

With the top features of the north-west façade covered, I’ll now talk about the last two large sculptural reliefs that can be found mid-level on this side of the monument. Again, I’ll discuss them based on the chronological order of the scenes they are depicting.

From Pixabay.

The relief on the right (west) pillar is La Résistance de 1814, by Antoine Étex. As previously mentioned, Britain, Spain, and Portugal remained officially at war with Napoleon after the signing of the Treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809. By 1814, Austria was back in action again and a few more countries had signed up to bring Napoleon down: Prussia, Sweden, a number of German states, and Russia. This was the War of the Sixth Coalition. The Allied powers defeated Napoleon and his army in a series of battles that pushed him out of Germany; they pursued and triumphed over him in more campaigns across France; they marched into and occupied Paris on March 30, 1814; finally, they forced Napoleon to abdicate on April 11. The relief commemorates the resistance of the French people to the occupying powers.

From Pixabay.

The relief on the left (north) pillar is La Paix (Peace) de 1815, which was also designed by Antoine Étex. It commemorates the Treaty of Paris, which was initially signed on May 30, 1814 between France and the Allied powers, and was later concluded in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna. The governing of France was handed over to Louis XVIII (the younger brother of Louis XVI), with the understanding that he would do so as a constitutional monarch. This period was known as the Bourbon Restoration, and lasted from 1814-1830 (with a short break of 100 days or so in 1814-1815, when Napoleon briefly returned to power).

From Pixabay.

I’ll have to admit that I don’t really understand the inclusion of these two reliefs on the Arc. They both act to commemorate the defeat suffered by Napoleon and the French army during the War of the Sixth Coalition. The reliefs on the other side (Le Départ de 1792/La Marseillaise and Le Triomphe de 1810) are both celebrations of national triumph. Taken together, are the four reliefs meant to show that there are two sides to every coin? Victory and defeat? Pride and humility? One thing is for certain, France did not remain peaceful after 1815. Seven armed uprisings broke out in Paris alone between 1830-1848. But those are stories for another time.

From Pixabay.

There are two remaining façades of the Arc de Triomphe to cover. Thankfully, they have less decoration so we can cover them a little more quickly. Below is the east façade of the Arc de Triomphe (on the right of the Arc), which contains a fifth bas-relief. To help situate the monument, the Avenue de Champs-Élysées would be found to the left of the Arc, and the Avenue de la Grande-Armée on the right.

From Pixabay.

The fifth bas-relief featured on the east façade is La bataille de Jemappes (The Battle of Jemappes), by Carlo Marochetti. This battle took place on November 6, 1792 near the town of Jemappes (then in the Austrian Netherlands, today a part of Belgium). It was during the War of the First Coalition, which was part of the French Revolutionary War. This is the earliest of the battle scene depictions on the Arc de Triomphe, and occurs only three months after the events that inspired Le Départ de 1792/La Marseillaise. The battle was fought by General Charles François Dumouriez and his army of French Revolutionary volunteers against the Austrian army of the Holy Roman Empire. Their victory increased the confidence of the burgeoning French Republic, and motivated future campaigns (of which there would be many).

The Battle of Jemappes. From Wikipedia.

Below is the west façade of the Arc de Triomphe, which also contains just one bas-relief. The Avenue de Champs-Élysées would be found on the right side of the monument, and the Avenue de la Grande-Armée on the left.

From Pixabay.

The scene in the sixth and final bas-relief  is La bataille d’Austerlitz (the Battle of Austerlitz), by J.F.T. Gechter. It took place on December 2, 1805. If you recall, this was the battle that inspired Napoleon to erect the Arc de Triomphe. His French army was victorious over the Russians and Austrians. This was part of the War of the Third Coalition. In the aftermath of this battle, Austria lost lands in Italy and Bavaria to France, and in Germany to Napoleon’s German allies. Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine from 16 German states, which was intended to act as a buffer between France and the rest of central Europe (necessary, because a lot of nations were still eager to take on Napoleon). This union of German states also led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire—this was a tectonic shift for Europe, since that Empire had been around for a thousand years (its first Emperor was Charlemagne from 800-814 C.E.).

