The trees thereabout had been mowed down by the French artillery from within the city, so that the highway was littered with their tops. Also, the explosives had dug big gouges in the earth. Wherever you looked you saw that the soil was full of small, raggedy craters. Shrapnel was dropping intermittently in the vicinity; therefore we left our cars behind the shelter of the ancient fort and proceeded cautiously afoot until we reached the frontmost trenches.
Evidently the Germans counted on staying there a good while. The men had dug out caves in the walls of the trenches, bedding them with straw and fitting them with doors taken from the wreckage of the houses of the village. We inspected one of these shelters. It had earthen walls and a sod roof, fairly water-tight, and a green window shutter to rest against the entrance for a windbreak. Six men slept here, and the wag of the squad had taken chalk and lettered the words “Kaiserhof Cafe” on the shutter.
The trenches were from seven to eight feet deep; but by climbing up into the little scarps of the sharpshooters and resting our elbows in niches in the earth, meantime keeping our heads down to escape the attentions of certain Frenchmen who were reported to be in a wood half a mile away, we could, with the aid of our glasses, make out the buildings in Rheims, some of which were then on fire—particularly the great Cathedral.
Viewed from that distance it did not appear to be badly damaged. One of the towers had apparently been shorn away and the roof of the nave was burned—we could tell that. We were too far away of course to judge of the injury to the carvings and to the great rose window.
Already during that week, from many sources, we had heard the Germans’ version of the shelling of Rheims Cathedral, their claim being that they purposely spared the pile from the bombardment until they found the defenders had signal men in the towers; that twice they sent officers, under flags of truce, to urge the French to withdraw their signalers; and only fired on the building when both these warnings had been disregarded, ceasing to fire as soon as they had driven the enemy from the towers.
I do not vouch for this story; but we heard it very frequently. Now, from one of the young officers who had escorted us into the trench, we were hearing it all over again, with elaborations, when a shrapnel shell from the town dropped and burst not far behind us, and rifle bullets began to plump into the earthen bank a little to the right of us; so we promptly went away from there.
We were noncombatants and nowise concerned in the existing controversy; but we remembered the plaintive words of the Chinese Minister at Brussels when he called on our Minister—Brand Whitlock—to ascertain what Whitlock would advise doing in case the advancing Germans fired on the city. Whitlock suggested to his Oriental brother that he retire to his official residence and hoist the flag of his country over it, thereby making it neutral and protected territory.