'Visiting the Ruins
of Rheims and Arras'
by Arnold Bennett
from his book :'Over There' 1915

The Destruction of War

left : the Rheims cathedral entrance
right : several streets in Rheims


When you go into Rheims by the Epernay road, the life of the street seems to be proceeding as usual, except that octroi formalities have been abolished. Women, some young and beautiful, stare nonchalantly as the car passes. Children are playing and shrieking in the sunshine; the little cafes and shops keep open door; the baker is busy; middle-aged persons go their ways in meditation upon existence. It is true there are soldiers; but there are soldiers in every important French town at all seasons of the year in peace- time. In short, the spectacle is just that ordinarily presented to the poorer exterior thoroughfares leading towards the centre of a city.

And yet, in two minutes, in less than two minutes, you may be in a quarter where no life is left. This considerable quarter is not seriously damaged--it is destroyed. Not many houses, but every house in it will have to be rebuilt from the cellars. This quarter is desolation. Large shops, large houses, small shops, and small houses have all been treated alike. The facade may stand, the roof may have fallen in entirely or only partially, floors may have disappeared altogether or may still be clinging at odd angles to the walls--the middle of every building is the same: a vast heap of what once was the material of a home or a business, and what now is foul rubbish. In many instances the shells have revealed the functioning of the home at its most intimate, and that is seen which none should see. Indignation rises out of the heart. Amid stacks of refuse you may distinguish a bath, a magnificent fragment of mirror, a piece of tapestry, a saucepan. In a funeral shop wreaths still hang on their hooks for sale. Telephone and telegraph wires depend in a loose tangle from the poles. The clock of the Protestant church has stopped at a quarter to six. The shells have been freakish. In one building a shell harmlessly made a hole in the courtyard large enough to bury every commander of a German army; another shell--a 210 mm.--went through an inner wall and opened up the cellars by destroying 150 square feet of ground-floor: ten people were in the cellars, and none was hurt. Uninjured signs of cafes and shops, such as "The Good Hope," "The Success of the Day," meet your gaze with sardonic calm.

The inhabitants of this quarter, and of other quarters in Rheims, have gone. Some are dead. Others are picnicking in Epernay, Paris, elsewhere. They have left everything behind them, and yet they have left nothing. Each knows his lot in the immense tragedy. Nobody can realise the whole of the tragedy. It defies the mind; and, moreover, the horror of it is allayed somewhat by the beautiful forms which ruin--even the ruin of modern ugly architecture--occasionally takes. The effect of the pallor of a bedroom wall-paper against smoke-blackened masonry, where some corner of a house sticks up like a tall, serrated column out of the confusion, remains obstinately in the memory, symbolising, somehow, the grand German deed.

For do not forget that this quarter accurately represents what the Germans came out of Germany into France deliberately to do. This material devastation, this annihilation of effort, hope, and love, this substitution of sorrow for joy--is just what plans and guns were laid for, what the worshipped leaders of the Fatherland prepared with the most wanton and scientific solicitude. It is desperately cruel. But it is far worse than cruel--it is idiotic in its immense futility. The perfect idiocy of the thing overwhelms you. And to your reason it is monstrous that one population should overrun another with murder and destruction from political covetousness as that two populations should go to war concerning a religious creed. Indeed, it is more monstrous. It is an obscene survival, a phenomenon that has strayed through some negligence of fate, into the wrong century.

Strange, in an adjoining quarter, partly but not utterly destroyed, a man is coming home in a cab with luggage from the station, and the servant-girl waits for him at the house-door. And I heard of a case where a property-owner who had begun to build a house just before the war has lately resumed building operations. In the Esplanade Ceres the fountain is playing amid all the ravage; and the German trenches, in that direction, are not more than two miles away.

It is quite impossible for any sane man to examine the geography of the region of destruction which I have so summarily described without being convinced that the Germans, in shelling it, were simply aiming at the Cathedral. Tracing the streets affected, one can follow distinctly the process of their searching for the precise range of the Cathedral. Practically the whole of the damage is concentrated on the line of the Cathedral.

