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History of the Arc de Triomphe

History of the Arc de Triomphe

The nation of France is famous for many things, croissants, cheese, wine... and its architectural gems. One of them is the Arc de Triomphe. Read on to delve into this monument's rich history.
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War memorials and monuments are meant as physical, architectural symbols of the victory and losses, that come with fighting wars. While the world has many war monuments like The Cenotaph in London and the Arlington Marine Corps Memorial in the United States, a very old and famous war monument is the Arc de Triomphe of France (Translation: Triumphal Arch). While there are many interesting facts about this arch, the timeline of its existence, from its architectural design to its place in France's history is examined below.

The Arc de Triomphe's History

All things have a beginning. With great monuments of the past, their inception and reason for being, is an integral part of their history and so below, starting from the point of its inception, is the timeline of the Arc de Triomphe.

In 1806, a little man ruled over France with an iron will and a thirst for war and conquering. Napoleon Bonaparte had emerged from the bloody French Revolution as a leader and now defended France against a sea of European enemies. The year 1806 was a peak period of Napoleon's rule as Emperor of France. It was in December 1805, that Napoleon and his armies fought the Battle of Austerlitz. In the Austrian Empire, in the county of Austerlitz, the French armies took on the might of a joint Russian-Austrian military force, as well as the army of the Holy Roman Empire.

This battle was rightly nicknamed, the Battle of the Three Emperors, as the armed forces of each kingdom were formidable to the extreme. For nine hours, the battle raged but thanks to Napoleon's razor-sharp thinking and keen war-time strategies, the two armies were defeated and the Third Coalition dissolved. After various treaty signing and other war formalities, Napoleon returned to Paris, a victorious leader and flush with his triumph at Austerlitz, decided to construct a monument of victory. It would be a time immemorial symbol of his war victories and of those who fought with him and would stand at the western end of the Champs-Élysées.

Napoleon was heavily influenced by Roman and Greek architecture, especially of their depictions of victory and commissioned architect, Jean Chalgrin, to begin work on the monument. It was the Emperor's wish, that his troops would march through such a monument, on their way and while returning from battle. In March 1806, Chalgrin and Jean-Arnaud Raymond were formally appointed as the architects and rough designs were drawn. Keeping the Emperor's Roman tendencies in mind, Chalgrin designed the Arc based on the Arch of Titus in Rome. On Napoleon's birthday (August 15th), the Arc's first stone was laid. But it took 2 years for just setting up and laying the Arc's foundations.

In 1810, a wooden mock-up of the Arc was created, so that the newly-wed Emperor and his bride, the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, could enter Paris by passing under the Arch. Sadly in 1811, Chalgrin died and work on the Arc was temporarily suspended. His pupil, Louis-Robert Goust took over and continued his teacher's work. For a while, things went smoothly. But then irony struck, in the form of France's political turmoil. Napoleon was ousted from the throne of France and exiled to Elba. He managed to return to power but went to fight the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and was defeated by General Wellington. After that, he was exiled to the isle of Saint Helena for the rest of his days. He spent 6 years in exile and died in 1821. Neither did the man behind the Arc's vision see it even half built nor was his wish of troops marching under it, ever fulfilled.

For sometime with the uncertain political situation, the Arc de Triomphe was forgotten, and lay a half completed monument. In 1824, Jean-Nicolas Huyot was appointed to complete the Arc by then Emperor Charles X. However, he was removed and then reinstated and finally in 1832, the Arc was completed under the supervision of 3 architects, Goust, Huyot and Héricart de Thury. This was during the reign of King Louis-Philippe, who inaugurated the Arc de Triomphe in 1836.

Finally the monument was built and completed 15 years after Napoleon's death. When his ashes were returned to France from St. Helena, the funeral procession passed under the Arc, on their way to the Invalides. In 1871, when the Germans invaded France, they passed under the Arc. In 1916, on the day of the Battle of Verdun, one of the most bloodiest and vicious battles of the First World War, a sword carried by the Republic in the Marseillaise relief (one of the sculptures on the Arc) broke off. But this incident was concealed from the public.

In 1919, after the First World War, it was decided that the Arc should be the resting place for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The initial location was to be the Pantheon but the public rallied against this and so the Arc shelters a tomb representing those who died in World War I unidentified (later World War II as well). In 1920, an eternal flame was lit at this location.

After the Tomb was laid, no troops have marched under the Arc but rather they march up to the arch and then go around the side. This gesture is out of respect for the Tomb's symbolism and was observed by the German troops, which invaded France in 1940. In 1944, when France was liberated from the Nazis, French troops under the leadership of General De Gaulle, marched around the Arc. This was also done by the US troops in 1945.

From the above history of the Arc de Triomphe, one can see how this monument has remained a symbol of victory, triumph and the fighting spirit of the French people. Though it was created by a military leader who was later despised, the spirit and idea behind this monument, is still treasured and relived, two hundred years after its inception.