July 14th 1789: Storming of the Bastille
On this day in 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress in Paris. This event came towards the beginning of the French Revolution which led to the toppling of the monarchy and execution of King Louis XVI. The dramatic events at the Bastille were precipitated by the King’s refusal to approve the reorganisation of the Estates-General, a general assembly designed to represent the clergy, the nobles and the common people. In response to fears of a counter-attack by the King’s forces, revolutionaries planed to seize the weapons in the Bastille. The prison was lightly guarded and the revolutionaries were able to force their way through and the ensuing violence led to the surrender of the defenders. The Bastille was where the French monarchy held their opponents, including figures like the mysterious ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ from 1670 to 1703, and so the mob also released the seven prisoners held there. The Bastille had represented ironclad royal authority and its fall was a major turning point in the revolution. After the Bastille the revolution escalated, with the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and abolition of feudalism in August. A republic was declared in 1792 and the King was beheaded in January of the next year. For its prominent role in the French Revolution, this day is commemorated in France as a public holiday, Bastille Day.
"Is this a revolt?"
"No Majesty, this is a revolution”
- supposed conversation between Louis XVI and adviser Duc de Liancourt after the storming of the Bastille
June 14th 1940: Paris falls to the Nazis
On this day in 1940 during World War Two, German soldiers marched into Paris without resistance, and began the occupation of the city. France had fallen quickly to Nazi Germany partially due to its ill-preparedness for war, and the formidable Nazi blitzkrieg attack. Troops took over the city and hung swastikas on public buildings and monuments. Many Parisians fled, and those who remained faced four brutal years of occupation. Many reported on other people’s opposition to the Nazis, and the dissidents faced torture by the Gestapo and SS. Parisian Jews were also persecuted and sent to concentration camps. Paris was eventually liberated in 1944, 70 years ago this year, following the Allied invasion of Normandy.
May 21st 1871: Bloody Week begins
On this day in 1871 French troops marched on the Paris Commune and began fighting the revolutionaries there. The Commune took power in opposition to the conservative royalist National Assembly which was elected in February 1871; republican Parisians feared the Assembly would restore the monarchy. When officials of Adolphe Thiers’s government tried to remove the cannons of the city’s guards on March 18th the Commune seized power and were later elected on March 26th. The Commune enacted socialist policies such as ending support of religion and promoting female suffrage; they adopted a plain red flag as the flag of the Commune. Communard soldiers killed two French troops and refused to stand down, prompting the attack on the Commune by French forces who entered through an undefended area. The Commune was brutally repressed by the national government during the street fighting of ‘Bloody Week’, with around 20,000 insurrectionists being killed before the Commune fell on May 28th. The government treated the surviving Communards and their supporters ruthlessly - arresting around 38,000 and deporting around 7,000.
May 5th 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte dies
On this day in 1821 French Emperor Napoleon I, aged 51, died in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Napoleon became Emperor in 1804 and led France in the wars against various European coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars; for his leadership in these wars he is considered one of the greatest generals of all time. France had initial success in the wars but by 1812 was in decline, partly due to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814 after defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. He returned to power in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo which sealed the fate of the French army, and the coalitions declared victory; France and thus Napoleon were defeated. Napoleon was then exiled on Saint Helena, and in 1821 died of stomach cancer.
"France, army, head of the army, Joséphine."
- Napoleon’s last words - Joséphine was his first wife
March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia
On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea. The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. This war has been the subject of much recent discussion due to Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, which was previously an autonomous region of Ukraine.
160 years ago today
February 27th 1892: Louis Vuitton dies
On this day in 1892 the French businessman Louis Vuitton, founder of the namesake fashion brand, died aged 70. From a working class French family, Vuitton had ambitions beyond his small hometown of Anchay. He famously spent two years traveling to Paris on foot between 1835 and 1837. Once there he had great success as a box maker, eventually becoming Emperor Napoleon III’s wife’s personal box maker. He established the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, and passed the business to his son George upon his death in 1892. Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands.
January 25th 1924: First Winter Olympics
On this day in 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games began in Chamonix, France; they lasted until February 5th. At the time, the event was called ‘International Winter Sports Week’ but it was later retroactively called the Winter Olympics. The sports included speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey, bobsleigh and skiing. Only 16 nations took part in the first Winter Olympics, but the event steadily gained more recognition. The most recent Winter Olympics, in Vancouver in 2010, had 82 participating nations. 1924 also saw the Summer Olympic Games in Paris. However in 1994, the rules were changed so the Winter Olympics take place two years after the Summer Olympics. Hence this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi occur two years after London hosted the Summer Games.
December 14th 1503: Nostradamus born
On this day in 1503, Michel de Nostredame or ‘Nostradamus’ was born in Provence in the south of France. Nostradamus is most known for his work as an apothecary and seer, and for his famous ‘prophecies’. Many people look to Nostradamus’s ‘prophecies’ and see them as predicting many major world events. However, it is largely believed that the supposed prophecies were really just the result of misunderstanding, mistranslation or are just very tenuous. That being said, it is interesting to see some of these ‘prophecies’ and how they seem to have come true. One oft cited example of Nostradamus’s prophecies is his supposed prediction of the Second World War:
"Beasts ferocious from hunger will swim across rivers:
Greater part of the army will be against Hister
The greater one will cause it to be dragged in an iron cage
When the Germany child will observe nothing.”