But the Cathedral stands.


an aerial view of the Rheims cathedral


Its parvis is grass-grown; the hotels on the parvis are heavily battered, and if they are not destroyed it is because the Cathedral sheltered them; the Archbishop's palace lies in fragments; all around is complete ruin. But the Cathedral stands, high above the level of disaster, a unique target, and a target successfully defiant. The outer roof is quite gone; much masonry is smashed; some of the calcined statues have exactly the appearance of tortured human flesh. But in its essence, and in its splendid outlines, the building remains--apparently unconquerable. The towers are particularly serene and impressive. The deterioration is, of course, tremendously severe. Scores, if not hundreds, of statues, each of which was a masterpiece, are spoilt; great quantities of carving are defaced; quite half the glass is irremediably broken; the whole of the interior non-structural decoration is destroyed. But the massiveness of the Cathedral has withstood German shrapnel. The place will never be the same again, or nearly the same. Nevertheless, Rheims Cathedral triumphantly exists.

The Germans use it as a vent for their irritation. When things go wrong for them at other parts of the front, they shell Rheims Cathedral. It has absolutely no military interest, but it is beloved by civilised mankind, and therefore is a means of offence. The French tried to remove some of the glass, utilising an old scaffolding. At once the German shells came. Nothing was to be saved that shrapnel could destroy. Shrapnel is futile against the body of the Cathedral, as is proved by the fact that 3,000 shells have fallen on or near it in a day and a night. If the Germans used high-explosive, one might believe that they had some deep religious aim necessitating the non-existence of the Cathedral. But they do not use high-explosive here. Shrapnel merely and uselessly torments.

When I first saw the Cathedral I was told that there had been calm for several days. I know that German agents in neutral countries constantly deny that the Cathedral is now shelled. When I saw the Cathedral again the next morning, five shells had just been aimed at it. I inspected the hole excavated by a 155-mm. shell at the foot of the eastern extremity, close to the walls. This hole was certainly not there when I made the circuit of the Cathedral on the previous evening. It came into existence at 6.40 a.m., and I inspected it at 8.20 a.m., and a newspaper boy offered me that morning's paper on the very edge of it. A fragment of shell, picked up warm by the architect in charge of the Cathedral and given to me, is now in my pocket.

We had a luncheon party at Rheims, in a certain hotel. This hotel had been closed for a time, but the landlady had taken heart again. The personnel appeared to consist solely of the landlady and a relative. Both women were in mourning. They served us themselves, and the meal was excellent, though one could get neither soda-water nor cigars. Shells had greeted the city a few hours earlier, but their effect had been only material; they are entirely ignored by the steadfast inhabitants, who do their primitive business in the desolated, paralysed organism with an indifference which is as resigned as it is stoic. Those ladies might well have been blown to bits as they crossed the courtyard bearing a dish of cherries or a bottle of wine. The sun shone steadily on the rich foliage of the street, and dogs and children rollicked mildly beneath the branches. Several officers were with us, including two Staff officers. These officers, not belonging to the same unit, had a great deal to tell each other and us: so much, that the luncheon lasted nearly two hours. Some of them had been in the retreat, in the battles of the Marne and of the Aisne, and in the subsequent trench fighting; none had got a scratch. Of an unsurpassed urbanity and austerity themselves, forming part of the finest civilisation which this world has yet seen, thoroughly appreciative of the subtle and powerful qualities of the race to which they belong, they exhibited a chill and restrained surprise at the manners of the invaders. One had seen two thousand champagne bottles strewn around a chateau from which the invaders had decamped, and the old butler of the house going carefully through the grounds and picking up the bottles which by chance had not been opened. The method of opening champagne, by the way, was a stroke of the sabre on the neck of the bottle. The German manner was also to lay the lighted cigar on the finest table-linen, so that by the burnt holes the proprietors might count their guests. Another officer had seen a whole countryside of villages littered with orchestrions and absinthe- bottles, groundwork of an interrupted musical and bacchic fete whose details must be imagined, like many other revolting and scabrous details, which no compositor would consent to set up in type, but which, nevertheless, are known and form a striking part of the unwritten history of the attack on civilisation. You may have read hints of these things again and again, but no amount of previous preparation will soften for you the shock of getting them first-hand from eyewitnesses whose absolute reliability it would be fatuous to question.

