Champs-Élysées – Clemençeau

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“So the rations have improved, then?”

The young corporal shrugged. The new Prime Minister’s daily visits to the Front were frequently reported in the press, and the poilu, the common soldiers, were secretly rather proud of this – it gave them a certain feeling of superiority over the Tommies, whose own generals certainly didn’t believe in risking their necks just for a chance to wade about in the mud and hurl threats at the Germans. But this was the first time his trench had received a visit.

“The standard rations are alright. Pity we can’t get them more often. What we get in the trenches… well, we lost our soup man last week, poor sod. He couldn’t duck fast enough with those big tins to carry, so it was singe all around for a few days until they were able to replace him. I wouldn’t take that job for anything.”

Clemençeau swallowed a spoonful of cold ratatouille. He’d certainly tasted better, but getting decent food to the front would always be a challenge. “It’s not actually monkey meat,” he pointed out, mildly.

The corporal’s friend snorted a little. A proper son of the Revolution, he believed very firmly that all Frenchmen were created equal, Prime Minister or no. “You couldn’t tell from tasting it,” he remarked, sardonically.

“Pretty sure I saw a curly tail in mine,” added another young soldier, cheerfully.

“Pretty sure I saw your mother in mine,” retorted the second man.

Clemençeau smiled a little as the conversation degenerated into insults, and looked around him, raising a brow at two collections of rat tails tied to beams at opposite ends of the trench and prominently displayed. The terriers had been doing good work, evidently, and had apparently inspired a competition to see whose dog could catch the most vermin. Anything to keep up morale. He stood, careful to keep his head below the level of the top of the trench, and the young soldiers stopped their bickering to look at him. “Thank you for sharing your lunch, gentlemen,” he added. “France thanks you.”

The corporal’s revolutionary friend made a derogatory remark under his breath. Clemençeau chose not to hear it. The right to insult members of the government was inviolable, and, in the circumstances, excusable.

His job was to preserve a free France, one in which Frenchmen could continue insulting their government for many years to come.


Georges Clemençeau had visited the Front – all of the Fronts – many times since the war began. His tours of inspection had taken him to the North Sea and to the Vosges, to the Somme and to Verdun. He had met with troops, and observed the condition of the trenches, the state of their armaments, and the quality of their medical care. He had shared meals with the poilus, discussing the mud, the noise, the rations, and the fleas. He had befriended doctors at the Red Cross stations, and had hurled creative insults and threats at the German soldiers on the other side of the line.

Today, it seemed that the Front was coming to visit Clemençeau in Paris. Or trying to, at least.

He did not find this convenient.

“The Germans have broken through at Aisne, then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What are our losses?”

The young Lieutenant shrugged. “It’s too early to tell, sir. I was told at least 10,000 men. They’re saying it’s like Verdun again.”

Clemençeau trusted that this was an exaggeration. Given the number of troops stationed there, it probably wasn’t. “Alright. Thank you for telling me. Now, go and get that leg of yours seen to. I’ll send my reply back shortly.”

“Sir!” The soldier saluted, and limped out, the door creaking shut behind him.

Clemençeau turned away to study the map on his wall, though he needed no reminder to know that Aisne was too close. This was the second time since the start of the war that the Germans had threatened Paris from the north-east, and the Germans were unlikely to offer their flank as they had last time, more was the pity. He would have to discuss their strategy with Foch.

A knock came at the door. More news? “Enter!” he called, his attention still on the map.

There was no response.

Clemençeau turned, brows raised, but his visitor was already in the room. The young man wore a corporal’s uniform, and he looked vaguely familiar.

Clemençeau rubbed his hands together against a sudden chill in the air. “You came in very quietly, Caporal,” he remarked. He hadn’t heard the door at all, in fact. “More news from Aisne, I take it.”

The young soldier shook his head. “No, Prime Minister. I’m here with a request from my regiment.”

Clemençeau raised an eyebrow. “Not another mutiny, I trust? You must know that we are under attack. Whatever your request is, I’ll hear it, but I can make no promises. France needs your loyalty.  Especially now.”

