- 'Under the Bombs of Rheims'
- by Spanish journalist Gomez Carillo
- from the book Among the Ruins' 1915
The Destruction of War
scenes of destruction in Reims - from a British magazine
December 5. 1914
Down there, in the distance, behind that row of trees, we shall see it through the mist." We all look in the direction indicated by our guide, and we all wait uneasily for the doleful sight. We all ask ourselves if we shall arrive in time to see it. We recall the accounts we have read in the papers with their sinister details of fire and ruin. Yesterday Pierre Loti was talking to us of the huge stone jewel, pronouncing a kind of elegy over it. "Masterpieces which man cannot reproduce are strewing the ground with fragments," said the great poet; "the granite lace work, the ingenuous attitudes of ecstatic figures are gone beyond recall; a whole cycle of our history, quivering in the immaterial life of the sanctuary, has been hurled into the abyss, leaving but a souvenir." We repeat his words with painful emotion, scrutinizing the horizon and evoking the memory of bygone days of peaceful enthusiasm, when we had watched to see the huge aerial towers rising in these self-same plains. No cathedral in the world has such a character of harmonious majesty as Reims. Rising above the city, it is seen from an immense distance in the plain. Here the robust grace of ancient Christian France with its cortège of kings had found a fitting reliquary. The barbarism of every age but our own had respected it. The thought of what is happening to-day fills one not only with disgust but still more with shame. What opinion will future generations form of a century which proudly proclaimed its culture the while it burnt and destroyed the most exquisite creations of human genius?
As we draw nearer the fog becomes denser. We can no longer distinguish even the nearest trees. A grey penumbra envelops the distant space. We calculate that we must be at the gates of the city, without having caught a glimpse of the wonderful apparition.
"Reims," murmurs our captain.
Then a great fear comes over us.
"Is it still in existence?" we ask.
"Yes," answers our guide. It was hidden by the fog.
We cross a broad, silent avenue in the fog, and arrive at the Hôtel du Nord, the only hotel still open, where the chief of the police has arranged that we should find the meal which the martyred city offers to those representatives of all Europe who have come to witness her agony.
The wine of the district gleams with its topaz reflections in the glasses. Reims still drinks champagne, even in these days of woe. The food is delicious. A fire crackles cheerfully in the lofty fireplace. And gradually as we talk of the war, and listen to tales of heroism, we begin to forget where we are. A lieutenant fresh from the trenches relates his experiences.
"At the front," he says, "our soldiers are only about thirty yards from the Germans, and naturally they begin to fraternize with them after a bit. Very often there are conversations between the trenches. Our men, who are always joking, question their adversaries on all sorts of curious details. The Germans seem to be always pre-occupied with the food question. 'What do they give you to eat?' is the first thing they ask. And our piou-pious amuse themselves by telling the Germans that they are fed on chickens, pheasants, and hares. One day some Parisian wags sent a formal invitation to their neighbours to come and share a rabbit they had killed. A well-roasted rabbit was very tempting to the Teuton appetite. A sergeant, looking at it, said sadly at last : 'If it weren't that we might be shot for it, I would come, even at the risk of being taken prisoner.' Then the Parisians, always good-naturedly boastful, threw the rabbit across to him, saying: 'Take it all, we have as many as we like over here.' The next day the Germans in that trench came over and surrendered, seduced by the good cheer of the French."
The lieutenant began another story, which promised to be very entertaining. But he never finished it. A shell had just fallen some twenty paces from our hotel. The powder reminded us that we were at Reims. The smiles died away on our lips. Our senior confrère, the editor of the Journal de Genève, rose, and, lifting his glass, invited us all to drink to French valour and French genius.
M. Georges Wagnière, editor of the 'Journal de Genève', has published his impressions in a volume called Près de la Guerre (A. Jullien, Geneva, 1915). The following passage describes our luncheon party:
"At the Hôtel du Nord we had a very animated meal. An officer made us laugh till we cried with his stories of the trenches. Two o'clock struck. Coffee had just been served. At that moment an awful noise shook the house and made us jump in our chairs. A shell had just burst in the Rue de Châtivesle, a side street which opens into the Place Drouet, a stone's-throw from the hotel. Our chauffeur came in to tell us that he had just seen a whole wall fall down. 'That's it,' said the hostess; 'they always begin just about this time.' And very quietly without any change of tone, she went on to ask if we would have any liqueur. A second explosion and then a third after an interval of two minutes made the window-panes and the crockery tremble. A police officer came into the room carrying a small fragment of shell which had fallen into his carriage. We got up and went to look at the cathedral. ' At your own risk,' said the officer who accompanied us."