What these men with their vivid gestures, bright eyes, and perfect phrasing most delight in is personal heroism. And be it remembered that, though they do tell a funny story about German scouts who, in order to do their work, painted themselves the green of trees--and then, to complete the illusion, when they saw a Frenchman began to tremble like leaves--they give full value to the courage of the invaders. But, of course, it is the courage of Frenchmen that inspires their narrations. I was ever so faintly surprised by their candid and enthusiastic appreciation of the heroism of the auxiliary services. They were lyrical about engine-drivers, telephone- repairers, stretcher-bearers, and so on. The story which had the most success concerned a soldier (a schoolmaster) who in an engagement got left between the opposing lines, a quite defenceless mark for German rifles. When a bullet hit him, he cried, "Vive la France!" When he was missed he kept silent. He was hit again and again, and at each wound he cried, "Vive la France!" He could not be killed. At last they turned a machine-gun on him and raked him from head to foot. "Vive la------"


the Arras city hall


It was a long, windy, dusty drive to Arras. The straight, worn roads of flinty chalk passed for many miles ARRAS through country where there was no unmilitary activity save that of the crops pushing themselves up. Everything was dedicated to the war. Only at one dirty little industrial town did we see a large crowd of men waiting after lunch to go into a factory. These male civilians had a very odd appearance; it was as though they had been left out of the war by accident, or by some surprising benevolence. One thought first, "There must be some mistake here." But there was probably no mistake. These men were doubtless in the immense machine.

After we had traversed a more attractive agricultural town, with a town hall whose architecture showed that Flanders was not very far off, the soil changed and the country grew more sylvan and delectable. And the sun shone hotly. Camps alternated with orchards, and cows roamed in the camps and also in the orchards. And among the trees could be seen the blue draperies of women at work. Then the wires of the field-telephones and telegraphs on their elegantly slim bamboos were running alongside us. And once or twice, roughly painted on a bit of bare wood, we saw the sign: "Vers le Front." Why any sign should be necessary for such a destination I could not imagine. But perhaps humour had entered into the matter. At length we perceived Arras in the distance, and at a few kilometres it looked rather like itself: it might have been a living city.

When, however, you actually reach Arras you cannot be deceived for an instant as to what has happened to the place. It offers none of the transient illusion of Rheims. The first street you see is a desolation, empty and sinister. Grimy curtains bulge out at smashed windows. Everywhere the damage of shells is visible. The roadway and the pavements are littered with bits of homes. Grass flourishes among the bits. You proceed a little further to a large, circular place, once imposing. Every house in it presents the same blighted aspect. There is no urban stir. But in the brief intervals of the deafening cannonade can be heard one sound--blinds and curtains fluttering against empty window-frames and perhaps the idle, faint banging of a loose shutter. Not even a cat walks. We are alone, we and the small group of Staff officers who are acting as our hosts. We feel like thieves, like desecrators, impiously prying. At the other side of the place a shell has dropped before a house and sliced away all its front. On the ground floor is the drawing-room. Above that is the bedroom, with the bed made and the white linen smoothly showing. The marvel is that the bed, with all the other furniture, does not slide down the sloping floor into the street. But everything remains moveless and placid. The bedroom is like a show. It might be the bedroom of some famous man exposed to worshipping tourists at sixpence a head. A few chairs have fallen out of the house, and they lie topsy-turvy in the street amid the debris; no one has thought to touch them. In all directions thoroughfares branch forth, silent, grass-grown, and ruined.

