- from the book 'The Scene of the War'
- by V.C. Scott O'Connor, 1917
- A Visit to a Ravaged City and Cathedral
the cathedral sandbagged as protection against damage
We are now upon the road to Rheims, and the car carries us with its swift untiring beat along one of those arrow-like avenues which take off from the Castle, past fields in which the women and the children toil, through burnished woodlands, and upon roads where the French cavalry ride, and the long supply-waggons of the Army roll slowly and doggedly on their way to the battle line. It is one of the strange facts of the War that for two years Rheims has been completely cut off from railway communication with the rest of France. All her approaches, except by road, are in the hands of the enemy.
We come to Epernay, with its tall spire and cluster of houses in the hollow amidst the bare hills of Champagne, and the serried vines paint the landscape with the colour of the wine. The soft October sunlight, pouring through the high clouds, veils the famous town in its luminous haze. We cross the Marne, and running through the forests and uplands that rise beyond it-the grey mass of the Cathedral rising proudly before us as if Death had not taken it by the hand- we descend to the chosen of kings, the ancient city of Rheims.
The car draws up in the Place du Parvis, where Joan of Arc rides with her knightly and youthful grace in the forefront of the great Cathedral, untouched by the troubles of the time.
A sudden impression, as of something blistered and shrunken and old before its time, assails one's eyes. It is like coming to look upon one whose face we last saw in the pride of beauty, now worn and broken with disease. It is a dreadful thing to have to do.
"It gives one," says a French officer beside me, "a heartache to look at it."
Its rich and splendid portals are hidden behind sandbags that time and weather have turned to mildewed black; its great rose - windows, that were once the pride of the world, gape in their empty sockets like the eyes of the blind; the statues and columns on its front are shattered and twisted as if in a convulsion of pain; the knees of its Christ over the northern portal are broken, His face is torn away; its saints, apostles, and kings; its soaring towers, its vaulted roof; its centuries of toil, the willing labour of men to whom their work was like a prayer,-all these, and more than these, are involved in the tragedy of destruction. A nail has been driven here into the very heart of France.
Within, as one enters, it is as though the soul had fled from the body. This shrine of France lies empty of its mystery. The dim glory of its interior is changed to the light of common day. Its "Rose au coeur vermeil," trembling with jewelled lights, is a ruin; its altars are unseated, its pictures and its damasks are taken away. Its choir is a pitfall of holes, and the dark stains of fire besmirch the creamy pillars, at whose base in their carven stalls the canons and the choristers chanted the litanies of Christ.
The great church is dead, and here, where the Kings of France for fourteen hundred years came to be crowned, pigeons are now the only occupants, and the floor of the Cathedral is littered with their dung.
It is said by one who was present and overheard him speak, that General von Buelow, when his army took possession of Rheims, entered the Cathedral, and marching up the aisle with a stiff military gait, stood upon the High Altar, with his face towards the Choir, and looking down upon the assembled people, the Canons at prayer, observed them in silence for some moments; then with an angry emphasis said (I give the words in French as I heard them)-
"C'est une erreur effroyable."
Whether he spoke of the destruction of the city-for it had already begun-or of the heresy of the Catholic Faith, remains unsettled.
It is open to His Excellency to enlighten us.
Whether this Shrine of France will ever-or can ever - be restored is yet uncertain. The structure of the building has been seriously shaken, and a great hole recently made by a shell in the roof has so damaged the vaulting that the whole of it may have to be renewed, if the task be not impossible. Moreover, the prospect of further damage exists.1
"It seems most likely that we shall end by restoring it," is the hope of those who are charged with the care of it; and the Church would wish to revive as far as might be this ancient symbol of the Divine Faith; but, on the other hand, there are those who passionately hold the conviction that it should remain untouched, as a monument to the travail of France and the crimes of her invaders.
From the Cathedral we pass on through street after street ruined by the bombardment - the losses caused to the people are estimated at twenty million pounds, - past the Archbishop's Palace, which has ceased to exist; past piles of twisted iron and heaps of stone; past broken shops and houses and inns, till we are led to pause at the hospital, the ancient Hotel Dieu, upon which, as upon the Cathedral, the fury of the German guns was visited. Upon its walls there still hang, though in a shattered state, the marble tablets upon which the names of benefactors to this old foundation were inscribed.
