May 21st 1871: Bloody Week begins


A barricade in the Paris Commune


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.



The Rue de Rivoli after the fall of the Paris 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.



Corpses of Communards killed in 1871


The Commune retains a strong legacy both in France and abroad as an example of a socialist revolutionary government that was established by the citizenry. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time in the egalitarian policies it enacted. The brutal repression of the Commune brought a swift end to a fascinating political experiment. We will never know what would have happened had the Paris Commune endured, it is unlikely it ever would have, but its memory lives on.


May 7th 1954: Battle of Dien Bien Phu ends


Viet Minh plant their flag on a captured French position


On this day in 1954, 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. The town of Dien Bien Phu lies near the Vietnamese/Laotian border and was a French stronghold for much of the war until it was besieged by Viet Minh communists. The communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled the town with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh were victorious.



French troops in the trenches


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 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

60 years ago today


May 5th 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte dies


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)


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.


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Napoleon retreats from Russia



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.



Napoleon’s tomb in Paris

“France, army, head of the army, Joséphine.”
– Napoleon’s last words – Joséphine was his first wife

March 31st 1889: Eiffel Tower opens



The completed Eiffel Tower in 1889


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.



Gustave Eiffel (1832 – 1923)


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 Eiffel Tower under construction


It is hard to imagine a Paris without the Eiffel Tower; it has become a national icon of France. The tower defines the Parisian landscape, drawing millions of tourists every year to climb to the top and look down on the most romantic city in the world. Paris has many sites to offer tourists, from the famed Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. However the Eiffel Tower is still the main attraction, drawing almost seven million visitors in 2011 alone.


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.



Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)


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.



Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source:; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)



On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 7th 1875: Ravel born


Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)


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’s grave in Paris


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. In the spirit of the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, here is a link to Torvill and Dean’s gold medal winning ice dancing performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. This performance is how I first heard of Ravel, and I think it may be the same for many others. ‘Boléro’ is often considered synonymous with Torvill and Dean, but we must remember the man behind the music: Maurice Ravel. 

February 27th 1892: Louis Vuitton dies


Louis Vuitton (1821 – 1892)


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 logo


Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands, alongside such names as Ralph Lauren and Gucci. Louis Vuitton bags are a highly valued fashion item. Personally I am a bit fashion-blind so I struggle to understand some of the attraction of these items. However for dedicated followers of fashion (couldn’t resist a Kinks reference here!), they are very important. Despite being generally ignorant of fashion, it is a testament to the enduring popularity of Vuitton’s company that they have such name recognition beyond those with a specific interest in fashion.

January 28th 1393: Bal des Ardents


The Bal des Ardents in a 15th century work


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 25th 1924: First Winter Olympics


Poster for the Games


On this day in 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games began in Chamonix, France. 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, saw 82 participating nations.



Flag-bearers for each of the 16 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.



A medal from the 1924 Winter Games


The 2014 Winter Olympics promise to be a controversial one. There are considerable fears of terrorist attacks striking the Games in Sochi, Russia. There is mounting unrest in the region, and terrorist threats have  been made. The nearby city of Volgograd has been struck three times in recent months, adding to fears about the safety of Sochi. There have also been calls the boycott the Games due to the repressive policies of Vladimir Putin. His political legitimacy is called into question, and his regime has provoked international outrage with its treatment of political protestors (such as the band Pussy Riot) and its anti-homosexual laws. When the Games open on February 7th, the world will be watching.

January 21st 1793: Louis XVI executed


The execution of Louis XVI

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. Louis’s continued opposition to the National Assembly (the transitional assembly from the King’s old Estates-General) and attempt to escape from France in 1791 sealed his fate.



King Louis XVI of France (1754 – 1793)

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. Their executions were a major turning point in French Revolution and French history as a whole. Louis XVI was the only French King to ever be executed.



Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)


Accounts vary of the day of the King’s execution, with the priest Father Edgeworth saying the King proclaimed:

“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.”