'The Bombardment of Rheims'
by Richard Harding Davis
from his book 'With the Allies' 1915

An American Journalist Visits the Cathedral

The author, Richard Harding Davis (second from left) posing in front of the Rheims cathedral


In several ways the city of Rheims is celebrated. Some know her only through her cathedral, where were crowned all but six of the kings of France, and where the stained-glass windows, with those in the cathedrals of Chartres and Burgos, Spain, are the most beautiful in all the world. Children know Rheims through the wicked magpie which the archbishop excommunicated, and to their elders, if they are rich, Rheims is the place from which comes all their champagne.

On September 4th the Germans entered Rheims, and occupied it until the 12th, when they retreated across the Vesle to the hills north of the city.

On the 18th the French forces, having entered Rheims, the Germans bombarded the city with field-guns and howitzers.

Rheims is fifty-six miles from Paris, but, though I started at an early hour, so many bridges had been destroyed that I did not reach the city until three o'clock in the afternoon. At that hour the French artillery, to the east at Nogent and immediately outside the northern edge of the town, were firing on the German positions, and the Germans were replying, their shells falling in the heart of the city.

The proportion of those that struck the cathedral or houses within a hundred yards of it to those falling on other buildings was about six to one. So what damage the cathedral suffered was from blows delivered not by accident but with intent. As the priests put it, firing on the church was "exprès."

The cathedral dominates not only the city but the countryside. It rises from the plain as Gibraltar rises from the sea, as the pyramids rise from the desert. And at a distance of six miles, as you approach from Paris along the valley of the Marne, it has more the appearance of a fortress than a church. But when you stand in the square beneath and look up, it is entirely ecclesiastic, of noble and magnificent proportions, in design inspired, much too sublime for the kings it has crowned, and almost worthy of the king in whose honor, seven hundred years ago, it was reared. It has been called "perhaps the most beautiful structure produced in the Middle Ages." On the west façade, rising tier upon tier, are five hundred and sixty statues and carvings. The statues are of angels, martyrs, patriarchs, apostles, the vices and virtues, the Virgin and Child. In the centre of these is the famous rose window; on either side giant towers.

At my feet down the steps leading to the three portals were pools of blood. There was a priest in the square, a young man with white hair and with a face as strong as one of those of the saints carved in stone, and as gentle. He was curé doyen of the Church of St. Jacques, M. Chanoine Frezet, and he explained the pools of blood. After the Germans retreated, the priests had carried the German wounded up the steps into the nave of the cathedral and for them had spread straw upon the stone flagging.

The curé guided me to the side door, unlocked it, and led the way into the cathedral. It is built in the form of a crucifix, and so vast is the edifice that many chapels are lost in it, and the lower half is in a shadow. But from high above the stained windows of the thirteenth century, or what was left of them, was cast a glow so gorgeous, so wonderful, so pure that it seemed to come direct from the other world.

From north and south the windows shed a radiance of deep blue, like the blue of the sky by moonlight on the coldest night of winter, and from the west the great rose window glowed with the warmth and beauty of a thousand rubies. Beneath it, bathed in crimson light, where for generations French men and women have knelt in prayer, where Joan of Arc helped place the crown on Charles VII, was piled three feet of dirty straw, and on the straw were gray-coated Germans, covered with the mud of the fields, caked with blood, white and haggard from the loss of it, from the lack of sleep, rest, and food. The entire west end of the cathedral looked like a stable, and in the blue and purple rays from the gorgeous windows the wounded were as unreal as ghosts. Already two of them had passed into the world of ghosts. They had not died from their wounds, but from a shell sent by their own people.

It had come screaming into this backwater of war, and, tearing out leaded window-panes as you would destroy cobwebs, had burst among those who already had paid the penalty. And so two of them, done with pack-drill, goose-step, half rations and forced marches, lay under the straw the priests had heaped upon them. The toes of their boots were pointed grotesquely upward. Their gray hands were clasped rigidly as though in prayer.

