The view across the poppy fields on the way to Cambrai is truly beautiful and in no way hints at the remains of wartime trauma that lie beneath the carpet of red flowers. Six months after the Battle of Arras, the allied forces made another major attempt to break through the Hindenburg Line, the carefully constructed fall-back position to ensure the German Army had a defensible line if allied troops broke through the front line. The British army made a surprise attack on this line near Cambrai in November 2017 and it was a significant battle in terms of the effective use of tanks to break through the barbed wire defences of the Germans. It initially appeared to be a victory for the British but like at Arras, the Germans counterattacked after ten days and regained much of their original position. The war was to last another 12 months.
During the war years in Australia, German immigrants came under pressure, particularly in South Australia because the government feared that the loyalty of German immigrant families may not be to their adopted country. Examples of this was that German schools were closed in 1916 and place names in the wine growing regions were renamed. In 1917 with the battle of Cambrai in the news, the small town of Rhine Villa was renamed Cambrai, so like Arras St in Brisbane, this war-torn area of France has a memento in the place name of Cambrai, South Australia.
We only had an afternoon to check out the town of Cambrai that had suffered city wide destruction in 1914-18 and was bombed again in World War 2. As usual we drove our campervan to the outskirts of the old city, jumped on our bikes and headed for the centre, passing some of the old medieval walls along the way.
The first major feature of Cambrai we encountered was the lovely Église Saint-Géry, the oldest church in town, with archaelogy suggesting there are remains of a church here going back to the 5th century. This Baroque building was built in the 17th century and contains The Entombment of Christ by the famous Peter Paul Rubens.
The image below is from just after WW1 and shows the view from the main square down Rue Pasteur to Eglise Saint-Gery. On the right are the remains of the Hotel de Ville. There was so much destruction of the centre of town during WW1 that, like Arras, the centre was remodelled and rebuilt from 1923 to 1932.
It wasn’t far up the road to the main square of Cambrai, Place Aristide Briand, where the Hotel de Ville stands in all its restored glory. The tourist Bureau Map describes the Town Hall as follows…
“Completely rebuilt after WW1, the town hall opens onto the main square with a majestic Greek façade. On top of the building, Martin and Martine, the two Moorish giants, are automats, striking the hours with their hammer on the big bell.”
We don’t have ‘automats’ or ‘jacquemarts’ (automatons) on church towers in Australia but they are quite common in Europe, usually found ringing the bells for the city square. Martin and Martine were installed sometime in the 16th century in the previous incarnation of the Cambrai town hall. They are literally a sitting target at the top of this building so they were less than immune to the general destruction that Cambrai has suffered over the centuries. In 1677, Louis XIV besieged Cambrai and one of his cannonballs blew off Martin’s leg. In 1918, the automats were blown off their perch and fell the long drop to the pavement. They were rescued and transported to Belgium for repair and returned in time for the town celebration in 1919 when they were part of the celebratory parade around the city.
From the main square, we walked down the Avenue de La Victoire which is the main street of Cambrai with so much for the visitor to see. We were looking for the tourist bureau and we found it installed in one of the most interesting buildings in the city, The Spanish House. The helpful sign outside the Tourist Bureau explained… “The house was built in 1595 during the Spanish Occupation and is the last remaining example of a wooden house with a gable-façade, a type of building that was built from the Middle Ages to the 17th Century.”
Next door to the Spanish House is the beautiful La Chappelle Des Jesuits on the Place du Saint-Sépulcre (Holy Sepulchre Place). It was built from 1679 to 1692 by the Jesuits who were invited to the city to assist in the process of the counter reformation, the Catholic Church’s attempt to win back the hearts and minds of the French from the lure of the new ideas of Protestantism. Like all the major buildings in the cities of Northern France, it has had a checkered career since then.
- 1765…Jesuits expelled
- 1766-91…run by ‘Secular’ Clergy
- During French Revolution…Housing of troops, Revolutionary Court, Prison, fodder shop
- 1838…reconsecrated as a church
- 1914…Movie Theatre
- 1918-1931…Returned to Catholic worship
- 1958…Museum of Religious Art
If La Chappelle Des Jesuits has anything like a human consciousness, it would be a very disturbed individual continually struggling with its self-concept in a continuously changing world.