"This German shell falling into this sacred city," he cries, "reminds us of our duty. At a distance we could not have believed that a great nation could show such futile rage against a city which is no fortress, but only a sanctuary of art. Now, the Germans themselves have taken care to show us that barbarism is no empty word. We, faithful historians."
Another shell, bursting just under our windows, cut short his toast. One of our officers came in with a piece of shell which had just fallen at his feet. The mistress of the house, a lady in mourning, hurried in, begging us to take refuge in an inner room. Sims, the American journalist, proposed, on the contrary, that we should go out into the street and see the town under the fire of the enemy's cannon.
We left our half-emptied glasses and started on our tragic pilgrimage towards the Cathedral. The fog had lifted, and the sight began to appear before our eyes in all its horrible grandeur. A group of children followed us, pointing out the shattered houses and showing us the fragments of statues they had just picked up. The police commandant was uneasy at the danger we were in.
"You must keep quite close to the walls," he said, at the sound of an explosion in a neighbouring square. "I cannot answer for your safety."
Nobody paid any attention to this advice. Our captain was the first to walk in the middle of the gutter, without any special haste. In every quarter sinister sights abound. The hail of missiles spares neither rich artistic gems nor miserable dwellings. There is equality in the German crimes. Here on the Place Royale is a three-storeyed house, completely gutted; here the old walls of the Rue du Cloître are reduced to ashes; here the Rue Saint Jacques has been converted into a field of ruins; here the Rue de la Grue, one of the oldest and most picturesque streets of the city, is obstructed by shattered walls; here is the Rue de l'Isle, still smoking; here the admirable Maison des Laines (Wool Exchange), now reduced to a few towers blackened by the flames: here is theMont-de- Piété (national pawnshop), roofless and doorless, with tottering walls; here is the Cour Marceau, intact but yesterday, and now a formless mass among ruins; here an entire quarter, the Faubourg de Cérès, of which nothing remains but a few thick walls.
Indeed, there is no corner that has not suffered. Of the famous public buildings the only one which still raises its noble arcades in the middle of the Place de la République is the Porte de Mars. At Saint-Rémi, the Romanesque gem of Champagne, two shells have injured the west front and the apse. As to the Cathedral. "Here it is," cries our guide. Oh! never-to-be-forgotten sight! From a distance of 200 metres the marvellous architectural mass rises before us, intact as a whole. The towers are still there, crowning the triple portico of the façade. Nothing is missing, neither the niches peopled with saints, nor the serrated crests, nor the crosses at the angles. Still beautiful, more beautiful than ever, like fair women who have suffered, it seems to scorn the attacks of the flames. "How miserable!" murmurs one of us, thinking of shattered glass and broken sculptures. But I, on the contrary, feel an immense joy before the grandiose stone silhouette. The descriptions of the catastrophe had been so appalling. Reading the first telegrams relating to the fire, we began to think that the whole building had been destroyed.
"Only a ghost of the Cathedral has survived, and this will soon crumble away," said the newspapers. As a fact, the whole imposing jewel is there, proud and erect, looking loftier, firmer, more aerial, more sacred than ever. The flames have blackened the towers and gables. No matter. The figures praying in the sculptured shrines of the walls have been decapitated and cruelly mutilated. No matter. The famous painted glass which flooded its aisles with fiery light, and enshrined its rites in the heart of a ruby, has disappeared in the flames. No matter. Stripped and bare, the sanctuary is still the same, because it preserves its great mystic soul. As we gaze at the cathedral, the shells continue their cruel and senseless task. What can be the object of these strange artillerists in thus wreaking their fury on a city containing only women and children, stone saints and phantom kings? The French troops are in the country a long way off. The cannon a German general professed to have discovered near the Cathedral never existed. There is, nevertheless, a storm of shells. Every minute the dismal whistling sound pierces the air, and the silence is broken by an explosion. Little children, accustomed to the sight, amuse themselves by following the flight of projectiles, and calculating just where they will fall. Now it is the railway station which seems to be serving as target. The Hôtel Continental has just fallen in, says a policeman, who is running to fetch stretchers. A few steps farther on, another informs us that the hospital is on fire, and that it is impossible to save the wounded from the flames. On every face there is a look of suffering resignation. Living as by a miracle the inhabitants await their last day. The firing is very capricious. The explosions are now distant, now near, and then less frequent: then they come hastily, one after the other: then they cease, to begin again later. It is only from noon to 2 P.M. and from 7 to 9 P.M. that peace may be reckoned upon. The German warriors never forget their luncheon and dinner-hours. One must dine well if one would kill well. As they digest their savoury sausages they amuse themselves by their puerile and infernal game. After the railway station the Cathedral seems to attract their thunderbolts again. A shell has fallen quite near ... another, nearer still. What an awful noise is caused by the bursting of the steel.
