Rouen in ruins

Rouen in ruins

To close

Title: Rouen and its ruins.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : August 1944

Date shown: August 1944

Dimensions: Height 17.7 - Width 12.6

Technique and other indications: photography, silver print

Storage location: Memorial of Caen, city of history for peace (Caen) website

Contact copyright: © The Caen Memorial

Picture reference: 29045 - MEMO_PHOT_00678

© The Caen Memorial

Publication date: September 2014

Historical context

Rouen under the bombs

Apart from a few German shelling in 1940, the city of Rouen was mainly the target of Allied air force. After April 19, a large-scale operation intended to hamper the German retreat and promote the advance of troops (which must be permitted by the D-Day landings) was carried out from May 30 to June 5. During this "red week", the agglomeration is heavily affected: apart from military targets (bridges over the Seine, port and marshalling yards), the architectural heritage (cathedral, churches, courthouses, etc.) and infrastructure are also seriously affected.

Finally, on August 25, the Allied air force massively bombarded the army of General von Kluge, who retreated after escaping the encirclement of Falaise. When the city was liberated on August 30, it was pretty much destroyed, as the photograph shows. Ruins of Rouen, presumably taken at this time. It is estimated that nearly three thousand Rouen civilians were killed during these Allied attacks.

Widely distributed, the images of the ruins of Rouen have a documentary value but also a political and symbolic significance, different according to the camp in which one places oneself (German, French, Allies).

Image Analysis

A gutted city

Taken in August 1944 as part of a photo essay, Ruins of Rouen shows the city from the bell tower of the cathedral (itself still standing, but badly damaged). The overview first gives the impression of a city disemboweled, since it is the central hollow that first strikes the viewer's gaze. Indeed, the gap left by the bombs seems rather underlined than contradicted by the buildings which remain standing, more numerous in the background. If we can indeed distinguish a city a little less affected further on, the contrast (between full and empty, between the dark of the buildings and the whiteness of the field of ruins) is only more marked.

Likewise, if we look at the details of the destroyed buildings visible in the center and in the left part of the photo, we see that they are as if emptied. The sections of walls or the now useless metal frames that remain thus give a skeletal and almost ghostly impression. On the ground, we guess a field of rubble where a few volumes still protrude, more threatening than reassuring.

Even if the height at which the photographer stands may explain this point, we are also marked by the absence of any human trace. No activity, no vehicle, no crowd comes to qualify this spectacle of desolation, desert and ruins.


The price of freedom?

The author of Ruins of Rouen is presumably a photographer linked to the Allied army, although he could also be a more independent French reporter authorized to occupy this point of view. Like the many images of the destroyed city, the photo first intends to bear witness to the violence of the fighting that marked Rouen between April and August 1944 and the destruction that resulted from it.

Beyond this documentary value, Ruins of Rouen also has an ambivalent symbolic significance which can be interpreted differently. For the Allies, photography can evoke the strike power of an army marching to victory. The destruction of the city does not therefore refer to civilian casualties or the loss of heritage, but to the annihilation of the routed Nazi army that had taken refuge there.

For the Nazis and collaborators, it can be used (like older images of cities bombed by the Allies) to show the populations, still under German control at that date, that the "liberators" are far worse criminals than the "Occupant" friend.

For the French, newly freed from the Nazi yoke, finally, it poses the difficult question of the price of freedom. The ruins of Rouen (like those of Havre or Caen) indeed all together evoke chaos and rebirth, destruction and reconstruction to come, misfortune and hope, death and joy.

  • War of 39-45
  • Liberation (war)
  • Occupation
  • Rouen
  • cathedral


AZÉMA Jean-Pierre, New history of contemporary France: from Munich to the Liberation (1938-1944), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points: Histoire" (no 114), 1979. PESSIOT Guy, History of Rouen (1939-1958): the 39-45 war and reconstruction in 900 photographs, Rouen, Éditions du P’tit-Normand, coll. “History of Rouen through photography” (no 3), 1983.VALLA Jean-Claude, France under the American bombs (1942-1945), Paris, Librairie nationale, coll. "The Free History Books" (no 7), 2001. WIEVIORKA Olivier, History of the Normandy landings: from the origins to the liberation of Paris (1941-1944), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "The Historical Universe", 2007.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Rouen in ruins"

Video: Zara Larson - Ruin My Life Clean - 1 Hour