The Battle of Austerlitz. From Wikipedia.

Before we move inside the Arc, take a look at the photo below. It was taken standing on the Avenue de Champs-Élysées. Note that there is one tall, main arch that makes up the interior. From this perspective, you can easily envision yourself walking straight through it. Now look closer and notice that there is a smaller arch on the left side of the main arch, located between the two pillars. If you were walking through the main arch, you could take a left and walk through this one. There is a second matching arch located between the two pillars on the right side. That makes three arches in total!

Imagine that you’re standing where I am when I took the photo above, at the head of the Avenue de Champs-Élysées. Now imagine that you’re going to walk straight toward the Arc and pass all the way through it to the other side (don’t worry about the traffic, I promise this imaginary excursion is safe). Take note of the first pillar you walk by on your left side (the south pillar), and the small arch (also on your left side). Once you get to the other side of the Arc, turn around and look back at that south pillar. That is where I was standing when I took the photo (two paragraphs) below.

In the below photo I am standing just outside of the Arc, looking in towards the small arch that was on your left side (let’s call this the south-west arch). You can see two pillars; the first (south) pillar that you walked by is towards the left of the photo. The other pillar, the one on the right, is the west pillar. The exterior of the south pillar faces the Avenue de Champs-Élysées and contains the relief Le Triomphe de 1810. The exterior of the pillar on the right, the west pillar, faces the Avenue de la Grand-Armée and contains the relief La Résistance de 1814.

The left and right columns that are facing in towards the main arch contain a list of names. The names on the left side begin with “Loano”, “Millesimo”, “Dego”, “Mondovi”, etc. The names on the right side begin with “Le Bastan”, “Le Boulou”, “Burgos”, “Espinosa”, etc. These are lists of major French victories in the Napoleonic Wars. The battles that took place during the Hundred Days, between when Napoleon escaped Elba and when he was defeated at Waterloo, are not included.

Below is a close-up of the last battle listed on the south pillar. Gaeta (Gaete in French) is a city in Italy located on the west coast, roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. The Siege of Gaeta took place from February 26-July 18, 1806 and resulted in a French victory. It was part of the War of the Third Coalition, and happened shortly after Napoleon’s forces invaded the Kingdom of Naples on February 8, 1806. Louis of Hesse-Philippsthal, the General of the Neopolitan garrison, held out in the fortress city of Gaeta for five months until he and his forces had to surrender.

We’re looking at the south pillar again, but this time I’ve zoomed in on the interior of the smaller arch. You can now see two more columns facing into the small arch. “Adige” is the first name on the top left column, and “Naples” is the first name on the top right. Between these columns is a sculptural relief and a list of names.

Below is a close-up of that list of names. These are names of military leaders who served during the French Revolution and the French Empire. 660 people are listed, 558 of which are French generals. When a name is underlined, that means that person died on the battlefield. For example, “Bon Lanusse”, the top name in one of the centre rows, is underlined. Shortly below it, “Dubois” is underlined as well. A line of text running underneath the rows of names indicates which companies the men were a part of: “Armees de Dalmatie”, “D’Egypte”, etc.

From Wikipedia.

If we were to turn around and face the west pillar, this would be the list of names we would see there. Note again, underneath these rows of names, are the companies the men were a part of: “Armees de Pyrenees”, etc. Again, there are two columns on the right and left that face the inside of the small arch with lists of names. I noticed something on these columns. If you look at the right column, the names have a border with a double line on either side of them. The names also seem to be more human-sounding than location-related (“Lacroix P,” and “D’Henin” for example). I think that this border indicates that these are the names of more military leaders and Generals, rather than battle names. On the column on the far left, you’ll notice that the bottom list is similar (more human names). But the top list doesn’t have any borders. I think that top list is names of battles, again. You might notice this pattern on some of the other columns. I wanted to point it out here, where it’s easier to tell the difference.

