Ch 12: The Chemin Des Dames

On the eve of their great spring offensive, the German retreat and its orgy of devastation magnetised the French with mixed feelings of hope and resentment. "France is bled white!" shrieked von Reventlow, the "frightful", after Verdun. The response was a concentration of national energy during the winter to sustain a blow decisive in aim and so great that an entire volume would do scant justice to its ramifications. Yet the offensive was comprehensively simple in its execution, and in general terms it can be described in a few pages.
   Electrified by her Verdun victories, France demanded an aggressive effort. There was a feeling that the day for Joffre's policy of nibbling had passed. There was no deep bitterness in the political crisis which arose. But Joffre retired, Foch went to study conditions on the Swiss frontier, De Castelnau went to Russia, and Nivelle, who had retrieved Verdun, was appointed to command the armies. A new supply of guns, and a vast stock of shells manufactured by the women of the Republic, had made the artillery powerful, and early in April the picked corps of the French Grand Army were concentrated on the selected sectors between Soissons and Souain.
   At 8:30 on April 16th, the first assault was delivered along the Aisne plateau, between Soissons and Rheims, against the front traversed by the ancient road of chivalry, the Chemin des Dames, where von Kluck made his great stand, and along its curve over the heights northwest of Rheims where von Buelow's left had rallied. A special force operated against the hills above Rheims, notably Brimont, where guns shook the world by their insensate shelling of the Cathedral. Backed perfectly by the artillery, the troops stormed successive German lines, breaking in and rolling them up in sequence.
   When the first Aisne lines were down and the Crown Prince had hurried over his guns and reserves, flinging in sixteen divisions, an unexpected assault was delivered on the Rheims heights. The objectives in this wide battle were the capture of Laon and its railroads, and the release of Rheims from the destructive curve clamped above the city. Conditions in the districts involved have been fully described in earlier chapters.
   Miles of track had been built by the French during the winter, so that men and supplies could be railed rapidly to necessary points. A feature of the attack was the support rendered by the field batteries which followed the infantry closely, protecting each sector with local creeping barrage, and meeting each emergency as it arose. German counter attacks were broken up; points developing special resistance were subdued by a rain of shells, and for three days French progress was hardly halted.
   On the first day of uphill battle the front lines along the Aisne were crushed from Missy to the Craonne plateau, where a footing was gained on the height and a wedge driven into the second line toward Juvencourt. The Ville aux Bois was surrounded and an entire regiment captured. East of Soissons also a huge gain was made on the flank of the positions gained by von Kluck during the Aisne flood, where a huge salient dominated by Fort Conde reached across the river and enabled the enemy to launch assaults on the south bank and menace the rear of the Aisne line.
   All German counter attacks were repulsed, and at daylight the French again swept forward, extending the right of the attack for seventeen miles of Auberive over the fortified hills east of Rheims from Mont Cornillet across the Moronvillers Massif to Vaudevincourt. The heights were protected on the face by seven trench lines, which were captured. Huge wedges of men then fought their way forward on either side of the plateau. On the east, Auberive was stormed, flanked, and taken. From this salient the ridge on the north v/as won and the second part of the third lines on Moronvillers were flanked and turned. Forces from the wedge on the west had worked around in rear, and the face of the stubborn plateaux, six and a half miles of solid fortifications, in places 1,000 feet high, was captured on the third day with most of the heavy artillery.
   The most stubborn fighting occurred on the heights above Rheims, where the German guns were retaliating uselessly on the tortured city. At terrific cost, a footing was gained on the heights of Bricourt, but the first progress could not be maintained. The Russian Division fought splendidly along the Aisne-Marne Canal to Courcy, which was successfully stormed, enabling a wedge to push up along the railroad west of Brimont. Farther west, the French pushed up on both sides of the Craonne plateau along the Laon road, and on the left took Chavonne, which was stubbornly defended, and Ostel, a mile above.
   Along the general Aisne front, between Missy and Chavonne, the French had cleared a wide system of field fortifications, including the approaches to Bray. Seventeen thousand prisoners and 92 guns were the proceeds of the first three days. The Germans were pushed back from successive positions, but rallied in a general line marked by the Chemin des Dames, in many places 500 feet higher than the original French line above the river, and with the Ailette Valley between them.
   The junction of the Hindenburg system on the west front to the Aisne line was protected by a nest of outpost positions across the road from Soissons to Laon. The ground gained at Vailly east of the salient maintained by Fort Conde and its bridgehead south of the river, became the base of an ambitious plan to drive the wedge deeply northwest to meet the apex of a similar wedge to be forced in southeast, from the west front at Laffaux. This would obviously cut out a corner of ugly outpost defences between Laon and Soissons, and would include in the isolated area Fort Conde, a hill 400 feet high, with its wide field of fire which made it impregnable for ordinary attack. On a smaller scale, the operation repeated the first abortive efforts made by Germans to isolate Verdun.
