The Corner

A Colonel at Chartres

Yesterday’s Impromptus included some remarks on Chartres Cathedral. (That column — or whatever we should call it — was Part I of a “cruise journal”; for Part II, go here.) I have a letter from a reader, writing from Richmond, Va. It’s longish, but I thought you would enjoy:

. . . My wife’s maternal grandfather was a colonel in the U.S. Army in WWII. They were closing in on Chartres from the southwest, and they came under heavy artillery fire from the Germans in the town. An order was issued to shell the cathedral on the assumption that the Germans were using the tower to locate the Allied forces. My wife’s grandfather questioned the strategy of taking out the cathedral on a hunch and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the Germans really were occupying the cathedral. His offer was accepted, and he found himself climbing the cathedral tower alone, not knowing whether an enemy unit was a step or turn away. After finding the tower unoccupied, he rejoined his forces, reporting that the cathedral was clear. The order to shell the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies took the town. During the gunfight, my wife’s grandfather was killed. He is buried in St. James Cemetery in Brittany.

The locals somehow pieced together the story I have just recounted, and, for many years, they recognized his bravery in saving their cathedral with a plaque on a sidewalk in Lèves (on the outskirts of Chartres) where he was killed. The only problem was that they did not know how to read American dog tags. His name was Welborn Griffith (so one could forgive their not knowing which was a first name and which a last name), but they got the names reversed, and his plaque read “Griffith Welborn.” For nearly 50 years, the story about the cathedral was unknown to his family in the U.S. because of this mistake — and would have remained unknown had it not been for a historian in Lèves who maintains a small World War II museum there.

In the mid-1990s, this historian, Monsieur Papillon, realized the mistaken reversal of Colonel Griffith’s names and, upon correcting the mistake, located his only living descendant — my mother-in-law in Jacksonville, Fla. With the aid of a translator, he contacted her and told her the story of her father and Chartres Cathedral. Soon thereafter, a ceremony was held at the cathedral to honor the officer who had seen fit to question the order to bomb the cathedral, and my wife’s family was truly touched when they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” — right in the cathedral. The plaque has been corrected, and a park has been dedicated in his honor . . .

I get choked up just writing about this. 

There are awards and citations associated with this colonel of ours — Welborn Barton Griffith Jr., from Quanah, Texas: Go here.

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