We Salute Amiens

Posted on January 12, 2014 by

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      Despite everything it’s had thrown at it, Amiens has survived. As has its magnificent cathedral which, unusually, was not vandalised during The French Revolution.

      The next test came in 1870 when Amiens was invaded and occupied by Prussia. It was occupied again by Germany during WWI. In WWII it was occupied by both the Allies and Germans.

      In 1914 Amiens was the Advance Base for the British Expeditionary Force. Captured by the Germans in August, it was retaken by the French in September. The proximity of Amiens to the Western Front and its importance as an important rail hub, made it a vital British logistic centre during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 until Amiens was bombarded by German artillery and aircraft. More than two thousand buildings were destroyed. On 8 August 1918, the Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive, which led directly to the Armistice with Germany that ended WWI.

      Amiens troubles were not over. In WWII Amiens was defended by a British Territorial Army 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment until it was captured by the Germans in May 1940 following two days of heavy air raids. In February 1944, British aircraft bombed the prison in Amiens to free members of the French Resistance in Operation Jericho.

      Prior to the Normandy landings, when Allied aircraft concentrated on disabling communications in occupied France, the important railway junction south of Amiens was attacked by RAF bombers on the night of the 12 June causing yet more damage. It was not until Amiens was liberated on 31 August 1944 that the rebuilding of this battered and beleaguered city could begin.

      Somehow, the magnificent cathedral which was built in the 1200s overlooking the Somme survived. Although it had lost much of its original stained glass during bombing raids, the wonderful Gothic sculptures, twenty two life size kings, which stretch across the façade are still there. In the 1990s, during laser cleaning, it was discovered that the façade was originally painted in bright colours so a technique was perfected to determine their exact make-up. During Son et Lumière, clever, sophisticated lighting projects the colours on to the statues bringing them to ‘life’. Awesome. Like Chartres and unlike Rouen, the facade has not been desecrated by huge, ugly boxes.

      A cathedral reliquary, said to contain the head of John the Baptist, still pulls in the tourists. The mummified face is protected by a large polished crystal. Another Must See is the delightful Weeping Angel on a tomb behind the high altar. Sculpted in the 1620s, the podgy very well fed cherub has his hand on an hour-glass to symbolize the brevity of life. His elbow rests on a skull symbolizing death. Known as The Weeping Angel of Amiens – Amiens has reason enough to weep – a postcard of it was sold as a souvenir to soldiers serving on the Somme during WWI.

      Jules Verne, hero to sci-fi fans, spent the last thirty four years of his life in Amiens. In May 1856, Verne was in Amiens to be best man at the wedding of a friend. He stayed with the bride’s family and found himself attracted to the bride’s sister, a widow of twenty-six with two young children. The couple married in 1857. Verne was elected to the city council which he served for fifteen years. He is buried in Amiens where he died in 1905.

      Journey to the Centre of the Earth was published in 1864, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1869 and Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. 

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