from the book 'to Verdun from the Somme'
'Rheims in 1916'
by Harry E. Brittain

A Canadian Reporter Visits the City of Rheims

an aerial view of the city by war's end in 1918


That afternoon our destination was Rheims, but as the direct route kept disappearing into the enemy's lines, we were forced from time to time to follow varied by-ways. This somewhat winding course led us for many miles through a region of wonderfully kept vineyards, which, from the hasty glance obtainable from a car, looked as if they would yield a splendid crop of grapes.

We spent some time looking at an old pilgrimage church, a delicious little masterpiece, happily untouched by German shells, though the neighbouring village had been somewhat roughly handled.

In accordance with the almost universal rule that every Frenchman of every rank is an artist, we learnt something of the history and details of this beautiful church, not only from Captain B.-L., but from each of our soldier chauffeurs, who agreed in finding it "ravissante." I could not help contrasting their enthusiasm with the difficulty I once had of getting a chauffeur of my own to look inside the noble church of St. Etienne at Caen.

He was a good fellow, but art was not his strong suit, and no expression of approval fell from his lips; for on his way out, grumbling somewhat to himself, he was overheard to remark that I had made him walk round that clammy place the year before!

We got our first distant view of Rheims from the top of a steep hill above the village of Berzy, when we saw in the distance the mighty outline of the great cathedral standing apparently as in former days. Far below to the east stretched a great wide plain, intersected in all directions by miles of trenches, through the midst of which ran the little river Vesle.

On arriving at the suburbs of the city, Captain B.-L. disappeared for a moment to report our arrival, returning with another officer who very kindly had accepted the task of taking us in hand. Strangely quiet and forsaken the city appeared, although the south-western section, through which we had come in, did not appear to have been so badly damaged as I had expected to find it; but the mark of the Hun, ever increasing in intensity, reached its acme of frightfulness in that famous little square where Joan of Arc still upholds the banner of France.

It is a scene of the most wanton and useless destruction which to-day surrounds the Maid.

The great archiepiscopal palace, where in former days French Kings were entertained, is now little more than a pile of débris.

In a humbler walk of life the Lion d'Or (starred in the guide-book for no mean cuisine and cellar), recalling many a pleasant stay in by-gone days, has, like its nobler neighbours, suffered severely; but the sturdy Frenchman in charge has stuck to his post, and though his building be patched and battered, he insists on "carrying on."

Towering over all still stands the glorious pile of Nôtre Dame, almost without a peer among those treasures which the genius of the Middle Ages handed down.

I have said that, viewed from a distance, the great cathedral appeared to have been almost untouched, but an inspection at close quarters revealed the terrible extent of the destruction wrought.

The superb western façade can never be the same again, though skilled hands may do their utmost to repair the reckless damage. Thousands of sand-bags are now piled round that western front to mitigate as far as possible any further devastation.

Captain X., having unlocked one of the massive doors, took us in, and for a full hour we wandered round the great shrine, now deserted save for the flocks of pigeons which had found their way through rents in the stone and the shattered windows.

It is difficult to realise the desolation and utter emptiness of that great interior to-day, after its martyrdom by fire and steel.

Gone are its pictures, its tapestries, and most of its priceless glass, the huge rose- window, one of the finest in the world, holds together just a few fragments of gorgeous coloured glass. Through the remainder of the spaces the dust and the rain may enter as they please.

The great organ is no more, though the pipes still make a brave effort, showing no signs of fire or tarnish. The upper roof has long since gone, and through the lower roof the last shell crashed about a fortnight before our visit, leaving a gaping hole above, and in the south transept a pile of dust and stone, amidst which can be seen traces of richly coloured frescoes.

At regular intervals during our visit shells flew screaming overhead, falling in one section or another of the city, each with a violent explosion. According to Captain X. a particularly vigorous "strafe" was taking place that day, following a fairly long period of comparative calm.

When we somewhat reluctantly left the cathedral, we had hoped to put in a little more time wandering round the exterior, as well as exploring other sections of the city, but the bombardment continued to increase in severity, and, after a brief survey, our escort was somewhat insistent that we should move along.

Before getting into the car, I walked across to the old Lion d'Or, the interior of which still possessed its familiar look, save in the shrunken size of its clientèle, and—having wished mine host the best of luck—rejoined my friends in the Place du Parvis.

As we drove away through the town about all we saw in the streets were several specimens of that ubiquitous wonder, the small boy, and one most noticeable young lady who, attired in what seemed to my untutored eye, to be the latest fashion, demurely paced the side-walk—under shell-fire.

Our way lay to Epernay, and for the first two or three miles we lost no time in slipping along the broad high-road until we reached a region where safe and normal travelling was the usual thing. Then we leisurely wound our way up the slopes of the Montaigne de Reims, from the highest point of which a wonderful view was obtainable.

With plenty of time to spare, we settled down, for a full half-hour, enjoying this fine panorama.

Far away to the East and North we could see the German lines, before which, in a hollow, lay the great city, some four or six miles from us.

Between our hill and Rheims, across a stretch of fair and smiling land, were dotted a number of peaceful-looking farms, where the quiet life of normal times still seemed to prevail.

It was a perfect evening, more fitting far for peace than war, but it was, alas, a scene of very broken peace we looked upon. Almost every minute the low deep boom from a heavy gun rolled across the country-side, and before the sound had reached us a great cloud of smoke and dust proclaimed that yet another German shell had fallen upon that long-suffering city.

Many a visit have I had to Rheims' old Gothic pile, more noble to-day than ever in her history; may it be my great good fortune to return again to Nôtre Dame in the coming days of victory, and there to take part in a Service of Thanksgiving with the valiant soldiers of heroic France!


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