The ravages of the 14-18 war

The ravages of the 14-18 war

  • Reims Cathedral, September 1917.

    BOUCHOR Joseph Félix (1853 - 1937)

  • The cathedral of Soissons cut in two by the shells.

    BOUCHOR Joseph Félix (1853 - 1937)

  • Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons, September 1918.

    BOUCHOR Joseph Félix (1853 - 1937)

Reims Cathedral, September 1917.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

The cathedral of Soissons cut in two by the shells.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons, September 1918.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: June 2006

Historical context

The war of 1914-1918 tragically marks the entry of the world into the XXe century. It was a global and all-out war: to varying degrees all continents were involved, even though the bulk of military operations took place in Europe. On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was that spark that set Europe ablaze.

Despite the large number of powers involved in the conflict from the first months of the war - Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, France, Great Britain, Romania - the confrontation was essentially Franco -German at the start. Emperor William II concentrated on this front most of his forces, seventy-eight divisions, sending only nine to fight the Russians in the east: the Schlieffen plan provided for defeating France in six weeks .

As French troops move north and east of the country, the Germans rush into the Oise Valley. August 31, 1914, they are in Compiègne, September 2 in Soissons, Senlis and Meaux; on September 3, they entered Reims. Then began a trench warfare that would last nearly four years and cause immense loss of life and considerable material damage.

Image Analysis

Descended by his mother from Baron Pas de Beaulieu, a captain who took part in the United States War of Independence in 1778 in the Count d'Estaing's squadron, Joseph-Félix Bouchor was born in Paris in 1853. Around At the age of twenty, he discovered a sudden passion for painting, which his friends Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and the cartoonist André Gill (1840-1885) strongly encouraged. In 1914, at the age of sixty-one, he asked to be mobilized and became a painter attached to the Musée de l'Armée. Throughout the war, he roamed the front, sketching the battles, ravaged buildings, scenes from the lives of soldiers in the trenches. A portrait painter, he fixes on paper the features of many civil and military personalities involved in the conflict: Generals Joffre, Gallieni, Foch, Pétain, Franchet d´Espérey ... but also the King of the Belgians Albert Ier, André Tardieu, Raymond Poincaré, Alexandre Millerand, Gabriele d'Annunzio… Many of these portraits were reproduced in thousands of copies in the form of postcards and distributed to combatants.

Joseph-Félix Bouchor left precious pictorial testimonies on the damage suffered by civil and religious heritage during the First World War. In September 1917, he was in Reims where he painted a picture representing the cathedral largely destroyed by German bombardments. The facade rises, intact, in the middle of the battered city. We can guess - more than we see - the nave is now open to the sky.

A year later, in September 1918, he was in Soissons where he painted the cathedral, whose facade was cut off from the rest of the building, the first three bays of the nave having been destroyed by shells. It was also in September 1918 that he represented the monumental facade of the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes abbey church which dominates this particularly damaged town in the Aisne and which, by its elevated location, constitutes a privileged target for the German artillery.


During the three and a half years of this war of attrition, the German lines remained 1,500 meters northeast of Reims, which suffered 1,051 days of bombardment. The cathedral was reached on September 19, 1914. A gigantic fire set the building ablaze, destroying all of the roofs. The monument was then damaged on several occasions, notably in April 1917 and July 1918. At the end of the war, the city was 90% destroyed. During a winter night of 1918-1919, the vault of the prestigious Saint-Remi basilica, shaken by shells for nearly four years, collapsed. The determination of the Germans to destroy Reims, the royal city, shakes up public opinion, convinced that the enemy is a soulless "barbarian". It is with the generosity of the American allies, organized by great personalities such as Myron T. Herrick, United States Ambassador to France, that the city is gradually rising from its ruins. John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937), along with Denmark, was the main sponsor of the reconstruction of the cathedral, which took place over ten years.

The situation of Soissons during the Great War offers a striking similarity with that of Reims. Invested by the Germans on September 2, 1914, it was liberated on the 12th, during the French counter-offensive on the Marne, but until March 1917, the enemy occupied hill 312, on the heights overlooking the city. For two and a half years, Soissons was thus subjected to heavy bombardments. In 1918, the city was destroyed 80%. The cathedral was systematically targeted, but also the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes abbey, the courthouse, the hospital ...

The conflict has therefore not spared historical monuments. The arson of the Louvain library, the destruction of the historic center of Arras, the bombing of the cathedral of Reims, caused painful amazement. We had to face the facts: nothing would escape this all-out war, encouraged by the exasperation of national feelings.

  • War of 14-18
  • patrimony
  • ruins
  • vandalism
  • Petain (Philippe)
  • Millerand (Alexandre)
  • Poincaré (Raymond)
  • cathedral
  • Basilica


Stéphane AUDOUIN-ROUZEAU and Jean-Jacques BECKER (dir.), Encyclopedia of the Great War, 1914-1918, Paris, Bayard, 2004. Marthe CAILLAUD, “Pages of the 14-18 war in Picardy: La Somme, Quennevières, Laffaux, Ugny-le-Gay”, in Compiegne historical annals n ° 27, 1984. Lieutenant-Colonel Michel DICHARD, “Historical overview of the battles from 1914 to 1918 in the region of Compiègne”, in Compiegne historical annals n ° 47-48, 1991. John HORNE and Alan KRAMER, 1914: German atrocities, Paris, Tallandier, 2004.Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, Paris, Fayard, 2004.Soissons before and during the war, Clermont-Ferrand, Michelin et Cie, coll. “Michelin illustrated guides to battlefields (1914-1918)”, 1930.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The ravages of the 14-18 war"

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