The exterior of the west pillar faces the Avenue de la Grand-Armée and contains the relief La Résistance de 1814.

From Wikipedia.

In the picture below, I have stepped back outside of the small southwest arch we have been studying and am now facing it. You can see that the ceilings of both the small arch and the main arch (directly above me) contain sculpted roses.

In the picture below, I’ve taken another step further away from the south-west arch.

I did not take matching photos of the other small arch, the north-east one. When you were doing your imaginary walk through the Arc, this arch would have been on your right side. If you were standing where I was in the photo above, you would have seen it if you had turned around. I never know the shape of a future blog post when I’m actually visiting a site, so sometimes I miss things that I later wish I had photographed. I’ll try my best to explain it in detail with what I do have.

Remember where we started our imaginary walk through the Arc de Triomphe? We were standing on the Avenue de Champs-Élysées, facing it. Then we walked all the way through. Imagine that we’ve done this again. Now we’re back at the other side of the Arc, standing in the middle of the entrance (instead of to the side, as I was when I described the south pillar, above). Our back is to the Avenue de la Grand-Armée. To our right is the small south-west arch that we’ve already studied. To the left is the other arch we have not yet studied, the north-east one. Note the column on the left facing the inside of the main arch that has a list of French victories, starting with “Lille.”

From Pixabay.

This is the same view as above, just one step further in.

In the photo below, we’ve turned so that we’re facing left and have stepped in front of the left column for a closer study of the French victory list that begins with the name “Lille.” This column is located on the north pillar. The exterior of this pillar faces the Avenue de la Grand-Armée and contains the sculptural relief La Paix de 1815. 

If we stepped inside the north-east arch, this is the list of names that we would find on the north pillar. Again, notice the army companies are found underneath the rows of names: “Armees du Nord”, “Des Ardennes”, etc. Again, I think there are two different kinds of lists on the columns that face the interior of the small arch. If a list has an exterior border, it contains human names. You can see on the right column that “Desvaux” and “Burcy” are underlined, indicating that they died on the battlefield. If a list doesn’t have an exterior border, like the one on the top of the left column, it is a list of French military victories.

From Wikipedia.

If we were to turn around, we would be facing the east pillar. This is the list of names we would find there. The army companies cannot be seen in this frame, but they are the: “Armees du Danube, D’Helvetie, Des Grisons, Des Alpes, Du Var D’Italie, De Rome, De Naples.” The exterior of this east pillar faces the Avenue de Champs-Élysées once more, and contains the sculptural relief of Le Départ de 1792/La Marseillaise. 

I’ve already used this picture, but decided to post it again because it’s the best shot I have of the north-east arch.

All right, thank you for bearing with me for the most detailed written explanation of the Arc de Triomphe you’ll find outside of a guidebook (why do I do this to us?). Mercifully, for both you (the reader) and me (the writer), Neil and I were not feeling up to the task of visiting the exhibition inside the Arc de Triomphe or waiting in an hours-long line to climb the 284 steps to the top. We had just been dropped off after our day trip to see Monet’s gardens and were feeling a little burned out. Walking around the bottom of the monument was enough for us! We had also already been to the top of Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower, so we felt like we had already seen plenty of the Parisian skyline.

Another view of the Arc de Triomphe from the Eiffel Tower (from the second observation deck).

A view of the Arc de Triomphe from the top viewing deck of the Eiffel Tower. In the picture below, you can kind of make out some people standing at the top.

As you can see, the Arc de Triomphe already contains a lot of history in just its design, sculptures, and lists of military leaders and victories. A lot of this history precedes the completion of the monument itself. As you’ll see, the Arc’s symbolism as a testament to French military history quickly earned it a place of its own in history. France was not done with war in 1836, the year of the Arc’s completion. Not even close.

