Chef-d'oeuvres by Our Dear Readers
Another Chef-d'oeuvre by A Dear Reader

What Is Happening to France's Military Archives?


Chateau de Vincennes

Put your military research on hold, Dear Readers, and we cannot say for how long. Since February, a large number of records and files at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) have been unavailable for reasons of relocation and filming. The Reading Room, where one does one's research, is to be closed for the entire summer ( 29 July to 29 September) during a large removal and consolidation programme. The archives are not expected to be fully back in service until the end of 2013, (as per the SHD notice no. 1, June, 2013; will there be a no. 2, we wonder). Worse, their website has been hacked and shut down a second time, just a few weeks after it was restored following its first hacking assault. 

What on earth is going on at Vincennes? On the one hand, representatives of the SHD are increasingly present at genealogy conferences. At their large and well-attended stands, they present materials on and explain how to research in the military archives of France. However, there is a price to be paid for this increasing popularity, it seems, especially if staffing were not increased to cope with the increase in demand. We used to be able to go there to research once or twice per week; now, we are lucky if we can get a place once every two months. The overload is obviously putting pressure on the normally genial staff who now are often seen to squabble behind their desks. But this is the military, and the plot thickens.

Something is so awry at the archives headquarters, that it is beginning to be discussed in the general press, which must pique the generals somewhat. General Olivier Paulus (since the SHD site is down, the link is to his page on LinkedIn) has been the director of the SHD since August of 2011 and has just been removed from his post, mid-way through his three-year term (Il a été limogé, a term we explain here). They took away one of his three stars, too, something that smacks of vengeance toward a man who clearly likes his medals. 

General Paulus

Also booted were his second and third in command, the civilian archivists, François Gasnault and Karine Leboucq. Essentially, the issue seems to be that Paulus thought much of the archives, especially those of the oral history section, were full of military secrets and should not be available to anyone, genealogist or military researcher. In fact, he thought that their existence should not be revealed by being listed in the archival finding aids. Insiders said that Paulus's actions had "Weakened" the SHD. The archivists took the view that all archives are part of France's cultural heritage and should be, sooner or later, available to researchers. Apparently, their disputes were dramatic to the point of being worthy of cabaret performances. The top brass, behaving like a dragon with an itch, fired the lot. Their replacements have not been announced; a date for the launch of a renewed and - one can only hope - better protected website (and should we suspect irate archivists or researchers of the hacking?) has not been announced.

Now is not a good time to research your ancestor in the French military.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy