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germans in france

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New translation, the Magna Carta

This page is background for both national socialism and the cathedrals section.

The devastation along the front line in World War One is a disaster almost beyond reason. While this page concentrates in major part on the damage to great cathedrals, keep in mind that while tragic, that is just a small part of the German vandalism in France. Even other churches destroyed number many times that of the large cathedrals damaged and razed.

French Revolution and Napoleon
1870 to 1871
20 August 1914 to 11 November 1918
the lost cathedral of Cambrai
the shelling of Reims cathedral
Noyon cathedral
Soissons cathedral
Arras and Verdun cathedrals
St. Quentin cathedral
May 1940 to December 1944
Map of Northern France - cathedral towns and zones affected
German occupation during World War Two
transbordeur bridges demolished or destroyed during WW2
Franco faces down Hitler for three years
end notes

the lost cathedral of Cambrai

engraving of Cambrai cathedral
From Les monuments religieux de Cambrai avant et depuis 1789
by Adolphe Bruyelle, published 1854, p.2

“Villard de Honnecourt [an architect from Picardy] worked in the region where he was born. He has left us a drawing of the chevet [choir] of the church at Vaucelles near Honnecourt, which he is said to have rebuilt. ‘Here is the plan’ he wrote of the chevet of Madame Sainte Marie de Cambrai, ‘just as it rises from the ground [it is built]. Later in this book you will find plans of the elevations, including the positioning of all the side chapels, the walls and the designs for the flying buttresses.’

From Villard de Honnecourt's sketchbook
From Villard de Honnecourt’s sketchbook
text below translates as: “Here is the plan of the chevet of Notre Dame
Sainte Marie de Cambrai as it rose from the earth [as it was built]”

“This cathedral was destroyed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by an extraordinary piece of luck, and thanks to a photograph of a no longer existing model of Cambrai, we can admire the choir which was built at the time of Villard, perhaps by the master himself. This model was one of a secret collection of models of strategically important towns and their immediate surroundings. The models, which were Louis XIV’s idea, were obviously kept from the public and from foreign diplomats. They continued to be made throughout the eighteenth century and even in part of the nineteenth century. Today they have no military importance and make a very worthwhile display in the Musée des Plans-Reliefs which is temporarily housed on the top floor of the Hôtel des Invalides. When Paris was occupied in 1815, the Germans took the opportunity to remove some of these models, including the one of Cambrai and its cathedral, to Berlin, where it was put in the Zeughaus. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the bombing of Berlin in 1944. The photograph of the model is all that remains of the cathedral.” [Quoted from The cathedral builders by Gimpel]

Cambrai cathedral was completed in 1274. In 1791, the cathedral was assigned to the “culte constitutionelle”, the version of the Catholic Church as sanitised by the Revolutionaries, but was damaged in the following year, and in 1793 it was converted into a grain store. In 1796, the cathedral was sold to Blanquart, a Saint-Quentin merchant, who progressively demolished the building and sold the stone. At the beginning of the first French Empire (1804–1814), there was a plan to keep the steeple, then still standing, as a monument to Fenelon, but the plan was abandoned as too costly. Then in 1809, a storm overturned the steeple.

Today, we know this monument by a few documents - two high precision drawings made by a military painter of Louis XIV, Van der Meulen; two photographs of the scale model part as part of a City survey in 1695 by the Royal Military Engineers (this model destroyed by allied bombing of Berlin in 1945); statements made on a proposed monument to Fenelon; a watercolour painted by an English soldier at the end of the Empire.

The old cathedral was not rebuilt. It was substituted by a church that was originally the church for the Abbey of St-Sulpice. This church was built between 1696 and 1703. The abbey church had survived the Revolution because it became a Temple of Reason. In due course, the building was re-consecrated, first as part of a bishopric in 1802, then as part of an archbishopric, and so a cathedral, in 1841.

It did not escape German attacks in World War One.

Cambrai cathedral before WW1 Cambrai cathedral after WW1 German shelling Thanksgiving in Cambrai cathedral - thumbnail
Cambrai cathedral before World War 1 Cambrai cathedral after German shelling Thanksgiving service in Cambrai cathedral, 13th October 1918, with Canadian servicemen
Click on thumbnails above for larger versions

The current cathedral was restored after the end of WW1.

More detailed history at Germans in France - Cambrai Cathedral.

the shelling of Reims cathedral

By the time Reims was built, experience allowed the building of a more solid structure than earlier gothic cathedrals such as Notre-Dame in Paris. So much so that the main structure of Reims cathedral even withstood the vandalism of the German batteries in the First World War. It is said that Reims cathedral was hit by several hundred missiles. [Thus, Reims cathedral is almost entirely a modern restoration job.]