Half hidden in the straw, the others were as silent and almost as still. Since they had been dropped upon the stone floor they had not moved, but lay in twisted, unnatural attitudes. Only their eyes showed that they lived. These were turned beseechingly upon the French Red Cross doctors, kneeling waist-high in the straw and unreeling long white bandages. The wounded watched them drawing slowly nearer, until they came, fighting off death, clinging to life as shipwrecked sailors cling to a raft and watch the boats pulling toward them.

A young German officer, his smart cavalry cloak torn and slashed, and filthy with dried mud and blood and with his eyes in bandages, groped toward a pail of water, feeling his way with his foot, his arms outstretched, clutching the air. To guide him a priest took his arm, and the officer turned and stumbled against him. Thinking the priest was one of his own men, he swore at him, and then, to learn if he wore shoulder-straps, ran his fingers over the priest's shoulders, and, finding a silk cassock, said quickly in French: "Pardon me, my father; I am blind."

As the young curé guided me through the wrecked cathedral his indignation and his fear of being unjust waged a fine battle. "Every summer," he said, "thousands of your fellow countrymen visit the cathedral. They come again and again. They love these beautiful windows. They will not permit them to be destroyed. Will you tell them what you saw?"

It is no pleasure to tell what I saw. Shells had torn out some of the windows, the entire sash, glass, and stone frame--all was gone; only a jagged hole was left. On the floor lay broken carvings, pieces of stone from flying buttresses outside that had been hurled through the embrasures, tangled masses of leaden window-sashes, like twisted coils of barbed wire, and great brass candelabra. The steel ropes that supported them had been shot away, and they had plunged to the flagging below, carrying with them their scarlet silk tassels heavy with the dust of centuries. And everywhere was broken glass. Not one of the famous blue windows was intact. None had been totally destroyed, but each had been shattered, and through the apertures the sun blazed blatantly.

We walked upon glass more precious than precious stones. It was beyond price. No one can replace it. Seven hundred years ago the secret of the glass died. Diamonds can be bought anywhere, pearls can be matched, but not the stained glass of Rheims. And under our feet, with straw and caked blood, it lay crushed into tiny fragments. When you held a piece of it between your eye and the sun it glowed with a light that never was on land or sea.

War is only waste. The German Emperor thinks it is thousands of men in flashing breastplates at manœuvres, galloping past him, shouting "Hoch der Kaiser!" Until this year that is all of war he has ever seen.

I have seen a lot of it, and real war is his high-born officer with his eyes shot out, his peasant soldiers with their toes sticking stiffly through the straw, and the windows of Rheims, that for centuries with their beauty glorified the Lord, swept into a dust heap.


several views of the cathedral


Outside the cathedral I found the bombardment of the city was still going forward and that the French batteries to the north and east were answering gun for gun. How people will act under unusual conditions no one can guess. Many of the citizens of Rheims were abandoning their homes and running through the streets leading west, trembling, weeping, incoherent with terror, carrying nothing with them. Others were continuing the routine of life with anxious faces but making no other sign. The great majority had moved to the west of the city to the Paris gate, and for miles lined the road, but had taken little or nothing with them, apparently intending to return at nightfall. They were all of the poorer class. The houses of the rich were closed, as were all the shops, except a few cafés and those that offered for sale bread, meat, and medicine.

During the morning the bombardment destroyed many houses. One to each block was the average, except around the cathedral, where two hotels that face it and the Palace of Justice had been pounded but not destroyed. Other shops and residences facing the cathedral had been ripped open from roof to cellar. In one a fire was burning briskly, and firemen were playing on it with hose. I was their only audience. A sight that at other times would have collected half of Rheims and blocked traffic, in the excitement of the bombardment failed to attract. The Germans were using howitzers. Where shells hit in the street they tore up the Belgian blocks for a radius of five yards, and made a hole as though a water-main had burst. When they hit a house, that house had to be rebuilt. Before they struck it was possible to follow the direction of the shells by the sound. It was like the jangling of many telegraph-wires.

