Chemin des Dames

Craonne - Village Detruit

As you arrive from the Plateau de Californie, and before you reach Craonne, you will come across a small parking area on your left.

This is the former site of the village of Craonne - Vieux Craonne.

This is the eastern boundary of the Chemin des Dames and at the opening of Nivelle's offensive the old village was still in the hands of the Germans.

The new village had to be built a short distance away as the original ground had been completely obliterated.

The site of the Vieux Craonne is still heavily cratered but has been turned into an arboretum - an interesting and perhaps unique idea for an act of remembrance. There are 57 different types of tree within what is quite a small area.

Vieux Craonne

A walk through the wood and back to the parking area will take you about 20 minutes.

Panels showing maps and sometimes photos of the old village show where you would have been in the village.

From down here the ridge towers over you and you can well imagine the struggle the French soldiers had in trying to climb up the slopes.

For the 90th anniversary the public had the chance to try just that, during a dawn promenade following the route of the attacks at Craonne.

The 90th Anniversary The 90th Anniversary

As elsewhere along the ridge, there are information boards which describe the area, pose questions, and give something of the history of the actions. Thankfully the signs are repeated in English (and German) but you do have to refer to the pictures on the French board.

Vieux Craonne's cemetery

On the northern side of the road it is possible to walk along a grass footpath to the old village cemetery tucked away in the undergrowth on your right. Some of the graves have been well kept - others have fallen into disrepair.

Yves Gibeau

Within the cemetery is the tomb of the celebrated French writer Yves Gibeau.

Born nearby in Bouzy (Marne) in 1916 Gibeau found himself a prisoner of war in 1940. His time in uniform both as a student (his father was military) and soldier made him an ardent pacifist, and his most popular book: Allons, z'enfants, recounts his youth in an environment filled with stupidity and brutality. It was later turned into a film.

A keen cyclist Gibeau was also a noted creator of crosswords for l'Express.

There is a literary prize named in his honour with a jury of senior college students choosing a contemporary work available in paperback.

Gibeau had an enormous passion for the Chemin des Dames, the scene of so much slaughter, and would spend a lot of time here touring the ridge. When he died in 1994 his request to be allowed to be buried here was granted.

It was Gibeau who donated the stone memorial which marks the spot in the Bois des Buttes where the poet and surrealist Apollinaire was wounded in 1916.

Bois de Buttes Bois de Buttes
 

Climbing the hill

Coming back a little towards the main road a track leads rather forbiddingly up the side of the hill. This is a steep climb - ignore the cows!

In his stubbornness Nivelle had refused to give up on his assaults on the ridge and in May 1917 it fell to the 18th Regiment of Infantry to assault this hill. As you clamber up the side making good use of the steps that have been put there think of what it must have been like for the weighed down infantryman.

German Bunker on the Plateau

As you reach the top you are confronted by a German concrete machine gun post. Take a look inside and look down from the gun slits straight down the hillside you have just climbed. How the 18th captured this section of the ridge is beyond me, but on the front of the bunker is a plaque commemorating their memorable feat.

Plaque to the 18ième RI

The sad fact of the matter is though, that during the following year's Kaiserschlacht the Germans took back any gains made by the French in a matter of hours not days: such is the way that the land lies.

 

You are now in effect back on the Plateau de Californie. If you have not already taken the chance to come up this far from the previous stop then walk round to the panorama point (a few metres to your left) and look out over new Craonne. You can well understand why this positions was so important.

A walk round the plateau A walk round the plateau
Craonne: 16 April 1917 Craonne: 16 April 1917
The 90th Anniversary The 90th Anniversary

From Craonne take the minor road, near the church, towards Pontavart, turning left onto the D 925 in the direction of Berry-au-Bac. Almost immediately turn left again onto the D 89 and drive to the Ville aux Bois lès Pontavert where you will find a memorial to the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment who perished there almost to a man in 1918.

If time is short, simply continue towards Berry-au-Bac where you will find the French Tank Corps Memorial at the roundabout.

The 2nd Devon's The 2nd Devon's
Tank Memorial at Berry au Bac Tank Memorial at Berry au Bac