   Nanteuil was captured by a unique sweep of French cavalry. When the artillery had broken a gap on the flank which the infantry stormed and widened, the cavalry rode into the break, galloped behind the town, and completed its envelopment before the reserves could get up. This cleared the front south of Laffaux and to the approaches to Fort Malmaison holding the road to Laon. The French also took Neuville above it. Reserves poured down the road from Laon to hold the road, but with the French on three sides a simultaneous attack captured Laffaux with its mass of fortified quarries, where French women kept for the garrison were released in pitiable condition. Joffre started his mission to the United States with the most encouraging situation on the front that France had known since the victory of the Marne.
   On April 19th, the French advanced above Soissons from the west and south. Again the Twentieth Corps was in the van, on the wedge east of Conde. The German guns escaped through the narrowing gap, but the Saxon brigade was too slow; it was caught between two fires and the survivors surrendered.
   The Germans fell back to the reserve Siegfried line protecting Laon, and along the Chemin des Dames, which here runs on the highest part of the Aisne plateau, abandoning the Vregny fortress, though their guns could still enfilade part of the Aisne Valley. On April 20th, fresh German divisions were thrown on the Aisne front. But the French were now a mile north of Ostel; Braye-en-Laonnais was captured and the entire front eastward to Courtcon, with five batteries and three depots with stores, gains that were held in the face of five desperate counter attacks. At three points they were touching the famous road.
   Nivelle was now free to develop the second phase of his battle for the actual capture of Laon. The city stands at the apex of a triangular block of heights rising from the Aisne Valley, which outlines the base of the position. The road from Soissons to Laon marks one side of the triangle, and the upper section of the Rheims-Laon road across the Craonne plateau, the other.
   Fighting its way north from the Aisne, the army was pushing up the base of this triangle, while on either side wedges northeast from Laffaux and northwest through Craonne were to close toward the apex, Laon, each operation automatically shortening the lines of attack. With the capture of Vauxaillen above Laffaux, the grip had widened on the Hindenburg system across the Laon road. Rains hampered the operations, but the French forces to the east concentrated on the edge of the Craonne plateaux, and on May 4th, they swept across, smashing the defences, capturing Craonne, and driving the enemy from the "Californie," called in Germany the "Winterberg."
   As the French were digging in on the plateaux, three selected divisions, headed by Roehr's shock units, made a desperate drive at Berry au Bac, south-east of the new gains. Machine gunners took a heavy toll of the charging masses, but numbers finally told. The French front was broken and the Germans sent up fresh troops to push in behind the distended lines. The enemy was now on the river, menacing the right flank and rear of the entire Aisne line. A great disaster threatened. Nivelle at once gathered a force to check the menace. Thousands of gallant French soldiers threw themselves against the elated enemy, and during the next day the gains were localised and walled in at heavy cost. The Crown Prince was concentrating his energy to press the advantage. Berlin announced that the French front was broken. And with superb confidence, at the height of this crisis east of Craonne, Nivelle ordered a general advance along the entire Aisne front.
   The Germans were caught off guard by this astounding offensive. The French Army smashed their entire front of eighteen miles and, except below Laon, drove them right off the Aisne ridges, sweeping across the Chemin des Dames. The tricolor was waving triumphantly on the backbone of the barrier that had marked the western half of Germany's southern war frontier. The French Armies were looking down on the Aillette Valley, with magnificent observation posts and artillery positions to pave the way to Laon, whose spires glittered among the wooded hills only seven miles distant, a prize to which they now held most of the important approaches. In some sections, the front had been advanced four miles. Official Germany was stunned at the news and Hindenberg rushed to the Headquarters of the Crown Prince, pushing his car under shell fire to look over the scene of the reverse.
   During the battle, furious fighting had taken place before Rheims. With the entire Aisne line pushed north, the front east of Juvincourt curved sharply back southeast by the Berry au Bac salient to the canal and the occupied hills north of the city. With a strong footing on both sides of Brimont, the French now strove to break in from the curve above it and envelop it from the north. On a six-mile front, the French had pushed the line toward the valley of the Suippe.
   East of Rheims, Fort Pompelle was retaken and definite wedges were driven between the heights of the old French fortified line toward Beine. Troops of the Baden, Saxon, and Brandenburg regiments held the three observation posts 1,000 feet high, on the line toward Auberive, and these changed hands definitely by May 20th, after a furious struggle.
   But France was to reap the fruits of bitter disappointment through the continued stagnation in Russia. The German Army on the east front had rested and refitted; its artillery had been passive for weeks, using no ammunition, while the Russian gunners stood idle with a stock of British shells sent to enable winter pressure to follow Brusiloff's offensive. The German artillery was soon transferred to France and extended in an unbroken curve below Laon and above Rheims, to check a further French advance. Division after division of troops was rushed from the Russian front to stem the French tide, which had sacrificed 85,000 men when the chance for a final decision was taken from them.
