The destruction of the 1914-18 war

The destruction of the 1914-18 war

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Title: Reims Cathedral in flames.

Author : BOUSSU Emile (1889 - 1916)

Creation date : 1914

Date shown: 1914

Dimensions: Height 94.5 - Width 63

Technique and other indications: Colored pencils, graphite and heightened gouache on beige paper Donation by Mme Boussu, mother of the artist, 1918

Storage location: Rennes Museum of Fine Arts website

Contact copyright: © Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Adelaide Beaudoin

Reims Cathedral in flames.

© Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Adelaide Beaudoin

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

An iconoclastic war

The 1914-1918 war caused very serious damage to the built heritage, the German army having bombed and even dynamited many buildings with the aim of weakening the moral cohesion of the French.
Reims was the hardest hit by the 1914 war: the city was subjected to almost continuous bombardment throughout the German occupation of northern France, from September 3, 1914 to October 5, 1918.
Its cathedral, sanctuary of coronations, appears here as the symbol of the destructive barbarism of the Great War. In total, 350 shells were fired at the building, bursting the vaults of the nave and mutilating 70 statues, including The smiling angel.
The blow to the monument is considered as sacrilegious as it is unnecessary. The reconstruction of the cathedral was not fully completed until the eve of World War II in 1937.

Image Analysis

The destruction of the highly symbolic Reims cathedral

An infirmity in the left heel made Boussu a reformer from the start, despite himself. It is not known when and under what circumstances the artist was able to make this magnificent drawing of Reims Cathedral on fire. It is however possible to date it. The presence of a wooden scaffolding, leaning against the north tower and which the fire devastates, indicates in fact that it is about the fire of 1914. The cathedral where the kings of France were crowned is now only 'a smoldering ruin, with Red Cross flags on the towers.
Boussu, with a precise stroke, was able to convey the dramatic nature of this event. No human being appears in this picture of desolation which captures the scale of the destruction. As such, this drawing is also of documentary interest.


The memory of the ruins

After Reims, Arras suffered a comparable fate. The bombing of October 21, 1914 destroyed the Grande and the Petite-Place, framed by 17th century arcaded and gabled houses, an architectural ensemble unique in the north of France. Further away from the front, Paris was fortunate to be relatively spared. On March 29, 1918, a shell launched at a great distance by "the big Bertha" however burst the vault of the Saint-Gervais church at the time of the service of Good Friday, killing more than one hundred people, for the majority of the women. in prayer.
This destruction of monuments, without historical precedent, has been abundantly represented. The images of the charred frames of these great buildings, symbols of national identity, served the propaganda, thus constructing the figure of the barbarian Teutonic, enemy of Law and Civilization. The destruction of monuments is seen as an irreparable loss, a brutal break with the past and with history. The French discover the extent of the disaster through the representations of painters and photographers, but also through reports like Albert Londres on the bombing of Reims. After 1918, postcards took over, showing countless views of devastated cities and monuments, often accompanied by the caption "French, remember".

  • War of 14-18
  • fire
  • patrimony
  • ruins
  • vandalism
  • bombing raid
  • cathedral
  • memory
  • monuments
  • collective identity


Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004. Louis REAU History of vandalism: the destroyed monuments of French art Paris, Robert Laffont, coll. "Books", 1994.Hans REINHARDT Reims Cathedral: its history, its architecture, its sculpture, its stained glass windows Marseille, Laffite Reprints, 1983.

To cite this article

Patrick DAUM, "The destruction of the war of 14-18"

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