In 1914, the XIIth Saxon Corps had entered Reims.

“An hour later a strange detonation was heard; then a second; the a third. ... At the third explosion a splinter of shell fell at my feet. It was in the Place Belletour. I knew then what it meant. Without any warning,without any one knowing why, a savage bombardment was being launched on the city. ...

“... the Saxon officers, who had believed at first that this was a counter-offensive of our own, more astonished than anyone at seeing themselves bombarded by their own guns—it was necessary to take them splinters of their own shells to convince them—had hurriedly sent two of their number ... to report and obtain a cessation of the bombardment. ...

“It was another army corps—a Prussian corps, which was ignorant of the arrival of the Saxons, and had ruined the city on account of a couple of envoys.”

The envoys, two officers of the Prussian Guard, had set out for Reims the evening before, but had not returned. The conclusion was “they were prisoners and without troubling to obtain further information, the city was made to suffer the consequences.”

In fact, the envoys had taken a different route to the French lines and had never set foot in Reims. As well as the damage to the cathedral and other parts of the city, sixty civilians were killed and a further hundred and forty injured. A hundred and eighty-two shells fell on Reims, though fifty-six did not explode.

By 5th October 1918, there had been 857 days of bombardment.

For half a century Germany has been dominated by two forms of pride--military ambition and intellectual pedantry, the one engendering the other. She carried self-esteem and self-admiration to such a pitch that she believed herself, and told herself, that she was a nation without peer, a people-type marked out to be the head of the human race. She made herself a soldier that she might realize her dream, militarism being thus the servant of German Thought. She was to become" Greatest Germany," to extend ever farther afield, to mount ever higher, by force of arms and the spread of her culture: Deutschland über alles, Germany before all and above all, was to dominate everywhere, and to rule the world.

“She had brought into being a formidable engine of war. She produced the illusion, or the impression, of a certain scientific superiority, ponderous and massive, like her soldiers, and like them also in strength. She paraded this achievement with such an air of assurance, with such haughtiness, such an accent of superb arrogance, that she imposed her conviction upon others.

“And these two boasts fall simultaneously, in the same catastrophe: the military boast has been shattered, though not ingloriously, in those combats of giants such as humanity has never hitherto witnessed; the intellectual boast has foundered miserably amid orgies of cruelty, of villainies, of stupid malevolence, which are only to be matched in the worst periods of history, and are on a par with the vilest excesses of barbarian hordes.

“The enormous power of the German armies and their monstrous engines of war astounded the world; but their crimes have sickened it; so that it is hard to say which feeling is uppermost-surprise at the obstinate resistance of the Kaiser's soldiers, or indignation at the savage destruction they have wrought.”
[pp. 1-2, Preface, The Cathedral of Reims - the story of a German crime by Maurice Landrieux, Bishop of Dijon; translated by Ernest Williams]

Reims cathedral, after German bombing Reims cathedral, after German bombingReims cathedral, after German bombing

Reims cathedral, after German bombing in WW


Before and after the shelling of the north porch of Reims cathedral during WW1
Before and after the shelling of the north porch of Reims cathedral

It wasn’t just the cathedral that was damaged by the extensive German shelling. The following aerial photograph
shows the greater extent of devastation in the area of Reims around the cathedral. (It was common during WW1
for German batteries to fire on the French churches and cathedrals along the front line, for practice, or out of boredom
and sheer vandalism.)

aerial photograph showing the greater extent of devastation in the area of Reims around the cathedral

The following map shows where shells fell around Reims cathedral during 1914 to 1918. The cathedral itself received a total of 287 shells. Shells are gun-launched bombs of various types, including incendiary and gas.

shelling around Reims cathedral, 1914-1918

p.32, Rheims

“ In 1915 and 1916, the cathedral was struck a hundred times, but it was the bombardments of April 15,19 and 24, 1917, that it suffered most. For seven consecutive hours, at a rate of twelve per hour, the Germans fired 12-in., 14-in. and 15-in. shells on the edifice, causing terrible havoc, especially to the south-western side.”


“Destroy, reduce to ashes, this Rheims basilica, where Chlodovic was consecrated and where was born that Empire of the Franks, those turncoat brothers of the noble Germans.” [Johann Joseph Goeres, April 1814]

More detailed history at Germans in France - Reims cathedral.

Noyon cathedral

Noyon cathedral interior, after German WW1 shellingThe cathedral was the target of much revolutionary zeal and bile, as Noyon was so closely associated with the French monarchy. In 1793, the statuary of the west and transept portals were ordered destroyed, an order that was carried out with great efficiency. Only four small corbel figures survived, which had been covered up. So the marvels of the statuary’s carving has been lost.

