'The Bombardment of Rheims'
by Granville Fortescue
from his book ‘At the Front with Three Armies’

An American Reporter Views the Bombarment of the City

several views of the cathedral


How any commander could have trained his guns on the Cathedral of Rheims passes human understanding. If it had been in Bible times that such wanton sacrilege took place a plague would have overtaken the guilty people. The gun-pointer would have been struck blind as he took aim. Since the days of Divine retribution are past, it remains for human agencies to punish the sacrilegious offender. But what punishment will suffice ? It is one of those crimes which are so great that they stand outside the human catalogue. For this scandalous sacrilege there is no atonement.

I reached Rheims while the city was still being bombarded. When I had climbed to the highest window of the north-east tower two shells aimed at that tower fell not twenty yards away in the street below. The Germans were not satisfied with the damage they had already accomplished. It seemed as if their fury could not be appeased while the noble towers of the revered "poem in stone" still rose above the blackened ruins of the cathedral walls.

Fortunately for the world and future generations, the damage as first reported proved on careful examination to have been exaggerated. The grand church is not a pile of smouldering rubble. Irreparable as is the hurt to the detail of the structure — no hand of modern times could restore the broken statues of the façade, — yet the four walls, the roof and the towers stand. The damage to them is great but not beyond repair.

During the first bombardment the cathedral was under fire for an hour. How often it has been fired on since I cannot say, but it was during this first chastisement that the building suffered most. It was not that the shells in themselves did very much damage, but they set the woodwork of the building on fire and thus indirectly brought about serious destruction. A complication which played an important part in the conflagration was a scaffolding which had been built up against the face of the structure on the tower in the northwest angle. Repairs were in progress at the time of the outbreak of the war, and this scaffolding served in the work. Although the Abbé Chinot, who is the rector of the cathedral, made all possible effort to check the fire at the outset, he failed, and soon sparks which had fallen in the building on the straw which served as bedding for the wounded, set all in flames. The church being considered sanctuary, harboured the wounded that had been found in the city when the French had re-taken it. A red cross flag floated from an improvised flag-pole on the north-east tower, but this emblem did not prevent the Germans firing directly among the disabled. It is difficult to write of the scene that ensued in the cathedral when its walls burst into a sheet of flame. As I stood before the charred bodies of those unfortunates who, broken in body, were caught in this holocaust, it seemed that these Germans had paid the price for all the harm their comrades had done. Singed and blackened bodies lay in odd corners of the towering nave. Other bodies also charred are stretched in the ashes of some out-houses. Think of the moments of agony suffered by these men as they lay helpless with blazing timbers falling about them.

These prisoners were in the cathedral. The Archbishop, aided by the Abbé Chinot, broke through a door on the north of the edifice to find some fifty of the German wounded gathered in the centre of the nave. They looked about with bewildered eyes as if deciding which end were preferable, the flames or a bullet. The priests, making those who could walk bear the badly wounded, led the way to a place of safety. But hardly had this pitiable procession appeared outside the cathedral when "Death to the Barbarians!" shouted some. "You must kill us first," quietly said the men in holy orders. Some of the prisoners in mortal fear rushed back into the veritable furnace the building now was. The others, under the protection of the Archbishop, were led to a printing-shop near by. When they were there, the mattresses on which the badly hurt were lying were found to be smouldering.

All during this scene the shells from the German howitzers sailed screaming overhead. Remarkably few of them hit the mark. One landed fair on the roof of the structure, and soon that part of the cathedral was in flames. Another struck one of the flying buttresses on the north-east and tore it from the wall. Some of the beautiful windows were completely destroyed by shrapnel. Here was the irreparable loss. These windows were of stained glass which had been placed by the hands that built the cathedral in the twelfth century. They were an artistic inheritance beyond price. Now shattered and torn from its leaded setting, the wonderfully tinted old glass litters the stone floor. Can Germany repay for these ?

Another artistic loss that can never be repaired is the destroyed figures that were originally carved in the walls of the cathedral. These figures were unique in architecture. Now they are charred and blackened stone.

It was in fact the fire which caused the most damage to the building. As in all such edifices the stone roof was surmounted by a wooden one. When the fire spread to this, falling sparks caught all other inflammable matter in or about the cathedral, thus adding fuel to the fire. The galleries under the eaves of the roof were still burning when I climbed over them.

But all this damage was little compared with the destruction of the beautiful façade. Nothing more wonderful than the front of the Cathedral of Rheims existed in ecclesiastical architecture. Students from every quarter of the globe had been here to admire its magnificence of conception, and the skill with which it had been executed. It was an elaborate carving of groups of the holy saints of the church all gathered round a carved descent from the Cross. The figures of the saints were cut into the detail of the doors and windows of the cathedral, making an ensemble without parallel for its beauty of design.