The soldier’s expression did not change. “France has had our loyalty, but we need yours in return. You have visited all the other regiments. Now you must visit ours.”

He turned away and Clemençeau put his hand down hard on the table to steady himself. The back of the young man’s head was missing.

He drew in a careful breath. “Do I have time to get my affairs in order? I would not like to leave France at this juncture.” There was a heavy, tight feeling in his chest that he did not like. A heart attack at his desk, with the Prussians only 80 kilometres away? God must be German. Clemençeau sternly told his heart to behave. It did not obey.

The soldier did not turn. Nobody had ever called Clemençeau squeamish, but he was not enjoying this view.  “A visit only, Prime Minister. No harm will come to you. We are still loyal to France. But you have visited every Front but this one. You have inspected every army, climbed into every trench, reviewed us both before and after battle – yet you have never inspected the conditions that the dead endure. Surely we are owed your consideration too?”

Clemençeau felt his heart steady. He breathed in deeply at the relief of it, then sighed. “Surely you are. Lead on, then.”


His staff, it seemed, could not see Clemençeau’s ghostly escort. It was probably for the best. He told them, cheerfully enough, that he was making an afternoon visit to the army near Aisne, and while he was met with some concern, there was no more than usual. News of the battle had evidently not spread.

Clemençeau had half expected to be driving to the Front again, but instead the ghost directed him north, towards the Seine and the newly-built Metropolitan Railway station at Les Invalides.

“What, here?” he asked, dubiously, but the ghost said nothing, instead leading him into the station and down the stairs. The flight was long, far longer than Clemençeau had remembered it, and at the bottom, where the railway line should have been, there was a river, where a ferry lay at anchor.

The ferryman held out his hand for the fare. Clemençeau considered him thoughtfully, memories of his schooldays coming back to him. Cautiously, he showed him two coins. “I’ll pay you when we reach the other side,” he stated, firmly.

The ferryman grumbled, but pushed out from the bank. The ride was both short and silent. Clemençeau’s soldier had crossed ahead of him, and waited for him to disembark, holding out a hand to help him climb the bank. The gesture rendered him suddenly familiar – it was the young corporal from the trench at Arras who had made the joke about monkey tails.

Sentimentality had never been one of Clemençeau’s vices, and if it had been, this war would have killed it. He took the young man’s hand, and accepted his assistance climbing the bank. By the time he looked back, both ferry and river were gone.

Clemençeau looked around him. Everything was gloomy, neither light nor dark, but rather twilight. They were standing in a meadow planted entirely with a greyish-green plant covered in tiny white flowers. The landscape was bland and strangely confining, the horizon meeting the sky too close to where they stood, as though they were trapped under a pewter cloche. It was peaceful, but rather depressing.

“I take it that this is Hades,” he said, conversationally.

The ghost did not reply. He did not need to. Another young man in uniform was walking hesitantly toward them, eyes blank, and then another, until within moments, Clemençeau was surrounded by empty-eyed, ghostly soldiers. French soldiers, he saw, their uniforms horizon-blue with the occasional splash of impractical red, with no German grey or English khaki to be seen. He wondered, briefly, whether the Kaiser or Lloyd George had ever visited this place. And what they had said if they did.

He cleared his throat. “Alright, gentlemen. I’m here, as you wished. What did you want to show me?”

There was no reply, but the soldiers pressed closer, crowding him. Clemençeau stepped back, and his foot met the root of a tree. He braced himself against it. “Enough, now. Tell me what it is that I need to know.”

His guide was beside him, suddenly. “They want your blood,” he explained, with the calm of someone who was already dead and therefore has no blood to provide.

Clemençeau was not reassured. “I thought you said that this was a visit only, that I would come to no harm?”

His guide shrugged. “Nobody is going to kill you. But they need to have blood in their mouths in order to speak – without it, they can’t remember who they are. A litre or so should be enough.”

Clemençeau felt that a litre or so was more than enough, but it did not seem politic to say so. “Very well then. I suppose that I owe them that much.” He raised his voice. “Gentlemen, please. Give me a little space. I’ll give you the blood you need, but you need to step back a bit. Yes, that’s good,” he added, as the space around him cleared.

