1914 - 1918

The First World War (1914-1918)

Rmn-Grand Palais

"Who could have foreseen when it was created, for the immense and peaceful Universal Exhibition of 1900, that this building dedicated to the Muses (...) would be transformed into a refuge for our glorious war wounded, a temple of surgery and medical assistance dedicated to our brave soldiers? " Henri Deglane

A call to arms
Following the call to arms on 2 August 1914, the Grand Palais was taken over by the military. It was initially used to group together soldiers who were travelling through Paris to the front, and also to store commandeered vehicles.

In mid-August 1944, it became a barracks for the naval fusiliers who were called in to defend the capital. The Grand Palais was unrecognisable: the sounds of engines and other clarion calls rang through the nave.

The kitchens were installed under the colonnade, whose "white stone, decorated with mosaics, was forced to endure the ill effects of grease and fumes from the ovens", Henri Deglane recalled.

An exemplary military hospital
The initial conflicts brought many fatalities, with hospitals destroyed or overflowing. By September 1914, it was decided that the Grand Palais would become a military hospital. The site would require adaptation: cleaning, installing pipes, sanitary facilities, electricity, stoves, furniture, beds... Equipment was requisitioned, labour was found among the soldiers present, and medical equipment provided by the army, the Red Cross and donations from wealthy individuals. Everything was ready in a record three weeks!

The military hospital took in its first casualties on 1 October 1914, "artillerymen, Zouaves, infantrymen and foot soldiers, nearly all wounded in combat in the Marne", "Le Petit Parisien" newspaper explained.

Although most were wounded by modern weapons (artillery and shrapnel), medical personnel were also required to work on torn and mutilated bodies. Operations carried on day and night.

The site was adapted as required. Up to 2,000 meals were served three times a day.

Devoted personnel
Under the direction of head doctor René-Charles Coppin, the staff numbered 400: 20 doctors and surgeons, 330 nurses, 40 masseurs, and administrative personnel. As time went on, wounded soldiers with medical experience who were declared unfit to return to combat also joined the team.
White angels
110 voluntary nurses also took part. They had joined after the call from the President on 04 August 1916 for "women with medical qualifications and medical and pharmacology students to join the medical services" and were trained by the Red Cross. Doctor Coppin admired their courage and self-sacrifice.

The press named these courageous voluntary nurses the "white angels". Postcards turned them into icons. Everyone admired their devotion.

Avant-garde care
The hospital's mission was to receive wounded soldiers and treat them so they could be sent back to the front. From the end of 1915, the hospital came to specialise in motor impairment. It developed a physiotherapy service for rehabilitation, and became a pioneer in this field.

When the hospital opened, a professional Swedish masseur offered his services voluntarily. The positive results achieved led those in charge of healthcare to take an interest in physical rehabilitation.

Physical rehabilitation of the wounded took different forms according to their injuries. The results obtained from hydrotherapy (treatment with hot water or water jets) were particularly impressive.

More experimental techniques were also put into practice. Thermotherapy (treatment with hot air), for example. The hospital was at the forefront of technology and research.

With the exception of permanent injuries, stays lasted generally around three or four days. 80% of patients were declared fit to return to the front after treatment.

Artistic soldiers
This tragic period led to considerable medical innovations, including blood transfusions, bone grafts and plastic surgery. To keep a record, the army medical services decided to use the talents of soldier artists. Every wounded soldier in the Grand Palais had a file containing x-rays and photos. Since these images were in black and white, the artist Paul Prévot was asked to paint watercolours in order to demonstrate the shades of the wounds. The sculptor Fernand David created moulds and sculptures from plaster. These documents were used to train the army medical corps until the 1950s.
Professional rehabilitation
The army was quick to take charge of the return of the war wounded to civilian life. In the Grand Palais, a professional rehabilitation centre was in operation from 1915, very soon in use by almost 150 disabled veterans. A "School for the Professional Rehabilitation of War Wounded" was created to meet their needs. It is more known as the "Workshop for the French-American wounded" in tribute to its American benefactor William Nelson Cromwell.

The range of professions on offer was broad: cobbler, carpenter, tinsmith, framer, mason, barber, draughtsman... Training was given by soldiers with the necessary skills undergoing treatment or restored to health.

The return home
The armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Every town in France built a monument to their heroic soldiers. In Paris, a sculptural project was announced in front of the Grand Palais in spring 1919. On a high plinth, a bearded man moving towards a woman holding a young child on her left hip. In her right hand, she holds out a laurel branch to him. But the project would not see fruition.
Life returns to normal
Following victory, the priority was to restart the economy. The Grand Palais needed to be vacated so that companies could once again hold their exhibitions. The wounded who had ended their treatment started to leave in December 1918, but others needed to wait until places could be found elsewhere. The hospital finally closed its doors in June 1919.
The Motor Show reopens its doors
"The motor show of peace" opened its doors in October 1919. For the occasion, a monumental work was installed in front of the Grand Palais: a Victory of Samothrace atop a Renault with a lion on each side. The ring of vegetation that surrounded it was punctuated with crests bearing the names of towns that were martyrs to the war.

Fifty models were trialled at the 1919 motor show! The memories of the Grand Palais hospital began to fade.

Credits: Story

We would like to thank all the people who have contributed to the construction of this journey through the Grand Palais and those who have given us valuable time and information as well as permission to reproduce their documentation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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