Read CHAPTER XXV of A Journey Through France in War Time , free online book, by Joseph G. Butler‚ Jr., on ReadCentral.com.

A CITY IN AN ARMY’S PATH

Few who read this book have ever been in contact with actual war. In order that they may have an idea of what happens to a city which finds itself in the path of an irresistible enemy, some account will be given here of what happened to Reims, a city about the size of Youngstown, having a population of one hundred and twenty-five thousand and being situated on the north bank of the river Aisne, in north-eastern France.

When the Germans attacked France they hurled their great armies by three routes. Not only did they violate the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also sent an army across the frontier between Verdun and Belfort, this being the force stopped by the chasseurs at Gerbeviller, as has been told elsewhere. France had trusted too much and was in a desperate plight because her troops had been mobilized on the wrong front.

The first Germans crossed the frontier of little Luxembourg on the morning of August 2, 1914. They were met by the Grand Duchess, who disputed their passage and pleaded with them to turn back. Her little army of four hundred and thirty men could do nothing, and when she turned her car across the road the German soldiers gathered around and, on the order of their commander, pushed it to one side and passed on.

The Germans entered Belgian territory at Gemmenich on August 3, 1914. The next day they attempted to take by assault the city of Liege, Belgium’s greatest industrial center, and failed. This city, with its ring of nine forts, blocked the passage of their troops and held the main roads into Germany. After a most bloody and unsuccessful assault, the Germans brought up their big guns and blew the forts to pieces. But they had been delayed five days. Then their hosts swept across Belgium and soon came in touch with the French and English. The English army of one hundred and twenty-five thousand men met them at Mons. The French met them between Mons and Verdun.

At this time the Allied lines swung like a huge gate from Verdun west toward the sea, barring the Kaiser’s passage. The Germans then had a million of men, with hordes of the famous lancers, and clouds of these horsemen hung on the right flank of the English, swinging out and around them so as to force Sir John French to fall back or suffer the turning of his flank. Von Kluck was in command of this turning movement, which was made possible by the fall of Namur, Lille and Charleroi. Things then looked desperately bad for the Allies.

TRANSLATION

ORDER

Having taken possession of the City and the fortress of Reims I command the following:

Railroads, routes of communications, both telegraph and telephone, not only of the City of Reims, but also throughout the immediately outlying districts, must be protected against all possibility of destruction; it is absolutely necessary to protect by a minute surveillance the public buildings along the lines of communication. The City will be held responsible for disobedience to this order: the guilty ones will be pursued and shot; the City will be levied for considerable contributions.

I add also that it will be to the interest of the population to conform to the foregoing commands, at the same time going about their ordinary occupations; thus the inhabitants will avoid having new and serious losses.

The German general
Commander in Chief.

This notice on a white card, 45 by 56 centimeters, was posted on the walls of the City of Reims by German authority during the occupation of September 4th to 12th, 1914.

As they were forced back toward Paris, not so much by actual fighting as by the necessity to keep their lines clear and avoid the turning movement of the swift German division under Von Kluck, the Allied armies swung, like a gate with its hinges at Verdun and the outer edge at Mons, back until they stretched between Verdun and Paris. This movement uncovered the beautiful city of Reims, with its countless art treasures, its magnificent cathedral and its thriving population of more than a hundred thousand people, all of which, as the swinging movement continued, were left to the mercy of the German army. The French evacuated Reims with nothing more than some rear-guard fighting and fell back southward to take their places in the great battle line which Joffre had planned somewhere north of Paris on the Marne, as it was later evident.

As the Allied forces swung backward to this then unknown position, they were hard pressed by the advancing German hosts. Their retreat will stand as one of the most masterly in history, for during ten days these vast armies retired more than two hundred miles on their left flank without disorder and without excessive loss of men or material.

The English army occupied the side toward the sea in these grand maneuvers for position. Sir John French moved swiftly backward, fighting as he went and constantly swinging outward to prevent Von Kluck from encircling his flank. On the morning of September 3rd, he reached a point between Paris and the sea, actually a little north of that city. Suddenly in response to orders from Joffre, he marched his tired troops through Paris to Lagny, twenty miles east of the capital, where he took up a position on the Marne front.

Von Kluck was almost in sight of Paris in hot pursuit of the English when he found how he had been tricked. He could not attack the defenses, and it was urgently necessary for him to join the main army on the Marne front. To do this he had to circle to the north, around the outer fortifications of Paris a much longer march than that of the English.

The French government had packed its belongings and left for Bordeaux on the morning of the day the English passed through Paris, and the people thought the Germans were about to besiege the city. All buildings in the line of fire had been destroyed, the civilian population sent south, and every preparation made for defense. Joffre only knew the real plan.

The Parisians were amazed when the Germans scarcely stopped in front of their city. They could not understand why Von Kluck should suddenly withdraw to the east, because they did not know how badly he was needed on the Marne front. But Von Kluck must have suspected, for it is said that he told an aide that, “We have met with a great misfortune.”

Von Kluck was right, for the masterly strategy of Joffre had won the battle of the Marne before a shot had been fired in that historic struggle.

These facts were gleaned from military men whom we met in France. They show how little the civilian population of a military zone, or even the soldiers themselves, know of the movements in which they are engaged. Evidently Joffre had not confided his plans even to the government authorities at Paris, preferring to have the seat of government move and the population flee rather than take chances of these plans being learned by the enemy. So also at Reims.