A hundred yards north of the cathedral I saw a house hit at the third story. The roof was of gray slate, high and sloping, with tall chimneys. When the shell exploded the roof and chimneys disappeared. You did not see them sink and tumble; they merely vanished. They had been a part of the sky-line of Rheims; then a shell removed them and another roof fifteen feet lower down became the sky-line.

I walked to the edge of the city, to the northeast, but at the outskirts all the streets were barricaded with carts and paving-stones, and when I wanted to pass forward to the French batteries the officers in charge of the barricades refused permission. At this end of the town, held in reserve in case of a German advance, the streets were packed with infantry. The men were going from shop to shop trying to find one the Germans had not emptied. Tobacco was what they sought.

They told me they had been all the way to Belgium and back, but I never have seen men more fit. Where Germans are haggard and show need of food and sleep, the French were hard and moved quickly and were smiling.

One reason for this is that even if the commissariat is slow they are fed by their own people, and when in Belgium by the Allies. But when the Germans pass the people hide everything eatable and bolt the doors. And so, when the German supply wagons fail to come up the men starve.

I went in search of the American consul, William Bardel. Everybody seemed to know him, and all men spoke well of him. They liked him because he stuck to his post, but the mayor had sent for him, and I could find neither him nor the mayor.

When I left the cathedral I had told my chauffeur to wait near by it, not believing the Germans would continue to make it their point of attack. He waited until two houses within a hundred yards of him were knocked down, and then went away from there, leaving word with the sentry that I could find him outside the gate to Paris. When I found him he was well outside and refused to return, saying he would sleep in his car.

On the way back I met a steady stream of women and old men fleeing before the shells. Their state was very pitiful. Some of them seemed quite dazed with fear and ran, dodging, from one sidewalk to the other, and as shells burst above them prayed aloud and crossed themselves. Others were busy behind the counters of their shops serving customers, and others stood in doorways holding in their hands their knitting. Frenchwomen of a certain class always knit. If they were waiting to be electrocuted they would continue knitting.

The bombardment had grown sharper and the rumble of guns was uninterrupted, growling like thunder after a summer storm or as the shells passed shrieking and then bursting with jarring detonations. Underfoot the pavements were inch-deep with fallen glass, and as you walked it tinkled musically. With inborn sense of order, some of the housewives abandoned their knitting and calmly swept up the glass into neat piles. Habit is often so much stronger than fear. So is curiosity. All the boys and many young men and maidens were in the middle of the street watching to see where the shells struck and on the lookout for aeroplanes. When about five o'clock one sailed over the city, no one knew whether it was German or French, but every one followed it, apparently intending if it launched a bomb to be in at the death.

I found all the hotels closed and on their doors I pounded in vain, and was planning to go back to my car when I stumbled upon the Hôtel du Nord. It was open and the proprietress, who was knitting, told me the table-d'hôte dinner was ready. Not wishing to miss dinner, I halted an aged citizen who was fleeing from the city and asked him to carry a note to the American consul inviting him to dine. But the aged man said the consulate was close to where the shells were falling and that to approach it was as much as his life was worth. I asked him how much his life was worth in money, and he said two francs.

He did not find the consul, and I shared the table d'hôte with three tearful old French ladies, each of whom had husband or son at the front. That would seem to have been enough without being shelled at home. It is a commonplace, but it is nevertheless true that in war it is the women who suffer. The proprietress walked around the table, still knitting, and told us tales of German officers who until the day before had occupied her hotel, and her anecdotes were not intended to make German officers popular.

The bombardment ceased at eight o'clock, but at four the next morning it woke me, and as I departed for Paris salvoes of French artillery were returning the German fire.

