Reims Cathedral Burns

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 144th installment in the series.

September 19-20, 1914: Reims Cathedral Burns

In mid-September 1914, it was still anyone’s guess who would win the Great War on the ground—but the Allies had already won the propaganda war, as far as public opinion in neutral countries was concerned, thanks to a series of German atrocities culminating in the burning of the great medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims.

Built between 1211 and 1427 on the site of the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks, Notre-Dame de Reims was the church where French kings were crowned and is considered a crown jewel of Gothic architecture. Colossal and otherworldly, it is famous for its intricate façades, mystical stained glass windows, and elaborate statuary throughout, all imbued with historical and allegorical meaning. In 1862 it was added to the French government’s list of Monuments of National Importance, one of the world’s first efforts at systematic historical preservation.

After war broke out, German troops briefly occupied the city of Reims from September 4 to 12, 1914, but were then forced to withdraw after the Allied victory on the Marne. They didn’t go far, however; the new front ran diagonally just a few miles northeast of the city, so the cathedral remained within range of the artillery of the German Third Army, now dug in near Vouziers.

During the Battle of the Aisne, German officers supposedly told gunners to avoid shelling the cathedral on the presumption it was “off limits” to both sides, but then changed their mind when they saw French artillery spotters directing fire on to German positions from the roof—a charge the Allies denied. Whatever the truth was, on September 19 and 20, 1914, over two dozen German shells hit the cathedral (image above), setting fire to temporary wooden scaffolding, which in turn ignited oak wood in the cathedral’s roof.

As the blaze spread, lead used to seal the roof melted and fell to the cathedral floor, setting fire to straw left there by Germans (who had used it as a hospital), followed by wooden pews, trim, and carvings. Shrapnel and collapsing structural elements shattered stained glass windows and destroyed pillars and statuary on both sides of the cathedral, decapitating the famous “smiling angel” of Reims. By an incredible stroke of luck, most of the cathedral’s priceless communion ware, vestments, paintings, tapestries and other treasures survived, giving the French authorities a chance to move them to safety.

This wasn’t the end of the “martyrdom” of the cathedral of Reims, however: Over the course of the war, the structure was hit by 200 to 300 shells, including two more intensive bombardments in April 1917 and July 1918. By the end of the war, the cathedral’s walls and buttresses were still standing, but much of the rest of the building lay in ruins. 

Tragic as it was, the burning of the cathedral of Reims was a gift to Allied propagandists who seized on it, like the destruction of the medieval library at Louvain, as a symbol of German “barbarism”—taking pains to note the disparity between Germany’s claims to be fighting for “Kultur” and its actual treatment of priceless cultural artifacts.


See the previous installment or all entries.

7 of the Best Double Features You Can Stream on Netflix Right Now

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky (1976) and Liev Schreiber in Chuck (2016).
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky (1976) and Liev Schreiber in Chuck (2016).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and IFC Films

For many of us, movie night can turn into a movie marathon. If you’re logged into Netflix and pondering what to watch, check out these double feature suggestions that each offer a perfect pairing of tone, topic, or an ideal double dose of Nicolas Cage.

1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) // The Highwaymen (2019)

In Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the famous outlaw couple who livened up Depression-era America with their string of bank robberies. More than 50 years later, The Highwaymen shifts the focus to the retired Texas Rangers (Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) charged with bringing them down.

2. Rocky (1976) // Chuck (2016)

Sylvester Stallone's rousing story of underdog palooka Rocky Balboa pairs well with the biopic of the man who partially inspired Stallone's screenplay. Chuck details the boxing career of Chuck Wepner, a determined pugilist who was given virtually no chance against Muhammad Ali but wound up winning the respect of the crowd. Liev Schreiber stars.

3. Deliverance (1972) // The River Wild (1994)

Water-based getaways become cautionary tales: In Deliverance, Burt Reynolds delivers the performance that turned him into a movie star, a rough and rugged outdoorsman confronted by a group of sinister locals in the backwoods of Georgia. Things don’t get appreciably better in The River Wild, with Meryl Streep as a matriarch forced to navigate the rapids under the gun of criminal Kevin Bacon. Together, the two may have you rethinking your vacation plans.

4. All the President’s Men (1976) // Kill the Messenger (2014)

Newspaper reporting comes under fire in both of these films based on true stories. All the President's Men features Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters tasked with uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. Kill the Messenger stars Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, the journalist who found a suspicious connection between drug smuggling and the CIA.

5. Carrie (1976) // Gerald’s Game (2017)

After a bad stretch of mediocre adaptations, Stephen King’s work has been seeing an onscreen renaissance. Check out two of the best: Carrie, which stars Sissy Spacek as a telekinetic teen with an overbearing mother and an awkward social life; and Gerald’s Game, which casts Carla Gugino as a woman trapped in handcuffs amid supernatural activity.

6. National Treasure (2004) // The Trust (2016)

Fitting in the very narrow genre of “Nicolas Cage heist movies,” both National Treasure and The Trust are terrific on their own: A double feature contrasts Cage at his blockbuster best with his indie film shades of grey. As Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure, he tries to run off with the Declaration of Independence. In The Trust, he and Elijah Wood are cops targeting a drug money stash. Fans of a more subdued—but still excellent—Cage should find a lot to like here.

7. Inglourious Basterds (2009) // The Imitation Game (2014)

Two very different tales of World War II oscillate from the cerebral to the Nazi-smashing. In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino offers a revisionist take on the men and women who resisted the Reich. In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch is real-life scientist Alan Turing, whose work with computers cracked a German code that helped end the war.

How Mister Rogers Used King Friday to Make Friday the 13th Less Scary for Kids

Getty Images
Getty Images

King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.

Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may also remember that the monarch was born on Friday the 13th, because his birthday was celebrated on the program every Friday the 13th. Though the math isn’t perfect—according to Timeanddate.com, Friday the 13th sometimes happens two or three times a year—the heartwarming reason behind the unconventionally-timed birthday celebrations absolutely is.

Fred Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”

Rogers added that the tradition worked out so well partially because the show was broadcast live, and viewers knew to anticipate an especially festive episode whenever they spotted a Friday the 13th on the calendar.

Speaking of calendars: There’s an equally charming story behind the name Calendarland. In the same interview, Rogers disclosed that King Friday once asked children to write in with suggestions for his then-nameless country. One boy posited that since King Friday was named after a calendar date, his realm should be named after the calendar. Then, the lucky youngster was invited to the set, where King Friday christened him a prince of Calendarland.

King Friday might be king of Calendarland, but Mister Rogers is definitely the king of understanding how to make kids feel safe, smart, and special.

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