Orchard Dump
Webmatters : Visiting the Chemin des Dames: Cerny-en-Laonnois, April/May 1917
Rough Map of Area

Chemin des Dames 1917

The French try for Cerny in 1917

The troops facing the German defenders at the Sucrerie (French for Sugar Mill) and towards the west of Cerny on 16th April 1917 were those of the French XX Corps, whilst to the east, including the village, was the 2nd Colonial Corps.

The XX Corps was considered an élite unit made up of experienced regiments.

The troops were informed that because their success was going to be so outstanding there was every chance that the logistic services would not be able to keep up with them.

Thus, they would carry six days rations in addition to enough bullets and grenades.

As seemed to be the case everywhere on the opening morning of the offensive, the first lines of Germans fell quite quickly but then these were only the outposts.

The French knew something was wrong the moment the first machine guns opened up on them. They weren’t supposed to be any machine guns left — the enemy was supposed to have been crushed in his trenches by the bombardment.

On the right of the Corps the 153rd Division were quickly across the Hamburg Trench and up against the infamous Sucrerie at Cerny which had held out against the British in 1914.

But from there it was impossible for them to continue.

On their left the 39e Division d’Infanterie were held up on the spur they were climbing and once again Général Mangin’s strict timetable of one hundred metres every three minutes was quite impossible to maintain.

As the artillery pulled away from them, the German gunners had ample time to emerge from their deep bunkers set up their guns and wait on the French.

Throughout the rest of the day the Germans tried to dislodge the French from their toe hold near the Sucrerie but were repulsed each time.

The French, far from advancing for six days, had hardly conquered 500 metres.

Another bitterly cold night passed and in the morning the Corps reached the plateau but the battle had run its course.

Decimal49.442963.66764 Map
Memorial to the 38e DI
Memorial to the 38e DI

On 4th May as Nivelle re-opened his battle, the 93e Régiment d’Infanterie (from the XI Corps who had replaced the Colonials) stormed into the village of Cerny.

A hand to hand, grenade against grenade battle resounded throughout the ruins for the best part of the day until the evening when the 93e RI, by now isolated and down to their remaining reserves were ejected from the village.

That day French observers likened the arrival of German reserves as a swarm of ants.

The road called the Chemin des Dames no longer existed in any identifiable form but it was tantalisingly close for the French. The idea though of crossing it and plunging down into the Valley of the Ailette beyond remained nothing more than dreams in Nivelle’s and Mangin’s heads.

The battle had become exactly what Nivelle had assured it wouldn’t become : one of limited attacks for limited gains. His promise to call it off after 48 hours had long since been broken.

Mangin was sacked and so was Nivelle.

Their replacement Général Philippe Pétain went for a carefully prepared assault on Malmaison to the west and his successes there acted as the lever which finally opened up Cerny.

In front of the Memorial Chapel is a plaque commemorating the deeds of the 38e DI who not only fought here in 1914 but also helped sustain the 2nd Colonial’s foothold on 16th April. They then followed on to take part in the taking of Malmaison on 23rd October 1917.

In the immediate area.

Continuing along the Chemin des Dames towards the Caverne du Dragon you will see a small monument on your left.