"Let us get out of the way," cries the police commandant.
At the same moment, close before us, thirty paces from the statue of Joan of Arc, a sudden harsh shock makes itself felt. The café facing the Cathedral has just received its marmite, (Saucepan, the slang name given by the French soldiers to the high, explosive shells). and after the explosion we hear a sinister cracking sound. The doors fall out, the roof subsides, the pavement is piled high with rubble. Then there is silence, silence followed by a dull groan that makes our blood run cold. One of us, Dr. Bjorne Eide, makes his way to the smoking café, and tends the wounded, fortunately only two in number. If it had been a little later, the hour when customers come to read the papers, the Germans would have made a hecatomb of old men, one of those hecatombs that seem to give them so much pleasure. The face of the waiter whom our colleague is succouring is nothing but a blackened wound. The eyes and mouth are no longer distinguishable: all one sees is a bleeding mass which emits a slow and plaintive sound, a sound which is not a sob but a kind of lament, a rhythmic murmur, a chant which gradually dies into silence. The other wounded man lies unconscious in a corner, and were it not for a slight trembling of his lips, we should believe him to be dead. In the street the children make comments and comparisons. What for us is an extraordinary spectacle, so moving that it has struck us all dumb, is for them a customary, almost a trivial occurrence.
"It's the same every day," they cry.
And looking up they try to see the whistling, threatening shells as they approach.
"Why don't you go away?" we ask.
The answer is always the same, an answer at once resigned and hopeless: the answer of the poor, accustomed to be victims whatever may happen. For of the hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants of Reims, the only ones left in the city are those on whom fortune has frowned. The rest, the owners of the palaces on the Boulevard de Waterloo, the great wine growers, the heads of the factories whose chimneys rise in the environs, are at Bordeaux or Paris. Those who have no money, unfortunate old men and hapless children, where should they go, and what could they take with them? Here, at least, when the little house of one is shattered, that of another offers him shelter. A tender solidarity unites the beings who live beneath the menace of the shells.
"There's not much to choose between being killed by a shell at Reims or dying of hunger elsewhere," the old people seem to think.
As for the children, they never think of death: they amuse themselves looking at the tragic play of the flames, running to the spot where there is a new ruin, to pick up fragments of shell, and talking of what they have seen.
"Close by here," says a lively little dark-haired boy, "there is a house which has just fallen in."
The police commandant, tired of giving us unheeded advice, makes up his mind to speak authoritatively. We are to return to our hotel. Then our captain, still amiable and still calm and cold, reminds us that our hostess promised to tell us the things she has witnessed during the last three months.
So leaving the Cathedral, which stands divinely impassible in its pathetic grandeur, and the groaning wounded man, and the square where Joan d'Arc bestrides her bronze charger, and the children still seeking fragments of shell, we come back silent and exhausted. Projectiles fly across our heads with ominous whistlings.
We regain the hotel and soon afterwards the bombardment dies down. Every ten minutes a shell will burst again, but no longer in the centre of the town: they are falling in the distant poor quarter. The salvoes, it seems, have been fired in our honour, not, as some of our confrères seem to think, with the idea of murdering inoffensive journalists, but because of the unusual movement caused by our motor-cars. The Germans see everything and hear everything. The environs of the town are full of spies who count the carriages that enter, the men that go out, the houses that fall, the victims that succumb.
When a party of workmen tried to go up on the Cathedral roof to mend it a shell forced them to disperse.
"They won't let us save the sanctuary from ruin," said the vicar in despair to Pierre Loti.