From La Chappelle it was a short walk down to the Porte de Paris, the imposing gate that sits at the intersection of two main roads in Cambrai, perhaps unsurprisingly called, Avenue de La Victoire and Boulevard Liberte! On our travels around France, gates of former city walls have been a common feature of our itineraries, often sitting abandoned on a roundabout with no function in a modern city apart from reminding the citizens of how difficult life could be if you didn’t have a wall to protect you from jealous and envious neighbours. This gate was built around 1390 and its functionality lasted over 600 years when technological change in weaponry made it obsolete and, like ageing parents, was in the way of city progress. The information sign next to Porte de Paris explained more about the life of this ancient gate.
“The gate is the only remaining element of the ramparts, built at the end of the 14th century and demolished from 1892 onwards. It used to be the unique access to South and was strategically built to prevent any invasion. The gate was protected by the tower archers, the drawbridge, the portcullis and vast guard hall situated at the upper level.”
The black and white image, below left, is from 1835 and shows travellers riding off to Paris over the former stream that was an extra protection from marauding troops. It too has gone the way of the walls of Cambrai.
The 1649 map of the city (Courtesy Wikipedia) shows the full extent of the Cambrai walls and includes the former citadel of Cambrai, added by Charles V in 1543 to give more protection to the city. Its effectiveness only lasted until 1677 when the Louis XIV invaded Flanders, overcame its Spanish defenders, and added Cambrai to his expanded concept of France. The remains of the citadel gate and other sections of this fortification can still be seen near the Cambrai’s public gardens after a brisk walk from Porte de Paris.
From Porte de Paris we headed back up Avenue de Victoire to inspect the Cathedral of Cambrai, La Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Grace. The Church was built in 1703 as the Church of the Abbey of the Holy Sepulchre, on the same site as other places of worship over the centuries in Cambrai. The original church on the site was built over a cemetery of plague victims back in the 12th century. It was one of the few religious buildings in Cambrai that survived the French Revolution being converted to another ‘Temple of Reason’. The original Cathedral of Cambrai on another site in the city was sold off by the Revolutionary government and the purchaser demolished what was once known as the “wonder of the Netherlands” to sell the stones for other buildings projects. The tower of the old cathedral was left standing after the body of the church had been pulled down but unfortunately it blew down in a storm in 1809.
One Cambrai church that was destroyed during the revolution, but its belfry survived, is that of St Martin and it was the next stop on our tour. Due to the bankruptcy of the French state that brought about the revolution, the new National Assembly seized Catholic Church properties throughout France. However as the bell tower represented the local citizens’ civil rights, its roll in tolling the hours and serving as a watch tower continued after its attached church was sold in 1789. It’s a beautiful old tower and well deserves its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We headed back to the Main Square for one last stroll and to more closely inspect the lovely Hotel de Ville. I was reminded of the squares in Arras as we strolled past the lovely Flemish houses that had no doubt been part of the long restoration process after World War One. We collected our bikes and headed back to our Campervan Park in Boiry-Notre-Dame for our last night on French soil
The Impact of the French Revolution on Arras and Cambrai
Both the ancient and beautiful Cathedrals of Arras and Cambrai were pulled down and sold off for their component parts after the Revolutionary National Council declared them assets of the state in 1789. One of the main politicians in power during the early stages of the revolution was Joseph Le Bon (1765-95) who was educated in the Church but became Mayor of Arras and Administrator of the district of Pas de Calais. He became notorious for his pursuit of the nobility of his region and large numbers of wealthy citizens ended up victims of the guillotine. He assisted with the lighting of the ‘fires of destruction’ that saw the end of the Cathedrals and many citizens of his region, but being out of control, these same fires consumed him as well. Like his fellow citizen of Arras, Maximillian Robespierre, he ended up losing his head to the guillotine in 1795. The striking poster below offers a dramatic summary of his life, standing on the executed torsos of his victims between the guillotines of Arras and Cambrai.