Before leaving I revisited the cathedral to see if during the night it had been further mutilated. Around it shells were still falling, and the square in front was deserted. In the rain the roofless houses, shattered windows, and broken carvings that littered the street presented a picture of melancholy and useless desolation. Around three sides of the square not a building was intact. But facing the wreckage the bronze statue of Joan of Arc sat on her bronze charger, uninjured and untouched. In her right hand, lifted high above her as though defying the German shells, some one overnight had lashed the flag of France.



The next morning the newspapers announced that the cathedral was in flames, and I returned to Rheims. The papers also gave the two official excuses offered by the Germans for the destruction of the church. One was that the French batteries were so placed that in replying to them it was impossible to avoid shelling the city.

I know where the French batteries were, and if the German guns aimed at them by error missed them and hit the cathedral, the German marksmanship is deteriorating. To find the range the artillery sends what in the American army are called brace shots--one aimed at a point beyond the mark and one short of it. From the explosions of these two shells the gunner is able to determine how far he is off the target and accordingly regulates his sights. Not more, at the most, than three of these experimental brace shots should be necessary, and, as one of each brace is purposely aimed to fall short of the target, only three German shells, or, as there were two French positions, six German shells should have fallen beyond the batteries and into the city. And yet for four days the city was bombarded!

To make sure, I asked French, English, and American army officers what margin of error they thought excusable after the range was determined. They all agreed that after his range was found an artillery officer who missed it by from fifty to one hundred yards ought to be court-martialled. The Germans "missed" by one mile.

The other excuse given by the Germans for the destruction of the cathedral was that the towers had been used by the French for military purposes. On arriving at Rheims the question I first asked was whether this was true. The abbé Chinot, curé of the chapel of the cathedral, assured me most solemnly and earnestly it was not. The French and the German staffs, he said, had mutually agreed that on the towers of the cathedral no quick-firing guns should be placed, and by both sides this agreement was observed. After entering Rheims the French, to protect the innocent citizens against bombs dropped by German air-ships, for two nights placed a search-light on the towers, but, fearing this might be considered a breach of agreement as to the mitrailleuses, the abbé Chinot ordered the search-light withdrawn. Five days later, during which time the towers were not occupied and the cathedral had been converted into a hospital for the German wounded and Red Cross flags were hanging from both towers, the Germans opened fire upon it. Had it been the search-light to which the Germans objected, they would have fired upon it when it was in evidence, not five days after it had disappeared.

When, with the abbé Chinot, I spent the day in what is left of the cathedral, the Germans still were shelling it. Two shells fell within twenty-five yards of us. It was at that time that the photographs that illustrate this chapter were taken.

The fire started in this way. For some months the northeast tower of the cathedral had been under repair and surrounded by scaffolding. On September 19th a shell set fire to the outer roof of the cathedral, which is of lead and oak. The fire spread to the scaffolding and from the scaffolding to the wooden beams of the portals, hundred of years old. The abbé Chinot, young/alert, and daring, ran out upon the scaffolding and tried to cut the cords that bound it.

In other parts of the city the fire department was engaged with fire lit by the bombardment, and unaided, the flames gained upon him. Seeing this, he called for volunteers, and, under the direction of the Archbishop of Rheims, they carried on stretchers from the burning building the wounded Germans. The rescuing parties were not a minute too soon. Already from the roofs molten lead, as deadly as bullets, was falling among the wounded. The blazing doors had turned the straw on which they lay into a prairie fire.

Splashed by the molten lead and threatened by falling timbers, the priests, at the risk of their lives and limbs, carried out the wounded Germans, sixty in all.

But, after bearing them to safety, their charges were confronted with a new danger. Inflamed by the sight of their own dead, four hundred citizens having been killed by the bombardment, and by the loss of their cathedral, the people of Rheims who were gathered about the burning building called for the lives of the German prisoners. "They are barbarians," they cried. "Kill them!" Archbishop Landreaux and Abbé Chinot placed themselves in front of the wounded.

"Before you kill them," they cried, "you must first kill us."

This is not highly colored fiction, but fact. It is more than fact. It is history, for the picture of the venerable archbishop, with his cathedral blazing behind him, facing a mob of his own people in defence of their enemies, will always live in the annals of this war and in the annals of the church.

