(Originally posted June 11, 2018) La Grande Guerre, I just can’t quit you…
This morning we awoke to more rain, and since we have spent the last two days soaked to the skin (happily, but still), we decided to postpone our daily pilgrimage to Belleau Wood until the afternoon and take in something completely different. Of course, Cynthia’s picture out the attic window on a rainy morning shows a sparkling fairy world with rainbows and elves around every corner, while I just see wet shoes. Ah, the failures of the bourgeois imagination!
We set out for Reims, pronounced “Rance”, for some reason known only to God and the French – perhaps revenge for words like Gloucester and Worcester. We practiced by taking turns claiming to have Reims in our Pants (it rhymes if you’re saying it right), but I digress. Reims has a lovely, 13th century cathedral, and it is only about 40 minutes away from Chateau Thierry. This was the extent of the sales pitch to Cynthia, who is an amiable traveler and quickly agreed. As we approached the city, I had a suspicion that I had forgotten something important about the place. It wasn’t long before it all came back to me.
On September 4, 1914, when La Grand Guerre was so young that French soldiers were still wearing bright red pants, a strategic error obvious even to me, the Germans bombed Reims, and more specifically, its massive cathedral. On September 13, after the French recaptured the city, German artillery attacks resumed, and on September 19, a shell ignited wooden scaffolding on the north tower, and the fire spread to oak timbers in the roof of the cathedral, and pictures were taken, and the world gasped in horror.
Some pictures were colorized and made into postcards, so the image of this magnificent cathedral engulfed in flames could be spread around the world.
The outrage that followed the destruction of the Reims cathedral and the destruction of the medieval library at Louvain in Belgium less than a month before was a godsend in the effort to fuel international outrage toward the Germans. These were cultural treasures, sacred to all of humanity and not just to the French or the Belgians. What kind of an animal would wantonly destroy such places? The blood-thirsty, drooling savage that was The Hun was born in the ashes of the cathedral at Reims.
Many Germans were taken aback at the portrayal of their people as beasts, determined to wipe out European culture and despoil her treasures. Germany quickly established the Kunstschutz, charged with protecting monuments in occupied territory. Their propaganda machine produced a rebuttal of sorts, blaming the French for using the cathedral for military purposes.
It seems to say “Look, it’s not really the cathedral on fire, guys – just some old building next door, and look at all the French soldiers standing around. What choice did we have?” Actually it says “The French use the cathedral of Reims as a base of operations and therewith endanger this magnificent work of art”.
You can’t take me anywhere. I see dead World War I people. As it turned out, Reims Cathedral was one of the most beautiful, peaceful places I have ever visited. It is as large as Notre Dame in Paris, but the aisles were empty as we clattered around in hushed wonder. People smiled – even French people (again, a sure sign we’re not in Paris). Even this clearly tipsy angel is thrilled to see you, which may be explained by the frisky imp under her dress. She leans out over the cathedral door, ready for a fist bump.
The smiling angel lost her head in World War I, though she has experienced a miraculous recovery. The war is still everywhere in this part of France, as the great armies of the world bombed and shot and stabbed each other over every square foot of ground. The cathedral too has her scars, this beautiful, resilient lady. She has shell holes in her flanks. Some of the greatest damage resulted in a work of incredible beauty. Behind the alter glows the ethereal blue of a trio of Chagall windows, replacements for those lost in the fire.
We drove back to Belleau Wood, to the beauty and serenity of the Asine Marne American Cemetery. The gardeners were working in the moments between rain showers, and we stopped and chatted with a pair of them. Despite having no English at all, they were able to be convinced to continue working while Cynthia chatted and occasionally jumped behind a hedge to get a better angle. This is Francois, and this picture is one of my favorites, taken stealthily while I tried to stay out of the way. They were talking using an interpreter app on her phone which does not, in fact, replace eye contact and hand gestures, but does make it easier to say “please hold the rake in your other hand”.
Tomorrow is the centennial of the death of Eben Bradbury Jr. I will be at his grave for as much of the day as I can manage. It has been a pleasure being here, even among the constant reminders of suffering, destruction, and death, even in a place as beautiful as Reims. Perhaps it is because of this that people here seem to be kinder, laugh more easily, wave off a questionable decision in traffic, or help you figure out how to bag your produce (some complicated scale and bar code system, turns out). Reminders of war are all around. “Rebuild”, this place says. “You’re alive, and you’re lucky.”