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Plateau of the Chemin des Dames


In France, the Chemin des Dames, literally, the "Ladies' path", is part of the D18 and runs east and west in the département of Aisnemarker, between in the west, the road N2, (Laonmarker to Soissonsmarker) and in the east, the D1044 at Corbenymarker. It is some thirty kilometres long and runs along a ridge between the valleys of the rivers Aisnemarker and Ailettemarker. It acquired the name in the 18th century, as it was the route taken by the two daughters of Louis XV, Adélaïde and Victoire, who were known as Ladies of France. At the time it was scarcely a carriage road but it was the most direct route between Parismarker and the Château de Boves, near Vauclairmarker, on the far side of the Ailette. The château belonged to Françoise de Châlus, former mistress of Louis XV, Countess of Narbonne-Lara and former lady of honour to Adélaïde, whom the two ladies visited frequently. To make the way easier, the count had the road surfaced and it gained its new name.

The ridge's strategic importance first became evident in 1814 when Napoleon's young recruits beat an army of Prussians and Russians at the Battle of Craonne.

World War I



Three battles were fought in along the Chemin des Dames east-to-west ridge located to the north of Paris during the First World War. All are named after the river which flows on the south side of the ridge. Their names are as follows:

During World War I, the Chemin Des Dames lay in that sector of the Western Front held by the French Army. Its strategic importance made it the staging ground of several major battles that took place between 1914 and 1918. The German army took a defensive stand on the ridge in September 1914, stopping the advancing Allied armies after the Battle of the Marne. After intensive fights, Germans took control of the plateau in November 1914.

The front line then remained static until March 1917, during which time, several thousand soldiers died in local attacks or coup de main operations. On 25 January 1915 German forces won the attack of the Creute farm (today « La Caverne du Dragon » : the Dragon's Lair), capturing what remained of the French positions on the plateau.

The best known battle, called the Second Battle of the Aisne, took place between 16 April and 25 April 1917. To soften up the German defenses General Robert Nivelle, an artillery man by training and experience, inflicted a 6-day artillery preparation involving 5,300 guns. This, of course, provided ample warning that a major French attack was coming.Then, on 16 April, seven French army corps attacked the German line along the Chemin des Dames ridge, an east-to-west 10 miles long, almost wall-like natural barrier . The German defenders had created a network of deep shelters in old underground stone quarries, below the top of Chemin des Dames plateau . Nivelle had underestimated the possibility that most of the German troops would take cover underground during the French artillery preparation. The German defenders also dominated the southerly slope over which the French attackers were progressing. On the first day French infantry and some colonial Senegalese troops progressed to the top of the ridge in spite of intense German artillery fire and poor weather conditions. However, as French infantry reached the plateau it was slowed down and then stopped by the intense fire of a very high number of the new MG08/15 machine guns. As a result, 40,000 French casualties were inflicted on the first day alone. Furthermore, during the following 12 days of the battle, French losses continued to rise to 120,000 casualties (dead, wounded and missing). The final count, when the offensive was over, was 271,000 French casualties and 163,000 Germans casualties. The German defenders suffered much less, but lost some 20,000 prisoners, 40 cannons and 200 machine guns. The French high casualty count, in so few days and with such minimal gains, was perceived at headquarters and by the French public as a disaster. Furthermore, the agonizingly slow evacuation of the French wounded also demonstrated a lack of logistic preparations. Nivelle had to resign and the French Army became plagued by many refusals to march amounting to mutinies in several infantry divisions.

This situation developed into a threat of complete disintegration. General Pétain, who had been against this offensive, was called in to take over from Nivelle and to re-established order. This he did without harsh collective punishments. A total of 629 men were sentenced to death but only 28 men, who had fired weapons at their superiors, were executed. Conversely he turned to positive changes such as longer home leaves and better food and medical/surgical assistance for the troops. Eventually normalcy came back in the fall of 1917. Lastly, the British army took over the defenses at the western end of the ridge during the following twelve months, thus bringing relief.

During the Summer of 1917, the Battle of the Observatories was a series of local attacks and counter-attacks to gain control of high positions commanding the views between Craonne and Laffaux. In October, after the allied victory of the Malmaison battle, the German forces left the Chemin des Dames and moved to the north of the Ailette river valley.

A German offensive began on 27 May 1918. British Forces participated in the Third Battle of the Aisne on 27 May to 6 June 1918. During the Second Battle of the Marne, the last fight on the Chemin des Dames occurred between 2 August and 10 October 1918.

Today

German and French cemetery at Cerny
There are numerous war memorials and cemeteries, German, French and British, all along the chemin.

Beneath the ridge is an almost one-square-kilometre cave network called "The Dragon's Lair" (« La Caverne du Dragon »). The subterranean caverns originally were a tunnel system created from excavations of limestone for building purposes in the 17th century. The caves are some 20-40 metres below the surface. During World War I, the caves were used by both French and German forces as field hospitals and command posts, sometimes simultaneously. The artillery bombardment of the area actually cracked some of the overlaying cliffs, which can be seen today. A noteworthy visitors' centre that offers guided tours is now located at the site.

External links



References

  • Pedroncini, Guy 1983, "Les Mutineries de 1917", Presses Universitaires de France, Paris. ISBN 2 13 038092 1
  • Rouquerol, J., 1934, "Le Chemin des Dames 1917", Editions Payot, Paris 1937.



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