He got out his pocket knife, and then hesitated. He couldn’t just bleed onto the ground – the ghosts would not be able to drink his blood that way. And, while Clemençeau was not, he trusted, a coward, the idea of letting a seemingly endless stream of ghosts drink directly from his arm filled him with revulsion. Frowning, he looked for a likely receptacle. His hip flask seemed the only possibility, but it was rather small for so many ghosts. Still, it would have to do. He began to remove it from his coat.

His guide stepped forward, holding out an army-issue water canteen. Much more suitable. Also significantly larger. With a sigh, Clemençeau poured a little cognac from his hip flask over the pocket knife, took a swig of it himself, and set the knife to his vein, clenching and unclenching his fist to make his blood flow more readily.

There was a thirsty murmur from the ghosts. “Patience,” he reminded them. “You will have what you want soon enough.”

He turned his attention back to his forearm. There was something very unnerving about the sight of so many eyes watching so hungrily as he bled. At last the canteen was full. He passed it to his escort, and tied his handkerchief firmly over the cut. He rolled down his sleeves, thankful for the layers of shirt, suitjacket and overcoat that would add additional padding to the wound.

When he looked up again, the canteen was being passed from hand to hand in a comradely fashion, and the empty eyes were a little less empty.

And then the voices started, one piling on another, a litany of complaint and loss.

“… never wrote back to me…”

“… not enough of me left to bury…”

“… getting married on my next leave…”

“… thought I could do it, but…”

“… was in the same trench…”

“… didn’t say goodbye…”

“… supposed to be a ceasefire…”

“… my mother doesn’t know…”

“… so cold…”

The voices were reflected back harshly from the narrow sky, echoing again and again, and seeming never to fade.

Clemençeau held up his hands. “Please, gentlemen. Your friend has brought me here – what do you want from me?”

There was a brief silence, then the voices started again.

“… is he anyway?”

“… le tigre…”

“… used to come visit us…”

“… prime minister…”

“… some help that was…”

“… bloody war never ends…”

“… still thinks it’s 1870…”

“… didn’t have to die…”

Clemençeau’s escort drew closer to him as the echoes began to build again. “You won’t get much sense out of this lot,” he murmured. “There’s not much left of them, except when they have blood, and even then, it’s mostly half-memories and echoes.”

Clemençeau frowned. “Then why did you bring me here? Why show me a problem I can’t solve?”

His escort shrugged. “You’ve always wanted to know the disposition of your troops.   Well, these are your troops too.”

Clemençeau frowned. “Surely there must be someone in charge of this place?”

His escort looked at him sideways. “You want to speak to Hades?”

Clemençeau spread his hands. “If that’s what is needed…” he returned his attention to the shades. “Gentlemen. Name and rank, please.”

The ghosts seemed to become more alert at this.

“Lieutenant Georges Dubois, 21st Army Corps, Première Armée…”

“Sergent Matthieu, 12th Army Corps, French Expeditionary Force…”

“Brigadier-chef Maurice Boulanger, 2ième calvary unit, Première Armee…”

“Caporal Paul Cordonnier, soldat de première classe, 156th Infantry Division, Armée Française d’Orient…”

He had no pen and nothing to write on, Clemençeau realised. He could only listen to the chorus of names, focusing on each face, committing what he could to memory.

The echoes rose to an almost unbearable loudness, but it was as if speaking their own names had taken the last of the ghosts’ selves with them. One by one, the voices faded. Ghostly eyes grew blank again, and the former soldiers began drifting away, their uniforms like blue smoke in the twilight.

At last, Clemençeau was alone again, with only his escort for company.

“And you, Caporal?” he asked.

His escort saluted. “Tristan Bonnaire, Détachement d’armée de Lorraine. 8ième Armée.”

“I shall remember. But if you are here, why are you still able to speak to me?”

Bonnaire gestured in the direction where the sun might have been, if there had been any sun in this place. A brighter patch of sky, perhaps. “There are different lands within Hades. I’m in one of the others.”

Clemençeau braced himself. “Show me.”