"You see the strong fortress I have!" says the Commanding Officer with genial sarcasm. "You notice its high military value. It is open at every end. You can walk into it as easily as into a windmill. And yet they bombard it. Yesterday they fired twenty projectiles a minute for an hour into the town. A performance absolutely useless! Simple destruction! But they are like that!"

So we went forward further into the city, and saw sights still stranger. Of one house nothing but the roof was left, the roof made a triumphal arch. Everywhere potted plants, boxed against walls or suspended from window-frames, were freshly blooming. All the streets were covered with powdered glass. In many streets telegraph and telephone wires hung in thick festoons like abandoned webs of spiders, or curled themselves round the feet; continually one had to be extricating oneself from them. Continually came the hollow sound of things falling and slipping within the smashed interiors behind the facades. And then came the sound of a baby crying. For this city is not, after all, uninhabited. We saw a woman coming out of her house and carefully locking the door behind her. Was she locking it against shells, or against burglars? Observe those pipes rising through gratings in the pavement, and blue smoke issuing therefrom. Those pipes are the outward sign that such inhabitants as remain have transformed their cellars into drawing-rooms and bedrooms. We descended into one such home. The real drawing-room, on the ground-floor, had been invaded by a shell. In that apartment richly-carved furniture was mixed up with pieces of wall and pieces of curtain under a thick layer of white dust. But this underground home, with its arched roof and aspect of extreme solidity, was tidy and very snugly complete in all its arrangements, and the dark entrance to it well protected against the hazards of bombardment.

"Nevertheless," said the master of the home, "a 210-mm. shell would penetrate everything. It would be the end."

He threw up his hands with a nonchalant gesture. He was a fatalist worthy of his city, which is now being besieged and ruined not for the first time. The Vandals (I mean the original Vandals) laid waste Arras again and again. Then the Franks took it. Then, in the ninth century, the Normans ravaged it; and then Charles the Simple; and then Lothair; and then Hugh Capet. In the fifteenth century Charles VI. besieged it for seven weeks, and did not take it. Under Louis XI. it was atrociously outraged. It revolted, and was retaken by assault, its walls razed, its citizens expatriated, and its name changed.

Useless! The name returned, and the citizens. At the end of the fifteenth century it fell under Spanish rule, and had no kind of peace whatever until after another siege by a large French army, it was regained by France in 1640. Fourteen years later the House of Austria had yet another try for it, and the Archduke Leopold laid siege to the city. He lost 7,000 men, 64 guns, 3,000 horses, and all his transport, and fled. (Last August was the first August in two hundred and sixty years which has not witnessed a municipal fete in celebration of this affair.) Since then Arras has had a tolerably quiet time, except during the Revolution. It suffered nothing in 1870. It now suffers. And apparently those inhabitants who have stood fast have not forgotten how to suffer; history must be in their veins.

In the street where we first noticed the stove-pipes sprouting from the pavement, we saw a postman in the regulation costume of the French postman, with the regulation black, shiny wallet-box hanging over his stomach, and the regulation pen behind his ear, smartly delivering letters from house to house. He did not knock at the doors; he just stuck the letters through the empty window-frames. He was a truly remarkable sight.

Then we arrived by a curved street at the Cathedral of St. Vaast. St. Vaast, who preached Christianity after it had been forgotten in Arras, is all over the district in the nomenclature of places. Nobody among the dilettanti has a good word to say for the Cathedral, which was built in the latter half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, and which exhibits a kind of simple baroque style, with Corinthian pillars in two storeys. But Arras Cathedral is the most majestic and striking ruin at the Front. It is superlatively well placed on an eminence by itself, and its dimensions are tremendous. It towers over the city far more imposingly than Chartres Cathedral towers over Chartres. The pale simplicity of its enormous lines and surfaces renders it better suited for the martyrdom of bombardment than any Gothic building could possibly be. The wounds are clearly visible on its flat facades, uncomplicated by much carving and statuary. They are terrible wounds, yet they do not appreciably impair the ensemble of the fane. Photographs and pictures of Arras Cathedral ought to be cherished by German commanders, for they have accomplished nothing more austerely picturesque, more religiously impressive, more idiotically sacrilegious, more exquisitely futile than their achievement here. And they are adding to it weekly. As a spectacle, the Cathedral of Rheims cannot compare with the Cathedral of Arras.