Haunted by the idea that the attack on the lines at this point will come from Reims, everything that happens in the town fills them with uneasiness. They imagine the masons the Archbishop had sent to cover in the aisles of the church to be military observers. It was not surprising, therefore, that our eight motors, escorted by artillerymen, should have been taken for a threatening advance guard, and that the batteries of Brimont should have honoured us with volleys to which we had no claim.
The hostess shakes her head sadly, as if to reproach us for our involuntarily provocative act.
"If we want a little, peace," she said, "we ought to shut ourselves up in our houses and keep perfectly still. When the town is quite quiet the enemy throws not more than ten bombs between luncheon and dinner. But directly there is anything unusual going on, we are treated as we have been to-day.I don't know how we are still alive. The months this has been going on ! If my husband were not at the war I should have closed the hotel and left long ago. But as he is in danger, I want to be in danger too."
The two waiters, an old man and a boy, look at their heroic mistress with respect and terror. They, too, would be glad to go, and if they stay, risking their poor lives, it is because they will not forsake her. The old man, questioned by one of us, murmurs:
"It is madness to stay here."
The youth smiles and is silent.
"Three months ago," continued our hostess, "on September 2, when we did not even know that the Germans were so near, the Mayor published a proclamation announcing that the town was in danger of attack, and calling upon us all to deposit any weapons we had in our houses at the Hôtel-de-Ville. The agitation that evening was tremendous. The rich people were leaving the city, the poor were laying in stocks of provisions, the troops of the garrison were falling back upon Épernay. Those of us who were left feared a siege, an attack, everything, in short, except what we saw next day and the following days. On the evening of the 3rd, indeed, a detachment of Prussian officers occupied the Town Hall, and forced the Mayor, a very energetic and dignified old man, to pass the night there with them. The anxious population in the streets could not make out what was going on. How could the enemy have got in thus? No one knew any details of the battles that had been taking place, nor what the retirement of our troops meant. Some talked of the siege of Paris, the taking of Paris, the capture of the President of the Republic. The men were weeping with rage, the women who remembered the war of 1870 told the most awful stories, declaring that nothing could save us from the fury of the Germans. The hotel was full of people asking for food. On the 4th a general with his staff came and demanded a million francs and an immense quantity of provisions. We had to find bread, vegetables, and meat for over 100,000 men every day.
The Mayor was parleying with the general when a shell suddenly fell at the door of the Town Hall. A minute afterwards there was another, and then a third. The officers, livid with rage, threatened to burn the town, and seized their revolvers, ready to kill all the officials present. The Mayor, who knew perfectly well that it was not the French who were attacking, sent a police officer to pick up some of the fragments of shell, and when the general examined them he was convinced that it was his own batteries firing from Le Meneux. A motor-car was dispatched at once with orders to cease firing, and a few hours later the Saxon regiments began to enter the city in order, with one of the Emperor's sons, Prince August Wilhelm, at their head. It was he who saved us from pillage and cruelty. On the pretext that two of his emissaries had disappeared, General von Zuckau wanted to shoot the Mayor and make us pay a fine of fifty million francs. 'You can murder me if you like,' answered the Mayor. The furious general laid his hand on his revolver: but the Prince stopped him with a glance, and at once gave orders that the civil population was to be respected. I must say that the latter behaved admirably, and with a tact and dignity which even the German commended.
The young women shut themselves up in their houses to escape from the dangerous attentions of the military. The trades-people opened their shops as usual, thus pro- claiming that they had no fears. The Mayor, in spite of his advanced age, showed extraordinary activity in averting any disagreeable incidents. But the finest example of disinterested charity was given by the schoolmistresses, who became hospital nurses. Mile Fouriaux, the superintendent of the first ambulance, received and nursed the German wounded no less solicitously than the French wounded. One day when I went to fetch some blankets I saw bearded Uhlans in tears. When they were taken prisoners they thought they would all be shot, and they found they were treated with maternal kindness. When the Prussians entered the city, the French wounded were got off to Ëpernay, that they might not be made prisoners, and only the German wounded were left. Mile Fouriaux and her companions continued to nurse these until September 12, the last day of the occupation. A Saxon doctor who superintended the removal of these wounded men declared that the nurses deserved a reward. 'Our conscience is our reward,' they replied, 'and we do not look for praise.' And would you believe it? ... one of the first buildings destroyed in the bombardment was the hospital. The Red Cross flag is no protection whatever."