They are a record of 1450 years, and for nearly a thousand of these the stream of constructive charity has flowed on in its beneficent course with scarcely an intermission. It has been left to the destructiveness of the present age to undo the goodness and the piety of those bygone generations of men.
In the East one is confronted at every turn with the message of the transitoriness of things, -with the shadows of cities that were once great, with the forgotten graves of Emperors and Kings who were the elect of their time,- and one's spirit is shaken by the evidence they bear to the vicissitudes and failures of civilisation. If this war is to be but the prelude to other and greater wars to come, as so many seem to believe is certain, as some half hope in their hearts, it will not be necessary to go eastwards for such commentaries.
It was on the 3rd of September 1914 that the Huns entered the city of Rheims. On the 4th, without excuse or justification-for it had surrendered and was actually in the possession of their people-a battery of Artillery of the Guard (whose fate it was a few days later to perish in the marshes of St Gond) opened fire on the densely inhabited city, and in the brief space of forty-five minutes poured 200 shells into it, damaging its churches and killing outright sixty of its citizens who were walking in the streets.
"A mistake," said the officers present, "such as frequently occurs in war; let us proceed with our requisition."
Nothing is more evident in these narratives of eye-witnesses than the thinness of the veneer of German manners.
"You have such a beautiful Cathedral," says the Commissary-General Zimmer, turning his crocodile eyes upon this Shrine of France, as though he would apprehend its meaning; and then flies into a rage at the delay in producing his 100,000 kilogrammes of bread, his oats and vegetables, and the million francs of his requisition.
"You have not had time? Faugh! that is what you people always say. In France every- thing ends in talk. You are a parcel of idlers and talkers. But you will pay for this, I tell you; you will pay, pay. The Emperor has said that he will drive you to the Pyrenees. You will see."
"No men? Then why the devil don't you make your women work?"
One can see and hear this Vulgarian raging.
Two German officers, a von Arnim and a von Kummer, having gone astray, a staff officer from General von Biilow comes in a fury to the unfortunate Mayor of Rheims.
"If you do not produce them within an hour your city will be blown to pieces, and you and ten others will be shot. The lives of a hundred thousand of your people are of less consequence than the lives of these two, the friends of the Emperor." Talk of megalomania!
So infuriated was this person that the words with difficulty issued from his mouth, and at times he became quite inarticulate.
And this was no common man, but a gentleman of the Staff.
When the facts are humbly explained to him, he calms down and disposes of the incident with a wave of his hand.
"If what you say be true, we may consider the matter as closed."
On the 4th of September a large body of Saxon troops marched through the city, with their usual parade, singing the "Wacht am Rhein." The square before the Cathedral was crowded with men and horses, and laid with straw for the men to bivouac on.
On the 5th of September the Allied armies began their offensive. On the 7th the German wounded began to pour through the city. The sound of guns came steadily nearer, till on the 12th it enveloped the city. On the 13th the French infantry entered Rheims. On the 14th the ejected Huns began their bombardment; on the 18th they resolved to avenge their defeat and to strike terror into the people of France by an act of special "frightfulness." The Cathedral, the crowning place of so many kings, the offspring of two centuries of toil, the very flower of Gothic Art, with its 2800 statues of varied and exquisite beauty, the mirror of their age, its rose-windows and its painted glass, softened to such harmonies as only time can bring, was to be destroyed.
"The blood of our soldiers is of more consequence than all the monuments of France," was the arrogant-the idiotic-boast of the German General. Yet even the blood of his wounded, left to the mercy of the French, did not suffice to stay the fury of his hand. On the 17th of September the German wounded had been carried into the Cathedral. The Red Cross floated from its spire. The Prince Augustus-William, a son of the Emperor, had himself desired that an ambulance should be established there during his occupation of the city.
On the 19th, the noble and beautiful fabric, the Westminster Abbey of France, was in flames.
