Chemin des Dames

Touring the ridge

Unlike the Somme where the battlefield wound its way through numerous villages leaving a monument here and a monument there, the battle for the Chemin des Dames reached the ridge after such a murderous fight that it is along the one road that you will find the majority of the memorials.

This is an area of the First World War battlefield largely ignored by British visitors. We either stop at the Somme or continue on our way to Verdun - yet throughout this small area around Soissons there are British memorials and cemeteries.

We tend to concentrate so much on the Somme and Ieper that it is easy to forget that the British fought twice in this area.

During the Battle of the Aisne in 1914 the town of Vailly-sur-Aisne was more or less situated at the centre of the BEF's positions. By 1918 the British Army would be back in the region.

There are two military cemeteries in the town, side-by-side; British and French.

Captain Theodore Wright VC of the Royal Engineers is buried here. He was fatally injured whilst getting troops across the Aisne.

Also buried in the cemetery is Brigadier General Neil Findlay of the Royal Artillery, who died of wounds on 10 September 1914, becoming the first British General Officer to be killed in the war.

Vailly British Cemetery Vailly British Cemetery
 

Starting from Soissons

A minimal tour of the ridge can be carried out from either of the two opposing ends of the battlefield: Soissons or Reims (pronounced more like Rams than Reams).

However, starting from the pretty town of Soissons you can take the N2 towards Laon (pronounced like the Lon in long, rather than lay-on).

I would also point out that whilst the Caverne du Dragon has a small cafeteria there is nowhere else for a pit stop from one end to the other - take food and water with you, and make sure you have fuel - remembering that Sunday opening is rare and that 24/24 garages are usually for those of us with a French Carte Bleue.


The N2 is currently (2008) being renovated however things do appear to be well sign posted.

After a few kilometres you will reach the village of Laffaux still some distance short of the actual entrance to the Chemin des Dames. On your left and reached by a side road from the new carriageway is the Moulin de Laffaux.

 

Laffaux

The Monument to the French Trench Mortar Units

The Trench Mortar Monument

This entire area was not only devastated during the First World War (The village had to be moved slightly when it was rebuilt) but also during the Second.

Coming off the main road you come to a small roundabout and then a rather dingy lorry park and café at what used to be the Moulin de Laffaux.

The windmill was destroyed beyond trace during the battles.

Behind the café is the monument to the French Trench Mortar Troops. It is shaped like one of their winged mortar bombs and goes by the somewhat unfortunate name (To English ears) of the Crapouillots Monument.

The reason they were named after toads (Crapauds) was because of the way the bombs hopped from one trench to another, whilst the British found comfort in their Toffee Apple shaped bombs.

The monument commemorates the 12 000 gunners of the Trench Mortar Batteries who lost their lives on the Western Front.

Damaged in the battle of 1940 the original monument of 1933 has been rebuilt.

Sadly the monument was struck by lightning in June 2007 and was badly damaged

 

Individual Memorials

Along the roadside there are a number of small private memorials including one to the Stenographers (Morse signallers) and another to one of the Cuirassier Heavy Cavalry Regiments.

I have to say that it saddens me to see some of these memorials in such a dilapidated condition.


The 4th, 9th & 11th Cuirassiers

The 4th, 9th & 11th Cuirassiers

It had become fairly obvious by 1916 that cavalry were not serving much purpose on the Western Front. Two years earlier the Regiments of Cuirassiers who had been created by Napoleon in 1803 decided that it was time to part with their cuirasses.

In 1916 six regiments lost their horses as well and were placed on foot.

Following the initial failure of the Nivelle plan these three regiments were formed into a temporary division and given the task of taking the Moulin de Laffaux - the village windmill.

On the 5th May 1917 the three regiments distinguished themselves in their first action on foot.

Aided by tanks the troopers advanced into a storm of fire but managed to dislodge the Germans from this vantage point.

In many instances the tanks finally showed that they could clear obstacles and knock out machine gun nests - but only if properly supported by infantry.

 
Sergent Georges Damez

Sergent Georges Damez

On 19 August 1917 after fighting an aerial combat Sergent Georges Damez of SM106 Squadron was brought down in flames. The Sergent had twice received citations for the Croix de guerre.

Whilst the monument states that this happened - 400 metres from this place - the monument has in fact been moved from the area of the Vauxrains Farm about 3 kilometres further along the road.

Fusilier-mitrailleur Frédéric Taillefert

Fusilier-mitrailleur Frédéric Taillefert

A soldier of the 4th Regiment of Zouaves-Tirailleurs, Taillefert was cited for bravery by Maréchal Pétain.

On 23 October 1917 during the battle for Malmaison he showed enormous courage and his accurate and concentrated machine gun fire facilitated the advance of the assaulting waves.

He was killed near Chavignon during the assault at the age of 21.

 
Fusiliers Marins

Fusiliers Marins

A little further along the main road and now clearly visible (and cleaned) to your right is a monument erected to the Fusiliers Marins for their courage not just throughout the war but in particular for their battle at Laffaux on 14 September 1918.

On 15 October 1918 General Pétain awarded the Battalion its sixth citation of the war.

He remarked on their splendid spirit which had never ceased to show itself in their devotion to duty and country as well as their fighting prowess.

He mentions their feat of arms defending Diksmuide in 1914/15 and how they had fought in Flanders in 1917. Now in September 1918 they had fought at Laffaux against a well entrenched and armed adversary.

They had taken everything in a single bound - position, prisoners and material.

There is another monument erected in their honour in the Belgian town of Diksmuide to the west of Ieper.

Diksmuide Diksmuide

Continue along the main road for about 4 kilometres and take the D18CD - the Chemin des Dames.

La Malmaison La Malmaison