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Webmatters : Visiting the Chemin des Dames: 2e Corps colonial
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Chemin des Dames 1917

The 2nd Colonial Corps

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The area of the Chemin des Dames between Cerny and the Ferme d’Hurtebise was the sector attacked on 16th April 1917 by the 2e Corps Colonial (CC) of Général Mangin’s Sixth Army.

The Ferme d’Hurtebise was a known strong point and it was strange that Nivelle decided that it would be there in the centre of his battle plan that he would place the dividing line between the Sixth and the Fifth Armies.

The 2e CC had been instructed to advance at 0545 hours and take the Farm, they would then take the plateau in front of them, the Vauclerc Wood, the valley of the Ailette, the valley of the Bièvres beyond that and then the hill in front of them so that they would at that stage be able to see the town of Laon right in front of them.

In theory, it would now be lunch time ! They had been given just seven hours of fighting to advance kilometres of terrain and two valleys.

Mangin had insisted that the troops would advance 100 metres every three minutes which was a minute faster than Haig was using at Arras where the British were attacking on nearly flat ground.

The Senegalese soldiers were already suffering from the cold and they went forward with great spirit and the first German positions were taken with ease, gaining many prisoners When they reached the plateau at 0700 hours the world changed.

There were German machine gun posts everywhere, even behind them. What the planners do not appear to have taken into account was the depth of the creutes (called boves in Arras), the underground chalk quarries that riddled the ridge.

From the ridge looking down on French Soldiers

From the ridge looking down on French Soldiers

Three of the four colonels were killed and as the second and third waves of troops advanced in accordance with Mangin’s strict timetable they ran into the first, sent to ground by machine gun fire from all directions.

As the soldiers massed in the front line they simply became an easier target for the German gunners.

The attack stalled and once again French soldiers watched their artillery shield disappear into the distance, protecting phantom soldiers on their way to Laon.

The 15e Division d’Infanterie Coloniale on the left were charged with taking Cerny but like the 10e DIC on their right they could only get as far as the road and a little beyond. Cerny was proving impregnable.

In attacking Cerny the Division lost 280 officers and several thousand men killed and wounded.

When a request was put through to Mangin to have the artillery brought back, he was upset. This showed that the soldiers were lacking in offensive spirit, tell them to catch up. The French Artillery had done its part, he said, in ensuring that German defences had been crushed. All the men had to do was advance through the gaps between the few remaining points of resistance.

One battalion of Senegalese did just that and were wiped out as soon as they had been isolated near the village of Ailles.

The officers in charge of the soldiers were fortunately still inhabiting planet earth ; the major proportion of black battalions were so demoralised by the cold and wet that they were likely to panic at the least counter attack.

Trying to climb, in full kit, a hill that had been turned into a glutinous mud bath by artillery shells — in the dark — was always going to have been difficult, but the soldiers had succeeded. Trying to keep up with the covering artillery had proved impossible.

There would be no rupture in the German positions at this point despite the severe loss of life.

Louis Astoul

Louis Astoul

As you drive down the road you will see a memorial to one of those who fought here that day.

To the memory of our beloved son 2nd Lieutenant Louis Astoul of the 70e Sénégalais who fell on the field of honour at the age of 24 during the assault on 16th April 1917

He had been reported missing near the village of Paissy before even reaching the ridge.

Decimal49.44073673.695105 Map

1er Régiment d'Artillerie de Marine

1er RAMa

The Regiment which provides the Guard of Honour at Cerny is The 1er Régiment d’Artillerie de Marine : The 1st Marine Artillery Regiment

The Marines had been created to guard France’s colonial interests in 1622 by Cardinal Richelieu.

As overseas troops, they would fight in the African Army (The XIX Corps during the war).

Known as the 1st Colonial Artillery Regiment the Bigors as their gunners were called fought with intense bravery winning their 9th Battle Honour at the Somme in 1916.

They fought at Laffaux in April 1917 and in front of Hurtebise from July through to the end of 1917. For their prowess throughout the battle they won the Croix de Guerre.

The receipt of citations at various levels, gained a regiment points towards collective medals. Once the medal had been won, the soldiers were allowed to wear a coloured fourragère : lanyard.

The soldier here wears the green/red of the Croix de Guerre of 1914-18. She also wears a green one laced with a thin black line for the Croix de l’ordre de la libération.

Although disbanded in 1940 following the armistice, the soldiers rallied to de Gaulle in 1941 and fought in Africa gaining an 11th Battle Honour at El-Alamein in 1942.

To understand the creutes of the region you need to visit the Caverne du Dragon.