The accommodations in Elysium, Clemençeau was pleased to see, were much more amenable. A trifle on the pastoral side for his taste, with fields of flowers, crystal streams, and fountains scattered here and there, but the soldiers there seemed content. Certainly, this place couldn’t have been more different to the constant noise and filth of the trenches.

The soldiers here seemed quite pleased to see him.

“The food’s alright. The wine is better than alright. And it’s nice not to be shot at,” one of them told him, cheerily.

“Good company, too. I reckon a lot of my mates are here. No Prussians, either. Though I guess they might have their own field.”

“And it’s nice having the Red Cross nurses all frolicking over in the meadow over there,” another added. “Nice to look at. Nice girls, too. And no rules about fraternisation, either.” He winked at Clemençeau.

“Could be a lot worse,” a third soldier agreed. “Though it’s a pity we can’t write. Be nice to let my mother know that I’m alright now.”

There was general agreement with this statement.

“But in all other respects you are content?”

The soldiers nodded cheerfully. “Absolutely. This is much better we’d expected,” said a youngish man with captain’s stripes. “I didn’t want to die, you know. Well, none of us did. But since we had to die, this is alright. Nice of you to come and check up on us, though,” he added.

Clemençeau watched with some bemusement as the soldiers strolled off.

“And they really are happy?” he asked Bonnaire. “I’d have thought they’d be bored in ten minutes.”

Bonnaire shrugged. “It isn’t boring, somehow. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. We’re alright here, and the nurses all seem to be OK. But the other men – they fought with us too. It’s not right, what’s happened to them.”

Clemençeau could only agree. “I suppose you had better take me to see Hades.”



The palace at the end of the Elysian Fields was reminiscent of Versailles, but the Hall of Mirrors reflected nothing – endless, bright nothing. The effect was eerie, and a little dizzying. Clemençeau looked resolutely away, and advanced towards the man enthroned at the end of the Hall.

“I am Hades, God of the Underworld. What would you ask me?”

The man’s voice was quiet, but Clemençeau felt a chill of fear nonetheless. He bowed, briefly, one head of state to another, refusing to drop his eyes. His men had died in the service of their country, he reminded himself. In a very real sense this was a diplomatic visit – the first of its kind. It behoved him to begin diplomatically.

“Thank you for seeing me, M. Hades. I won’t take up much of your time. Briefly, it has come to my attention that a number of my men are now under your jurisdiction. I’ve made an inspection, and it seems to me that those in the Elysian Fields are treated well, though they would be grateful for the opportunity to contact their families. I appreciate your care of them.”

Hades said nothing. This was not news to him.

Clemençeau continued. “I also visited those lodged outside Elysium.  I regret to say, M. Hades, that their condition shocked me!  Why, those unfortunate men could barely recognise themselves! They begged for blood most in a most distressing fashion, and were lucid for only a few moments after drinking. M. Hades, I must inform you that this treatment of French soldiers who have died for their country is unacceptable. I require your assurance that my men will be restored to themselves at once, and that they will have access to the same benefits as their fellows. Moreover, I request that their families be informed of their location and continued health.”

Hades regarded him steadily, his face like something graven in stone. “M. Clemençeau, perhaps you do not realise that this is my kingdom. To be precise, it is the kingdom of the dead. It is my duty to ensure that all of the dead are judged equally, and receive their just reward. One day – and that day may not be far off – you, too, will be my subject. Are you questioning my judgment?”

Clemençeau forced himself to continue meeting the god’s eyes. “I do not desire in any way to undermine the sovereignty of a foreign nation, M. Hades, but these men you are holding are citizens of France. I am their Prime Minister, and their War Minister. It is my policies that send them to battle – though I believe they would fight this invasion valiantly no matter who led them – and it is my duty to ensure that they are well-treated. Perhaps you are unaware of the circumstances of their deaths?”

“M. Clemençeau, I am more intimately aware of how they died than you could ever be. I know which of them were shot by snipers, which died of their wounds, and which had their lungs turned to jelly by poisonous gases, or suffocated when their trenches collapsed. I know, too, which of these men met their ends due to friendly fire, and which were shot for mutiny or cowardice by those who have no understanding of the ways a man’s mind can be broken by constant danger. Can you say the same? If anyone has failed in their duty to these men, it is those who sent them to fight a war that could not be won or lost without loss of life on a scale that even I have never seen – not I. Do not dare to castigate me for their treatment here. They are citizens of my kingdom now, and I have had more care for them than their earthly leaders ever did.”