The man who had first commissioned the Arc de Triomphe did not live to see it completed. Napoleon died while he was in captivity, on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint-Helena on May 5, 1821. Louis-Philippe I oversaw the final construction of the Arc from 1830-1836. In 1840, he gained permission from the British to bring Napoleon’s remains back to France. A state funeral was held for Napoleon in Paris on December 15, 1840, during which his hearse was carried under the Arc. This can be seen, symbolically, as a moment of closure between the General and his monument.

Napoleon’s funeral carriage passing under the Arc de Triomphe. Jean Valmy-Baysse. From Wikipedia.

In 1880, the Arc became the starting point for the Bastille Day military parade. It has been held almost every year on July 14 since then. From 1882 to 1886, a plaster sculpture depicting a chariot drawn by horses adorned the top of the arch: Le triomphe de la Révolution (The Triumph of the Revolution), by Alexandre Falguière. The plaster quickly crumbled, and a bronze version that could have better stood up to the elements was never commissioned. The Musée d’Orsay contains an artist’s model of the sculpture.

From theMusée d’Orsay’s official website.

When French author Victor Hugo died on May 22, 1885, his body was laid in state under the Arc for one night. In the picture below, you can see the plaster sculpture of Falguière’s Le triomphe de la Révolution, which was still present at the time.

Funeral Ceremony for Victor Hugo. Antique 1885 print. From Wikipedia.

The Arc has also served as a rallying point by the French army in times of victory, and by its opponents in those of its defeat. 30,000 Prussian, Bavarian, and Saxon troops marched under the Arc on March 1, 1871 following German victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

Prussians parade through Paris, March 1871. From Wikipedia.

On July 14, 1919, the French and their Allies were able to take their turn in a special victory parade held after the conclusion of World War I (1914-1918), celebrating their defeat of the Germans. You can watch video footage of this moment on Youtube, here. (The Arc de Triomphe shows up about 30 seconds into the video).

The Victory Pararde in Paris, July 14, 1919. From the Imperial War Museums.

On August 7, three weeks after the victory parade, Charles Godefroy flew through the Arc de Triomphe in a biplane******. This extraordinary feat is on Youtube, which you can see here.

A still from the video of Godefroy flying his biplane through the Arc de Triomphe.

Photographed by Jacques Mortane. August 7, 1919. From Wikipedia.

On November 20, 1916, as the terrible Battle of Verdun was winding down, F Simon (President of the French Memory) had the idea of laying the body of one French soldier to rest in the Panthéon to symbolically honour all of the men fighting for France in the Great War. There, the soldier would be joining the historic ranks of other prominent French military leaders, including François-Severin Marceau, who had died defending the fatherland. This idea gained traction after the conclusion of World War I. On November 12, 1919, French officials decided to officially move forward with it. However, a public letter writing campaign convinced the French Parliament to change the location of the burial from the Panthéon to the Arc de Triomphe. The body of one unknown soldier, meant to symbolize the sacrifice made by so many other soldiers whose remains were never found or identified, was commemorated at the Arc de Triomphe on November 10, 1920. The coffin containing the soldier was first placed in the Arc’s chapel on the first floor. It was then moved to its present location underneath the main arch, ground level, facing the Avenue de Champs-Élysees. The inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reads: “Here lies a French soldier who died for his fatherland 1914-1918.” A ceremony is held every November 11 to honour the sacrifice made by him and his peers.

Standing at the foot of the tomb.

The tomb is located in front of the south-west arch.

The dedication below translates as: “11 November 1918, return from Alsace and Lorraine to France.”

The tomb also contains an eternal flame, which was lit on November 11, 1923 at 6:00 pm. It was the first eternal flame that had been lit in Europe since the sacred flame once tended by the Vestal Virgins in Rome was extinguished in 394 C.E². It is revived every night during a ceremony held at 6:30 pm. Incredibly, this tradition continued even during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II.

Standing at the head of the tomb, with the eternal flame at the forefront.

