Chemin des Dames

The Plateau de Californie

As you approach Craonne you will come to a car park at the Plateau de Californie. This area offers splendid views over the base of the ridge though whilst taking in the magnificent view it is probably worthwhile taking into account the fact that the Germans were higher up behind you and had an even better view of the advancing French.

Shortly before the war Henry Vasnier a member of the Champagne House Pommery owned a large farm and complex on top of Mont Craonne. Apart from the usual buildings there was woodland and even a small zoo on site. He also brought in tropical plants from the USA and the place soon became known locally as California Garden.

It was because of this that before the war it was a favourite place to come for a walk.

After the war there was almost a collective effort to forget it.

This entire area was, like Verdun, declared a Zone Rouge, a red zone. This meant that it was unlikely to ever regain its ability to be cultivated. There was so much metal in the soil that it was ruined.

The difference between the two areas though becomes one of memory. Verdun was remembered for being a stolid defence and a victory. Craonne and the Plateau de Californie above it became remembered for failure and mutiny.

If you walk the area today you are as likely to see bunkers and the vestiges of trenches as anything else.

The Germans called this vantage point the Winterberg - Winter Mountain. From here you can see as far as Champagne country, on a good day the Marne and Ardennes as well.

The slopes are incredibly steep and as elsewhere along the route riddled with wee quarries here and there. The heights of Craonne were turned into a fortress from which everything could be observed. Reims which was just about remaining in French hands is but 30 kilometres away and its cathedral was easily visible to Germans from Craonne.

 
Looking out towards Craonne from the Plateau de Californie

Looking out towards Craonne from the Plateau de Californie

 
They didn't chose their grave

There are a number of information panels and an orientation table at this viewpoint.

Behind it is an unusual monument by Haim Kern, representing heads caught on a wire entanglement. It is dedicated to all the unknown soldiers who fell during the war.

The sculpture is made of bronze and almost 4 metres high. It was made at the request of the French government and is entitled: They didn't chose their grave

It represents the ordinary faces of soldiers caught up in a web of death from which they can find no escape.

It was inaugurated on 5 November 1998 by the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as part of the celebrations of the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice.

It was on this occasion that M Jospin proposed that it was time to bring all those French soldiers who had been shot for mutiny back into the collective consciousness. A remark which bitterly divided public opinion.

Certains de ces soldats, épuisés par les attaques, condamnés à l'avance, glissant dans une boue trempée de sang, plongés dans un désespoir sans fond refusèrent d'être sacrifiés.

Some of these soldiers, exhausted by attacks, condemned in advance, slipping in blood soaked mud, and at the depths of despair refused to be sacrificed.


There is a trail which leads up over the top of the crest to a German machine gun emplacement. You can either approach it from here, which is easier, or from Old Craonne, which is more dramatic.

A walk round the plateau A walk round the plateau
Old Craonne Old Craonne