Clemençeau drew in a breath. There was more truth in Hades’ words than he would like – and yet, how could he have acted differently? “I have been at the front, M. Hades,” he answered, finally, levelly. “I know what my men suffer, and I have done what I can to mitigate it. But we fight for our survival as a nation, against an enemy who would destroy us utterly. An enemy who would, if victorious, send even more men – and women and children, too – to your domain. One cannot silence Prussian militarism by bleating of peace. And so it is true that my domestic policy is war – my foreign policy is war. All my policies must be war. And it follows that my care must be for my soldiers, whose deaths are the children of my policies.”

Hades said nothing, his gaze still stony.

Clemenceau refused to be intimidated. “You judge some soldiers as worthy of paradise, others only of limbo and forgetfulness – yet all are brave. All have suffered. Perhaps some were more courageous, others more reluctant, but all did their duty – all died for their country. If this were an earthly realm, there might be room for distinctions. But this is, as you say, your realm – the realm of the dead – the place where they will spend eternity. A peaceful afterlife should be every soldier’s reward – it should not be reserved to only a few, like some medal for gallantry.”

He let his voice soften, dropping his eyes at last, deliberately. “Perhaps I have failed these men in life. But that is all the more reason why I should not fail them in death.”

There was a long silence. Clemençeau did not move.

At last Hades spoke.

“A masterful piece of oratory, M. Clemençeau. And so you would have me overrule my best judgment, and place all your men in the Elysian Fields, however undeserving they might be? Not all your soldiers were good men, Prime Minister.”

Clemençeau met his gaze again. “I do not doubt it. But surely they have paid for any evil they have done. You yourself are witness to all their deaths. You know the ugliness they faced. Let my own soul be their surety, if you will. Though not yet – France needs me at this present moment.”

“You have a high opinion of yourself. Every man believes himself indispensible, and yet every man must die.”

“No doubt. But… for so many to die and France still to be lost – no. It is unthinkable. We must win this war. France owes her dead no less.”

Hades raised a brow. “It is not only France who has lost men in this war. By your logic, every country must be victorious, to justify its dead.”

“But we are the invaded, M. Hades, and not the aggressors. Our cause is just, as we defend our home.”

“And yet, France would not be your home had your ancestors not wrested it from those who lived there before you.”

“Nevertheless it is our home now, and deserves our loyalty, as my people deserve to live at peace and free from attack.”

“And you believe that war is the best way to achieve peace? ‘A war to end war’?”

Clemençeau bit back an exasperated response. “M. Hades, we stray from the point. I would have your assurance that my men who become citizens of your realm may find peace in the Elysian Fields. France owes them no less.”

“But this is not France. And France does not rule Hades.”

“Nor does France seek to do so. Yet as a fellow witness to my men’s suffering, I would charge you to be merciful in your judgments.”

Hades considered him. His face was still and pale as the face of a corpse, but his eyes burned with an intensity that was almost physically painful to behold. Clemençeau bore it.

“I will consider your request, and the fate of those in Hades. Your argument that death in a war such as this one is punishment enough has merit. I would have you consider this yourself, when you return to your own world.”

Clemençeau nodded, shortly. “And contact with their families?”

Hades shook his head decisively. “Impossible. If the dead could contact the living, there would be chaos. Can you imagine the religious wars alone? No. Let the living comfort themselves with the thought that their loved ones died for their country.” His gaze grew sardonic. “’Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori,’ I think you would say.  Now, go. And don’t look back.”

Hades turned away, ending the audience, and Clemençeau stood still for a moment, lost in his thoughts.

Bonnaire’s voice at his side roused him from his reverie. “M. Clemençeau, you must leave now. Please follow me.”

There was nothing to be gained by staying longer. Clemençeau nodded, and took the hand he was offered. It was as cold as fog.

