To March or not to March: La Marche de l’Armée

Sheet music cover for Marche des Chauffeurs
Marche des Chauffeurs‘ composed and published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, s.d.). Cover illustration by Léonce Burret.

Isn’t it ironic? Composing a march to celebrate another form of locomotion, really! The lady reading a book in her automobile has no intention at all to set foot on the ground, let alone to walk. Her chauffeur seems to question her attitude. Thank you Léonce Burret for this quizzical image.

A marche that wasn’t composed to accompany a brisk walk or hike. We found this same kind of contradiction for ‘marches‘ that praise cycling,…

Sheet music cover illustrating the Marche des Cyclistes
Marche des Cyclistes‘ by Louis Desvaux, published by Emile Gallet (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Hyacinthe Royet.

salute ballooning,…

Sheet music cover for 'Marche des Aëronautes'
Marche des Aëronautes‘ by Charles Grelinger. Published by Portius (Leipzig, 1907), unknown illustrator.

or cheer the enjoyment of gliding on ice…

Illustration for 'Skating March', a composition by Cécile Reubère, published by Fatout & Girard in Paris
Skating March‘ by Cécile Reubère, published by Fatout & Girard (Paris, s.d.). Unknown illustrator.

or over snow.

illustration by Georges Desains for the sheet music cover 'Skiers Marche' by Adolphe Gauwin
Skiers Marche‘ by Adolphe Gauwin. Published by L. Paroche (Paris, 1906) and illustrated by Georges Desains.

We recognise a good old-fashioned march when we hear or see one. Something that encourages a fast pace in a military spirit, and that goes a long way, on foot of course!  Here it is, the Marche du Matin strongly illustrated by Lucien Faure-Dujarric. 

Sheet miusic cover for 'Marche du Matin' by Léon Fontbonne. Illustration by Lucien Faure-Dujarric
Marche du Matin‘ by Léon Fontbonne. Published by Société Musicale G. Astruc & Cie (Paris, 1904) and illustrated by Lucien Faure.

I mistakenly assumed that the Marche du Matin was composed to hearten the soldiers during their daily early morning exercise. No, the title of the march refers to Le Matin, one of the four big French newspapers before WWI.

Front page of Le Matin newspaper in 1904
Front page of ‘Le Matin’ on the next day of the contest. (source: gallica.bnf)

On the 29th of May in 1904 Le Matin organised a promotional stunt: with the encouragement of the Minister of War and the cooperation of the Army top, each French regiment selected 10 of its men to participate in the big Marche de l’Armée. The walking contest started at the Place de la Concorde at 7 am, with the playing of a military march. Then the 2000 men in battle dress and heavy boots assembled in two long columns and charged up the Champs-Elysées to commence the 45 km (!) long itinerary that would bring them through Paris as far as St-Germain-en-Laye and back. Large crowds, cheers and flags accompanied the men.

Postcard (1904) showing the Marche de l'Armée
Postcard illustrating the festive ambiance at one of the checkpoints on the Marche de l’Armée. (source: eBay)

France’s Bibliothèque nationale is a real treasure trove.  After some digging we were lucky to find interesting pictures of this arduous march by the photographic agency Rol.

Photo of the Marche de l'Armée
Lutte pour la première place, passage sur le pont de Saint-Cloud.‘ [Battle for the first place on the Saint-Cloud bridge.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photographic picture of La Marche de l'Armée (1904)
Caporal Piscau dans la montée du Coeur Volant, à Marly.‘ [Corporal Piscau on the Coeur Volant slope at Marly.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photo of La Marche de l'Armée (1904)
St-Germain: arrêt des soldats à la buvette, place du Marché Neuf.‘ [In St-Germain: the soldiers at the refreshment bar on the Marché Neuf square.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Photo of La Marche de l'Armée
Les soldats place du Marché Neuf, à Saint-Germain-en-Laye.‘ [The soldiers at the Marché Neuf square in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Marche de l'Armée, photo Agence ROL
Le premier: soldat Girard, vainqueur de la Marche de l’Armée, arrivée à la Galerie des Machines.‘ [The winner: soldier Girard, champion of the Marche de l’Armée, arrives at the Galerie des Machines.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

Marche de l'Armée, photo by Agence Rol
Stade Buffalo: Rodolphe Muller serrant la main du soldat Girard, vainqueur de la Marche de l’Armée.‘ [Stade Buffalo: Rodolphe Muller shakes hand with soldier Girard (left), the winner of the Marche de l’Armée.] – Photo Agence Rol (source: gallica.bnf)

I won’t recount the whole day, nor the numerous incidents and accidents. After more than 5 hours the first contestant arrived at the finish. That day the weather was abnormally hot, and the men suffered. Many abandoned the march. Some soldiers were taken to hospital, at least one died. What should have been a festive day became a painful spectacle. The next day L’Humanité, the communist newspaper would report: “The sight of Gerard, the winner, had made the crowd cry out in pity. The unhappy boy could not even, at the end, lift his painful feet swollen with fatigue. The sight of the last groups deeply moved the spectators. The sturdy lads, who had left so happily in the morning, returned broken with fatigue, devastated, drenched in sweat, haggard eyes, clenched hands, clenched jaws, stumbling at every step, threatening continually to fall on the pavement.

A small marine infantry soldier, seized by a dizzy spell, takes two steps back. An officer holds him and shakes him. Another one shouts at him: “Hold on, no more than 25 meters left!”. Hardly recovered, the poor child, he is not yet twenty, continues on his way staggering. A hundred meters from the checkpoint, he stops again and brings his clenched hands to his throat. But an officer motions him forward, giving him a word of encouragement. He stiffens then, and feeling his strength completely abandon him, he rushes in a last effort towards the finish post near which he comes crashing down.
And these sorrowful scenes went on and on …

Hm… I think that white fatigue trousers will forever remind me of the deplorable scenes above.

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