Today we associate the name “Alfred Nobel” with, among other things, a prestigious Peace Prize awarded to, “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But back in the late 1800s, his name was associated with something quite different. You see, Alfred Nobel made his fortune through his invention of dynamite and smokeless gunpowder; and towards the end of his life, he was intimately involved in the manufacture and sale of state-of-the-art weaponry.
But for all this, Nobel ultimately considered himself a pacifist. He once remarked to a famed peace-advocate: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised [sic] nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” He never lived to see how wrong he was.
By mid-September 1914, hundreds of thousands of corpses littered the fields of Europe; entire armies had been decimated by the power and accuracy of modern weapons. Nobel had thought that this kind of carnage would cause nations to call a halt to a war—instead they simply pulled new men into the ranks and continued the horror.
Hatred was the inevitable offspring of this level of devastation, and hatred bred violence. British journalist Phillip Gibbs noticed this early on in the war. He wrote:
“It was at this station near Toul that I heard the first words of hatred. They were in a conversation between two French soldiers who had come with us from Paris. They had heard that some Germans had already been taken prisoners across the frontier, and they were angry that the men were still alive.
‘Prisoners? Pah! Name of a dog! I will tell you what I would do with German prisoners!’
It was nothing nice that that man wanted to do with German prisoners. He indulged in long and elaborate details as to the way in which he would wreath their bowels about his bayonet and tear out their organs with his knife. The other man had more imagination. He devised more ingenious modes of torture so that the Germans should not die too soon.” (1)
Hatred and cruelty have always been present at the individual level, however, nations themselves unconsciously encouraged this kind of attitude when they demonized the enemy and discarded the rules of war in the name of military necessity. Among the combatant nations, chivalry, mercy, and civilization were being abandoned with extraordinary rapidity. After all, wrote Phillip Gibbs:
“If it is permissible to hurl millions of men against each other with machinery which makes a wholesale massacre of life, tearing up trenches, blowing great bodies of men to bits with the single shot of a great gun, strewing battlefields with death, and destroying defended towns so that nothing may live in their ruins, then it is foolish to make distinctions between one way of death and another, or to analyse degrees of horror.” (2)
But even amidst this blood, madness, and hatred, it was possible for people to transcend their circumstances and show the best qualities of humanity—even to their enemies. The old and famous cathedral at Rheims was the site of one such instance.
Following the German withdrawal from the Marne the French retook Rheims, but the city was still within range of the German gunners, who began to bombard the advancing French. Richard Harding Davis, an American war correspondent, was at Rheims during this bombardment, and he claimed that the Germans seemed to be purposely targeting the 800 year-old cathedral. On the 19th of September, the cathedral, which was being used by the French priests to shelter German wounded, was hit by German artillery fire. Davis writes:
“For some months the northeast tower of the cathedral had been under repair and surrounded by scaffolding. On September 19th a shell set fire to the outer roof of the cathedral, which is of lead and oak. The fire spread to the scaffolding and from the scaffolding to the wooden beams of the portals, hundred of years old. The abbé Chinot, young/alert, and daring, ran out upon the scaffolding and tried to cut the cords that bound it.
In other parts of the city the fire department was engaged with fire lit by the bombardment, and unaided, the flames gained upon him. Seeing this, he called for volunteers, and, under the direction of the Archbishop of Rheims, they carried on stretchers from the burning building the wounded Germans. The rescuing parties were not a minute too soon. Already from the roofs molten lead, as deadly as bullets, was falling among the wounded. The blazing doors had turned the straw on which they lay into a prairie fire.
Splashed by the molten lead and threatened by falling timbers, the priests, at the risk of their lives and limbs, carried out the wounded Germans, sixty in all.
But, after bearing them to safety, their charges were confronted with a new danger. Inflamed by the sight of their own dead, four hundred citizens having been killed by the bombardment, and by the loss of their cathedral, the people of Rheims who were gathered about the burning building called for the lives of the German prisoners. ‘They are barbarians,’ they cried. ‘Kill them!’ Archbishop Landreaux and Abbé Chinot placed themselves in front of the wounded.
‘Before you kill them,’ they cried, ‘you must first kill us.’
This is not highly colored fiction, but fact. It is more than fact. It is history, for the picture of the venerable archbishop, with his cathedral blazing behind him, facing a mob of his own people in defence of their enemies, will always live in the annals of this war and in the annals of the church.” (3)
The last blog post I wrote was about hatred and atrocity; the Great War had plenty of both. However, it’s important to remember that all throughout the war people were able to react with humanity and mercy as well. The memory of these priests, probably French patriots themselves, shows us that even in the worst of situations—even in a climate of hatred and violence—people are capable of astonishing acts of altruism. It’s stories like these that imbue the tragedy of war with the faintest glimmer of hope, and allow us to believe in the goodness inherent in the spirit of man.
1. Philip Gibbs, The Soul of War (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1915), 36.
2. Gibbs, The Soul of War, 361.
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