There were other features of this fire and bombardment which the Catholic Church will not allow to be forgotten. The leaden roofs were destroyed, the oak timbers that for several hundred years had supported them were destroyed, stone statues and flying buttresses weighing many tons were smashed into atoms, but not a single crucifix was touched, not one waxen or wooden image of the Virgin disturbed, not one painting of the Holy Family marred.

I saw the Gobelin tapestries, more precious than spun gold, intact, while sparks fell about them, and lying beneath them were iron bolts twisted by fire, broken rooftrees and beams still smouldering.

But the special Providence that saved the altars was not omnipotent. The windows that were the glory of the cathedral were wrecked. Through some the shells had passed, others the explosions had blown into tiny fragments. Where, on my first visit, I saw in the stained glass gaping holes, now the whole window had been torn from the walls. Statues of saints and crusader and cherubim lay in mangled fragments. The great bells, each of which is as large as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, that for hundreds of years for Rheims have sounded the angelus, were torn from their oak girders and melted into black masses of silver and copper, without shape and without sound. Never have I looked upon a picture of such pathos, of such wanton and wicked destruction.

The towers still stand, the walls still stand, for beneath the roofs of lead the roof of stone remained, but what is intact is a pitiful, distorted mass where once were exquisite and noble features. It is like the face of a beautiful saint scarred with vitriol.

Two days before, when I walked through the cathedral, the scene was the same as when kings were crowned. You stood where Joan of Arc received the homage of France. When I returned I walked upon charred ashes, broken stone, and shattered glass. Where once the light was dim and holy, now through great breaches in the walls rain splashed. The spirit of the place was gone.

Outside the cathedral, in the direction from which the shells came, for three city blocks every house was destroyed. The palace of the archbishop was gutted, the chapel and the robing-room of the kings were cellars filled with rubbish. Of them only crumbling walls remain. And on the south and west the façades of the cathedral and flying buttresses and statues of kings, angels, and saints were mangled and shapeless.

I walked over the district that had been destroyed by these accidental shots, and it stretched from the northeastern outskirts of Rheims in a straight line to the cathedral. Shells that fell short of the cathedral for a quarter of a mile destroyed entirely three city blocks. The heart of this district is the Place Godinot. In every direction at a distance of a mile from the Place Godinot I passed houses wrecked by shells --south at the Paris gate, north at the railroad station.

There is no part of Rheims that these shells the Germans claim were aimed at French batteries did not hit. If Rheims accepts the German excuse she might suggest to them that the next time they bombard, if they aim at the city they may hit the batteries.

The Germans claim also that the damage done was from fires, not shells. But that is not the case; destruction by fire was slight. Houses wrecked by shells where there was no fire outnumbered those that were burned ten to one. In no house was there probably any other fire than that in the kitchen stove, and that had been smothered by falling masonry and tiles.

Outside the wrecked area were many shops belonging to American firms, but each of them had escaped injury. They were filled with American typewriters, sewing-machines, and cameras. A number of cafés bearing the sign "American Bar" testified to the nationality and tastes of many tourists.

I found our consul, William Bardel, at the consulate. He is a fine type of the German-American citizen, and, since the war began, with his wife and son has held the fort and tactfully looked after the interests of both Americans and Germans. On both sides of him shells had damaged the houses immediately adjoining. The one across the street had been destroyed and two neighbors killed.

The street in front of the consulate is a mass of fallen stone, and the morning I called on Mr. Bardel a shell had hit his neighbor's chestnut- tree, filled his garden with chestnut burrs, and blown out the glass of his windows. He was patching the holes with brown wrapping-paper, but was chiefly concerned because in his own garden the dahlias were broken. During the first part of the bombardment, when firing became too hot for him, he had retreated with his family to the corner of the street, where are the cellars of the Roderers, the champagne people. There are worse places in which to hide in than a champagne cellar.

