Before the Military School (École Militaire) was built (1752 to 1760) the boggy area that today lies South of the Eiffel Tower was used for growing vegetables. In 1765 it was decided to use this mainly flat ground to practise manoeuvres, and to name it the ‘God of War Field’ (Champ-de-Mars).
During the French Revolution the area was renamed ‘The meeting field” (Champ de la Réunion). It was surrounded by a ditch and given an ornate entrance and used for national celebrations. The first, on September 20 1790, was to commemorate those killed by the mutineers and those who died in putting down a mutiny that had taken place at Nancy between August 5 and August 31 1790.
The mutineers had imprisoned their officers when they held back some of their wages for alleged expenses they had incurred for laundry and shoes. When they surrendered, 22 were hung, 41 were condemned to 30 years as galley slaves and 72 put in prison. One was the last to be tortured to death in France using a wheel.
The biggest event in the Champ de Mars took place on July 14 1790.
Just over a year later, after Louis XVI’s abortive escape bid, it was where people were asked to come to sign the petition calling for the King’s abdication. And so on July 17 1791 it where the Mayor of Paris, Bailly, and La Fayette carried out the orders of the constitutional monarchists who controlled the Constituent Assembly. These were to disperse the crowd. The soldiers opened fire and then the cavalry dispersed everyone else.
On December 30 1793 a celebration of the retaking of Toulon from the English and the Spanish was held there, organised by the regicide painter Jacques-Louis David.
He organised an even bigger event in the Champ de Mars on June 8 1794, the Festival of the Supreme Being. This was Robespierre’s pet dream of replacing Christianity with a more egalitarian and rational religion.
From September 18 to September 22 1798 the Directorate organised the first exhibition of the products of French industry at the Champ de Mars. This was the precursor of the 19th and 20th century universal exhibitions that took place in 1867, 1878, 1889 (when Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley spent 6 weeks there), 1900 and 1937.
One of the jobs given to those enrolled in the 1848 National Workshops was to create flatten the terraces and plant trees on the Champ de Mars.
On April 16 1848 a march of National Workshop workers on the Town Hall assembled there to demand a second postponement of the national elections after their success on March 17. This time they also sought a change of the provisional government to put Louis Blanc in charge. They were dispersed by the national guard on the orders of Ledru-Rollin.
The area was also used during the ten days from Louis-Napoléon’s December 2 1851 Coup d’État to execute prisoners. On just the one night of December 4 336 were shot without trial.
On May 21 1871 the National Guardsmen defending the canons parked in the Champs de Mars fought hard against superior numbers of Versaillais troops. Finally overrun, many (perhaps up to 1,500) captured defenders of the Commune were then shot.