June 18th 1940: Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech
On this day in 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous 'Finest Hour' speech in the House of Commons. The speech came at the end of the Battle of France during World War Two, after France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany. In this speech, Churchill called for Britain to prepare for its role in defending the world from the Nazis; he called for people to make this ‘Darkest Hour’, after the fall of a key ally, into a ‘Finest Hour’. After making the speech to the Commons, Churchill recorded it to be broadcast to the British people over the radio.
"the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
May 27th 1564: Calvin dies
On this day in 1564, the French theologian John Calvin died in Geneva aged 54. Calvin, born in France in 1509, is best known for his formulation of the Protestant doctrine known as Calvinism. Calvinism advocates the view of predestination - that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned even before their birth; there is thus nothing one can do in this life to alter their fate in the next. Whilst there is nothing one can do to alter their fate, Calvinists hold that those who live a godly life show evidence of being one of God’s elect, and so there is a point to living righteously. The elect had to prove their status by giving a narrative of their conversion before the church (which at this point meant the congregation of the elect). It was these views that provided the foundation of Puritan belief in Britain and colonial America. Calvin’s views made him a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he was an early supporter of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In the last years of his life, Calvin was the ruler of Geneva where he relentlessly promoted Protestantism, even resorting to executing and exiling religious dissenters.
"We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”
- John Calvin
May 7th 1954: Battle of Dien Bien Phu ends
On this day in 1954, 60 years ago, the decisive battle of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu ended with a resounding victory for the Viet Minh. The war was fought between the colonial French powers and a group of Vietnamese soldiers led by communist Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese forces had been battling the colonial French since the aftermath of World War Two, with each side being funded by the opposing camps of the Cold War - the Vietnamese from China and France from the United States. In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled the French stronghold with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh were victorious. The decisive battle essentially ended the war, which led to the Geneva Conference to negotiate peace. The Conference, which was attended by most of the major world powers, resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. It was this division which kept tensions alive between the communist North and US-backed South, which ended in war between the two and heavy US involvement to support the South. In 1975, after the US had mostly retreated, the Southern capital of Saigon fell to the communists and the nation was once again united.
"The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish”
- Christian de Castries, French commander at Dien Bien Phu, in the last hours of the siege
March 31st 1889: Eiffel Tower opens
On this day in 1889 in the French capital of Paris, the iconic Eiffel Tower was officially opened. The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution and is named after its designer Gustave Eiffel. After two years of building it was inaugurated on March 31st 1889 with Eiffel, government officials, and the press going to the top of the tower by foot. Upon reaching the top, Eiffel hoisted a French flag which was accompanied with a 25 gun salute. The tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909 but it soon became apparent the tower had both cultural and practical value as it was used for communications. Upon its creation it was the tallest man-made structure in the world (it was defeated by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930). The tower is now the national icon of France and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, drawing almost seven million visitors in 2011 alone.
March 7th 1875: Ravel born
On this day in 1875 the French composer Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, not far from the Spanish border. He was born into a Catholic household to a Swiss father and Basque mother. Ravel’s father imparted onto his son his love of music, which shaped the young Maurice’s future. His musical talents led him to the Paris Conservatoire, and whilst he was not academically successful there he was acknowledged as a gifted musician. Ravel went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a composer, especially known for his piano pieces like ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ and ‘Jeux d’eau’. However Ravel’s most famous work is probably the orchestral piece 'Boléro' which premiered in 1928. Always a Ravel classic, this piece especially rose to prominence after it was used by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean for their gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. Maurice Ravel died after undergoing brain surgery on December 28th 1937, aged 62.
January 28th 1393: Bal des Ardents
On this day in 1393, the French King Charles VI was almost killed at a masquerade ball when the dancers caught fire; the event has since become known as the ‘Bal des Ardents’ or ‘The Ball of the Burning Men’. The fire broke out because of a flame torch, and killed four of the dancers. Charles VI, sometimes known as Charles the Mad, was in trouble as his insanity was jeopardising his legitimacy as a ruler. He had been on the throne thirteen years at the time of the ball, having ascended to power when he was only eleven. This incident did not help his reputation as it seemed emblematic of the decadence of Charles’s court.
January 21st 1793: Louis XVI executed
On this day in 1793, the King of France Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in ‘Revolution Square’ in Paris. His execution was a turning point in the French Revolution. His regime had become increasingly unpopular and seen as tyrannical; thus opposition to the French aristocracy grew among the middle and lower classes. The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789. After the fall of the monarchy on August 10th 1792, Louis was imprisoned and charged with high treason by the National Convention and sentenced to death. France was declared a republic on September 21st 1792. He was executed as ‘Citizen Louis Capet’, rather than King Louis XVI, on January 21st 1793. His wife Marie Antoinette was executed on 16th October the same year.
“I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”