"How did the German soldiers behave during the occupation?" asked one of us.
"They behaved well ... the common soldiers at least. They walked about in groups, and if they had no money, they would ask for a glass of something to drink in the taverns. The officers did not ask: they just took what they liked in the hotels and private houses. And their haughtiness and insolence! They were so arrogant and so insulting that it was unbearable."
The hostess turned to the old waiter, who threw up his arms with a doleful gesture.
"When they had to go, after the battle of the Marne," continued the good woman, "they had lost their pride. They had not even time to carry off what they had stolen. You remember, Pierre?"
The old waiter smiled slyly.
"But the worst of it is," said the hostess, "that they have never ceased bombarding us ever since. They want to destroy what they could not keep. And I think they will succeed. Yesterday, when the hotel next door was shattered, the stones fell into our courtyard. I thought to-day that it was our turn for a shell. But I shan't go away. No ..."
The old waiter muttered "madness!" once more.
And so it is, undoubtedly, an admirable madness that keeps all these people under the hurricane of bombardment. The Germans themselves declare that they cannot understand such obstinacy, such a passion for the soil, such a resistance to perpetual menace. Like Goethe a hundred years ago, when he saw the peasants of the Argonne living quietly in the midst of the fury of Valmy, they ask what secret charm the soil of France has, by virtue of which souls are so deeply rooted in every village, every town, and every country district.
"I stay because of my husband," says our hostess.
All have some sacred pretext when, in their sublime patriotism, they excuse their heroic conduct. The children are fearless because they are children, and the old people because they are old. There is a crowd around us when we go to our motors, a crowd curious to see us, to see what the shells have done, eager in fact to live a life of incessant danger, emotion, and terror. Groups gather in front of each fresh ruin, discussing the details of the drama. A tobacconist's shop is on fire, and the smoke of the burning cigars rises in thick spirals, evoking gay exclamations from old men whose poverty has forbidden them to light their pipes for months past. In the square little children are quarrelling for fragments of shell. Women are searching among the débris for pieces of gaily coloured stuff, and when there is nothing more to see in the town, they turn their eyes to the north, and there watch hard by the cross-fire of the French and German batteries.
For the battle has been raging since the middle of September at the very gates of Reims.
As we return our captain stops the motors on the hills to the west, to show us the distant battle. Evening is beginning to fall. A light mist, which does not, like the fog of the morning, hide the buildings, but merely veils their contours, and gives them mysterious shapes, hovers over the wide panorama. Over there, among the hills, is the terrible Brimont, where the cannon, which were not able to destroy Paris, carry out their work of devastation and destruction. Nearer to us is Courcy, where French and Germans fight for the ground, foot by foot. Nearer still is Bethény, with its almost Biblical name, bleeding, violated, sacrificial Bethény. It would be useless to try to discern the movements of the troops. In this trench warfare nothing is to be seen on the honeycombed soil, even at a distance of a hundred paces. The only things clearly visible are the flames of the bursting shells and the columns of smoke that rise, straight and leisurely, in the icy air. The crash of the cannon comes in muffled thunder to our ears. The shells burst in the plain, one after the other, all alike, all in the same places, with mathematical precision. From time to time a louder, closer, more lugubrious sound makes us turn our eyes towards the city which continues to receive its daily missiles every half-hour or so, as if to keep it well in hand. We see the Cathedral afar, more beautiful, more stately than when we looked at it close by, and in the dying twilight the towers are dyed with soft roseate tints.
"Say good-bye to it, for it is getting late," says some one.
And this insignificant phrase in the sad evening atmosphere takes on an emotional value that depresses us as if we were leaving something of our life behind among the sacred walls. Will this good-bye be a final farewell, or a temporary-parting? Some day, we who are now departing will come back again to see what has been left.
Shall we find the great sanctuary still standing there, proud and sombre in its martyrdom? And shall we meet again the kindly people who received us and accompanied us through the streets!
The hostess, watching us set out for less dangerous regions, dared not answer our "Au revoir" by an "Au revoir." I seem still to see her pale face, calm, serious, and resigned. I still hear the old waiter murmuring, "It's madness!"
Oh God! To think that the people of this city took three centuries to build the most exquisite of temples to glorify Thy Mercy! ... What a place of woe is the world Thou hast created!
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