   Toward the end of May, when the French on the west front were cutting out huge sections of the fortified Gobain forest, and normally would have followed up their victories on the south front, intense bombardments broke up their advances.
   On June 4th, German waves, a division strong, flowed simultaneously against the Casemates, Californie, and Vauclerc plateaux. The Crown Prince repeated his Verdun tactics. Guns were concentrated in curves on definite sectors; the troops attacked in dense masses. To save life where yards of ground were not vital, the French withdrew from their front lines when the bombardment opened. At close range their field batteries poured shells at the advancing masses, harried the survivors in the captured trenches, and then recaptured the position with the bayonet. Assault after assault inflicted severe losses on the forces of the Crown Prince, but the French casualties were also heavy. Twice the enemy attained a definite footing on the plateaux, but was ejected by counter attacks and the early gains were made good. West of Rheims ground was also gained between Monts Blond and Cornillet, but on the iron circle above the city a concentration of men and guns made further progress impossible, and the ancient capital has been smashed out of recognition in retaliation.
   Senator Root has spoken of the annoyance expressed by the leaders of the revolution in Russia because the French and British missions urged that the army should instantly recommence operations. Decisive results were never nearer than at the hour that Russia failed. The British had re-equipped her army with field batteries, heavy guns, and crews to man them. But while Russia was wrangling, the early promise of the British and French offensives was negatived by guns and reserves that could have been held on the eastern front by normal pressure.
   Failing at Craonne, the Crown Prince attacked on the Champagne front, and failing there he opened a terrific bombardment on the Chemin des Dames, followed by desperate assaults that gained a definite footing at some points. Again the French regained the ground by counter attack. Then the assault spread suddenly to the Craonne heights, where ground was regained by the Germans at appalling cost, only to be lost a week later.
   Hindenburg determined to retake the lost ridges at all costs. The positions were important, but the fury of the assaults was inspired by a double motive. He hoped to break the heart of France before an adequate army could be sent from the United States. He feared the hour when those fresh and ardent forces might strike along the Aisne front, where even the investment of Laon coupled with the loss or destruction of Douai by the British, would cripple the railway system and force another strategic retreat, with a severe modification of the rectangle maintained in France.
   During June and July the fighting raged on without respite. Both sides made gains. The French counter attack on June 27th broke the German front at Hurtebise farm. In the impetuosity of the assault, the troops swept by the entrance to the famous Dragons' Cave, and its garrison surrendered ignominiously to a French priest who came up to help the wounded. On July 4th, the Germans made their major effort to regain the Chemin des Dames. The attack was repeated on the 14th and changed to Craonne on the 24th, but the efforts of seventy divisions - over a million men - have not been able to entirely affect the French position, and the German losses have been prodigious. During August the attacks degenerated into mere trench raids on a large scale, and on September 4th many German batteries were sent north to Belgium.
   The French maintained their hold on the heights, but their losses were appalling. The capture of Laon must be effected by more patient tactics. Perhaps the price for the ridges was too high to pay since the audacious operation came to a standstill. Petain was restored to the supreme command, with Foch chief of staff. Nivelle retired with Mangin to await the verdict of history which can be rendered only when the effect of the waste of Germany's man power can be weighed.
   Below Laon the Germans still held high ground before the French lines with dominating artillery positions. For some days rapid, "drum-fire" epitomised the reports of German action from this sector. On October 25th the cars of General Petain, Generals Pershing and Sibert and many American officers drove at dawn to join D'Esperey's forces. Hindenburg’s main reserves had gone to the Italian front, and the French were to strike another blow for Laon. Under the interested eyes of American officers of all branches, picked forces led by General Maistre attacked between Vauxvaillon and Chevrigny.
   The western front curved round the St. Gobain massif, with Fort Malmaison holding the south-eastern approaches before which the previous offensive had been halted. By midday the French had pushed round the fort. Field guns were thrown forward close behind the line of attack, and Malmaison fell. On the second day the Germans were pushed back across the valley, the Forest of Pinon was in French hands, and twenty-five square miles of ground had been gained at the base of the Laon triangle, with cave and quarry strongholds, and a section of the old Brussels railroad. Many guns and 11,000 prisoners were taken in the stroke which would allow a wedge to be driven between St. Gobain and Laon. In a few days the Germans withdrew across the Ailette, abandoning the salient below the city.
   The loss of Laon, which links the railroads from the north and east, would be a serious blow, and coupled with the growing wedge in Belgium, would force Germany to retire to the strong Meuse line already prepared from Antwerp across Belgium to Charleroi, and along the Meuse to the east of Verdun, a buffer to her own frontier.

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