There’s a statue in Paris that indicates how badly the Seine is flooding. Water level at his feet? No problem. Waist deep? Time to get very concerned. Shoulders submerged? Evacuate the paintings of The Louvre! Over his head? Time to take a boat to work!
The statue is a Zouave infantryman, a form of light infantryman from the French army. Located on the Pont De L’Alma bridge, on a plinth just above the water, he is the last remaining statue of four figures. Sculpted by Georges Diebolt, this interesting statue has taken on the unexpected job of being the river marker for the Seine. When the water level rises, the people of Paris look to the Zouave to see how submerged the city will get!
Origins Of The Pont De L’Alma
The Pont de l’Alma was inaugurated in 1856 by Emperor Napoleon III as part of Haussmann’s huge renovation of Paris. It connected Avenue George V with the Quai d’Orsay. It was named after the battle of Alma, which took place two years earlier in 1854, one of the first major confrontations of the Crimean War.
The Original Statues Of The Pont De L’Alma
The bridge was originally home to four statues standing either side of the two large piers. There was a grenadier (also sculpted by Georges Diebolt), a skirmisher, and an artilleryman (sculpted by Auguste Arnaud), all different types of soldiers who participated in the Crimean War.
The Zouave is thought to be modelled after a real soldier who served in the Crimea, André-Louis Gody (1828-1896). The statue is 5.2 metres high, and wears the traditional uniform of a Zouave; a fez, a short fitted jacket without buttons, puffy breeches with high leggings, and a wide belt of canvas. He poses with his rifle.
Reconstruction Of The Pont De L’Alma
From 1970 to 1974, the bridge was reconstructed to be a steel girder bridge to allow for increased road traffic. It was also subsiding and needed to be renovated. After over a century together, the four statues were split up, and three of them given new homes. The grenadier was sent to Dijon (Diebolt’s home city), the artilleryman to La Fère, and the skirmisher went to the Gravelle Stronghold in Vincennes. The Zouave was the only one left, and was placed low down on the stone foundation of the new bridge.
The Zouave As A Marker Of Tide
With his new position, the Zouave was now very close to the waters of the river Seine. As the river rose and fell, he became an informal marker of tides and floods. While the normal water level is usually well below his feet, there have been times that the Zouave has been chest-deep in water.
Flooding Of The Seine
In 1910, when the Zouave was part of the old bridge, the Great Flood of Paris went as high as the Zouave’s shoulders. La Grande Crue was catastrophic, and saw the Seine rising 8.62 metres (28 feet) higher than normal. 14,000 buildings were flooded, killing the electricity grid, filling metro stations with water, and submerging the streets for two months. The people who didn’t evacuate the city had to get around by boat, and by walking on temporary wooden walkways.
It rose again to 7 metres (23 feet) in both 1924 and 1955, and flooded again in 1982, 1999, and 2016. Most recently, the Zouave was submerged up to his torso in 2018, as the Seine rose to 5.84 metres (19 feet) above its normal level.
Finding the Zouave statue is easy – it’s just a matter of putting the Pont de l’Alma into Google maps. It’s a nice little hidden detail to discover in Paris, and amazing to imagine what it must have been like to see the Seine in full flood, like in 1910.