From the Stars and Stripes archives

Arc de Triomphe: Paris' symbol of patriotism

The Eternal Flame at the tomb of France's Unknown Soldier, at the base of the Arc de Triomphe.


Everyone ought to see it once.

By DON WALTER | Stars and Stripes | Published: August 28, 1958

WHEN IN PARIS for the first time, one of the normal procedures for tourists is the visit to the Arc de Triomphe.  The huge stone mass rates high among Paris attractions — with the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower and the Folies Bergere.

Everyone ought to see it once. The view from the top is worth waiting in line for. Like most things in Paris, the arch, France's symbol of patriotism, has a past; the Place de l'Etoile has been the scene of France's most important national demonstrations — happy occasion or otherwise — for a century and a half. The arch, in the center of the place, has witnessed all of them.

The Etoile (meaning star in French) is probably the only site that was ever laid out especially for the monument it contains. The arch was started 152 years ago. It took more than 30 years to build. Today it stands as proudly as ever on one of the high elevations of the right bank in the center of Paris. But when Napoleon I decided. to build it in 1808 the Champs-Elysees were still a wilderness at the city's west end.

The Arch of Triumph is a monument to France's armies, past and present. The enthusiasm created by Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805 resulted in the construction of the smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuileries Gardens. But the emperor wanted another monument to commemorate the victories of the revolutionary armies he had led to fame when he was General Bonaparte.

It took years to decide on what kind of a triumphal arch to build. There were all sorts of considerations. The location was picked because it was the highest point in the area and in direct line with the Arch of the Carrousel. The idea of a circle with 12 avenues radiating from the arch came much later, when Napoleon III's city planner, Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, was commissioned to give the capital a complete facelifting.

Designs submitted for the new arch ranged from the grotesque to proposals in such excellent taste the final choice was difficult. One plan called for a triumphal arch in the form of an elephant 10 stories high with water spouting from its trunk. For the July 14 celebration of Napoleon's Year XI (actually 1811 — he started his own calendar in 1800) a temporary triumphal monument, an artificial rock formation topped by a winged Marianne dancing on a globe, was built at the Etoile.

The year before, Napoleon had brought back his new empress, Marie Louise, from Austria and for her entry to Paris another temporary arch had been erected. The final plan had then been decided upon, but difficulties in getting the foundations into place had delayed construction. So a framework covered with canvas, the exact dimensions of the present arch, was put up.

Although construction began in May 1806 political and financial reasons delayed the project. It was not inaugurated until July 29, 1836 — 22 years after Napoleon's first abdication, and 15 years after he died.

The design of Jean Francois, who also built the church of St. Philippe du Roule in Paris, finally was accepted. Other architects were employed in completing details. It is the largest structure of its kind ever erected. Final cost was 9,303,507, francs (at the1836 value of the franc, about $2,000,000).

Several events since have made the arch a symbol of nationalism to every Frenchman.

In 1840 Napoleon's remains were returned to Paris. Rites included a procession under the arch. Queen Victoria of England was the leading figure in a parade through the arch on her visit to Paris' Universal Exposition of 1855. This was the scene of Victor Hugo's lying-in-state in 1885, with more than a million Parisians passing by the bier and 800,000 following the hearse from the arch to the Pantheon, his final resting place.

In more recent times there have been occasions for great rejoicing in the Etoile. French and Allied troops marched in huge victory parades under the arch on July 14, 1919 and again on June 18, 1945. One of the happiest hours came Aug. 26, 1944, when Paris was liberated and Gen Charles de Gaulle was acclaimed.

France brought her Unknown Soldier to the arch on Nov. 11, 1920. He was interred at the base. A plain bronze plaque carries the simple inscription: "Here lies a French soldier who died for his country." There is a plaque at the foot of the grave presented by President Eisenhower when he was commander of Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Forces. It is engraved with the date of Paris' liberation, Aug. 25, 1944.

The flame that burns in a bronze bowl over the grave was first lighted on Nov. 11, 1923. Each evening at 6 o'clock a different group of ex-servicemen or a patriotic society marches to the arch to rekindle the flame. Occasionally American groups. have been asked to conduct this daily ritual.

Aside from its history and traditions, the arch is impressive for its great bulk. Viewing Paris from one of the hills surrounding the city, the arch stands out prominently. It is 160 feet high and 145 feet wide. The main archway is 90 feet high. On Bastille Day and other holidays a French flag is draped from top to bottom, illuminated with red, white and blue searchlights. Sculpture decorates the arch. There are bands of ornamental stonework on the upper third of the structure. Shields are inscribed with the names of principal battles of the republic.

Inside, a stairway and elevator lead to the top, open daily except Tuesday. From here, there is an excellent view of the city and suburbs. Also inside is a small museum with 300 objects connected with the history of the arch.

The Arc de Triomphe was planed by Napoleon, but wasn't finished until 15 years after his death.

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