In the north transept a 325-mm. shell has knocked a clean hole through which a mastodon might wriggle. Just opposite this transept, amid universal wreckage, a cafe is miraculously preserved. Its glass, mugs, counters, chairs, and ornaments are all there, covered with white dust, exactly as they were left one night. You could put your hand through a window aperture and pick up a glass. Close by, the lovely rafter-work of an old house is exposed, and, within, a beam has fallen from the roof to the ground. This beam is burning. The flames are industriously eating away at it, like a tiger gnawing in tranquil content at its prey which it has dragged to a place of concealment. There are other fires in Arras, and have been for some days. But what are you to do? A step further on is a greengrocer's shop, open and doing business.

We gradually circled round the Cathedral until we arrived at the Town Hall, built in the sixteenth century, very carefully restored in the nineteenth, and knocked to pieces in the twentieth. We approached it from the back, and could not immediately perceive what had happened to it, for later erections have clustered round it, and some of these still existed in their main outlines. In a great courtyard stood an automobile, which certainly had not moved for months. It was a wreck, overgrown with rust and pustules. This automobile well symbolised the desolation, open and concealed, by which it was surrounded. A touchingly forlorn thing, dead and deaf to the never-ceasing, ever-reverberating chorus of the guns!

To the right of the Town Hall, looking at it from the rear, we saw a curving double row of mounds of brick, stone, and refuse. Understand: these had no resemblance to houses; they had no resemblance to anything whatever except mounds of brick, stone, and refuse. The sight of them acutely tickled my curiosity. "What is this?"

"It is the principal street in Arras." The mind could picture it at once-- one of those narrow, winding streets which in ancient cities perpetuate the most ancient habits of the citizens, maintaining their commercial pre-eminence in the face of all town-planning; a street leading to the Town Hall; a dark street full of jewellers' shops and ornamented women and correctness and the triumph of correctness; a street of the "best" shops, of high rents, of famous names, of picturesque signs; a street where the wheels of traffic were continually interlocking, but a street which would not, under any consideration, have widened itself by a single foot, because its narrowness was part of its prestige. Well, German gunnery has brought that street to an end past all resuscitation. It may be rebuilt-- it will never be the same street.

"What's the name of the street?" I asked.

None of the officers in the party could recall the name of the principal business street in Arras, and there was no citizen within hail. The very name had gone, like the forms of the houses. I have since searched for it in guides, encyclopaedias, and plans; but it has escaped me--withdrawn and lost, for me, in the depths of history.

The street had suffered, not at all on its own account, but because it happened to be in the line of fire of the Town Hall. It merely received some portion of the blessings which were intended for the Town Hall, but which overshot their mark. The Town Hall (like the Cathedrals here and at Rheims) had no military interest or value, but it was the finest thing in Arras, the most loved thing, an irreplaceable thing; and therefore the Germans made a set at it, as they made a set at the Cathedrals. It is just as if, having got an aim on a soldier's baby, they had started to pick off its hands and feet, saying to the soldier: "Yield, or we will finish your baby." Either the military ratiocination is thus, or the deed is simple lunacy.