Noyon was probably the most important cathedral after Reims. It was very early: 1150 - 1200. Fortunately, its big brother at Laon remained undisturbed, and the restoration at Noyon, continuing almost up to the Second World War, has recovered as much as could be expected.

The revolutionary government eventually ordered the cathedral be sold, but the price put on it was so high that this did not happen, and eventually the horrors of the revolution receeded. It was used as a hay barn, granary, stable and dance hall, again the usual combination of dedicated revolutionary desecration and utility.

More detailed history at Germans in France - Noyon cathedral.

Soissons cathedral

After Soissons cathedral was bombarded in early to mid 1918
After Soissons cathedral was bombarded in early to mid 1918

A twelfth-century cathedral, used as a warehouse during the 1789 Revolution and much damaged, received its worst affronts during World War One when the tower’s upper section and the nave’s first three bays were completely destroyed.

The cathedral was expertly restored in the late 1920s.

Soissons cathedral prior to WW1 The west facade, Soissons cathedral Thanksgiving in Cambrai cathedral - thumbnail
Soissons cathedral prior to the First World War The west facade, Soissons cathedral the interior of Soissons cathedral after WW1 bombardments
Click on thumbnails above for larger versions

More detailed history at Germans in France - Soissons Cathedral.

Arras and Verdun cathedrals

Arras cathedral after German shellingThe situation at Arras was very similar to that at Cambrai during the first world war. For more detailed information, go to Germans in France - Arras cathedral.

Verdun, also close to the front line, was badly damaged by German bombardments. For further information, go to cathedrals in lorraine - the three bishoprics.

St. Quentin cathedralHole made to hold explosives

The city of St. Quentin was occupied by the German army from August 1914 to October 1918. During this time, there were many attempts to dislodge the Germans, resulting in the near total destruction of the cathedral, leaving just the outer walls.

When St. Quentin was relieved by French troups on 1st October 1918, chasing the Germans so they left the city precipitately. On entering the cathedral, the French soldiers were outraged to discover in the walls and pillars, ninety-three holes made and filled with explosives so the edifice could be blown up as the Germans had done to the donjon of Coucy in 1917. Some of the holes were 110 cm deep, 80 cm wide and 70 cm high. A German engineer captain was found left behind to do the diabolical chore, but he was stopped in time.

For more detailed information, go to Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral.

Also see Amiens cathedral.

Marker at abelard.org

“We taught them a lesson in 1918.
And they’ve hardly bothered us since then.” Tom Lehrer


Map of Northern France - cathedral towns and zones affected
by the two world wars of the 20th century

Northern France map showing cathedral towns and the zones affected by the two world wars of the 20th century. Reims

New translation, the Magna Carta

German occupation during World War Two

Map of Free and Occupied Zones in France during the German WW2 occupation.Source: Wikicommons
Map of Free and Occupied Zones in France during the German WW2 occupation. Source: Wikicommons

Southwest France

Strutting in Dax

The invaders eying up the local talent, Magescq
The invaders eying up the local talent
The invaders eying up the local talent, south-west france

transbordeur bridges demolished or destroyed during WW2

The French transbordeur bridges erected close to or in naval bases or sea ports did not fair well during World War Two.

Rouen: Destroyed by French troops in 1940 in order to slow the German advance.

Brest: Erected in the naval base, this transbordeur was damaged in 1944. It was demolished completely in 1947.

Marseilles: Destroyed by the Germans in 1944, on the day before marseilles was liberated by the Allies.

Bordeaux: Never completed, the two pylons were dismantled by the French so they would not be available to the German invaders.

For more information and illustrations, go to
transbordeur/transporter bridges in France and the world 1: why, who, when, where.

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Vandals in France book

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Franco faces down Hitler for three years

The great prize that Hitler wanted was to capture the fortress stronghold of Gibraltar. From there, Hitler could cut off the Mediterranean. Franco had other ideas.

“It is fashionable at the present time to dwell on the vices of General Franco, and I am therefore glad to place on record this testimony to the duplicity and ingratitude of his dealings with Hitler and Mussolini. I shall presently record even greater services which these evil qualities in General Franco rendered to the Allied cause.”
[Abstracts of the war memoirs of Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, part 4; in Life, 14 March 1949, p. 87]

Marker at abelard.org

“General Vigón reported to Franco that Germany had suddenly begun reinforcing its Third Air Force around Bayonne right at Spain’s doorstep. And in addition to the twenty divisions still at Irún-Hendaye, more Wehrmacht divisions were arriving in an area south of Bordeaux.”
[Hitler stopped by Franco, p. 223. This refers to mid-July, 1941.]