Mr. Bardel has lived six years in Rheims and estimated the damage done to property by shells at thirty millions of dollars, and said that unless the seat of military operations was removed the champagne crop for this year would be entirely wasted. It promised to be an especially good year. The seasons were propitious, being dry when sun was needed and wet when rain was needed, but unless the grapes were gathered by the end of September the crops would be lost.

Of interest to Broadway is the fact that in Rheims, or rather in her cellars, are stored nearly fifty million bottles of champagne belonging to six of the best-known houses. Should shells reach these bottles, the high price of living in the lobster palaces will be proportionately increased.

Except for Red Cross volunteers seeking among the ruins for wounded, I found that part of the city that had suffered completely deserted. Shells still were falling and houses as yet intact, and those partly destroyed were empty. You saw pitiful attempts to save the pieces. In places, as though evictions were going forward, chairs, pictures, cooking-pans, bedding were piled in heaps. There was none to guard them; certainly there was no one so unfeeling as to disturb them.

I saw neither looting nor any effort to guard against it. In their common danger and horror the citizens of Rheims of all classes seemed drawn closely together. The manner of all was subdued and gentle, like those who stand at an open grave.

The shells played the most inconceivable pranks. In some streets the houses and shops along one side were entirely wiped out and on the other untouched. In the Rue du Cardinal du Lorraine every house was gone. Where they once stood were cellars filled with powdered stone. Tall chimneys that one would have thought a strong wind might dislodge were holding themselves erect, while the surrounding walls, three feet thick, had been crumpled into rubbish.

In some houses a shell had removed one room only, and as neatly as though it were the work of masons and carpenters. It was as though the shell had a grievance against the lodger in that particular room. The waste was appalling.

Among the ruins I saw good paintings in rags and in gardens statues covered with the moss of centuries smashed. In many places, still on the pedestal, you would see a headless Venus, or a flying Mercury chopped off at the waist.

Long streamers of ivy that during a century had crept higher and higher up the wall of some noble mansion, until they were part of it, still clung to it, although it was divided into a thousand fragments. Of one house all that was left standing was a slice of the front wall just wide enough to bear a sign reading: "This house is for sale; elegantly furnished." Nothing else of that house remained.

In some streets of the destroyed area I met not one living person. The noise made by my feet kicking the broken glass was the only sound. The silence, the gaping holes in the sidewalk, the ghastly tributes to the power of the shells, and the complete desolation, made more desolate by the bright sunshine, gave you a curious feeling that the end of the world had come and you were the only survivor.

This-impression was aided by the sight of many rare and valuable articles with no one guarding them. They were things of price that one may not carry into the next world but which in this are kept under lock and key.

In the Rue de l'Université, at my leisure, I could have ransacked shop after shop or from the shattered drawing-rooms filled my pockets. Shopkeepers had gone without waiting to lock their doors, and in houses the fronts of which were down you could see that, in order to save their lives, the inmates had fled at a moment's warning.

In one street a high wall extended an entire block, but in the centre a howitzer shell had made a breach as large as a barn door. Through this I had a view of an old and beautiful garden, on which oasis nothing had been disturbed. Hanging from the walls, on diamond- shaped lattices, roses were still in bloom, and along the gravel walks flowers of every color raised their petals to the sunshine. On the terrace was spread a tea-service of silver and on the grass were children's toys--hoops, tennis-balls, and flat on its back, staring up wide-eyed at the shells, a large, fashionably dressed doll.

In another house everything was destroyed except the mantel over the fireplace in the drawing-room. On this stood a terra-cotta statuette of Harlequin. It is one you have often seen. The legs are wide apart, the arms folded, the head thrown back in an ecstasy of laughter. It looked exactly as though it were laughing at the wreckage with which it was surrounded. No one could have placed it where it was after the house fell, for the approach to it was still on fire. Of all the fantastic tricks played by the bursting shells it was the most curious.


another portrait of Richard Harding Davis


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