War was declared in 1914. People were forced underground and the Champagne cellars became a refuge for the local communities. Some of the cellars, including those occupied today by the Maison Taittinger, served a special purpose, such as housing schoolrooms.
In September 1914, the German troops retreated under the French counter-offensive. The first battle of the Marne was raging and Reims found itself on the front line for a long time. For four long years, the capital of Champagne was a besieged city, with bombing attacks that resulted in the burning of the cathedral on 19 September. The whole city was under fire from cannons and, just before withdrawing further north, the German High Command advised the population to leave the city. Those who could not leave, who did not have the means, had no alternative but to go to ground. In the cellars of their houses, but also in the deeper and more protective chalk pits of the Hill of Saint-Nicaise. The former quarries and cellars of Champagne, became the final refuge for families from Reims, some of whom were to spend the four years of the war there.
A school in the cellars
Those who went to these cellars tried to pursue a normal life, working and spending time with family. Bottle racks were set up to mark out spaces, and canvases were stretched to provide a little privacy for each family. Some cellars were used as hospitals. Those currently occupied by the Maison Taittinger were to have a different destiny. A school was set up, named after a renowned general, Augustin Dubail, commander of the First Army of Lorraine. At breaktime, the children were allowed to go up for some fresh air, but only to the ground floor of the building above ground. Out of sight and, thus, safe. “We know that 250 people lived together in this cellar,” Jérôme Buttet discloses, a teacher and specialist in the history of Reims and its cellars during the Great War. “They had to be outside as little as possible, because they could be targeted,” he explains. The military authorities, both French and German, took a very dim view of these civilians living in the ruins of a city that was really no more than a battlefield. Each of the civilians was suspected as a potential spy. There was also the fear of disease – meningitis, typhus, cholera – for which these malnourished and homeless people could all become carriers. At the risk of passing them on to the troops. “From then on, the military forces strived to gradually drive people out and took over the cellars for themselves. Entire companies moved in. The cellars were thoroughly disinfected to be rid of any disease beforehand.”
Private graffiti on the chalk walls of the Taittinger cellars
Many testimonies remain from this period, inscribed in stone. We come across all kinds of graffiti, the work of civilians or soldiers who wanted to record, there in the Champagne chalk, a name a souvenir of their brief passage or stay of several months. There are signs of local residents, who you suppose are regulars of the cellars or the neighbourhood, like the ones who sign with their nickname, “Tutur”, or “Toto de la Butte”. There is also signs of Juliette Boeuf, widow of Faillon, who wrote her surname in very large letters, like a rallying cry, a desire perhaps to mark out a space of her own. We can also see, here and there, portraits of women – mothers or lovers – left behind when the men went to the front, and whose memory provided some comfort. Some graffiti also has a patriotic ring, such as this RF – for the French Republic – surrounded by a heart and including a four-leaf clover as a tribute to the Motherland and a better future in the months to come. “The cellars were inhabited throughout those four years,” says Jérôme Buttet. And people continued to produce champagne there, storing bottles and making wine whenever possible.” The activity had been established there several centuries before, contributing to the reputation of the Champagne wines from the Saint-Nicaise Abbey.
Amidst these stirring remains of the Great War, Jérôme Buttet prefers another souvenir, one that predates the war by only two years. “This graffiti was written by an Italian fighter pilot, Francesco Baracca, who explains, in bad French, that he came to pay tribute to France. In fact, he passed his pilot’s licence at the Bétheny flying school and wanted to say that he had come to seek honour and glory in France. He is little known in France, and in 1912 he was still completely unknown. But Baracca was a huge celebrity in Italy. He was a bit like the French national hero, the fighter pilot Guynemer.” He was killed in action in 1918, over Treviso, but left his emblem, which was painted on the fuselage of his plane, to history. Enzo Ferrari took up he emblem’s prancing horse in his honour and made it the symbol of the brand he created in 1947. So, we have come full circle in history, both great and small.