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Visiting the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France: remembering the French fallen — and some aviation history

Updated on March 4, 2017
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Charles Godefroy flies through the Arc de Triomphe, August 7, 1919
Charles Godefroy flies through the Arc de Triomphe, August 7, 1919 | Source
The Arc de Triomphe with the French flag flying
The Arc de Triomphe with the French flag flying | Source
Map location of Paris, France
Map location of Paris, France | Source

Charles Godefroy's daring 1919 flight through the Arc de Triomphe

This immensely historic, triumphal arch has seen many tumultuous events and periods in France's past 200 or so years.

Some history

In Neoclassical style, the Arc de Triomphe was designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806, on the orders of French Emperor Napoleon I. Started in 1808, it was finally inaugurated in 1836. Primarily commemorating the fallen of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the arch was also adopted following World War One as a place for remembering the fallen of that war also. Indeed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (la tombe du soldat inconnu ) was inaugurated here in 1920.

The eternal flame and President John F. Kennedy

Interestingly, the eternal flame maintained at the Tomb was seen by President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy in 1961.

This evidently stayed etched in Mrs. Kennedy's memory. Following Mr. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, a comparable, eternal flame was inaugurated at the former First Lady's initiative at the late President's grave site at Arlington National Cemetery.

An aviation stunt in 1919

The Arc de Triomphe possesses some interesting, if tragic, aviation history. After World War One, during which many French aviators served with distinction, traditionally minded French army generals ordered the aviators to march along the Champs Elysées on July 14, 1919, rather than fly past. Many aviators were angered at these instructions and Jean Navarre (1895-1919), a World War One top ace, was chosen to undertake a daring feat; fly an airplane through the Arc de Triomphe . Tragically, Navarre, who survived years of danger during World War One, started to practise for this stunt attempt, but was killed on July 10, 1919 when his plane crashed.

Thus there emerged the role of the intrepid, if somewhat reckless, aviator Charles Godefoid (1888-1958), chosen in place of Navarre to fly through the Arc de Triomphe . He began to train for his daring feat, and practised at a bridge at Miramas. Godefroid teamed up with journalist Jacques Mortane and arranged for the latter to be present at the Arc de Triomphe on August 7, 1919 for the daring flight. On this day the planned flight through the Arc, captured on film, passed off without a serious hitch from the perspective of Godefroid, wearing his military uniform, though to the consternation of early morning streetcar passengers and pedestrians.

Subsequently the civil and military authorities experienced some consternation also. What to do with Godefroid? In the event, he was neither prosecuted by the civil authorities, nor was he court-martialled by the military. He was merely advised very strongly not to attempt such a flight again.

They need not have worried. Charles Godefroid, who gave up flying, was already a hero, if a reckless one.

(It strikes me, also, that if such stunts were attempted today, the authorities would probably be more willing to prosecute. And probably with good reason, too.)

Also worth seeing

An article such as this cannot hope to describe adequately the huge number of historical and cultural sights of Paris, but, by way of a few very limited comments, visitors to the Arc de Triomphe may be fascinated also to take a leisurely walk down the historic Champs Elysées , one of the various, major avenues which lead to place Charles-de-Gaulle , the square where the Arc is situated. The Eiffel Tower (la tour Eiffel ) may be viewed to particularly fine effect from the Chaillot Palace (le Palais de Chaillot ): Métro (subway) station, Trocadéro . The famous Louvre Museum's main Métro station is Palais Royal - Musée du Louvre . Notre Dame Cathedral's Métro stations are either Cité or Saint-Michel .


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available; however, visitors to Paris may wish to explore the city via its excellent public transport system. The Métro (subway) stop for the Arc de Triomphe is 'Charles de Gaulle - Etoile'. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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