14th of July, 6am - I had overslept. I jumped in my clothes and reached Champs Élysées 45 minutes later, getting off in the middle of the boulevard, as police were in the process of closing all stations. My friends were also running late, having missed their own alarms. Crowds were gathering quickly in an effort to secure a precious spot and witness the commemoration of this grand event in French history - Bastille Day.
There is this first bit of the Champs Élysées running between Concorde (where the President announces his speech in the presence of his government and foreign ambassadors to France) and the junction at Grand Palais which is reserved for seated guests with tickets. The queues are allowed to find their proper space from that junction through to the Arch of Triumph. The closer you get to the Arch, the less exciting it gets - simply because a large part of the military units get stationed and commence their march somewhere along the actual street.
The best spot one could pray to find is located at the turn right next to Grand Palais - one would then get a full view of both the descending troops, as well as the artillery who had already been dropped before the agitated crowds by bus. Although running late, we managed to get ourselves to that first-row lot. It took quite some time for the participants to get into position - the march was set to begin at about 10 o’clock.
The President appeared, riding on top of a small military truck, waved to the cheering spectators, escorted by police at the back, while this wonderful cavalry unit proudly led the way. Several units of military on horses passed before me that morning, and I must say they topped my list of favorites - not only did they look absolutely dignified, but I fell in love with their uniforms - carrying swords and topped with high cylindrical hats and a feather at the front.
I was suddenly paying attention to the music - an uplifting melody setting the tone and rhythm to measure the military’s tempo. The majority of troops were comprised of various types of artillery. Each unit wore a different uniform and carried a specific name, number of division and overall type, the details made available to the public in the event’s program which was being handed out.
The commander would appear in front, followed by a group of 4 to 6 people, who would in turn be leading a group of perfectly synchronized marchers carrying swords or heavy guns, some of which had bayonets. Right at the end of the event, all the heavy machinery, guns, helicopters and planes would appear. It was quite sensational!
I was proud and felt incredibly lucky to be witnessing the oldest and largest Military Parade in Europe which has been held annually on this day since 1880. Looking at the carefully arranged men and women making their way down that historic avenue in perfect synchronicity had a profoundly humbling effect. The occasion was touching and affected me greatly. Although beautiful in its execution, in wartime this would be a march in the face of death.