Historical de la Grande Guerre, perhaps the premier museum dealing with the cultural history of the First World War on the Western Front. I added the “perhaps” because, firstly, I am a cultural historian. It is the bread and butter for my own interest and research, so I’m attempting to cover my bias. Secondly, there are several museums that add a great deal of cultural history to the visiting experience to the Western Front but none with the exceptional depth that the Historical de la Grande Guerre is able to achieve. This of course may have to do with the fact that Professor Jay Winter, the eminent scholar, who is the paramount word on the cultural experience of the First World War, is one of the founders.
But for those of you reading this thinking I’m banging on about culture a bit too much, please don’t worry, as there is plenty on exhibition to interest military historians, social historians, amateur historians and transient or first-time visitors to the Western Front.
Based in Perrone, in the grounds of the old chateau and close to the banks of the River Somme, it is perfectly located to accommodate most visitors. It is at the very Southern edge of the Somme battlefields and the beginning of the extensive French zones of battle and in the middle of the area of the 1918 battlefields.
The first notable exhibition is on the Australians fighting their way through Perrone in 1918. A small but very detailed military history of the Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin. General Sir Henry Rawlinson, stating that it was the Australian’s greatest military achievements of the war.
You then enter the main exhibition hall, passing a reproduction Saint-Chamond tank (a school commemoration project for the centenary) at the entrance. The themes the museum aims to display are mainly the history of the Somme battles, the collective vision of the war both in a Western European perspective and internationally, mindsets and living conditions of the soldiers and individuals and the impact of modern war on daily life. The hall itself is split into five distinctive chambers, roughly chronological and covering everything from pre-war revanche to post war remembrance and commemoration.
The first chamber is based on the beginning of the war; the diplomatic, economic and military history that led to the outbreak of war in 1914. It is truly well laid out. One of the most striking objects are the French commemorative plates that were part of the outpouring of revanche after the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War, and the longing for the return of Alsace and Lorraine.
The main gallery of the hall, houses rooms 2/3 and the audio-visual rooms dealing with the years 1914-1916, 1917-1918, the personal experiences of soldiers and civilians, and the cultural manifestations of war, (for the author, notably the large amount of art created during and after the war). The exhibitions are in display cases, stand-alone displays of prints and recesses in the floor. These recesses contain everything from the gruesome industrial weaponry that epitomised the war, such as machine guns and smaller artillery, to the uniforms worn by the main combatant nations. Interestingly, each uniform has been detailed with personal items from the contents of kit packs, allowing people to connect to the idea of these, now, many faceless soldiers as individuals.
The next room set slightly above the main chamber is the Dix collection; one of the finest exhibits of the artist’s First World War etchings in one place (The only publicly exhibited collection in France). It is a terrifying testament to the realities of industrialised war, as seen through the eyes of the German artist Otto Dix. One truly feels the visceral nature of modern warfare and is exposed to the grotesque sights all soldiers endured during their time at the front.
The final room is a fine collection of the commemorative and remembrance edifices that were produced by both state and individuals in the wake of the Great War. This room considers the often-overlooked aspect of the impact of the war on societies throughout Europe and the catharsis that took place through memorialisation.
The Historical de la Grande Guerre is a must-see museum if one is undertaking a visit to the Western Front. The location alone, just south of the Somme battlefields, places this museum in an ideal location to invest historical interest in visitors. One will leave having experienced, if nothing else, amazement at the vast collection of this fine museum but hopefully the well-thought-out exhibitions will encourage further deliberation on the cultural, social and military aspect of the war and the many lives affected.
A note on housekeeping. The museum is fully accessible. There are two carparks either side of the Chateau grounds. Car is the best way of accessing the museum and the battlefields around the area. A large car park to the rear of the building on Avenue Jean Jaurés and a smaller one, with disability parking, on the Rue du Cam, with easier access to the entrance. The museum is also a research centre so the communal area is shared with those that are researching and working at the Historical de la Grande Guerre.
The museum has a large outdoor seating area, a café and a bookshop. The ticket office is on the floor above the bookshop.
Adult €10 Teacher €7.50
Children (7-16) €5 Student €5
Student €4.50 Disabled €7.50
Family (2Ad. 2Chd.) €25 Veteran €7.50
Job Seeker €5
1st April - 30th September 9.30am – 6pm Everyday
1st October – 31st March 9.30am – 5pm Sun-Tues/Thurs-Sat
Annual closure: 16th December – 26th January
Chateau de Pérrone
Place André Audrinot
(+33) (0)3 22 83 14 18
* * *
James McKinnon Holmes is a free-lance Historian. He is a former Commonwealth War Graves Commision intern and has done research for a historical television documentary series released in the UK and soon to be released in North America. He holds several degrees in History and International Relations.