The path out of Hades seemed shorter than the path he had taken on his way in. It wasn’t long before he saw the train tracks, and the stairs leading upward out of the deserted station. The river was gone as though it had never been there. Bonnaire’s hand slipped from his, and Clemençeau turned towards the light.

“M. Clemençeau,” the voice behind him stopped him in his tracks, but he did not look back.

Something rounded and cold was pressed into his hand, and he grasped it automatically.

“This is water from the river of Lethe. A gift from Hades. If you drink it, you will forget all that has passed here today.”

Clemençeau hesitated. “A gift, or a requirement?”

“A gift. You may drink, or not drink. The choice is yours.”

Clemençeau nodded. “Thank you. And thank you for your guidance, Caporal Bonnaire.”

And he climbed up onto the platform, then up the stairs out of the Metro, tucking the vial of water into his coat pocket as he went.


“Sir, is everything alright?”

Clemençeau started, then smiled at the young woman who was acting as his secretary today. His former secretary was at the front. Not, thankfully, at Aisne, though there was really no such thing as a safe posting anymore.

“Thank you, Mlle. Martin. Please see that my letter gets to the General at once. And then we we will need a statement for the newspapers.”

Mlle Martin nodded, and rang the bell. Another young woman received the note and her instructions. Foch would have the letter in an hour.

Clemençeau considered what he could tell the papers. His left arm throbbed, distractingly.

The breakthrough at the Aisne River had been devastating. Perhaps not on the scale of Verdun, not yet, but 10,000 deaths had turned out to be a conservative estimate. France and her allies would regroup, of course – they must. There would be no German armies camping on the Champ de Mars while Clemençeau drew breath. But the public would need something to bolster their resolve when the names of the dead began to be released. Clemençeau rubbed his arm, thinking.

“Take this down. ‘The Germans may take Paris, but that will not prevent us from going on with the war. We will fight on the Loire, we will fight on the Garonne, we will fight even on the Pyrenees. And if at last we are driven off the Pyrenees, we will continue the war at sea. But as for asking for peace, never!’”

The young woman nodded, her fingers flying swiftly over the keys of her Corona portable.

Quick footsteps in the corridor heralded the next crisis, and Clemençeau readied himself to respond to it.


On sunny days, Clemençeau could see Eiffel’s ugly tower from his apartment window. Tonight, it was twice hidden, once by the steady rain and again by the growing dimness of the evening. A bad night to be in the trenches.  Clemençeau took the vial out of his pocket, and held it up against the grey light. The twilight was reminiscent of Hades.

The liquid in the vial was clear and pure, and chilled his fingers, even through the glass. Clemençeau opened the window and popped out the stopper, sniffing the bottle dubiously.  It exuded a faint scent of asphodels.

Men would die this evening. Frenchmen, who looked to Clemençeau as their leader.   They were dying for France, true. Dying for their countrymen and women, and to protect their homeland from invasion. But in the most immediate sense, it was his policies that had sent them to die. The war was just – he knew this, unshakeably. Never, as long as he lived, would German soldiers march up the Champs Elysées.  He would bleed out every drop of blood in his veins before that happened.

Of course, he wouldn’t be the one bleeding. Not in this war.

Clemençeau leaned out into the dark evening. There was nobody below – nobody to be harmed by a little forgetfulness added to the rain. Perhaps it would be a mercy if there were. He upended the bottle, pouring its contents down into the street.

No matter what Hades thought, they were still his men, even in death.  Still citizens of France.

He had no right to forget where they were going.


“Then neither the other side nor us’ll remember! So much misery all wasted!”
This point of view added to the abasement of these beings on the shore of the flood, like news of a greater disaster, and humiliated them still more.
“Ah, if one did remember!” cried some one.
“If we remembered,” said another, “there wouldn’t be any more war.”
– from Henri Barbusse, Le Feu


Champs-Élysées station, named for the famous boulevard that runs above it, was one of the first stations to open, on Line 1, on the 19th of July, 1900.  In 1931, it was renamed Champs-Élysées–Clemençeau, in honour of Georges Clemençeau, doctor, journalist, politician and eventually Prime Minister of France, and the man who led the country through the final years of the Great War.