The havoc among these carvings beggars description. Here stands a nun with her head broken off — another shows not only the head gone but the breast and upper part of the body wholly destroyed. Other figures have lost an arm, a leg, or have in some manner been hurt so that no hand can restore them. The figures that surround the scene of the Crucifixion are split and, when I last saw them, ready to fall from their place. The columns that framed the windows were broken. And the wonderful rose window that makes the main feature of the façade was partly shattered. It made one's heart sick to see such wanton outrage. When I climbed to the bell towers I found they had been melted by the great heat. While the noble building stood it had suffered much.

I have been witness of much of the savagery of the Germans in war, yet with all that I have seen I cannot bring myself to believe that they fired on the Cathedral of Rheims through pure maliciousness. Whenever I have found other outrages, there has always been present the cloak of military necessity to cover the multitude of their sins. It is my aim to be fair in all I write, so I give here an incident of my stay in Rheims and my explanation of the outrage.

While I was in the window of the highest tower of the cathedral two shells, evidently fired at that tower, missed it luckily, and fell twenty yards away in the street below. These were the only two shells that fell in that part of the city that day. Of course the tower was the one nearest the German lines, and an artillery duel had been in progress all morning. Needless to say I came down from the tower in a hurry. When I thought the matter over it seemed to me that it was very curious that all during the day only two shells should have fallen near the cathedral. Although the incident made splendid copy and I looked on it as a unique experience, yet I felt that the shells had not been fired with the object of giving me copy and a sensation. When I began to try to reason out cause and effect, I remembered that of our party who were inspecting the ruins, my colleague, Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett, who was formerly an officer in the Guards, wore his old service uniform, and I also brought to mind the fact that two French officers of the Aviation Corps, in uniform of course, stood with us in the window while the Abbé pointed out the German positions. There were thus, at the time the shells fell, three uniforms framed in the window. It may be only coincidence, but to me it seems that the uniforms were the reason for the shells.

I could picture the German artillery officer with a powerful glass trained exactly on the tower, and two of his guns aimed at the window. It is a fact that the French were supposed to have used the towers as posts of observation that brought the first projectiles in this direction. Could it not have been possible that, seeing what he supposed to be a party of officers studying his positions, the German fired again ? If this were so, I can believe that they saw uniforms on the tower in the first place. I can readily believe that the French soldiers or officers who climbed to the highest point within their lines during the early days of their occupation of Rheims, were merely sight-seers ; but of this the distant German artillery-man could not be certain. The fact that Rheims lies in a hollow and that there is no available bit of high ground in the vicinity from which the defenders could watch the effect of their shells, would always make German gunners think French officers seen on the tower were more than idly curious visitors. An agreement had been reached by the French and German Staffs which placed the cathedral in a neutral zone, so long as it was not used for military purposes.

In the first week of the French return to Rheims they had placed a searchlight and a machine gun on the highest angles of the tower, in order to fight off the aeroplanes that constantly hovered over the town. On condition that these war implements were taken down the Germans promised not to shell Notre Dame de Rheims. The case has only been fought out in the newspapers and the most important witnesses have never been summoned, so judgment must be reserved until the war is over. The Germans have enough on their consciences without this crime. Let us hope they can clear themselves.

At the time of my visit, September 21, although the city had been under fire all the previous day, and intermittently, before that time, it was the section in the vicinity of the cathedral that seemed to have suffered. Here I saw houses that had been set afire by German projectiles, and where the houses were not entirely destroyed, great gaping holes in the walls showed where shell had smashed through. In this bombardment over one hundred non-combatants (among them women and children) had been killed. Rheims had been taken by the Germans on September 5, the anniversary of the day it had been entered in 1870. On that day I sat talking with Baron Mumm in the Foreign Office in Berlin. He himself told me the "good news." As a member of the famous champagne family he was delighted that his countrymen held the Mumm plant. Although it has thrived in France for years, the organization was entirely under German control, and nearly all of the stock was held in Germany. When the German army in this theatre of operations assaulted the city and its environs, the House of Mumm was immune.

The war year will be famous as a champagne vintage. All the vine culturists classed the grapes as the best in quality grown for many years. But who would gather the grapes under shell fire ? Unless the Prussians are driven off, one of the finest harvests Champagne has seen must rot on the vines.

No great harm had come to the champagne which was already bottled in the cellars of the planters. While the Germans were in possession of Rheims they paid for all that they drank and as an answer to the many accusations of their intemperance, left fifty million bottles untouched in the caves of the six most renowned houses in the world.

I am writing of Rheims and the cathedral as I found them in September. Since I was there the city has been under fire almost without cessation. What its present condition is I cannot say. More damage to Notre Dame is reported, but the details have not yet been made public.

It is the condition of the women and children in a city under bombardment that always makes the strongest appeal to me. I have so often seen them crushed between the grinding wheels of the war machines, that to my mind their case needs a strong advocate before future peace conferences.

