James G. Clark investigates the destruction of western Europe's medieval heritage during the First World War, as churches and cathedrals became targets, and how it made people think anew about their nations's pasts.
Through to 2018 we will see a succession of sombre centenaries marking the many major and minor tragedies of the First World War. Among the most poignant datelines are those recalling a litany of medieval landmarks that fell along the frontline almost from the opening hours of the war: at first, simply shattered by the German army's rapid advance and then steadily eroded by mutually destructive attrition. Treasured symbols of its commercial and cultural power in the later Middle Ages, Belgium's heritage churches bore the full ferocity of the first salvoes. Liège's late Gothic cathedral of St Paul came under enemy bombardment on the second, sweltering day of the war and, following the fall of the medieval walled city of Namur on August 23rd, 1914, the German Third Army took Dinant on the same day. There they toppled the distinctive Reformation-era pyriform dome of its collegiate church, an act of destruction that was eclipsed by the massacre of 600 townspeople. No doubt in the next four years most of the major milestones in the conflict will be marked, but, perhaps increasingly, we will also remember and reflect on those experiences – mechanisation, civilian bombardment – which, after the passage of a century, we can see more clearly represent moments of great cultural transformation.
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