Thursday, June 7, 2018

WWI and the Ruins of Medieval Churches

I've heard of the German "Baedeker Bombings" of World War II, in which the Luftwaffe selected non-military, cultural sites in England for bombing based on a popular guidebook. This blog describes the bombings:

The next day Baron von Sturm (a spokesman for the German Foreign Office) said “’We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” von Strum’s comments led to the raids being called the ‘Baedeker Raids’ by both the Germans and the Allies. Although Goebbels agreed with the tactic he was furious with von Strum for his thoughtless, off-the-cuff comment. Goebbels had wanted to take the moral high ground, describing the British attacks as ‘terror bombing’, but now von Strum had effectively admitted that the Germans were deliberately targeting cultural and historical sites. Exeter was bombed again within hours of von Strum’s statement. A third raid on Exeter took place on 3rd May when high explosives, incendiaries and parachute mines were dropped by 90 planes, devastating the city’s shopping centre. 163 people were killed and 131 seriously injured in the attacks on the town which was poorly prepared for such raids, as were the other locations chosen from the guidebook. . . .

Exeter was not the only city to be targeted. 400 people were killed in raids on Bath on two consecutive nights (25th + 26th April), during the raid the railway station was put out of action and communications severely affected. After the raids on Bath Goebbels reported that Hitler intended to “repeat these raids night after night until the English are sick and tired of terror attacks” and that he “shared [Goebbels’] opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked… there is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.”

But according to this article from History Today, there was bombing during the First World War--the war to end all wars--that also focused on cultural, indeed religious, sites in an effort to drive down civilian morale:

Throughout the four years marking the centenary of the First World War, we have seen a succession of sombre events marking its many major and minor tragedies. Among the most poignant datelines are those recalling a litany of medieval landmarks that fell along the frontline almost from the opening hours of the war: at first, simply shattered by the German army's rapid advance and then steadily eroded by mutually destructive attrition. Treasured symbols of its commercial and cultural power in the later Middle Ages, Belgium's heritage churches bore the full ferocity of the first salvoes. Liège's late Gothic cathedral of St Paul came under enemy bombardment on the second, sweltering day of the war and, following the fall of the medieval walled city of Namur on 23 August 1914, the German Third Army took Dinant on the same day. There they toppled the distinctive Reformation-era pyriform dome of its collegiate church, an act of destruction that was eclipsed by the massacre of 600 townspeople. No doubt in the next four years most of the major milestones in the conflict will be marked, but, perhaps increasingly, we will also remember and reflect on those experiences – mechanisation, civilian bombardment – which, after the passage of a century, we can see more clearly represent moments of great cultural transformation.

Notre Dame of Reims, the cathedral of coronation for France's kings, was a particular target of German bombs:

A presage of what was to follow in the four years of war was offered at Reims, scarcely six weeks after the conflict began. On Saturday 19 September a shower of German incendiaries set the 13th-century cathedral ablaze. In the stillness of a misty autumn twilight, bystanders paused aghast at the edge of the Place du Parvis as fire seized the roof timbers and the scaffold, which, by a fateful irony, still surrounded the northern tower of the west front after a stint of restoration work. The fire reached such intensity in the hours that followed that it softened the mortared joints of the statues covering the facade. Suddenly, the sculpted head of the Smiling Angel – le sourire de Reims – broke from its shoulders and fell. . . . 

World War I bombings finished what Protestant iconoclasm had started:

Such widespread destruction of medieval heritage was unprecedented in the modern era. As the French press ruefully observed, even their Revolution – powered by a radical secularism – had not seen the razing of so many ancient sites. Not since the 16th-century Wars of Religion had churches in a whole chain of regional capitals suffered in such a way. It also represented a new departure in modern warfare because, as the conflict intensified, these medieval landmarks were made the deliberate target of offensive action. In this respect, the attack on Reims represented a turning point. The early damage wrought by the invasion force had been largely collateral. At Reims, however, the Germans fired on the cathedral. Earlier, on first entering the city, they had established a temporary encampment in the Place du Parvis but, as the allied counterattack began, they had withdrawn to a strategic position to the north to concentrate their fire on the centre of the city.

Thereafter, the great cathedrals and other medieval landmarks were targeted right along the Front. . . .

The article goes on to demonstrate that there was a spiritual reaction to this modern iconoclastic warfare on the Continent and in England:

The attention given to the great cathedrals and abbey churches also engendered a level of spirituality, which some had considered lacking in the early stages of the war. Public worship and private devotion in these spaces surged, even among the rubble. Church leaders, roused into guiding the public response, used the fragility of their most ancient places of worship to reinvigorate intercession. Cardinal Louis-Henri-Joseph Luçon, Archbishop of Reims, performed the Stations of the Cross daily, picking his way around the fallen vault of the nave. In England parallel efforts were carried forward by Canterbury, York and the senior bishops, in which the historic resonance of their great churches was self-consciously harnessed to the imperatives of the Home Front. National Days of Intercession, first tried during the Boer War, called the public into these ancient places of worship; at Salisbury and Exeter Cathedrals and Westminster Abbey local people were reminded of the bishops' wish that everyone pause and enter their churches for prayer at noon each day. At a time when troops from across the Empire were passing through many cities and towns, it would appear the antiquity of these places spoke to those with little first-hand knowledge of the Old Country they served.

James G. Clark, Professor of History at the University of Exeter, demonstrates how this spiritual revival continued after the First World War ended, as Church of England bishops encouraged travelers on the Great Western Railway to make pilgrimage visits to great medieval (formerly Catholic) cathedrals and churches in the Midlands and Wales:

England's largest railway company, Great Western (GWR), embarked on its own promotion in 1924: recruiting academic medievalists – Montague Rhodes (MR) James, provost of Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and Sir Charles Oman, Oxford's Chichele Professor, and launching a trio of guidebooks to the cathedrals, abbeys and castles of the region served by GWR. Announced by a poster campaign to rival the Art Deco imagery of the French railway companies, the guides called on their customers to practice a new kind of touring, sober and reflective, 'not to be unloaded for ten minutes from a charabanc', as the guide admonished, but to pause amid 'these precious monuments of English piety'.

Please read the rest there.

At the University of Exeter website, Professor Clark comments upon his research and writing:

My historical interests are focused on the period between the Black Death and the Break with Rome. While a medievalist by training, I explore themes in religion, intellectual and cultural life which reach across the traditional boundaries of medieval and early modern; likewise, my approach is informed not only by the sources and methods of the historian but also by those of researchers in literary, artistic and material culture.

I'd say this article is a good example of his reaching "across the traditional boundaries of medieval and early modern" history!

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