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Gunfire in Notre Dame November 9, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

A wibt (wish I’d been there) moment in a snatch of about five minutes as Mrs B is still far away from home and Beachcombing has to undertake full babysitting duties for his two terrifying daughters.

26 August 1944, after four long years of Nazi occupation, Paris is liberated by Allied troops and marching into the capital comes General De Gaulle, the leader and hero of the Free French. De Gaulle being De Gaulle he ordered his column, after laying flowers at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to go straight to the church of Notre Dame, for if Paris is the centre of France then Notre Dame is the heart of the capital, a church that had also been a childhood haunt of the General. What should have been though the most sacred moment of that most sacred day risked becoming a bloodbath for as the general arrived gunfire broke out all around. This is a description from Helen Kirkpatrick who happened to be on the scene.

The general’s car arrived on the dot of 4.15. As they stepped from the car, we stood at salute and at that very moment a revolver shot rang out. It seemed to come from behind one of Notre Dame’s Gargoyles. Within a split second a machine gun opened up from behind the Hotel de Ville. It sprayed the pavement at my feet. The generals entered the church with people pressing from behind to find shelter. Follow the link for archive film of this moment.

De Gaulle and his attendants within the cathedral began to march down the central aisle, but now gun fire opened up in the church itself.

Suddenly an automatic opened up from behind us – it came from behind the pipes of Notre Dame’s organ. Other shots rang out and I saw a man ducking behind a pillar above. Beside me FFI [Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur] men and the police were shooting. For one flashing instant it seemed that a great massacre was about to take place as the cathedral reverberated with the sound of guns. There was a sudden blaze and a machine gun sprayed the center aisle, flecking the tiles and chipping the pillars to my left. Time seemed to have no meaning. Spontaneously, a crowd of widows and bereaved burst forth into the Te Deum as the generals stood bareheaded before the altar. (260)

HK didn’t focus on De Gaulle, but BBC correspondent Bob Reid, who gives us the most vivid record of the attack, couldn’t keep his eyes off the self pronounced man of destiny. What follows comes from Reid’s live broadcast, all given with his gentle, unflappable ‘Yorkshire’.

Immediately in front of me are lined up the men and women of the French Resistance Movement; they’re a variegated set of boys and girls – some of the men are dressed in dungarees, overalls, some look rather smart, the bank-clerk type, some are in very shabby suits but they’ve all got their red, white, and blue armlets with the blue Cross of Lorraine, and they’re all armed, they’ve got their rifles slung over their shoulders and their bandoliers strapped round their waist. And now here comes General de Gaulle. The general’s now turned to face the square, and this huge crowd of Parisians [machine gun fire]. He’s being presented to people [more machine gun fire]. He’s being received [shouts and shots]. He’s being received even while the general is marching [more fire]—even while the general is marching into the cathedral . [break in recording] Well, that was one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve ever seen. Just as General de Gaulle was about to enter the Cathedral of Notre Dame, firing started all over the place. I’m afraid we couldn’t get you the noise of that firing because I was overwhelmed by a rush of people who were trying to seek shelter, and my cable parted from my microphone. But I fell just near General de Gaulle and I managed to pick myself up. General de Gaulle was trying to control the crowds rushing into the cathedral. He walked straight ahead in what appeared to me to be a hail of fire from somewhere inside the cathedral – somewhere from the galleries up near the vaulted roof. But he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the central aisle, even while the bullets were pouring around him. It was the most extraordinary example of courage that I’ve ever seen. But what was to follow was horrible, because it happened inside Notre Dame Cathedral. While the congregation were trying to take shelter lying flat on the ground under the chairs and behind the pillars, the firing continued at intervals; the police, the military and the Resistance Movement – all these people, they came in and were trying to pick off the snipers. Some of the snipers had actually got on to the roof of the cathedral. There was an awful din going on the whole time. Just by me one man was hit in the neck, but I will say this for this Parisian crowd, there was no real panic inside the cathedral at all; they simply took reasonable precautions. Round every pillar you’d see people sheltering, women with little children cuddled in their arms. I saw one child being carried to safety in the arms of a young priest who sheltered the youngster to his breast and carried it to the shelter of one of the pillars. It was – as I say – it was a most extraordinary scene, as the snipers were spotted around the gallery by the police and by the soldiers, and there was a smell of cordite right throughout the cathedral. But Paris had come to celebrate the solemn Te Deum and it did; even while the firing was going on the people rose to their feet and stood there and sang the Te Deum with General de Gaulle at the head of them. And then, when it was all over, the general marched right down the aisle; heaven knows how they missed him, for they were firing the whole time; there were blinding flashes inside the cathedral, there were pieces of stone ricocheting around the place.

Napoleon has a nice phrase about ‘two o’clock in the morning courage’ or ‘instantaneous courage’. There are few better examples than De Gaulle continuing his slow walk towards the altar of Notre Dame in the midst of what Reid elsewhere called ‘a queer, crazy scene of modern war amid the medieval setting of a 13th-century church’, cordite and incense mixing in the air.

Yet De Gaulle, who never suffered from false modesty, is strangely reticent in his autobiography about what happened in the cathedral focusing, instead, on the music: ‘Le Magnificat s’élève. En fut il jamais chanté de plus ardent?’ [‘The Magnificat rose up, was it ever sung with such passion?’]!

As to the attack no one was apprehended and though the gunshots were routinely written off as snipers trying to kill De Gaulle there is room for doubt. The General himself wondered if it hadn’t been an attempt to sow panic and justify a continuing state of emergency in Paris. De Gaulle, however, was a sucker for conspiracy theories.

Beachcombing can’t help but wonder what would have happened if a bullet had found its way into the head of the leader of the Free French: the Cuban Missile Crisis, Britain’s late entrance to the EEC, Algeria, 1968… All had crucial input from De Gaulle.

Any other explanations for the attack or any alternative witness accounts gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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30 Nov 2011: KMH writes in, ‘The perception of great leaders being immune to the effects of gunfire in war (and possibly fully aware of it) isn’t limited to de Gaulle. I remember the same was evident  with Douglas MacArthur and George Patton in WWI who went on to participate in WWII. And perhaps the same applied to Montgomery, but I am hazy here. Throughout history the same notion has applied whether with bullets or bows and arrows. So you see there is a distinct difference between us, the commoners, and great military leaders.’ Thanks KMH!