PICARDY - Aisne 1914-1918
From the area around Saint-Quentin to Château-Thierry, in Aisne there are many places of remembrance relating to the First World War. Starting with the first clashes in 1914, then the terrible offensive of Chemin des Dames in 1917 and finally the 1918 German offensive, tens of thousands of men from all walks of life lost their lives in Aisne in the hope of a better world. The many monuments, cemeteries, galleries, etc. show that this land has not forgotten its painful and tragic past, and the sharp emotions aroused by these places where so many men fell. Today Aisne pays homage to them.
Chemin des Dames
On 14 September 1914, thanks to the British, the front was established along a road called Chemin des Dames. It subsequently became the theatre for numerous offensives: General Nivelle's offensive in April 1917 and the German offensive of May 1918 were the most notable. Today Chemin des Dames is an open-air museum, marked out with monuments paying homage to the African infantrymen, the British troops, the Basque regiments, and also to the German troops. On California Plateau stands a bronze sculpture by Haïm Kern nearly four metres high, entitled "They did not choose their grave".
A stone's throw away lie the ruins of the village of Craonne, occupied in 1914, destroyed in 1917 by large-scale shelling and known for the famous song of Craonne, associated with the mutinies that took place following the terrible French offensive.
In the forest you can still see remains of the trenches, and a wooden observation tower gives visitors a view of the valleys of Aisne and the Ailette. It also clearly shows why this steeply sloping terrain was so important for troop movements.
A little further west, the Caverne du Dragon (Dragon's Cave), Chemin des Dames Museum, is an old limestone quarry lying 14 metres underground, converted into a underground barracks during the conflict. This site is not to be missed, as it gives a poignant presentation of how soldiers lived.
A few kilometres away, the rebuilt village of Cerny-en-Laonnois today is the location of French and German military cemetry, a chapel of remembrance, and a British monument paying homage to the "Lancashire lads".
Beyond Chemin des Dames, the whole of the Soissonnais plateau was a place where appalling battles and terrible injustices took place, as commemorated by the monument to the 6 Vingré soldiers shot by firing squad in homage to these soldiers executed on 4 December 1914, and whose names were cleared in 1921.
From September 1914 onwards, the German army occupied the towns north of the front, resulting in a mass exodus of the civilian population. The towns of Saint-Quentin, Laon and Coucy-Le-Château were used as staff headquarters and railway platforms to replace equipment. The shop fronts were given German names. The Fort of Condé was requisitioned for use as a military hospital.
In 1915, in complete secrecy, the German army installed the long-range Coucy cannon capable of reaching targets 25 or 30 km away, which were Compiègne, Villers-Cotterêts and Oulchy-le-Château, the 3 towns supplying the French front.
In 1916, after the First Battle of the Somme, the Germans prepared to fall back to a fortified line built behind the front. The 138 km Hindenburg line of defence started at its northern apex at Vimy, passed south-west of Cambrai via St-Quentin, through the region of the Saint-Gobain forest and ended near Vailly-sur-Aisne. In March 1917, the German armed forces fell back to the Hindenburg line, having first destroyed entire towns and villages, including the medieval keep at Coucy-le-Château.
Homage to the allied troops
In Spring 1918, the US troops arrived as reinforcements around Château Thierry, as shown by the impressive monument of Côte 204, the Belleau Remembrance Museum, the Belleau wood museum and its American cemetry. This place bears the marks of terrible fighting (remains of trenches and shell craters). The cemetery of Oise-Aisne de Seringes-et-Nesle, near Fère-en-Tardenois, is built on the land where the American 42nd division, known as the "Rainbow Division", fought. Among the 6,012 graves is that of the poet Joyce Kilmer.
In the village of Coulanges-Cohan stands a monumental fountain given by the Roosevelt family, to thank the residents for placing flowers on the grave of Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, killed on 14 July 1918.
The Second Battle of the Marne began on 15 July 1918, starting from the forest of Villers-Cotterêts. It became vital to take control of the ridge that overlooks the northern bank of the river Ourcq. The pink granite monument at Butte Chalmont, the Ghosts of Landowski, pays homage to the thousands of allied soldiers (Italian, British, American and French), who participated in the assault on 18 July 1918, to dislodge the German forces.
After a series of offensives and counter-offensives in March 1918, it was not until September 1918 that the allies began the assault on the Hindenburg Line. The Australian and British troops were in the front line and launched the assault. The final attack was launched on 29 September 1918 with the support of American units.
At the "Somme-Aisne" American cemetery at Bony lie 1,844 soldiers, some of whom were killed in the fighting of September-October 1918 to cross the Hindenburg line. A monument to the memory of the Australian 4th division is erected on the rise north-west of the town of Bellenglise, the place where they fought their last battle.
A few hours after the final attack, the American, Australian and British troops had taken over the Riqueval tunnel, heavily fortified by the Germans. They victoriously crossed Saint-Quentin canal on Riqueval bridge, the only bridge remaining intact, to continue their offensive in the direction of Montbrehain.
The armistice and reconstruction
On 7 November 1918 at 8.20 pm, 4 cars carrying the German ministers tasked with negotiating an armistice arrived in the town of La Flamengrie, near La Capelle. The cease-fire was sounded, marking the beginning of the negotiations and the end of hostilities. A stone monument called Pierre d’Haudroy, was erected on this spot in memory of this event.
The armistice was finally signed at Compiègne on 11 November 1918.
After the Armistice, France brought together many bodies in the German cemetery of Saint-Quentin. Today, 8,229 bodies lie in this cemetery, financed and inaugurated by the Emperor Wilhelm II in 1915.
Once the fighting was over, Aisne was able to count on the work carried out by Anne Morgan and the American ladies of the American Committee for Devastated France (ACDF), based at the château of Blérancourt, who continued to assist the civilian population, distributing food, setting up schools, hospitals and libraries and looking after refugees.
Aisne had become an international area due to the war, and now called on the services of a workforce from many countries to begin the slow process of rebuilding. Workers from Indochina, Italy, Spain and Poland worked to clear the fields of shells, and raise up the ruins of this "flattened country" as it was described by the writer Roland Dorgelès.