Chemin des Dames

The 90th Anniversary at Craonne

It is 0515 hours and in the small village of Craonne at the eastern end edge of the Chemin des Dames people are starting to arrive from all over the region.

It is remarkably warm for mid April and most unlike the weather conditions of 16 April 1917 when wind, rain and sleet were the order of the day.

The Canadians and Her Majesty had enjoyed a warm day for the 90th Anniversary of Vimy and a week later the temperature was about to soar into the thirties.

Vimy was all about occupying the Germans whilst the French General Nivelle launched his surprise assault here on the Chemin des Dames.

Vimy was all about surprise and victory - here at Craonne, there was no surprise: the Germans had prior knowledge. There was no victory here that day either, only thousands of French casualties, cut down like rabbits in a field by the machine guns of the German defenders.

533 shells fell on the old village nearby - every minute - during the French bombardment. The land is so damaged in places it will never be reclaimed for farming use.

In the town square we were greeted by the Maire of Craonne: M Noël Genteur, who is a great enthusiast for all that happened here and talks with great passion about what the soldiers went through.

He is a great believer that there is little point in harbouring hate for what happened in his village - rather that people should see the better side of human behaviour. The courage and self sacrifice - humanity despite the most appalling conditions.

 

In the footpaths of soldiers

In the dark some 2000 people made their way out the road leading towards Pontavert where we gathered on the French front line.

It was difficult to follow every word that M Genteur said as the crowd was so large but the situation was such that you could easily sense the moment.

Throughout the night the 22 kilometre ridge had been lit by flashing beacons representing the bombardment. Suddenly the night went black and we were off along the backways to the east of the current village.

There was a thick mist and as dawn rose the countryside took on a menacing air.

In the old streets of Vieux Craonne we made a pause. We had covered in half an hour what would take the soldiers days.

Here the Maire of Allement: M Marc Henneveux, gave us a rendition of the famous song of Craonne. Farewell life, for at Craonne on the plateau we will leave our bodies. We are condemned we are the sacrificed.

In the stillness of the dawn standing amidst heaps of earth which used to be village houses his voice rang out across the hillside.

 

Gaining the plateau

Watching the crowd coming towards the ridge

Watching the crowd coming towards the ridge

From here we moved on to harder going. In real life three weeks have passed, it is now 5 May 1917. The 18th Regiment of Infantry from Pau in the Basque Region are going to the assault.

For our part we walk up behind Vieux Craonne and walk across the fields to the main road. There in front of us and appearing almost vertical is the plateau. Thankfully the Pompiers have been out and they have sent down a rope for us to clamber up. Some of us try without it not wishing to look foolish, but we soon realise that even in light clothing the rope is going to be needed.

We get to the top and are now on the plateau footpath, down below you can imagine that these people following on behind are French soldiers and indeed some of them are dressed as Poilus.

Another wears the uniform of a Russian soldier to remind us that not far from here the Russian Brigades were fighting in the cause of France despite the revolution taking place at home.

If you look closely in some of the local French Military cemeteries you will see numerous Russian graves.

A little further along and we are at the bunker taken by the 18th Regiment. From here we descend back down the slope, through Vieux Craonne and to the town square where hot coffee and croissants await us. It wasn't like that 90 years ago.

Craonne: 16 April 1917 Craonne: 16 April 1917
 

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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