Every road leading from Rheims was crowded with old men, women and children. They were fleeing in mortal terror from the fire and iron that rained upon the city. The distress brought upon them innocent victims of men's savagery beggars description. Only those who have heard the terrifying shriek of the shell, and seen the havoc projectiles make when they crash through the walls of houses, can understand the fear that racked the souls of the women and children of Rheims. Many of them were plainly the victims of hysteria. At every sharp sound they would crouch and tremble. Thousands trudged along the roads not knowing where they were going, or how they were to live during the days that followed. Their only thought was to escape the hurtling iron. For days and nights these fugitives lived in the open fields, dividing carefully the little hoard of food they had been able to carry with them. When this food was gone they starved or begged from others, but what had others to give ? In such an extremity each must fend alone. The plight of the old, the young, the tenderly nurtured, was pitiable. Some sat by the roadside staring straight before them with unseeing eyes. Fear and grief had hypnotised them. Despair had darkened their minds. One is so helpless in the face of such misery. I have heard that since this war began an organization has been founded with the object of caring for non-combatant sufferers. In France and Belgium such an organization is an urgent necessity. The distress of the unfortunates who live in the theatre of operations calls for practical relief. Hundreds are to-day dying from exposure and lack of food.

Coming away from Rheims I was, for the second time in France, arrested as a spy. Our motor, which was large, handsome and conspicuous, got caught in the columns of the Corps d'Armée, which was changing front. We were not interested in the manœuvres of this corps and only chafed at the delay. We wanted to get the story of Rheims back to the waiting world. I say "we," for my friends Richard Harding Davis, Gerald Morgan and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, were my co-adventurers. When the motor was held up we tried to convince a very smart general officer, first, that we were not spies, and second, that it was mostly for the sake of France that the story of the ravage of Rheims should be cabled to the fifty million people who got their news from the papers we represented. His only reply was that there were plenty of well-dressed spies travelling through the French lines in motors. When we asked to go on to Paris, under guard if he wished, that we might be identified by the American Ambassador he only answered that it was impossible.

When our motor was confiscated and we were turned over to the gendarmerie, we could only wait for the next turn of events.

In the meantime my friend "Dick" Davis provided a picnic lunch. Davis is the best man in the world to go campaigning with. Not so much for his charming personality, his fund of reminiscences, which are many, as he has reported every reputable war — and some disreputable ones — since he was twenty-one, but because in the field he is always the generous provider. Davis starts out with a bigger pack than anybody else. It is necessary. Everybody else lives on him. This time he produced a bottle of champagne. Under the circumstances could anything be more fortunate? Also some tinned herrings, cheese, biscuits and sandwiches. I contributed a splendid appetite and a generous appreciation. Assuming attitudes of indifference and ostentatiously drinking the champagne, we disdained our captors. After lunch we went to the "guardhouse," a villainous stable. Here three other correspondents had been in confinement for three days.

For some reason it was suddenly decided to send us back to Paris. General A----- must have realized that the case was one which could not be handled there. So in three motors, under guard, we started back for the capital. We had to show the way to our guards.

When we arrived in Paris after some delay at General Headquarters, we were ordered to the Cherche-Midi prison. This is the prison that figured so prominently in the Dreyfus Case. I refused point blank to go, insisting on my right to see the American Ambassador. Then Major ----- called a couple of gendarmes. I executed a "strategic retirement." The Cherche-Midi prison is as gloomy as the Bastille. I feel sure that never before did three motor loads of prisoners drive so noisily up to its doors. Once in the prison we took possession of it like a lot of political delegates arriving at a Chicago hotel. Most firmly did we object to the cells. The poor gaoler was most apologetic. They were the best cells in the house. Some very high French officers had occupied them. No, they did not suit. And dinner ? We wanted dinner. He was very sorry, but he must send out for it. At this Ashmead- Bartlett drew out about three thousand francs in paper, and selecting a bill said, "Send for the best dinner in Paris." At this the whole prison staff got busy.

I did not stay for that dinner. But it was historic. Even now the warden of the Cherche-Midi and the underwardens tell and retell the tale. They were all invited. The prisoners were waiters — that is the regular prisoners, not my companions. No German banquet in a captured château could have surpassed it. The gaoler of the Cherche-Midi longs for some more American prisoners I believe.

My protest had done some good, for shortly after we arrived at the gaol, two officers of the General Staff came and took me to the American Embassy. We arrived after the Ambassador had gone to bed, so we went around to the apartment of the Military Attaché. He identified us and asked for our immediate release. After a good deal of quibbling, the Staff officers agreed to hold us under guard in the building of the General Staff that night and decide if we could be released in the morning. We had been ordered under arrest for eight days, as we had seen movements of troops of great importance. Just because his old army corps got in our way on the road from Rheims to Paris! The next day Mr. Herrick procured our release, but not until we had been sentenced not to leave Paris for eight days. It was not an arduous sentence.


a private house in Rheims


Back to Index