Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (RN), who reported on the surrender of the German U-boats in November, has returned from a week of celebrations in Paris and Cherbourg at the invitation of a grateful French nation. He and his ship, HMS Valiant, have now returned to Scapa Flow, from where he has written to us.
The French government had wished to honour the work of the Royal Navy in the War and on April 23rd (St George’s Day) held a review of our naval troops in the Court of Honour of the Hotel des Invalides, conducted by the Governor of Paris. It was attended by both Rear-Admiral Reginald Tyrwhitt and Admiral Sir David Beatty, their staffs and various ships’ companies.
On April 26th Geoffrey and his fellow officers were taken to see Reims and something of the war-torn countryside:
“From Château Thierry and Épernay we passed through the devastated area. Every town and every village was in ruins. Famous Châteaux with their roofs battered in, with broken beds gaping out of holes in the walls, and Churches with perhaps only half the Chancel or the Choir still standing, made one realize for perhaps the first time the feelings of intense hatred of the French towards the Boche, and one now understands why it is the Frenchmen are still burning to revenge themselves…
Reims had 100,000 inhabitants before the war, but only 10% now remain. Sixteen houses only are undamaged in the City. Little or no repair has been undertaken in the devastated area owing to lack of building material.”
Reims Cathedral is in a particularly bad condition.
“Outside its western front we were met by Cardinal Luçon (aged 83) and conducted round the ruins of what was once the most glorious Church in France. The building is no longer open to the public as it is in a state of dangerous collapse, the roof lies on the floor, the High Altar has vanished and the Northern Tower looks very shaky.”
Reims Cathedral nave.
“We now motored out in the rain to Fort la Pompelle, the N.E. corner of the Reims defences and the scene of desperate fighting. All the trenches are filled in, but shells, grenades, human bones and an occasional dead horse with miles of wire lie everywhere. Two grenades went off without hurting anyone, and of course most fellows carried back trophies in the shape of broken rifles or fragments of shell.
La Pompelle Fort
A French Colonel of Infantry at one place said, ‘Gentlemen, this is holy ground, as you stand on the bodies of all my officers and most of my men. I ask you to salute them.'”
When they had all returned to Paris that evening, at the end of a very full day, they looked for some lighter entertainment:
“Although feeling rather tired, we again sallied forth to visit the magnificent Allied Officers’ Club next to the British Embassy. Finding this rather dull we moved on to Maxims, which has just been reopened after the recent brawl there, which resulted in four American and French officers being killed or wounded because an American kissed a French lady…”