Of course, France was (still!) not yet done with war in 1920. I’m going to jump ahead in my story a little, because a description of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would not be complete without acknowledging that today it commemorates lives lost in World War I and World War II. The inscription below translates as: “To the Fighters of the Armies; To the Fighters of the Resistance; [who] Died for France 1939-1945.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier also contains a touching dedication to student resisters of the German occupation. The inscription below reads: “In tribute to high school students, and students from France, who defied the army of the Nazi occupiers, on November 11, 1940, risking their lives.”

Nazi Germany occupied Paris on June 10, 1940. As  Armistice Day (November 11) approached that same year, the Nazis forbade ceremonies, church services, or war commemoration of any kind. They didn’t want to risk an uprising. In spite of this order, 3,000-5,000 university and high school students marched down the Avenue de Champs-Élysées. The Nazis had been using this avenue as a route for their many military parades. On this day, the students reclaimed it in one of the first demonstrations made against the Occupation, and they laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The reprisal, as expected, was swift and violent: many demonstrators were injured, and around a hundred students were arrested or imprisoned.

Demonstration of November 11, 1940. Students from the Institut agronomique prepare to lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From the Museum of National Resistance, Champigny-sur-Marne.

You might have noticed in the photos above that there was a plaque containing the image of a flaming sword. This plaque was added after World War II. It contains the insignia of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), which was the London headquarters for the Commander (General Dwight D. Eisenhower) of the the Allied forces from 1943-1945. The plaque is dated August 25, 1944, marking the Liberation of Paris.

With the description of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier done (with a brief jump ahead to explain some of the features that were added due to World War II), I’m going to back the narrative up just a bit. Although the “Great War” was meant to be the “war to end all wars”, we all know now that more was to come. Nazi Germany attacked and defeated the French army on May 10, 1940. The Germans occupied Paris on June 14 and, just like 1871, enemy combatants incorporated the Arc de Triomphe in their victory march. This was daringly followed in November by the march of the student resisters, as previously discussed.

German troops parade down the Champs-Élysées. From the German Federal Archive, 1940. From Wikipedia.

The city was liberated by French and American troops on August 25, 1944. On August 26, French General Charles de Gaulle led an Allied victory parade around the Arch de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées. Both the Germans and the French avoided going directly under the arch, out of respect for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Instead, they marched around it. All military parades that have taken place since 1919 have observed this custom.

A colourised photo of the Allied victory parade that took place on August 26, 1944.

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs-Élysées to view Free French tanks and half tracks of General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division pass, after Paris was liberated on August 26, 1944. Jack Downey, US Office of War Information. From Wikipedia.

The Arc de Triomphe continues to be an important national symbol for the French. Every year, it serves as the centre of celebrations for France’s national holiday on July 14, la Fête national (known in English as Bastille Day). A large tricolour flag is hung inside the Arc for the occasion. The Arc is the starting point for the military parade, and a twenty-minute fly past is done by the Patrouille Acrobatique de France over the Arc with 9 fighter jets. On New Year’s Eve, the Arc de Triomphe hosts a light show and fireworks celebration.

From Pixabay.

Unfortunately, the Arc de Triomphe has also been a target for terrorist attacks and vandalism. In 1995, a bomb set off by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria wounded 17 people. Most recently, the Arc de Triomphe was vandalized on December 1, 2019 by protesters taking part in the Yellow Vests movement. On March 16, 2019 riots along the Avenue de Champs-Élysees led to 80 business being damaged, pillaged, and set on fire. Dissent and protest have a long history in France and are a key part of a functioning democracy, but hopefully the violence and destruction of property will soon come to an end.

I hope you enjoyed this visit of the Arc de Triomphe! This is my longest travel blog post yet. I will be impressed if you were able to read it in one sitting.


¹ The original name of the area that contains the Arc de Triomphe and the Place Charles de Gaulle was the “Butte Chaillot” (Chaillot mound). Prior to the roadwork in 1777, it was where a number of hunting trails converged.