"I climbed," says one who kept a faithful record of these events from day to day, almost from hour to hour-" I climbed up into the garret of my house, from the cellars in which we had taken refuge, and I saw the whole of the great edifice enveloped in smoke. This was the prelude to the worst misfortune that could have overtaken us.
"The scaffolding of the north tower rapidly took fire, and its beams in falling made an immense brazier in the courts of the Cathedral.
"Higher up the flames reached the lead of the high-pitched roof, at the northern angle of the nave, and mounted up on the other side to the top of the Galerie du Gloria, of which a portion was destroyed.
"They licked a part of the scene of David and Goliath, damaging at the same time the sculptures and mutilating the statues of the Saints of the Diocese along the whole length of the eastern portal. The great roof was next involved, the molten lead running in streams and zigzags with extraordinary rapidity along the top. The superb oak rafters of the nave burnt in their turn. At about four o'clock the scene I gazed upon from our house-top was a spectacle of horror, reviving memories of the terrible fire of 1481. The roof of the transept was next reached, and the base of the central steeple glowed with the fire of the beams. At its summit we could see the clock, the peal of bells, and even the bell that tolled the hours; and then all suddenly fell and vanished, crumbling upon the vault in a mass of glowing timbers, twisted iron, and molten lead. We could see the Archer, recently renewed in mahogany, at the summit of the south transept, take fire, and slowly consume himself away in his leaden bonnet.
"The apse rapidly followed suit; the Spire of the Angel trembled on its base, divested of the leaden figures that made about it so picturesque a crown, and crumbled away on the side of the Archbishop's palace. The slate roofs of the towers flanking the transept were at the same time destroyed. Flames and clouds of white smoke began to issue from the towers of the great portal, and we wondered what would be the fate of the bells. In the north tower, which was like a chimney on fire, the eight bells of the famous chime des Cauchois-three of them suspended and five upon the ground-were attacked by the flames. The south tower was untouched by the conflagration, and its two big bells stood intact under the roof.
"While the fire thus devoured the high-pitched roof of the Cathedral, the interior was also alight, the flames being fed by the straw which had been laid upon the floor, the chairs heaped up in the choir, and by the wooden tambours or vestibules over the great door.
"Out of this hell there emerged the German wounded, whom the crowd, maddened with rage, would have done for, had they not all, with scarcely an exception, been saved by the clergy of the Cathedral and a few brave citizens, at considerable risk to their own lives."
The Palace of the Archbishop, a relic of the fifteenth century, with its priceless contents, the accumulation of centuries, was next destroyed. Its tapestries, its books, its portraits, its archives, its royal apartments and banqueting hall, the Salle des Rois, in which so many kings of France had lodged upon the eve of their coronation; its neighbouring museums, the Library of the Academy of Rheims, memorials of the historic life of the city,-these were the silent victims of the German rage.
The unhappy citizens were reduced to a subterranean life in their cellars, and exposed to imminent destruction in the streets.
Thousands of them fled from this city of woe, leaving behind them for ever their homes and possessions and all that had made for the joy and the happiness of generations of their ancestors.
The record of these events is a terrible one, burnt into the heart of France; but it is only the surface of it that you see in the wasted city. The inner history of those who have suffered can never in its fulness be told; the evil that has been done can never be repaired.
"Those," in the words of our Thomas Hardy, "who have studied in close detail the architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are aware that to restore the Cathedral in its entirety is impossible.
"Much of what is gone from this fine structure is gone for ever.
"The magnificent stained glass of the Cathedral -how is that to be renewed? Then the sculpture, and the mouldings, and other details.
"Moreover, their antique history was a part of them, and how can that history be imparted to a renewal?"
Heine, who well understood the German spirit, foresaw that this evil would come. The day would come, he said, when the old Gods of the Germans would rise from their tombs, and Thor, with his hammer in hand, would utterly destroy these Gothic cathedrals.
The dread prophecy has come to pass with the relentless march of a Greek tragedy, the conscious act of the German people. "Our armies" they said on the 5th of September 1914, "have already passed the second line of defence of the French forts, with the exception of Rheims, whose royal splendour, reaching back to the times of the White Lilies, will not fail to he ground into the dust, under the blows of our 16-inch guns."
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