A Texas Colonel and the French Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. Here is the reference in the Wikipedia article about the Cathedral of Chartres: “All the glass from the cathedral was removed in 1939 just before the Germans invaded France, and it was cleaned after the War and releaded before replacing. While the city suffered heavy damage by bombing in the course of World War II, the cathedral was spared by an American Army officer who challenged the order to destroy it.”

Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. (1901-1944)
Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. (1901-1944)

“Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. questioned the strategy of destroying the cathedral and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the German Army was occupying the cathedral and using it as an observation post. With a single enlisted soldier to assist, Griffith proceeded to the cathedral and confirmed that the Germans were not using it. After he returned from his reconnaissance, he reported that the cathedral was clear of enemy troops. The order to destroy the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies later liberated the area. Griffith was killed in action on 16 August 1944, in the town of Lèves, near Chartres.”

Griffith was the G-3 of XX Corps under the command of Major-General Walton Walker during the Campaign of France after the Normandy breakout. Initially assigned to protect the south flank of the Patton’s Third Army, XX Corps secured the bridgehead at Le Mans and liberated Angers on 10 August 1944. The corps fought a successful five-day battle for Chartres from 15 – 19 August, and seized a bridgehead over the Aunay River. Chartres was a logistics center for the German Army and an important transportation nexus for the US forces.

Robert Capa © International Center of Photography Chartres, August 23rd, 1944. During De Gaulle's speech, after the liberation of the city.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography
Chartres, August 23rd, 1944. During De Gaulle’s speech, after the liberation of the city.

By the end of August, the XX Corps had driven across six rivers-the Loire, Seine, Vesle, Marne, Aisne, and Meuse to the Moselle. Towns liberated by the armor and infantry of the Corps included Chartres, Mélun, Montrau, Fontainbleu, Chateau-Thierry, Epernay, Reims, and Verdun. This campaign where they raced across France prompted the Germans to name the XXth the “Ghost Corps.”

Griffith’s position as the G-3 made him responsible for the mobilization and deployment of units for combat and was a key staff position for the XX Corps. For Griffith to take the stance that he did to protect the cathedral – much less making a personal reconnaissance accompanied by a single rifleman – was an extraordinary decision.

In Memoriam Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. (1901-1944)
In Memoriam Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. (1901-1944)

Griffith was born on November 10 1901 in the small Texas town of Quanah, just south of the Oklahoma border. He graduated from West Point Military Academy, Class of 1925. He excelled at various sports, including four years as a tackle on the Army football team. He also participated boxing, wrestling, lacrosse and horsemanship.

Here is the citation from his Distinguished Service Cross:

Army_distinguished_service_cross_medalThe President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. (ASN: 0-16194), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Operations Officer (G-3) with Headquarters, XX Corps, in action against enemy forces on 16 August 1944 at Chartres and Lèves, France. On 16 August 1944, Colonel Griffith entered the city of Chartres, France, in order to check the actual locations and dispositions of units of the 7th Armored Division which was occupying the city. Upon observing fire being directed at the cathedral in the center of the city, with utter disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith, accompanied by an enlisted man, searched the cathedral and finding that there were no enemy troops within, signaled for cessation of fire. Continuing his inspection of outlying positions north of the city, he suddenly encountered about fifteen of the enemy. He fired several shots at them, then proceeded to the nearest outpost of our forces at which point a tank was located. Arming himself with an M-1 rifle and again with complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith climbed upon the tank directing it to the enemy forces he had located. During the advance of the tank he was exposed to intense enemy machine gun, rifle, and rocket-launcher fire and it was during this action, in the vicinity of Lèves, France, that he was killed.
General Orders: Headquarters, Third U.S. Army, General Orders No. 75 (October 21, 1944)

Action Date: August 16, 1944

Croix de guerre avec palmes
Croix de guerre avec palmes

It is interesting that the commendation says nothing about his saving the cathedral from certain damage, if not destruction, by American artillery fire. Colonel Griffith also received the Croix de Guerre avec Palm, the Legion of Honor, and the Legion of Merit from the French government.

The story of Colonel Griffith only became known in 1994 when a French amateur historian in Lèves, Bertrand Papillon, investigated the American colonel who died liberating his village and who saved the beloved Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. His researches uncovered the truth and he contacted the Griffith’s daughter with the full story. Every year, on August 16, flowers are placed in front of the building where he died. A plaque, honoring his heroic action, has also been erected on the building. Residents of Lèves saw him fall and die and within hours they had him covered with a blanket, bouquets of flowers and an American flag to await the American burial detail who buried him in a temporary grave.

As a final and sobering note on this history, in the spring of 1945 XX Corps liberated the German concentration camp at Buchenwald.

8 thoughts on “A Texas Colonel and the French Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Good for Griffith. At least one building was protected from the idiot morons who achieve command status like his superior, Walker. There are a lot of Walkers in this country, many of them military, some of them relatives on my mother’s side. I don’t think they start out stupid, just hopelessly ignorant not only of history and the laws protecting such monuments as Chartres, but the military mentality found in any country, “if you have any fear of something, destroy it and everything around it. If you do not understand something, kill it or destroy it.” It points out how the US military, having witnessed the destruction of national monuments in WW-I, and having seen the emergence before WW-II of the Geneva conventions to protect those monuments, the law is ignored by the “brass” and it takes a single brave young man to save a thousand year’s history.

    It also bears out, Dennis, how important your and PJ’s art of photography is to monuments of such human endeavor, beauty, and the fine results of skilled labor and personal devotion of ages past. Thanks. In all that you have done, it seems clear you not only capture the image but the original spirit. Not an easy thing to do.

    1. Darrell, we have written posts on the bombardment of Reims by the Germans in World War I, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the US bombardment of Monte Cassino in World War II. It made me sick at heart to think that the US command might have shelled Notre Dame de Chartres because they thought there were snipers in the towers. I understand the need to save lives, but this is the same rationale used by General von Heeringen, who had command of the army before Reims. He declared in December 1914, “German blood is worth more than all French monuments. When the moment comes to take Rheims, I will order the general bombardment of the town, and the responsibility of its destruction will fall on the French. We will not respect Rheims so long as the French remain there.”

  2. I’ve known about that colonel for a while–truly a badass. Every time I think of WWII in Europe, I picture the scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where the Texan sniper is holed up in the church tower, picking off Germans, until the tank blasts him to pieces. When I was younger, I cringed more because he was such a likeable guy; now I cringe thinking of how many beautiful monuments have been lost to history because they were put in the line of fire.

    1. Nathan, when I first saw “Saving Private Ryan” I had the same reaction that you did – “No, not the church!!!” But men under fire do what they must to survive and a monument is nothing more than a shelter. Harder to understand is the bombing of Monte Cassino because the military commanders believed the Germans were using it in defense. They were not, until it was a ruin, and then it became a defensive position.

  3. A man who didn’t let expediency and sloppy thinking rule.
    And how many times have I driven the road from Angers to Le Mans with its memorials of the liberation all along the roadside – and never knew more of that than the exploits of XXth Corps.

    1. He was quite a man, apparently. The French honored Griffith in death – they covered his body with a coat and strewed flowers on him, then they sat watch until the American forces came to collect his remains. Papillon, as a boy, was one of those who sat vigil. It is interesting to me that a Texas boy from a town with a population of 1,000 was admitted to West Point. That is a recommendation in itself.

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