Marker at abelard.org

“In the north, on the only two roads over which it was possible to pass into Spain there suddenly appeared massive concrete fortifications and roadblocks. Spain did not lack sand and cement, and hundreds of tons of concrete were poured as if overnight. To the sides of the roads the engineers used dynamite to create vast craters as tank traps. Everywhere that vehicles and men on foot might pass, obstacles were placed to make passage impossible. Franco and his Ministers had mobilized the Army Engineers in an operation without name but in direct reply to Ilona.

“They divided the Pyrenean area into five defensive regions. The key frontier bridge that spans the Bidesoa River that links Spanish Irún to French Hendaye, in bad condition, was weakened still further and mined with enough explosives to blow it out of existence in sixty seconds. Teams of men rotated duty twenty-four hours a day to protect the mines from being defused, or to detonate the charges when ordered.

“Five dams were prepared to be opened wide enough so that within hours their waters could flood the region, making it as marshy and boggy as later in the year the winter weather would do naturally. Farmhouses became arsenals for the implements of guerrilla warfare: knives, guns, hatchets, gasoline, dynamite? Anything that could kill a soldier and destroy his vehicles.

“Finally, the Army's rosters were studied for men who came from the north and then one hundred and twenty thousand of them were transferred and stationed as close to their homes as possible: a fundamental of guerrilla warfare being the intimate knowledge of one's terrain.” [Hitler stopped by Franco, p. 222]

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“The two guardias civiles at the customs barrier at Irun stood at their posts, looking into France at the German tanks and trucks and half-tracks, at the field artillery and the thousands of tents that housed the hundreds of thousands of men of the Wehrmacht. They stared at them as they had stared at them in never-lessening terror for one week short of three years.

“ Then they heard the sound of engines starting up, in a low and distant roar. They saw a heavy cloud of dust rising and heard the roar deepening as more and more engines awakened. Then, through binoculars they could see the vehicles moving, turning ... away from Spain.”
[Hitler stopped by Franco, p. 271. This applies to 20 June, 1943.]

See also Fascism is socialism: Franco was not a Fascist.

related material


The cathedral builders by Jean Gimpel The cathedral builders
by Jean Gimpel,
Michael Russell Publishers, 1980
  The Cathedral of Reims The Cathedral of Reims - the story of a German crime by Maurice Landrieux, Bishop of Dijon; translated by Ernest Williams
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., London, 1920
Rheims and the battles for its possession Rheims and the battles for its possession
published by Michelin and Cie, 1919
  Hitler stopped by franco by Boyar and Boyar

Hitler stopped by Franco by Boyar & Boyar, Marbella House

$19.95 [amazon.com]

Marbella House, 2001
ISBN-10: 0971039208
ISBN-13: 978-0971039209

Les Vandales en France Les Vandales en France, 1914, 1915
L’Art et les Artistes, 1915

These two following books are clumsy and mawkish but popular attempts to weave ‘romance’ against a background of the horrors and seediness of the German attacks and occupations, during the First and the Second World Wars respectively, in France. The first book, Birdsong, is considerably more use than the second. You may find them interesting to read for the background research.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

£4.00 [amazon.co.uk]
Vintage, 1997
ISBN-10: 0679776818
ISBN-13: 978-0679776819

$10.85 [amazon.com]
Vintage, 1997
ISBN-10: 0679776818
ISBN-13: 978-0679776819

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

£5.59 [amazon.co.uk]
Vintage, 1999
ISBN-10: 0099394316
ISBN-13: 978-0099394310

$11.20 [amazon.com]
Vintage, 2000
ISBN-10: 0375704558
ISBN-13: 978-0375704550

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

Marker at abelard.org

Some reference keywords/tags:

end notes

  1. This is a romantic speculation. There is no known evidence for this claim, but an accretion of unsupported myths. We know nothing about Villard de Honnecourt outside the existence of his pages of sketches.

  2. German shells during the first world war included 12-in., 14-in. and 15-in shells.
    shell diameter range
    12 inch/30 cm 6-7 miles
    14 inch/35 cm 30 miles
    15 inch/ 38 cm 24-26 miles
    A 14-inch shell would weigh approximately 850lbs/390kg.

    These are fired from huge guns, whether cannon or mortars/howitzers. They had originally been mounted of battleships. On land, some were then mounted on trains, able to absorb the heavy recoil by the gun carriage rolling about 100 yards along the line.

  3. corbel
    A corbel is the supporting plinth of a pillars and or column. As such, it is a structural part of the cathedral.

  4. Hitler had over two hundred divisions at this time. This was no token force and continued in place while he was attacking Russia. Of course, Germany was impoverishing France in support of its mad ambitions.
A Hermes scarf, ultimate fashion accessory of ‘good taste’ and beauty.

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