Cathedral of Rheims
DESCRIPTION: "It's midnight, and as by the hearth The fading embers glow, And visions they come to me... Of Europe and her mighty war." The singer notes in particular the suffering of Belgium, and the palace of Rheims. He begs God, "Bring peace to then once more."
AUTHOR: Words: John J. Friend
EARLIEST DATE: 1916 (Gray)
KEYWORDS: war nonballad
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Gray, pp. 190-191, "Cathedral of Rheims" (1 text)
NOTES [800 words]: Rheims (also spelled Reims) is one of the oldest and most storied cities in France. Legend has it that Clovis the Frank was baptized there in 496, marking (in effect) the beginning of the Frankish Empire (Webster's, p. 1005). Archbishop Tilpinus of Rheims seems to have been inspired the name of the Archbishop Turpin of the Song of Roland (Roland/Sayers, p. 18). We have a record of Charlemagne leaving gifts to the Archbishopric in his will (Einhard, p. 88). French kings were crowned there starting with Philip Augustus (Webster's, p. 1005); even in medieval times, the policy seems to have been inviolate: You weren't king until you went to Rheims, and once you were crowned there, all succession questions ended. (This would be key during the Hundred Years's War, at the time of Jean Darc.)
That history was not enough to protect it during World War I, when nothing was sacred. The city is east and somewhat north of Paris, and was directly in the path of the Schlieffen Plan for attacking France. 35 days after the start of the beginning of German mobilization, the Kaiser himself exulted to know that Rheims was under siege (Keegan, p. 112). The town, in fact, was near the pivot of the attack, in the area of Hausen's Third Army (Stokesbury, p. 51), which was the easternmost of the three armies which constituted Schlieffen's great wheel. The Third Army, strong because it was part of the wheel and relatively rested because it had less ground to cover than the Second and First armies to the west, probably hit harder than any other force in the German advance.
Eventually the Germans made it past the city (see the map on Keegan, pp. 124-125). But after the great Battle of the Marne saved Paris, the Germans shortened their lines. Rheims fell back into French hands -- but just barely. The French front ran just north of it; Rheims was actually inside a small salient into the German trench lines. According to Keegan, p. 126, the French battle plans were frequently "hindered by their need to hold Rheims, recaptured on 12 September."
And the city was not to enjoy calm. In the fighting around the city, it was "subjected to devastating bombardment in the days that followed; the damage done to its famous cathedral, outside which stands the statue of Joan of Arc, would cause as much discredit to the invaders as the sack of Louvain a month later" (Keegan, p. 126).
The relief of Rheims did not end the city's ordeal. After the Marne, the Germans and the Allies engaged in the "Race to the Sea" -- a contest to get a force around the enemy's eastern flank. Both sides threw all their available reserves (including the new units they continued to mobilize) into the Race. The eastern part of the front was left quiet, which meant that "From Rheims to the Swiss fronter, therefore, the Germans... [were] carrying out Moltke's order of 10 September to 'entrench and hold' the positions held after the retreat from the Marne" (Keegan, p. 179). Rheims remained "within range of German artillery for most of the war" (Keegan, p. 185).
Nor was this the end of major operations in the area. In February 13, the French tried an offensive between Rheims and Massiges; as Baldwin notes on p. 54, "the French gained yards and lost thousands, though the Germans, too, died in droves." Another attempt was made in September 1915 (Stokesbury, pp. 98-99), with an equal lack of results in terms of ground gained and an equally long result in terms a Frenchmen killed because their leaders belonged to the Donald Rumsfeld school of "we'll do it the same brainless way until it works." The 1915 Rheims offensives were supposedly coordinated with the British (Liddell Hart, p. 195). That served only to prove that two inept offensives are just as ineffective as one.
One presumes this poem was written in response to the situation in 1914 or 1915 (since it was published by 1916), But Rheims was still not safe. The third of the great Ludendorff Offensives of 1918 was just west of Rhiems (see the map on p. 396 of Keegan), and left the city in a salient; the fifth offensive was to be centered on the city itself (Stokesburg, pp. 278-279). The fifth offensive failed, and Rheims held, but the fight did further damage.
That was, finally, the last. When the Ludendorff Offensives burned out in July 1918, the Germans were still far from Paris, and their army was nearly used up, and over the next few months, the Americans started to arrive in force. Hindenburg, the theoretical German commander in chief, was yelling at his subordinate Ludendorff, "Make peace, you idiot!" (Stokesbury, p. 280), but it would be three months and more before the peace came. Rheims was finally safe, but many more soldiers would die before the French and Germans had their chance to dictate a peace of retribution. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Baldwin Hanson W. Baldwin, World War I: An Outline History, Harper & Row, 1962
- Einhard: Lewis Thorpe, translator: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne, 1969 (I use the 1976 Penguin edition). Of the two lives, Einhard's is by far the more important; he was a member of Charlemagne's court -- hence the citations from it.
- Keegan: John Keegan, The First World War, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
- Liddell Hart: Sir Basil Liddell Hart, A History of the World War 1914-1918, 1970 edition with news maps published as Liddell Hart's History of the First World War, Papermac, 1997
- Roland/Sayers: The Song of Roland, translated and with an introduction by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin, 1957
- Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, Morrow/Quill, 1981
- Webster's: Webster's New Geographical Dictionary, Webster's, 1972
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