I’ve often heard about an American military man who risked his life to save the Chartres Cathedral from being bombed at the end of the second world war. Recently I met the man who served as his clerk.
Eugene G. Schulz, who was twenty one years old at the time, has written about what happened. The seven page section on Colonel Welborn Griffith at the end of The Ghost in General Patton’s Third Army, including a journal entry from a French priest who was in Chartres, is particularly enlightening.
Eugene’s description of what happened is also quite moving, “The order to destroy the cathedral was given because it was suspected that the Germans were using the twin towers [of the Chartres Cathedral] as observation posts.
When Colonel Griffith heard about this plan, he decided to challenge this strategy and he took it upon himself to investigate. After the staff meeting ended, Griffith told Joe and me that he was going into the city of Chartres on a personal mission without giving any details. …The colonel and his jeep driver left ouf G-3 office and drove into the city of Chartres. They arrived at the cathedral without incident and entered the building. During their reconnaissance of the nave and the adjoining chapels and rooms, no enemy soldiers were found. Griffith decided to climb the towers and found that no German soldiers were using them as observation posts. …he immediately reported this information to higher authorities and the order to shell, bomb, and destroy the Cathedral of Chartres was rescinded, and it was saved from destruction.” (Page 160-161)
My life would be very different if the Chartres Cathedral had been destroyed. Perhaps yours would have been too. As I learned about Welborn Griffith from Eugene, who is now 92, I was inspired.
The night after I spoke with Eugene, I pondered many things, including the meaning of heroism and the way in which one action can influence millions of others. Sometimes opportunities that we could never imagine present themselves. We don’t always have the time to think them through; we need to act. So many little choices form our ability to make wise and courageous major choices. Full of appreciation for a man I will never meet, I attended a ceremony of remembrance in his honor. Hours after saving Chartres Cathedral, Colonel Griffith was killed by a German sniper in Lèves, a town next to Chartres.
The American Friends of Chartres and the Mayor of Lèves (surrounded by other dignitaries and residents) laid wreaths in honor of Welborn Griffith in the Parc Colonel Griffith. Then, Eugene and his wife Eleanor placed flowers under the American and French flags that mark the spot where he died. Eugene’s salute was followed by the singing of The French National Anthem and then the Star Spangled Banner.
As we finished with “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” I understood more than I ever have about sacrifice, vision, courage, and doing what is right in front of me to do–for the good of those who follow. Thank you, Colonel Welborn Griffith for saving the Chartres Cathedral.
Thank you for lighting the way forward for each and all of us who benefit from what you did.