I made it to the Chateau de Versailles today. It is something else. Massive, opulent, beautifully restored. And very very crowded. I survived the masses and recorded some sound and got to stand in the room where the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919. The Hall of Mirrors has 17 huge windows and 17 huge mirrors facing those windows, as well as countless chandeliers, velvet-covered stools, fancy busts, gold hinges, marble corners. Even with the throng of tourists, and youngsters on school trips, and their guides peppering them with facts, it was possible in the shimmering, twinkling light bouncing off all the reflective surfaces to glimpse a sense of stillness every once in a while as the movement in the galleries ebbed and flowed. You could imagine the tense and solemn occasion of the signing…just.
The Paris peace talks will loom large in my story about how WWI ended; it’s impossible to tell the tale of why the shooting stopped and what happened next without them. There are many books on the topic but two relatively recent ones which have been enormously helpful to me are Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 (published in the UK as The Peacemakers) and Zara Steiner’s The Lights that Failed (about the period 1919 to 1933). I had the chance to interview both historians on this trip. I am struck by how hard each has worked to get inside the minds and the times of the figures to whom it fell to try to bring order to an international system that had pretty much collapsed. By the way, both authors, and the military historian Hew Strachan, whom I also interviewed this week, strenuously refute the old notion that the Versailles Treaty somehow led inevitably to WW2. That’s just too simplistic a reading of what happened between the wars for them. Anyway, lots to chew on. I will have my hands full trying to distill it for radio.
Hall of Mirrors from outside
Hall of Mirrors from inside
And some pics from earlier in the week:
Graves and cyclists in Ypres
The strangest thing I saw all week (also in Ypres). What is this?
Oxford students all dressed up for exams
In the trenches at the Imperial War Museum