Before researching this story, my opinion of Clemençeau was pretty negative. I never studied the Great War in detail, and what I did study was from the perspective of the English and Commonwealth soldiers.  The narrative was of a war that started seemingly arbitrarily, and then absorbed Europe, and eventually the wider world in this massive waste of life for more than four years.  Clemençeau himself was known for pursuing the war with great vigor, and of course, he was absolutely determined to punish the Germans at the Treaty of Versailles, arguably laying the groundwork for the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  This did not strike me as sympathetic.  Nor was his personal life such as to inspire affection, at least from me.

But when I started reading about Clemençeau and the Great War, one thing that struck me was the fact that he used to visit the Front – not just occasionally, but regularly.  He even came under shell fire on one occasion.  Apparently, he liked to chat with the common soldiers (called ‘poilu’, which means ‘hairy’), and also to shout threats and insults at the Germans in the trenches opposite, which made him quite popular with the troops.  As a result, he had a better idea of what the soldiers were facing than any other head of state or senior minister at that time.  So that was a point in his favour.  One source even claimed that he made daily visits, which sounded impractical – until I had a look at a map and saw where the battlefields were in relation to Paris.  (Some of them were very close indeed – in fact, the first battle of the Marne was so close to Paris that 3,000 troops were delivered to the battlefield by taxi.)

This flipped my perspective quite significantly, because, whatever views one might have on the wastefulness of war in general and this war in particular, one can argue quite compellingly that from a French perspective, the Great War was about France’s survival as a nation.  Then, too, Clemençeau had lived through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had bitter memories of Paris being bombed from afar by the Big Bertha cannons, and of Prussian soldiers camping in the Champ de Mars and marching down the Champs Élysées. Putting these two facts together, Clemençeau’s tenacity in pursuing the war becomes a lot more understandable.  And his courage and charisma are undeniable, and were, along with his rhetorical skills, a big part of what got France through those last couple of years of the war.

Speaking of Clemençeau’s rhetorical skills, I used several quotes of his in this story.  A former journalist himself, he really did believe in freedom of speech, including the right to insult politicians.  (I was quite surprised to learn that Le Feu, which I quote at the end of this piece and is quite anti-war, was published in 1916 and was not only never suppressed but actually won a prize.)  The speech about Prussian aggression and all his policies being war was a very slight paraphrase of an actual speech Clemençeau made, and the quote at the end of the story about fighting the Germans on the Pyrenees or even the sea if necessary comes directly from another.  Incidentally, this speech so impressed a young Winston Churchill that he remembered it years later, and his speech about fighting them on the beaches clearly owes something to this speech of Clemençeau’s.

As for this story, Champs Élysées translates to Elysian Fields.  There were a few different views of the afterlife in Greek mythology – in the Odyssey, the dead in Hades seem to have lost all memory of themselves, until they are fed on blood, but in the works of Virgil, Plutarch and Hesiod, Hades is divided into Elysium, an idyllic paradise where the heroes rest, and Tartarus, where the wicked are punished.  The land of the dead is variously ruled by Hades or Kronos. Given Clemençeau’s commitment to visiting his troops under any or all circumstances, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that he might also have visited those who were stationed on a more distant and foreign front.  And once there, he would, I am certain, have fought to improve their conditions.

I do not, unfortunately, have sources for the two images I used in this story – I found them online, and they are both unattributed.  I will happily add credits once I find out whose they are.

I’ll finish with my personal favourite Clemençeau story, which occurred in 1919, when an anarchist shot at him seven times, hitting him once in the chest.  The man was arrested, and charged with attempted assassination, however, Clemençeau argued against the death penalty:

“His poor marksmanship must be taken into account. We have just won the most terrible war in history, yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target 6 out of 7 times at point-blank range. Of course, this fellow must be punished for the careless use of a dangerous weapon and for poor marksmanship. I suggest that he be locked up for eight years, with intensive training in a shooting gallery.”


Franklin D Roosevelt
fleur1left Champs-Élysées–Clemençeau
fleur3right Concorde
fleur13left Champs-Élysées–Clemençeau
fleur13right Miromesnil

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