Historial de la Grande Guerre
This museum has in part been made possible due to the decentralization politics of the 1980s under French President Mitterrand. The regional council of the Somme region was thus in a position to decide to build a new museum about WW1 and picked Péronne as the location for it. The town had been under German occupation for most of the war, and its civilian population suffered greatly. So given the museum concept’s focus on the human side of war, it’s an appropriate choice of place.
Following a design competition held in 1987, the actual new museum building was constructed between 1989 and 1992. The new architecture was partly integrated into the ruins of the Château de Péronne and partly in an annexe, some of which stands on stilts in the water of an adjacent lake.
The museum opened on 1 August 1992 – that is only weeks after the opening of the Somme 1916 Museum
in Albert, but the two institutions couldn’t be more different from each other! While the counterpart in Albert is underground and gloomy and focused primarily on the soldiers in the trenches, the ‘Historial’ is open-plan, airy and bright and has neither trench reconstructions nor particularly large numbers of military artefacts, but lots of propaganda examples, social and civilian elements, and also looks much more at different contexts, including the run-up to the war as well as the aftermath.
This is the result of an international co-operation effort in which not only French but also British and German historians were, and still are (in the board of directors) involved. The museum receives approximately 80,000 visitors annually.
What there is to see: You approach the regular entrance (there’s also an alternative back entrance) by walking through the massive brick gate of the Castle. In the courtyard you find a couple of sculptures of soldiers as well as a large tank. This is a Saint-Chamond model, which is of a bulky design that proved totally useless in the field and was quickly given up.
You then climb some stairs behind the tank and enter the foyer where you obtain your ticket. You can also watch a short introductory film that features original footage mixed with animated illustrated maps.
Then you enter the permanent exhibition proper. This is subdivided into several halls partly according to the chronological sequence of the history presented, but also according to specific subthemes.
The entire first hall is about the pre-war era. There is a strong focus on colonialism, the chauvinistic, racist and cruel elements involved in it, as well as the aspect of competition between the colonial powers, which played a significant role in the build-up of aggression between those countries and the concomitant arms race. However, this section also presents the (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts of pacifists trying to prevent war. On display are propaganda items, decorative plates with colonial themes, as well as various interactive screens at which visitors can dig deeper into the topic.
All texts and labellings throughout the museum are trilingual, in French, German and English.
A connecting or ante-room
has as its theme the eve of the outbreak of war, with floor-to-ceiling blow-up photos of people from the various countries hanging from the ceiling … it’s often not easy to tell the different nationalities apart (and that of course is the point here). Behind these photo sheets is a side exhibition of etchings by the German artist Otto Dix
. He served in both the Somme
, with a stint on the Eastern front in between. Trench warfare is depicted in a very realistic, drastic way in his artwork, conveying the horrors he’d encountered during the war. The Nazis
later classed his work as “entartete Kunst” (‘degenerate art’) and banned him. Here in the museum you can see (presumably) reproductions of the 50 etchings Dix originally published in the 1920s under the title “Der Krieg” (‘the war’).
The second proper exhibition hall deals with the first half of WW1. There is no pre-given circuit through the exhibition here. Instead you are free to make your own connections between the various components. One stylistic peculiarity in this section is the square shallow pits set into the floor in which the different uniforms of French, British and German soldiers are spread out neatly flat on the bottom, so without the usual mannequins you typically get in other museums in the region. The soldiers’ other gear is arranged around the clothing, things like a helmet, boots, personal belonging such as ID papers, tobacco pipes, cutlery, eating bowls and drinking bottles, little spades, hand grenades and whatnot. Along the wall are displays of propaganda posters and newspapers from the day war broke out. Video screens show historic photos of cheering people at the start of the war. On display, too, are war toys, letters from the front and also funereal clothing and works of other artists depicting the war. Interestingly, the three nations mainly involved in the war are represented here in parallel, so you can make your own comparisons of the respective mindsets and social components.
The third hall
is about the second half of WW1
, so 1916 to 1918
, in which the increasing industrialization of warfare dominated, while at the same time the hardships for the civilian population increased as food became scarce. In the pits in the floor you now see assorted light weapons such as machine guns of different types, other pits contain medical gear from field hospitals, and yet others all manner of trench communications apparatus, gas masks and other artefacts. Planes and tanks are only represented by scale models, including three ca. 1:3 scale fighter planes suspended from the ceiling, as well as in video material (e.g. one video shows tanks in action). There are also charts and touchscreens showing the changing front lines during the last two and a half years of the war. But the military details play at best a secondary role here. Again, it’s more the human side that is the main focus.
Along the wall, again, are propaganda posters as well as wartime cookbooks (how to make do with limited means). In glass display cases there are yet more propagandistic objects illustrating the expression of mutual hate for the enemy, e.g. there’s a figurine of the Austrian Kaiser dangling from a gallows or a German pointed helmet on a ceramic pig’s head instead of a human one.
The fourth and final hall
focuses on the aftermath
of the war, including reconstruction, pilgrimages to the battlefields, mourning but also political consequences and upheavals especially in Germany
, where a great division developed between the left and the right.
The topic of the soldiers disfigured in the war is a poignant topic here as well, and there’s a video showing some of the horrific wounds sustained but also the advances of facial restoration surgery, and of course prosthetics. In one corner there’s a display of a jumble of battlefield relics as they are found to this day in the fields, i.e. raw, rusty, untreated and uncleaned.
The museum also has a cinema room
where you can watch an additional 30-minute film
about the Battle of the Somme (there are ten or eleven screenings spread over the day, no extra ticket required). There is a museum cafe
too, as well as a shop
, which sells both historical books, DVDs, etc. on the topic of WW1
and the Somme
, as well as some souvenirs (but without the war relics sold at the Somme 1916 Museum
Also associated with the museum is a research and documentation centre, which is free to use by appointment. It’s supposed to serve as an interface between historiography and musealization.
All in all
, this is a rather atypical war museum, with its focus on the human side and the freedoms of comparisons and interpretations given to the visitors (rather than “taking them by the hand” along a pre-given static narrative) are unusual too. It encourages one’s own thinking and does not take any sides. It also provides a lot of context not normally covered in war museums, such as the colonialist roots of the conflict. Personally, I find that quite an intriguing approach, but I know from talking to other people in the Somme
, tourists and operators alike, who see it differently and criticized the Historial as unordered and overly ambitious – while lacking in the display of military hardware. I guess it’s just down to different tastes and expectations. I do enjoy seeing unorthodox museum-commodification approaches and don’t mind being challenged. But I can also understand that fans of displays of big objects such as tanks, planes and heavy artillery will be disappointed by the Historial de la Grande Guerre.
inside the Château de Péronne in the centre of the French
town of the same name, on Place André Audinot, just off the main D1017 through route.
Access and costs: easy to get to by car; not the cheapest, but worth it.
Details: Péronne is not on a train line, so the only way of getting there by public transport would be by bus (e.g. from Albert or from Amiens), which might be a challenge for non-French-speakers.
Getting there by car is comparatively easy. Coming from Albert or from the motorway A1 (exit 13.1 “Albert-Péronne-Nord”) take the D938 eastbound and as you enter the town simply keep going straight across at the two roundabouts and you’ll come directly to the square in front of the museum. There is parking right opposite as well as on the museum’s own car park just to the south of it off Rue de la Résistance/Rue du Cam.
The main entrance to the museum is behind the big stone gatehouse of the castle with its flagpoles on top – impossible to miss. There’s also an alternative back entrance for wheelchair users avoiding the stairs. Inside everything is wheelchair-compatible.
Opening times: in the high season between 1 April and 30 September daily from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; during the rest of the year the museum closes an hour early and doesn’t open at all on Wednesdays. It also has an annual closing period from mid-December to late January.
: regular ticket 10 EUR, but a wide range of concessions apply. Note also that you can get combination tickets for both this museum and its branch at Thiepva
l, offering a not insignificant saving of four euros compared to two separate tickets.
If you want to stay overnight in Péronne there are a couple of accommodation options, including a small Best Western hotel just round the corner from the museum – but for more comprehensive explorations of the Somme
, the options in Albert
are better located.
Time required: very much depends on whether you want to watch both films and how deep you want to delve into any of the interactive elements. I spent over two and a half hours in this museum and could have stayed longer, but others may be content with a shorter, more selective visit.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The most obvious combination has to be that with the museum’s other branch at Thiepval
(make sure to get a reduced combination ticket if you plan to visit both sites). To get there from Péronne (or vice versa) you definitely need a car. First make your way back to Albert and then follow the directions given in the Thiepval chapter.
All the other WW1 sites of the Somme
covered here are also to the west of Péronne and combine easily with one another.
In the other direction, the pilgrimage site that is the Wilfred Owen trail
in Ors is a good hour’s drive from Péronne. The drive down to Reims for the WWII Surrender Museum
takes about an hour and a half.
See also under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Péronne is actually the only place listed here under The Somme
that is in fact directly on the river of that name, so you could just as well go and have quick look. The town is a quiet place that doesn’t otherwise offer much in terms of tourism.
But see under France
- Peronne Historial 01 - main gate
- Peronne Historial 02 - soldier sculpture
- Peronne Historial 03 - tank
- Peronne Historial 04 - inside the museum
- Peronne Historial 05 - colonial pre-history
- Peronne Historial 06 - German ceremonial helmet
- Peronne Historial 07 - Austro-Preussian regal light bulb
- Peronne Historial 08 - main exhibition section
- Peronne Historial 09 - odd hollows-in-the-floor-with-artefacts design
- Peronne Historial 10 - little screens dotted around
- Peronne Historial 11 - guns
- Peronne Historial 12 - communications gear
- Peronne Historial 13 - gas mask
- Peronne Historial 14 - the medical side
- Peronne Historial 15 - prosthetic arm
- Peronne Historial 16 - model war planes
- Peronne Historial 17 - propaganda gallows
- Peronne Historial 18 - more war-time propaganda
- Peronne Historial 19 - raw relics
- Peronne Historial 20 - new visitor centre in the making