When we had walked round to the front of the Town Hall we were able to judge to what extent the beautiful building had monopolised the interest of the Germans. The Town Hall stands at the head of a magnificent and enormous arcaded square, uniform in architecture, and no doubt dating from the Spanish occupation. Seeing this square, and its scarcely smaller sister a little further on, you realise that indeed you are in a noble city. The square had hardly been touched by the bombardment. There had been no shells to waste on the square while the more precious Town Hall had one stone left upon another. From the lower end of the square, sheltered from the rain by the arcade, I made a rough sketch of what remains of the Town Hall. Comparing this sketch with an engraved view taken from exactly the same spot, one can see graphically what had occurred. A few arches of the ground-floor colonnade had survived in outline. Of the upper part of the facade nothing was left save a fragment of wall showing two window-holes. The rest of the facade, and the whole of the roof, was abolished. The later building attached to the left of the facade had completely disappeared. The carved masonry of the earlier building to the right of the facade had survived in a state of severe mutilation. The belfry which, rising immediately behind the Town Hall, was once the highest belfry in France (nearly 250 feet), had vanished. The stump of it, jagged like the stump of a broken tooth, obstinately persisted, sticking itself up to a level a few feet higher than the former level of the crest of the roof. The vast ruin was heaped about with refuse.

Arras is not in Germany. It is in France. I mention this fact because it is notorious that Germany is engaged in a defensive war, and in a war for the upholding of the highest civilisation. The Germans came all the way across Belgium, and thus far into France, in order to defend themselves against attack. They defaced and destroyed all the beauties of Arras, and transformed it into a scene of desolation unsurpassed in France, so that the highest civilisation might remain secure and their own hearths intact. One wonders what the Germans would have done had they been fighting, not a war of defence and civilisation, but a war of conquest and barbarism. The conjecture may, perhaps, legitimately occupy the brains of citizens. In any case, the French Government would do well to invite to such places as Arras, Soissons, and Senlis groups of Mayors of the cities of all countries, so that these august magistrates may behold for themselves and realise in their souls what defensive war and the highest civilisation actually do mean when they come to the point.

Personally, I am against a policy of reprisals, and yet I do not see how Germany can truly appreciate what she has done unless an object-lesson is created for her out of one of her own cities. And she emphatically ought to appreciate what she has done. One city would suffice. If, at the end of the war, Cologne were left as Arras was when I visited it, a definite process of education would have been accomplished in the Teutonic mind. The event would be hard on Cologne, but not harder than the other event has been on Arras. Moreover, it is held, I believe, that the misfortunes of war bring out all that is finest in the character of a nation, and that therefore war, with its sweet accompaniments, is a good and a necessary thing. I am against a policy of reprisals, and yet--such is human nature-- having seen Arras, I would honestly give a year's income to see Cologne in the same condition. And to the end of my life I shall feel cheated if Cologne or some similar German town is not in fact ultimately reduced to the same condition. This state of mind comes of seeing things with your own eyes.

Proceeding, we walked through a mile or two of streets in which not one house was inhabited nor undamaged. Some of these streets had been swept, so that at the first glance they seemed to be streets where all the citizens were indoors, reflecting behind drawn blinds and closed shutters upon some incredible happening. But there was nobody indoors. There was nobody in the whole quarter-- only ourselves; and we were very unhappy and unquiet in the solitude. Almost every window was broken; every wall was chipped; chunks had been knocked out of walls, and at intervals there was no wall. One house showed the different paperings of six rooms all completely exposed to the gaze. The proprietor evidently had a passion for anthracite stoves; in each of the six fireplaces was an anthracite stove, and none had fallen. The post office was shattered.

Then the railway station of Arras! A comparatively new railway station, built by the Compagnie du Nord in 1898. A rather impressive railway station. The great paved place in front of it was pitted with shell-holes of various sizes. A shell had just grazed the elaborate facade, shaving ornaments and mouldings off it. Every pane of glass in it was smashed. All the ironwork had a rich brown rust. The indications for passengers were plainly visible. Here you must take your ticket; here you must register your baggage; here you must wait. We could look through the station as through the ribs of a skeleton. The stillness of it under the rain and under the echoes of the tireless artillery was horrible. It was the most unnatural, ghostly, ghastly railway station one could imagine. As within the station, so on the platforms. All the glass of the shelters for passengers was broken to little bits; the ironwork thickly encrusted. The signals were unutterably forlorn in their ruin. And on the lines themselves rampant vegetation had grown four feet high--a conquering jungle. The defence of German soil is a mighty and a far-reaching affair. This was on July 7th, 1915.


more views of Arras


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