The French Built A “Fake Paris”

The French Built a Fake Paris in 1917
The French Built a Fake Paris in 1917

For the first time in history, World War I was a conflict unlike any other. New and terrifying weaponry was unveiled. The invention of the machine gun, the tank, and the aeroplane entered a new phase of mass killing. Nowhere was safe from the new bombers, which were specifically designed to attack civilians.

The Beginning of Deadly War

On August 30th, 1914, Germany struck Paris from the air for the first time. Bombs were dropped by a German two-seater Taube on the city, causing very little damage. At first, this kind of attack was unusual. The severity of these bombing strikes intensified as the war continued. Because of the devastation and fear these strikes caused, this was inevitable.

There were several reasons why German bombers targeted Paris as a primary target. Because of its location so near to the frontlines, Paris was an obvious target for the Germans. As little as 30 kilometres out from the city, the German bombers were able to attack. Second, the German advance into France had as its goal the city of Paris.

Paris’ safety was crucial to the future of France. France would be brought to its knees if Paris were to collapse. If Paris surrendered, France would surrender as well. After a single bombing strike on the city, it quickly became an everyday event for residents. This initial round of bombings had surprisingly little effect on the normal course of events in Paris.

The Introduction of Zeppelins in WW1

The Germans began launching nighttime strikes on Paris in September 1914 as part of their regular bombing campaign in Paris. A new bombing campaign was launched utilizing Zeppelins in March of that year. The arrival of the Zeppelins was the defining moment for the French. In response to an uptick in nighttime attacks, the city ordered a blackout.

Crater of a Zeppelin bomb in Paris, 1917
Crater of a Zeppelin bomb in Paris, 1917 | © Willy John Abbot / WikiCommons

Even in 1917, the Zeppelins would continue to bomb. As Germany moved its attention to England, Paris had a temporary reprieve. As the death toll from the attacks on England mounted, the people of Paris began to look for a different approach to their issue.

The One and Only Solution: Fake Paris

Trying to halt the bombing strikes on Paris proved to be a challenge. Air doctrine was only getting started. The Allies and Germany alternated control of the skies. 

Using planes and anti-aircraft weapons to protect Paris was ineffective. The French government came up with an unconventional and ambitious strategy to deal with this issue. Fake the city of Paris.

Aircraft of World War I, with their crude technology, held the key to this strategy. The bombers utilized a basic bombing tactic that was easy to carry out.

Flying over what looked like the intended location, they dropped their bombs and then flew back to base for the night. While flying over Paris at night, pilots may have difficulties distinguishing between a genuine and a false city because of a lack of technology.

General Plan for Fake Paris
Three Zones of Sham Paris – Sham Paris Detail | © John Ptak / JF Ptak Science Books

The strategy devised by the French was complex. In 1917, they began building the city. The chosen location was on a stretch of the Seine River that roughly resembled the Parisian district of the same name. One of the locations was Maisons-Laffitte, 15 miles north of Paris.

The Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, the Gard du Nord, and the Gard de l’Est were built in life-size replicas. Working street lights, a railway, and a model home were all included.

No Lighting, No Fake Paris

The lighting was the most complex aspect of the tactic. In the absence of adequate lighting, this plan was doomed to failure. Electricity was provided by Italian Fernand Jacopozzi, who was contracted by the French.

Using a succession of shifting lights, Jacopozzi created the illusion that the train was moving. To create the illusion of light streaming through the glass, he included lights and translucent materials in his design.

Fake Gare de l’Est - John Ptak - JF Ptak Science Books
Fake Gare de l’Est | © John Ptak / JF Ptak Science Books

All of the warm light from interiors, equipment, and industrial furnaces had to be carefully re-created. But might the German pilots be fooled?

The Disappointing End

One can only speculate as to the effectiveness of this fake Paris. The conflict came to an end before the city could be completed. As of November 11, 1918, the Germans had requested an armistice.

Fernand Jacopozzi won France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for his work on Faux Paris. It wasn’t long before Jacopozzi became a living legend after installing the Eiffel Tower’s first lighting system.

A war that was much more devastating than the one they had recently survived loomed over France, Germany, and the rest of the globe.

This is a portrait of Fernand Jacopozzi, the Italian engineer who designed the light display for Faux Paris. (Public Domain)
Portrait of Fernand Jacopozzi, the Italian engineer who designed the light display for Fake Paris.

Summary

How do you protect Paris from the German bombers during World War I? Of course, by constructing a fake city on a scale with the real one.

In order to better defend their capital city of Paris during World War I, the French constructed a mockup of the metropolis to the city’s immediate north.

It was hoped that if German aircraft were tricked into believing that the Potemkin city was the real deal, then the City of Lights would remain untouched by the bombing.

In addition to constructing a fake Arc de Triomphe, the French also erected a gigantic wooden duplicate of the Opera House, the Gare du Nord, and the Champs-Elysees.

To increase the sense of realism, they used details such as transparent paint, which was meant to represent the grimy glass roofs of factories. They built fake industrial districts besides the grand boulevards that Hausmann had designed.

An electrical engineer named Fernand Jacopozzi, who subsequently went on to illuminate the Eiffel Tower, was engaged in creating the appearance of trains and equipment whirling along at night using white, yellow, and red lamps. This was done in order to give the idea that the Eiffel Tower was lit up.

So, this was the reason why the French decided to build a fake Paris. Indeed, it was a great strategy devised by intelligent masterminds in the backend.

2 thoughts on “The French Built a “Fake Paris” in 1917

  1. In fact, it was very clever to build a false city to deceive the Germans. Whether the false city really fulfilled its objective or not, the fact is that the idea was conceived and generated with the objective of protecting the French people. The idea was so fantastic that it guaranteed Jacopozzi his prominent place in history. This post is very interesting.

  2. Interestingly, they did it to protect the city and themselves, a very bold attitude and a smart move. The idea they had was really interesting.

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