History is inescapable in France – it’s everywhere. It bleeds out of the stones of the ancient buildings, it grinds out of the bureaucratic inefficiency of a government with elements that are five hundred years old, it’s in the countryside shaped by construction, destruction, reconstruction and deconstruction, and it’s in the minds of the people – who often take all this for granted. For them, going to work in a building that was built three hundred years before the Federation of Australia is perfectly commonplace, and my constant amazement is – to them – a baffling condition. It’s interesting how our points of view are different.
Of course, not all of the history of France – and Europe more generally – is locked away in centuries-old châteaux. You may be vaguely familiar with a few large disagreements that took place around here in the last hundred years or so and which, in their way, also irrevocably changed history. My next stop, the Musée des Blindés (Museum of Armoured Vehicles) in Saumur, is a part of that heritage.
Saumur is a small town in the Loire Valley which is best known for its castle – the Château de Saumur – and the military vehicles museum. Being quite castled out from my previous days, I didn’t visit the château this time around. I’m pretty sure it’s not going anywhere at this point. Saumur is also home to the National School of Horsemanship and is where they train cavalry – which these days actually means tank crews.
The tank museum itself is one of the very best – it has the world’s largest collection of armoured vehicles, with over 800 in storage and more than 200 on display. It is vast, and the vehicles on display tell the story of technological advancement in war, from the very first metal troop transports, all the way up to super modern battle tanks and portable nuclear missile launchers. It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the technology evolved – sometimes in ways that one wouldn’t expect. For example, something as basic as armour sloping (to deflect anti-tank rounds) took decades to get right, and continues to be refined to this day. I cannot imagine that anyone with even the vaguest interest in war history would be disappointed by this place.
My main interest in terms of War History, like many people, is World War II. This war is particularly well represented in the museum, given that France was home to many of the major battlegrounds of the war. It was also the first conflict in history to see tanks deployed in such a profusion of shapes, sizes and roles in combat. The exhibitions are set up such that you can approach, touch and closely examine the vehicles, and it is very clear that that have been lovingly and respectfully maintained in excellent condition.
One of the most impressive things on display in this museum is the world’s only remaining functional King Tiger. The Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B was perhaps the largest tank of World War II at a preposterous seventy tons, and carried an 88mm anti-tank cannon. The placard in front of the display reads La Bête de Guerre – the Beast of War. It’s an apt description. It is monstrously large and possessed a terrible destructive power, offset by a huge range of mechanical difficulties – the reason why it’s so surprising that this one still functions.
Of course, the museum also showcases all the other ‘stars’ of the war, from the much-beloved Sherman (USA) to the highly-armoured Churchill (UK), the incredibly effective T34 (USSR) and even the Matilda II (UK/ANZ). I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the collection was very complete. There’s even a room of ‘curiosities’, which includes a Goliath – one of the very first remotely-controlled war vehicles. This little thing would be packed with about 60kg of high explosives and used to demolish bridges, destroy buildings and sometimes drive under tanks to explode them remotely. It was controlled with a long telephone wire. This very strange machine – whose influence can be seen in the current fascination with drone warfare – is one of my favourites. It’s so very German and bizarre.
A side note – this picture was taken by a nice American lady who mistook me for a French person. Once I cleared up that I was Australian, we had a good chat about the war and the roles of our respective countries.
I have only one complaint with the museum, and that is that it suffers from a tendency to glorify war. This is admittedly difficult to avoid in a museum of this sort, or really in any medium which deals with war. It’s important to acknowledge that we, as human beings, have a strange relationship with war – and no, I don’t mean as men. Without launching into a long philosophical discussion about culture, it is worth observing that a huge number of films, books, plays, videogames and every other media are about war. We clearly find it interesting. I’m not ashamed to admit that I think these tanks are cool – they are. I love machines and technology and yes, destroying things for fun. I can try and stifle the delighted laugh when I see something explode if you want, but that lie demeans us both. Just look at Mythbusters.
What I don’t love, though, is killing people – well, I’m pretty sure, anyway.
Bearing that in mind, I think it is important to reflect on the fact that these machines – as awesome and impressive as they are – are engines of death. Their purpose was to kill people, and many of them were used very successfully in execution of that purpose. How many young men were torn to shreds by that King Tiger? And the great big hole in the side of that Jagdpanzer – I seriously doubt all the boys inside survived that one.
This complaint is actually fairly slight – in a lot of ways, the tanks speak for themselves; many are battle damaged, and I think the consequences are fairly easy to understand. But I have seen other museums which strike a better balance between “war is hell” and “war is glorious”. Let’s just say that if I brought my children here, they’d be getting a lecture afterwards (or before, or during) about what these machines were for.
After I was done in Saumur, I returned to Tours. From the world of machines, I passed back to more natural things – my next stop was Tours’ Natural History Museum. This wasn’t actually originally my plan at all, but there were signs all over town advertising a temporary exhibit about snakes. I love snakes. In much the same way as I’m fascinated by machines and war history, I’m absolutely filled with delight by animals and natural history. So, to the museum I set sail.
Tours’ Natural History Museum is relatively small, but it’s quite well organised and I found it very enjoyable. The exhibition was on the ground floor, and was all about snakes, their biology, behaviour and misconceptions about them. It was equipped with quite a large display of live snakes, and I think I probably enjoyed this even more than the kids around did. Snakes are gorgeous animals, in such a range of colours and sizes, languidly slipping about to find a nice warm spot. I adore them.
It was carrying these feelings, and with a huge smile on my face, that I read a placard that described the way that snake are mutilated and tortured by “snake charmers” to make them behave. Snakes are deaf, of course, so playing a flute to them is no more likely to make them dance than showing them a diagram of how to do the Charleston. As such, they’re apparently brutalised into behaving, and often have their fangs removed so they’re unable to defend themselves. Sometimes their mouths are even stitched shut. Given that this is typically done in appalling conditions in terms of hygiene, they tend to die pretty quickly thereafter from infections.
My smile turned upside down so quickly I’m surprised my jaw didn’t fly off, and looking back and forth between these beautiful creatures and this sign brought tears to my eyes. I know snakes aren’t exactly the public’s favourite animal, but that doesn’t matter to me. They don’t deserve that kind of cruelty.
My spirits were recovered by some of the children wandering around the museum – their delight is contagious, and after a while of seeing how impressed the French kids were by the snakes – and other animals on the other floors – I started to feel better. I don’t think any of them are going to mutilate any snakes, so I guess the exhibition is doing it’s job of educating the public. One particularly adorable young man was extremely displeased by the fact that ants were apparently unable to leave their glass enclosure, a feeling which was immediately reversed for him when he noticed the tube which leaves the enclosure and goes around the entire floor, allowing the ants to explore and forage and live out their slavery to the queen for all their days.
One of the very last things I did in Tours was to take a long lunch in a nice restaurant. This I did all on my own. I read the newspaper, ate my lunch and had an espresso watching the people walk down the Rue Nationale. It was a good time to reflect on my holiday so far. I want to go back to Tours, just to hang out – to walk along the Loire, visit castles and just enjoy the place. It’s a great city.
Do you envy the diplomas of your friends and loved ones? Why not print your own – by tomorrow you could be renowned as a scholar in any field you choose. Personally, I plan to create a Bachelor of Can-Opening for myself, from the prestigious Cannington Institute. You never know when that will come in handy. Otherwise, you can look at my photos relevant to this post here, and perhaps one of them will inspire your phony degree.