The French who had been stubbornly defending the city they love best next to Paris from German “Kultur,” were forced to move through Reims and to the south to take their place in the great battle line on the Marne. They went reluctantly and the Germans followed them into the city.

This explains the situation shown in the poster on page 245. The Germans were just outside of Reims on September 3rd, and the Mayor knew that the French army was moving south and leaving the city at their mercy. He counselled his people concerning their conduct, warning them to interfere in no rear-guard action such as was likely to occur. This proclamation was dated September 3, 1914.

TRANSLATION

PROCLAMATION

All authorities of the French Government and Municipal authorities are advised as follows:

1st All peaceable inhabitants may follow their regular occupations
in full security without being disturbed. Private property will be
absolutely respected by the German troops. Provisions of all sorts
suitable for the needs of the German army will be paid for as
purchased.

2nd If, on the contrary, the population dares in any form, whether
openly or disguised, to take part in hostilities against our troops
the most diverse punishments will be inflicted upon the guilty
ones.

3rd All firearms must be deposited immediately at the Mayor’s
office; all individuals bearing arms will be put to death.

4th Whoever cuts or attempts to cut telegraph or telephone wires,
destroys railroad tracks, bridges, roadways, or who plans any
action whatsoever to the detriment of the German troops will be
shot on the spot.

5th The inhabitants of the city or of the villages who take part
in the battle against our troops, who fire on our baggage trains or
on our commissary, or who attempt to hinder any enterprises of the
German soldiers, will be shot immediately.

The civil authorities alone are in a position to spare the inhabitants the terrors and scourge of war. They are the ones who will be responsible for the inevitable consequences resulting from this proclamation.

Chief of Staff, Major General of the German Army
Von Moltke

White card, 45 x 56, posted on the walls of the city of Reims by German authority during the occupation of September 4th to 12th, 1914.

On September 4th the Germans entered Reims, having met with no resistance. They occupied the city without interruption until after the battle of the Marne, which historic struggle began at sunrise on September 6th and continued along a front of about 140 miles until September 12th.

In this battle, which was lost to the Germans because they had been out-maneuvered and compelled to shorten their front so that they were rolled up on both right and left wings, two million, five hundred thousand men were engaged the greatest number taking part in one battle in the history of the world. Of these nine hundred thousand were Germans and the remainder Allies, principally French, the English having only a little more than one hundred thousand men in France at that time. On account of their superiority of numbers, the Allies were able to extend their front and thus threaten the Germans with envelopment at both ends of the long battle line, which reached from Meaux, twenty miles east of Paris, to the fortress of Verdun.

The losses in this tremendous battle are said to have been exceeded only by those of the battle of Flanders, which began October 13, and in which more than three hundred thousand men were slain. The losses at the Marne have never been officially stated.

Mayor’s office
Reims

IMPORTANT NOTICE

The inhabitants are requested to abstain absolutely from touching shells which have not been exploded and are requested to notify immediately the police department, Rue de Mars regarding any such.

The least shock may cause the explosion of the projectile.

Reims, September 7, 1914. Dr. LANGLET, Mayor.

Notice posted in Reims by order of the Mayor, September 7th, 1914.

Next followed the battle of the Aisne, in which the invaders were again defeated and forced to retreat. It was in this battle that the Germans made their last stand south of Reims. They had prepared strong positions on the right bank of this river as they moved toward Paris and in these tried to stem the tide of battle without avail. They were pushed back slowly out of these positions, some of which we were shown, and after being driven to the north of Reims, they began, on September 20th, the bombardment that destroyed the famous cathedral and many of the finest structures in the city.

It will be seen that the Germans, on their entry into Reims, guaranteed the safety of life and property. They had forgotten this when, on September 15, the victorious French reoccupied the city. Five days later, without reason or any other motive than revenge, the Germans, now making another stand in the trenches to the north of the city, opened fire on the cathedral and the bishop’s palace nearby, destroying both beyond repair.

TRANSLATION

PROCLAMATION

In case a battle takes place today or very soon in the environs of Reims or in the city itself, the inhabitants are advised that they should keep absolutely calm and are not to take part in the battle in any manner. They must not attempt to attack isolated soldiers nor detachments of the German army. It is formally forbidden to build barricades or tear up pavement of the streets in such a fashion as to hinder the movement of the troops. In a word nothing must be done which will in any way tend to hinder the German army.

In order to insure sufficiently the safety of the troops and in order to keep the population of Reims calm, the persons named below have been taken as hostages by the commanding general of the German army. Those hostages will be hanged at the least sign of disorder. At the same time the city will be entirely or partially burned and the inhabitants hanged if any infraction whatsoever is committed against the preceding rules.

On the other hand if the city remains absolutely tranquil and calm, the hostages and the inhabitants will be placed under the safeguard of the German Army. By order of German authority,

Reims, September 12, 1914. Dr. LANGLET, Mayor.

Both armies surged backward and forward over Reims twice, and it is not surprising that the city suffered severely. Nevertheless, the French officer who gave us the information outlined above was firmly of the opinion that the cathedral had been wantonly destroyed in revenge for the defeat and humiliation suffered by the German commanders at the Marne and the Aisne. Whatever may have been the motive, and regardless of how great may have been the excuse, the two illustrations of this splendid structure shown in a previous chapter are sufficient to stamp its destruction as a crime that can hardly be justified by the plea of military necessity.

Reims, when we saw it, with the story that is told by the proclamations reproduced, furnishes strong evidence that General Sherman was right when he described war.