Paris counts among the most beloved cities on Earth, a status that owes in part to the relative lack of damage taken in during both World Wars. The desire to protect and preserve Paris thus runs high today, but then, it also did a century ago. The prospect of the city’s obliteration during what was then called the Great War inspired an especially ambitious defensive scheme. “At the beginning of 1917, a wild idea was floated,” writes the Daily Beast’s Allison McNearney. “Why not build a replica of Paris just outside of the city and fool German bombers into dropping their destructive loads where only the decoys made of wood and fabric could be harmed.”
This Paris leurre (decoy) is the subject of the 35-minute British Pathé documentary above, Illusion: The City That Never Was. Its detailed plan “called for the construction of three separate ‘sham’ neighborhoods just outside of the city”: a large train station modeled after Gare du Nord, a replica city center with its own Champs-Élysées, and a “faux industrial zone with factories and other indications of wartime production.”
Built mostly out of wood and fabric, these remote uninhabited quarters were to be equipped with elements like working street lighting — designed by Fernand Jacopozzi, later famed for his illumination of the Eiffel Tower — and a moving train.
As it turned out, the train was one of the few elements of this elaborate fake City of Light actually constructed. “In 1918, before the project could be completed, the war came to an end and the government quickly moved to dismantle their secret project and suppress all information concerning its existence,” writes McNearney. Only in the twenty-first century has this World War I-era push to build a fake Paris come to light. Though never completed, its sheer ambition speaks to France’s own conception of its capital as a store of priceless cultural and historical heritage. In a sense, Paris is civilization, or at least French civilization. One must ask: would humanity go to the same lengths to protect it today?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.