² Napoleon commissioned the construction of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the same time, which is located near the Louvre. It is only half the size of the Arc de Triomphe d’Étoile, measuring 63 feet (19 m) high, 75 feet (23 m) wide, and 24 feet (7.3 m) deep. It was built, and completed, between 1806-1808. I’ll cover it in detail in another post, as this one is already long enough!

A glimpse through the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which is also located on the Axe Historique. You can see the Arc de Triomphe, which is about 3.5 km away. The obelisk is situated at the The Place de la Concorde, which is where Louis XVI was guillotined during the French Revolution. The obelisk once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple, and it was gifted to France by Egypt in 1829. It was raised in the square on October 25, 1836 (it took a few years to get the obelisk to France).

From Wikipedia.

³ Below is a picture of the Arch of Titus, the Roman inspiration for the Parisian Arc de Triomphe. It was erected in 82 C.E. by the Emperor Domitian, to commemorate the victories of his older brother Emperor Titus after his passing in 81 C.E. I’ll also talk more about this arch in another post.

**** As a Canadian, something that comes to my mind is that the Arc de Triomphe is almost like a precursor to the Stanley Cup. I’m pretty sure this is the first time in history this comparison has ever been made.

***** The National Guard is a French military and police reserve force. It was founded on July 13, 1789 as a “garde bourgeoise” (bourgeois militia), and was separate from the French army. It was revolutionary in nature and sympathetic to the cause of the lower classes. On July 14, 1789 this militia stormed the Bastille and the Hôtel Invalides in search of weapons. The officers of the National Guard were elected, and a law issued on October 14, 1791 decreed that all “active citizens” and their children over the age of 18 were required to enlist. Their uniforms matched the French tricolour: dark blue coats with red collars, white lapels and cuffs.

****** Sadly, another man, ace fighter pilot Jean Navarre, died on July 10, 1919 during a practice flight for his attempt at flying through the Arc de Triomphe. Charles Godefroy volunteered to replace him.

Need a cheat sheet to keep the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars straight? Me too.

The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802)

  • French Republic versus Britain, Austria, Prussia, Egypt, and others.
  • Consists of two main conflicts, the First and Second Coalitions.
  • During the French Revolution, countries debated whether they should intervene to support Louis XVI, prevent the spread of revolutionary sentiment throughout the rest of Europe, or take advantage of France’s political turmoil.
  • First Coalition: 1792-1797. France declared war on on Prussia and Austria in spring 1792. The countries invaded France and the Battle of Valmy took place on September 20, 1792. The French were victorious. It was a surprise upset and a big psychological victory for the new French government (the National Convention), which had just been reorganized after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792 (the large sculptural relief Le Départ de 1792/La Marseillaise depicts those events). This victory served as vindication for the revolutionary government, and they were emboldened to declare the abolishment of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic. I’m surprised that there isn’t a bas-relief that depicts the Battle of Valmy. Historians view it as one of the most significant battles in history, because of the confidence it gave the revolutionary French government.
    • There is a bas-relief of the Battle of Jemappes, which took place shortly after on November 6, 1792. This victory gave further confidence to the French revolutionary government and its army.
    • In 1794, the French scored huge victories against the Austrians and the Spanish.
    • In 1795, the French captured the Austrian Netherlands and signed a peace treaty with Spain and Prussia.
    • In April 1796, a then-little known general named Napoleon Bonaparte began his first campaign in Italy.
    • There is a bas-relief that depicts the funeral of General François Séverin Marceau, who fought in many battles that took place during the First Coalition. His funeral was held on September 20, 1796.
    • Another bas-relief features the Battle of Arcole (November 15-17, 1796). This is the one where Napoleon stood in the range of enemy fire near a bridge, waving a flag to encourage his men forward.
    • By April 1797, the French armies led by Napoleon pushed the Austrian/Hapsburg forces out of Italy.
    • On October 18, 1797, the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed by France and Austria. This ended the War of the First Coalition.
  • Second Coalition: 1798-1802. Began when Napoleon invaded Egypt. The Allied powers decided to take advantage of Napoleon’s absence from the European continent to try and re-take land they had lost during the First Coalition.
    • Two bas-reliefs, the Fall of Alexandria (July 3, 1798) and the Battle of Aboukir (July 25, 1799) depict scenes from Napoleon’s Egypt-Syria campaign. His victories against the Egyptian and Ottoman armies increased his popularity back home.
    • The Allies were successful at first, pushing the French out of Italy. They also invaded Switzerland.
    • Russia had to drop out of the war after French victory at the Battle of Zurich, which took place from September 25-26, 1799.
    • Napoleon returned from Egypt in the fall of 1799. He orchestrated a coup in November 1799 and overthrew the French government (then known as the Directory); he then appointed himself First Consul of the Republic. He launched a fresh attack against the Austrians in Italy during the spring of 1800. He pushed them out by June.
    • French defeat of the Austrians in Bavaria led to the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801.
    • Britain was left on its own without Russia and Austria. It had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Amiens with Napoleon on March 25, 1802. This ended the War of the Second Coalition, and was the end of the French Revolutionary Wars. (Soon to resume, though as the Napoleonic Wars).

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)

  • fought between the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon, versus various other European powers, usually led by Britain.
  • Consists of five main conflicts, the Third-Seventh Coalitions, each termed after the group of European nations that were united against Napoleon.
  • on May 18, 1804, Napoleon became the First Emperor of the French.
  • 3rd Coalition: 1805. France versus Russia and Austria. Napoleon defeated them at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805. This is considered his greatest victory, and inspired him to build the Arc de Triomphe. One of the bas-reliefs depicts this battle.
    • During this conflict, the British faced off against the combined French and Spanish navy on October 21, 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. This victory led to the British retaining control of the seas and prevented the invasion of Britain itself.
  • Fourth Coalition: October 1806-1807. Prussia was concerned about increasing French power, and allied with Russia, Saxony, and Sweden. Napoleon quickly defeated the Prussia at the Battle of Jena (Oct 14, 1806) and the Russians at the Battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807).
  • Fifth Coalition: 1809. Badly prepared, led by Austria (with support from Britain, Spain, and Portugal). The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Wagram (July 5-6, 1809) by Napoleon’s combined French and Bavarian forces. The Treaty of Schönbrunn was signed between France and Austria on October 14, 1809. Austria’s Emperor, Francis I, married his daughter off to Napoleon. Napoleon had the wooden Arc de Triomphe erected to celebrate his return to Paris with his new Austrian bride. The large sculptural relief of Le Triomphe de 1810 commemorates these events.
  • Invasion of Portugal/Betrayal of Spain: Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807; Portugal was the only remaining British ally in Europe. Temptation got the better of Napoleon while he had his French troops in Spain; he turned against his former ally, deposed the reigning Spanish Bourbon family, and had his brother declared Joseph I, King of Spain, in 1808. Spain was not a fan of this, so they joined forces with the Portuguese and British. After six years of fighting, the French were expelled from Iberia (the landmass that consists of Spain and Portugal) in 1814.
  •  Invasion of Russia: Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. It did not end well. The French were forced to retreat after sustaining heavy losses.
  • Sixth Coalition: 1813. Prussia, Russia, and Austria were encouraged by Napoleon’s loss in Russia. They defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzeig on October 16-19, 1813. They invaded France, and captured Paris in March 1814. Napoleon was forced to abdicate in early April, and was exiled to Elba as the Bourbons returned to the throne (Louis XVIII). The two large sculptural reliefs of La Résistance de 1814 and La Paix (Peace) de 1815 commemorate these events.
  • Napoleon escaped Elba in February 1815 and regained control of France.
  • Seventh Coalition: The Allies responded to Napoleon’s return. They defeated him conclusively at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. He was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France.

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